The second of Bergman’s loosely-defined faith trilogy, I do much prefer Winter Light to Through a Glass Darkly, though obviously they share a number of threads — the idea of God as a spider, a questioning attitude to the divine presence, many of the same actors and Sven Nykvist’s extraordinary camera. This film has a lugubrious pace, but also, at times, touches of what seem like humour (much the way I find humour in Bresson too: utterly po-faced, but yet somehow not without mischief). Its central character, a priest (Gunnar Björnstrand), is unable to reach God, feels himself a failure, and watches as his congregation dwindles. The film’s title in Swedish is “The Communicants” and there’s a sense in which each character in the film is trying to somehow commune with God. If the previous film posits Love as the connecting force, this seems far more tenuous here, though perhaps there’s something there, like an empathy which Björnstrand’s character so abjectly fails to achieve. One of Bergman’s better works, I think.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman | Cinematographer Sven Nykvist | Starring Gunnar Björnstrand, Ingrid Thulin, Max von Sydow, Gunnel Lindblom | Length 81 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Thursday 5 April 2018
I’m willing to concede that Bergman was a great filmmaker, and I have no doubt that if I came to this with the willingness to engage with it that Bergman comes to his filmmaking, then I’d probably connect with it more. It looks beautiful, to be sure, with lots of full-face close-ups, and that windswept Fårö scenery. It’s intense in its psychodrama, dealing as it does (and as is not unusual for the director) with faith, the connection with God, so tenuous and so alluring. The woman has mental health issues from which she’s recovering, and this much feels a little bit rote: beautiful women suffering for the love of God is something of a worn trope. But, as I say, were I to revisit this again, perhaps I would connect with it better, or perhaps if I came from a certain type of family, I’d appreciate the dynamics more.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman | Cinematographer Sven Nykvist | Starring Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand, Max von Sydow, Lars Passgård | Length 91 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 1 April 2018
It may only be half an hour but it puts across everything it needs to, about the scale and terror of some (very recent, contemporary) history, given it was made just 10 years after the end of the war. It deals a bit with the way that sites of abject misery so quickly return to verdant life: I remember visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau and they seemed like such peaceful places, as they do at times in this film, but then there’s the archival footage, and the vastness of it is difficult to comprehend. I’m not really sure this film manages to make it comprehensible because in so many ways it’s not, but it hints at these appalling events and it’s important for people to be reminded.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Alain Resnais | Writer Jean Cayrol | Cinematographers Ghislain Cloquet and Sacha Vierny | Length 32 minutes || Seen at university library (VHS), Wellington, January 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 18 February 2018)
I’m never quite sure how to respond to the characters in this film, though over time I’ve come to accept it as a great and profound work (on my first viewing, in my early-20s, I was distinctly unimpressed, and it took seeing it on the cinema screen to appreciate its artistry). Everyone acts at times like a fool, at times with grace and acceptance; it’s religious, not in a simple way, but at a fundamental level — Ordet (which when translated means “the word”) seems hardly about creed so much as the underlying belief in the value and beauty of all life. And on the evidence here, Dreyer is surely, too, one of the greatest directors for use of lighting, somehow too coordinating effects of nature into his mise en scene.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director/Writer Carl Theodor Dreyer (based on the play by Kaj Munk) | Cinematographer Henning Bendtsen | Starring Preben Lerdorff Rye, Henrik Malberg, Birgitte Federspiel, Emil Hass Christensen | Length 126 minutes || Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 4 July 2003 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1999, and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 3 December 2016)
