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A scene from 'Limbo.'
A scene from 'Limbo.'  (MUBI)

The choice of location and setting is an essential element of most movies, even leaving aside the multitude of flicks that unfold in any-old big city, generic suburb, lookalike apartment and anonymous hotel room. From a barren Scottish island to frenetic Paris to stripped-down Stockholm, the sites of this week’s picks are intertwined with their characters’ states of mind.

A scene from 'Paris Calligrammes.'
A scene from 'Paris Calligrammes.' (Courtesy BAMPFA)

Paris Calligrammes 
Now playing
BAMPFA virtual screening room
The prolific German filmmaker, photographer and stage director Ulrike Ottinger has always been a seeker—of fellow artists, remote places and personal revelation. Paris Calligrammes, slated to screen here a year ago as part of the COVID-cancelled SFFILM Festival, finds her buoyantly bringing to life a formative period in her artistic and personal development: Paris in the ’60s. An incredibly alive and pleasurable film, it marks a high point in the subgenre of first-person documentaries about impressionable youth.

Ottinger was just 20 when she lit out for Paris from her small rural town in 1962. Her Isetta microcar conked out en route, so she ditched it on the side of the road and hitchhiked the rest of the way. She gravitated to Saint-Germain-des-Prés, fell under the sway of German bookseller Fritz Picard, met a range of artists, began her career and rode the wave of political consciousness and social turmoil.

Paris Calligrammes is utterly free of the off-putting cling of nostalgia, largely because Ottinger is far more interested in honoring and highlighting other people than in dominating the narrative. As a result, Ottinger’s erstwhile memoir works as both a record of a kinetic social history and as an inspiration to young artists seeking just such a scene today.

The film is part of an extensive BAMPFA retrospective, East Meets West: The Films of Ulrike Ottinger, which screens virtually in conjunction with a career-spanning exhibition of Ottinger’s photographs at the museum, which reopens Apr. 30.

A scene from 'Limbo.'
A scene from 'Limbo.' (MUBI)

Limbo
Opens April 30
Embarcadero Center Cinemas, Shattuck (Berkeley)

Sponsored

Dramas about the refugee experience are usually, at their core, exercises in empathy, but writer-director Ben Sharrock achieves something far greater through a touching blend of slack-jawed absurdism, underplayed tragedy and well-played metaphors. While Limbo, which received British Academy Award nominations for best film and best debut, refers most obviously to the months and months of suspended semi-animation that the film’s Middle Eastern and African characters endure awaiting the Scottish government’s dispensation of their requests for asylum, it also describes the disorienting period between the past (forever slipping through their fingers) and the unknowable future.

Culture shock is the least of the problems facing Syrian musician Omar (Amir El-Masry) and Afghan emigré Farhad (Vikram Bhai), part of a group of refugees stuck on a sparsely populated island with nothing to pass the time except role-play acculturation classes and Friends episodes. (Sharrock supplies enough deadpan laughs to keep limbo from turning into hell.) Farhad is a loner with a secret passion for Freddie Mercury, while Omar endures guilt-rich conversations (via a phone booth in the middle of nowhere) with his parents in Turkey about his older brother in Syria, fighting with the opposition.

Everywhere he goes, Omar carries a cross in the form of his grandfather’s oud. The movie carries the weight of the metaphor to the breaking point—it’s hard to conceive of anything with less pragmatic value in this indifferent clime and place than an Arabic musical instrument—yet Sharrock manages to parlay the oud into a deeply moving expression of loyalty, friendship and love, as well as self-assertion and self-expression.

A scene from 'About Endlessness.'
A scene from 'About Endlessness.' (Magnolia Pictures)

About Endlessness
Opens Apr. 30
Roxie Virtual Cinema, Rafael@Home

The Swedish director Roy Andersson has been well-known in certain circles, locally and abroad, since his 2000 breakthrough, Songs from the Second Floor. His style, on full view in the wonderful You, the Living (2007) and, less successfully, A Pigeon Sat on A Branch Contemplating Existence (2014), consists of a succession of mostly unrelated encounters between husbands and wives, doctors and patients, waiters and customers. They're shot with a fixed camera set at the perfect distance from the characters to grant them their dignity (if not a total respite from embarrassment) and to relieve us from (most of) our discomfort.

Imagine New Yorker cartoons without the captions, and you get an idea of Andersson’s surrealistically deadpan vignettes. They aren’t silent, to be sure, but they never pay off the way you’d expect. A man describes running into, and being ignored by, a person he hadn’t seen since school—and the incident repeats itself while he’s talking to us. (Andersson likes to knock down the fourth wall.)

About Endlessness is, like Andersson’s other recent films, a grimly hilarious exposé of lives of quiet desperation that makes Stockholm look like a soundstage in a Samuel Beckett universe. But he also achieves moments of genuine pathos, notably via the recurring character of a pastor who, in one terrific sequence, plaintively repeats over and over, “What should I do now that I have lost my faith?”

Improbably, that’s also the funniest scene in the movie. No words can convey its grim levity, any more than describing a Buster Keaton stunt can duplicate the effect of seeing it. Andersson thinks in cinema, as well as Nordic philosophy.