Algeria, even more than many of its North African neighbours, has been a subject of a lot of filmmaking, thanks to the Wars of Independence from France that tore the country apart in the 1950s and 1960s, a cause that galvanised a generation of French politically-engaged filmmakers who came of age in the New Wave and were receptive to the radical student politics of May 1968. The struggle is most famously covered in The Battle of Algiers (1966), but there are relatively few films told from the Algerian side. One such film, a work garlanded with plenty of awards and which is often found on lists of the greatest Arab cinema, is the one I cover below.
A grand, sweeping, widescreen epic of Algerian liberation from colonialist oppression which covers several decades up to the wars of independence in the 1950s. The film primarily follows a village farmer called Ahmed (Yorgo Voyagis, a Greek actor), who leaves his village for the larger local city with a family, and suffers various privations, especially during World War II. Their lives are almost entirely cut off from Europe, so the wars of France against Germany seem like nothing more than an opportunity to replace their despised colonial masters. Still, they are sucked in, and return to famine and typhoid, at which point a man arrives, banished to this remote outpost, and quickly starts to foment further revolutionary consciousness amongst the people. This is a new restoration commissioned by the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival and which hopefully will bring this Palme d’Or-winning Algerian film back to wider prominence. The director’s preferred cut is 157 minutes, and has some of that sweeping, epic, desert quality of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), as well as a potent message of fighting against brutal oppression, but it remains always grounded in the small-scale story of Ahmed and his family.
Director Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina محمد الأخضر حمينة; Writers Rachid Boudjedra رشيد بوجدرة Tewfik Fares توفيق فارس and Lakhdar-Hamina; Cinematographer Marcello Gatti; Starring Yorgo Voyagis Γιώργος Βογιατζής, Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina; Length 157 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Friday 29 June 2018.
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.
There’s a lot of gorgeous style to this film, all high-contrast black-and-white starkness, an almost documentary-like sense of its Sicilian landscapes, not to mention the evocative faces of its protagonists. It’s a period story made in the 60s about a post-war gangster and rebel laid low by the forces of the law and the mafia, but it feels like it’s made contemporaneously, and the director has a solid control of his actors. I found the narrative difficult to get hold of, as it jumps back and forth in time fairly liberally, while the titular figure is rarely actually seen except when dead. I wanted to like this a lot more than I did, but perhaps it just needs the right frame of mind and the right screening to fall into place.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Francesco Rosi; Writers Rosi, Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Enzo Provenzale and Franco Solinas; Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo; Starring Salvo Randone, Frank Wolff; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 16 September 2018.
It’s worrying to recall that I’ve put off seeing this film for so long (a couple of decades since I studied film and first learned about it) because I just thought it looked a bit dull and earnest, in a typically propagandistic Soviet sort of way. Anyone who’s seen it will know this is totally the wrong idea to take of such a glorious work of almost pure cinema. Indeed, it far more presages the French New Wave in its lyrical flights of fancy, its crisp editing and remarkable monochrome cinematography. It’s a love story set against the backdrop of World War II — familiar enough — but it fights shy of any too obvious symbolism, and though you can somewhat predict how things will go, it also confounds some of those expectations. It really is a masterpiece.
Criterion Extras: Simply nothing, except an essay in the booklet. I’ve been critical of these bare-bones releases in the past (the sort of thing one imagines they started the Eclipse imprint to do), but it’s such a startling and beautiful film it almost needs nothing aside from a clean transfer of the print — which it has.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Mikhail Kalatozov Михаи́л Калато́зов; Writer Viktor Rozov Виктор Розов (based on his play); Cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky Серге́й Урусевский; Starring Tatiana Samoilova Татья́на Само́йлова, Aleksey Batalov Алексе́й Бата́лов; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 February 2017.
I hardly expected to like this. It looks like the kind of unadventurous, softly patriotic nonsense that leads to dull dirges like that Vera Brittain adaptation with Alicia Vikander in it whose title I’ve already forgotten (it’s Testament of Youth now that I look it up), or thin jaunts like that one with Bel Powley as Princess Margaret and a bunch of other less enjoyable people that I sort of half-remember the title of (A Royal Night Out, it turns out). Well anyway, I might actually remember the title of Their Finest because I generally found it to be superior, and though it’s hardly a film for the ages, it does have a spirited Gemma Arterton playing Catrin, a Welsh screenwriter, with a scene-stealing Bill Nighy as, um… Bill Nighy, I guess (he plays an actor). A love story is present (not with Nighy, I should point out), but it feels to me that this film is about more than the romance, even if there is a certain romanticism to the idea of wartime England. I was manipulated duly by the film, overlong as it was (and that despite an actual line in the film about movies ideally being an hour and a half long!), and I feel fine about it, for it was all very jolly.
Director Lone Scherfig; Writer Gaby Chiappe (based on the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans); Cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov; Starring Gemma Arterton, Bill Nighy, Sam Claflin; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Sunday 7 May 2017.
There was a real passion to tell untold women’s stories coming out of the 70s, not in a flashy way but just, as here, on a relatively recent but largely overlooked subject, using archival clips, period music and interviews with the surviving women while they were still around to tell their stories. And they do that, very well. The film takes its name from an iconic figure of the woman factory worker used during World War II, and the women interviewed here tell of their recruitment to the war effort in factories and shipyards et al., then about the issues they faced around discrimination and (for the black workers) racism. The filmmaker cuts in some smug 40s patriarchal voiceover from a contemporary media source to tell us how hard women found the work (with such choice snippets as the women being “not used to working so hard”), as the women recall how after 8-10 hours on the assembly lines they had to come home to cook dinner for their husbands (if around) and families. There’s plenty of other recollections like this, and then about the struggle to keep the same kind of work after the war. It’s all affecting because it’s direct and from the women themselves. It also remains a fascinating story.
