Criterion Sunday 556: Senso (1954)

This film is, undoubtedly, full-blooded. If you have any kind of aversion to melodrama, you would be well-advised to be aware of that going in, because Visconti and his lead actor Alida Valli do not, in any way, hold back. She plays the Countess Serpieri, an Italian noblewoman in 1866 just as Italy is seeking its independence, whose cousin (Massimo Girotti) is deeply embedded in the resistance fight, but yet she dramatically, deeply, impossibly falls in love with a young Austrian officer Franz (played rather less memorably by Farley Granger, and truly the lip-synching is, as you’d expect from Italian films, very far off). The further she is sucked into passionate love for this pathetic preening jerk, the further she betrays her country and her ideals, until both are thrown explosively against one another in a final showdown that really undoes them both. The title is apt: this is a film of the senses, taking its cue (as VIsconti often does) from opera, which is where it literally begins, until the entire film is suffused with an operatic sensibility and the denouement can’t help but be bold. So if you like your films melodramatic and operatic, then this is exactly the kind of cinema you will love.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luchino Visconti; Writers Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Visconti, Giorgio Bassani, Carlo Alianello, Giorgio Prosperi, Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles; Cinematographers G.R. Aldo and Robert Krasker; Starring Alida Valli, Farley Granger, Massimo Girotti; Length 123 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 24 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 530: The Last Command (1928)

Emil Jannings won the very first Best Actor Academy Award for this performance (though actually, in this first Oscars ceremony, actors could be nominated for multiple roles, so technically it was not just for this film). Looking back in retrospect, it can be difficult to judge whether such awards were justified. After all, as is typical of the silent era, there’s a lot of gestural and facial work that seems to modern film viewers rather broad and a little lacking in subtlety. But if you get through those (which come partly from the wordless form, and are partly typical of just the style of acting prevalent at the time), you can see at the core there is indeed something rather fascinatingly complex about Jannings’ work here.

Himself a lauded German actor (as in Murnau films like The Last Laugh), Jannings here plays a grand Russian military figure, perhaps the most senior after the Tsar, fighting desperately against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution of 1917. Finding sympathy here is no natural task — the Tsarist forces aren’t exactly on the side of the people, and as far as I understand from history, America was hardly as virulently anti-revolutionary and anti-Communist back then as it later became — but Jannings and director Sternberg achieve something similar to what Renoir was doing in France: evoking empathy for those relics of history like Jannings’ military man. Along the way he pulls out all kinds of camerawork that has a vibrancy and lightness to it, with movement and momentum matching those of the characters, which would take a while for cinema to regain in the sound era. It’s a film that looks forward to some of Sternberg’s masterpieces of the sound era with Marlene Dietrich, a blend of European and brash American sensibility that’s quite enticing. Plus there’s a young William Powell as a revolutionary turned film director in the framing story.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writers John F. Goodrich and Herman J. Mankiewicz (from a story by Lajos Biró); Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Emil Jannings, Evelyn Brent, William Powell; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 28 February 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, June 2000).

Criterion Sunday 496: Che (2008)

The first time I saw Steven Soderbergh’s magnum opus, his enormous two-part biopic/investigation of Argentine doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s revolutionary life, I think I must have been a bit underwhelmed. In retrospect it’s probably significantly to the film’s benefit that it avoids the preachiness of most Hollywood biopics, and certainly avoids some of the moralising traps of other Soderbergh films. It’s hardly a revolutionary picture itself, though, and feels overly interested in pastiching period news footage in the scenes from NYC in 1964, with grainy black-and-white, off-centre close-up framings, nervous handheld camerawork and on-screen captions that mimic exactly the font of those old burned-in subtitles you used to see in footage. In other words, you wonder at times if it was more about the technical challenge than capturing the man, and certainly contemporaneous accounts invested a lot in the digital technology Soderbergh was using. But yet at its heart I feel as if this is quite an earnest project. Guevara isn’t the hero of the kind you see on the famous poster images, but just a man amongst many others (and women, too, as we see in the guerrilla armies he forms and leads) trying to make a positive change to a country mired in corruption, no thanks to US involvement. Soderbergh is hardly interested in digging deep into the politics, but just by focusing on Guevara, Castro and the others there’s a gentle sense of solidarity with those holding these revolutionary ideals and the dream of a future forged in training camps in the jungles and skirmishes on the streets.

