Criterion Sunday 351: El espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive, 1973)

I think a lot of people look to Terrence Malick when they think about what a period film could achieve in the 1970s, but the same year as his debut was this Spanish film, and it achieves a similar beauty to its stark images of World War II-era Spain, just following the Civil War and the rise of Franco and his fascists. The sociopolitical context is important, but the film doesn’t really give you any of that aside from hints — the glimpse of the wounded young soldier who has deserted Franco’s side is the main one, though I warrant there are more clues for attentive Spanish eyes. Then again, maybe they are all too subsumed in the allegory because, after all, the film wasn’t banned, so those threads remain pretty buried in the thematics, which revolve around a mobile screening of Frankenstein in a small rural town where two sisters play games with one another and tell stories. It’s all really about the atmosphere and the performance of the youngster Ana Torrent, all wide-eyed and innocent yet trusting, like the little girl Maria we see in the clip of James Whale’s famous film. It’s a gorgeous evocation of a past still informing the film’s present, and the visual look clearly influenced Guillermo del Toro when he made The Devil’s Backbone, set in a similar era.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Víctor Erice; Writers Erice, Ángel Fernández Santos and Francisco J. Querejeta; Cinematographer Luis Cuadrado; Starring Ana Torrent, Teresa Gimpera, Fernando Fernán Gómez; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 3 September 2020 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1998).

Global Cinema 16: Belarus – Enemies (2007)

It’s not a huge film-producing nation, though eventually in the Criterion Sunday series we will see its greatest film, Come and See. However, I’ve selected another film covering the same period, the rather bleak experience of Belarus during World War II, called Enemies. It’s directed by a woman and available on Amazon Prime.


Belarusian flagRepublic of Belarus (Беларусь)
population 9,408,000 | capital Minsk (Мінск) (2m) | largest cities Minsk, Homyel (537k), Mahilyow (383k), Vitsyebsk (378k), Hrodna (374k) | area 207,595 km2 | religion no official statistics (Eastern Orthodox Christianity) | official language Belarusian (беларуская мова), Russian (русский язык) | major ethnicity Belarusian (84%), Russian (8%) | currency Belarusian ruble (Br) [BYN] | internet .by

Formerly known as Belorussia (or Byelorussia), this landlocked country lies between Russia, Lithuania and Latvia to the north and the Ukraine to the south, with Poland to its west. The name is related to the Russian for “White Rus”, and may have any number of derivations, perhaps due to the clothing worn, or for ethno-religious reasons. People could be found in the area dating back to around 5000 BCE, with settlement by Baltic tribes from the 3rd century CE, and later Slavic tribes. It became part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in around the 13th century. There was a certain amount of Polonisation following a union with Poland, but the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great acquired the area of Belarus, until occupation by the Germans in World War I. This latter didn’t last long and it declared itself a People’s Republic in 1918. It eventually came back under Soviet rule, before falling briefly to the Germans again in 1941, bearing the brunt of that conflict, as well as most of the fallout from Chernobyl in 1986. The country declared sovereignty in July 1990, and achieved independence on 25 August 1991. Subsequent presidential elections have brought the authoritarian Alexander Lukashenko to power, with recent protests to his rule after a disputed election that brought him a sixth term in office. The government also has a Prime Minister appointed by the lower house of the government.

Although cinema in Belarus formally stretches back to 1924, most production has been in Russian and only sporadic production. Probably the most famous film with a Belarusian connection which, like the one below, deals with its wartime experiences is Come and See (1985).


Враги Vragi (Enemies, 2007)

It feels to me as if there are no shortage of films from former Soviet republics dealing with World War II, though I can’t be too critical since it’s a pretty key part of British self-identity in the movies too. Here it’s Belarus dealing with the Nazi occupation, specifically a small village where there’s an uneasy detente between the villagers and the occupying troops, who are to be fair a rather sad sight when lined up near the start. The way that they deal with one another — some of the Germans learning a bit of Russian and hanging out with the women, the villagers spitting insults when they’re not in earshot — all comes to a head when the young son of one of the women is captured trying to sabotage them. We never see what he’s done (and only hear his voice as the narrator) — and I imagine partly that’s budgetary, but it also centres the drama on this small group of people in a little poor muddy village. There’s some nice fluid camerawork that I think sets up the drama nicely, and even if it doesn’t feel like a mould-breaking war film, it’s still got a concise focus to it.

