Criterion Sunday 330: Au revoir les enfants (1987)

The title is taken from the final words of the priest, Father Jean, headmaster of the Catholic boarding school to which its protagonists are sent from Paris at the height of World War II, but it could as easily be bidding goodbye to them from where they live with their parents, or indeed to their innocence of course. The film builds up its picture of these wartime kids leaving the city, and shows the mysterious appearance of a few more kids to their classes early on, one of whom, Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö), sits next to our main protagonist, Julien (Gaspard Manesse), who can be taken as something of a stand-in for the director, given this story is based on his own experiences. It soon enough becomes clear that these new kids are Jewish, and so the tension builds and remains through otherwise quotidian scenes of playing with the class, or eating food together. Characters who seem to be on their side are revealed to have secret collaborationist tendencies, and even refined upper-class spaces seethe with barely-hidden prejudice. However, it’s all handled in a way that allows us as audience to come to that realisation with Julien, without overburdening the narrative, and the acting is naturalistic. The film is shot by Renato Berta, who worked with Straub/Huillet, and brings a certain starkness to the imagery, avoiding sentimentality. This is a very fine film about a bleak period in history.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Extras which had been on a supplementary disc as part of the original box set are included on the Blu-ray reissue, most notably the Charlie Chaplin short The Immigrant (1917), which is seen being screened to the kids within the film, with musical accompaniment from Irène Jacob in her first film role. I’m hardly a connoisseur of Chaplin’s films (I’ve only seen a small handful), but you can see a certain virtuosity in the staging of this, in which Chaplin’s familiar “Tramp” character is an immigrant on a ship bound for New York. We’re introduced to him leaning over the side while the ship rolls dramatically, suggesting he’s heaving his guts out, but the first gag reveals no, he’s just catching a fish. This continues with all kinds of physical comedy — there’s a particularly nice scene in the mess hall, where food slides between the immigrants — and a sweet bit where he anonymously helps out a young woman (Edna Purviance) who’s had her money stolen by a gambler whom he’s won it off. The ending with Purviance is rather abrupt, but it caps a film with a number of solid comedy setpieces.
  • Another extra is a five-minute visual essay about one of the more troublesome characters, an outcast named Joseph, trying to locate and understand what drives him, and the difficulties that drive him to his final decisive action in the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Louis Malle; Cinematographer Renato Berta; Starring Gaspard Manesse, Raphaël Fejtö, Francine Racette; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 28 June 2020.

Even When I Fall (2017)

One of the major reasons I like to watch documentaries is that they bring me stories from all parts of the world, from all walks of life, and from the perspectives of people whose lives and experiences I will never share and could often never be part of. This film is directed by two British women (from an anthropology background, I gather), but is filmed in Nepal, touching on child trafficking and exploitation but in a way that really benefits from the time the filmmakers spent with their subjects. It’s a real problem with documentaries that the best ones require a huge amount of time and patience to make, whereas ones which are dashed off quickly tend to be insubstantial and misleading. This film is produced by Elhum Shakerifar (Hakawati Films), who has also produced the excellent Of Love & Law and A Syrian Love Story amongst others, and programmes Middle Eastern and North African films at the London Film Festival (quite often providing some of my favourite film experiences at the LFF each year).


Seeing a synopsis of this documentary, I was not expecting very much, but in blending an account of human trafficking of children from poor, rural areas of Nepal into travelling circuses in India, with the story of their rescue and rehabilitation into their own native circus based in Kathmandu, the film ends up being rather lovely. It’s certainly not a combination that one might expect to pay off: earnest accounts of the wonder of the circus arts hardly make for a natural bedfellow with harrowing accounts of what is essentially slavery, you would think. However, there’s an assuredness to the direction and photography that is aided by, as ever, charismatic and watchable lead characters, most notably two women who have grown up in these circuses, and have found a new sense of direction once reunited with their families. Of course, there are difficult questions — most notably, why their parents sold them in the first place — but the women are all united in trying to ensure that this practice does not continue, as well as fighting against the prejudices people have against circus performers (which seem to roughly align with what 19th century Victorians thought about actors).

Even When I Fall film posterCREDITS
Directors Kate McLarnon and Sky Neal; Cinematographer Ben Marshall; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Monday 16 April 2018.

