Wedding day for Zaneta and Piotr gets weird quickly. While everyone is getting very drunk, the groom becomes obsessed with the ground outside, later dances with and becomes possessed by a ghost named Hana, speaking Yiddish. In the morning, Zaneta’s father tells the weary guests they had a collective hallucination, “in fact there never was a wedding,” and all evidence of the groom is destroyed.

It’s like the wedding half of Melancholia, but much better. The movie suggests that older Polish people feel somewhat guilty for the disappearance of their former Jewish neighbors, though their angry, repressive reactions to the subject recalls Ida. Wrona’s third feature, and his last, since he died just as this was coming out.

Hana:

Hana as Piotr:

Haifa Film Fest jury statement: “The film succeeds in conveying the absence of the Jewish community from Polish society and culture. The use of the Jewish legend of the Dybbuk in a Polish Catholic wedding is original and thought-provoking. The Jury and the Festival mourn the loss of filmmaker Marcin Wrona and offer their condolences to the family.”

Flashes back and forth in time, so I didn’t realize the two lead actresses on the poster art are both Julieta: younger Adriana Ugarte and older Emma Suárez (she worked with Julio Medem in the 1990’s).

Julieta hears word of her missing daughter Antía from a mutual friend and abruptly breaks contact with her boyfriend Lorenzo (Talk to Her star Darío Grandinetti, looking exactly the same), moves back into her old apartment building and writes a long letter to Antía explaining past events: meeting Antía’s dad Xoan, his affair with artist Ava (Blancanieves star Inma Cuesta) and their argument just before he died at sea while Antía was at camp. After her daughter disappears, Julieta makes up with Ava, waits and searches for Antía, and anyway there’s more, it’s a complicated movie, but it has a happyish ending and everyone’s just wonderful in it, and it’s particularly nice to see Rossy de Palma again (as a suspicious housekeeper). Didn’t make Cinema Scope’s year-end list, but I liked it more than The Ornithologist. I got a long way to go if I’m gonna be a celebrated art-cinema critic.

Oh, this was better than anyone expected. Doris falls for a younger coworker, starts cyberstalking him and going to concerts, finds that her homemade old-lady styles are popular with today’s hipsters. Also she is dealing with letting go of the hoarder house inherited from her late mom, and this combination of old-lady stubbonness and lovestruck youthfulness adds up to a hugely sympathetic character.

Surprisingly no cameos by any Michaels or other State personnel, but we do get Stephen Root as Doris’s brother, Kumail Nanjiani as a coworker and Peter Gallagher as a guru. Sally Field was oscar-nominated in Lincoln, but better in this.

I followed along for a while, as this arthouse mystery quickly turned into a twisty goofball survival thriller, until I started getting flashbacks to The Catechism Cataclysm, and then I was really too distracted to take anything that happens seriously. I think I’m missing religious aspects, since the letterboxd summary mentions the stations of the cross. Of course, as usually happens, I read some articles and interviews afterwards and came to appreciate the movie more.

Ornithologist Fernando (“the body of Jason Statham lookalike Paul Hamy, the voice of director João Pedro Rodrigues,” per Mark Peranson) is cataloguing the storks and vultures along a river when some rapids catch him off-guard and his kayak crashes. He’s rescued by travelers Fei and Lin, who are following a pilgrim path to Santiago, making me realize I forgot to watch the short Morning of Saint Anthony’s Day, which may be related, but then they tie him up and threaten to castrate him, so maybe not. Fernando escapes but loses his medication, and we don’t know what it was for, or if any part of the movie turns out to be hallucinated from lack of meds. He runs into some ritual partiers and gets peed on by one of them, makes out with (and murders) a deaf-mute sheepherder named Jesus, rescues a dove at a shrine, cuts off his own fingerprints, gets shot by topless woman hunters, and awakens as Antonio, then is then murdered by Jesus’s twin brother Thomas.

Even if the whole thing felt somewhat goofy, I enjoyed the mystery of the killings and rebirths at the end, and the bird photography. Music is all quavering feedback. João Rui Guerra da Mata was a collaborator, and the only familiar element from their Last Time I Saw Macao was the use of still photographs. Won best director at Locarno, where it played with Hermia & Helena, By the Time It Gets Dark, The Challenge, The Human Surge and a bunch more that still haven’t opened here and probably never will. Oh yeah, look at that… you have to go back six years to find a Locarno movie that played theaters near me – it’s the festival of doomed distribution deals.

