I do love the late Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s works, and this isn’t even my favourite of his. It is however, the film that, perhaps more even than his celebrated Koker trilogy (the first of which pre-dates this film), shows the power of his craft. Once again he approaches a real-life incident but loops in so many layers of storytelling that it’s unclear where documentary ends and fiction begins. Perhaps there is no truth, or perhaps it is all true: there’s a court sequence that seems like it must be unmediated reality but that itself feels like a construct (the grainier image hinting at some more ‘truthful’ technique, like that video-shot sequence at the end of Taste of Cherry, but then there’s also an abundance of very prominent camera equipment, lights and boom operators, that moves us away from cinéma vérité). There are also sequences which must surely be reconstructions, but the classical filmmaking style gives the impression of being there, such that you have to catch yourself occasionally. Is our lead character Hossein Sabzian a foolish figure, a grifter out to make a buck, or is he the one ultimately being conned? You could make an argument for any of these, and all are possible within Kiarostami’s film. Ultimately this is a film asking where the truth lies, and certainly in Close-Up — as perhaps, we are led to believe, in all filmmaking — there is truth and there are lies.
- This is an excellent release for those who love Kiarostami because you get an entire early feature film as a bonus extra, The Traveller (1974), which is claimed in some sources to be his debut feature although it appears from others to be his second film (the first was an hour long, which may be where the confusion lies). In any case, like many of his early short films, this focuses on kids and football. A boy in a small town loves it to the exclusion of his schoolwork and is focused on getting to see the national team play in the capital Tehran. Thereupon he embarks on a series of ruses (mostly of dubious morality) to get the money to go. You can see Kiarostami’s indebtedness to Italian neorealism here, but there’s a lot of what would later become his familiar style present also. It ends in an almost shockingly abrupt way, but it works, especially when we consider its production by a childhood education institute — though there’s nothing overtly didactic about the script (aside from an amusing scene where he’s trying to do some maths, then promptly skips his maths lesson).
- Another extra is Close-Up, Long Shot (1996, dir. Moslem Mansouri/Mahmoud Chokrollahi), a 44 minute video-shot companion piece that revisits Hossein Sabzian some years after he’d been the focus of Close-Up. With his greying hair (he’d made a reference in the earlier film to dyeing it black) and time to reflect, he cuts a quite different figure from the slightly foolish and diffident man of Kiarostami’s film — suggesting yet another layer on top of those presented in Close-Up of how truth has been manipulated. Certainly Sabzian does feel here — and expresses it with some eloquence — as if he was the one being conned ultimately, and if his story isn’t exactly triumphant, he at least has his wits about him (though sadly he died 10 years later). The filmmakers of this documentary give a sense of his life and family, talking to his friends, and it’s an interesting extra piece of what was already a multi-faceted cinematic puzzle.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی; Cinematographer Ali Reza Zarrindast زریندست علیرضا; Starring Hossain Sabzian حسین سبزیان, Mohsen Makhmalbaf محسن مخملباف; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 12 April 2022 (and earlier, probably at home on VHS, Wellington, early-2000s).
مسافر Mosafer (The Traveller, 1974)
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی; Cinematographer Firooz Malekzadeh فیروز ملکزاده; Starring Hassan Darabi حسن دارابی; Length 71 minutes.
Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Monday 5 June 2017.
This may well be a masterpiece of piercing bourgeois complacency and for some people it clearly is, but I think I just have trouble connecting with the carnivalesque sense of polymorphous perversity. It almost feels more coherent than his 1971 W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, though it’s still a blend of elements (including some very unsettling footage of WW2 atrocities being uncovered, although ones committed by the Soviet forces being brought to light by Nazis). The rest of the film involves a lot of people debasing themselves for various causes, and surely that’s the point of the film — starting with the valorisation of virginity presented as an American style talent contest, and moving through both women and men debasing themselves, being humiliated, acting out and generally being pariahs, and all in the name of the film’s satirical targets. I find it wearying where others revel in its warped sensibilities, though I imagine that making the likes of me feel a bit worn out is probably an achievement the film should be perfectly happy with.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Dušan Makavejev; Cinematographer Pierre Lhomme; Starring Carole Laure, Anna Prucnal, Pierre Clémenti; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 17 January 2021.
