I’m spending a week looking at Arabic language cinema, from around the Arabic-speaking world, stretching from North Africa across the Middle East. One of the key early figures in modern Arab cinema is the work of Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, and indeed Egypt has always been the powerhouse cinematic country of the whole region, with a range of popular cinema rivalling that of Bollywood to the East. Chahine integrates influences from France and the Soviet Union, amongst other traditions, creating some of the greatest works of modern cinema and he has certainly been influential in Arab cinema. I’ve already reviewed one of his earlier films, the excellent melodrama Cairo Station (1958), though these 60s works feel like quite different films.
I do sort of understand what’s going on here in this strange, carnivalesque, alternately gleeful and bleak evocation of pre-war and wartime Germany in the 1930s and 40s. Its protagonist is a young child, Oskar (David Bennent), who has foreseen his future and decided he wants to remain in the body of a 3-year-old (well, an 11-year-old for the purposes of the actor anyway), using the drum of the title to beat out his own tune as he first reacts against the encroaching Nazification and then finds himself dragged in as well. There are all kinds of sprightly filmmaking touches, the hand-cranked sped-up film of the intro flashing back many decades, the absurdist plot and character details, and of course the ridiculous perversity of this teenager-in-a-child’s-body growing, learning, reading and falling in love. Yet I never can quite connect with him or care about his story: he’s a nasty character — and yes, of course he is, that entirely makes sense — and his story is one with parallels in the bleak hopelessness of the Nazi era, but his childish, imp-like quality is just incessant, and it becomes grating. I never much take to magic realism or carnivalesque absurdity, and there’s plenty of the latter on show here.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Volker Schlöndorff; Writers Schlöndorff, Jean-Claude Carrière and Franz Seitz (based on the novel by Günter Grass); Cinematographer Igor Luther; Starring David Bennent, Mario Adorf, Angela Winkler; Length 163 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 1 January 2019.
Less of a black comedy than some of Buñuel’s other French films, this is more a portrait of the upper-classes during the 1930s as seen by the maid of the title (played well by Jeanne Moreau). There’s perversity of course and, as you’d expect from Buñuel, a feckless priest, but this film touches more on the spectre of fascism, with the casual anti-Semitism of the rural peasantry and incipient nationalist fervour always in the background. Fine widescreen monochrome lensing gives a bourgeois finish to a troubling tale.
As an aside, it was also interesting for me to watch this right after Nelly Kaplan’s La Fiancée du Pirate (1969), as that feels in retrospect like a satirical extension of the psychosexual undertow of this film, and if you get a chance to see it, do.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel; Writers Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière; Cinematographer Roger Fellous; Starring Jeanne Moreau, Michel Piccoli, Françoise Lugagne, Georges Géret; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 September 2016.
There’s quite a deep vein of black comedy to be found in this film noir-ish story of an affable police chief Lucien (Philippe Noiret) in pre-World War II colonial-era Africa using his power to rid himself of his tormentors. It’s all filmed with evident facility, and the veteran cinematographer gets a chance to show off with some excellent use of sinuous tracking shots. The script (based on a similarly black novel by Jim Thompson, albeit one set in the American South) evinces a fair amount of wit in unspooling events, as Lucien takes advantage of what others perceive to be a shambolic simple nature as the perfect cover to take his revenge. His likeability also seems to attract a range of female admirers (including Isabelle Huppert as Rose, the battered wife of one of those Lucien seeks to do away with). Lucien’s retribution is initially on Rose’s wife-beating husband, his cruel colonialist bosses and shady French businessmen exploiting the local conditions, but when it eventually moves on to the local black servants, the humour ultimately curdles, rendering a portrait of socially-mandated lawlessness, quite a potent critique of colonial power after a fashion.
Criterion Extras: The film’s director, Bertrand Tavernier, introduces and explains an alternative ending involving, rather fantastically but amusingly, a pair of dancing apes.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bertrand Tavernier; Writers Tavernier and Jean Aurenche (based on the novel Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson); Cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn; Starring Philippe Noiret, Isabelle Huppert; Length 128 minutes.
Seen at City Gallery, Wellington, Saturday 20 March 1999 (and more recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 10 July 2016).
