The subject of this film is undeniably tough, like Steve McQueen’s later film about American slavery (12 Years a Slave), and one that I had put off viewing for some time. I remember watching Wang Bing’s epic documentary Dead Souls a few years ago (about Mao-era Chinese re-education camps) and one of the most striking and upsetting things was the extensive descriptions of what happens to the human body when it’s starved. Here instead we get a visual depiction, and though McQueen leaves much of it to the last 15-20 minutes, it’s still impossible not to reckon with the image of Fassbender’s body, not unlike that of the slaves in the later film, even if their situations are obviously different. Bodies remain a focus throughout, and wounds, like those on the knuckles of the prison guard that start the film, making us wonder how they were sustained (and pretty quickly we find out). Quite aside from his knuckles, that guard’s fate makes it clear that nobody really benefits from these struggles. That said, McQueen is fairly circumspect with the politics: the points it makes are largely visceral ones, and Bobby Sands’s place in re-energising nationalist republican politics isn’t explicitly confronted, though the centrepiece of the film is a bravura single-shot dialogue he has with a partisan priest (Liam Cunningham) shortly before starting his hunger strike, in which he sets out his philosophical basis for the action. (I didn’t learn from the film, for example, that Sands had been elected an MP in the UK Parliament while he was striking, nor about the specific demands that led to the end of the strike, after 10 men had died.) After all, you don’t need to have characters speaking about the brutality of British rule when it is enough to see the conditions of the prison and their struggles to retain some dignity. So ultimately, for all my fears about the film, it walks a line between the visceral evocation of horror and a visual artist’s eye for semi-abstraction in the compositions; this is McQueen’s debut, but it merely begins a new phase in his artistic work after many years at the forefront of gallery-based visual arts.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Steve McQueen; Writers Enda Walsh and McQueen; Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt; Starring Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 5 February 2022.
I’ve seen this before, but I must have underestimated it. When you’re studying film and told that something is a classic, you can’t help but want to react against it, find it a bit boring, especially when you’re young. In fact, I’ve seen it twice and don’t recall much about it, but I think I wasn’t coming to it in the proper frame of mind. It practically invents the “neo-realist” style of filmmaking, shooting on the streets (in a Nazi-occupied city no less), telling a story with next to no budget, but with some great actors and some evocative faces. In fact, it’s pretty great, as indeed everyone knows, and not just for its technical achievements. The blend of heartrending tragedy (I mean, it’s wartime; most everyone dies) and moments of levity, like the priest earnestly turning away a statue of a monk from the naked bottom of another statue, or playing football with a bunch of kids. Moments like that make it all the tougher to see the same characters in much different circumstances. It’s about resistance to fascism, it’s about surviving in an occupied city, but it’s also about transcending that spiritually. I’m not even sure the church had a particularly great record during the war in terms of resistance, but these are the things you want to believe, that there were those who had a more ennobled spirit. It makes the difficult times worth bearing.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roberto Rossellini; Writers Sergio Amidei and Federico Fellini; Cinematographer Ubaldo Arata; Starring Aldo Fabrizi, Anna Magnani, Marcello Pagliero; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at the National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 22 August 2001 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, October 2000, but most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Tuesday 18 January 2022).
The first time I saw Steven Soderbergh’s magnum opus, his enormous two-part biopic/investigation of Argentine doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s revolutionary life, I think I must have been a bit underwhelmed. In retrospect it’s probably significantly to the film’s benefit that it avoids the preachiness of most Hollywood biopics, and certainly avoids some of the moralising traps of other Soderbergh films. It’s hardly a revolutionary picture itself, though, and feels overly interested in pastiching period news footage in the scenes from NYC in 1964, with grainy black-and-white, off-centre close-up framings, nervous handheld camerawork and on-screen captions that mimic exactly the font of those old burned-in subtitles you used to see in footage. In other words, you wonder at times if it was more about the technical challenge than capturing the man, and certainly contemporaneous accounts invested a lot in the digital technology Soderbergh was using. But yet at its heart I feel as if this is quite an earnest project. Guevara isn’t the hero of the kind you see on the famous poster images, but just a man amongst many others (and women, too, as we see in the guerrilla armies he forms and leads) trying to make a positive change to a country mired in corruption, no thanks to US involvement. Soderbergh is hardly interested in digging deep into the politics, but just by focusing on Guevara, Castro and the others there’s a gentle sense of solidarity with those holding these revolutionary ideals and the dream of a future forged in training camps in the jungles and skirmishes on the streets.
