አድዋ Adwa (1999)

As my week of African cinema draws to a close, one final documentary, which for a change touches on a successful instance of 19th century resistance to the European coloniser. It was made by the Ethiopian-American filmmaker Haile Gerima, much of whose work has been made in the United States, as a leading proponent of what has come to be known as the “LA Rebellion” of African and African-American filmmakers working and studying at UCLA.


This is essentially a documentary about an important battle, about the way that battle shaped a country and, to a certain degree, a continent, but it’s also at least in part about who gets to tell these stories. After all, one of the most interesting aspects of the film is its resistance to typical documentary conventions. Instead of the authoritative figure of a scholar or critic seen as a talking head and lecturing the audience, instead filmmaker Haile Gerima gives these words to a variety of Ethiopians. Sure one of them could be an academic (he’s seated at home and wearing a suit), but others appear to be people in the street, farmers or peasants, from all walks of life, though there are no on-screen titles so it’s unclear.

The point is: this story belongs to everyone in Ethiopia, because it’s a story of resistance against the tide of European colonisers forcibly trying to annexe vast swathes of Africa during the 19th century. This is a story of a battle fought by the Ethiopian leader Menelik II against the Italians in 1896, who like the rest of Europe’s powers were involved in carving up Africa for profit (leading to the so-called “scramble for Africa”). Ethiopia’s successful resistance meant that it was one of the very few places on the continent not colonised at that time (it succumbed briefly later during WW2), giving it a totemic place in the burgeoning Pan-African movement.

Gerima’s film therefore narrates his film through these people who know parts of the historical tale and context, but also through images (artworks, carvings, other visual representations of the Battle of Adwa and the events surrounding it) and, vitally, through folk songs. There are many layers of interpretation swirling around her, overlaid on one another, not complicating the history but rather rendering it richer and perhaps better suggesting its importance.

Adwa film posterCREDITS
Director Haile Gerima ፕሮፌሰር ኃይሌ ገሪማ; Cinematographer Augustin Cubano; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 8 August 2019.

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Wênd Kûuni (aka God’s Gift, 1982)

While a number of post-independence films in Africa have focused on specific issues related to colonialism and development across the region, a number of filmmakers instead turned to pre-colonial stories of traditional life, perhaps to recall what had been lost, or else highlighting the powerful continuity of traditions that can be recognised even in a continent reconfigured with enforced new religions and political leadership. The Royal Belgian Film Archive has led on a new restoration of the Burkina Faso film Wênd Kûuni, which showed at this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival.


Although made in Burkina Faso (known as Upper Volta when the film was made), this is set before the coming of Europeans, in a dusty and sun-drenched village. It moves at a gentle pace, as first we hear of a woman whose husband has disappeared, and then we see an abandoned child (Serge Yanogo), apparently mute, taken to a local village by a passing traveller. The villagers look after him as he grows, naming him ‘God’s Gift’ (Wênd Kûuni). The narrative, such as it is, involves his backstory, finding out where he comes from (which brings in local folk narratives, witchcraft and a rather brutal expulsion). However, it also suggests a time when such lives could be lived without the greater threat of the destabilisation created by the outside world, of a lost culture that no longer existed in Burkina Faso.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Gaston Kaboré; Cinematographers Issaka Thiombiano and Sékou Ouedraogo; Starring Serge Yanogo, Rosine Yanogo; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Saturday 29 June 2019.

Pour Don Carlos (For Don Carlos, 1921)

This 90-minute feature may have been cut down from a much longer original, but even what survives has had to be painstakingly put together by a team of restorers from various Cinemathèques, resulting in what was presented at Il Cinema Ritrovato as a work-in-progress. Truthfully I found the historical drama aspects difficult to follow, and there’s a lot that writer/director/star Musidora attempts to fit into this story of a political conflict over bringing Don Carlos (Charles VII) to the Spanish throne in the 1870s. However, Musidora clearly had a love affair with Spain (just as the camera has with her), as she returned to that setting for other films she made in the 20s. Here, she plays a supporter of Don Carlos called Allegria, and for much of the first half of the film is dressed resplendently in a military uniform, cutting quite the gloriously dashing figure. There’s a second section where she’s a poor peasant woman trying to free a colleague from captivity, which comes on rather suddenly, and wasn’t quite as compelling, but Musidora remains a charismatic screen presence.

