Criterion Sunday 498: Paisà (Paisan, 1946)

This film of Rossellini’s is less contained than his first in the “War Trilogy” that started with Rome, Open City. After all, it tells six separate stories rather than the one, across the length of Italy in the period leading up to the end of the war, as the Americans and British are found fighting the Germans on Italian soil. We see stories of partisans but also of women and children — whether living in poverty and desperation (as in the second and third stories), or helping out on the frontlines (as in the first and fourth) — and their encounters with the Allies. It’s not a film of hope, as there’s plenty of bleakness, but it feels like a series of stories that is trying to say something about the experience of war rather than (perhaps more usual) propaganda-friendly stories of triumph against adversity, or victory against fascism. In most of these stories, there is no victory because there aren’t really any good or bad guys, there’s just the struggle to survive when there are so few opportunities, and then in the fifth story there’s a different struggle that seems entirely abstracted from the war, of a group of Catholic monks whose primary interest is in ensuring the souls of the non-Catholic Americans can be saved. There’s a bit of humour in it, but a wealth of humanity, and even if the individual stories can sometimes seem a little bit moralistic, as a whole it offers a sweeping view of wartime struggle that it may be my favourite of his works.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roberto Rossellini; Writers Sergio Amidei, Klaus Mann, Federico Fellini, Marcello Pagliero, Alfred Hayes and Vasco Pratolini; Cinematographer Otello Martelli; Starring Carmela Sazio, Dots Johnson, Maria Michi, Gar Moore, Harriet Medin, Renzo Avanzo, William Tubbs; Length 126 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 25 January 2022.

The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun (2021)

I don’t know that I can say that this new film from Wes Anderson in any way grapples with the contemporary position of journalism, but I’m not sure that many would expect it to. In a year in which the Nobel Peace Prize went to a pair of journalists doing work in the most difficult circumstances, this film instead looks back fondly to a time (well, various times during the mid-20th century it seems) of what can best be described as gentleman journalism. There are outsiders, criminals and revolutionaries, but no real sense of peril or expectation of change. I can easily imagine a way to damn the film for this, but I chose in this case to go with it, making this a pleasant divertissement.


Everyone now must have a pretty good idea about whether they’re a Wes Anderson person or not. If you find his style in any way irritating, or his subjects just a little bit too affectedly pretentious, then you’ll probably run screaming from this. I thought I was done with him — as with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (albeit for different reasons) — but I ventured along and… it was quite likeable. Of course it has all his hallmarks. Right from the start you can see that it’s a love letter to The New Yorker as well as to Europe. I’d say to France, but I do wonder how the French would take it, as it’s just so doggedly adherent to so many stereotypes of French people that I imagine it would seem vaguely absurd and perhaps offensive. You can also tell it was written by a bunch of guys the moment Léa Seydoux arrives on screen. But for the most part this portmanteau film, essentially a number of shorter films tied together with a loose framing structure, is quite delightful. I especially loved Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri as student revolutionaries, with plenty of cribbing from 60s Godard movies (Khoudri being styled to look like Anna Karina) with plenty of other visual references throughout, but there was a sort of emotional core at the heart of that particular story which seems a bit hit or miss elsewhere. It blends black-and-white and saturated colour pretty liberally, and it never bored me. I wonder at the end what deeper meaning I’m supposed to take other than, ah yes a golden age of journalism and engagement with the life of the mind. But maybe that’s enough.

The French Dispatch (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Wes Anderson; Writers Anderson, Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness and Jason Schwartzman; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro, Léa Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 18 December2021.

NZIFF 2021: شیطان وجود ندارد Sheytan Vojud Nadarad (There Is No Evil, 2020)

After last week’s review of the Iranian film Hit the Road at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, the festival screened another quite different film from the same country, the kind of thing that doesn’t get screened in its home country due to some pretty direct criticisms of the regime. It’s long, depressing, and in several parts, but pretty great all the same.


I feel like if you’re going to do an issues-driven drama based on contemporary society — and this one is about the death penalty — then this is the way to do it. It’s not unclear what the filmmaker’s point of view is — it’s clear enough, indeed, that he’s had to endure prison sentences and bans on filmmaking over the last few years — and he goes in pretty hard on his own country’s use of the death penalty, though despite being made in Iran and featuring its cities and countryside rather beautifully, it’s a story that could be told anywhere that the death penalty exists.

