Global Cinema 5: Angola – Sambizanga (1973)

Angola is a country which has been beset for most of its independent existence by war, and continues to be hugely impoverished, so its no surprise there isn’t a huge cinema coming from there. Even the most prominent filmmaking linked to the country isn’t really funded there; Sarah Maldoror was married to a prominent leader in the MPLA, and her films about the country and its colonial troubles were funded by the French, and Sambizanga filmed in the bordering Republic of Congo (aka Brazzaville). Still, it’s very much a film about the situation in the country at a febrile time just leading up to its independence.


Angolan flagRepublic of Angola
population 25,789,000 | capital Luanda (6.8m) | largest cities Luanda, Lubango (601k), Huambo (595k), Benguela (555k), Cabinda (550k) | area 1,246,700 km2 | religion Catholicism (56%), Protestantism (37%) | official language Portuguese (português) | major ethnicities Ovimbundu (37%), Ambundu (25%), Bakongo (13%) | currency Kwanza (Kz) [AOA] | internet .ao

With a coastal plain along the Atlantic ocean and an inland plateau, divided by a mountain range, this is the seventh largest country on the continent, and has a tiny exclave of Cabinda just to the north, divided from the rest of the country by the DRC. The name comes from the Portuguese colonial name, itself derived from the title ngola held by kings in the highland region. Early nomadic tribes gave way to Bantu in the first millennium BCE, and a number of kingdoms were established thereafter in the region. The Portuguese came in the late-15th century, first explorer Diogo Cão, then establishing a trading post; they founded Luanda but had little control over the interior regions until the 19th century. Post-WW2 nationalist movements led to the founding of the FNLA, UNITA and the Soviet-supported MPLA, and independence declared on 22 November 1975. Agitation between these groups then led to a Civil War (with support coming from Soviet and US factions), which lasted sporadically until 2002. The country has yet to recover, and droughts have compounded problems. The government is led by a President, who had been José Eduardo dos Santos for 38 years until 2017.

The first cinemas were built in the 1930s, but many are now in disrepair. After so many years of war, understandably there is very little money available for filmmaking in the country, though there was a small boost in the 2000s after the Civil War concluded.


Sambizanga (1973)

I’d long hoped to see this film — and still do hope for a proper restoration — but it took the director’s recent passing for me to seek it out online, albeit in a poorly-kept print transferred badly to YouTube. However, some films you need to accept how they are if you want to watch them; in some ways, the poor quality and bad subtitling just adds to the film, which deals with Angolan liberation. It’s named for the area in Luanda where the prison is located to which our hero, Domingos (de Oliveira) is taken. He’s a member of the liberatory resistance to Portuguese colonial rule, and is grabbed from his workers’ shack in a nearby community by armed police. The film then intercuts his own tribulations in prison with his wife searching fruitlessly for him in the various prisons in the capital city, as well as other resistance workers trying to discover who this man is who’s been captured. It has the simple power of Soviet cinema in some respects, as it lays out the terms by which independence is fought for in an oppressive colonial system.

Sambizanga film posterCREDITS
Director Sarah Maldoror; Writers Claude Agostini, Maurice Pons, Mário Pinto de Andrade and Maldoror (based on the novel A vida verdadeira de Domingos Xavier “The Real Life of Domingos Xavier” by José Luandino Vieira); Cinematographer Claude Agostini; Starring Domingos de Oliveira, Elisa Andrade; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Saturday 9 May 2020.

Criterion Sunday 288: F for Fake (aka ?, aka Vérités et mensonges, 1973)