Moving on a few years for the second half of this epic, it’s clearly possible to see how it works in tandem with the first part. That film presented revolutionary ideology and practice with the stylistic flash of, say, the contemporary New Wave cinemas of the era, as Guevara worked alongside his fellows in Cuba in the late-1950s, intercut with interviews and speeches at the UN in 1964. This part takes a quite different tack, going for more of a handheld observational style, using a muted colour palette that really downplays the lushness of the highland setting, as Guevara faces up to the reality of the struggle in Bolivia in 1967. If the first was a film about glory, this is a film mostly about disappointment and failure. Its episodic march of time, numbered by the days Guevara has spent in country, sees his people slowly picked off, their deaths really just captured in passing or off-screen, as the action follows increasingly bearded men messing around in the hills, trying to win over the local people and with a mounting sense of desperation. There’s nothing glorious here, but there’s a certain fascination to Che’s resolve, even as he’s battered by asthma and poor discipline from the forces he’s trying to lead. Perhaps by design, but it feels almost underwhelming after the first part, a corrective perhaps but a sad one.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Che: Part One (2008)
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writers Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen (based on the non-fiction work Pasajes de la guerra revolucionaria cubana [Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War] by Ernesto Guevara); Cinematography Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Benicio del Toro, Demián Bichir, Rodrigo Santoro, Julia Ormond; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Thursday 13 January 2022 (and earlier on DVD at home, London, sometimes in the early-2010s I imagine).

Che: Part Two (2008)
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writers Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen; Cinematography Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Benicio del Toro, Franka Potente, Gastón Pauls, Lou Diamond Phillips; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Monday 17 January 2022 (and earlier on DVD at home, London, sometimes in the early-2010s I imagine).

NZIFF 2021: Night Raiders (2021)

Just over a year ago, I posted reviews from the 2020 London Film Festival, of which I attended a few online sessions (and which has since returned fully to cinemas this year). However, since 2020 I’ve moved to New Zealand and in November it was the New Zealand International Film Festival, now bilingually rebranded as Whānau Mārama (which loosely translates as “family of light”). Although a COVID-19 outbreak meant that there were restrictions in place (every other seat left empty and very few filmmakers present), it was still great to see these films in person, even if some of the sold out houses seemed eerily quiet.

Anyway, as it’s now December and I’ve only been posting my Criterion Collection films for the last few months, I’ll take some time over the next few weeks to post reviews of the NZIFF films I saw, which will also help us get up to speed before we get to the inevitable ‘best of the year’ lists. I’m going to start with a New Zealand co-production which focuses on issues of indigenous rights and history embedded in a story that by its nature (science-fiction) looks to the future.


This is pitched as a dystopian post-war science-fiction set in a fascist state where kids are taken from poor non-citizens and brainwashed to prepare them for… well, the usual. You know the deal, big Starship Troopers crossed with The Handmaid’s Tale vibes. Many of these tropes are pretty familiar, but this film puts an extra spin on them by using a First Nations perspective, wrapping up race and class with its dystopian oppression and imagining an indigenous resistance movement. In fact it puts plenty of spins on its subject matter and is all the richer for all the ideas it pops out. Some plotlines feel as if they could be more developed but then it wouldn’t be such a fine, tightly structured picture. Plus it’s lovely to see the star and director of The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) back on screen again as a fiercely-protective mother who has a heartbreaking choice to make near the film’s outset that resonates strongly enough that it pulls the whole film together even more effectively.

Night Raiders (2021)CREDITS
Director/Writer Danis Goulet; Cinematographer Daniel Grant; Starring Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Brooklyn Letexier-Hart, Alex Tarrant, Violet Nelson, Amanda Plummer; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Friday 5 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 464: Danton (1983)

I certainly don’t mean to be reductive about what is clearly a grand effort at staging a historical spectacle, but this very much seems to fall into the ‘sweaty men shouting at each other in antique rooms’ sub-genre of historical film. It’s not that any of them is specifically a bad actor — although the dubbing into French of the many Polish actors is a bit off-putting at times — but it is rather reliant on the conflict of men (the few women involved are reduced very much to side figures, a little unfair I think in the case of Camille Desmoulins’ wife Lucile at least, who was a prominent diarist and journalist).