Having recently revisited my previously low opinion on Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, I’d hoped the same would happen for me with their big beautifully-coloured studio-bound epic of the year before. It’s an exoticist take on India, as Deborah Kerr plays Sister Clodagh, selected to run a new mountain outpost in rural India and swiftly despatched with a selection of other nuns, including the unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron). The sets and filming is undeniably gorgeous, and there’s a lot of high camp to the proceedings, only heightened by that Technicolor. The fierce competition between Clodagh and Ruth largely takes place across their faces, with Mr Dean (David Farrar) stuck manfully in the middle, dispensing his sardonic advice about how best to get along with the locals. The film’s big misstep is in the whitewashing of Indian roles (with the exception of Sabu’s ‘little’ General), which may be a feature of contemporary filmmaking, but doesn’t make it any easier to watch, much though Jean Simmons in particular does her best to steal her scenes.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (based on the novel by Rumer Godden) | Cinematographer Jack Cardiff | Starring Deborah Kerr, Kathleen Byron, David Farrar, Sabu, Jean Simmons | Length 100 minutes || Seen at National Library, Wellington, Thursday 20 May 1999 (also on VHS at home, Wellington, April 1998, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 April 2016)
I don’t know there’s much more to add about this most famous of Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s films, a masterpiece of the late silent cinema and one of the greatest in all of film history. It may not even be my favourite Dreyer film (he had some fantastic later works in his native land), but it seems working in France with a bold and expansively modernist set, and some fine theatre actors, was no great obstacle to his vision. Amongst these actors are Antonin Artaud as one of the more sympathetic of Joan’s accusers, though of course — whatever Dreyer’s important contributions may have been to this film and to cinema as an art — it is Renée Falconetti in the title role who remains the film’s iconic and lasting presence (she was never to act in cinema again, preferring the stage). The film takes the transcript of Joan of Arc’s trial for heresy, and dramatises it, largely in a series of close-ups on the faces of these stern, judgemental men in their austere courtroom as Joan meets their gaze and responds with patience and unwavering belief in God, undiminshed by their taunts or by the mistreatment from her English captors. It’s a film which seems scarcely to have aged.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Carl Theodor Dreyer | Writers Joseph Delteil and Carl Theodor Dreyer | Cinematographer Rudolph Maté | Starring Renée Falconetti | Length 82 minutes || Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 27 June 2003 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, September 1999, an on several subsequent occasions at home, most recently at a friend’s home on DVD, Sunday 15 November 2015)
It didn’t exactly make a large splash on release, but that’s a pity because this is a very welcome documentary about ageing Muslim women who had moved from Morocco to Belgium when they were young, and are easing themselves back into society after married lives spent largely shut away (the title is the familiar promise of better things ahead when they die). The documentary certainly pays attention to its most colourful character in the extroverted singer and performer Tata Milouda, but in fact there’s a tight-knit group of women at the film’s heart, and eventually we get to know most of them, particularly Mina who takes on narration duties. We see them attending Milouda’s gigs, taking language classes in a local cultural centre, making day trips around Belgium and eventually travelling to New York. It doesn’t delve into prejudice or racism so much (one certainly expects a lot more of it when they undertake their US trip), but rather focuses on the practicalities and rewards of living life in the present, along the way giving voice and representation to a group who are often unfairly demonised by Western media.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director/Writer Hadja Lahbib | Cinematographers Yannick Dolivo, Vincent Hufty, Jonas Canon and Cyrille Blaise | Length 85 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 21 January 2016
I think it’s reasonable to hold the things you love when you’re a teenager to a different set of critical standards. People who got into Star Wars back when that was first out can sometimes be unreasonably dogged in defending it, even though, well, it’s not really all that good (the first one has a sort of camp enjoyability to it, I’ll admit). Life of Brian comes from that same era, and even features a short sequence that nods towards the recent popularity of that aforementioned space-set blockbuster, and needless to say it was a common fixture on the television during my formative years, at which time I found it to be pretty great — though I always liked Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) more myself. I haven’t seen any of the Python output in decades, though, so it was interesting to revisit this foundational text as part of my Criterion-watching project, and for all that I want to say it’s still a shining beacon of 1970s British comedy (and maybe it is; I don’t know much of the era’s competition), it has sadly not aged all that well for me. Sure it’s always worthwhile to take aim at misplaced religious zealotry — something that I’m sure we’re all aware continues to be relevant today — and Brian takes some good shots at this kind of small-minded thinking by having its not-very-Messianic figure hounded to his death. However, it’s still ultimately a group of