Algeria, even more than many of its North African neighbours, has been a subject of a lot of filmmaking, thanks to the Wars of Independence from France that tore the country apart in the 1950s and 1960s, a cause that galvanised a generation of French politically-engaged filmmakers who came of age in the New Wave and were receptive to the radical student politics of May 1968. The struggle is most famously covered in The Battle of Algiers (1966), but there are relatively few films told from the Algerian side. One such film, a work garlanded with plenty of awards and which is often found on lists of the greatest Arab cinema, is the one I cover below.
A grand, sweeping, widescreen epic of Algerian liberation from colonialist oppression which covers several decades up to the wars of independence in the 1950s. The film primarily follows a village farmer called Ahmed (Yorgo Voyagis, a Greek actor), who leaves his village for the larger local city with a family, and suffers various privations, especially during World War II. Their lives are almost entirely cut off from Europe, so the wars of France against Germany seem like nothing more than an opportunity to replace their despised colonial masters. Still, they are sucked in, and return to famine and typhoid, at which point a man arrives, banished to this remote outpost, and quickly starts to foment further revolutionary consciousness amongst the people. This is a new restoration commissioned by the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival and which hopefully will bring this Palme d’Or-winning Algerian film back to wider prominence. The director’s preferred cut is 157 minutes, and has some of that sweeping, epic, desert quality of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), as well as a potent message of fighting against brutal oppression, but it remains always grounded in the small-scale story of Ahmed and his family.
Director Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina محمد الأخضر حمينة; Writers Rachid Boudjedra رشيد بوجدرة Tewfik Fares توفيق فارس and Lakhdar-Hamina; Cinematographer Marcello Gatti; Starring Yorgo Voyagis Γιώργος Βογιατζής, Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina; Length 157 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Friday 29 June 2018.
I’m spending a week looking at Arabic language cinema, from around the Arabic-speaking world, stretching from North Africa across the Middle East. One of the key early figures in modern Arab cinema is the work of Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, and indeed Egypt has always been the powerhouse cinematic country of the whole region, with a range of popular cinema rivalling that of Bollywood to the East. Chahine integrates influences from France and the Soviet Union, amongst other traditions, creating some of the greatest works of modern cinema and he has certainly been influential in Arab cinema. I’ve already reviewed one of his earlier films, the excellent melodrama Cairo Station (1958), though these 60s works feel like quite different films.
Continue reading “Two Films by Youssef Chahine: Saladin the Victorious (1963) and The Land (1969)”
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.
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.
Over 50 years on and there’s still an enormous amount of clarity and power in this film set against the backdrop of the last few years of the French occupation of Algeria, during the Algerian War, effectively a battle for independence. Pontecorvo’s style emphasises its indebtedness to documentary, by using handheld cameras and a grainy high-contrast black-and-white image that suggests newsreel footage at times. But its thematic achievement is in treating both sides with some semblance of equality, even if it’s clear that the moral force is on the side of the Algerians. While the FLN agitators are not dismissed as mere terrorists, there’s also clearly conflict about their methods and targets, and they are hardly romanticised as freedom fighters. Meanwhile, the film does not in any way exonerate the French in this conflict either, who are ultimately the aggressors, as the colonialist power. The French commander, a tall man in shades, strikes a heroic figure, but despite his successes against the Nazis, his tactics are questioned here, and he remains morally compromised as a player in the drama. The central character arc is for Brahim Haggiag’s Ali, who ascends from petty thief to a figure of central importance within the FLN resistance as a result of prison radicalisation. The film’s narrative takes his story, starting with the end and looping back in time to bring the story full circle, all the while moving the action forward propulsively. As such, the film never slows down for much of its two hours, a very watchable film about a complex struggle that never feels like it’s taking an easy way out.
- The first disc includes a documentary called Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth (1992), a fairly brief TV piece which has Edward Said reflecting on the relatively few films of Pontecorvo, and why he should have largely disappeared from the cinephile conversation by the 1990s. There’s an interview with Pontecorvo himself, who suggests some reasons (a fear of failure seems to be chief among them), and there’s some good context on the making of all three of the features mentioned, particularly The Battle of Algiers.
