Global Cinema 11: Azerbaijan – By the Bluest of Seas (1936)

As a former Soviet Socialist Republic, Azerbaijan has had some past form as a cinema-producing nation, though it’s never made as much of a world impact as say Georgian or even Armenian cinema. Therefore, for my Global Cinema entry this week I’ve gone back to Soviet times, to Boris Barnet’s well-regarded film set on and near the Caspian Sea, which plays an important part in the country’s identity.


Azerbaijani flagRepublic of Azerbaijan (Azərbaycan)
population 10,127,900 | capital Baku (Bakı) (2.15m) | largest cities Baku, Sumqayit (325k), Ganja (323k), Mingachevir (100k), Lankaran (85k) | area 86,600 km2 | religion Islam (97%) | official language Azerbaijani (Azərbaycan dili) | major ethnicity Azerbaijani (92%) | currency Manat (₼) [AZN] | internet .az

A Eurasian country in the South Caucasus, it sits alongside the Caspian Sea, with mountains the north and plains inland, and an exclave to the west (Nakhchivan), cut off by neighbouring Armenia. It also includes a contested territory, the Republic of Artsakh (or Nagorno-Karabakh), of primarily Armenian ethnicity, which has its own government but is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan. The name derives from the Persian satrap Atropates, who ruled around the time of Alexander the Great, which is itself a transliteration of Old Iranian for “Land of the Holy Fire”, and while the name evolved over millennia, it was only first applied to the region in the 20th century. The earliest settlement dates to the Stone Age, with Scythians and Medes arriving to create their own empires, merged into the Achaemenid Empire in the 6th century BCE. Subsequent Sasanian Empire rule gave way to the Umayyads, then Turkic rule from the 11th century. A number of dynasties, many Persian, competed for control over the following millennium until the Russians invaded in the early-19th century. When that Empire collapsed, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was declared in 1918, though it was invaded again due to its strategically important oil and made an SSR in 1920. It declared independence in 1991, celebrated as 18 October. It has an elected President, who forms the Cabinet and appoints a Prime Minister.

The earliest films were made in the country in 1898 in the capital Baku, a prosperous oil town. A steady number of productions were made in successive decades, particularly after it became an SSR under Soviet control, though never more than a handful each year given its small size and the small number of cinema screens.


У самого синего моря U samogo sinego morya (By the Bluest of Seas, 1936)

The blue sea of this film’s title is the Caspian, and the film concerns two strapping young men who are shipwrecked and taken in by a seaside kolkhoz in Azerbaijan only to fall in love with the commune’s leader Masha (Yelena Kuzmina). It’s a very simple set-up, but there’s something engaging about director Boris Barnet’s way with waves, which seem to frame much of the film’s action, whether crashing over fishing boats, dragging away comrades to their (apparent) deaths, or just in the backdrop of the landborne action. The simple competition between these two men drives the film, one a tall blonde muscular heroic type (Nikolai Kryuchkov) and the other and native Azeri (Lev Sverdlin), shorter and solidly-built — though hardly unattractive either (Soviet or not, this is still the movies). Their aims are of course noble, and when they fall out it’s over their lack of commitment to the collective (with a side order of trying to impugn the other in the eyes of Masha), but the rivalry remains that of two friends, and when the final decision is made, it reminds you that it’s not just the men’s feelings which are at stake.

By the Bluest of Seas film posterCREDITS
Director Boris Barnet Бори́с Ба́рнет; Writer Klimentiy Mints Климентий Минц; Cinematographer Mikhail Kirillov Михаи́л Кири́ллов; Starring Yelena Kuzmina Еле́на Кузьмина́, Nikolai Kryuchkov Николай Крючко́в, Lev Sverdlin Лев Све́рдлин; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Wednesday 22 July 2020.

Three Films from the 1930s by Mikio Naruse: Wife! Be Like a Rose! (1935), The Road I Travel with You (1936) and Avalanche (1937)

There’s a lot of great Japanese cinema of the past and most of the famous names kept up a prodigious output of films, of which only a handful of ‘masterworks’ tend to get any kind of release (at least in the West). The great director Mikio Naruse, for example, has one film in the Criterion collection (1960’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs) as well as an Eclipse boxset of his four surviving silent films from the early-1930s, but otherwise is only known for a few 1950s films like Sound of the Mountain and Floating Clouds. However, given he made around 3-5 films every year, as you can see on his filmography, there’s a lot to watch and very few places to do so. Luckily, some kind soul has thought to upload a number of them to YouTube, albeit in fairly poor video quality (presumably from VHS rips), of which I’ve already reviewed one film, the biopic Tochuken Kumoemon (1936). I would love to see Naruse’s work on the big screen in a retrospective, but even Kurosawa rarely gets this kind of treatment so I suspect my chance to do so will be a long time coming (if I haven’t missed it already). In the meantime, here are a few of those 1930s sound films.