A lady is accosted by a military officerCREDITS
Directors Musidora and Jacques Lasseyne; Writer Musidora (based on the novel by Pierre Benoît); Cinematographers Frank Daniau-Johnston and Léonce Crouan; Starring Musidora, Stephen Weber; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Mastroianni), Bologna, Wednesday 26 June 2019.

Hester Street (1975)

It’s been a while since I posted non-Criterion reviews over on my blog, but I’m always writing little capsules about every film I see elsewhere, so I thought I’d try adding them here too! Let’s see if I can keep this up better than some other features I’ve tried to add.


Set in late-19th century New York City, this period film focuses on Steven Keats’s character Yankle, who arrives in America from a Russian shtetl and soon shaves his beard to assume a new ‘Yankee’ appearance as Jake, despite still being very much immersed in and surrounded by Jewish life. When his wife Gitl (played by a young Carol Kane) arrives behind him with their son, the story starts to shift its focus towards her inability to assimilate, and the tensions this causes in the marriage. As such, it’s a story about immigrants in a new culture, and the ways they adjust. There’s a slightly stagy quality to the film in terms of the way it’s filmed (it reminds of some contemporary British television plays), but I suspect this may be more of an attempt to formally locate the film in its period setting: it has an archaic quality not just from its setting and from the costumes and the use of Yiddish, but also the formal strategies themselves. It’s not a silent movie though (aside from the credits sequence), but it pretty succesfully feels like a film preserved from another era entirely.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Joan Micklin Silver (based on the novella Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto by Abraham Cahan); Cinematographer Kenneth Van Sickle; Starring Steven Keats, Carol Kane; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 9 July 2019.

Criterion Sunday 244: Elena et les hommes (Elena and Her Men, 1956)

There’s a lot of flustered rushing about in this film that feels familiar from Jean Renoir’s work (like The Rules of the Game most famously, of course). It’s all bright and colourful, and so very very French in its way. Ingrid Bergman as a Polish princess with her many suitors is a delight, too. I’m not sure it’s Renoir’s wittiest film, but everyone comes across as a bit of a fool, even (and especially) the grandest of military and political men, when compared to the effortless charm of Bergman’s Elena, and that feels like the point of the film really. And it’s a good point to make once again, of course.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir; Writers Jean Serge and Renoir; Cinematographer Claude Renoir; Starring Ingrid Bergman, Jean Marais, Mel Ferrer; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Sunday 11 June 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Monday 11 March 2019).

Criterion Sunday 237: Sommarnattens leende (Smiles of a Summer Night, 1955)

I’ve seen this Bergman film before and what I like about this comedy — and it is very much a comedy, even if it has moments of existential doubt and crises of faith — is that its characters are so flamboyantly ridiculous. At least, I should say, its male characters: the pompous lawyer Fredrik with his ridiculous beard (though his charm seems largely that he’s aware of how he’s mocked); Count Malcolm with his high-handed manner; and the foolish young Henrik, who falls for Fredrik’s younger bride. Sondheim adapted all of this for a musical, and that all makes perfect sense when you see this parade of emotions play out on screen, with particularly strong roles for the older woman Desirée who so effortlessly manipulates everyone around her, not to mention the maid Petra who cares so little for their bourgeois affectations. It’s a fun film, and one that I wish more of Bergman’s filmography could be like.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer; Starring Eva Dahlbeck, Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand, Ulla Jacobsson; Length 111 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 22 February 2019 (and originally on DVD at home, London, Monday 12 August 2013).