Peranson:

Rodrigues’ blasphemous exploration of the transformative process of religious awakening, through a serious of wild—at times sexual—adventures focusing on the pleasure and the pain of the body is a modern film, in line with Godard’s Hail Mary or Buñuel’s The Milky Way.

Sicinski:

The Ornithologist is as shapeless and picaresque as the conventional Lives of the Saints, forming a clothesline more than a narrative. Granted, when this concerns getting peed on and being hogtied and swinging with your junk hanging out, as is the case here, it feels a bit more dreamlike, which is probably what Rodrigues is going for. At the same time, The Ornithologist gets a bit tiresome in its relentless punishment of the nonbeliever.

Rodrigues:

I wanted to be an ornithologist when I was a kid … Cinema interrupted this, and in a way I replaced this love of watching and observing birds in the wild and being alone, although I never felt alone because I felt surrounded by nature and living creatures.

The short looked at a post-apocalyptic celebration of St. Anthony, while The Ornithologist looks at St. Anthony more directly … the film is always set in a place that has never changed since ancient times, in a natural world that hasn’t changed very much at all. Those rocks were there when St. Anthony was alive. When I was going to these unchanged places, I thought I was going back in time. It’s a landscape that belongs to all times and has no time.

Kind of a Crane Wife / Tales from the Darkside gargoyle variant with a turtle twist. Man washes up on a bamboo forest island, and is thwarted by a giant red turtle whenever he tries to build an escape boat. One day the turtle waddles ashore and the angry man flips it over. Then it becomes a human woman, they have a kid together, avoid natural disasters, the kid grows up and goes off into the ocean, the man gets old and dies, and finally she turns back into a turtle and leaves. Turtle/human spawning / cycle-of-life business, done with very attractive (wordless) animation. Some cute sand crabs, too. I also rewatched Father and Daughter and The Monk and the Fish with Katy, finally available in HD.

Chuck Bowen:

The man’s one murderous impulse begets a life of empathy — of balance. A heartbreaking, astonishingly poetic ending further challenges our human-centric absorption, suggesting that this rhapsodic life of paradise wasn’t the man’s dream, but the turtle’s.

Isabel Stevens in BFI:

Pictures are the film’s currency and they are, without exaggeration, sublime … The attention to detail shown to the sky (its magic-hour glow tinging the whole island), water (grey and angry one moment, an azure palimpsest the next), even the sand (at times you can see the grains in what looks like a smudge of charcoal) is quite extraordinary. The film is a masterclass in chiaroscuro: shadows are just as intricately sketched as the life forms that cause them. Even from a distance, a bottle washed up on the beach has a lighter shadow than a human’s. A lot of digital animation, with its blocks of colour, can feel flat. But the depth and texture on show here – conjured from a surge of pencil marks and watercolour washes – is remarkable.

We closed True/False fest with a crowd-pleaser (literally, there was spontaneous mid-film applause) about high school step-dance teammates in their senior year. Can they overcome poverty challenges at home, excel at their school work, get accepted into college and win the coveted state championship while growing as people and taking Black Lives Matter concepts to heart? Yes! Katy’s only reservation is that it’s an advertisement for charter schools at a time when they’re politically contentious. It’s far from the most structurally or artistically interesting movie we saw at the festival, but the girls are wonderful, and we were treated to a pre-film live dance and a post-film Q&A, which the excitable director beamed into via Skype. Enormously good vibes all around.

The same promo image everyone is using:


That wraps our True/False 2017.

Musicians seen:
13 Strings and a 2 Dollar Bill
Mirah
Prahlad
Open Mike Eagle
Jesse and Forever
Mary Lattimore
US Girls
Thanya Iyer
Very Be Careful (three times!)
Travis McFarlane
Bella Donna
DeQn Sue

Good Food and Drink (abridged):
Apples and sausage on a waffle at Cafe Berlin
Pierogies at Cafe Poland
Pizza and burrata at Midici
Excel wine-barrel saison, and Boss tacos at Craft Beer Cellar
Rock Bridge cinnamon imperial milk stout on cask at International Tap House
Double rye IPA and cold nachos (but good service) at Broadway Brewery
Pretzels and an array of belgian ales at Günter Hans
Cast Iron brown ale and a reuben at Uprise Bakery
Beet juice and a breakfast burrito at Main Squeeze
Quinoa Benedict and strange coffee at Nourish
Thai slice at Pizza Tree
Mushroom fries, taro chips and a spicy sour at Room 38
and a Lagunitas at Bier Station Kansas City (on the way)

We thought we’d already seen intense, slippery, ethically complex movies at True/False, and then this one came along, a hybrid documentary in which an actor (Valentijn Dhaenens, playing “Europe”) interacts with classrooms of refugees hoping to be accepted into a European country, taking different approaches. After an immigration-philosophy intro, in Act 1 Dhaenens is harsh and accusatory, says new immigrants will cost his country money and they’ll import religious beliefs which run counter to state law. V. Rizov: “There’s a bracing, hateful clarity in someone who’s willing to say exactly what they mean, even/especially if it’s vile.”