I may not always have felt bowled over by the filmmaking here — attractive and well-staged as it is, there is a sense of conventionality to its telling, with a script that rushes through Bessie Smith’s career, pausing for some portentous slow-motion flashbacks and overlaid by an orchestral score that often drowned out any subtlety — and yet, YET. The performances are all uniformly fantastic, starting with the wonderful, too often underrated Queen Latifah as the blues singer of the title, all a-sparkle in those glamorous 20s and 30s show dresses, but also conveying a naked vulnerability and a streak of wilful non-conformism. Latifah has been doing great acting for at least 20 years (at least in the roles that I’ve been seeing her in on screen, starting for me with 1996’s Set It Off), but the plaudits extend too to all the supporting cast. As this is an HBO production, many of them are most familiar from their television work (Michael K. Williams as Bessie’s partner, and Khandi Alexander as her sister are only the most prominent), but I don’t think anyone argues anymore that this is any lesser a platform for screen narratives, and I found myself wishing at times this had been a mini-series instead. But no, Latifah makes Bessie greatly watchable with a performance worth celebrating, whatever other drawbacks the film may have.
Director Dee Rees; Writers Rees, Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois; Cinematographer Jeff Jur; Starring Queen Latifah, Michael K. Williams, Khandi Alexander, Mo’Nique; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 20 October 2016.
After the commercial and critical disappointment of Diana a year or two back, director Oliver Hirschbiegel has returned to the subject that made his name (on Downfall), which is to say, the Nazis. Specifically, this new film focuses on an unlikely resistance fighter, Georg Elser, who tried to assassinate Hitler at the outset of World War II. Obviously, even if one is unfamiliar with the plot, we all know how it’s going to turn out, hence the English title (the amount of time by which his bomb missed its target); the German title instead poses the idea that “he could have changed the world”, to which the unspoken rejoinder is obvious. After the initial excitement of the preparation and outcome of the plot, the bulk of the film lies in flashbacks exploring Elser’s life and influences for the actions he took, in which it becomes clear he acted on his own. Central to Georg’s backstory is a romance with a married woman, Elsa (Katharine Schüttler), whose abusive husband and the way the local village tolerates his evident failings, is symptomatic of a strand of close-mindedness to the threat posed by the Nazis. It is very easy to imagine one as a resistance hero under such circumstances, but the reality of the situation is that I imagine most of us would be like the village’s civic leader, fairly apathetic to the Nazis and happy to do whatever suits him personally. The film makes a great case for Elser’s exceptionalism in such a society, as once again (after the recent Amour Fou), Christian Friedel convinces as a troubled hero in the tragic romantic mould. That said, there’s also plenty of torture involved — those Nazis, they weren’t nice people — so it’s never an easy watch, but it’s a worthwhile historical drama with plenty to recommend it.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Oliver Hirschbiegel | Writers Fred Breinersdorfer and Léonie-Claire Breinersdorder | Cinematographer Judith Kaufmann | Starring Christian Friedel, Katharina Schüttler | Length 116 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Sunday 19 July 2015
Director Joe Wright is pretty decent at literary adaptations, which is a way of saying I liked his Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina more than Hanna. In between all those films was Atonement, which I think was a pretty big deal at the time; I remember reading the novel and really liking it, but it’s been too long for me to make any kinds of meaningful comparison between the two. That said, on its own merits this is a fine film and showcases that both Keira Knightley and James McAvoy are excellent actors with quite a bit of emotional depth (though we already knew that about the young Saoirse Ronan, who plays the character seeking the atonement of the title). It’s all very doomy, set against a backdrop of the build-up to and aftermath of World War II, but it’s a handsome and diverting production all the same. Also, Knightley wears a particularly excellent green dress for those who appreciate that sort of thing.
