Christmas is not known for inspiring a fulsome crop of quality cinema. What else is there but Die Hard, A Muppet Christmas Carol, and Trading Places? Everything else is either saccharine, stupid, or both.
Unfortunately, most movie theaters nevertheless devote precious screen time to the season's cinematic offal. Any theater that shows the gag-inducing Love Actually, or the escapades of the McCallister creature in Home Alone, should be ashamed. (A case can be made for It's a Wonderful Life, but its long-standing dominance of December grew tiresome when I was still a teenager.)
Thankfully, University City's International House is setting a bold course in the midst of this cheeriest of months. Admittedly, the screenings at the 360-seat theater rarely stoop to treacle of the mainstream variety, instead relying on a steady diet of arty independent films, foreign classics, and various other features liberated from the archives of the Criterion Collection. But this week they are showing two films so resolutely lacking in jollies that one suspects the organizers of fighting a rearguard action against the holiday spirit. A more discombobulating big-screen pairing will be difficult to find.
On Wednesday, Liliana Cavani's The Night Porter will again grace the silver screen, 40 years after Roger Ebert declared it "Nazi chic" that is "as nasty as it is lubricious." This 1974 sadomasochistic melodrama is (in)famous for Charlotte Rampling's topless dance number for a group of emotionless SS officers, during which she keeps one of their skull-and-bones decorated caps perched atop her head. The story itself is weirdly campy for a movie that attempts to grapple with rape and the Holocaust, which makes for an all-the-more discomforting viewing experience.
On Thursday, IHouse takes a hard left turn into super-weird contemporary cinema with Lisandro Alonso's Jauja. The Argentine director's 2014 film is bound to make audiences uncomfortable too, but only because it so thoroughly disdains any easy concessions. Its long, steady shots of the Patagonian wilderness and seeming lack of any musical score can be off-putting, but they cast a spell if the viewer can allow them to.
Unlike The Night Porter, Jauja's uncanny beauty isn't threatened by the director's attempt to toy with historical horror. (Although hints of genocide and sexual predation are allowed to make unsettling visitations.)
Jauja is set on the outskirts of Argentina, around a rocky military encampment that serves as the temporary home of a Danish captain (Viggo Mortensen) and his 15-year-old daughter. When she runs off with a handsome young soldier, he follows her into a wild realm haunted by a cross-dressing officer-turned-bandit and other, even more mysterious entities.
Both movies start at 7 p.m. at the International House, 3701 Chestnut St. Tickets are $9 for general audiences and $7 for students and seniors.