There’s something seemingly inexhaustible about this (essentially final) film by Orson Welles, an essay film in the form of a documentary about fakery whose on-screen title is “?” and has Welles basically wonder aloud for 90 minutes what exactly defines art. In this sense, it’s his film about his own creative practice, which by this point in his career was largely smoke and mirrors anyway, given how few projects he managed to see to completion. Welles appears as the narrator, wandering around these various European locales in his heavy black cape, posing questions and telling tall tales, which even in the hour of film he claims is true, probably aren’t, or at least touch on people whose work has been all about elaborately lying. And then there are minutes-long stretches of the film where he just has guys staring at the semi-clothed body of his partner and muse Oja Kodar, which I suppose implicates the audiences’ desires somewhat in the production of these fictions, although she too is intriguingly a fiction of sorts (using a name Welles gave her). It’s all very clever, and I don’t doubt the care taken in its composition, but it also feels very spontaneous and even a little bit like something tossed off quickly, such that perhaps it’s impossible to know where the boundaries between truth and fiction lie, and whether they even really matter when it comes to art.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Probably the most interesting of the extras on the disc is the feature-length documentary co-directed by Welles’s former partner Oja Kodar, Orson Welles: The One-Man Band (1995), in which all the unfinished projects he was working on are presented as part of a wander through his life, as related by Kodar herself (and a German narrator). At least one of the projects covered in this documentary may have actually reached fruition in the 25 years since it was made — The Other Side of the Wind (finally completed and released last year) — but this assemblage of bits of Orson Welles’s unfinished projects still has a lot to fascinate. Kodar is seen reflecting a bit on their time together in some of the linking footage between the scraps of Welles’ own filmmaking, though more amusing is the footage of an onstage masterclass Welles seems to be leading, as he takes questions from the audience. The film footage itself runs the gamut from lost Shakespeare adaptations (him doing Shylock in a TV version of The Merchant of Venice) to a weird London-set comedy thing where Welles is the one-man street performer of the title (along with a guy getting fitted for a suit, and a cheerful copper), to his film of The Deep, an ill-advised Chinese character for… something, a cherished adaptation of Don Quixote, and then there are just the bits of him reciting random chapters from Moby Dick. All are infused with Welles’s own sense of impish delight at the pleasure of acting: for all his directing talent, he remained an exuberant performer above all else and that much is showcased here.
  • The nine-minute trailer (presented here in a black-and-white version) is essentially a separate short film that Welles made to support the American release of the film in 1976. (Incidentally, the film’s year of production varies somewhat, as it’s listed as 1975 on this disc, which is the year it premiered at the NY Film Festival, but it had been screened earlier in 1973 and 1974 at other European festivals, and is given as 1973 in most places.)
  • Peter Bogdanovich provides a filmed introduction, as he does for a number of Welles projects, and speaks a little about the background to the production and some of the trickery that Welles gets up to in the film.
  • Welles is interviewed by Tom Snyder in 1975 for his TV show Tomorrow, in which Snyder proves himself to be a fairly good interviewer, clutching a cigarette as seems to have been the way back then, and occasionally throwing out rather oddball questions, presumably designed to elicit something from Welles. Still, it nicely covers a lot of his more recent work and Welles remains as always an engaging presence.
  • One of the participants in F for Fake, journalist Clifford Irving, is interviewed by 60 Minutes in 2000, revisiting an earlier story about his Howard Hawks biography hoax, in which Irving fully admits to his fakery and talks about how it came about. There’s also an audio recording from 1972 of Howard Hughes speaking by phone to reporters, a fascinating part of the Hughes mythos if you are into that kind of thing, though he just seems like a slightly befuddled older man (and nowhere near as bonkers as half the things regularly said by the current US President).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Orson Welles; Writers Welles and Oja Kodar; Cinematographers François Reichenbach and Gary Graver; Starring Orson Welles, Oja Kodar; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 26 January 2020 (and originally on VHS at home, Wellington, November 1999).

The First Three Feature Films by Krzysztof Zanussi: The Structure of Crystals (1969), Family Life (1971) and Illumination (1973)

Of course, the big release this Friday in the UK is a very belated one for South Korean film Parasite which has been picking up all the awards, and indeed I probably have enough South Korean films to do another themed week, though I’ve already done one a few months ago, so I’ll hold off on that for now. However, there’s also a small release for a new Agnieszka Holland film (Mr. Jones, which looks to be an odd little number, made largely in English but set in the 1930s in the USSR). She of course has a long history in Polish cinema, and I’ve just reviewed Andrzej Wajda’s seminal war film trilogy as part of my Criterion Sunday series, so herewith a themed week around Polish cinema. I’ll start with the under-heralded auteur Krzysztof Zanussi. If I don’t love his work, the posters are at least all excellent, as you expect from a country with such fine traditions of poster art

Continue reading “The First Three Feature Films by Krzysztof Zanussi: The Structure of Crystals (1969), Family Life (1971) and Illumination (1973)”

Three Black American Satirical Films: The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), Chameleon Street (1989) and Sorry to Bother You (2018)

Satire has always been a popular artistic form, especially when confronted with the wealth and ingrained power of the American elites. As a form, it has been utilised by a number of filmmakers over the years, notably African-American artists seeking to attack the privilege and entitlement of the (majority white) leaders, whether of government, the media or the corporate world. Whereas a film like Dear White People (2014) and its subsequent TV series may look at the educational system, the films below cover the institutions that support American power most directly — the FBI and corporate America — and in Chameleon Street suggests the contortions that such power inflict on the (Black) psyche.