middle-class Oxbridge graduates being sophomorically silly about the Bible; I don’t believe that’s a case for any kind of censorship, it’s just not always as funny as it thinks it is (and these lads, particuarly Terry Jones, playing women continues to grate). Still, there remain some classic comedy sequences, the best of them skewering po-faced 1970s socialist groups, as in the ‘what have they ever done for us?’ debate chaired by John Cleese’s Reg (of the People’s Front of Judaea, not to be confused with their mortal enemies the Judaean People’s Front), or an ‘action’ committee he chairs near the end. I suppose one’s reaction to this is dependent on the level of nostalgia you cling to around the Pythons, but I do honestly wonder how the kids of today find this stuff. Ultimately, it feels very much of its era.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Terry Jones | Writers Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin | Cinematographer Peter Biziou | Starring Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam | Length 93 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 15 November 2015 (and many times at home on VHS, Wellington, in my youth)
There’s a powerful intensity to the presentation of this film, which is essentially a courtroom drama. Partly that comes from the fact that it is pretty much confined to a single room, where wife Viviane (co-writer/director Ronit Elkabetz) is attempting to obtain a divorce agreement (or gett) from her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian). The room has a bland, clean starkness, and there are only a few camera set-ups possible to capture the two benches where Viviane and Elisha sit with their respective counsels, and the three judges who sit listening to their arguments. But a lot of the intensity is to do with the mismatch between the unchanging solemnity of this bureaucratic setting and the absurdity of Viviane’s situation, which unfolds over five years, with frequent titles indicating the passage of months between appearances. It’s not just that divorce seems normalised to modern Western viewers, it’s that the religious demands of the Israeli society within which the Amsalems live place all the burden onto the wife, with the husband largely unpunished for making little effort to mount a defence. There are no grandstanding speeches (when Viviane’s lawyer or she herself attempt anything of this nature, they are quickly shut down by the stern men who sit in judgement), it just quietly goes about documenting the manifest absurdities of the process, meanwhile hinting at details of the couple’s life together and the reasons for her actions.
FILM REVIEW Directors/Writers Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz | Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie | Starring Ronit Elkabetz, Simon Abkarian | Length 115 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Sunday 3 January 2016
Timbuktu is set in the Malian city of that name (albeit filmed in the director’s native Mauritania) as ISIS militants ride into town to take control. This sounds like a deeply depressing subject matter — and there certainly is a lot to be depressed by — yet the film manages to find an affecting balance between two apparently disparate emotional registers (comic and tragic). There’s a tension between these fundamentalists and their set ideas, and the reality which they face in the quietly observant population, who have little desire to change their ways — nor indeed, as their imam puts it to the fundamentalist leader, any real religious failing they need to correct. And so, as the film goes on, the wry comedy and easy laughter of the early sections — small acts of defiance towards the occupiers (a football game without a ball, singing and playing music at night) — tips towards revulsion at the way the fundamentalists push their largely pointless agenda and punish the locals. In some ways what’s most difficult to deal with, but which also allows a small potential for hope, is that everyone in the film has a basic humanity, and has reasons for acting the way they do. The ISIS leaders show a willingness to talk issues over, while also being unable to always live up to their own ideals (the leader played by Abel Jafri sneaks away to smoke a furtive cigarette at one point). Meanwhile, the locals have their faults too: one of the big dramatic arcs in the film deals with Ibrahim Ahmed’s cattle herder Kidane, who accidentally kills a fellow townsman in a petty squabble. If there’s no black-and-white judgements on display here, there is instead a certain moral clarity: bad people sometimes do decent things, and vice versa, but they still approach the world and its problems in fundamentally different ways. It’s the resistance to the occupiers’ petty bureaucratic mindset that the film valorises, and which continues to resound after the film has finished.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Abderrahmane Sissako | Writers Abderrahmane Sissako and Kessen Tall | Cinematographer Sofian El Fani | Starring Ibrahim Ahmed [as “Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino”], Abel Jafri | Length 96 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Tuesday 2 June 2015