Criterion Sunday 126: Ordet (aka The Word, 1955)

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)

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Criterion Sunday 93: Black Narcissus (1947)

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)

Criterion Sunday 62: La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928)

© The Criterion Collection

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)

Patience, patience, t’iras au paradis! (Patience, Patience, You’ll Go to Paradise!, 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

Criterion Sunday 61: Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)

© The Criterion Collection

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)

Gett (Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, 2014)

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 (2014)

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.


© Le Pacte

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

Criterion Sunday 11: Det sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal, 1957)

Ingmar Bergman, and particularly this film of his, has long been considered a sort of byword for chilly existential angst, and indeed the iconic scene of the knight (Max von Sydow) playing chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot) has been recycled more regularly than most film images over the years, often for mocking comic purposes. And certainly there’s a lot of angst and hand-wringing over the existence and nature of God and the Devil — the story is filtered through the consciousness of a man who has been away ten years on the Crusades, torn asunder from his happy home life, not unlike Odysseus. At the film’s outset he finds himself, along with his squire (Gunnar Björnstrand), dashed on the rocks of his homeland, hence the visitation from Death. Yet what I think gets lost in that reductive summation of the film’s legacy is quite how comic it is (though it’s comedy sometimes like that found in Bresson, another forbidding cinematic master of the existential — you’re never quite sure if it was really intended or how deeply it runs, and that can make for a confusing viewing experience). It’s a much fresher and more watchable film than you might expect, coming to it only from its reputation, and the ways that it deals with crises of faith never overwhelms the human drama, as the story of the knight and his squire intersects with a band of travelling players. Along the way there are comic characters (the carpenter Plog, for example, whose story involves a bit of knockabout farce) and an understated sense of life in the mediæval era, which points up both the social and religious miasma without undue condescension.

Criterion Extras: There’s so much packed onto this disc that I haven’t yet watched it all (will update this post when I do), but the commentary is by film scholar Peter Cowie, who certainly knows his Bergman. He narrates a half-hour featurette charting Bergman’s entire career, and though he gets a bit carried away at times (stating that Bergman had a “unique understanding of the psyche of women” is surely a bit of a stretch on several levels), it’s still a good introduction to the man’s work. Cowie also interviewed the star Max von Sydow, presented here as a 20-minute audio interview. There’s a short filmed introduction by Bergman himself (made in 2003 for Swedish television), who is, to say the least, rather cranky, and his interviewer Marie Nyeröd made a longer portrait called Bergman Island (2006), also included here. Finally, there’s an audio tribute by Woody Allen presented alongside clips of Bergman’s key films.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman (based on his play Trämålning) | Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer | Starring Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Bengt Ekerot | Length 96 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, February 1998 (and at a friend’s home on DVD, London, Sunday 7 December 2014)

Ida (2013)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 21 October 2014 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Solopan

It’s fair to say that I was never quite compelled by the subject matter of this film, which sounded altogether too dour, well-meaning and social realist to hold my interest. I could have seen it at last year’s London Film Festival (where it won the main prize) and I dragged my feet upon its eventual release on these shores, but I am happy to say that, having now gone along to a screening, I am quite wrong to have been unwilling to see it. It is a fantastic film, very much more than a simple plot synopsis could convey. For while on the one hand, it is indeed the story of the eponymous novitiate nun who is spending some time with her harder-willed aunt, it’s also a film about personal identity, about Poland’s involvement in World War II and its subsequent history, and about the precarious relationship between Europe and its Jewish population (a story still resonant in a modern era where anti-semitic attacks occur with troubling regularity). It is set in the early-1960s and filmed in a beautifully resonant monochrome recalling iconic Polish films of the post-War period by directors like Andrzej Wajda and Andrzej Munk. It’s understated, too, in the way it allows its themes to develop, as our nun (newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska), who has been raised as an orphan and is on the verge of taking her vows, is sent off from her convent to meet her only living relative for the first time, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Wanda reveals to her niece that her real name is Ida, that she’s Jewish, and that her parents were killed during the war, and so they embark on a search for their graves so that Ida can have some closure. But both women have some connection to this terrible unseen event in their history, something the film slowly teases out. Wanda has had more exposure than most to her compatriots’ failures — having served for many years as a high court judge, hearing cases related to war crimes — while Ida is (silently) grappling with her faith. As a film it packs in all kinds of ideas into its concise running time, and is every bit as tightly controlled as any film by Krzysztof Kieślowski. There’s also a striking use of framing, with characters often decentred within shots, generally at the bottom of the image, giving the impression of them sliding away or drowning (there’s a particularly nice example of this when Ida goes to see the confirmation of some of her colleagues). I couldn’t say it exactly has a happy ending, but it all just feels very right.


CREDITS || Director Paweł Pawlikowski | Writers Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Paweł Pawlikowski | Cinematographers Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski | Starring Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza | Length 80 minutes

Lemale et ha’chalal (Fill the Void, 2012)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Rama Burshtein | Cinematographer Asaf Sudri | Starring Hadas Yaron, Yiftach Klein, Irit Sheleg | Length 91 minutes | Seen at Phoenix, London, Thursday 19 December 2013 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Norma Productions

It’s not infrequently that I watch films set amongst cultures other than my own; I greatly enjoy seeing communities portrayed on screen of which I will never (or can never) be a part. Every group of people — whether a national culture, a religious group, or some other sub-set (such as a prison, or a workplace, or wherever) — has its own etiquette surrounding the ways its members interact with one another, some more rigidly and formally defined than others. I was very conscious while watching Fill the Void, for example, that such customs are deeply ingrained amongst its Orthodox Jewish characters, and although I wasn’t always certain of what form they took (there are no didactic speeches or condescending explanations), it became increasingly clear when the characters depicted were cleaving to them. In that respect it’s not unlike watching the formal pairings in, say, a Jane Austen film adaptation — depicting another society that I am quite removed from (in time, if not geographically, but it amounts to much the same thing). In fact, the Jane Austen comparison was in my mind during the film, so it was no surprise to see an explicit link to Austen being made by the filmmaker (and by critics in their responses to the film) that I’ve read since watching it. In this case, though, the rituals are within a group of people very much in the same world as us, a group for which the director (being herself Orthodox) has a great deal of respect, and it is this that for me provides the film its fascination.

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