Like a lot of Iranian films, the focus is very much on the moral quandary of those involved in it, which range the gamut from bland acceptance to turmoil. The first segment lulls us in with a very quotidian story of a middle-class family that could be in any western country and whose bickering and patterns of life are entirely relatable, before a stinging twist at the end. Indeed, having booked to see the film a month ago, it wasn’t until the end of the first story that it became clear to me what the structuring conceit of this film was.

The second and fourth stories seem to be continuations of one another — in the earlier one, a young military conscript rebels against the requirement that he get involved in an execution, while in the last an older man who did the same when he was a kid and ran away to the countryside, comes to terms with the choices he made in terms of his family. The film indeed is very interested in moral choices that aren’t made in a vacuum, but take place in terms of ensuring one’s own freedoms, one’s own family and work, and the extent to which we should or should not accept capital punishment if it’s just a means to get food into mouths or to live the life you want (given that the person being executed is just going to killed by someone else).

It’s not necessarily an easy subject, but the filmmaking is clear and flows beautifully, with solid performances across the board. It is entirely deserving of its awards, and one can only hope that the filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof can continue to make films.

Sheytan Vojud Nadarad (There Is No Evil, 2020)CREDITS
Director/Writer Mohammad Rasoulof محمد رسول‌اف;
Cinematographer Ashkan Ashkani اشکان اشکانی; Starring Ehsan Mirhosseini احسان میرحسینی, Kaveh Ahangar کاوه آهنگر, Mahtab Servati هتاب ثروتی, Baran Rasoulof باران رسول‌اف; Length 150 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Wellington, Thursday 11 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 401: Night on Earth (1991)

Jim Jarmusch wasn’t unfamiliar with making portmanteau movies (this one or Coffee and Cigarettes), and elsewhere at the very least has divided his films into distinct chapters, as he did in Stranger Than Paradise (one of which was initially released as a short film before he had funding for the rest of the feature). So it’s not unusual for him that here he covers people driving taxis in five different cities, two in the US (LA and NYC) as well as Paris, Rome and Helsinki.

It’s interesting to see people online responding quite differently to each of these five segments. The Roman section is probably the most divisive, but then again it largely depends how you feel about Roberto Benigni as a screen presence. He riffs away on various themes, mostly of the illicitly sexual variety, while driving a priest across Rome, and so the humour is largely broad and upfront. It’s not what Jarmusch is perhaps best known for, and it’s certainly not my favourite kind of humour, so it largely passes me by. NYC is also pretty broad in its humour, but it’s fun to see Giancarlo Esposito and Rosie Perez play off each other, so soon after Do the Right Thing, and they attack it with plenty of energy. Paris, meanwhile, uses one of Jarmusch’s favourite actors, Isaach de Bankolé, and I do always love just watching his face and the way he channels emotions — of course the taxi setup means that watching faces becomes much easier for us as an audience as everyone is facing forward and largely unmoving. That said, the blindness metaphor into which Béatrice Dalle is cast is a little heavy handed.

This leaves the first and last segments, probably my own favourites, because of the way they use the limited space (there is very little that takes place outside the taxi journeys), as well as the iconic actors in each: Gena Rowlands and Winona Ryder in the former; Matti Pellonpää in the latter. He has a face I could watch for ages, and so it’s a great way to wrap the film up, melancholy and doleful though he is.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is an almost hour-long audio recording of Jarmusch answering questions from fans which have been sent into and filtered by the Criterion office. He is generous with his answers and gives plenty of context to what he was doing with this film, as well as shedding light on his own artistic practice, so it’s well worth listening.
  • Another feature is a 5-minute piece from Belgian TV to mark the release of the film back in 1992, in which they bundle Jarmusch into the back of a Paris taxi and have him talk about the film. He actually hits a few of the same points as he did 15 years later in the Q&A featurette above, but it’s still a good interview.
  • The booklet has five writers linked to each of the cities in the film speak to their section of the film, with evident warmth from many, though they don’t always love their own city’s section the most within the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Frederick Elmes; Starring Gena Rowlands, Winona Ryder, Giancarlo Esposito, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Rosie Perez, Isaach de Bankolé, Béatrice Dalle, Roberto Benigni, Matti Pellonpää; Length 128 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 21 February 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 2000).

Vai (2019)

This film was released in this country last year, but I’ve only just arrived and needless to say it hasn’t been out many other places — not that I think it wouldn’t do well, just that I suppose an eight-part portmanteau about versions of the titular character, seen at various stages of life on various Pacific Islands, isn’t the most marketable. It’s great though, in my opinion, the best kind of thing you can do with the format.