Danton, of course, has the more heroic character in this rendering of history — the film is named for him after all, and is played with all the charismatic charm that Depardieu can bring — but he’s still more talked about than seen. The film focuses far more on his chief antagonist, Maximilien Robespierre (played by a Polish actor, Wojciech Pszoniak), a shrinking and rather pathetic figure here. Patrice Chéreau matches Depardieu for sweaty outrage as Desmoulins but doesn’t get too much time to shine (though his presence reminds me of Chéreau’s own grand historical drama from the following decade, La Reine Margot, an older bit of history but rendered much more lustily and effectively than here). So in a sense the period costuming and other effects — the sweat, the blood, the crumbling architecture — stands just as strongly in for the drama as the actors themselves, which may owe a little to Rossellini’s history films. Rossellini’s films may have a calmer demeanour, but Wajda’s protagonists really like to get stuck in. It doesn’t always serve the film best, but it’s not too dull.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrzej Wajda; Writers Jean-Claude Carrière, Wajda, Agnieszka Holland, Bolesław Michałek and Jacek Gąsiorowski (based on the play Sprawa Dantona “The Danton Case” by Stanisława Przybyszewska); Cinematographer Igor Luther; Starring Wojciech Pszoniak, Gérard Depardieu, Patrice Chéreau; Length 136 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 24 September 2021.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

A film that came out earlier this year, and got some Oscar nods (including a win for Kaluuya), is this impressive biopic. It’s hardly perfect but it’s put together well with some fine performances, and shines some light on an underappreciated aspect of revolutionary American history.


This feels in many ways like a pretty traditional biopic showing all the strengths and weaknesses of that genre, with its arc through to someone’s death, and though it’s not clunky or badly directed, it really stands or falls on the quality of its actors. Luckily Daniel Kaluuya as Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton and Lakeith Stanfield as FBI informant Bill O’Neal, along with (notably) Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson, the partner of Hampton, all do brilliant work. Kaluuya’s is the more up-front role, the more direct angry young man, but it’s Stanfield who particularly impresses as this fraught character (the ‘Judas’), torn in many directions who communicates that well without big speeches, but just in these quiet scenes between himself and his handler (Jesse Plemons), that means the epilogue about the real life Bill O’Neal somehow comes as no real surprise while also being quite shocking. But the greatest shock of the epilogue — and something not fully conveyed by the film and its casting (however fine the actors) — is just how young all these people were. Hampton was 21 when the film ends. It’s a film not just about his work with the BPP but also about the policing culture (at the time, though I think we all know that time hasn’t changed much in that respect), and about the way this authoritarian power was directed at those trying to make positive change and resist the racist, capitalist narratives of the mainstream. Ultimately this is still a studio product, but it allows for those voices to be heard, that protest to be enunciated, and as protest this is striking.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)CREDITS
Director Shaka King; Writers Will Berson, King, Kenny Lucas and Keith Lucas; Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt; Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Martin Sheen; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Tuesday 16 March 2021.

الميدان Al Midan (The Square, 2013)

Taking us back a few years to a time when it seemed the world could change for the better. I think the full accounting of the cause and effects of the Arab Spring are probably still quite far away, and this film was made in the ferment of the initial action, at least as it took place in Egypt. It’s a great piece of documentary work, urgent and compelling. Even almost 10 years on, it’s still not clear the direction things have taken, but it’s always useful to show that the people are not entirely without voice in such moments.


There are a lot of documentaries and films about protest (plenty indeed just about the Arab Spring, like the Tunisian film A Revolution in Four Seasons), but The Square — which comes quite soon after the initial events — really seems to capture something of what this means, both in practice, with the immediacy of reportage from sites of revolutionary insurrection and activist struggle, and also in thought. This latter is served by a number of individuals, who perhaps represent a wider cross-section, if not of the full range of society, but of its most reflective participants. Egypt is still working through the legacy of 2011, and the documentary acknowledges that at the end, but the couple of years we see here are pretty compelling.

The Square film posterCREDITS
Director Jehane Noujaim چيهان نچيم; Cinematographers Noujaim, Muhammad Hamdy محمد حمدي, Ahmed Hassan أحمد حسن and Cressida Trew; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 7 December 2016.

我們有雨靴 Ngor moon yau yu her (We Have Boots, 2020)

I don’t have a specific theme for this week on my blog, so I’m just continuing to post some reviews from the Sheffield Doc/Fest.


This feels like a particularly urgent documentary, and as such it has a rather scrappy quality to it. There’s a lot of text and a few interviews, but mainly what it thrives on is the first-person footage of the protests, the civil disobedience, that have galvanised pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong for the last five or six years (at least). As someone who is far outside this particular conflict, there are a lot of people and details to take in, and it can be difficult to follow it all, but then again maybe a proper accounting of this time would take an epic length multi-part documentary. Even the two or so hours we get here (and I gather there have been several edits; this one has an epilogue which takes it up to May 2020, making it very fresh) ping all over the place, but they have an anger and a focus to it that becomes clear, from the covert colonisation being done by mainland China, to the various autocratic laws announced or sponsored on its behalf through pro-China HK leadership, plus the almost inevitable captions for each person we see announcing how they’ve been cracked down on or jailed or censured for their involvement. And as the ending makes clear, this is all very much just the beginning; protest and democracy is an ongoing process and will unfold for many years yet.

