CIFF Exclusive: Tenderness and Cruelty on Barren Landscapes

Bruce Dern and Will Forte star in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska.” Courtesy of CIFF.

Bruce Dern and Will Forte star in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska.” Courtesy of CIFF.

Elusive dreams of fortune evaporate like the morning dew in several of this year’s CIFF selections. Poverty and violence are commonplace themes on the festival circuit, yet it takes a gifted filmmaker to place them in an authentically human context devoid of contrivance. Three upcoming gems achieve this in strikingly different ways, while unfolding their tales in similarly bleak, desolate landscapes. One is a delight, one is a horrorshow, and one is—quite simply—among the year’s best and most vital documentaries.

Nebraska

I suspect this crisply lensed, black-and-white Midwestern odyssey from critical darling Alexander Payne will end up on many top ten lists. It’s a film I liked quite a bit as it played and ended up liking a whole lot more the longer I thought about it. As a booze-addled father clinging to a sweepstakes scam as if it were his golden ticket, Bruce Dern’s face is fixed in a permanent grimace, masking layers upon layers of pathos and heartache, while keeping his adult son (Will Forte) at arm’s length. Like Jack Nicholson’s titular father in Payne’s great “About Schmidt,” Dern embarks on a misguided road trip which may provide him with the final opportunity to mend his long-neglected bond with his children. In an Oscar-worthy supporting role, June Squibb (Nicholson’s wife in “Schmidt”) steals the show as Dern’s exasperated wife who fearlessly spouts her inner-most thoughts even when confronted by a reparation-seeking mob (including Stacy Keach and Devin Ratray, a.k.a. Buzz in “Home Alone”). Dern won the Best Actor prize at Cannes and will be honored in person at the CIFF screening.

Screens October 16th at 7pm.

Heli

The scariest sound in this stomach-churning drama from Amat Escalante (this year’s Best Director prize-winner at Cannes) is a pervasive silence that could erupt at any moment into sickening brutality. Armando Espitia is superb as a young Mexican father whose disposal of drugs stashed on his property by his prepubescent sister’s thick-headed boyfriend turns out to have horrifying consequences. The powerlessness of innocent civilians in the face of police-backed drug traders fuels the film’s relentless tension that never dissipates, even as the end credits roll. Much ink has been spilled over the film’s extreme level of violence, though the worst of it is contained in a single scene of torture portrayed with staggering realism. As in “Nebraska,” there are several scenes in which characters are left with little to do but stare at the TV screen, glancing at an outside world so close and yet so out of reach.

Screens October 19th at 9:30pm and October 21st at 8:30pm.

Purgatorio

As hauntingly barren as the previous film’s landscapes may be, neither achieve the nightmarish post-apocalyptic grandeur of cinematographer Justin Chin’s artful, unflinching imagery in Rodrigo Reyes’s extraordinarily perceptive documentary set on the U.S./Mexico border. Rather than politicize or pontificate, Reyes deftly juxtaposes a series of vignettes without supplying names or locations, thus magnifying the universal qualities shared by people on both sides of the wall. In a masterly stroke, the concluding credits are accompanied by the faces of each interviewee, together forming the cinematic equivalent of a patchwork quilt, stitched together by Reyes’s incisive eye for detail. Frustrated immigration hopefuls are granted screen time alongside paranoid border patrolmen, while Reyes’s narration argues that “corruption” is too small a word to define the enemy prowling Mexico’s tormented streets, which he defines as “selfish and merciless power.” Yet for all of the film’s wrenching slices of life on the margins, the film’s humanistic vantage point is as moving as it is oddly uplifting. Reyes will be at both CIFF screenings.

Screens October 22nd at 8:30pm and October 23rd at 6:30pm.

For tickets and other festival info, click here.

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