Rhayne Vermette’s experimental feature opens with a series of gauzy, mysterious images. First, we see a woman walk through a deserted gray landscape enveloped in eerie morning sounds; then, over close-up shots of a fire, the disembodied voice of a girl recites a letter to an absent mother. These scenes plant the seed of the film’s tenuous narrative: a strange, fitful story about a woman who returns to her Métis Nation family in rural Manitoba after an unexplained four-year disappearance.
But the plot is almost a red herring; it appears and recedes in brief, unresolved snippets of conversation, giving way, for the most part, to transfixing scenes of tactility and community. Stories both trivial and ancestral are exchanged over fireside gatherings and dinner parties, which Vermette, shooting on sparkling celluloid, captures obliquely, zeroing in on a person’s gesticulating hands as they speak, or on the ripple of a pond as children toss stones into it. Slowly, an intimate but enigmatic portrait of a place and a people coalesces.
“Ste. Anne” is willfully abstract, resisting linear narrative, but it still manages to engross with its melding of documentary realism and cinematic magic. In one scene, as a family remembers a long-gone relative, he materializes in the background as a translucent figure — and just like that, an everyday conversation becomes a séance.
This sweet, oddball Spanish drama follows a 45-year-old woman, Rosa (Candela Peña), who decides to resolve a midlife crisis by marrying … herself. This might sound like the plot of a corny ’90s Hollywood rom-com, but “Rosa’s Wedding” is a film of surprising nuance and profundity — a beautifully performed movie about the gestures, no matter how nonsensical, that we sometimes need to become who we want to be.
Peña brings a marvelous, lightly worn pathos to a character accustomed to being at the beck and call of everyone in her life: her boss in the wardrobe department of a film shoot, where Rosa works as a seamstress; her businessman brother who’s navigating a divorce; her interpreter sister with an alcohol problem; and her nagging father who, in the wake of his wife’s death, clings to Rosa. Further demands from a daughter living abroad and a needy boyfriend push her, finally, to a breaking point, and Rosa drives off to her seaside hometown, where she decides to reopen her mother’s dressmaking shop and pursue her long-stalled dreams.
And what better way for Rosa to embark on a new life than with a wedding? High jinks and high-strung confrontations ensue as Rosa’s family arrives at the picturesque location expecting a traditional ceremony. The caper ends as you’d expect — with a colorful, feel-good finale — but the film’s vulnerable performances and probing exchanges about grief and growth ensure that it never feels trite.
‘The Trouble With Being Born’
The Austrian filmmaker Sandra Wollner’s provocative feature opens with scenes of a girl and her father lounging by a swimming pool somewhere in a wooded suburb. The eerie sound design and surveillance-like cinematography suggest that something’s off, but it’s not until a few minutes into the film, when the girl almost drowns and is rescued by her father, that we notice her stilted movements and silicone-smooth skin. Elli, we soon realize, is an automaton — a cybernetic stand-in for the 10-year-old daughter that her father lost many years ago.
The first half of “The Trouble With Being Born” traces the domestic life of this duo, forcing us to contend with that elusive yet unmistakable line that separates humans and nonhumans — an uncanny chasm made even more unsettling by the fact that Elli is played by an anonymous actress wearing a mask. In the second half, the film turns from contemplative to condemnatory as the twisted nature of the relationship between Elli and her father figure becomes clear. Rather than veer into sensationalism, Wollner’s film maintains a coolly dystopian view throughout, confronting us with a nihilistic (albeit inarguably realistic) world where science, regardless of how sophisticated, can never transcend the depravity of its creators.
‘Lift Like a Girl’
If you walked by Captain Ramadan’s weight-lifting gym in Alexandria, Egypt, you’d never guess that it has produced 17 Pan-African champions, nine World champions and four Olympians. Situated in an open-air yard overrun with weeds and surrounded by traffic, this gym looks more like a dumping ground for rusty equipment. Yet, at this ramshackle, no-budget institution, Ramadan has not only coached world-class athletes but also led a unique movement of female Egyptian weight lifters.
The documentary “Lift Like a Girl” follows Ramadan as he trains yet another champion-in-the-making, the bespectacled teenager Asmaa, over four years. Observing the weight lifters’ routines closely with a hand-held camera, the film captures the mix of chaos, privation and grit that drives this scrappy community. Ramadan makes for an utterly cinematic figure: He’s a grizzled curmudgeon as prone to bursting into songs of paternal affection as he is to exploding with profanities or chucking stones at boys who dare make fun of his girls.
With an intimate, embedded approach, the director Mayye Zayed traces the contours of Ramadan’s tough love and its profound, formative effects on Asmaa. A late-coming twist pushes the film beyond the realm of sport, underscoring the avenues of hope and solidarity that the gym provides to young women of modest means.
Five Movies to Watch This Winter
‘This Is Cristina’
Gonzalo Maza’s lo-fi black-and-white comedy about the misadventures of two charmingly aimless women is as strikingly original as it is warmly familiar; its portrait of millennial malaise is streaked with surprising and bracing darkness. Unfolding in brief, sardonic episodes, the film follows two best friends, Cristina and Susana, as they navigate a meandering stretch of their 30s. Cristina is dealing with a messy separation from her egotistic graphic-novelist ex and an even messier relationship with her theater-director beau, all while nursing a severe case of artist’s block. In the meantime, Susana faces a crisis of familial faith as her mother runs off on a vacation with a new lover, and her father embroils her in a web of lies and unpaid loans.
It’s as if adulthood and its ramifications have taken the two women by surprise. But this Chilean film never feels twee or cloying; it maintains a mature, realist attitude toward life even as it regales us with set pieces involving pretentious acting workshops and wellness-themed parties. Time and again Cristina and Susana return to the memory of another friend who died in an accident a couple of years before. The abrupt end of her life hangs over the pair’s stalled, confusing paths, lending a sense of perspective to even their most pitiful moments.