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The 37th Portland International Film Festival runs this year from February 6th to the 22nd. They’re screening 104 feature films and 24 shorts across those two weeks from countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Iceland, Nepal, and Taiwan. Check out the official site for tickets and/or more details.

Our fifth trio of capsule reviews focuses on three films that tease thriller territory while telling dramatic, human stories.

Before Snowfall follows a Kurdish man searching for his sister, but it’s no heartwarming reunion he’s after. His intent is to kill her for running out on an arranged marriage. Metro Manila concerns a family of four who move to the big city hoping for a better life, but hope is a worthless currency in a place like this. Finally, Salvo is the story of a hitman who takes something after his latest job that proves troublesome to his sense of morality. That something is a blind woman.

Keep reading for capsule reviews of Before Snowfall, Metro Manila, and Salvo, and follow all of our coverage here.

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Before Snowfall (Norway)

Siyar (Taher Abdullah Taher) is the man of the family now that his dad is dead, but his abilities are put to the test when it comes time to connect with another clan through his sister’s arranged marriage. She’s having no part of it and instead runs away with her boyfriend, which in turn sets Siyar on the trail to find her with the goal of committing an honor killing. The journey brings him through Istanbul on the way to Oslo, and along the way he makes a new friend who shows him there’s more to life and love than what tradition dictates.

Director Hisham Zaman‘s film is the kind of cinema that hits your heart and head while watching and continues to reverberate for days after. From the spectacular opening sequence to the haunting finale, the film engages through a combination of beautiful cinematography and dramatic suspense. Sazan Ilir gives a heartfelt and wrenching performance as the lost teen Siyar meets, and her story offers additional drama and commentary on the state of things in that part of the world.

One of the film’s greatest accomplishments is that it does amazing things with a main character who we despise from the very beginning. Tahar’s acting is a bit stiff (and he runs like Jackie Chan!), but it suits a character stuck in the rigid structure of cultural tradition. Siyar’s conflicted morals don’t change him in generic ways and instead we get something more believable and rich, and it feeds our own reaction to watching someone grow even as his ultimate intention is something barbaric and terrible.

Grade: A-

Before Snowfall screens 2/11 at 8:30p. Buy tickets here.

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Metro Manila (UK)

Oscar (Jake Macapagal), his wife, and their two children have hit a dead end in the rice fields of rural Philippines, so they decide to follow the bright lights of the big city and head to Manila in the hopes of finding work and a fresh start. Trouble starts almost immediately as the couple is taken advantage of left and right, but a possible solution comes in the form of a new friend who gets Oscar a job at an armored car company. Good luck Oscar.

Look, I love well-crafted, dark cinema, but good god is this film oppressively bleak. Every minute of its nearly two-hour run time is either depressing or a “happy” moment so clearly about to go sour that you’ll be puckering as frequently as you inhale. Manila’s tourism bureau will not be happy when they see this film. The bright side, and the film’s real accomplishment, is that there’s a degree of suspense woven throughout the gloom. It keeps things from becoming too overwhelmingly somber which is a real risk as events unfold.

Writer/director Sean Ellis (Cashback, The Broken) delivers an attractive and compelling film for the most part, but the darkness grows numbing when it should be affecting. The manufactured bleakness of it all eventually damages the power of the third act writing too as it takes away from the intended dramatic effect. Still, even with these issues Oscar’s dire situation and Macapagal’s performance make for captivating viewing.

grade_b_minus

Metro Manila screens 2/13 at 8:30p and 2/15 at 12:30p. Buy tickets here.

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piff37 salvo

Salvo (Italy)

Salvo (Saleh Bakri) is a mafia hitman who just saved his boss from being assassinated by rivals. When he tracks down the man who gave the orders, he heads out to exact revenge and ends up with a prisoner of sorts in the (now) dead man’s blind sister. The woman is terrified, but something about her begins a change in Salvo’s heart and mind.

The film opens with a simple but highly effective action scene followed by a restrained sequence that succeeds equally well, but then things get iffy. Everything slows to a crawl as Salvo and Rita deal with their respective life-altering events together, and much of it is accomplished without much in the way of dialogue. That in itself is fine, the film looks good, but too little is happening for it to hold the attention that it requires. This is equally true of the film’s denouement which sees it going exactly where this narrative setup has always gone.

The first act truly is the film’s strength, and directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza show a strong grasp on action choreography and the more atmospheric and controlled cat and mouse sequence that follows. The camerawork becomes part of the story as we follow Salvo from behind as he stalks Rita’s brother, and initial confusion and fear is palpably presented, but too much of what comes next is dull, lacking in energy, and without impact.

Grade: C

Salvo screens 2/14 at 8:30p and 2/23 at 415p. Buy tickets here.

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PIFF 37 runs 2/6 – 2/22


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