Cinema 21 Is Popping Off with Limited-Engagement Flicks This Month

A hard-to-find Tilda title, queer Austrian favorite, and newly restored David Lynch rarity are all hitting the Northwest Portland theater in April.

By Conner Reed April 22, 2022

Tilda Swinton and Juan Pablo Urrego in Memoria, which screens at Cinema 21 April 22–28.

Image: Courtesy Neon

Portland is always a movie lover’s dream. We’re crawling with gorgeous, early-20th-century theaters, there are eye-popping repertory screenings most days of the week, and we’re home to one of the nation’s great video stores.  

April, though, is upping the ante. Nob Hill’s Cinema 21 is the landing pad for a slew of must-catch limited-run screenings that indicate the healthy return of the movies after a rocky couple of years.  

April 15 brought a weeklong run of Great Freedom, a gay Austrian prison drama that won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes last year. From April 22 to 28, the buzzy, hard-to-find 2021 arthouse flick Memoria will play in the theater’s 600-plus-seat main auditorium; on April 29, a new 4K restoration of David Lynch’s 2006 Inland Empire will take its place. 

“After 14 months of being closed, when we reopened, there just wasn’t as much to play,” says Tom Ranieri, who's owned Cinema 21 for more than 40 years. “But now it seems like things are picking up pretty aggressively.” In fact, he's struggling to cram everything in.  

Ranieri first reached out to film distributor Neon about showing Memoria, the latest project from Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethukal, last fall. Aside from the flick’s pedigree—Weerasethukal is swimming in festival prizes, and it stars Tilda Swinton—Memoria generated immediate buzz for its release strategy, which was announced shortly after the film premiered at Cannes. The plan was to give it a “never-ending release,” screening in one American auditorium at a time for, presumably, many years. After three stops (and a lot of angry tweets), Neon scrapped that plan, opting instead for a less extreme multiple-cities-at-a-time rollout.  

Ranieri’s early ask put him first in line for the Portland premiere. (Folks who miss Memoria at Cinema 21 will get one more chance to catch it in the Rose City, at PAM CUT’s Whitsell Auditorium in May.) For a week, he’ll rotate the ultra-popular Everything Everywhere All at Once out of Cinema 21’s main auditorium to make way for this two-hour-and-15-minute arthouse specialty, noted for its stillness and meticulous sound design. A 10-minute silent preshow will run after the trailers, to “allow audiences to transition into the world of Memoria.”

It is, in short, a risk—but Ranieri says early sales are strong. “It could be this sort of, ‘Come and get it, it’s not on streaming’ thing,” he muses. Indeed, the rollout for Memoria recalls 20th-century roadshows, which built buzz for big-budget Hollywood pictures by moving their physical film prints from city to city and accompanying them with splashy programs and intermissions.

But sometimes that “come and get it” urgency is just a matter of necessity. Immediately after Memoria finishes its run, Cinema 21's main auditorium will host the new 4K restoration of David Lynch’s three-hour digital-video opus Inland Empire. (You may remember Inland Empire from its Oscar campaign, in which Lynch sat in front of a huge “FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION: LAURA DERN” sign with a cow companion.) The freshly remastered film, which has become difficult to find on home video, will also only screen for one week.

The distributor didn’t put any particular pressure on Ranieri to limit Inland Empire’s run—the theater owner says he just doesn’t plan to be done with Everything Everywhere by then, or with the new Viking revenge flick The Northman, so “something had to go.” (That squeeze also accounted for Great Freedom’s brief engagement.) Right now, Ranieri says he's faced with the "nice problem" of having too many titles to choose from: given the chance, he’d like to book Swiss drama The Girl and the Spider, which reminds him of something by Beckett or Pinter, or 1982, a new Lebanese drama set during the invasion of Beirut.  

Hearing all this, as a movie fan, can set the heart aflutter. Ranieri acknowledges that, to stay afloat, Cinema 21 has screened a few more blockbusters in recent months than he might prefer, and the theater has only just begun to break even. But if all goes well with Memoria and Inland Empire, it's hard not to imagine a future full of more one-offs like them. 

"You have to be patient. Hopefully things don't regress, and hopefully as more stuff comes out, we won't be playing any of the commercial stuff, which we've avoided mostly in the past," he says. "And then as some of these films that have a lot of potential for us come out, we wind up having more of that feeling right before the onset of COVID."