Continue reading “Three Films from the 1930s by Mikio Naruse: Wife! Be Like a Rose! (1935), The Road I Travel with You (1936) and Avalanche (1937)”

Two Japanese Biopics about Artists: Tochuken Kumoemon (1936) and Utamaro and His Five Women (1946)

While there are a huge number of recent biopics I can (and have) reviewed recently during this themed week on the genre, they have also had popularity throughout the history of cinema, and in many other parts of the world. Today I am focusing on two Japanese examples I watched more or less back-to-back this past year, both of which are concerned with artists, and are made by among the better directors of Japanese cinema, Naruse and Mizoguchi.

Continue reading “Two Japanese Biopics about Artists: Tochuken Kumoemon (1936) and Utamaro and His Five Women (1946)”

Criterion Sunday 239: The Lower Depths (1936/1957)

I am perhaps missing something, but Renoir somehow contrives to make this story of the poorest in society seem like another of his genteel comedies of etiquette and civility, a twirl through upper-class society mores but with shabbier clothes and fewer prospects. It certainly doesn’t feel like something based on a Russian source, but then perhaps in 1936 that’s not the kind of story that was needed. The poor and the rich are just part of a continuum perhaps, all on the same level, and certainly the Baron character moves swiftly and easily between the two. Still, not much seems particularly convincing, though Gabin remains a watchable screen presence in the lead role as a likeable thief.

A few decades later and Kurosawa’s take on Gorky’s slum-set drama really gets the sense of grinding poverty that eluded Renoir, I think. That said, by this point, Mifune’s scowling renegade character seems a little weary, barking at all the other characters in the way that hardly ingratiates him as a charismatic centre. No, instead this film is really about all the other flophouse inhabitants, each of whom has their various intersecting thing going on (and reminds me a little of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Hana). To be honest, none of it ever really held me, but Kurosawa has a way with the camera and the staging that remains impressive.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

Les Bas-fonds (The Lower Depths, 1936)
Director Jean Renoir; Writers Yevgeni Zamyatin Евге́ний Замя́тин, Jacques Companéez, Renoir and Charles Spaak (based on the play На дне Na dne by Maxim Gorky Макси́м Го́рький); Cinematographer Fédote Bourgasoff Федор БУРГАСОВ; Starring Jean Gabin, Suzy Prim, Louis Jouvet; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 11 February 2019.

どん底 Donzoko (The Lower Depths, 1957)
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Hideo Oguni 小国 英雄 and Kurosawa (based on the play На дне Na dne by Maxim Gorky Макси́м Го́рький); Cinematographer Kazuo Yamasaki 山崎市雄; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船 敏郎, Kyoko Kagawa 香川 京子, Isuzu Yamada 山田 五十鈴; Length 124 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 14 February 2019.

Criterion Sunday 114: My Man Godfrey (1936)

All of a sudden the Criterion Collection seemed to become interested in 1930s screwball comedy with a number of fine Preston Sturges films, and alongside them this example from director Gregory La Cava, a somewhat underrated director responsible for the very odd Gabriel Over the White House (1933). His political viewpoint seems to come from FDR’s New Deal following the Depression, and there are fascinating ideological contortions at work, as an initial setup criticising the way capitalism reifies and recycles human beings ultimately gives way to a upper-class family-based knockabout comedy. The operation of class in the USA is always there in the background, even if it’s never clearer than in the opening sequence, as the imperious socialite Cornelia (Gail Patrick) and her ditzier sister Irene (Carole Lombard), both from a wealthy family, visit a bridge to grab a homeless man, Godfrey (William Powell). This is all in pursuit of a game they’re playing with their aristocratic friends, whereby they get points for parading him as a prize. Yet Godfrey turns out to be a quick wit and scrubs up nicely, so Irene hires him as the family’s butler, promptly falling in love with him too. That’s largely how things proceed, as further reversals of fortune take place, and it becomes apparent that Godfrey is not what he initially seemed. Still, it’s all great fun, and Powell is a compelling screen presence.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Gregory La Cava; Writers Eric Hatch and Morrie Ryskind (based on Hatch’s novel 1101 Park Avenue); Cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff; Starring William Powell, Carole Lombard, Gail Patrick, Eugene Pallette, Alice Brady; Length 92 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Friday 19 August 2016, and since then at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 8 February 2017.