As a progression from 2017’s Waru (which was by the same production company), this Polynesian portmanteau film makes a lot of sense. In a way it’s less narratively tight because it’s not following a single storyline through all its short films, but in many ways it’s more interesting, because there are themes reflected in each of the separate pieces which broaden the story. It still ties everything together neatly by having the same cinematographer work on all of them (Drew Sturge), who shoots almost all as a single unbroken take. That’s not to say there aren’t any specifics, because each of the sections has its own sense of space, and the title cards make it clear that these are set on different islands, so we can’t take all of the rituals and customs we see as part of a single continuity. That said, they do very much work together, and I imagine there are some common roots across the region in, say, the prominence of fishing as a rite of passage (the “Solomon Islands” section is set entirely in a canoe as our 16-year-old Vai desperately tries to get her bait on the line) or the importance of ancestors (seen most clearly in “Samoa”, where Fiona Collins’s Vai leads what appears to be a funerary procession and literally witnesses her ancestors join in from beside their graves, one of the more moving moments in the whole film).

So it tells a generational story, from the young kid in “Fiji” through to Hinetu Dell reflecting on mortality as the film closes, but it’s also based around themes of the sea and water, which makes sense given its pan-Pacific Islands perspective. If Waru was land-based (and land rights have by necessity been a key theme in Māori history), then Vai is about the power of the ocean. This means that the “NZ Born Samoan” section is probably the weakest thematically, but in a sense the political point it’s making about the academy and about the colonising influence of (white, European) priorities suggests that the drama of the character there is her very lack of connection to the sustenance of the ocean. Conversely in “Tonga”, though our young characters are surrounded by water, they have trouble sourcing any which they can safely drink, and its sustenance is threatened by industrial fishing in “Kuki ‘Airani”. All these stories around a similarly-named titular character become in a sense stories of the same person but as they might be shaped in each of these spaces, but for all this, there’s an underlying hopefulness that comes through clearly, the hope provided by continuity with one’s roots, and which I think marks an advance on Waru.

Vai film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Nicole Whippy, Sharon Whippy, ‘Ofa-Ki-Levuka Guttenbeil-Likiliki, Matasila Freshwater, Amberley Jo Aumua, Mīria George, Marina Alofagia McCartney, Dianna Fuemana and Becs Arahanga; Cinematographer Drew Sturge; Starring Ro Mereani Adi Tuimatanisiga, Ar-Ramadi Longopoa, Betsy Luitolo, Agnes Pele, Evotia-Rose Araiti, Fiona Collins, Maliaga Erick, Hinetu Dell; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Wednesday 23 December 2020.

Die Tomorrow (2017)

There are the first hints around the world that cinemas are starting to reopen in some places, but it will surely be a long time before people are comfortable going back in any great numbers, so I suspect online releases will be the norm for a while yet, and will have renewed importance in the release calendar. At the moment, though, it’s mostly the disposable comedies (on Netflix, say) and the weird arthouse fare (mostly Mubi and BFI Player) that are getting releases, one of which is the Thai-UK co-production Krabi, 2562 this coming Friday, which I saw premiered at London Film Festival last year. Therefore my theme this week will be mainland Southeast Asian films, mostly from Thailand but with a few others from Vietnam and Cambodia too. Looking at this part of the world (also known as the Indochinese Peninsula), I’m missing Laos — the only Lao film I’ve seen was Dearest Sister, which again I’ve reviewed at the LFF already — and regrettably I’ve not yet seen a Burmese film (but I’ll have to rectify that soon).


Nobody actually dies in this film, but the framing device means its presence is constant: the suggestion being that the people we’re seeing will die the next day. It seems to have been inspired by stories in local Thai newspapers, which are recounted in intertitles, leaving us to imagine which of the headlines applies to which of the people we see, each in their own short film. Some are fairly clear (an old man sleeping uneasily, a woman hooked up to a machine) but others are more oblique. The tone throughout the six pieces varies somewhat, but underpinning it is a meditative register, and the film embraces stillness and contemplation, as in one young woman apparently thinking on the death of a colleague while heavily made up for the filming of a commercial. It’s a nice conceit, which could be a lot more morbid than it is, but instead feels like a reckoning with life.

Die Tomorrow film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit นวพล ธำรงรัตนฤทธิ์; Cinematographer Niramon Ross นิรมล รอสส์; Starring Jarinporn Joonkiat จรินทร์พร จุนเกียรติ, Patcha Poonpiriya พัชชา พูนพิริยะ, Sunny Suwanmethanon ซันนี่ สุวรรณเมธานนท์; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Friday 12 July 2019.

