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FilmWatch Weekly: Trans tales in ‘Monica’ and ‘L’immensità,’ plus Paul Schrader’s ‘Master Gardener’ and more

The latest films from directors Andrea Pallaoro and Emanuele Crialese recast the traditional family melodrama into incisive portrayals of the trans experience.

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Trace Lysette as “Monica”

With all the retrograde political activity directed against the trans community these days, it’s important to remember the strides that have been made toward including trans stories and trans voices in at least some corners of popular culture. A pair of films reaching Oregon this week highlights that progress, while also demonstrating that trans stories are human stories, recognizable and relatable no matter one’s gender identity.

The American indie Monica stars Trace Lysette, who had her breakthrough role in Amazon’s Transparent and here plays a woman who returns home after many years estranged to help care for her dying mother Eugenia (the great Patricia Clarkson). The reason for that estrangement, and for the fact that Eugenia doesn’t recognize Monica, is at least partially because Monica is a trans woman who left home as a teenager.

Introduced to her mother as a new caregiver, Monica proves to be a tender and able one. She also bonds with a sister-in-law (Emily Browning) she never knew she had, and reconnects with a brother (Joshua Close) who wants to make up for lost time. Writer-director Andrea Pallaoro (this is his third feature) and co-writer Orlando Tirado don’t fill in too many of the blanks regarding Monica’s life between the time her mother dropped her at a bus station and her return home decades later. But there are enough hints to indicate that it hasn’t been easy for her.

Pallaoro’s camera is intimate and almost invasive at times, using a square frame to zero in on Monica’s emotional and physical vulnerabilities. Lysette demonstrates beyond a doubt that she can carry a lead role, dominating the screen whenever she’s on it and allowing her confident pose, her armor, to yield to empathy on command.

It is, of course, notable that Monica was, reportedly, the first feature with a trans actor playing a trans character to screen at the Venice Film Festival. But it is just as notable how the film captures a unique take on a very common family dynamic. You don’t have to be trans to be estranged from your family, or to experience the surreal role reversal of having to parent a parent in their final years. The identities and problems that we have in common are so much more important than those that are used to divide us. Monica makes that point powerfully. (Opens Friday, May 19, at Cinema 21.)

In a similar manner, the Italian drama L’immensità examines a familiar domestic melodrama, but from the individual perspective of director Emanuele Crialese. Crialese, who identifies as male, was assigned female at birth, a fact he only publicly revealed during the film’s premiere last year at the Venice Film Festival.

Taking some of its cues from the director’s childhood L’immensità is set in 1970s Rome, where teenaged Adri (Luana Giuliani)—short for Adrianna—lives with her free-spirited mother (Penélope Cruz) and her stern, philandering father (Vincenzo Amato). Adri prefers to be called Andrea, and dresses and behaves in masculine ways. In today’s terminology, Adri is Andrea’s deadname, but the film is set in a time, place, and conventional middle-class environment where sensitivity to trans experiences were in their infancy.

The only people who seem to accept Andrea as himself are his mother, whose spontaneous exterior and movie-star charisma are a cover for her deep unhappiness in her marriage, and a Roma girl named Sara (Penélope Nieto Conti), who develops a crush of sorts on the boy she knows as nothing else. It’s not as if he’s kicked out of his house, or disinvited from extended family gatherings, as so many trans kids are—it’s more that he’s seen as a tolerated weirdo who will conform eventually if she knows what’s good for her.

As with Monica, the genus of the trauma is almost ordinary. Movies are full of stories, many autobiographical, about the joys and sorrows of growing up as a sensitive misfit in a rigid, patriarchal society. Even with its lovingly rendered, almost sepia-toned period detail, L’immensità is, apart from its protagonist’s gender identity, a conventional tale. Unlike Monica, it doesn’t fully rise above its conventions. But it does serve as an additional, necessary reminder that humans, and families, are as unique as they are identical. (Opens Friday, May 19, at Living Room Theaters, and June 6 at the Art House in Eugene.)

The venerable, still vital Paul Schrader is back with the third part of his self-proclaimed “God’s Lonely Man” trilogy, which includes First Reformed and The Card Counter. Instead of Ethan Hawke’s spiritually tormented priest or Oscar Isaac’s morally tormented gambler, we get Joel Edgerton as Narvel, the stolid, conscience-ridden Master Gardener working and living at an estate owned by a wealthy heiress (a deliciously prickly Sigourney Weaver).

Like those other protagonists, Narvel uses meticulous routine and a reserved mien to keep his inner demons bottled up. The nature of those demons only becomes clear after his boss asks him to look after her troubled grandniece, who is coming to stay and work in the garden. Maya (Quintessa Swindell) is biracial, the significance of which becomes clear when we first see Narvel shirtless, his torso and arms covered with Nazi and white nationalist tattoos.

Now reformed, Narvel is in witness protection after testifying against the violent racist gang he once belonged to. He has opted against removing the tattoos so that he will always be reminded of his sins. He sees, maybe, a chance at further redemption by helping Maya find some stability. But he learns two things: It’s harder to cultivate people than plants, and some sins are harder to flee the consequences of than others. (Opens Friday, May 19 at the Laurelhurst Theater, the Salem Cinema, the Broadway Metro in Eugene, the Darkside Cinema in Corvallis, and the Clackamas Town Center.)

LOCAL HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Portland Comedy Film Festival’s Spring 2023 edition presents an eclectic cornucopia of films that may be short on budget and length, but nonetheless aim to induce copious giggles (and perhaps a few guffaws). (Sunday, Clinton Street Theater)
  • The term OVA stands for Original Video Animation, and refers to old-school anime that was made for home video, rather than theaters or television. This means it’s very rare to see these films projected onto a big screen. And that makes Animayhem’s OVA Festival a real treat. Four landmark entries in the art form will screen, and there will, of course, be plenty of merchandise on sale in the lobby. (Sunday, Hollywood Theatre)

ALSO AROUND PORTLAND:

Friday: John Carpenter’s increasingly prescient They Live! (Hollywood Theatre); the fact-based tale of political violence in 1968 Mexico Canoa: A Shameful Memory (5th Avenue Cinema); David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (Academy Theatre, continues all week); Penelope Spheeris’ Wayne’s World (Academy Theatre, continues all week)

Saturday: Bette Davis plays twins in Dead Ringer (1964) (Clinton Street); transgressive Japanese nunsploitation in School of the Holy Beast (1974) (Clinton Street); Paul Schrader’s excellent directing debut, the proudly pro-labor Blue Collar (1978) (Cinema 21); another go-round for 2022’s biggest crowd-pleaser RRR (Hollywood)

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Monday: Matthieu Kassovitz’s smash success La Haine (Hate) (1995) exposed the gritty underbelly of the Parisian banlieues (Hollywood); Bill Condon’s 1998 Gods and Monsters provided Brendan Fraser’s greatest performance (yes, better than The Whale) as a gardener who befriends aging, gay Hollywood director James Whale (Ian McKellen) (Hollywood)

Tuesday: Kyle MacLachlan is on the trail of alien parasites in the 1987 cult classic The Hidden (on 35mm, Hollywood); the hypnotic, visually stunning Amazonian epic Embrace of the Serpent (Clinton Street)

Wednesday: If Sunday’s OVA Festival wasn’t enough animated nostalgia for you, Re-Run Theater presents a triptych down memory lane with episodes of Japanese TV classics Ultraman, Speed Racer, and Voltron. (Hollywood Theatre)

Thursday: What better way to raise money for the Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon than with a benefit screening of the most feral feline film of all, 2019’s Cats (Clinton Street)

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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