It’s either a futile gesture or a cruel tease to tell you that an extraordinary film is showing just once in its overdue West Coast premiere, accompanied by its creator who’s come all the way from Portugal—in one hour, at 8 tonight at the Northwest Film Forum. But I only now managed to screen Miguel Gomes’s The Face You Deserve—playing desktop computer hooky at the office—and it’s such a rare treat it would be crueler to not share what head’s up I can.
The film’s title comes from the old saw, “Until 30 you have the face God gives you. After that you get the face you deserve.” And so, on his 30th birthday, Antonio, a peevish, exasperated schoolteacher, is obliged to tramp through the Lusitanian rain in a cowboy suit to attend a costume party where his students are staging Snow White. He snarls at everyone, eats the apple reserved for Snow White’s swooning scene, skips his own birthday party for a solitary bender—and falls into a fever.
That’s just the prelude. The bulk of the film is Antonio’s fever dream, which unfolds in an old house in a deep woods where he goes to convalesce, tended by seven boys (played, with perfect childish solemnity, by seven fine adult actors). The seven dwarfs, of course. Also seven samurai? Seven sides of Antonio’s rattlely self? Or seven versions of Gomes’s remembered childhood? The interpretive possibilities are endless; however you slice them, Gomes’s evocation of childhood imagination, with its magical thinking, magic rites, terrors, and delights, all exquisitely limmed in deeply saturated colors and even deeper nighttime shadows, is simply amazing. Peter Pan and Lord of the Flies are obvious referents, but the best comparison I know is Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece. The Face You Deserve is one of the strongest first features I’ve seen in years. So get out the door if it hasn’t started yet.
And if you’ve missed it you can still get a taste of Gomes’s unusual vision and craft tomorrow (Thursday, Sept 16) at 8, when he presents a selection of his shorts at the Film Forum. These are more experimental, and more demanding, than The Face You Deserve, but still rewarding. In one the characters, a teen triangle, gum blatting sounds while subtitles scroll the words they mean to say—a perfect image of youthful inarticulation. Another, “Christmas Inventory,” also uncannily recaptures childhood experience: A family Christmas party unfolds with such rambunctious realism it seems like documentary, only too well shot; it’s actually staged, or restaged. Meanwhile the crèche figurines, plastic toys, wrapping paper, and other paraphernalia hold their own party, and suddenly it’s Christmas in September. Spiderman vs. the manger ox!
The last short in Thursday’s batch, “The Canticle of the Creatures,” about Saints Francis and Claire, is the most vivid and (as near as I can tell) sincere evocation of the mystery of sainthood I’ve ever seen on film. Gomes is precocious in reverse: he recaptures innocence. Programmers take note. We deserve another chance to see The Face You Deserve.