Moving on a few years for the second half of this epic, it’s clearly possible to see how it works in tandem with the first part. That film presented revolutionary ideology and practice with the stylistic flash of, say, the contemporary New Wave cinemas of the era, as Guevara worked alongside his fellows in Cuba in the late-1950s, intercut with interviews and speeches at the UN in 1964. This part takes a quite different tack, going for more of a handheld observational style, using a muted colour palette that really downplays the lushness of the highland setting, as Guevara faces up to the reality of the struggle in Bolivia in 1967. If the first was a film about glory, this is a film mostly about disappointment and failure. Its episodic march of time, numbered by the days Guevara has spent in country, sees his people slowly picked off, their deaths really just captured in passing or off-screen, as the action follows increasingly bearded men messing around in the hills, trying to win over the local people and with a mounting sense of desperation. There’s nothing glorious here, but there’s a certain fascination to Che’s resolve, even as he’s battered by asthma and poor discipline from the forces he’s trying to lead. Perhaps by design, but it feels almost underwhelming after the first part, a corrective perhaps but a sad one.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Che: Part One (2008)
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writers Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen (based on the non-fiction work Pasajes de la guerra revolucionaria cubana [Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War] by Ernesto Guevara); Cinematography Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Benicio del Toro, Demián Bichir, Rodrigo Santoro, Julia Ormond; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Thursday 13 January 2022 (and earlier on DVD at home, London, sometimes in the early-2010s I imagine).
Che: Part Two (2008)
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writers Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen; Cinematography Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Benicio del Toro, Franka Potente, Gastón Pauls, Lou Diamond Phillips; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Monday 17 January 2022 (and earlier on DVD at home, London, sometimes in the early-2010s I imagine).
This film, made in 1969, is practically a playbook for repressive governments — sponsoring violence, manipulating the media, brazenly lying, evading censure, blaming others — that hasn’t really changed in the intervening years, and may indeed be a useful study guide for anyone thinking of getting into a bit of dictatorship. There are essentially two parts, the story of an opposition leader within the unnamed (but presumably Greece-adjacent) country, and then a judicial investigation being led by Jean-Louis Trintignant’s character (who is a shady background presence in the first part). It’s all put together with a keen sense for suspense and pulls you through its twisting narrative, exposing as if a documentary the lies being perpetrated, while the narrative gives you a little bit of hope that things might work out on the side of justice. You’ll have to watch it to find out whether they do, but it’s well worth watching whatever you think might happen, because it’s gripping in all the best ways for a political thriller.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Costa-Gavras Κωνσταντίνος Γαβράς; Writers Jorge Semprun and Costa-Gavras (based on the novel by Vassilis Vassilikos Βασίλης Βασιλικός); Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Yves Montand, Pierre Dux, Irene Papas Ειρήνη Παππά; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at the Embassy, Wellington, Monday 1 November 2021.
I find it easy to resist this film, its blend of poetic voiceover, impressionist use of colour and black-and-white, and reflections on the nature of freedom in a still-divided Berlin. But watching it after so many years since having last seen it, I am still forcefully struck with the underlying melancholy. Bruno Ganz is one of a number of angels who seem to be assigned to shadow a handful of people in the city of Berlin; we see (and hear the thoughts of) those he follows, but we also see his fellow angels standing imperceptibly and calmly over the shoulders of others he passes. This all seems to stand in as a conceit by which to evoke Berlin itself, and the film is in a lineage of city symphonies (that prominently includes, of course, Walter Ruttmann’s 1927 silent one about the same city), but it’s a powerful one, suggesting a higher purpose that has been severed somehow. Broken people shuffle amongst ruins and building sites, and there’s a provisional nature to what everyone is doing, a holding pattern. That’s all in the atmosphere, and is barely even expressed, but we have Peter Falk playing himself after a fashion as an actor, grounded and gruff, while Solveig Dommartin is a French trapeze artist, flying lightly through the air, and these seem to be like poles within which Bruno Ganz’s Dammiel tries to make his way. There’s a choice, and a movement towards the end, which promises a sequel (there is one; I’ve not ever seen it), and I’m not sure how substantial it all is really, but it feels somehow defining of an era and remains a beautiful film — and it seems appropriate that it was shot by the cinematographer of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast — however much I try to cynically resist it.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wim Wenders; Writers Wenders, Peter Handke and Richard Reitinger; Cinematographer Henri Alekan; Starring Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander, Solveig Dommartin, Peter Falk, Curt Bois; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, April 1998 and again at home (Kanopy streaming), Wellington, Sunday 26 December 2021.
