Porto, the feature debut by former Chicago film critic Gabe Klinger (his follow-up to the engaging 2013 documentary Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater), is a film about being haunted by a singular, powerful emotional experience that so profoundly moves you (in a positive way) that you could see the course of your life from that point forward.
And then, as quickly as this life-altering moment enters your universe, it is taken away, leaving you with an emptiness that is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to shake. This point is driven home, unintentionally, by the presence of the film’s lead actor, Anton Yelchin, who died in a freak accident in mid-2016 but left behind a great number of unreleased movies as a part of his legacy. (Keep an eye out for the also exceptional Thoroughbreds, set for release in March).
In Porto, Yelchin plays Jake, an American living in Portugal, in the city of Porto. Jake is running from something—his family among other things—but he’s also searching for connection in this strange place. While taking part in an archeological dig, he spots lovely French student Mati (Lucie Lucas), and the lightning bolt strikes. As if by fate, they run into each other again, and finally he speaks to her, allowing her to take over his heart and seal his fate. We know this because Porto moves back and forth between this initial encounter and years later when both are still dealing with the emotional consequences of their long night together. At the time of their encounter, she was deeply entangled with a professor (Paulo Calatré), so much so that removing herself from that relationship seemed impossible, regardless of the connection with this American. In the slightly older version of Jake, he is still drifting but his heart is fractured.
Co-written by Klinger and Larry Gross and lovingly shot by Wyatt Garfield, Porto uses different film stocks (Super 8, 16mm, and 35mm) to signify the degree to which each moment we see on screen is remembered clearly, and it’s a bold and perfect choice for a work that has its characters revisiting small moments in their brief time together, as if searching for the exact moments where things went wrong. The city of Porto has an inviting, embracive quality to it, and it seems like the perfect place to linger in both exquisite and devastating memories.
Much like many of the early works of the film’s executive producer Jim Jarmusch, Porto isn’t just set in Europe; it also feels like a great work of European cinema, daring to dabble in an era when the complicated, swirling inner workings of characters in love were enough to propel the movie forward—plot be damned. I should also mention the standout, scene-stealing extended cameo of Françoise Lebrun as Mati’s aggressively judgmental mother, that brings some much-needed color and levity to the proceedings.
It’s difficult to watch Porto without wondering how it would be viewed if Yelchin were still alive, still moving back and forth between bigger-budget works like Star Trek and Fright Night, and more soulful, dug-in performances in Green Room, Only Lovers Left Alive, and the one he gives here. Jake is a melancholy person to begin with, but there’s clearly an extra layer of sadness present that makes the experience of seeing Yelchin at his finest all the more painful and necessary.
Porto has been slowly moving across the country since late last year, screening in 35mm, as it will at the Music Box Theatre starting today. Director Gabe Klinger will be on hand for audience Q&As after screenings on Friday, Jan 12 at 7:15pm, and Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 13-14 at 4:30pm.