This World War II-era film about the young Frenchman of the title (non-professional actor Pierre Blaise) working on a rural farm who throws his lot in with the local Gestapo because he just wants to get a bit of respect from the locals still feels relevant, strangely enough. I’m pretty sure that the kind of impulses this film covers are still around today, albeit not so much directed towards collaborating with Nazis (except for those who are still drawn to that). But it covers well Lucien’s lack of imagination, combined with the lure of a bit of unearned power and a general contempt for everyone around him, as he moves first from asking about joining the Resistance to instead trying out the Nazi thugs, whose first step is to fit him up with a suit — from a local, only lightly tolerated, Jewish tailor, whose daughter (Aurore Clément) Lucien falls for. The moral quandaries that Lucien stumbles blank-faced through, never apparently altering his uncomprehending sneer and doughy teenage face, pile on as he navigates the complexities of wartime life, apparently oblivious to his own idiocy. It’s not just about French collaboration, which was a controversial topic at the time of course and continues to resonate (the idea that there were plenty of people perfectly happy to help the Nazis), but really it’s about teenage misdirection and the stupid decisions one can be led to make at that age, suggesting a lot of the hate that passes for discourse in the modern world too.
- All the extras are on a supplementary disc, which I shall comment on in the post for the box set.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Louis Malle; Writers Malle and Patrick Modiano; Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli; Starring Pierre Blaise, Aurore Clément, Holger Löwenadler; Length 138 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 26 June 2020.
I think if we’ve all learned anything from the last few decades of study and research about women in cinema is that there has been a paucity of women creating cinema since the silent era, i.e. from when cinema started to be seen as a viable industry and not just a hobby or a sideshow. This means a lot of women’s work in cinema has been in non-commercial spheres like the experimental avant garde, or else in oppositional contexts, and that is where we find the French/West Indian filmmaker Sarah Maldoror, who chose her surname and began to make films with her Angolan nationalist husband after having been an assistant on The Battle of Algiers. That first short I review below was also made in Algeria, but is specifically about the Angolan situation, before its independence. She made a feature film a few years later, Sambizanga (again filmed in absentia in the Republic of Congo/Brazzaville, but about Angola), which I will be covering shortly in my Global Cinema series when we get to Angola. Sadly, Maldoror died earlier this year, in April 2020, as a result of complications from COVID-19, at the age of 90. The three short films below were made available for a short time by Another Gaze journal, in support of a panel featuring her daughters, poetry recital, and a discussion amongst film critics, which was insightful and also, for me, rather unusual in centering the experiences of African and Caribbean women.
Continue reading “Three Short Films by Sarah Maldoror”
So, the year is 1974, which you may have caught from the title of my post (given that the year is in the title of the film and I’m not about to change now the format by which I title my posts, it ends up being repeated quite a few times). Anyway this is a rather disturbing documentary in some ways, being largely about the filmmaker himself, a self-critique of sorts, though whether it’s justified on those grounds is probably up to successive generations of film students. It also has the most unvarnished depiction of childbirth since Stan Brakhage’s short film Window Water Baby Moving.
A fascinating documentary directed by Kazuo Hara about his former wife Takeda Miyuki, who has left him to live in Okinawa with their son and who gives birth to another in the course of the film — though describing it that way is to almost completely elide what makes the film interesting, which itself is an utterly inadequate adjective. I’d say it’s more about the artist as pathetic loser, chasing after a woman who openly spurns him (his justification for making the film is after all to maintain a sliver of a relationship to her). Every so often we hear his rejoinders to her taunts (that he’s actually “sensitive”) and he stages a particularly bravura intervention on the voiceover during Miyuki’s childbirth, in which he confesses to being so nervous that he was breaking out in sweats and ‘forgot’ to fix the focus on what is, even in its blurry state, a graphic depiction of childbirth, for the entirety of which Hara’s current wife is seen holding a microphone towards Miyuki to catch her reactions, while precisely nobody helps her at any point, even when the baby is flopped on the floor and her leg is caught in the umbilical cord while trying to squeeze out the placenta. Questions of ethics in documentary filmmaking cannot really be avoided here — Hara even shows himself having sex with Miyuki at one point — and it feels like a portrait of a woman who seems out of step with mainstream Japanese femininity wrapped up as self-critique.
