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.

Criterion Sunday 293: Francesco, giullare di Dio (The Flowers of St Francis, 1950)

Watching a film about a 12th century religious figure makes you realise how thin the line is between devout religious belief and the kind of behaviour that would get you locked away nowadays, or at least given a hard stare on the bus (certainly development with regards to mental health doesn’t always demonstrate a clear line of improvement over the centuries). In any case, there are plenty of lessons we can all take from the simple and unaffected titular saint in this film (though as with Pasolini’s film about Matthew, he isn’t sainted in the original language title; indeed he is described as “God’s jester”). That Italian language title gives you a better flavour, though, of the vignettes, which largely revolve around a very cheerful if ascetic approach to the tribulations of life, many of which revolve around Brother Ginepro (Juniper), who more than once returns to Francesco/Francis’s order half-naked without his tunic after giving it away, and engages in acts of simple naive faith that shake even a local warlord, Nicolaio (Aldo Fabrizi, clad in a suit of armour that puts Bresson’s clanking knights to shame, and only emphasises this film’s latent comedy, reminding me as such of The Seventh Seal). Ginepro (Severino Pisacane) and the equally simple peasant Giovanni (Esposito Bonaventura) come across as the film’s unlikely heroes, although Francis himself (Nazario Gerardi) gets plenty of opportunity to teach his message of tolerance, such that what initially seems a little camp becomes by the end even something approaching spiritual — a feeling not hampered by some truly stunning black-and-white cinematography.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roberto Rossellini; Writers Rossellini and Federico Fellini; Cinematographer Otello Martelli; Starring Nazario Gerardi, Severino Pisacane, Esposito Bonaventura, Aldo Fabrizi; Length 89 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 9 February 2020.

Jinn (2018)

Stories about the conflicts and difficulties of growing up within faith-based communities haven’t really been covered very strongly within American cinema, I don’t think — or at least not outside of engagement with Christianity. This West Coast-based film deals with a Black Muslim-American family and their daughter, who is struggling to reconcile this new identity with her life and her school-age peers. It didn’t entirely work for me, but there’s plenty to commend it all the same.


This film, although set in Los Angeles, is based on the writer-director’s experiences growing up as a young Muslim girl in Oakland (the setting for a number of recent excellent films touching on the Black experience in the United States). The performances from its actors are all uniformly excellent, not least Zoe Renee as the lead character, aspiring dance student Summer, whose mother Jade (Simone Missick) has converted to Islam. Summer finds herself drawn into her mother’s life and faith as a result, which provides the dramatic tensions for the rest of the film. It’s undermined a little by the at times didactic script, which creates a conflict between her and her mother, and has a lot of very pointed dramatic exchanges about being Black and Muslim in American society, about the nature of faith, and the struggles of the characters to find their way within the teachings of Islam (though as someone who has myself started participating in a religious community fairly late in life, I definitely felt some resonances). There’s a lot of judgmental behaviour, though the script ensures everyone gets their learning moment. Although I saw it at the London Film Festival with the producer and stars present to speak to the film afterwards, I think this film would work strongly on a streaming service (and given it never received a British cinematic release, I suppose that’s how most people will see it): it has likeable, interesting characters and develops its drama in a pleasing way, and I look forward to more stories from the director.

Jinn film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nijla Mu’min; Cinematographer Bruce Francis Cole; Starring Zoe Renee, Simone Missick; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Tottenham Court Road, London, Friday 12 October 2018.

Yentl (1983)

Another key figure not just for the American musical but for music and indeed society itself, from the 1960s on, is Barbra Streisand. She is a towering presence in a number of films created around her charismatic on-screen persona, but she moved into directing as well, most notably with this adaptation of a Isaac Bashevis Singer play and short story.


