Criterion Sunday 460: Simón del desierto (Simon of the Desert, 1965)

I must have first watched this 25 years ago, and for all its short length (a mere 45 minutes, apparently intended as just one segment of the then-popular portmanteau film format), I still vividly recall Satan giving a hefty kick to a small lamb as it bleatingly disappeared to the upper-right of the frame. Well, that’s still there and it’s still funny, but around it is a coruscatingly bitter attack on religious pomposity, as our titular figure stands like his dad Simeon Stylites on a pillar in the desert. He sets himself up as some kind of holier-than-thou religious martyr but really he seems pretty pleased to be revered and accepts those who confirm him in this belief. Meanwhile, for all his high-minded ideals, he finds himself pretty easily tempted by the Devil (who appears as a woman, of course). Buñuel was hardly averse to pricking at the hypocrisy of religious figures, but the medium-length running time means it never outstays its welcome.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel; Writers Buñuel and Julio Alejandro; Cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa; Starring Claudio Brook, Silvia Pinal; Length 45 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 11 September 2021 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, July 1998).

Criterion Sunday 459: El ángel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel, 1962)

It’s difficult to imagine from the plot summary how this is going to play out, given the set-up is fairly thin: a bourgeois group of high society socialities go for a slap-up dinner after the opera and find themselves unable to leave the home they’re in. But Buñuel, of course, knows what he’s doing, and mixes jabs at the aristocrats, at complacent bourgeois values, and at the church itself (the ending is bitterly directed and something he developed further in Simon of the Desert and Viridiana, amongst other works). It’s a psychological horror of sorts, at least in the way its structured: there’s an invisible force seeming to prevent them from leaving, but this seems to be a deeply-ingrained sense of decorum. At the end it feels like they are able to leave when the correct formula of words is uttered: the entrapment is very much a social one, as everyone is constrained by their own sense of what’s allowed, what’s considered polite, and it’s that in the end which is their tragedy, the pathetic sadness of this entire class of people. It’s all beautifully acted and staged, and ends up — in a low-key way — being perhaps Buñuel’s strongest film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Luis Buñuel; Cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa; Starring Silvia Pinal, Enrique Rambal; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at the National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 18 August 1999 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 1999, and most recently on YouTube streaming at home, Wellington, Sunday 12 September 2021).

Criterion Sunday 458: El Norte (1983)

I didn’t really expect much going into this, perhaps something a bit well-meaning and earnest, like contemporary Costa-Gavras films or those of John Sayles — which to be fair, is really quite deeply unfair to the latter’s work, but I’m trying to convey that sense of slightly po-faced political dramas about ordinary people in challenging times. In a sense, cinema since then hasn’t really grappled with those topics so much, but in relation specifically to the Anglophone cinema of Latin-American politics that I’m most familiar with, Gregory Nava’s feature has a more poetic register. This isn’t magical realism, though, it’s a poetic realism more akin to the Italian Neorealists, I think, but imbued with a lived sense of how America treats its Latin-American citizens. The central characters are indigenous people, from a small Guatemalan village, who journey to the North because of conditions back home, and who have to endure a lot to get to the very bottom of the ladder in the US. It’s not straightforwardly for or against anything though — their lives in the US do have some benefits compared to the past, but oppression comes in many guises and for all that they do see some material changes to their position, in other ways they are made to feel very much an underclass, not least in terms of the bureaucracy of immigration (and not much has changed there in almost 40 years one suspects). It’s a film that is as concretely about the conditions of work and life as anything else of the decade, but one imbued with a sense of almost mystical dread, that can be at times overwhelming but equally quite beautiful and resonant.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Gregory Nava; Writers Nava and Anna Thomas; Cinematographer James Glennon; Starring David Villalpando, Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez; Length 140 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 3 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 449: Missing (1982)