I feel it’s fairly easy to be sniffy about the period costume drama of much British cinematic and TV production. After all, the heritage industry is omnipresent in the UK and does seem to contribute a lot to the economy, though it contributes less that’s valuable to Britain’s perception of itself and its history, as most of these productions are focused on something glorious and golden about the past. I certainly lapse into an easy disdain for the costume drama, even as I love to go and see each new one and see how it tries to extend or adapt or even maybe undermine that (now tedious, to me) cultural narrative. As far as these productions go, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, along with screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, were among the most adept, and I think in some ways this adaptation of an E.M. Forster novel — one of their later productions — maybe also be their finest.
It’s a handsomely mounted Edwardian period production, replete with all the fashions and details of the era, but it tells a story about class and wealth, which touches slightly on colonialism even — as when we see Anthony Hopkins’s rubber trader Henry Wilcox in his office named for Africa, but which Emma Thompson’s Margaret Schlegel notes has nothing that might suggest that continent. The two of them fall in love after the death of his wife Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave), who had become friends with Margaret, and even between these two families, the class divides are strong, roughly Tory vs Labour politically, bankers vs artisans. Into that mix, the story also throws the working class Leonard Bast (Samuel West), eagerly trying to better himself, but the way all these three families intersect creates tension, conflict, a bit of tragedy and a lot of shifting ethical dynamics. The film cannily compares the interaction between Leonard and Margaret’s younger flighty sister Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) with that between Henry and Margaret, and shows the hypocrisy of classism. But all the while, those who long for bucolic countryside, period dresses and the trappings of English heritage cinema will find plenty to their taste also.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director James Ivory; Writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (based on the novel by E. M. Forster); Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts; Starring Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter, Samuel West, Vanessa Redgrave; Length 142 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 17 December 2021 (and a long time ago, probably on VHS at home in Wellington in the 1990s).
After last week’s review of the Iranian film Hit the Road at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, the festival screened another quite different film from the same country, the kind of thing that doesn’t get screened in its home country due to some pretty direct criticisms of the regime. It’s long, depressing, and in several parts, but pretty great all the same.
I feel like if you’re going to do an issues-driven drama based on contemporary society — and this one is about the death penalty — then this is the way to do it. It’s not unclear what the filmmaker’s point of view is — it’s clear enough, indeed, that he’s had to endure prison sentences and bans on filmmaking over the last few years — and he goes in pretty hard on his own country’s use of the death penalty, though despite being made in Iran and featuring its cities and countryside rather beautifully, it’s a story that could be told anywhere that the death penalty exists.
Like a lot of Iranian films, the focus is very much on the moral quandary of those involved in it, which range the gamut from bland acceptance to turmoil. The first segment lulls us in with a very quotidian story of a middle-class family that could be in any western country and whose bickering and patterns of life are entirely relatable, before a stinging twist at the end. Indeed, having booked to see the film a month ago, it wasn’t until the end of the first story that it became clear to me what the structuring conceit of this film was.
The second and fourth stories seem to be continuations of one another — in the earlier one, a young military conscript rebels against the requirement that he get involved in an execution, while in the last an older man who did the same when he was a kid and ran away to the countryside, comes to terms with the choices he made in terms of his family. The film indeed is very interested in moral choices that aren’t made in a vacuum, but take place in terms of ensuring one’s own freedoms, one’s own family and work, and the extent to which we should or should not accept capital punishment if it’s just a means to get food into mouths or to live the life you want (given that the person being executed is just going to killed by someone else).
It’s not necessarily an easy subject, but the filmmaking is clear and flows beautifully, with solid performances across the board. It is entirely deserving of its awards, and one can only hope that the filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof can continue to make films.
Director/Writer Mohammad Rasoulof محمد رسولاف; Cinematographer Ashkan Ashkani اشکان اشکانی; Starring Ehsan Mirhosseini احسان میرحسینی, Kaveh Ahangar کاوه آهنگر, Mahtab Servati هتاب ثروتی, Baran Rasoulof باران رسولاف; Length 150 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Wellington, Thursday 11 November 2021.