There’s probably no real intellectual response to this film, because you’re either partial to Barbra Streisand or you’re not. She certainly does dominate the film, though when he shows up a young Mandy Patinkin does distract attention somewhat, even if (perhaps wisely) Streisand doesn’t give him any singing to do — the music is all for Yentl to perform, for hers is the central drama. Her struggle is against the religiously-mandated life that has been set out for her in early-20th century Poland — wife and motherhood — when all she wants to do is study and learning, right from the very outset (when we see her buy a religious text off a passing bookseller). So she cuts her hair and goes into town, dropping quotes from the Talmud and enrolling in a yeshiva with aforementioned Avigdor (Patinkin), who’s engaged but doesn’t really want to get married. The production values are big, of course, and it’s all rousingly put together. The incipient gender-non-conformist themes are somewhat let down in the final act, but it does enjoyably flirt with these ideas for at least part of its running time, and that (along with those central performances) probably keep it worthwhile.

Yentl film posterCREDITS
Director Barbra Streisand; Writers Streisand and Jack Rosenthal (based on the play by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Leah Napolin, itself based on the short story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” by Singer); Cinematographer David Watkin; Starring Barbra Streisand, Mandy Patinkin, Amy Irving; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 August 2019.

LFF 2019 Day Eight: Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Maternal (both 2019)

My eighth day of the festival should have been filled with more films, but I ended up not going to the third. Perhaps you could say the long hours were getting to me (I did feel my eyelids getting heavy briefly during Portrait), but actually something else came up. However, the two I did see both presented fascinating films about women’s lives, neither of which featured men at all (or almost never), though of course patriarchal control was never too far from the surface.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Eight: Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Maternal (both 2019)”

LFF 2019 Day Three: Maggie and The Unknown Saint (both 2019)

Day three of the #LFF brings two films from the ‘Laugh’ strand of the programme, one each from South Korea and Morocco, which go about their comedy beats in different ways, but both raise wry smiles and a few laugh-out-loud moments.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Three: Maggie and The Unknown Saint (both 2019)”

A Deusa Negra (Black Goddess, 1978)

One of the most famous Brazilian films in the mid-20th century was a French-Brazilian co-production, Black Orpheus (1959), marrying a Brazilian setting with an imported director and almost 20 years later, it has some qualities in common with the rather more rare hybrid of Nigerian and Brazilian in Black Goddess. There’s a feeling for the displaced, for folk rituals and syncretic religious figures that both share, perhaps the result of an outsider’s gaze.


This is a curious film. It’s a Brazilian-Nigerian co-production about Babatunde (Zózomi Bulbul), a man seeking an insight into his past — his ancestors were shipped off into slavery in Brazil — by returning there with the symbol of a goddess, in search of that goddess’s priests and answers as to what happened to his ancestor. The opening scenes of 19th century troops wending their way across a mountain, then falling into battle, suggests Werner Herzog — but if one must make comparisons to his work, then it’s worth noting that while his films are from the point-of-view of the coloniser, Ola Balogun makes his from the side of the colonised (a relatively rare point of view, especially in this period).

As Babatunde makes his way around Brazil, he plunges into an almost documentary-like sequence in a favela, then onto a jungle temple (candomblé), taking a woman from back home as his guide, who is trailed by her jealous suitor. Moments of (possibly unintentional) humour come, such as when there is a fight that leads to the suitor’s death and the response is basically an ‘oh well’ shrug. Throughout, the history of transatlantic slavery between Africa and Brazil is emphasised, as well as the continuing hold of syncretic African religions even amongst modern Brazilians. The end of the film sees a sort of ritual in transfigured time that brings past and present into contact, seemingly allowing our protagonist to break the fourth wall and fix his gaze on us.

At my screening, the film was introduced by the director Ola Balogun, whose rather wild and effusive style didn’t address the film itself, but he did tell some Yoruba creation myths, and then invite everyone to dinner on the Friday night, as well as telling us of his interest in clothes design (he gave out his e-mail for those who wanted to get in touch). A singular presence, and one responsible for an oddly fascinating film.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ola Balogun; Cinematographer Edison Batista; Starring Zózimo Bulbul, Léa Garcia; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Tuesday 26 June 2018.