Waru (2017)

It’s interesting to see some of the directions NZ film has taken, and as a showcase for a disparate range of indigenous Māori women directors, Waru is a fantastic project. It’s more cohesive than a simple anthology or portmanteau film, given it takes place over a single day and all the films deal with a single (tragic) event, but like any collection of shorts, some are better than others. Naturally, though, I hope for more from all of these directors, though it may be hard to find funding in such a small country, so I imagine many of them will see more work on TV.


I’ve seen a number of films that stitch together short films under a vague theme (the Australian film The Turning comes to mind in the last few years), but Waru has clearly considered how these separate films should come together most effectively, and all of them contribute towards a central narrative about a young boy’s death and how that affects a (largely) Māori community, and what actions need to be taken. If there are hints of a heavy-handed moral judgement guiding the story, then the filmmakers (all of them Māori women) largely manage to integrate it into the narrative very well — though for me the sequence dealing with the pākehā (white) media commentators, while understandable, didn’t quite spark as well as the other segments. Visually, the film is held together by a single cinematographer (Drew Sturge), who leans heavily on sinuous, unbroken handheld takes in some of the shorts, but elsewhere has an almost classical rhythm. There’s power to this tale which goes beyond a single-issue televisual film to speak more directly to the kind of society we want to live in.

Waru film posterCREDITS
Directors Ainsley Gardiner, Casey Kaa, Renae Maihi, Awanui Simich-Pene, Briar Grace Smith, Paula Whetu Jones, Chelsea Winstanley [as “Chelsea Cohen”] and Katie Wolfe; Writers Gardiner, Kaa, Maihi, Smith, Josephine Stewart-Tewhiu, Whetu Jones and Wolfe; Cinematographer Drew Sturge; Starring Tanea Heke, Roimata Fox, Ngapaki Moetara; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 14 May 2018.

The Turning (2013)

The source for this film was a collection of short stories by the Australian writer Tim Winton, so the producers took the decision to make it a collection of short films, each directed and written by someone within the Australian arts world. Therefore you wouldn’t really expect it to hang together so well, but somehow — perhaps thanks to the strength of the underlying short stories — there’s definitely a thread that connects them all, not just thematic but in tone, too. There’s a sort of understated elegiacal atmosphere, of pregnant pauses and long lingering shots of the sky: this is a film very much invested in a vision of its part of the world, with laconic and weary characters. Each shares a story that deals with some kind of turning point in their lives, quite often young lives, but not exclusively. And despite the number of different works, there’s nothing that really stands out as particularly weak or out of place, given that sense of unity I mentioned earlier, though there’s one brief animation that opens the film (“Ash Wednesday”), a contemporary dance piece towards the end (“Immunity”) and another short film takes the form of almost documentary-like testimonies rather than acted scenes per se (“Boner McPharlin’s Moll”). It adds up to a strange, compelling view of Western Australia, though one that runs rather long.

The Turning film posterCREDITS
1. Ash Wednesday (dir./wr. Marieka Walsh); 2. Big World (dir./wr./DoP Warwick Thornton); 3. Abbreviation (dir./wr. Jub Clerc, DoP Geoffrey Simpson); 4. Aquifer (dir. Robert Connolly, wr. Justin Monjo, DoP Denson Baker); 5. Damaged Goods (dir. Anthony Lucas, wr. Kris Mrksa, DoP Jody Muston); 6. Small Mercies (dir./wr. Rhys Graham, DoP Stefan Duscio); 7. On Her Knees (dir./wr. Ashlee Page, DoP Miles Rowland); 8. Cockleshell (dir. Tony Ayres, wr. Marcel Dorney, DoP Germain McMicking); 9. The Turning (dir./wr. Claire McCarthy, DoP Denson Baker); 10. Sand (dir. Stephen Page, wr. Justin Monjo, DoP Bonnie Elliott); 11. Family (dir. Shaun Gladwell, wr. Emily Ballou, DoP Jeremy Rouse); 12. Long, Clear View (dir./wr. Mia Wasikowska, DoP Stefan Duscio); 13. Reunion (dir. Simon Stone, wr. Andrew Upton, DoP Andrew Lesnie); 14. Commission (dir./wr. David Wenham, DoP Andrew Commis); 15. Fog (dir./wr. Jonathan auf der Heide, DoP Ellery Ryan); 16. Boner McPharlin’s Moll (dir./wr. Justin Kurzel, DoP Andrew Commis); 17. Immunity (dir. Yaron Lifschitz, wr. Circa Contemporary Circus, DoP Robert Humphreys); 18. Defender (dir./wr. Ian Meadows, DoP John Brawley); Writers as above (based on the short story collection by Tim Winton); Length 172 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 May 2015.

