It’s generally agreed upon that one should allow themselves a few hours of decompression and acclimation when first landing in a faraway city, but as I drowsily touched down for the 12th annual Zurich Film Festival after an arduous 10-hour flight, time was not on my side, so I rushed instead to a film that captures something ineffable about the frazzled traveler’s mindset. Gabe Klinger’s Porto, my first taste of the festival at an evening showing, is about bemusedly roaming in half-light through a foreign city while periodically drifting in and out of recollections of a potent recent relationship gone sour.
The film deals with the post-one-night-stand fallout between an American drifter working abroad, Jake (Anton Yelchin), and a forlorn French woman, Mati (Lucie Lucas). Less a city symphony than a muted impressionist painting of urban drifting, Porto takes place within the shadowy side streets, modest corner bars, and nondescript 24-hour diners of the eponymous northwest Portuguese city, where Jake is burning time as a manual laborer and flannel-clad somnambulist. Wandering one night, Jake spots Mati and strikes up an exchange, which leads to a charged evening that gets played and replayed throughout the film, each time at slightly greater length and with a different emotional inflection. Stitching these sense memories together are jazz piano-backed montages of a disappointed Jake stumbling around their earlier haunts as though in a Resnais-like time loop.
Shot on 8mm, 16mm, and 35mm celluloid, and often in unforgiving available light, Porto’s imagery has a palpable materiality that’s critical to its formal structure: The grainy, boxy smaller gauges are used to depict a frustrated present of botched opportunity, while the 35mm scope photography brings a comparative clarity to scenes of tender recollection. Aspect ratios and time were also crucial in Klinger’s last film, the documentary Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater, with which Porto shares a vested interest in the casually profound give-and-take of two-person conversations.
Klinger’s cutting rhythms, developed with co-editor Géraldine Mangenot, are rooted in patient observation of the physical and vocal nuances of his actors, meaning prolonged pauses between lines of dialogue are occasions to appreciate how Mati hesitatingly lights a cigarette, or the way Jake’s skeletal frame seems perpetually slumped forward in anticipation of something. The pair’s first meeting at an afterhours café, in which Jake musters up the courage to approach Mati at her table, contains only a few lines of dialogue and conjures some of the hushed electricity of a classic Bogart-Bacall encounter, a quality that’s also true of the subsequent, nearly wordless scene, covered in one traveling two-shot as Mati eagerly leads Jake back to her flat.
While these moments subtly evoke Old Hollywood, the sequences in Mati’s sparsely furnished modern apartment echo the blocking and camerawork in Godard’s Contempt (Lucas even resembles Brigitte Bardot), and one moody sojourn at Jake’s fog-shrouded work site recalls the funereal atmosphere of Soviet war films like Ivan’s Childhood and Letter Never Sent. Klinger’s cine-literacy is well known to those familiar with his writing and programming, but what’s special about Porto, especially as a debut narrative feature, is the relative internalization of its influences, which feel secondary to its larger grappling with a timeless emotional enigma: namely, infatuation, and the question of how such a mighty force can also be so fleeting.
Another San Sebastian Film Festival import here in Zurich, Jonás Trueba’s La Reconquista also concerns itself with romantic love and the passing of time, in this case by portraying an evening shared in young adulthood by two former high school sweethearts, Olmo (Francesco Carril) and Manuela (Itsaso Arana). It’s a familiar, even generic idea for a story, and Trueba doesn’t evade first-love clichés: Of course the past lovers have “their” song, and at a pivotal moment anxieties are shed for a loose-limbed dance that revives old feelings.
The film’s surface banalities, however, gradually accrue tremendous heft through the persistence of Trueba’s gaze, which fixes on his leads in sturdy, minutes-long compositions so as to spot any flickers of emotion that might complicate the largely indirect pleasantries being spoken (the film stays mercifully shy of any explosions of bottled-up yearning or performative fireworks). The extensive scrutiny is unwarranted when, for the full duration of a song performed live at a lounge, we watch Olmo and Manuela nod along to lyrics that unambiguously poke at the latent energy between them, but in most cases Trueba’s disregard for the likelihood of provoking boredom enriches material that very easily could have been paint-by-numbers. His attentiveness and compositional style at times even recalls the work of Hong Sang-soo, only with Tsingtaos and rice wine in place of soju.
There’s a scene halfway through La Reconquista that a lesser work surely would have concluded on. The film’s integrity and complexity lie in the fact that it pushes well past this point, charting the ways in which Manuela and Olmo’s sentimental night sends ripples through daily reality, which eventually leads to an extended flashback/dream sequence featuring a teenage version of the couple. It’s a ploy that could have been disastrous, but with the help of some very game young actors (Pablo Hoyos and Candela Recio) who arguably upstage their older counterparts, Trueba’s willingness to court awkwardness by refusing to hurry through stock emotional beats becomes revelatory.
It’s telling that the film’s most graceful scene, a lovely choreography of awkward bodies and hesitant words, comprises one of the hoariest tropes in the romance genre: a stroll in a park followed by a picturesque first kiss. It’s easy to find oneself resisting La Reconquista’s earnestness, but in the end I was moved. This is a scarily relatable film.