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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Five international films to watch now

Stream it on the Criterion channel.

Rain Vermett’s experimental film opens with a series of transparent, enigmatic images. We first see a woman walking through a desolate gray landscape enveloped in eerie morning sounds; then, in close-up footage of the fire, the disembodied voice of a girl recites a letter to her absent mother. These scenes set the stage for the film’s subtle storytelling: a strange, unsettling tale of a woman who returns to her family, the Métis Nation, in rural Manitoba after an unexplained disappearance of four years.

But the plot is almost a distraction; he appears and disappears in short, unresolved fragments of conversation, giving way, for the most part, to gripping scenes of tactility and community. Stories, both trivial and ancient, are exchanged during fireplace gatherings and dinner parties, which Vermette, filming on glittering celluloid, captures obliquely, guided by the person’s gesturing hands as he speaks, or by the ripples of a pond when children toss into him stones. An intimate but mysterious portrait of a place and people gradually merges.

“Ste. Anne is deliberately abstract, resists linear storytelling, but still manages to captivate the mixture of documentary realism and cinematic magic. In one scene, when a family remembers a long-gone relative, he materializes in the background as a translucent figure – and this is how everyday conversation turns into a session.

This sweet and strange Spanish drama follows a 45-year-old woman named Rosa (Candela Peña) who decides to solve a midlife crisis by marrying … herself. It may sound like the plot of a banal Hollywood romantic comedy from the 90s, but The Wedding of the Rose is a film of amazing nuance and depth – a beautifully executed film about the gestures, however meaningless they may be, that we sometimes have to become who we want to be. …

Peña brings a marvelous, slightly shabby pathos to a character accustomed to being ready for everything in his life: her boss is in the closet on the set of the film where Rosa works as a seamstress; her brother is a businessman who is going through a divorce; her sister-translator with alcohol addiction; and her annoying father, who, after the death of his wife, clings to Rosa. Further demands from her daughter living abroad and a needy boyfriend finally push her to the limit, and Rosa leaves for her seaside hometown, where she decides to reopen her mother’s atelier and fulfill her long-standing dreams.

And what better way for Rose to start a new life than a wedding? When Rosa’s family arrives at the scenic location, awaiting the traditional ceremony, there is a lot of fun and nervous confrontation. The privateer concludes, as you’d expect – with a colorful, enjoyable ending – but the film’s vulnerable acting and inquisitive talk of grief and growth ensures it never comes across as cliché.

Watch it on Mubi.

Austrian filmmaker Sandra Wollner’s provocative film opens with scenes of the girl and her father relaxing by the pool somewhere in a wooded suburb. Creepy sound design and cinematic footage suggest something is wrong, but it’s only a few minutes after the film starts, when the girl is nearly drowned and is rescued by her father, do we notice her unnatural movements and silicone-smooth skin. We soon realize that Ellie is an automaton – a cybernetic stunt double for her 10-year-old daughter, whom her father lost many years ago.

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The first half of Trouble with Birth traces the duo’s family life, forcing us to fight that elusive but unmistakable line that separates humans and non-humans – a supernatural abyss. Even more disturbing is the fact that Ellie is played by an anonymous masked actress. In the second half, the film shifts from contemplative to judgmental as the intricate nature of the relationship between Ellie and her father becomes apparent. Rather than leaning towards sensationalism, Wollner’s film maintains a cold dystopia throughout, confronting us with a nihilistic (albeit undeniably realistic) world in which science, no matter how complex, can never surpass the viciousness of its creators.

Watch it on Netflix.

If you walk past Captain Ramadan’s gym in Alexandria, Egypt, you would never guess that 17 Pan-African champions, nine world champions and four Olympians were raised there. Situated in an open-air courtyard, overgrown with weeds and surrounded by traffic, this gym looks more like a dump of rusted equipment. Yet in this ramshackle, non-budgetary institution, Ramadan not only coached world-class athletes, but also spearheaded the unique movement of Egyptian weightlifters.

The documentary Lift Like a Girl follows Ramadan as he coaches another reigning champion, bespectacled teenager Asmaa, for over four years. Watching the exercise of weightlifters with a handheld camera, the film captures the mixture of chaos, deprivation and tenacity that drives this diverse community. Ramadan is a completely cinematic figure: he is a gray-haired curmudgeon, as addicted to songs of fatherly love as he is to exploding curses or throwing stones at boys who dare to laugh at his girls.

Director Maye Zayed insightfully and deeply outlines the harsh love of Ramadan and its deep formative impact on Asmaa. The belated twist takes the film beyond sports, highlighting the possibilities of hope and solidarity that the gym provides for young women of modest means.

Broadcast this to Ovid. Rent from Amazon.

Gonzalo Maz’s lo-fiction black-and-white comedy about the misadventures of two charmingly aimless women is strikingly original and painfully familiar; his portrait of a millennial illness is permeated with an amazing and invigorating darkness. Set in short, sardonic episodes, the film follows two best friends, Christina and Susana, as they navigate a twisted stretch of their thirties. Christina is experiencing a painful separation from her selfish former graphic writer and an even more confused relationship with her beau theater director, all at a time when she is going through a difficult period of artistic stalemate. Meanwhile, Susana faces a crisis of family faith as her mother runs off on vacation with a new lover, and her father sucks her into a web of lies and unpaid loans.

It’s as if adulthood and its aftermath had taken the two women by surprise. But the film never seems luscious or annoying; he maintains a mature, realistic outlook on life, even as he treats us to sets that include pretentious acting studios and wellness-themed parties. Over and over again, Christina and Susana return to the memories of another friend who died in an accident a couple of years ago. The sudden end of her life looms over the couple’s stranded, tangled paths, lending a sense of perspective to even the saddest moments of their lives.

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