Centro Histórico (2012)

The portmanteau film (or ‘anthology’ if you will) is a curious phenomenon, which had perhaps a bit more prominence in the 1960s when packages of trendy young(ish) directors were put together with titles like Paris vu par… (1965) or RoGoPaG (1963). In more recent times, aside perhaps from New York Stories (1989) and the occasional celebration-of-cinema package, they’ve never really attained much prominence, and have been rather restricted to arts-festival-friendly themed offerings such as this one, which was made to coincide with the 2012 European Capital of Culture being awarded to Guimarães in Portugal. This all conspires to make Centro Histórico a little bit obscure (and unlikely to find much of a release in any form anywhere outside its country of origin), though its four directors are all relative heavyweights in the European art film world — and indeed the film was originally scheduled to include a fifth short by Jean-Luc Godard (though his has since been appended to another similar film themed around 3D). It was given a special screening recently at the BFI with two of the directors present (Pedro Costa and Víctor Erice), which I attended.

As curios go, it certainly has its moments. The first short, “O Tasqueiro” (Tavern Man) by deadpan Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki (who apparently has a home in Portugal), is probably the most accessible. It’s a slight and wordless sketch following the proprietor of a struggling tavern in the historical city centre, whose hangdog face (that of actor Ilkka Koivula) perfectly conveys his mounting troubles in attracting the passing trade. The tavern here is reminiscent of the restaurant opened in the same director’s Kauas pilvet karkaavat (Drifting Clouds, 1996) — and there’s a similar, very lugubrious, comedic undertone to the style.

The film is bookended by another wryly comedic short piece by veteran director Manoel de Oliveira — and when I say veteran, I do of course mean that: he’s the only living director whose career started in the silent era. His film, “O Conquistador, Conquistado” (The Conqueror, Conquered), follows a tour group as they trek through the historic centre of Guimarães, looking up at the statue of Alfonso I, the first King of Portugal. It comes at the end of Centro Histórico but comprises something of an introduction to the city itself, which for various reasons is considered the birthplace of Portuguese nationality.

One of the themes that Oliveira’s film deals with — the wayward travails of historical consciousness and memory — is touched upon by the other two shorts, both of which are significantly longer. That by Spanish director Víctor Erice, “Vidros Partidos” (Broken Windows), is the more seemingly straightforward (deceptively so, one might say), presenting itself as a documentary encounter with people whose lives had been shaped by a textile mill just outside the city, closed 10 years earlier. Erice films the interviews in its former canteen, from slightly below eye level, and with the interviewee’s heads loomed over by a huge reproduction of a vintage photo of the factory’s workers sitting down for lunch. It gradually becomes clear that these personal testimonies are scripted, drawing into question quite what role memory and local history plays in their lives.

Finally, there’s Pedro Costa’s rather oblique piece, “Lamento da Vida Jovem” (Sweet Exorcist), most of which is taken up by his regular actor Ventura (who hails from the Portuguese colony of Cape Verde) trapped after a hillside pursuit in an elevator, addressing offscreen voices ostensibly coming from the statue of a soldier (another actor, albeit one painted bronze and who holds an ever-shifting statuesque pose). It’s all rather strange and surreal, and is apparently a shorter piece from a new feature film Costa is working on. However, the dialogue again touches on the troubling echoes of national history, specifically as filtered through immigration and race. I couldn’t possibly try to sum it up any more accurately, as it’s dense with references which pass over my head, and I can only hope that seeing it again in its feature context will bring it to greater life.

For what it’s doing, this compilation is successful, but I can’t deny that the portmanteau film as a form remains a rarefied pleasure, which to me feels like a sort of ‘arthouse cinema 101’ — a taster to the styles of various established world directors. If you have a chance to see it, or even any of its individual short films, you may find something to your taste, but I can’t help think that it’s a drawback of the form that, even at its best, such a film cannot deliver the feeling of satisfaction that a good feature film can.

Centro Histórico film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Aki Kaurismäki; Pedro Costa; Víctor Erice; Manoel de Oliveira; Cinematographers Timo Salminen; Costa and Leonardo Simões; Valentín Álvarez; Francisco Lagrifa Oliveira; Starring Ilkka Koivula, Ventura; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 5 January 2014.