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A Bittersweet Dutch Father-Son Study

If Alexander Payne’s home discomforts weren’t Nebraskan but instead the soft climate and flat sidewalks of Rotterdam — if his name were Alexander Peijn, perhaps — his films might turn out a little like Peter Hoogendoorn‘s hangdog charmer “Three Days of Fish.” At once universally familiar and so quintessentially Dutch in flavor that it should come with a side of fritessaus, this story of a brief, fraught reunion between a distant father and his unmoored son is an intimate, closely examined character piece rooted in the director’s own family history — much like his debut “Between 10 and 12,” which premiered at Venice in 2014 but never found the international distribution it deserved. Bowing in competition at Karlovy Vary, this decade-later sophomore feature may be modestly built, but has enough emotional heft and wry humor to raise Hoogendoorn’s profile on the arthouse circuit.

It takes a little time to work out exactly what family politics connect (or separate) taciturn retired mechanic Gerrie (Ton Kas), his shambling middle-aged son Dick (Guido Pollemans), and a second child, Nadia (Neidi Dos Santos Livramento), who doesn’t seem to have much to do with the first. Hoogendoorn’s spare but perceptive script counts on its own tense character dynamics to fill in the blanks over time. That approach serves it well, as do a set of fine, precise performances. In the opening scene, as Dick meets and somewhat stiffly welcomes Gerrie at a bus stop — a handshake, not a hug — we need only a minute in their combined presence to sense years lost between them, the gap mossily grown over by alienation and resentment.

It emerges that Gerrie relocated to Portugal some years ago with his second wife — a Cape Verdean immigrant, and the mother of Nadia — and is returning to Rotterdam for an annual three-day visit, during which time he crams in medical checkups, catches up with friends and relatives, and spends quality time of variable quality with his two children. That he chooses to stay only at Nadia’s apartment is a sore point for Dick, who it seems felt cast off by his father even when they shared a country of residence. Raised mostly by his grandmother after his mom died when he was a boy, Dick has grown into a diffident, eccentric outsider, with more chip than shoulder, but tender enough to have attracted a loyal, patient girlfriend in Bianca (Line Pillet, in a small but crucially endearing turn).

In a gruff effort to make up for past emotional abandonment, Gerrie spends the days largely with Dick, whose lack of gainful employment — he makes some money upcycling furniture found on the street — permits him to doggedly accompany his dad to his various appointments. Conversation doesn’t come easily to them, and so they fill their itinerary with prompts to the past: a visit to Gerrie’s old workplace, another to Dick’s grandmother’s former (and dispiritingly renovated) house, an attempt to visit their wife/mother’s graveside that ends in a cruel bureaucratic twist. Perhaps, if they simply remember things together, some manner of reparative bond will grow between them. Perhaps not: Gerrie finds it hard to mask his lack of comprehension regarding his son’s life choices, while Dick can’t quite forgive his father for past absences.

And yet there’s something rather moving in their attempts to forge meaningful time together — the effort is a kind of love in itself, enduring if not growing in the impasse between them. Veteran Dutch character actor Kas plays Gerrie’s withdrawal without resorting to impassivity, his body language in a constant state of indecision between too much and too little, while Pollemans is superb as a man who wants to let others into his life but can’t quite find the keys, simmering with violence toward himself more than others. Hoogendoorn arguably articulates something of the Dutch condition in his deft delineation of their relationship — a candid, no-nonsense bluffness that can run either cool or generously warm — but these characters remain particular and peculiar throughout.

The choice to shoot in muted, relatively low-contrast black and white — though not carelessly so, with DP Gregg Telussa elegantly layering grays to ambient, clouded-over effect — appears to reflect Gerrie’s own view of a country he has few regrets about leaving behind, and not just because of the muzzy Rotterdam weather. But it also has a unifying effect in its portraiture of father and son, their lives far apart but here painted in the same stifled tones. A wistful, reedy jazz score by Christiaan Verbeek captures, too, the tenor of their relationship, with mournful notes under brisker, busier instrumentation. The title refers both to the length of Gerrie’s stay and the adage, popularly attributed to Benjamin Franklin, that guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days: Any more and we might get the big, confrontational family melodrama they’re avoiding. That’ll wait until next time, or the time after that, indefinitely postponed past these days sufficiently spent together — not entirely happily or entirely honestly, but together just the same.

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