Roam If You Want To

Premium pour: Andres Pazos and Mirella Pascua in 'Whisky'
Global Film Initiative

Arriving in the Algerian city of Oran at the height of WWII, Port Moresby, the feckless hero of Paul Bowles's The Sheltering Sky, attempts to parse the differences between being a tourist and a traveler: "Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler [moves] slowly over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another." Bernardo Bertolucci's 1990 film adaptation compresses Bowles's poeticism into two blunt lines of dialogue. "A tourist is someone who thinks of going home the moment they arrive," Port declares. "Whereas a traveler may never come back at all."

Delving far beyond where most art-house programmers dare to doggy-paddle, the fourth annual "Global Lens" film series (beginning Thursday at Walker Art Center) offers moviegoers the closest approximation to "traveling" in the Bowlesian sense of the term--an around-the-world cine-voyage that's bound to leave you thrilled and maybe a little malarial following stops in a Malian village, a Bosnian shit pit, and a Vietnamese bog, among other inhospitable locales. This is world cinema without a return ticket. Try sitting through the market-tested exotica of The Constant Gardener after sampling any one of these films and you'll learn to appreciate the difference between a five-star vacation package and a parachute drop into the unknown.

Many of the entries in this year's lineup grapple with that most hoary of international genre traps: the East-West (or North-South) culture clash. Mehdi Charef's Daughter of Keltoum (which opens the series on Thursday at 7:30 p.m.) adds a slight spin to the cliché: An Algerian-born Swiss woman returns to her native land to find the mother who abandoned her for adoption. The melodramatic story line soon takes a backseat to the arid desert visuals, and, for long stretches, plot feels beside the point. Meditating on the vastness of the continent, the film creates a dreamlike fusion of what Bowles himself described as the "actual desert and [the] inner desert of the spirit."

The other African films in the series do away with Western protagonists altogether, though the conflict between old and new worlds remains stubbornly present. In the Angolan neorealist tale Hollow City (September 22-23), a young boy fleeing his war-ravaged village must learn to survive in the modern capital city of Luanda. Though simply told, Maria João Ganga's film is never naive and even tops off its warm humanist embrace with a cynical twist. In the Malian film Kabala (September 29), an educated engineer returns to his village after years in exile only to face bullheaded resistance to his attempts at modernizing an unsanitary well. Combining ancient sorcery with 21st-century pragmatism, Assane Kouyaté's movie inevitably recalls the work of Ousmane Sembene (Moolaade) in the way tradition is constantly questioned and tribal patriarchy is laid bare for maximum excoriation.

Halfway around the globe, opposites collide to more humorous effect in the Uruguayan film Whisky (September 23-24), easily the best movie in the series and one of the best films of the year. A dull Montevideo sock maker and his younger cosmopolitan brother (who's a sock company owner) make awkward attempts at reconciliation following the burial of their mother. Along for the ride is a faithful seamstress from the older brother's workshop who has agreed to pose as his wife. As dry and bracing as its namesake (which the characters utter in lieu of "cheese" at photo time), Whisky is a comedy that barely cracks a smile. Directors Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll exhibit a keen sense for absurdities and repetitions, and they exact brilliant nonperformances from their actors, particularly Mirella Pascual as the affectless seamstress whose devotion to her boss may or may not have reached its limit by journey's end.

Whisky weds its actors' blankness to their depressingly functional surroundings, creating a seamless universe of deadpan despair. A similar mood is attempted in Pjer Zalica's Fuse (October 1), a postwar farce that follows one Bosnian town's preparations for a visit from Bill Clinton. This loopy ensemble piece features a vicious pimp, a shell-shocked ex-soldier, a meddlesome American official, a grieving father conversing with the ghost of his dead son, a pompous E.U. official, and the official's humorless translator. The carnivalesque grotesquerie is mercifully less obnoxious than your average Kusturican vodka binge, and yet Fuse sometimes feels too subdued. At certain moments, this landmine-strewn hellhole of a village can seem like a nice place to live--a community where people actually acknowledge each other's existence, even if it's by exchanging gunfire.

Such hospitality wouldn't feel entirely out of place in present-day Buenos Aires, a metropolis so rattled by recent economic depression that the bourgeois run around with the marked air of an endangered species. In two Argentine films, the plight of the middle class assumes center stage. Mariano Galperin's Lili's Apron (September 17) takes the comedic angle, following an unemployed chef trying to support his family by working in drag as a housemaid (think Señora Doubtfire), while Alejandro Chomski's Today and Tomorrow (September 16) sends a struggling actress down a feel-bad trajectory right out of Lilya 4-Ever, complete with prostitution and total moral degradation.

The series' two Far East entries stare directly into the eyes of a restless teenager--one from the city and the other from a rural wetland. (Both locations have nowhere stamped all over them.) In Diao Yinan's much-acclaimed Uniform (September 30), a young Chinese tailor starts wearing a police shirt left unclaimed by its owner. The tailor soon finds himself conforming to the authoritarian postures of his new persona--and in trouble with the real law. And in Mihn Nguyen-Vô's Buffalo Boy (September 17), an adolescent farmer faces off against the dual rising tides of poverty and the Mekong. Shot to inky perfection by Bruno Dumont's cinematographer Yves Cape, Buffalo Boy embodies the "Global Lens" series' preference for low-impact existential workouts. As the closing moments of Buffalo Boy gently remind us, the sole comfort to be found in this world is in knowing that the sea will always be deep and the sky above will shelter us forever.

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