He's Certainly Peerless

Okay, I couldn't resist that pun on the name of Spanish director Pere Portabella. But he is that good. If you saw The Silence Before Bach at Film Forum earlier this year, or the mini-retro of his work at MoMA last fall, then you know how good and how interesting Portabella is. If you haven't been introduced to his sly humor and visual rigor, then you must run to the Museum of Modern Art this week to see Warsaw Bridge, his 1990 film which is having a week-long run there (through Thursday, June 19).

Portabella is usually described as an "experimental" filmmaker, and he certainly doesn't make conventional narrative films. The starting point for Warsaw Bridge was a news clipping that Portabella found provocative, about a scuba-diver who was found dead in the midst of the burned-out remnants of a forest fire. And, in truth, the film does explain this highly mysterious event. But it doesn't explain what the dead scuba-diver has to do with a writer receiving an important award, his wife who may -- or may not -- be having an affair with his best friend, or any of the several other suggestive episodes, none of which seems to be connected by narrative links.

If The Silence Before Bach reminded me of my favorite moments from Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, Warsaw Bridge is full of fond echoes of late Bunuel -- think Phantom of Liberty and Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. This probably shouldn't be a great shock; Portabella was one of the producers of Viridiana, and apparently was a close friend of Don Luis. (The flak from Viridiana cost Portabella, a Catalan and proud of it, his Spanish passport.) What he takes from Bunuel is the realization at the heart of his surrealism, that it is in the nature of cinema that an audience accepts as "reality" what it sees on screen, so the more straightforward and unexceptional the presentation of events, no matter how bizarre, the more the audience buys; this makes the medium a wonderful vehicle for the sort of narrative disconnections Bunuel and Portabella favor.

These jumps are also a splendid source of humor, particularly in the hands of a hyper-articulate writer like Portabella (wo co-wrote the film with Octavi Pellissa and Carles Santos, who also contributed the film's luscious score), working in a milieu in which people express themselves deftly. Visually, Warsaw Bridge is incredibly elegant, full of wonderfully sinuous camera movements and exquisite cinematography by Tomas Pladevall. And you have to love a film in which the credits suddenly pop up 20 minutes after it has begun, another sign of Portabella's devious, meta-cinematic humor. I'd be lying if I said I understood Warsaw Bridge; I suspect that will take several more viewings. But I certainly haven't enjoyed any other film as much so far this year. Portabella has only directed ten films and, at 79 it's hard to know how many more films he has in him (unless, for course, he is privy to Manoel de Oliveira's secret stash from the fountain of youth), but if we have to wait another 17 years for the next one, it would be most unfortunate indeed. And I'm not just saying that because we share a birthday, although we do.

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