Continue reading “Three Black American Satirical Films: The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), Chameleon Street (1989) and Sorry to Bother You (2018)”

Criterion Sunday 229: Scener ur ett äktenskap (Scenes from a Marriage, 1973)

A quintessential Bergman-esque chamber drama of a couple dealing with their slow break-up and rapprochement over a period of about a decade, told in six chapters (six hour-long episodes in the TV version, but I watched the film version at half that length). There is barely anyone else on screen for the running time, and that’s really not much of an issue, because this is about these two people and the particular way they seem so happy together but, actually, aren’t. The acting is excellent, but I’m not sure I can summon enthusiasm for Bergman’s dramatics at this point in my life. However, I certainly wouldn’t wish to discount it: I was all ready to be very cynical early on, but I concede that the drama did eventually reel me in somewhat (even if I don’t accept this is necessarily how all marriages are).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Sven Nykvist; Starring Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson; Length 167 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 October 2018.

Criterion Sunday 223: Maîtresse (1973)

I think there are some interesting things going on in this film, primarily in the way in which power dynamics are worked out, but behind it all there’s a very familiar, very masculine 1970s French way of looking at the world which reminds me a lot of Godard and his fellow travellers. Essentially, it’s about a semi-criminal young man (Gérard Depardieu) who finds himself drawn into the world of a professional dominatrix (Bulle Ogier). He has no money and comes to rely on her, while she makes her money by dominating submissive men, but he finds himself needing to express his own dominance in their power relationship. In some sense, he is enacting familiar patriarchal pattern of behaviour; I’m just not sure that the film is interested in exploring both their subjectivities, so much as wanting to find some compromise whereby she becomes more submissive to his will. That said, there’s a lot of interesting interplay between the two, and I at least don’t get the feeling that her sex work itself is being criticised. Ultimately, it feels very much like a period piece.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Barbet Schroeder; Writers Schroeder and Paul Voujargol; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Bulle Ogier, Gérard Depardieu; Length 112 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 20 August 2018.

Criterion Sunday 89: Sisters (1973)

Another Hitchcockian genre exercise from his greatest directorial fan Brian De Palma (he even uses Bernard Herrmann for the score), this is an enjoyable story of a French-Canadian woman, Danielle (Margot Kidder), with a Siamese twin sister Dominique who appears to be guilty of murdering a man Danielle has brought home. Danielle’s ex-husband/doctor (William Finley) is involved in the intrigue also — he loiters around, keeping an eye on her at all times — and the unravelling of this twisted scenario provides the bulk of the film’s running time. The split identity of Margot Kidder’s character (possibility a split personality, too) is formally invoked by the periodic use of split screen to advance the action, but the truth is never quite clear. The film’s mental health themes are a little heavy-handed for modern audiences but if you see this as a filmic hommage rather than an exploration of personality disorders, it makes more sense, and even allows for an absurdist supporting role for Charles Durning as a PI who seems to be eternally doomed to keep watch on an abandoned couch (I can’t really explain). Still, if it’s hommage, it’s all capably done and executed with flair.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Brian De Palma; Writers De Palma and Louisa Rose; Cinematographer Gregory Sandor; Starring Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, William Finley; Length 92 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 10 April 2016.

Criterion Sunday 27: Flesh for Frankenstein (aka Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, 1973)

The Criterion Collection may be a boutique label founded on presenting pristine prints of the classics of world cinema, but it’s also happy to take detours down roads less travelled, and in some ways those can be the most rewarding films. This 1974 camp Euro horror-exploitation film, made in Italy with a northern European cast, seems to embody few of the qualities you’d expect this label to trade in, and yet it’s a little bit more than just an excuse for lots of gore. Though there is, as it happens, lots of gore, as Doctor Frankenstein (an angular Udo Kier) experiments with stitching together his zombie-like creatures. When he decides he needs someone particularly virile, it so happens that oversexed stableboy Nicholas (Joe Dallesandro) is about and would fit the bill precisely, except that due to a confusion, Frankenstein and his assistant Otto grab Nicholas’s sexless friend Sacha instead. The US title is a bit misleading, for though director Paul Morrissey did work with Andy Warhol in the 1960s (notably on The Chelsea Girls), Warhol’s involvement by this point was little more than just marketing. Flesh for Frankenstein (along with next week’s film Blood for Dracula) were Morrissey productions through and through, and betray his interest in messing around with these determinedly European legends. Thus the reimagining here reflects somewhat on contemporary counter-cultural movements, though it would have helped if Dallesandro had the acting chops that Kier exhibits, and his European peasant is somewhat difficult to take.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the brief essay inside the booklet, there are two significant extras here: a photo gallery, which is just an 18 minute video with a musical backing, not an ideal way to see the photos; and a commentary track, mostly critic Maurice Yacowar talking about the film, as well as some additional words from director Paul Morrissey and lead actor Udo Kier.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Paul Morrissey; Cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller; Starring Udo Kier, Joe Dallesandro, Monique van Vooren; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 15 March 2015.

Criterion Sunday 4: Amarcord (1973)

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 Fellini and Tonino Guerra; Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno; Starring Bruno Zanin, Magali Noël; Length 124 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 1 December 2014.