Enemies film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Mariya Mozhar Мария Можар; Cinematographer Aleksander Smirnov Александр Смирнов; Starring Yuliya Aug Юлия Ауг, Axel Schrick, Gennadiy Garbuk Геннадий Гарбук; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Friday 14 August 2020.

بابيشة Papicha (2019)

A fiction feature debut film for its Algerian French director, and a fine one at that, is Papicha, whose title is taken from an Algerian French phrase used about a young woman, and its star Lyna Khoudri is clearly destined for great things (I believe she already has a role in the latest Wes Anderson film The French Dispatch, though who knows when that’s going to get a release). This is a fine film, though it rather takes aim at Islamic fundamentalism in a fairly direct way.


There are a number of recent French co-productions that deal with religious intolerance in traditionally patriarchal societies; I think of the Turkish-French film Mustang as perhaps the most notable example, and perhaps closest to this one. In each case, the filmmaking is strong and the performances the director gets from her (in this case) French-Algerian cast, constantly switching between Arabic and French in their scenes, are really believable. The setting is the Algerian Civil War of the late-1990s, and a creeping Islamic fundamentalism that expresses itself particularly (as these things seem to do) in restricting the liberties afforded to women. And so we have aspiring fashion student Nedjma (the riveting Lyna Khoudri), who really wants to put on a fashion show and really doesn’t want to put on the hijab, negotiating the way these social standards seem to be evolving at a breakneck pace around her and her friends, all of whom are students at the university at a time when learning itself is under threat. I do wonder a little at a French-funded film dealing with hijab as such a central issue, given that country’s own views on the practice, but the drama as presented here is galvanising and, very swiftly, rather traumatic in the way that it unfolds. Nedjma has no desire to leave Algeria, but at the same time the conflicts taking place at this period (which were already apparently winding down by the late-1990s) put her and her friends’ lives in danger just for the freedoms that they take for granted. Like Mustang it harnesses a lot of the same female ensemble energy, though the camera here often stays far closer in to its protagonists, who move about in a blur at times. It’s a fine film, and one that suggests promise for her feature directing career, and especially for its standout star.

Papicha film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Mounia Meddour مونيا مدور; Cinematographer Léo Lefèvre; Starring Lyna Khoudri لينا خودري, Shirine Boutella شرين بوتيلا, Amira Hilda Douaouda, Marwan Zeghbib مروان زغبيب; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 8 August 2020.

Summerland (2020)

I’ve now seen five films in an actual cinema, which isn’t going to threaten the amount I’ve been watching at home, but it makes a nice change after the past six months. However slightly uncomfortable it may be returning to the cinema (and I think we all have to make our own decisions about such things, regardless of what the official guidance may allow — for my part, I leave my mask on at all times, unlike most people it seems), it was difficult for me not to take up this opportunity. Therefore this week’s theme is going to be the films I’ve now seen at the cinema since they were allowed to reopen.


Director Jessica Swale has made her name in the theatre, and I can see that her talents haven’t quite been matched to film form here. A lot of the way that the themes and characters are developed, while not inherently unsatisfying, just seem overdetermined. Combining the (1940s) past and (1970s) present is done elegantly enough — albeit every time I see Gugu I wish for more of her — but the points in the script where the revelations land just feel so thudding, as we come to understand that the curmudgeonly Alice (Gemma Arterton) has her heart warmed by the love of a child (Lucas Bond), and then later on as multiple different strands are brought together. I probably wouldn’t have minded so much if the setting weren’t so overly familiar from other British period films (include ones starring Arterton), and if the score hadn’t swelled at the expected appropriate moments. For all the ways that the casting and themes tried to expand the range of references for ‘World War II romantic drama’ the drama as a whole didn’t work, and things devolved rather too far into unsubtle melodrama. Still, there are things I like about it, whether the cinematography (by Laurie Rose) or the fine performances, and indeed some of the character details, particularly the early characterisation of Alice, are amusing and I still always enjoy seeing Gemma Arterton on screen.

