PROFANE Iraqi-American filmmaker Usama Alshaibi documents an unorthordox path to enlightenment.
Some of the best movies don't console, they distress. At least since 1896, when the Lumière brothers are said to have sent folks bolting for shelter at the sight of their "Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station," cinema has exceeded the other arts with its power to transgress — not only to shock the senses, but to disturb the mind.
Maybe not so much any more. Audiences have grown jaded as the thrills have gotten cheap, generic, and superficial. But the Boston Underground Film Festival, now in its 13th year, remains a reliable source for the kind of jolts to the system the medium was meant to provide. Here are three of the more intriguing selections among the festival's 19 features.
BUFF would not be the same without at least one serial-killer movie. Adam Wingard's provocatively and aptly titled A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE (2010; Kendall Square: March 26 @ 7:15 pm + March 28 @ 8:45 pm) won't disappoint aficionados of the genre. But it also offers elements of atmosphere, characterization, and narrative complexity that elevate it well above the usual slasher fare.
Shot with a cinéma-vérité-like handheld camera and jumping back and forth in space and time, the film unfolds interconnected stories about a fragile woman in Alcoholics Anonymous and an escaped convict who also suffers from an addiction: killing and dismembering women. In addition to the slick and skewed style, there's AJ Bowen's performance as the remorseful psychopath. He's like a cross between Hannibal Lecter and Zach Galifianakis.
THE BEAST PAGEANT (2011)
Despite its plusses, Wingard's film does suffer from some unfortunate genre conventions — namely, clueless characters and plot improbabilities. No such problems with Albert Birney & Jon Moses's THE BEAST PAGEANT (2011; Kendall Square: March 27 @ 7 pm + March 31 @ 7:15 pm), as it draws on a Surrealist tradition running from Un chien andalou to the works of such current practitioners as Jan Svankmayer, the Brothers Quay, and Guy Maddin.
Abraham (Moses) is a guy stuck in an apartment and a job, his needs tended to by a goofily oppressive machine. When a miniature of himself (resembling Woody from Toy Story with his cowboy hat) springs from a sore on his stomach, Abraham flees to the countryside. There he encounters a tiny apple pie, tree people, an artichoke demon, and the Watermelon Man. Nightmarish and delightful, Pageant includes some first-rate songs sung by the mini-Abe, who accompanies himself on a minute guitar.
One thing about BUFF you can count on: when it comes to film titles, what you see is what you get. In Iraqi-American filmmaker Usama Alshaibi's PROFANE (2010; Kendall Square: March 26 @ 11:55 pm + March 29 @ 9:45 pm), Muna, a Chicago dominatrix, discusses how much she likes her job as she uses a riding crop to prod the genitals of a bound and masked client. But Muna is also a lapsed Muslim. She hears voices, which the solicitous cab driver Ali explains are coming from a jinn, a kind of guardian demon, who haunts her.
Torn between ecstasy and submission, Muna takes an unorthodox path to enlightenment, one that Profane dramatizes with documentary methods and psychedelic imagery. In the best underground tradition, Alshaibi — who recently was savagely beaten in an anti-Arab hate crime — demonstrates that true reverence sometimes requires transgression.