Director Connie Field; Cinematographers Bonnie Friedman, Robert Handley, Emiko Omori and Cathy Zheutlin; Length 65 minutes.
Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 8 May 2017.
A simple film in many ways, it takes the form of a provincial sex comedy as a young man serving as a train station guard for reasons of avoiding doing any hard work tries but mostly fails to be more successful with women. But there’s also a war going on, and Czechoslovakia is controlled by the Nazis, so that becomes an increasingly important part of what the film is trying to do — equating, at some level, the coming of age story with the work of the resistance. In retrospect, it could hardly end any other way, and it’s reminiscent of the previous Criterion Collection film (The Shop on Main Street) in locating all the dramas and horrors of wartime life amongst everyday characters and in mundane situations. Also, there’s a memorable rubber stamping scene.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jiří Menzel (based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal); Cinematographer Jaromír Šofr; Starring Václav Neckář, Josef Somr; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 23 October 2016.
When the fascists come they’ll offer to let you take back one of those jobs the immigrants have ‘stolen’ but you won’t have to hurt anyone so you’ll probably go along with it. It might even lead to a bit of cross-cultural comedy of misunderstandings but you just want everyone to be fine and for things to be better, and the fascists seem tolerable enough. One of them might even be a family member. But when the fascists start taking names, passing laws, and packing people on transports out of town, by then it’ll be too late and there’s really nothing you can do except get drunk and watch it all go to hell.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos; Writers Ladislav Grosman, Kadár and Klos (based on the novel by Grosman); Cinematographer Vladimír Novotný; Starring Jozef Kroner, Ida Kamińska; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 16 October 2016.
As a period-set detective film, this looks fabulous, as if a lot of money has been spent to recreate a sense of Calcutta in the 1940s. As the title character, Sushant Singh Rajput looks the part, fresh out of wherever detectives go to the school and eager to work. Aided by his geeky-looking sidekick Ajit (Anand Tiwari), Byomkesh soon comes up against a cabal of nefarious sorts. The film is heavy on plot, and if you’re not paying attention, you’re liable to lose track of who’s doing what to whom for what reason — and I’m not always convinced it’s particularly interesting if you do keep track — but just on the handsomeness of the sets and the costumes, this is a pleasant enough film to pass the time.
Director Dibakar Banerjee दिबाकर बेनर्जी; Writers Banerjee and Urmi Juvekar दिबाकर बेनर्जी (based on the novels সত্যান্বেষী Satyanweshi and অর্থমনর্থম Arthamanartham by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay শরদিন্দু বন্দ্যোপাধ্যায়); Cinematographer Nikos Andritsakis Νίκος Ανδριτσάκης; Starring Sushant Singh Rajput सुशांत सिंह राजपूत, Anand Tiwari आनंद तिवारी, Swastika Mukherjee স্বস্তিকা মুখোপাধ্যায়; Length 147 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Friday 1 January 2016.
This screening at the UK Jewish Film Festival was introduced by the Festival’s director, who, given the screening location and the film’s subject, also briefly addressed and offered condolences for the recent events in Paris. It was followed by a Q&A session involving a number of prominent British film critics (for which I did not stay).
Ever since details of it first emerged, there’s been a powerful cinematic history of representing the Holocaust (or Shoah) on screen. Many of these works can be quite oblique, whether Chantal Akerman’s documentaries that touch on her mother’s experiences, or dramas that evoke the horrors through a structuring absence or by focusing on audience-surrogate characters who come into touch with those affected. Films such as Resnais’s Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955) used archival footage, while Spielberg recreated the ghettoes and camps wholesale in Schindler’s List (1993), yet there’s generally been a sense since Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary Shoah (1985) of the impossibility of providing a visual depiction of the Shoah. Needless to say, much has been passionately written on the subject and I’m very far from an expert, but it must be challenging to any filmmaker intending to broach the subject. That said, it’s not enough to laud Hungarian director László Nemes merely for his attempt — many have tried and failed, however noble their intentions — but for what he achieves in doing so.
Nemes deploys a distinctive visual strategy of focusing his camera in on the face of protagonist Saul (Géza Röhrig) and pushing the atrocities beyond the frame or out of focus in the background. The effect of the camera following Saul’s constant movement is reminiscent of the Dardenne’s Rosetta (1999), albeit if that film had been set in a Nazi concentration camp. Saul is working as part of a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz-Birkenau when he comes across a young man while cleaning out the the gas chambers, who it transpires may be his son; quite whether this is literally true, or an effect of his working conditions, is never answered and in a sense isn’t truly important. However, Saul immediately seeks to try and preserve the boy’s body and find a rabbi to conduct the proper funerary rites. In following this quest, Nemes gives a peripatetic tour of the camp and its environs, providing an overview of the horrific existence that Saul and his fellow inmates experienced and which gives an emotional pull that is so notably repressed in Saul’s expressions — his stony face in response to even the most horrific events undoubtedly deriving from the survival instincts necessary in such an environment.
Given the subject matter and setting, Son of Saul makes for difficult viewing. There’s no particular hope for the salvation of those shown onscreen, though the film does close with a curious form of redemption, which links in with the phantasmic theme of fathers and sons that has built up over the film’s running time. A worthy inclusion on the short list of great films about this most terrifying aspect of 20th century history.
Director László Nemes; Writers Nemes and Clara Royer; Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély; Starring Géza Röhrig; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Saturday 14 November 2015.