LISBON - There’s a reason, I think, why many of the world’s great film festivals take place in locations that wouldn’t rate an extended visit on their own merits. Cannes? Residual beachy glamour aside, a dingy little scab on a coastline with far better spots to offer. Toronto? Pleasant enough, but as unsexy as its festival’s all-business reputation. Venice is lovely, sure; the Lido – the wilted, quarantined resort island that actually hosts the festival – not so much. Most festival organizers, after all, want you in the cinema or at the adjacent parties, not independently tourist-traipsing around world heritage sites. If they could lure journalists to the New Jersey Turnpike, there’d probably be a festival there.
 
Which is why the IndieLisboa International Film Festival, which I’ve been exploring at a gentle pace since Monday (though it kicked off last week), poses the mother of all first-world problems to its guests: how do you make the most of what the festival has to offer when Lisbon, one of Europe’s most unassumingly gorgeous cities, is on your doorstep? The directors have cunningly tried to separate the two by situating the festival HQ in a dauntingly cavernous bank in the quieter, more plainly frosted northern reaches of the city, but the delights of the Portuguese capital, with its two-tone cobbled streets, nattily tiled terraces and overspill of custard-scented patisseries knit together by wonky vintage trams, are still mere minutes away.
 
“You’re living in a Manoel de Oliveira film,” tutted British critic Jonathan Romney on Twitter this morning, after I had groused about the city’s atypically soggy spring weather. “Enjoy it.” When you’re right, you’re right.
 
One feels especially bad about playing hooky – though, in a civilized, hangover-friendly touch that Cannes should really consider, daily screenings don’t start until after lunch – because the IndieLisboa programme is a genuinely attractive one. Like so many of the innumerable small-scale film fests that criss-cross the calendar in the months between the big guns, it’s chiefly a festival of festivals, cherry-picking standouts and curios alike from Cannes, Berlin, Venice and any number of lower-profile showcases, and regrouping them under an exactingly defined banner of “independent cinema.”
 
Such festivals can fall prey to sameyness, so it’s important that their curatorial eye, if not the selections themselves, is unique to them. IndieLisboa delivers on that front, its challenging programming unafraid to reflect the taste of its steerers, expecting the audience to meet them at their level, rather than vice versa. Even its big-kahuna acquisitions are commendably prickly ones: Markus Schleinzer’s “Michael” and Andrea Arnold’s “Wuthering Heights” are by no means safe audience draws, yet ticket sales (at the unimprovable price of just four euro a pop) are thrillingly robust.
 
Lisbonites, after all, have seen their beautiful city before, and therefore have no qualms about packing out the house of the city center’s impressive 1930s picture palace, the Manoel de Oliveira Hall (there’s that name again), to see “A Casa,” a drolly austere Portuguese documentary about itinerant house builders. (Lest you think I’m plucking hypothetical festival fodder from the blue, I was there too.) There’s a lesson to be learned from this unusual balance of public-minded spirit and wilful aesthetic individualism, and it’s one a number of more celebrated, considerably more moneyed film festivals haven’t done.   
 
Yes, yes, but what of the films? While browsing around the less familiar stretches of the programme has yielded mixed results – no blinding discoveries yet, but nothing I regretted seeing either, which film festival regulars will know is far from faint praise – two distinct highlights have come in the form of films I had the opportunity to see at previous fests, which is a humbling reminder of just how much one inevitably misses at all these shindigs. At London last autumn, for example, I heard precious little chatter about “The Loneliest Planet,” a gutsy, ostentatiously forbidding relationship drama from Russian-American writer-director Julia Loktev that also took top honors at last year’s AFI Fest; here, promoted to big-ticket status via more streamlined programming, it more readily invites your attention.
 
It deserves it, too: existing at a kind of twilit international meeting point between US mumblecore and the so-called “slow cinema” that Eastern European filmmakers, especially, have lately brought into arthouse fashion, Loktev’s third feature is a testy, deceptively languorous exercise in nerve, pivoting on essential narrative micro-incidents that belie the scale of both its setting and its filmmaking: not unlike Kelly Reichardt’s “Meek’s Cutoff,” this a story of humanity made smaller by the comparative vastness of the elements.
 
