The Sky Trembles

PIFF best bets for Wednesday, Feb. 17

You don't have to be able to pronounce the name of Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul to enjoy his new film.

Halfway through the first full week of the 39th Portland International Film Festival, it’s important to keep your energy level up. Always carry a variety of snacks and lozenges with you (except not into the Whitsell Auditorium, of course!), and be sure to drink plenty of water. Staying hydrated is your best protection against all the February germs that your fellow foreign-film fans are constantly spraying into the air all around you. Actually, best not to think too much on that. Here are the highlights of today’s cinematic action:

Cemetary of Splendor

“Cemetery of Splendour”: The mournfully-titled eighth feature from Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul is set in a modest rural hospital, where young men lie unconscious, afflicted by an unnamed coma-like disease. A young psychic woman uses her powers to communicate with them mentally from their mysterious sleeping state.

In typical fashion, Weerasethakul plants his attention firmly in the land of the quiet, dreamy and languid. “Cemetery of Splendor” has a gentle stillness that is hypnotic. It lacks the mystical splash of earlier films like “Tropical Malady” and “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” but even with its more prosaic tone, the spirit world creeps in: in one scene, a pair of goddesses from a local shrine take human form and drop in on the main character to casually thank her for the offerings she left them.

Weerasethakul loves to work with non-professional actors, and here he draws from his usual cohort, including the wonderful Jenjira Pongpas Widner as a soft-spoken housewife and Banlop Lomnoi as a soldier with the sleeping disease who drifts in and out of a dream world. Understated, non-linear, tinged with melancholy, the main pleasure of “Cemetery of Splendor” is the space and silence it opens up for reflection. [Lily Hudson]

(Thailand, 122 minutes, in Thai with English subtitles) Wed., Feb 17, 8:30 p.m., Cinema 21; also Mon., Feb 22, 7 p.m., Empirical Theater at OMSI.


“The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are Not Brothers”: The Northwest Film Center has been a big supporter of British experimental filmmaker Ben Rivers. They’ve screened his last two features—“Two Years At Sea” at PIFF 36 and “A Spell To Ward Off Darkness” in 2014—and now this, his latest directing effort. Rivers’ style can be trying for many audiences, especially those who simply want to be entertained. But for a particularly patient and passionate viewer, or anyone curious to see what actual modern experimental cinema looks like, Rivers’ work is worth discovering and experiencing.

‘The Sky Trembles’ is a film of two halves, the first focusing on a film production in rural Morocco (taken from Rivers’ following Oliver Laxe’s “The Mimosas” during filming). It then takes a hard left as Laxe’s director character is captured, de-tongued, and turned into a dancing clown for some twisted locals’ amusement. There’s little in the way of context, especially in the beginning, but as the gorgeously shot 16mm film detours away from the production, the story becomes something greater than the sum of its parts, mashing together a making-of documentary with a sort of stranger-in-a-strange-land tale. But even that description really doesn’t do the film justice.

You probably already know if this is something you want to see. [Erik McClanahan]

(United Kingdom, 100 min., in English, Arabic, Spanish, and French with English subtitles) Wed., Feb. 17, 8:30 p.m., Whitsell Auditorium; also Sat., Feb. 20, 3:30 p.m., Whitsell Auditorium.

Project of the Century

“Project of the Century”: In 1983, construction began in Cuba on a Soviet-designed nuclear power plant that, when completed, would provide fifteen percent of the island’s energy needs. “If completed” would, of course, turn out to be a more accurate turn of phrase. Nine years later, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the withdrawal of its assistance, the project halted. Today, what remains is a virtual Cold War ghost town. The grim, uniform apartment blocks of the Electro-Nuclear City (“CEN”) built to house the reactor’s workers slowly deteriorate as the dome of the never-started turbine sits mockingly on the horizon.

That’s the evocative setting for director Carlos M. Quintela’s “The Project of the Century,” which alternates the present-day fictional story of three generations of Cuban men living in the CEN with vintage found footage from the plant’s late 1980s heyday. The elderly Otto (Mario Balmaseda), his ex-technician son Rafael (Mario Guerra), and Rafael’s tattooed son Leo (Leonardo Gascon) unhappily share the same apartment. In contrast, vintage TV programs demonstrate the unity of purpose that, though forced and ephemeral, inspired the massive enterprise.

It’s an awkward blend, but one that effectively distinguishes the socialist-utopian optimism of even the final years of the Cold War from the grubby reality of its wake. (The film was shot prior to the normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations, which may or may not have affected its tone.) [Marc Mohan]

(Cuba, 97 min., in Spanish with English subtitles) Wed., Feb. 17, 8:30 p.m., Moreland Theater; also Sun., Feb. 21, 4:15 p.m., Regal Fox Tower.

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