राजा हरिश्चंद्र Raja Harishchandra (1913)

This is just a brief post, since I’m doing an India-themed week, to cover the first known Indian feature film, albeit one from which only two reels survive (so actually all we have is essentially a short film). However, a recent Indian season at the BFI in 2017 presented it with live accompaniment as part of a programme introducing the season as a whole, and it’s still rather fascinating to a see a glimpse of filmmaking from over a hundred years ago.


Being only a remaining reel or two of what was originally a longer film, and one which touches on Indian mythology at that, meant that I’d never be likely to follow what’s going on. That said, it sticks (as myth often does) to the grand themes of love, betrayal and the restoration of order by a divinity. The screening I saw also had a fantastic performance by a number of excellent traditional musicians so that will stay with me. The film itself, being (what survives of) the first ever Indian feature film is a fascinating document, though it has some nice effects too for what was an industry in its absolute infancy.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Dadasaheb Phalke दादासाहेब फाळके; Cinematographer Trymbak B. Telang திரிம்பாக் பி. தெலாங்கு; Starring D.D. Dabke दत्तात्रय दामोदर दबके, Anna Salunke अण्णा सालुंके; Length 12 minutes [original length 40 minutes].
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 20 May 2017.

प्यासा Pyaasa (1957)

A couple of weeks ago I did a themed week around documentaries because of the Sheffield Doc/Fest moving online (it’s still going until 10 July). However, it’s not the first film festival and won’t be the last to open online only this year. Next week Edinburgh International Film Festival is presenting a short online programme, and just this past week, the London (and Birmingham) Indian Film Festival has launched an online hub, which looks very similar to Sheffield’s. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to catch up with a few, but it’s a hectic time in filmgoing, albeit a very homebound one! In honour of this, I’m doing a week dedicated to Indian films, starting with some classics and then moving to more recent works (most of which I’ve seen are by women directors). I’ll start with Guru Dutt’s classic from 1957, whose bio makes him seem like he had something of a turbulent life, though it resulted in some great films.


A magnanimous and generous film about people living on the outside of acceptable society. The director Guru Dutt also plays the leading man, Vijay, a struggling poet (much of it sung) who has been more or less abandoned by his brothers and scorned by polite society, and who is only made to feel welcome by a prostitute (Waheeda Rehman). In a bitter twist of fate, he only finds fame after it is assumed he has died. The Wikipedia plot summary deals mostly with the film’s final third, as much of the earlier part of the film is more of an attempt to capture Vijay’s feelings, of being abandoned and shunned, and of failing to find love or respect, though somehow it’s never really depressing: the luminous cinematography, and the generosity of a small number of (similarly outsider) characters keep the film and its lead character from wallowing in misery. When plot machinations kick in, the grasping venality of those around Vijay is revealed.

Pyaasa film posterCREDITS
Director Guru Dutt गुरु दत्त; Writer Abrar Alvi अबरार अलवी; Cinematographer V.K. Murthy वीके मूर्ति; Starring Guru Dutt गुरु दत्त, Mala Sinha माला सिन्हा, Waheeda Rehman وحیدہ رحمن, Rehman रहमान; Length 146 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Saturday 24 November 2018.

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.

Criterion Sunday 329: Lacombe Lucien (Lacombe, Lucien, 1974)

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.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • 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.

Global Cinema, Argentina: The Fish Child (2009)

Argentina is one of the largest countries in the world and so has a wealth of cinema stretching back to its very earliest roots. There was a strong political cinema in the 1960s, most notably The Hour of the Furnaces from 1968. Since then, international auteurs have cropped up, not least Lucrecia Martel (one of my favourite filmmakers), along with a host of films by women or dealing with LGBT themes, amongst many other things.


Argentine flagArgentine Republic
population 44,939,000 | capital Buenos Aires (3.1m) | largest cities Buenos Aires, Córdoba (1.5m), Rosario (1.4m), Mendoza (1.1m), San Miguel de Tucumán (868k) | area 2,780,400 km2 | religion Roman Catholicism (63%) | official language none (Spanish) | major ethnicity European/Mestizo (97%) | currency Peso ($) [ARS] | internet .ar

Mountainous to the west, and bordering the Atlantic on the east, Argentina is the eighth largest country in the world, second to Brazil in South America, and with a huge amount of biodiversity. The name comes from the Italian for “silver coloured”, as it was believed by early European explorers to have silver mountains, and it used to be called “the Argentine” in English. Human habitation can be traced back to the Paleolithic era, though relatively sparsely populated by hunter-gatherer and farming tribes. Amerigo Vespucci brought the first Europeans to the region in the early-16th century, and Spanish colonisation continued throughout that century. A revolution in 1810 signalled a war of independence, declared on 9 July 1816. Liberal economic policies promoted a huge amount of European immigration, making it one of the world’s most wealthy and well-educated countries by the late-19th century. Following WW2, during which the country was mostly neutral, Juan Perón seized power and nationalised industry, bringing in social welfare and women’s suffrage (thanks to his wife Eva), but power swung back to a military leadership who pursued a brutal policy of state terrorism against leftists as power shifted back and forth. An ill-judged war against Britain in the Falklands led to the toppling of the military leadership, and a move back to democracy. The head of government is the President, alongside a Senate and Congress, overseeing 23 provinces and one autonomous city (the capital).

