Thursday, February 3, 2011

Portland International Film Festival Preview day 2: THE FIRST BEAUTIFUL THING & INCENDIES

Tuesday's press screenings paired two features involving adult children dwelling on the past history of their mothers.  Despite sharing interests in maternal themes, the films were strikingly different in tone.

The first film of the day came in the form of a sweet Italian melodrama.  Paolo Virzi's The First Beautiful Thing is a highly formal romp through the distant and messy past of a now much older and recently hospitalized woman.  Her son Bruno, a once promising poet turned teacher, has fallen into depression, drugs and drink, blaming his failures on painful memories of an unhappy childhood.  When the news of his mother's hospitalization brings him to her hospital bedside, he is forced to confront both the circumstances of his upbringing and the present state of his mother's health.

Refreshingly, the film doesn't try to exonerate the mother for either her poor parenting skills or the endless parade of unscrupulous men in whose beds she fell.  Bruno's remembrances of what he and his sister had to endure while in their mother's care are treated as objective renderings of their living conditions at the time.  These memories review and inspire some rather hilarious sequences in both the past and the present, such as when Bruno confesses being overcome by a feeling of emptiness and then attempts to fill it by ransacking his mother's home for any available intoxicants.

Overall, though, the film felt like a rather rote, by-the-numbers production, simply giving us what we've come to expect from this lighthearted genre of Italian film.  Everything is exceptionally pretty but none of the characterizations carry much weight--and that goes double for the predictable manner in which the story unfolds.  I left this early screening feeling more catered to than challenged, which is quite the opposite of why I usually go to the movies.  Still, I'm positive that many people will be amply satisfied by this meal.

The First Beautiful Thing plays at 8:45pm on Feb. 11th at the Broadway Theater.  There will be additional showings at the Broadway on Feb. 13th at 7:30pm and Feb. 16th at 6pm.

Next up was Incendies from Canada, the Academy Award-nominated film by director Denis Villeneuve (Maelstrom).

When Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal) dies, she leaves behind a will that stipulates that her children can only mark her grave if they carry out one last task for their mother's sake.  The mission involves the delivery of two sealed envelopes--one to a brother they never knew existed and another to the father they assumed was dead--in present day Lebanon.  The story deftly intertwines this journey with a harrowing retelling of their mother's life during the civil war of the 1970s

This is big, (capital "I") important storytelling that often teeters towards excess, without fully tumbling into the abyss of the sensationalistic.  Given what the final 15 minutes of the film hold for the viewer, this is quite a feat indeed.

Incendies plays at 8:30pm on Feb. 11th at the Whitsell Auditorium.  There will be an additional showing at the Broadway Theater at 4:15pm on Feb. 13th.
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