I’ve already reviewed a number of documentaries screening at Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival, not because documentaries are suddenly big again but because film festivals are the perfect place to catch films which don’t conform to the usual standards for what gets released. This one is a bit out of the ordinary, and like Mariner of the Mountains, very much defies categorisation, landing somewhere between poetic essay and political drama enfolding students and the nation as a whole under Narendra Modi. It’s not a film I expected to like, not beforehand nor even while watching it for much of its running time, but it wove a sort of magical grip on me by the end.
One thing I love about going to film festivals is seeing a far greater range of documentary expression than gets released to cinemas (where the documentaries tend to be studiously fact-based and talking-head in format). Like many modern works, though, this carefully balances itself between what’s familiar about the format, and something at a higher poetic register. Grainy 16mm footage of students dancing opens and closes the film, and in between this darkened almost clandestine world of university study and protest becomes evident, while on the soundtrack a soft voice narrates (presumably fictional) letters being written from a single-lettered unknown person, providing a glimpse into a turbulent time in Indian history when universities, academic freedoms, intellectual life and freedom in general is under threat from fascist governmental forces. There’s something at once calming and reverential but also incendiary about what the director is doing here. If it at first seems disconcerting, by the end it has conjured up a distinct and impressive mood that makes the usual run of fact-based filmmaking look dull by comparison.
Director Payal Kapadia; Writers Kapadia and Himanshu Prajabati; Cinematographer Ranabir Das; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at City Gallery, Wellington, Tuesday 9 November 2021.
Just over a year ago, I posted reviews from the 2020 London Film Festival, of which I attended a few online sessions (and which has since returned fully to cinemas this year). However, since 2020 I’ve moved to New Zealand and in November it was the New Zealand International Film Festival, now bilingually rebranded as Whānau Mārama (which loosely translates as “family of light”). Although a COVID-19 outbreak meant that there were restrictions in place (every other seat left empty and very few filmmakers present), it was still great to see these films in person, even if some of the sold out houses seemed eerily quiet.
Anyway, as it’s now December and I’ve only been posting my Criterion Collection films for the last few months, I’ll take some time over the next few weeks to post reviews of the NZIFF films I saw, which will also help us get up to speed before we get to the inevitable ‘best of the year’ lists. I’m going to start with a New Zealand co-production which focuses on issues of indigenous rights and history embedded in a story that by its nature (science-fiction) looks to the future.
This is pitched as a dystopian post-war science-fiction set in a fascist state where kids are taken from poor non-citizens and brainwashed to prepare them for… well, the usual. You know the deal, big Starship Troopers crossed with The Handmaid’s Tale vibes. Many of these tropes are pretty familiar, but this film puts an extra spin on them by using a First Nations perspective, wrapping up race and class with its dystopian oppression and imagining an indigenous resistance movement. In fact it puts plenty of spins on its subject matter and is all the richer for all the ideas it pops out. Some plotlines feel as if they could be more developed but then it wouldn’t be such a fine, tightly structured picture. Plus it’s lovely to see the star and director of The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) back on screen again as a fiercely-protective mother who has a heartbreaking choice to make near the film’s outset that resonates strongly enough that it pulls the whole film together even more effectively.
Director/Writer Danis Goulet; Cinematographer Daniel Grant; Starring Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Brooklyn Letexier-Hart, Alex Tarrant, Violet Nelson, Amanda Plummer; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Friday 5 November 2021.
There are two stories here and I’m not convinced they are always in sync with one another. There’s the story of occupied France in the early-1940s, under Nazi control with people just doing what they can to make ends meet and escape the controlling boot of the occupying forces. And then there’s the theatre story, which is very much at the centre. It has all the feeling of Les Enfants du paradis but with opulent colour and set design and a bravura performance from Catherine Deneuve as a woman whose Jewish theatre director husband (Heinz Bennent) she says has escaped Paris but is actually secretly hiding out in the cellar. So you’ve got this behind-the-scenes story of a theatre troupe rehearsing for a new production, a bit of three-way love action courtesy of a handsome leading actor (Gérard Depardieu), and then you have Nazis. I suppose that puts it somewhat in the camp of Cabaret except with less, er, camp. It’s gorgeously shot and mounted, with some tense set-pieces involving the Germans, but in keeping its focus on the theatrical setting over the horrors of the era, it feels far more like a throwback to a classic era of French filmmaking, and that’s not a bad thing.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut; Writers Truffaut and Suzanne Schiffman; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu, Jean Poiret, Heinz Bennent, Sabine Haudepin, Jean-Louis Richard; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 15 September 2021.