Redressing the geographic imbalance endemic to American cinemas (and American consciousness), the Global Film Initiative caravan rolls into town this week with its annual sampling of new work from impoverished, war-torn, and seldom glimpsed regions. Founded in 2002, the initiative awards completion grants to filmmakers in developing countries and programs a national traveling exhibition. While this year’s slate (10 movies from four continents) easily fulfills its educational brief (at each of the 14 cities, free high school screenings are organized), a handful of entries go well beyond ethnographic interest.
In the opening film, Whisky, anchoring the series with a one-week run (March 3-7, 9, 10), Uruguayan writer-directors Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll wring all affect from a sitcom premise, inching almost imperceptibly from deadpan humor to deadpan sorrow. This Cannes favorite deftly establishes the sad-sack routine of single, 60-ish Montevideo sock manufacturer Jacobo (Andrés Pazos), a man of few words and fewer expressions. With his semi-estranged brother Herman (Jorge Bolani) due to arrive from Brazil for the unveiling of their late mother’s gravestone, Jacobo asks his spinster assistant Marta (Mirella Pascual) to pose as his wife—an elaborate ruse that this stony misanthrope evidently finds more tolerable than fielding any potential inquiries about his solitary existence.
Drolly glum and sneakily humane, Whisky swigs from the same bottle as Aki Kaurismäki (it may even be named in tribute). The brittle charade yields quiet tectonic shifts—especially when the extroverted Herman prolongs his weekend stay and drags the sheepish couple to a near-empty seaside resort. The film is a model of precision and economy, from the scrupulous framing and editing to the dryly note-perfect performances. With little outward effort, the actors convey the repressed emotions beneath Jacobo’s knee-jerk gruffness, Marta’s indulgent forbearance, and Herman’s banal bluster. Desires and anxieties bubble up in all three during the period of enforced proximity, but inertia proves the most powerful force of all.
Also receiving a one-week showcase (March 11-14, 16-18), Minh Nguyen-Vô’s Buffalo Boy, set in French-colonial 1940s Vietnam, follows a teenager as he often literally struggles to stay afloat in the flooded rural lowlands. A UCLA-educated physicist, the first-time director dowses his slender fable in buckets of atmosphere (eerie watery landscapes, inky night scenes), though the film resorts too often to coming-of-age clichés and Orientalist ambience. Diligently unsentimental but no less obvious, Maria João Ganga’s Hollow City trails an 11-year-old village boy, orphaned in Angola’s civil war, as he prowls the city of Luanda by himself and quickly falls in with the wrong crowd. More dutifully exotic, the other two African entries—Kabala and Daughter of Keltoum—strive to bridge modern outlooks and traditional beliefs, among magic-spell-wielding Malian villagers and a Berber tribe in Algeria, respectively.
Elsewhere, a loud and busy Turkish farce (What’s a Human Anyway?) jostles for attention alongside a slow-burning Bosnian black comedy (Fuse), and a pair of films approach the Argentinian economic crisis in terms of sexual humiliation: Alejandro Chomski’s Today and Tomorrow sees a desperate actress-waitress turning to prostitution in the course of a single horrible day. And in Mariano Galperin’s Lili’s Apron, a burly out-of-work chef, in a last-ditch attempt to keep his house and his unstable wife sane, secretly dons drag and plays Mrs. Doubtfire. From China, first-timer Diao Yinan’s Uniform is slyly based on the idea that you are what you wear. Young and out of work in a small, modernizing town—the kind Jia Zhangke’s rootless kids perpetually drift through—the disaffected hero gets his hands on the titular garment and starts impersonating a cop. One of the best movies to emerge from China’s burgeoning video underground, it’s a potent allegory of a spiritually uprooted generation’s identity quest.