Joshua Reviews Ramon Zurcher’s The Strange Little Cat [PIFF 2014 Review]

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On the festival circuit, things often move a bit slow. Hitting this year’s Portland International Film Festival nearly a year after its debut at the 2013 Berlinale (and subsequent entrant in various festivals ranging from a Cannes sidebar appearance to the Vancouver International Film Festival) is a little talked about gem of a film with ties to a certain Hungarian director you all may know (Bela Tarr, this mention is for you) that is one of the most entrancing bits of world cinema to hit screens in quite some time.

Entitled The Strange Little Cat, the latest film from director Ramon Zurcher (who conceived of the film in part thanks to a seminar session held by the aforementioned Hungarian master) and while the ties to the auteur’s work are non-existent truthfully, if this is the work of Zurcher in his rawest form, we are truly in for something special.

The film, as far as a plot goes (and that’s not very far) is told almost entirely in the confines of a small apartment, as we see a family get ready for a dinner. And outside of various asides ranging from a mother’s discussion of a recent trip to the movie theater or a daughter waxing poetic about throwing orange peels on the ground, that’s roughly where the story, or at least the “plot,” goes. A young child screams at appliances when they are turned on, another pair of siblings flirt, a moth and cat wander the apartment and even a glass bottle gets some screen time to eerily spin about a pot of water in what is sure to be the year’s most obtuse and yet oddly charming comedies.

Muted in almost every possible way, this blunt and quaint surreal comedy is a ballet of sorts, with the screenplay’s dialogue given pithy life by a top notch cast, and some stunning spatial choreography that gives their character’s almost a dancer like physical relationship with one another. Bewilderingly deadpan and yet delightfully engaging, the comedy here comes entirely from the delivery of each cast member, particularly the young daughter played wonderfully by Mia Kasalo and the elder daughter, who is performed by the show stealing Anjorka Strechel. Both are kinetic and give the film an undercurrent of energy that is much needed in a film this stayed and quiet. The camera may not move very often (save for one particular flashback sequence of the elder daughter on a walk), but the choreography with which these characters move about the small apartment is energetic, turning this film into the best faux-ballet film since Wim Wenders’ Pina. An odd comparison, the film is fitting of it, in just how precise and intricate each move each cast member makes truly is.

The family here is led by the mother, played by Jenny Schily, who is possibly the best performer of the bunch. Her face is the perfect canvas for this film’s sense of dry humor to paint on, with various moments of slight emotion (be it a grimace or what may be the closest thing the character gets to a smile), the character really stands as the film’s real core. Toss in some interesting turns from names like Matthias Dittmer and you have a film that thrives on these perfectly tone performances, all of whom get the picture’s quiet, yet ever present sense of wit as if it were as simple and natural as breathing.

While each interchange here seems to be nothing more than banal musings by a family prior to a large get together, each sequence is brimming with dry humor and real wit, and while it doesn’t ultimately make for anything resembling a mentally stimulating motion picture, the Chantal Akerman-esque filmmaking and dry comedic sense of timing and choreography make this a potently enjoyable gem that may go unseen by many, but for those who go along for this quiet and muted ride, this will be one of the most engrossing comedies you’ll see all year.

Upcoming Screenings:

Fri, Feb 7, 2014 at 6 PM (Cinema 21 (large theater))

Mon, Feb 10, 2014 at 6 PM (Fox Tower)

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