In a way this film by Costa-Gavras is exemplary of a certain strand of political filmmaking that flourished in the 1980s, finding a way into an epochal event through a human rights case involving (white) Americans, to make it more relatable. Interestingly, of course, the Chilean coup in 1973 that led to the death of the young American journalist Charles Horman (played here by John Shea) is so far in the background that Allende and Pinochet are barely even named, and the Chileans we see are just shady military characters with little to distinguish them. Costa-Gavras is very much more interested in focusing on the Americans involved, which makes sense given the help they gave to what was an explicitly anti-leftist and militaristic coup, aligning so well with their destabilising influence across Central and South America in this Cold War era. So we are led to see all these events, the disappearance and death of American journalists, as part of an essentially American story of silencing their own citizens as part of enacting geopolitical change that would favour their own national interests. That said, what I find frustrating about the film is just having to watch Jack Lemmon (playing Charles’s dad Ed) trying to throw his weight around and not understanding his own son’s situation, though it’s all presented as part of a learning curve for him — as someone of a certain age who implicitly trusted his own government finally understanding that he could never trust them again. His character is difficult and has trouble understanding the context, and that can just make him a little bit difficult to watch at times when it’s just variations of him going into rooms and being dismissive of his son’s wife (Sissy Spacek) and friends whenever they speak. Still, it’s a well-intentioned film that did attempt to grapple with some of this geopolitical reality at a time when Reagan had recently been elected.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Costa-Gavras Κώστας Γαβράς; Writers Costa-Gavras and Donald E. Stewart (based on the non-fiction book The Execution of Charles Horman: An American Sacrifice by Thomas Hauser); Cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich; Starring Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, John Shea, Melanie Mayron; Length 122 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 17 July 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, September 2000).

Criterion Sunday 423: Walker (1987)

Alex Cox certainly makes distinctive films. I’m not sure that they always gel with me, as I have a sort of in-built resistance to the carnivalesque and maximalist spirit he has (along with, say, Terry Gilliam). But I can’t fault Cox’s determination to bitterly present a satirical view of American involvement in central America, spurred by the contemporary exploits of such hucksters as Oliver North, and the film does everything it can to collapse one into the other. The mid-19th century setting increasingly becomes indistinguishable from the modern day as cars and helicopters, US tabloid news magazines and other anachronistic features start to become impossible to ignore. In the midst of all the pyrotechnics and madness is a very undemonstrative performance from Ed Harris, a tall blue-eyed blond man in a tailored black suit whose very stillness and composure in the midst of everything helps him stand out and grounds all the madness that swirls around him.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alex Cox; Writer Rudy Wurlitzer; Cinematographer David Bridges; Starring Ed Harris, René Auberjonois, Richard Masur, Peter Boyle, Marlee Matlin; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 7 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 410: Under the Volcano (1984)

Alcoholics, it turns out, are rather boring and interminable people when put on film. This one does a good job of capturing the spiral in which Albert Finney’s character Geoffrey is trapped, a consul working in a small town in Mexico just before WW2, whose wife Yvonne has apparently left him and who is not making much effort to hold himself together. He has turned, fairly heavily, to drinking, as one imagines a lot of British colonial figures have done in the past, but that really does seem to be all that defines him, as he stumbles from one bar and one encounter with some local colour to another. Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset) returns one morning after the Day of the Dead festivities, and his younger brother too (Anthony Andrews), and together they hash out their various fallings-out, as things get ever more bleak for Geoffrey. There’s a lot of imagery of death — as you might imagine given the setting and festivities — which feels fairly ominous alongside the titular volcano, and it all amounts to a sort of allegory about the British abroad, which is persuasive in its way, though hardly the most fun to watch. It’s just a cavalcade of self-pity and immiseration enlivened by the setting and the fine acting.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Huston; Writer Guy Gallo (based on the novel by Malcolm Lowry); Cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa; Starring Albert Finney, Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Andrews; Length 112 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 26 March 2021.

LFF 2020: El prófugo (The Intruder, 2020)

The final LFF film I had a chance to watch before getting on a plane to the literal opposite side of the world was this horror chiller from Argentine director Natalia Meta, and it’s pretty effective at what it does.


I remember watching the director Natalia Meta’s first feature Death in Buenos Aires (2014) on a whim on Netflix a few years’ back and I think it’s generally underrated. She shows terrific flair at times in this new film, a dark psychological horror, following Inés (Érica Rivas), a woman who works as a film dubbing artist and who starts to get hallucinations and be driven a little bit insane by people who may be living in her mind, or may not be. It’s not perfect, and I think it meanders a little at times, but when it hits it’s really effective at creating suspenseful shivers. There’s enough really bravura filmmaking and control of tension to make it a really interesting watch.

The Intruder film posterCREDITS
Director Natalia Meta; Writers Meta and Leonel D’Agostino (based on the novel El mal menor “The Lesser Evil” by C.E. Feiling); Cinematographer Bárbara Álvarez; Starring Érica Rivas; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Monday 12 October 2020.

