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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

SpIFF rolls on with NW shorts and Belgian bluegrass

So, Thursday was the opening night of the 2014 Spokane International Film Festival. And from all indications, it was a success. Theater 9 of AMC River Park Square was near capacity, and the crowd seemed receptive to the opening movie, the Australian-produced film about a Laotian boy and his struggling family, "The Rocket."

And after, many of those who attended the film walked over to the Kress Gallery to enjoy free Fire Artisan Pizza, beer and/or wine (or water). So both artistic and gastronomic tastes were satisfied.

The festival continues tonight at the Bing Crosby Theater with two shows. The first, "Best of the Northwest 2014," features a compilation of  nine shorts made by Northwest filmmakers. It screens at 5:30. Following at 8, also at The Bing, will be "The Broken Circle Breakdown," a Belgian film that has been nominated for Best Foreign Language Oscar.

My review of "The Broken Circle Breakdown," which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, follows:

If you think about it, a lot of story combinations – at the beginning, at least – sound strange. Maybe bizarre. Even a bit funny.

For example, if I were to tell you about a movie that is set in Belgium, that focuses on the love-at-first-sight relationship between a musician-farmer and a tattoo artist, follows them as they are forced to deal with their precious daughter’s battle with cancer, is darkened further by how the pressures of such a situation can threaten even the most functional of marriages – and that all of this is underscored by music featuring that most American of forms, bluegrass – you might say, “Uh, Dan, what have you been smoking?”

To which I would reply, first, that’s legal in Washington now. And, second, I would say … no, really, I just outlined the basic plot of “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” a movie that plays at 8 tonight at the Bing Crosby Theater as part of the Spokane International Film Festival.  

This is the opening weekend of the festival, which will complete its 10-day run next Saturday. SpIFF 2014 comprises 20 features and documentaries, and 34 shorts, from 25 countries. And the surprising thing about “The Broken Circle Breakdown” – which, you’ll have to admit, follows a plot that sounds like a regular country-and-western song – is that it hails from … Belgium. And is, in fact, that country’s nominee for Best Foreign Language Oscar.

Though adapted from a stage play, “The Broken Center Breakdown” has no flat stage feel whatsoever. Instead, director Felix von Groeningen grounds his movie in visuals, taking us from the small village where our female lead, Elise (Veerle Baetens), runs her shop to the nearby farm where our male lead, Didier (Johann Heldenbergh) lives, to various venues where first Didier and his group of buddies – but then also Elise – perform their music. Groeningen also plays with chronology, beginning his film near its conclusion, then reverting back seven years to where Elise and Didier meet, then forward to where their daughter is undergoing chemotherapy, then back to when she is born – and so on.

But don’t worry. Groeningen is a capable filmmaker. In other hands, “The Broken Circle Breakdown” might have been a narrative mess. Instead, once you get into the flow, it’s easy to follow. Also, though at heart, the story overflows with melodrama, it never feels anything other than steeped in reality.

This is because, first, Groeningen immerses us into these characters’ lives. We see the immense joy when our two principals meet and realize, despite their obvious differences – he’s tall, dark and determinedly realistic, while she’s slight, blond and believes in divine signs and symbols – that they are a perfect match. The work of the two actors helps immensely, their acting and singing winning them both European Film Award nominations – and a win for Baetens.

But the most impressive thing about “The Broken Circle Breakdown” might be the music itself, all of which is rendered in English and which sounds to this untrained ear as authentic. It’s at least authentic, and upbeat enough, to serve its purpose: as the glue strong enough to bind two very different people but perhaps not strong enough to help them weather the anguish that comes with supremely painful loss.