Director Joe Wright | Writers Christopher Hampton (based on the novel by Ian McEwan) | Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey | Starring Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan | Length 123 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 21 June 2015
Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in May which I didn’t review in full. Find reviews for the following below the cut:
Aru Kyohaku (Intimidation) (1960, Japan)
Aventurera (1950, Mexico)
Belle Époque (1992, Spain)
The Expendables (2010, USA)
Hanna (2011, UK/USA/Germany)
Hit So Hard (2011, USA)
John Wick (2014, USA)
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, Australia/USA)
Plemya (The Tribe) (2014, Ukraine/Netherlands)
Tomboy (2011, France)
Try as I might, I have to concede that there’s a certain temperament of Italian (if not wider Mediterranean-rim) filmmaking that I just don’t enjoy. That said, this extrovert cinema of big boisterous emotions, vibrant music, saturated sun-dappled colours and boyish sexual crudity can sometimes be fitted well to the themes of a film. This at least is the case with Amarcord, a film from later in Fellini’s well-awarded career (this film won an Oscar, in fact). It’s a coming of age film (another less favoured genre of mine), but being set against the backdrop of Fascist 1930s Italy, the aforementioned stylistic traits — with all their effervescence and constant flow of motion and chatter — seem to suggest something cruel and reactionary just beneath the surface, as if people are trying just a little too hard to maintain that facade. It tracks Bruno Zanin’s Titta, growing up in a small Italian town, but you could easily miss his presence, as the film unspools in a series of only loosely-connected vignettes, with an occasional commentator popping up to be pranked and mocked by unseen offscreen townsfolk. There are restagings of local traditions, wistful nostalgic reflections, busty local women (including Magali Noël’s town beauty Gradisca, lusted after by Titta and his fellow schoolboys) and plenty of the usual kind of incident you get with these films, but with uniformed officers flitting through the background and suggesting what is to come. All of this is expertly shot in sumptuous colour by Giuseppe Rotunno, making for a beautiful spectacle. Whether you enjoy it quite as much or not, however, may be down to your taste as it is to mine.
Criterion Extras: There’s a 45 minute documentary called Fellini’s Homecoming which deals with his complicated relationship to his hometown of Rimini. It’s made clear along the way that Amarcord is not intended to be set in Rimini (it’s more supposed to be an any-small-town of Europe), but that many of the characters are based on real childhood figures Fellini grew up with. There’s a series of interviews with childhood friends (include the real ‘Titta’), colleagues and biographers, and it becomes evident that Fellini had no particular fondness for Rimini, though the two patched things up later in his life, and after death.
Aside from this, there’s a short interview with the French star of the film Magali Noël, who talks about what she knew about the real Gradisca and about working with Fellini (he called her to fly into Rome literally hours before the start of filming), and a soundless deleted scene presenting another character in the town. There’s a demonstration of the restoration of the film for the new edition, with old and cleaned-up images side-by-side for comparison, and the American trailer. Plus there are lots of images of drawings and photos, as well as posters and marketing ephemera for the film, which are of passing interest.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Federico Fellini | Writers Federico Fellini and Tonino Guerra | Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno | Starring Bruno Zanin, Magali Noël | Length 124 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 1 December 2014
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Wes Anderson | Cinematographer Robert Yeoman | Starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Saoirse Ronan | Length 99 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 24 March 2014 || My Rating excellent
And thinking again of the sameness of Vinteuil’s works, I explained to Albertine that the great men of letters have never created more than a single work, or rather have never done more than refract through various media an identical beauty which they bring into the world.
— Marcel Proust, La Prisonnière (1923, trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin)
Like perhaps many (too many?) in the English-speaking world, I have never encountered the writing of Stefan Zweig, from whom director and writer Wes Anderson claims inspiration for this confected mittel-European tale set over three successive post-World War II generations. However, I find myself drawn to comparisons with the work of Marcel Proust, which I am reading at the moment and have been for about the last year (making such connections rather more inevitable perhaps; I don’t know whether the quote above is really relevant, but I read it this morning, so it’s in my mind, and it does seem to speak to Anderson’s oeuvre). Mainly it’s the sense that this huge cast of characters have been distilled down into a series of fragmentary glimpses as relayed via an unreliable narrator through many layers of history and nostalgia and refracted by a world-changing war. It’s this last detail which seems most to suffuse the film, for it provides most of the pathos, that sense which is only hinted at around the edges and in small almost-throwaway lines, as it becomes clear in the telling that all of these characters — indeed this whole worldview and way of life — have since disappeared. But in many ways that’s what Anderson’s filmmaking has been building to, conjuring up a spectral reminiscence of a lost world.