Volverte a ver (To See You Again, 2020)

Continuing with my reviews of Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020 films, is this Mexican piece about government cover-ups of extrajudicial murders. It’s a fairly confrontational topic but handled well, focusing on the women — often mothers or partners of the disappeared — who drive this process.


A patient, insistent documentary about continuing governmental cover-ups of extrajudicial murders and ‘disappearances’, following the efforts of a group of women who appear to follow the discovery of various mass graves, and volunteer to work with forensic investigators to try and identify the dead, hoping (but yet not hoping) that their own missing relatives and children will be discovered among them. The official line appears to be that these missing people are due to the operation of drug cartels and organised crime, but clearly that’s not always the case, and lies about how the bodies are found and how many there are in these mass graves, along with statements claiming these graves were for people unclaimed by their family, are shown plainly to be false due to the patient work of the (largely) women who only want to find out the fate of their dead relatives. The cameras cannot go into these sites, but we see the women suiting up in protective gear, and speaking eloquently, including in confrontation with local politicians, about the nature of the work, the decomposing bodies (still relatively recent, as the grave we see being exhumed is from around 2013), the painstaking methods of identification. We see the sheets they fill out, noting all the details of clothing and condition of the bodies, identifying marks, before these are whisked away, often to be lost again in bureaucracy. It’s a very specific story of a group of people, while also seeming to be about a pattern of human rights abuses taking place across Latin America and the world, one that requires we bear witness and continue not to allow this to happen.

To See You Again film posterCREDITS
Director Carolina Corral Paredes; Writers Pedro G. García, Paredes, J. Daniel Zúñiga S., Magali Rocha Donnadieu; Cinematographer Zúñiga; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Sunday 21 June 2020.

Criterion Sunday 332: Viridiana (1961)

I’ve never quite been sure how to take Luis Buñuel, and I certainly wouldn’t wish to deny that his films have a vision and polish to them, but I’m not sure I’m particularly receptive to that vision. Undoubtedly it’s not from love of the Catholic church, because that seems to be his most consistent target, as indeed it is here. Most of his strategies seem to be a form of heightened trolling, so when for example he deploys rape as a trope (and our saintly titular heroine is threatened with it more than once in this film), it’s presumably to make the point that it is inextricable from religion itself, almost as if tacitly condoned by the God-fearing patriarchy. Likewise, having the beggars profanely recreate the Last Supper, trashing the bourgeois villa, seems to be implicating hypocrisy in the middle-classes. I can feel these things at an intellectual level, but there’s a certain heavy-handedness to it that I find myself resisting, quite aside from the very real trauma that these ideas carry. I guess this way of blending a sprightly humour and a gift for evoking atmosphere and place with a deep, acrid bitterness is very much Buñuel’s style, and sometimes it’s unclear to me whether that bitterness is directed at the institutions or the people trapped within and by those institutions, but it comes off at best as misanthropy.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel; Writers Julio Alejandra and Buñuel (based on the novel Halma by Benito Pérez Galdós); Cinematographer José F. Aguayo; Starring Silvia Pinal, Margarita Lozano, Francisco Rabal, Fernando Rey; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 5 July 2020 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, July 2000).

Chavela (aka Chavela Vargas, 2017)

Plenty of documentaries, especially recently, have explored all kinds of facets of lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer identities, in various areas of life. Documentaries can often bring wider recognition to people and causes which aren’t very familiar to a mainstream audience. One recent film that shines a light on a Latin American performer is Chavela, which screened at the 2017 Sheffield Doc/Fest.


There are documentaries that break moulds and innovate the form, and then there are ones which may take a venerable approach (talking head interviews, archival footage, historical research) but do so in the service of presenting a fascinating and little told story. This is surely one of the latter, and for someone not brought up in the hispanophone world I was entirely unaware of Chavela Vargas, a Costa Rica-born Mexican singer who achieved great fame in both Mexico and Spain for her heartfelt and passionate singing, not to mention her outspoken lesbian identity at a time when (and in a place where) that was much frowned upon. It’s wonderful to both hear from those who knew her, loved her or worked with her, and to see the footage of her performing in the final act of her career which ran from the early-90s to her death in 2012, as she took to the stage again in her seventies and kept performing, unable ever to fully retire.

Chavela film posterCREDITS
Directors Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi; Cinematographers Natalia Cuevas, Gund and Paula Gutiérrez Orio; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Thursday 26 July 2018.