Criterion Sunday 323: I bambini ci guardano (The Children Are Watching Us, 1943)

Vittorio De Sica and writer Cesare Zavattini collaborated on a number of the best-known Italian post-war films, still regularly getting onto those best ever lists, ones like Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. This film, made in 1942 and intended for release in 1943 though scuppered somewhat by an escalating war, marks their first collaboration (or the first one that Zavattini put his name to anyway), and it has a lot of the hallmarks that would come to define De Sica’s particular brand of humanism. It has a great empathy for the character of Pricò (Luciano De Ambrosis), a small child of six-years-old, caught in the middle of a wrenching breakup between his parents (Isa Pola and Emilio Cigoli), as the mother is tempted away from the marriage and her son by her lover Roberto. The film’s big events though — the departure of the mother, and the climactic departure (as it were) of the father — are telegraphed very subtly, as the camera remains focused on the child, often indeed being at quite a low angle to the events. The lighting too can be equal to the drama, as in a confrontation between father and son where even at his tender age the son realises he mustn’t reveal what he knows or it will break his dad. It has a melodramatic way, then, but underplayed in the style that would come to define Italian Neorealism, and — for a film made at this time — entirely without any wartime propaganda.

[NB The Wikipedia page lists this as a 1943 film, but it may never have received a proper release that year, which is why Criterion has it down as 1944.]

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are only two extras on the disc, being 8-minute interviews with its surviving star Luciano De Ambrosis (who played the kid), as he reflects on working with De Sica and how much he really remembered about the shoot, and De Sica scholar Callisto Casulich, who gives a bit of background to the filming and release.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Vittorio De Sica; Writers De Sica, Cesare Zavattini, Cesare Giulio Viola, Margherita Maglione, Adolfo Franci and Gherardo Gherardi (based on the novel Pricò by Viola); Cinematographers Giuseppe Caracciolo and Romolo Garroni; Starring Luciano De Ambrosis, Isa Pola, Emilio Cigoli; Length 84 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 6 June 2020.

Criterion Sunday 318: Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games, 1952)

Nowadays this seems to rather divide the critics I follow, though this was hugely lauded on its release (at least internationally), and so I wonder if this plays differently with parents. It certainly fits into the sort of faux-rustic and hazily sentimentalised vision of traditional values that’s always played well to a certain strain of middlebrow filmgoers, at least when it’s in French (and not everything derided by the New Wave as cinéma du papa was bad, but there hasn’t been any shortage of these kinds of titles in all the years since then). Perhaps I’m just betraying some kind of inner cynicism, but this feels too calculated to be effective. The rough, rude peasantry — whether the poor couple seen right at the start who barely give a thought to the bereaved kid, the farmer family who take in Paulette (quite against their instincts), their bitter rivals in the village — all seem to exist solely to contrast with the innocence of the two children. There are also the bookended titles, further pulling this away into the realm of the cozily fabulistic, though the film’s opening minutes have a simple, vicious intensity that is never quite matched for the rest of the running time. Together the two kids make a little graveyard in a derelict mill to all the dead animals they find, starting with Paulette’s beloved dog, getting themselves into trouble with the local priest as the boy starts grabbing all the crosses he can find. I don’t mean to be too down on it, though, because there’s still plenty to commend it, particularly in terms of the expressive acting of these kids. Let’s just say this isn’t to my taste and leave it at that, because it’s certainly brought plenty of others joy.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The disc presents the alternative opening and ending for the film (all that remains in the finished film is the credits written on the pages of a book), but it explicitly has the two kids living happily, hardly peasants any more, and playing by a big pond, where the boy tells the little girl a story about children very much like them. It’s a framing that puts the horrifying context of the film safely in the past, and it’s surely to the film’s credit that they didn’t end up using these sequences.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director René Clément; Writers Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost (based on the novel by François Boyer); Cinematographer Robert Juillard; Starring Brigitte Fossey, Georges Poujouly; Length 86 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 17 May 2020.

Global Cinema 1: Afghanistan – Stray Dogs (2004)

I like watching films from around the world but I thought I might start a regular feature of working rather more methodically through all the world’s countries. Perhaps in time I shall make it to smaller subdivisions, but let’s start big. I had thought I might work through them from largest to smallest, but I don’t want to put all the challenge of finding films from obscure nations at the end of this project, so I’m going more or less alphabetically, starting with Afghanistan. I’ll provide a small potted summary of (let’s face it) the Wikipedia page in each entry.


Afghanistan flagIslamic Republic of Afghanistan افغانستان
population 32.2 million | capital Kabul (4.3m) (کابل) | largest cities Kabul, Kandahar (614k), Herat (556k), Mazar-i-Sharif (469k), Kunduz (357k) | area 652,230 km2 | religion Islam (99.7%) | official languages Dari (دری) and Pashto (پښتو) | major ethnicities Pashtun (47%) and Tajik (27%) | currency Afghani (Af/Afs) [AFN] | internet .af

A mountainous country located on the historic Silk Road, connecting it to major trade routes. Its name historically means “land of the Pashtuns” although it has a wider modern application, and though populated since prehistoric times, politically it was established in the 18th century by the Hotak dynasty and the Durrani Empire. The British, of course, made their influence felt in the following century and fought three Anglo-Afghan Wars, with independence officially declared on 19 August 1919. It was a kingdom until a coup in 1978 installed a President as the head of a democracy. In recent times, fundamentalist Taliban forces took control in the late-1990s, but were pulled into regional conflict following the September 11 attacks, which led to the toppling of this regime and the reinstalment of democracy.

