Criterion Sunday 470: Wise Blood (1979)

This is an odd film, sufficiently so that I’m convinced I either have it completely wrong and it’s actually a masterpiece beyond my meagre understanding, or else maybe it’s just plain odd, but in its oddness it sits apart from most of contemporary cinema. It deals with what I can only call very American themes — of a sort of autochthonous religious mania, where the open spaces of the American heartlands blend seamlessly with Christianity, sex and death, and become somewhat messed up in the head of Brad Dourif’s war veteran Hazel Motes — which war is never quite specified, though the headstone of his father, played by the director, has a birth year that suggests maybe it’s a future war, yet in tone and costuming it feels very much like World War II or maybe something earlier even. It is, in short, a very American film about something buried deep in the white American psyche, and so perhaps it is a masterpiece, but it’s one that takes a hard route to follow. One that’s perhaps worth following, but it does its best to frustrate anyone trying to do that and the hard face of Hazel, his angry bitter mien is right at the heart of that attempt, a bleak and brutal film of the American mid-20th century experience.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Huston; Writers Benedict Fitzgerald and Michael Fitzgerald (based on the novel by Flannery O’Connor); Cinematographer Gerry Fisher; Starring Brad Dourif, Dan Shor, Amy Wright, Harry Dean Stanton; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at a bed and breakfast (DVD), Takaka, Saturday 16 October 2021.

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 402: La Voie lactée (The Milky Way, 1969)

In his long career, Buñuel hardly shied away from the merciless mockery of religious hypocrisy, and that’s sort of the entire point of this film. It is essentially a kind of episodic comedy with a series of vignettes serving to set up a series of situations in which people argue on points of religious schisms, which when set out in this way can’t help but seem utterly absurd and futile. The plot, such as it is, hangs around a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela being undertaken by two men (Paul Frankeur and Laurent Terzieff), though they seem pretty happy to hop in a car when it suits them, and they don’t seem particularly committed to the more spiritual aspects of the journey, which don’t just travel through space but also just as often through time as well. Still, the director has his customary fun with Jesus (Bernard Verley), priests, monks and other holy men, and those who aspire to holiness, and I can’t deny its at times anarchic humour.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel; Writers Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière; Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Paul Frankeur, Laurent Terzieff, Édith Scob, Bernard Verley, Alain Cuny; Length 101 minutes.

Seen at home (Google Play Movies streaming), Wellington, Thursday 25 February 2021.

Criterion Sunday 371: Body and Soul (1925) and Borderline (1930)

Paul Robeson’s career is of course fascinating, and well worth reading up on, and while his appearance in the stage production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones predates Body and Soul (he had previously gained some success on stage, primarily in musical theatre, in the early-20s), the film of that play wasn’t to be made until the sound era. Instead our first glimpse of Robeson on screen was to be this film by pre-eminent and pioneering Black American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, who five years earlier had made the fascinating (and superior) retort to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in Within Our Gates. Between Micheaux’s filmmaking — which sadly has been ravaged by the censors and survives only in this shorter cut — and Robeson’s magnetic screen presence, this is a fine film made for a Black audience, which very much implicates the role of the church through Robeson’s turn as a devious preacher Reverend Jenkins, who drinks heavily, steals money and commits rape (portrayed subtly but no less clearly) without raising concerns from his adulatory congregation. The film ends with a twist and the reveal of a dual role for Robeson, which stretches credulity somewhat, but this kind of ending is hardly unusual for the period or indeed for American cinema. The Criterion release includes a brilliant jazzy score by Wycliffe Gordon which only adds to the film’s depth, making it a highlight of the silent era.

Five years later and Borderline really feels like a one-of-a-kind film, nominally a Swiss production by a British crew, and a strange experiment in form that plays with all kinds of themes. These range from the racism and hypocrisy of a small town, a man called Thorne (Gavin Arthur) whose marriage is falling apart due to his affair with Adah, a Black woman (Eslanda Robeson) who’s married to Paul Robeson’s character Pete, not to mention what seems like a gay subtext with some of the women we see (one of whom is played by the excellently pseudonymous Helga Doom). Any of these themes individually would probably make the film interesting, but it’s the boldly experimental style that makes it so watchable, cutting across the various characters in an almost free-associative way. The score for the restoration is provided by Courtney Pine, and is jazzy and propulsive when it needs to be and I think elevates the film even further. A strange, singular late-silent period work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

Body and Soul (1925) [classification PG]
Director/Writer Oscar Micheaux (based on his novel); Cinematographer [unknown]; Starring Paul Robeson, Julia Theresa Russell, Mercedes Gilbert; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Wednesday 11 November 2020.

Borderline (1930) [classification 12]
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Kenneth Macpherson; Starring Paul Robeson, Eslanda Robeson, Gavin Arthur, Hilda Doolittle [as “Helga Doom”]; Length 65 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Saturday 14 November 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.

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).

Hail Satan? (2019)

I’ve been featuring films shown at Sheffield Doc/Fest on my blog this week, as the festival’s online 2020 edition is currently live. The last edition premiered a number of high-profile documentaries for UK audiences, including the Doc/Audience Award winner For Sama and the Tim Hetherington Award winner One Child Nation, amongst others. A film which gained a cinematic release fairly swiftly after the festival and which takes a different tonal approach to serious societal issues is this one, ostensibly about Satanic practice in the United States (or at least, one branch of it), but actually about civil liberties, a wider discussion that’s always relevant.