Summerland film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jessica Swale; Cinematographer Laurie Rose; Starring Gemma Arterton, Lucas Bond, Dixie Egerickx, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Courtenay; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Sunday 9 August 2020.

Global Cinema 14: Bangladesh – The Clay Bird (2002)

Though the island locations of The Bahamas have been seen in any number of 60s and 70s James Bond films, in Jaws: The Revenge and Splash, amongst many others, there isn’t much of an indigenous film industry to speak of. A local director who has made something of a name for himself, particular of the LGBT festival circuit, is Kareem Mortimer, whose 2009 film Children of God is my chosen film to represent The Bahamas. It represents a noble attempt to confront LGBT struggles and prejudices on the islands.


Bangladeshi flagPeople’s Republic of Bangladesh (বাংলাদেশ)
population 161,376,700 | capital Dhaka (ঢাকা) (8.9m) | largest cities Dhaka, Chittagong (2.6m), Khulna (665k), Sylhet (526k), Mymensingh (477k) | area 148,460 km2 | religion Islam (90.5%), Hinduism (8.5%) | official language Bengali (বাংলা) | major ethnicity Bengalis (98%) | currency Taka (৳) [BDT] | internet .bd

A country in South Asia, the eighth most populous in the world and one of the most ethnically homogeneous (the modern borders were set along ethnic and language lines). Geographically, it is dominated by the Ganges-Brahmaputra river delta, but has hills to the east. The name is believed to come from Vanga, an ancient kingdom on the delta, and the term Bangla started to be used around the 9th century CE. Bangladesh forms the eastern part of the Bengal region, with habitation dating back 20,000 years, and major urban settlements by the mid-first millennium BCE. It was ruled by a number of ancient Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms (like the Gupta Empire, the Pala Empire, the Harikela Kingdom and others), and repelled Alexander the Great when he tried to conquer the region. The Bengali language developed around the 8th century CE, and the Islamic conquest began in the 13th century. The Bengali Sultanate was formed in 1352, becoming a major trading nation, and taken over by the Mughals in the 17th century. The East India Company arrived in the mid-18th century with Robert Clive. Following partition in 1947, it was unified with Pakistan as East Bengal (later East Pakistan). The Bangladesh Liberation War led to independence in 1971, which was secured upon victory in the war on 16 December 1971. It has had its turbulent periods since, but is currently an elected democracy in which the ceremonial post of President invites the leader of the largest party to become Prime Minister.

The cinema industry (sometimes called Dhallywood) dates back to the silent era, though filmmaking began right at the outset of the 20th century. The 1950s saw a great expansion with a film development corporation that has continued its work post-independence, though there was a decline in quality and quantity in the 2000s, with a small resurgence since, although Bangladeshi mainstream movies don’t tend to make much of a mark in the West.


মাটির ময়না Matir Moina (The Clay Bird, 2002)

I don’t know but it seems to me if your filmmaking leans on a tradition of humanist concern for displaced and persecuted communities, there are worse models. This one deals with a family in a village during the late-1960s, a period leading up to the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan. The father (Jayanta Chattopadhyay) strictly follows Islamic traditions, he has a wife (Rokeya Prachy) and kids who are trying to get an education, and in the background are the stirrings of change. It keeps its focus on the family and has some lovely cinematography and fine acting from its non-professional cast.

The Clay Bird film posterCREDITS
Director Tareque Masud তারেক মাসুদ; Writers Tareque Masud and Catherine Masud ক্যাথরিন মাসুদ; Cinematographer Sudhir Palsane সুধীর পাল্‌সানে; Starring Nurul Islam Bablu নুরুল ইসলাম বাবলু, Jayanta Chattopadhyay জয়ন্ত চট্টোপাধ্যায়, Rokeya Prachy রোকেয়া প্রাচী; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 22 March 2017.