Criterion Sunday 235: Il gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963)

There’s something about Visconti’s The Leopard that makes it feel like a relic from a previous era of filmmaking, or perhaps its ultimate summation in many ways. Of course, it’s set in the past (the 19th century), and tells a story of an aristocratic family headed by Burt Lancaster’s paterfamilias, confronting a new era of Italy’s reunification under Garibaldi. However, it has that period detail and a certain patina of widescreen cinematography and big, lush melodramatic action that suggests the prestige Hollywood pictures of the 1950s. The confrontation between the aristocracy and the middle-classes — the resigned sense of a world that’s changing beyond one’s control (which plays out primarily across Lancaster’s face) — is very much the kind of grand theme that feels of its time, rather less common in modern cinema (though entitled aristocrats will also be a staple of the costume drama). The way the film works best comes down in large part to Lancaster’s stillness while everything whirls around him — literally so in the last third, which is set amongst a grand ball. Those who are attentive to acting, as to sumptuous set design, will find a lot to like here, and there’s something about the grandeur of the entire undertaking that feels like it will only become more suggestive and richer the more times one watches it, so perhaps by the time I reach Lancaster’s age, I will unreservedly love this. For me now, the film feels like an exemplar (a glorious, expressive one admittedly) of a certain decadent form, just as Lancaster (and his nephew played by Alain Delon) represent that decadence in practice.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luchino Visconti; Writers Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli, Massimo Franciosa, Visconti and Suso Cecchi d’Amico (based on the novel by Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa); Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno; Starring Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, Alain Delon; Length 185 minutes.

Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 6 June 2003 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Sunday 6 January 2019).

Criterion Sunday 214: The Devil and Daniel Webster (aka All That Money Can Buy, 1941)

I was not enthused upon the prospect of watching this Criterion release, but its merits grew on me. It’s a moral fable, taken from the story of Faust, and like other tales of wealth coming to the wrong people (I’m thinking of Barry Lyndon myself), its central character is in some ways the weakest, with Jabez Stone being an insufferable weed of a man who sells his soul to the devil (consarn it!) and finds himself the recipient of untold wealth. It’s interesting though in the way it moralises about the responsibilities of wealth, siding it seems against capitalist exploitation (surely the natural mode of the American industrialist), this perhaps one of the surprising ways in which the wartime mood shifted people’s interests towards the common good. It all has the sheen of a fine picture, with some nice supporting performances, but it’s the film’s strong moral convictions that carries it through.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director William Dieterle; Writer Dan Totheroh and Stephen Vincent Benét (based on the short story by Benét); Cinematographer Joseph H. August; Starring James Craig, Anne Shirley, Edward Arnold, Walter Huston; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 15 April 2018.

Criterion Sunday 158: The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)

There’s a certain strain in English filmmaking — and I think it’s the best kind — that is very much upfront about the theatricality of their sources. This one starts with a proscenium framing, and never lets up reminding us about quite how staged it all is, in the manner of the best farces. Wilde’s lines are given weight — enunciated with an archness that seems to be playing to the back of a very large room — even if not always fully respected (or so I gather from the gasps of my wife at bits having been needlessly cut and rephrased), but it’s not really until the entrance of Edith Evans’ Lady Bracknell that the film starts to really work. The male leads (Redgrave and Denison), after all, seem far too old, even for the staid era the film is trying to portray. Still, those line readings are for the most part marvellous, and the director has small flourishes (a match-cut to a gardenia near the beginning) that betray some thought about staging.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Anthony Asquith (based on the play by Oscar Wilde); Cinematographer Desmond Dickinson; Starring Michael Redgrave, Michael Denison, Edith Evans, Joan Greenwood; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 7 September 2017.

Criterion Sunday 141: Les Enfants du paradis (aka Children of Paradise, 1945)

It’s a grand achievement; any review you look at will tell you that. Made when it was, at the scale it was made, it shouldn’t have been possible, but yet it’s a big, bold, crowded film teeming with life. Of course, it’s still a grand handsome well-mounted epic that trades on all those classic (and classical) qualities of Cinema Art: a woman whose amorous conquests, or those attempts of her suitors, seem to allegorise a political situation; a witty script of over-talkative thespian types exploring the power of art; big camera moves; and mass crowd scenes for spectacle. I admire it even if I (philistine that I may be) never quite love it, but admiration goes a long way so I expect I’ll watch it again some day and admit it’s a masterpiece.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Marcel Carné; Writer Jacques Prévert; Cinematographers Marc Fossard and Roger Hubert; Starring Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault, Pierre Brasseur, Marcel Herrand, María Casares; Length 190 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 25 June 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 29 January 2017).