- There are interviews with five directors who speak about the film’s importance to their own craft, picking out elements of the style and its production, not that you’d necessarily expect it from people like Steven Soderbergh or Mira Nair.
- There are also loads of other films and contextualising documents, which I’ll add here as I watch them.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Gillo Pontecorvo; Writers Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas; Cinematographer Marcello Gatti; Starring Brahim Haggiag براهيم حجاج, Jean Martin; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at National Library, Wellington, Thursday 20 May 1999 (also earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, January 1998, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Sunday 19 May 2019).
I do sort of understand what’s going on here in this strange, carnivalesque, alternately gleeful and bleak evocation of pre-war and wartime Germany in the 1930s and 40s. Its protagonist is a young child, Oskar (David Bennent), who has foreseen his future and decided he wants to remain in the body of a 3-year-old (well, an 11-year-old for the purposes of the actor anyway), using the drum of the title to beat out his own tune as he first reacts against the encroaching Nazification and then finds himself dragged in as well. There are all kinds of sprightly filmmaking touches, the hand-cranked sped-up film of the intro flashing back many decades, the absurdist plot and character details, and of course the ridiculous perversity of this teenager-in-a-child’s-body growing, learning, reading and falling in love. Yet I never can quite connect with him or care about his story: he’s a nasty character — and yes, of course he is, that entirely makes sense — and his story is one with parallels in the bleak hopelessness of the Nazi era, but his childish, imp-like quality is just incessant, and it becomes grating. I never much take to magic realism or carnivalesque absurdity, and there’s plenty of the latter on show here.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Volker Schlöndorff; Writers Schlöndorff, Jean-Claude Carrière and Franz Seitz (based on the novel by Günter Grass); Cinematographer Igor Luther; Starring David Bennent, Mario Adorf, Angela Winkler; Length 163 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 1 January 2019.
An odd slow-burn of a film, pitched somewhere between horror (of which it has elements) and the everyday ordinary tension of living under the fear of war and all its manifestations. It’s really something of a psychological thriller about two women slowly losing their minds under such circumstances, a mother and her daughter-in-law linked by their missing-in-action son/husband. There’s a jazz score and deep visceral high-contrast black-and-white cinematography, evoking a really tangible sense of place, the heat and humidity of the swamplands, the sweat dripping off bodies, and the punishment of death. This is a film which would surely bear rewatching on the big screen.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Kaneto Shindo 新藤兼人; Cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda 黒田清巳; Starring Nobuko Otowa 乙羽信子, Jitsuko Yoshimura 吉村実子, Kei Sato 佐藤慶; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 9 September 2018.
There’s a lot of really strong stuff in this film, set in 1919 towards the latter stages of the Russian Civil War, but it all seems so curiously distant and alienated, perhaps because it’s partly a film about the way the ravages and atrocity of war makes people curiously distant and alienated from one another. They don’t even always speak the same language to one another (sometimes French, sometimes German), as if even at a production level they couldn’t quite connect. It’s a film of passionate feelings conveyed coldly, suppressed and pushed away, and finally snuffed out. The black-and-white cinematography is beautiful and glacial, and Margarethe von Trotta (usually a director in her own right, but who wrote the script with two other women adapted from a novel by Marguerite Yourcenar) is excellent in the lead role of Sophie, who almost callously demands the love of Erich (Matthia Habich), an officer, who pushes her away, leading them to get tangled up in a strange psychosexual relationship (somewhat reminding me of The Night Porter too). However, the film never enunciates anything quite so clearly as that, and a lot of these dramatic shifts in their relationship seem to happen off-screen or almost in passing. But as I said, it has that strange distancing affect to it.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Volker Schlöndorff; Writers Jutta Brückner, Margarethe von Trotta and Geneviève Dormann (based on the novel Le Coup de grâce by Marguerite Yourcenar); Cinematographer Igor Luther; Starring Margarethe von Trotta, Matthias Habich; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 21 January 2018.