Given the country’s wealth, its cinema has long been one of the most developed on the continent, with a Lumière screening as early as 1896 prompting Argentinian filmmaking soon after. A ‘golden age’ followed in the 1930s, the pinnacle of indigenous production, though it dwindled under Perön. A ‘new cinema’ arose in the late-1960s, an unequivocally political and militant cinema, though there were more commercial strands of work and these were prominent in the 1970s when censorship and repression was at its height. There has been a resurgence in cinema of all kinds since the 1990s, sometimes called the New Argentine Cinema.


El niño pez (The Fish Child, 2009)

There’s quite a bit going on in here, both in terms of the mix of genre motifs, but also the complicated structure, and the layering of realism with magically surreal touches. These latter elements, which are tied to the film’s title, are a way of rendering poetic something that is painful and troubling — as magical realism so often does — within a story that broadly skirts around the issue of class in Argentina but in a ‘lovers on the run’ framework. Lala (Inés Efron) is the teenaged daughter of a rich (ethnically white) family, who is in love with the family’s maid Ailin (Mariela Vitale), a couple of years older than her, and naturally they plot to get away and live together, free from the various things tying them down. The structure of the film is then a way to reveal these things slowly to the audience, as first we understand a crime has been committed, and then who did it and why, and some of the reasons why the characters have come to this place. I’m not sure it’s always entirely successful, but it’s a heady blend of styles and influences, which constrains its LGBTQ themes within an artfully genre-tinged framework.

The Fish Child film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lucía Puenzo; Cinematographer Rolo Pulpeiro; Starring Inés Efron, Mariela Vitale; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Monday 22 July 2019.

Two 80s-Set Films by Pablo Trapero: El Bonaerense (2002) and The Clan (2015)

Both of these reviews, written back in 2016, are fairly short, but they deal with a filmmaker who’s considered one of the major forces in contemporary Argentinian cinema, crafting small dramas as easily as big family stories. The only other film of his I’ve seen was 2006’s Born and Bred, but his films have all been worth watching.


There’s a wash of grainy texture to El Bonaerense, a film set in the 1980s as far as I can tell (unless they really are as backwards as their morals), as a small town locksmith finds himself framed for a robbery. He’s swiftly swept up into the metropolitan police force (El Bonaerense, for Buenos Aires) by an uncle who’s owed a favour. That’s generally how the story proceeds, with even the ‘nice’ guys prone to taking bribes and administering a corrupt sense of justice. No one but the director comes out of this situation well.

Trapero remains a fine stylist for his more recent film The Clan, which is a true crime story also set in the heady Argentinean 1980s, and there are solid performances throughout. I gather that all crime films after Scorsese have to juxtapose their stories with cranked-up pop music, but if you’re going to do that, this film does it pretty well in following one Argentine family, who are up to all kinds of no good. Trapero seems interested in interrogating his country’s past via stories of low-lifers, and he keeps the films moving along a swift clip, with no little style to the way he frames and edits his work.

El Bonaerense film posterEl Bonaerense (2002) [Argentina/Chile/France/Netherlands]
Director Pablo Trapero; Writers Nicolás Gueilburt, Ricardo Ragendorfer, Dodi Shoeuer, Trapero and Daniel Valenzuela; Cinematographer Guillermo Nieto; Starring Jorge Román, Victor Hugo Carrizo; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 28 August 2016.

The Clan film posterEl clan (The Clan, 2015) [Argentina/Spain]
Director/Writer Pablo Trapero; Cinematographer Julián Apezteguia; Starring Guillermo Francella, Peter Lanzani; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Sunday 11 September 2016.

XXY (2007)

Several other Argentinian films deal with gender identity issues, whether The Last Summer of La Boyita (2009) or Puenzo’s other work like The Fish Child (2009). The review here is of her earlier film, also dealing with an intersex person, and I think it’s pretty subtle and interesting, though undoubtedly it’s worth making a content note that there is a fair amount of prejudice the lead character has to overcome, as so often in this genre.