This is an amusing documentary that doesn’t take itself too seriously, largely because it’s about a movement that likewise isn’t very serious — at least, not about Satanism itself (ironically enough). Really it’s about raising social consciousness for issues of real freedom (of abortion rights, against transphobia, and of course the rights to religious freedom that require the separation of church and state), and so mostly frequently we see the Satanists protesting outside government buildings trying to protect and enshrine rights that go far beyond Satanism per se. While the film likely doesn’t reflect the variety of Satanic religious practice (I’m sure at least some of it is undertaken earnestly), it’s a rare work that deals with the happier, more productive end of trolling for a change.

Hail Satan? film posterCREDITS
Director Penny Lane; Cinematographer Naiti Gámez; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Sunday 25 August 2019.

A Hidden Life (2019)

A discussion that has cropped up once again in political and media circles has been around “antifa”, and every time it happens a lot of people with the same wearied tone have to explain it’s not an organisation, it’s an ethos, a motivating ideal, a praxis and a shared struggle: it is just short for “anti-fascist”. Such struggles can take an explosive, active form, and there are no shortage of World War II movies to illustrate that (though most are Hollywood stories of heroism against the odds). Terrence Malick’s most recent film instead deals with the internal contortions, of morality and faith competing with self-preservation, and the way that just these simple acts of resistance can carry their own dangers. The only thing that “antifa”, such as it is, calls us to do is to resist fascism. All that I can hope is that to continue to do so is something which does not lead to the outcome in today’s film, but as some of the world’s largest countries have taken an active turn towards demagoguery and fascism, that is starting to seem rather more perilous.


I haven’t really connected with many of Malick’s films since The Thin Red Line (and certainly not the last few), as he’s progressively loosened his narrative focus in preference for impressionistic movements. However, with A Hidden Life, he seems to have reined this extravagance in a bit (though the stylistic tics are still very much evident), not to mention choosing a setting and theme that seems more fitting to his particular style. Of course, there’s still plenty of voiceover, used more as another layer of sound than to convey any specific information, and he takes the interesting decision to have the film in English except where perhaps the words are less important — background chatter, bureaucratic invective, in which case it’s in German.

It’s an odd film, though, that bathes this story — of Franz (August Diehl), an Austrian peasant in the early-1940s, who grimly resolves (with an at times wavering, but nevertheless increasingly bitterly held, sense of moral clarity) to defy military tribunals and not speak the ‘Hitler oath’ — in a certain sort of beatific calm, which makes sense given he was after all beatified not so long ago. There’s little sense of the actual war, and perhaps in 1940-1943 (when the film is set), it hasn’t particularly reached the alpine Austrian setting of St Radegund or even the Berlin prison he’s shipped off to later. There’s one chilling scene where the village’s mayor inveighs against the dangers of immigrants and foreigners, despite clearly having none in his midst, which obviously remains current, but otherwise this is very much focused on Franz and (almost equally) his wife Franziska, grounding their story in the community and (as you might expect from a Malick film) the glory of the natural world. It’s not even quite as overtly spiritual as some of his more recent films have been, though given Franz’s Catholic faith and his later beatification, it is obviously imbued with that throughout.

I liked it, and didn’t even feel the running time once the movie started to hold me. It’s shot with some oddly distorting lenses, and the camera operators must all have been children given how close to the ground the camera seems to be most of the time, but Malick’s impressionist excesses aren’t so much on show or are perhaps less jarring when not juxtaposed against Hollywood or indie music backgrounds.

A Hidden Life film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Terrence Malick; Cinematographer Jörg Widmer; Starring August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Michael Nyqvist, Jürgen Prochnow, Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruno Ganz; Length 174 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Friday 17 January 2020.

Corpo celeste (aka Heavenly Body, 2011)

Another film you won’t currently find on Mubi, but this debut feature by a major modern filmmaker is just one of the types of strands Mubi regularly presents. In fact, it’s one of the places I’ve been most fortunate to catch up with the early films of important contemporary filmmakers. As just one example, right now (i.e as of 25 March 2020) you can find Neighbouring Sounds, the debut film by Kleber Mendonça Filho (of Aquarius and Bacurau fame).


I loved Rohrwacher’s latest film Happy as Lazzaro and seeing her first feature film reminds me that a lot of what I loved there is present in all her work. It doesn’t feel heavy-handed at all to me, but rather a very gentle coming of age narrative, about a young girl (Yle Vianello) who starts to really get a sense not so much of adulthood itself, as of the disappointments that this world she’s entering can present, specifically around religion. She has come to Italy, a devoutly Catholic country, after a period of having grown up in Switzerland, and finds the church there to be somewhat disappointing, and the classes she attends just a little bit lacking in serious intent. While Santa, one of the lay women who runs the classes, fusses over the very much middling priest (Salvatore Cantalupo), our heroine Marta sits there impassively watching and judging all the nonsense that is passed off as being part of faith. It’s true that some of the symbolic reaches the film goes for are pretty strong — the crucifix mounted to the roof of the priest’s car as he speeds around the mountain ridges feels like one such — but overall this film prefers to focus on the quiet and melancholy experienced by Marta as she navigates this world.

Corpo Celeste film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Alice Rohrwacher; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Yle Vianello, Salvatore Cantalupo, Anita Caprioli; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Wednesday 15 January 2020.