In Act 2 he’s generous and understanding, says Europe owes them all charity due to its colonialist past. Europe has resources to go around, and he points to a study saying that erasing state borders entirely could bring all states greater wealth. In Act 3 he follows the rules, eliminating anyone not eligible for residency in the Netherlands, then he interviews the rest to see whose stories hold up, until just three remain.

Rizov:

After mastering montage and close-quarters conflict, Stranger closes strong in a new mode with a super-long (both distance/time) shot epilogue; now “out of character” on the street, Dhaenens meets a group of migrants who ask for cigarettes. Given what we’ve been watching for an hour, the suspicion that they might take violent, understandable revenge on the outnumbered teacher (thereby setting up any number of racist headlines about migrants running wild) lurks, but instead everyone has a nice chat. By the time Dhaenens points back to the director behind the camera it’s increasingly clear that this tableaux as staged as anything in the film (for this sequence, the migrants wrote their own dialogue). Here’s another film that summarizes with great clarity a particularly sordid/inhumane strain of contemporary thought it’s attempting to combat, while at the same time pointing out how unhelpful the film itself is in effectuating change.

Katy says the movie, particularly the epilogue conversation, seemed ethically unsound until the director’s Q&A assured us that the refugees were paid participants, aware of the film’s structure and intentions, and the final scene was even scripted (though based on a real conversation).

I’d been looking forward to Sarah Kendzior’s intro, which she read stiffly from a book of notes and didn’t hold half the interest as Jeong’s Star Wars net neutrality essay. Kendzior is still a catastrophist, but at least she humorously acknowledged that her worst predictions about our country haven’t (yet!) come to pass.

Manolo decides to travel from Spain with his loyal donkey Gorrión and hike the Trail of Tears in America. His daughter is supportive, but Manolo has had some health concerns, and it’s hard to find budget transportation for a man and a donkey (and his dog Zafrana). He deals with corporate and government bureaucracy and with a donkey who quietly refuses to cross a bridge for hours on end. It’s a pretty minor story (Manolo doesn’t take the trip) but the filmmaker captures a loving portrait of his uncle Manolo, some Bela Tarr close-ups of the implacable donkey, and a nice windmill shot at the end to justify the title.

Pereira, from an essential interview by Pamela Cohn in Filmmaker:

More than anything, I think that Manolo’s relationship with these animals is what the film is documenting. In other words, I think it’s the most documentary aspect. From the beginning, both Zafrana and Gorrión are almost in every shot, and we always see the three of them together … And they communicate with one another in various ways — man to animal, and also animal to animal. This is a way of understanding friendship or understanding how humans and animals can enrich each other’s lives, opening our own concepts of friendship and spending complex time with non-humans.

Great hook for a film – small town poet with cerebral palsy becomes famous online, her fame and newfound self-confidence shaking up her home life. We booked our True/False schedule based mostly on subject matter of the documentaries (Katy is going to Hubei, where this movie is set), not watching trailers or knowing anything about their formal presentations, so we were bowled over by the cinematic beauty in Strong Island, LoveTrue, Manifesto and this one. It’s an amazing story on its own, but the filmmaker also finds ways to visualize Xiuhua’s poetry, showing text onscreen and filming the natural environment around the house where she wrote the words.

The poetry and the film are extremely bittersweet. She uses her fame and money to get a divorce from the husband she’s never loved while her mother is dying of cancer. The husband is open on-camera about his contempt for her and has a girlfriend in Beijing, though he seems to love Xiuhua’s parents and their child. She’s invited to academic conferences, press events and even reality TV, and her media people are concerned that the divorce will hurt her fame. She finally pays off the husband and after the divorce they ride home together, with him grinning like mad. She seems very independent, giving confident answers to press and fan questions, flirting with the filmmaker and a conference panelist, but she’s deeply vulnerable in the poetry, and says her life has been a failure if she hasn’t found love.