Two French-Tunisian Films about Musicians: Satin rouge (2002) and As I Open My Eyes (2015)

For my week of North African films, I have looked at a couple of Egyptian films by Youssef Chahine and an Iranian-Tunisian co-production fusing a spirit of the entire MENA region. Today I have shorter reviews of two films directed by Tunisian women, both which touch on musicians and musical performance, which are central parts of the culture of the country it seems. I think they say plenty about their society, the latter film explicitly so in dealing with the intersection between music and the Arab Spring events of 2011.

Continue reading “Two French-Tunisian Films about Musicians: Satin rouge (2002) and As I Open My Eyes (2015)”

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.

Dark Waters (2019)

As I hope is evident in my week focusing on films about history, the engagement with historical events is not one that is just about a discreet set of events separated away in the past. The forces that have shaped history continue into the present, as their legacies are manifested in behaviour and actions, but sometimes too filmic engagement with history is a prod to current events. For example the events portrayed in this film, which stretch back decades into the mid-20th century, are ongoing; even the legal case it documents hasn’t been concluded. These are urgent issues that will have an effect on our future, and so the film is used as a way to make those decisions more relevant and personable. (And as usual in such cases, the filmmakers have got Mark Ruffalo in for that.)


Todd Haynes has made some of my favourite films in the last few decades but I can’t claim this one is up there with them, largely because it cleaves so heavily to a very specific genre formula, and it’s not a genre I hugely love (the legal procedural thriller). It’s one of those issues-driven movies — the ones that Mark Ruffalo certainly seems to have done a few of recently (such as Spotlight) — and it’s all very efficiently despatched. Ruffalo plays a lawyer taking a huge American chemical company (DuPont) to task for the untold damage they’ve done not just to thousands of people they employed making the chemicals for Teflon, but also those who lived near the plant in West Virgnia, not to mention possibly every single human and living creature on the planet who has been just a little bit poisoned by the actions of them and other massive chemical conglomerates whose only interest — literally, their only apparent interest — has been in protecting the billions of dollars of profits they have been making. The fact that this fight is ongoing even at the time of the film’s making is just part of the reason for it to exist, and though it may not wow anyone as a film, it’s a story that’s worth telling and is gripping in its details all the same.

Dark Waters film posterCREDITS
Director Todd Haynes; Writers Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan (based on the article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich); Cinematographer Edward Lachman; Starring Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Victor Garber; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Nova, Melbourne, Thursday 5 March 2020.

Three Historical Dramas by Raoul Peck: The Man by the Shore (1993), Lumumba (2000) and The Young Karl Marx (2017)

One filmmaker who has consistently engaged with (usually revolutionary) history is the Haitian Raoul Peck. Many of his films deal with the turbulent times of his home country, a country which has suffered no small amount of turbulence over the last fifty years, as testified by the five-film French DVD box set of his Haitian films (one of which is The Man by the Shore reviewed below). Elsewhere he has turned his attention to thinkers like the American James Baldwin (in the documentary I Am Not Your Negro), to leader Patrice Lumumba (of what was then called the Republic of the Congo, later Zaire and now the DRC, subject of a 1992 documentary as well as the biopic below), and of course to a formative period in the life of Karl Marx.

Continue reading “Three Historical Dramas by Raoul Peck: The Man by the Shore (1993), Lumumba (2000) and The Young Karl Marx (2017)”

Criterion Sunday 320: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

Perhaps this just plays much more strongly to American audiences, but the swelling orchestral music that comes in at key moments makes it pretty clear what a fundamentally honourable man this simple Abraham Lincoln was, even when he was a young man just starting out in the law. This would be nothing more than hagiography (or perhaps a superhero origin story) were it not for Henry Fonda’s performance and John Ford’s guiding hand that somehow keeps it from turning too mawkish, focusing instead on the justice he wrings from a case of two young lads getting into a dust-up with a local ruffian (and Deputy Sheriff). Still, simple values isn’t the same as simplistic, and for all its overwrought melodrama, this is a canny film about a national hero made at a time of global crisis.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Ford; Writer Lamar Trotti; Cinematographers Bert Glennon and Arthur C. Miller; Starring Henry Fonda, Alice Brady, Marjorie Weaver, Ward Bond; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Tuesday 26 May 2020.