Fans of the quirky humanism of Aki Kaurismäki and Tu dors Nicole will find much to love in this fairy tale-like flowering of cultural and personal infatuation
João Nicolau’s latest cinematic excursion is a whimsical glimpse of Lisbon, Portugal, through the wide-eyed 15-year-old Rita (Júlia Palha), whose increasing infatuation with Melanesian culture animates the character of her immediate surroundings. John From has its US premiere at the Wisconsin Film Festival on Fri, Apr 15, at 4:00p at the Cinematheque with the deft director on hand for a post-screening Q&A. The playful exotic sensibility of Nicolau’s film, which takes its title from a legend of an American WWII pilot greeted as a new Messiah in Papua New Guinea, shares a kinship with the endearing Tu dors Nicole (WFF 2015), a lightly surreal Quebecois production with an infectious soundtrack about lazy but sleepless summer nights and an impending trip beyond the borders of imagination.
Delicately considering the indigenous Oceanic art in its flowering of fairy tale-like vivacity, John From makes little attempt at naturalistic objectivity and instead follows its main character’s colorful dreams. A feeling of wild improvisation occasionally defines the tone, as one might identify with fellow Portuguese director Miguel Gomes (who’s thanked in the credits) and sentimental cinema that both directors fondly celebrate in the delightfully deadpan Aki Kaurismäki. (Shadows in Paradise, the first in Kaurismäki’s Proletariat Trilogy, momentarily appears on a television set in Rita’s home.)
Intermittently bathed in blue, symbolic of the faraway coast that Rita pines for on her high-rise balcony, John From‘s spirited narrative actually begins in a complete lounge. Days blur into nights through a series of inside jokes with Rita’s fair-skinned friend and neighbor Sara (Clara Riedenstein), including a private elevator-note exchange and another ritual that involves a manual iPod shuffle as a prophesying magic eight ball substitute. It’s only when, at the nearby community center, Rita is jolted from tedium by witnessing an exhibit of Melanesian culture by quiet local photographer Filipe Mesquita (Filipe Vargas), who happens to live diagonally from her on the floor below with his toddler daughter Beatriz (Teresa Bairrada).
Instantly transported by the distinctive sculpture, native dress, and tribal dance, Rita researches information about the region, acquiring native music to blare on her stereo behind the intentionally flooded balcony she’s attempting to imagine as beach sands. Charmed by her new-found interest and buoyancy, Rita’s compliant parents even join in with their daughter’s festivities while Sara agrees to help her win Filipe’s heart. Rather than leaving an impression of insensitive cultural appropriation, Nicolau mimics Rita’s genuinely unbridled and exotic enthusiasm, intertwining her evolving emotional state with his own. In one of the film’s densest scenes, Rita paints her face in the tradition of the Huli people, and interprets to her mother (Leonor Silveira), from memory, a bit of history from Papua New Guinea, including the titular tale. As she does, it slowly dawns on her that she has turned Filipe into her own savior, a personal reincarnation of John From.
A variation of this story also surfaces in Ben Russell’s recent experimental short, Let Us Persevere in What We Have Resolved Before We Forget (2013), albeit in a more hauntingly ethnographic abstract of Nicolau’s direct magical realism. If Russell’s modus operandi subtly looks for the intersection of naturalistic serenity and land-shifting prophesy on the island of Tanna, Nicolau apparently utilizes his directorial palette to bring the prognostication, about the humid volcanic islet-turned-fertile plain joining its neighboring islands, to the atmosphere of Lisbon. The soundtrack reinforces and celebrates this fruitful reverie of cultural harmony, including the island music of Afunakwa and Aeresuuga, Moondog’s upbeat chamber stylings on “Westward Ho!,” Lily Allen’s reggae-pop, David Pajo/Papa M’s intimate Americana/folk (“Glad You’re Here with Me”), and most predominantly, the appealing ambiance and sound design by drummer João Lobo.
John From‘s sweet curiosities may not be to the tastes of viewers who favor the grittier, and admittedly, more familiar coming-of-age chronicle. The denouement’s adherence to wish fulfillment, uniting the older man (and single father) with Rita’s overwhelmingly quixotic stare seems to ignore the fleeting passions of youth. However, as a photographer, Filipe’s loving vision is what so intensely appeals to her motivational flights of fancy and burgeoning desire for physical adventure. Even if it can be narrowly single-minded, the film’s progressively sunny disposition is hard to refute in its visual makeup and eventual destination. It’s that fearlessly fun festival film that means to dream.
- John From makes its U.S. premiere in Madison at the Wisconsin Film Festival on Fri, Apr 15, at UW-Cinematheque at 4:00p with director João Nicolau in attendance for a Q&A. He will also appear after the film’s encore presentation on Saturday, April 16, at Sundance Cinema 5 at 2:30p. At the time of publication, tickets were still available for both screenings.