PIFF: Weekend Round-up

Jeff Alworth

Reviewed:
Daybreak - Next Showing: Tonight 6 pm
Head-On - Next Showing: Sunday, Jan 20, 2:30 pm
Saint Ralph  - Next Showing: Tonight 8:30 pm
The Syrian Bride - Next Showing: Tomorrow, 8:15 pm

Underneath the plots of the four very different movies I watched this weekend at the Portland International Film Fest, I started to recognize something familiar.  You couldn't even call it a recurring theme--more like a recurring context. 

In Daybreak, the narrative was fractured and the plot emerged through the juxtaposition of three events happening simultaneously over the course of a long Swedish night.  The hero--sorta--is a bricklayer slowly encasing a couple into their own home.  Sweden has gotten too dangerous for their tastes, and they've stored 7 years worth of food an a lot of ammo. 

Head-On features another idiosyncratic structure (five parts, rather than the usual three) and follows several years in the lives of two Turkish immigrants to Germany.  They have married as a convenience so that the bride's parents will give her some space, but inevitably begin to fall in love (it's a love story, however, like Million Dollar Baby is a boxing flick). 

Saint Ralph finds a 14-year-old trying to save his comatose mother via miracle--via marathon running.  And in The Syrian Bride, a couple just want to get married, but they have the Israeli and Syrian governments to deal with first.

You see the connection, right?

Across the planet, people are having to contend with growing pains, as the smaller worlds of their culture, religion, and practices run up against other cultures and global norms.  The least successful film, Syrian Bride, is the most obvious in making the point.  The bride in question lives in the Golan Heights; her fiance, in Syria.  The disputed land puts it in a legal netherworld (on passports, next to nationality, residents here are listed as "undefined"), and to travel to Syria is to leave forever.  Filmmakers are content to present the complexities of the situation without adding comment.  This is due partly to their status as Arab Israelis: they wanted to keep partisanism out of the film.  But it also results from a timidity toward judgment.  Characters' plights are offered, but we are given no narrative climax or denouement. 

Head-On is all about climax.  It is soaked in sweat and blood, with plenty of sex and violence to more than offset the safety of Bride.  In this movie, everyone is rebelling.  Sibel, a late-teens beauty marries 40-year-old drunk Cahit to elude her orthodox Turkish-immigrant family.  Cahit also rebels against society, but nonspecifically.  The movie twists along, as the leads appear to seek out opportunities to destroy themselves.  A love affair is at the heart of the movie, though by the end, you'll wonder what motivated this pair.  It's high-wire filmmaking, not fully successful, but riveting.

Saint Ralph is the most conventional of the films.  I resist offering a synopsis of the plot, because although it appears in a familiar triumph-of-the-spirit structure, it's actually a subversive form of magical realism.  The lead character, Ralph, who gets busted for masturbating in the public pool, actually spends the film meditating on faith.  Even though he attends a mid-century Canadian Catholic school, this shakes things up.  The larger world for Ralph is very large indeed.

Finally, the most successful movie of the bunch, and one I dearly wish wasn't showing again in two hours, is Daybreak.  It starts with a whirl of characters, as the camera jumps from fragment to fragment, resolving ultimately into three storylines that are unrelated except in theme.  In one, a philandering surgeon is caught out at a dinner party; in another, a bitter divorced wife holds her ex-husband and new wife hostage with a taser; and the final thread follows the bricklayer. 

The film starts with the bricklayer apparently assaulting a man in his home.  It's the most vivid of the early images, and the other characters seem benign by contrast.  As the film progresses, we learn that the bricklayer had actually gotten stiffed by a client and was assaulting the bricks he'd just installed, not the client.  We also learn that, unique among all the characters, the bricklayer is the one person with the capacity for insight.  The end of the film finds every character in the movie in crisis--except the bricklayer.  He has reunited with his wife and daughter, and over coffee, their lives resolve into normalcy.  It's a neat trick for director Bj√∂rn Runge to be able to help us navigate the dramatic swing from beginning to end--and a testament to the success of the film.

connect with blueoregon