Another of Lav Diaz’s epic-length films of people wandering about in the woods, which appeals to a certain type of self-congratulatorily masochistic film geek (I can hardly exempt myself). That said, it’s not that it doesn’t have its power, just that it’s rather attenuated if you’re not particularly familiar with Filipino history.
This is a story set around 1896 against the background of the Philippine Revolution, whose leader was Andres Bonifacio. Most of the characters in this film are connected with the key players and events (such the execution of Dr Jose Rizal, and the betrayal of Bonifacio by another revolutionary leader), and these are mentioned plenty of times, especially during an opening section set in the city, which features some lengthy dialogues in English and Spanish, but also in the long period of searching that Bonifacio’s wife Gregoria (Hazel Orencio) undertakes. I gather, too, from some quick Wikipedia research that at least some of the key characters (the ailing political leader Simoun, for example, who is seen for much of the film being carried across the islands by two retainers in the company of his friend) may be drawn from a novel by Rizal, albeit one based in part on the revolutionary actors in this national drama.
My point, though, is mostly that this is a film which is densely filled with allusions to Filipino history and literature, and which probably makes most sense on that level. There are occasional flourishes of supernatural mystery (a masked character who appears in the forest), somewhat à la Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but the real star here is the fabulous monochrome cinematography. The landscape is lush and threatening by turns, and some of the set-pieces are really something.
However, my immersion in the world of Lav Diaz, for all that it has many pleasures, does make me greatly appreciate the concision of a good 90-minute film.
Director/Writer Lav Diaz; Cinematographer Larry Manda; Starring John Lloyd Cruz, Piolo Pascual, Hazel Orencio; Length 485 minutes.
Seen at London Gallery West, London, Thursday 2 March 2017.
As a key text in the development of the horror film (not to mention the pseudo-documentary), I found this all a bit underwhelming really, even once you get past the early PowerPoint presentation section about the history of witchcraft. There’s some gorgeous stuff in it, and a sequence with a penitent elderly lady was clearly cribbed by Dreyer for his The Passion of Joan of Arc. But as a film it’s text-heavy and didactic while also never really getting particularly insightful about the underlying context for all of it (the patriarchal structures oppressing women in the mediæval era). Still, the director does have a coda linking these mediæval methods of control to his own times (“in 1921!” an aside says, as if the modern world could never countenance such superstition), and he essays a pretty camp tongue-flicking Satan.
Criterion Extras: Aside from the original version and its commentary, there’s a shorter 1968 re-edit narrated by William S. Burroughs with a jazz score. In another short piece, the director Benjamin Christensen introduces his film for a 1941 re-release, addressed to camera in a stentorian manner while wearing a white lab coat, in passing explaining the magic of silent over sound cinema. There are a few outtakes from the filming, more notes towards the finished project rather than actual scenes that have been excised. Finally, there’s a gallery of images from the film as well as the sources for Christensen’s own slideshow.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Benjamin Christensen; Cinematographer Johan Ankerstjerne; Starring Benjamin Christensen; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Wednesday 2 November 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1998).
I’m still of the opinion that Kasi Lemmons is among the most underrated of directors currently working (if, as ever with African-American women directors, not nearly enough). Her film Black Nativity was largely ignored (though delightfully odd), and here, working within a fairly mainstream period biopic vein, she manages to wring something that feels fresh. Of course it helps to have such a great cast — and Cheadle, Ejiofor and, most of all, Taraji P. Henson are on top form. It takes the story of a Washington DC radio personality, Petey Greene (whom I’d never heard of, but that’s on me), and uses it as a starting point to make a story of America in the 60s and 70s. It’s not perhaps the deepest of works, and undoubtedly it takes liberties with the real Petey Greene’s story, but it works as a film and it’s made with grace and passion.
Director Kasi Lemmons; Writers Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa; Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine; Starring Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Taraji P. Henson, Martin Sheen; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 10 January 2017.