Director/Cinematographer Kazuo Hara 原一男; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Saturday 21 September 2019.
I’ve long wanted to watch this highly-regarded blend of documentary and drama by Sara Gómez, a Cuban filmmaker who died at the age of 31 in 1974 before it was completed (it was finished by her collaborators and released some years later), which has been particularly championed by the critic and feminist B. Ruby Rich. However, I got tired to waiting for a restoration (I don’t believe it’s had one, but I may be mistaken) or a cinematic screening so I took to YouTube, where one can find all kinds of marginalia and, so it seems, underseen classics.
Plenty of documentary films now take a self-aware and critical perspective on their own praxis, and it may not have been new in 1974 either when Sara Gomez shot this film, but what distinguishes De cierta manera is an energy undoubtedly harnessing Cuba’s own revolutionary project. Mixing voiceover-led ‘objective’ documentary elements, with vérité sequences shot on streets, but interleaving acted scenes, combining the actors (as fictional characters) with non-actors in unscripted sequences, as well as interpolating musical performance, this is a bold film. It’s about a slum area rebuilt by the government to improve the lives of the marginalised and impoverished communities of colour living there, and expands on this by its staging of a relationship between teacher Yolanda (Cuellar) and worker Mario (Balmaseda), who still clings to a certain machismo but is conscientious in his commitment to revolutionary work, unlike his colleague Humberto. Their story plays out in snippets against the backdrop of the community, its meetings and its daily life, as the film’s narrational strategies fold in class, race and sex as contested sites within the revolution. It’s a minor miracle of a film and it’s not best served by its own marginalisation to a poor 16mm dupe on YouTube. Hopefully someone does a proper restoration and release in future.
Director Sara Gómez [sometimes also credited to Tomás González Pérez]; Writers Gómez, Julio García Espinosa and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea; Cinematographer Luis García; Starring Mario Balmaseda, Yolanda Cuellar; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Thursday 19 January 2017.
One of Buñuel’s typically absurdist late films, which narratively careens from one character to another almost randomly (like Linklater’s Slacker), a series of brief skits which fundamentally question the meaning we ascribe to narratives by constantly bamboozling one’s expectations. It may be one of his greatest films in fact, although the experience of watching it can necessarily be a little bit confounding, as familiar targets are satirised — like the bourgeoisie (sitting down to go to the toilet together), the police (the commissioner with his fixation on his sister, or the cadets being taught about polyamory in a class setting), men of religion (drinking and gambling in an inn), and just the general slew of human perversions and vices. There are some hilarious individual episodes as well as others which seem somewhat more of their time, but Buñuel stays above the fray dispassionately observing these foibles.
- The only significant extra is a short video introduction by the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière which sets up some of the ideas he and Buñuel were playing with in the film.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel; Writers Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière; Cinematographer Edmond Richard; Starring Julien Bertheau, Jean-Claude Brialy, Michael Lonsdale, Michel Piccoli, Jean Rochefort, Monica Vitti; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 7 June 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 9 February 2020).
An early feature film from Lino Brocka, who would go on to direct some of the Philippines’ best-known films Manila in the Claws of Light (1975) and Insiang (1976). He grapples here with society’s hypocrisy and maltreatment of those who are the most vulnerable. If his compassionate conclusion is specifically rooted in Christianity, nevertheless it’s a feeling that speaks to many societies, and one can only hope it someday receives proper restoration (like those other films, which are on the Criterion Collection).