Cinema first came only to the royal court in Afghanistan and it wasn’t until 1923 that the first film was publicly screened. The first Afghan film production was in 1946, and regular production didn’t start until the late-1960s, with training from the Soviets. The Taliban cracked down on cinema upon coming to power in 1996, and film production didn’t begin again until 2002. The NZ documentary A Flickering Truth (2015) was made about the Afghan film archives, while Motley’s Law (2015) is about an American lawyer working in the country. An interesting recent film set in the 1980s is the drama/musical The Orphanage (2019).


سگ‌های ولگرد Sag-haye velgard (Stray Dogs, 2004)

In the 2000s, the Makhmalbaf family really seemed to have a stranglehold on portrayals of post-Taliban Afghanistan, and this film by Marzieh (Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s wife) joins those of her daughters Samira and Hana in depicting some of the turmoil and poverty of the country in this era. It uses neorealist tropes in a very knowing way, even using footage from Bicycle Thieves (1948) as a set-up for the denouement, as well as hooking into a venerable Iranian tradition of films using child protagonists (the girl Gol-Ghotai and the boy Zahed) as a window into a harsh and difficult world. Even a cute dog only sharpens the sense of desperation, and the two kids first try to get the girl’s mother out of jail and then try to get themselves thrown into jail with her. If it sounds tearjerking, it’s never quite played that way, as everyone is just making an effort to get on with living.

Stray Dogs film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Marzieh Meshkini مرضیه مشکینی; Cinematographers Ebrahim Ghafori ابراهیم غفوری and Maysam Makhmalbaf میثم مخملباف; Starring Gol-Ghotai گل غتی, Zahed زاهد; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 24 April 2018.

Systemsprenger (System Crasher, 2019)

Another film that was at last year’s London Film Festival is this drama about a young girl (not yet 10 years old) who’s had a troubled upbringing and lashes out at everyone around her. It’s about the limits of empathy within bureaucratic systems, despite the best attempts of people within those systems.


This is a tough film in some ways — after all, its protagonist Benni (Bernadette, though she hates that name, played brilliantly by Helena Zengel) starts off being a deeply unpleasant young girl, lashing out at everyone around her and getting into fights easily. She’s first seen in a hospital, covered in bruises, being monitored by doctors. However, over the course of the film we come to, if not always tolerate her, at least understand something of how she has grown the way she has, and the filmmaking is engrossing, wrapping you up in her world and those of the (often patient, sometimes very much not) carers around her. It becomes a film as much about how society is shaped in ways that don’t tolerate or accept non-conformist attitudes, about how difficult it is to find the resources to deal with those who won’t conform, and how bureaucratic systems just aren’t designed to keep up with real people and their problems at times. Of course, Benni is trouble but nobody really has the time or energy to look after her the way she wants and so she finds herself lashing out, in ways that would get her killed if she were older — and may yet get her killed, in the troublesome future which awaits her, a future that her most patient carer (Micha, played by Albrecht Schuch) lays out clearly for her. I suspect we all know kids a bit like Benni (albeit hopefully not quite as out of control); it’s a thin line between just being vocally unhappy sometimes, and being treated as problem that needs to be locked away, and though people try to help, the institutions that support them only seem to be geared towards incarceration, which leaves our “system crasher” with so few options despite her age not even being in double digits.

System Crasher film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nora Fingscheidt; Cinematographer Yunus Roy Imer; Starring Helena Zengel, Albrecht Schuch, Gabriela Maria Schmeide; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at home (Curzon Home Cinema streaming), London, Thursday 30 April 2020.

パパはわるものチャンピオン Papa Wa Warumono Chanpion (My Dad Is a Heel Wrestler, 2018)

Every year the Japan Foundation has a touring programme that takes over the ICA for a week or two, and then goes on the road around the country, with a (fairly random) selection of Japanese films, mostly recent but a few classics also. One of them this year was this 2018 family drama based on a series of children’s picture books, which has an appropriately engaging, childlike and colourfully comic sense of its subject.