Those elements, in this case, belong to the intimidatingly verdant Caucasus Mountains in Georgia, where chipper, nearlywed American couple Alex and Nica (Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg) are spending the summer hiking – the film’s title, as well as implying man-versus-nature disparities, is a cruelly funny dig at the chummy, youth-oriented series of travel guides that have sent countless well-meaning trustafarians backpacking. With hulking local Dato (first-time actor Bidzina Gujabidze) hired to guide them through this tricky terrain, they set off in a gung-ho spirit that predictably dwindles with each rough-sleeping night, making an advance honeymoon into a critical relationship test – one Alex subconsciously and rather drastically fails during a fraught altercation with some threatening mountain residents.
 
His error, best left unspecified here, is never articulated or analyzed by any of the principals; nor, smartly, does Loktev choose to dwell on its gender politics. What it does prise open, however, is the audience’s curiosity and eventual scepticism as to the raw material of their relationship and the value of their future marriage – placed far outside an everyday social context, Alex and Nica not only have very little in common, but also exhibit few productive differences. Dato is with the audience in this observation, though his attempts to exploit the tension between them are as regressively misguided as Alex’s initial offense.
 
Loktev allows this subtly fascinating moral disconnect to fracture and fester over gruellingly long take after gruellingly long take, her wind-whipped camera and rattling sound design ensuring the physical demands of this vacation are no less precisely conveyed than the emotional ones. The actors, for their part, suffer it well. Bernal’s puppyish qualities, by turn winsome and petulant, are cleverly used, but Furstenberg is the revelation here, her faintly put-on girlishness making it difficult to decipher the character’s wall of pet neuroses from, when it arrives, her genuine panic. It’s this kind of bruised turn “The Loneliest Planet” needs to temper filmmaking that, however dazzlingly accomplished, can be a little too satisfied with its barriers. Often brilliant, often boring, often at once, Loktev’s film should be a valuable conversation piece when it hits US theaters in August.
 
Better still, if not quite as self-evidently striking, is “17 Girls,” a woozy, wily rewardingly strange debut feature from sisters Delphine and Muriel Coulin that played to variously appreciative and bemused responses in Cannes Critics’ Week last year, before landing a Cesar nomination for Best First Film. It’s perhaps easy to see why it hasn’t attained more unguarded praise: as lissomely crafted as a Sofia Coppola perfume ad, the ugly curiosities of its narrative rather halt the dream-pop fugue.
 
For this is a film, based (before anyone casts idle slurs on the French) on a real-life incident in Massachusetts, in which 17 seemingly normal high-school students in a dreary coastal town take it upon themselves to get pregnant at once. Sparked by the accidental knocking-up of snitty, witchily pretty 17 year-old Camille (Louise Grinberg, furthering the promise she displayed in “The Class”), a gang of her classmates follow in alarmingly desultory succession, prompting frightened bewilderment and anger among their parents, teachers and extended community – not least because none of the girls offers much of a rationale for this rather extreme fad.
 
The directors’ calm, almost amused gaze allows for multiple possibilities: is this peer pressure taken to absurd lengths, with the young women, ranging from her giggly ladies-in-waiting to the haunted victims of her bullying, supernaturally galvanized by Camille’s Mean-Girl-on-ketamine charisma? Perhaps, but there’s something more constructively subversive at play here, as the girls’ doomed pledge to raise their children together registers as an active, open rejection of the flawed familial structures in which they have been raised.
 
Unformed feminism, too, may be a factor, and not only because the fathers in this freak baby boom are already absent: however ill-thought their plan on every practical level, it’s hard not to sympathize with the delight, not to mention power, the girls find in reclaiming their bodies in the most aggressive, incontrovertible way possible. Here is the other, less politically monochrome end of the pro-choice argument: “It’ll push me to do something with my life,” Camille says while justifying her pregnancy to her dismayed single mother, curtains of irony hanging untouched in the air between them. This is heady, unnerving stuff, lent grace and wit by an appealingly gangly young ensemble and the cottony touch of the filmmakers, who share their compatriot Celine Sciamma’s knack for unpicking young female sexuality with nary a hint of exploitation. Strand Releasing, whose adventurous recent slate has included “Tyrannosaur,” “Michael” and “Oslo, 31 August,” have the US rights.
 

“The Loneliest Planet” and “17 Girls” kicked off my IndieLisboa viewing on Monday; Tuesday’s less arresting pickings suggest not everything I see here will merit quite as much column space, but look out for another festival postcard or two. For now, however, the rain has stopped and the trams await.


For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.
 

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