There’s something in this film that reminds me a little of classic melodramas (for example, from the golden age of Mexican cinema), possibly because of its characters, who conform to certain types found in these films. The style is also quite simple (not simplistic) yet expressive in the way it presents the moral quandaries for the central characters, who are the young man Junior (Christopher de Leon) and the town outcast Kuala (Lolita Rodriguez), who is treated abysmally by the people of the village for her perceived simplicity. Junior initially is part of mobs of braying fiends, pushing her and the town’s leper (Mario O’Hara), by virtue of necessity, into one another’s arms, but eventually Junior reassesses his life’s choices and finds sympathy for the outcasts. It’s no surprise that in such a Catholic country, and with the film set in a deeply Catholic village, that this choice should be framed so explicitly in terms of Christ, and the final scene makes this symbolism fairly clear. It’s a film with a great depth of religious feeling and the compassion rooted in that, while keen to expose the hypocrisies of those, and made at the time it was, it’s difficult too to avoid linking this to the Marcos regime. The DVD I saw had the best available print, but you get the real sense of the lack of funds in the Philippines for film restoration and preservation — the first few scenes are shockingly poorly preserved, though the bulk of the film looks fine — which is a real shame, given the quality of so many filmmakers in this country.
Director Lino Brocka; Writers Brocka and Mario O’Hara; Cinematographer Jose Batac; Starring Lolita Rodriguez, Christopher de Leon, Mario O’Hara, Eddie Garcia; Length 128 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 5 June 2019.
Mauritanian filmmaker Med Hondo’s Soleil Ô (1967) received a recent restoration courtesy of Il Cinema Ritrovato and Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project. Another film of his (not yet restored) screened in this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato and exemplifies a more confrontational attitude towards the colonialist past and the challenges of filmmaking on the continent.
With an undoubtedly confrontational title (there are several English renditions of it, but I’m not going to provide any of them here), this politically-engaged piece of post-68 anti-colonialist filmmaking from Med Hondo is very much interested in confronting a legacy of colonialism in Africa. After all, it starts with a lengthy address direct to camera on the necessity of finding a means for an African cinema freed from the demands of Western capital and cultural production. There follow a series of illustrative scenes that unveil the corruption wrought by capital, the methods of control exercised by the colonialist oppressors, a folky anti-racist song about one’s Black and Arab neighbours (which is, more or less, the meaning of the film’s title), a bit of Gilliamesque animation, dialogues with workers about socialism, a sequence highlighting the racism ingrained even in sex work, and some earnest lectures, complete with charts and graphics, on the economics of exploitation. It ends with a group of people in a room festooned with the posters of the kinds of African films that presumably Med Hondo would highlight as exemplars (including his own, even a poster for the one we’re watching), and now I want to see all of them. This isn’t always an easy watch — it’s hardly intended to be (and indeed there’s a longer three-hour cut apparently) — but it comes directly from a spirit of the times, recalling contemporary works like Argentina’s La hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1968).
Director/Writer Med Hondo ميد هوندو; Cinematographers Jean Boffety and François Catonné; Length 100 minutes [French version].
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Monday 24 June 2019.
In my ongoing Criterion watching project, I stalled a bit before this film. I’d seen it before, and I’d rated it highly, but it’s one of those films that you need to take a big breath and a bit of time before you launch yourself into it because it is unrelenting. It’s not bleak exactly, but it’s exhausting because Gena Rowlands — who utterly dominates the film — just fills every empty space with her presence. She’s Mabel, the mother to three kids, and the wife to Peter Falk’s construction engineer Nick (or some kind of municipal worker), and if the way I’m defining her life seems a little regressive, well that’s the world of the film, and it’s strongly implied that part of her problem is the way that she has been pushed into this role, and the way she comes apart at the seams trying to live up to expectations made of her. That’s also partly why it’s so heartbreaking, because although she’s clearly become unhinged, it’s Nick who’s the bully and the bad person. He can be sweet and understanding at times, but every time he loses control of Mabel, he starts shouting and gets pushy and violent, and the kids, who are there most of the time, can’t do much about it. Cassavetes keeps the camera tight in on them for much of the film, only at the end disappearing behind a closed curtain as he leaves them. It’s a film of towering acting performances, not least from Rowlands, although Falk is also on brilliant form. There are these characters around the edges (parents, kids, co-workers of Nick’s), who feel almost like non-actors and perhaps they are, but for all its age, it feels continually fresh and perceptive about its characters, and about mental health.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Cassavetes; Cinematographers Al Ruban and Mitch Breit; Starring Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk; Length 147 minutes.
Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 12 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 2000, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Thursday 4 July 2019).