I like this coming of age story about Alex (Inés Efron), a young intersex woman — or at least that’s the identity she has chosen. It has a lyrical and gentle quality to it, although clearly not all the events in the film are in any way gentle — indeed, there are some really flagrantly nasty encounters, but on the whole they don’t define the character’s story or the way the film presents itself. But aside from Alex herself, it’s also about the family and people around her, primarily her relationship with her father (Ricardo Darín), and it puts the focus on Alex’s choice of identity, and the difficulty she has in doing that at what is already a trying time of life. I’d say it takes the genetic matter that its title alludes to, and makes it into a rounded, human story.

XXY film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lucía Puenzo; Cinematographer Natasha Braier; Starring Inés Efron, Ricardo Darín, Valeria Bertuccelli; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 3 March 2018.

El último verano de La Boyita (The Last Summer of La Boyita, 2009)

A number of the Argentinian films I’ll be covering this week deal with gender issues, in what I feel (albeit from my particular viewpoint) as being fairly sensitively-handled. Still, it’s interesting to see this country’s cinema deal with sexuality in these ways, but it’s a large and disparate country whose culture pulls in many directions.


Sparse as coming-of-age films (or indeed any films?) about intersex people are, I already feel like Argentinian filmmakers have form on this, given there’s XXY as well a couple of years before this one. This story takes the viewpoint of the young girl Jorgelina (or Georgie, played by Guadalupe Alonso), who may be cisgendered but feels excluded from the world of grown-up women, as her sister is a few years older and starting to show interest in boys. This is how the first half of the film goes, really, as Georgie, having been a close playmate to her sister, is more and more sidelined during an annual family trip to the rural area of the title, and we see her just kicking around the countryside and the local farms, where she has another friend, Mario (Nicolás Treise), who seems to be going through his own coming-of-age. And that’s where the story takes a turn towards the gender issues, which I think are handled fairly sensitively: there’s a sense we get of Mario also being slightly set apart from his older peers, but there’s never any heavy-handedness around how he identifies, just these discreet scenes with Georgie’s doctor father, and when he tries to explain Mario’s physiological differences, she (and the soundtrack) just puts her fingers in her ears to drown him out. It’s all very gentle and shows a great sense of place, the camera never too insistently prying into young people or their growing bodies — and this may be where having a woman director makes a real difference.

The Last Summer of La Boyita film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Julia Solomonoff; Cinematographer Lucio Bonelli; Starring Guadalupe Alonso, Nicolás Treise, Mirella Pascual; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 14 March 2019.

Mi amiga del parque (My Friend from the Park, 2015)

It feels like since the arrival of Lucrecia Martel in the new millennium, there’s been a flourishing of women directors in Argentine and South American cinema, covering a range of genres. Looking at her filmography, Ana Katz, an actor and director who emerged around the same time, has tended towards more populist forms like comedy, though this one sits much more in one character’s head, as a sort of psychological horror film of sorts.


An odd film which starts in the park of the title, then the comfortable apartment of lone mother Liz (Julieta Zylberberg), whose husband is off overseas working, and seems to be telling a story of a middle-class woman’s struggle to parent her baby by herself. It then sets up a meeting with another single mother, Rosa (played by the director, Ana Katz), an older woman who is clearly less well-off, in that park and starts to veer into psychological terror territory. It continues to flirt with playing out Liz’s increasingly paranoid fantasies, stopping just short of that, but nevertheless says something about the incipient terror of motherhood, not to mention being a story of the way class relations play out, as it maintains a constantly uneasy tone in the friendship between the two women.

My Friend from the Park film posterCREDITS
Director Ana Katz; Writers Inés Bortagaray and Katz; Cinematographer Guillermo Nieto [as “Bill Nieto”]; Starring Julieta Zylberberg, Ana Katz, Maricel Álvarez; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Tuesday 3 April 2018.

Kékszakállú (2016)

A number of South American films have lurked in the interstices between fiction and documentary, and this striking fiction debut from a documentarian is exactly one such. It barely even has any plot to speak of, but is certainly not lacking in style.


I don’t believe any summary of what happens in this film can ever really get at what it’s like to watch it, given how little plot figures in it, and in that respect it may be as much documentary as it is drama. It’s more of an atmospheric mood piece, beautiful images of a resort, of homes and of people (mainly women) moving through these spaces, with occasional snatches of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle serving as a sort of alienation effect. It’s beautiful and carefully composed, but I imagine its effectiveness is largely down to your mood, as it washes over you. I liked it, but I didn’t fully grasp it, and that sense of mystery is palpable.

Kékszakállú film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Gastón Solnicki; Cinematographers Diego Poleri and Fernando Lockett; Starring Laila Maltz; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Tuesday 24 April 2018.