I’m not a major follower of wrestling but this film goes a fair way to covering its appeal, not just to kids but a range of fans. However, it very neatly uses a child’s relationship to his father as a way to introduce the sport through very literally fresh young eyes, assuming that we the audience are learning like the kid about ‘faces’ and ‘heels’ (good guys and bad guys), and that maybe just because you play a bad guy doesn’t mean you are one (that much is clear right from the very start when our beefy hero of a dad, played by real wrestler Hiroshi Tanahashi, helps an old lady across a bridge). Indeed, there are a lot of big, open emotions on show in what is unquestionably a sentimental movie at times, but it’s just so very sweet that it makes you forgive it for its earnestness. My favourite character was the geeky woman who writes for a small town paper (or maybe it’s a lifestyle magazine), and who is obsessively interested in wrestling much to the amusement of her colleagues — though somehow she also manages to become friends with the kid, so clearly the parents aren’t looking out for him much. Anyway, it’s all very sweet and likeable and very much in love with wrestling.

My Dad Is a Heel Wrestler film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kyohei Fujimura 藤村享平 (based on the picture book by Masahiro Itabashi 板橋雅弘 and Hisanori Yoshida 吉田尚令); Cinematographer Hironori Yamasaki; Starring Hiroshi Tanahashi 棚橋弘至, Kokoro Terada 寺田心, Yoshino Kimura 木村佳乃, Riisa Naka 仲里依紗; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Saturday 8 February 2020.

Шар нохойн там Shar nokhoir tam (The Cave of the Yellow Dog, 2005)

Following up further with the BFI Player’s women directors list, having already gone on at length about the offerings in my post about My Twentieth Century, I spotted an odd little film I’d not previously heard of, a Mongolian drama set out on the steppes amongst a traditional family, with a gentle energy (it’s only a U certificate).


This Mongolian film very much reminds me of those 1980s and 1990s Iranian films, which were always so empathetic and understanding towards children and families — though of course they also often symbolically loaded the films further with political allegory that is not quite so relevant here. However, some of the same strategies are at work in terms of crafting a gentle story that barely really has any plot — a young girl played by Nansal Batchuluun takes in a dog, the presence of which is resisted by her parents — but is more of a pretext for presenting traditional peripatetic Mongolian life on the steppes, in all its harsh beauty, as the family settles for a time in various valleys before packing up and moving on. It all looks great, and it never really rouses itself much from its ambling pace, but partially that’s just the movement of life, and it’s a wonderful thing.

The Cave of the Yellow Dog film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Byambasuren Davaa Даваагийн Бямбасүрэн; Cinematographer Daniel Schönauer; Starring Nansal Batchuluun Нансал Батчулуун, Urjindorjyn Batchuluun Ү. Батчулуун; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Thursday 2 April 2020.

In My Blood It Runs (2019)

It’s the end of my themed week of films by Australian women directors, so here’s a film I have seen while actually visiting Australia. I could have gone to see the Miss Fisher film (although strictly speaking it’s not directed by a woman), but instead I chose to see this one about Aboriginal people that touches on all kinds of issues that permeate many societies, my own included, but are specific perhaps in their details to this place.


It’s fair to say that Australia certainly has its problems, none more vexed than around the treatment of Aboriginal Australians. The legacy of colonialism, brought by the British, means that many are more or less confined to rural areas where inadequate support is provided for education and employment, and it’s through the case of one child (Dujuan) that this documentary focuses itself, and it credits Dujuan and his family as co-directors of the piece (some of his video footage is seen during the film too, meaning he’s an assistant cinematographer too). Dujuan is being brought up by his family to know about his own culture and language, while also being given an education by a Northern Territories school that seems to little understand or care for his cultural background (a schoolteacher absentmindedly laughing off her lack of understanding of Aboriginal beliefs is pure condescension). As a result he is unhappy and finds himself at odds with the state, which is increasingly under pressure for its violent and repressive treatment of young ‘delinquents’ who fall through the gaps (and as one on-screen statistic points out, 100% of NT youth being held in detention are Aboriginals). But while the film itself is never strident, it makes clear the need for changes and for better understanding and empathy towards the young kids being left behind.

In My Blood It Runs film posterCREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Maya Newell; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Nova, Melbourne, Wednesday 4 March 2020.

Three Films by Taika Waititi: Boy (2010), Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) and Jojo Rabbit (2019)

As far as the international reach of New Zealand cinema goes, I would guess that Taika Waititi is probably the most successful export of this decade. He made his directing debut with the quirky Eagle vs Shark (2007), starring Jemaine Clement from the Flight of the Conchords, which I somewhat liked if not quite as much as some people did. His next film was Boy, which took its time to find international audiences (it didn’t get a release in the UK until many years later) but is generally regarded as one of his finest works, and he followed it up with the low-budget Wellington vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows (2014), which I’ve reviewed elsewhere on this site. After the success of Hunt for the Wilderpeople his following films have had a far more international flavour, without entirely losing his distinctive voice (given he does like to cast himself in his projects). The film I’ve omitted below is Thor: Ragnarok (2017), which as Marvel superhero movie, can’t quite be fit into the same category, though it retains plenty of his humour and is one of the better titles in that seemingly endless run of superhero films.

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