We Have Boots film posterCREDITS
Director Evans Chan 陳耀成; Cinematographers Lai Yick Ho, Mo Ming, Wong Hing Hang, Nero Chan, Jeong Hun Lee; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Monday 6 July 2020.

Global Cinema 5: Angola – Sambizanga (1973)

Angola is a country which has been beset for most of its independent existence by war, and continues to be hugely impoverished, so its no surprise there isn’t a huge cinema coming from there. Even the most prominent filmmaking linked to the country isn’t really funded there; Sarah Maldoror was married to a prominent leader in the MPLA, and her films about the country and its colonial troubles were funded by the French, and Sambizanga filmed in the bordering Republic of Congo (aka Brazzaville). Still, it’s very much a film about the situation in the country at a febrile time just leading up to its independence.


Angolan flagRepublic of Angola
population 25,789,000 | capital Luanda (6.8m) | largest cities Luanda, Lubango (601k), Huambo (595k), Benguela (555k), Cabinda (550k) | area 1,246,700 km2 | religion Catholicism (56%), Protestantism (37%) | official language Portuguese (português) | major ethnicities Ovimbundu (37%), Ambundu (25%), Bakongo (13%) | currency Kwanza (Kz) [AOA] | internet .ao

With a coastal plain along the Atlantic ocean and an inland plateau, divided by a mountain range, this is the seventh largest country on the continent, and has a tiny exclave of Cabinda just to the north, divided from the rest of the country by the DRC. The name comes from the Portuguese colonial name, itself derived from the title ngola held by kings in the highland region. Early nomadic tribes gave way to Bantu in the first millennium BCE, and a number of kingdoms were established thereafter in the region. The Portuguese came in the late-15th century, first explorer Diogo Cão, then establishing a trading post; they founded Luanda but had little control over the interior regions until the 19th century. Post-WW2 nationalist movements led to the founding of the FNLA, UNITA and the Soviet-supported MPLA, and independence declared on 22 November 1975. Agitation between these groups then led to a Civil War (with support coming from Soviet and US factions), which lasted sporadically until 2002. The country has yet to recover, and droughts have compounded problems. The government is led by a President, who had been José Eduardo dos Santos for 38 years until 2017.

The first cinemas were built in the 1930s, but many are now in disrepair. After so many years of war, understandably there is very little money available for filmmaking in the country, though there was a small boost in the 2000s after the Civil War concluded.


Sambizanga (1973)

I’d long hoped to see this film — and still do hope for a proper restoration — but it took the director’s recent passing for me to seek it out online, albeit in a poorly-kept print transferred badly to YouTube. However, some films you need to accept how they are if you want to watch them; in some ways, the poor quality and bad subtitling just adds to the film, which deals with Angolan liberation. It’s named for the area in Luanda where the prison is located to which our hero, Domingos (de Oliveira) is taken. He’s a member of the liberatory resistance to Portuguese colonial rule, and is grabbed from his workers’ shack in a nearby community by armed police. The film then intercuts his own tribulations in prison with his wife searching fruitlessly for him in the various prisons in the capital city, as well as other resistance workers trying to discover who this man is who’s been captured. It has the simple power of Soviet cinema in some respects, as it lays out the terms by which independence is fought for in an oppressive colonial system.

Sambizanga film posterCREDITS
Director Sarah Maldoror; Writers Claude Agostini, Maurice Pons, Mário Pinto de Andrade and Maldoror (based on the novel A vida verdadeira de Domingos Xavier “The Real Life of Domingos Xavier” by José Luandino Vieira); Cinematographer Claude Agostini; Starring Domingos de Oliveira, Elisa Andrade; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Saturday 9 May 2020.

Three Historical Dramas by Raoul Peck: The Man by the Shore (1993), Lumumba (2000) and The Young Karl Marx (2017)

One filmmaker who has consistently engaged with (usually revolutionary) history is the Haitian Raoul Peck. Many of his films deal with the turbulent times of his home country, a country which has suffered no small amount of turbulence over the last fifty years, as testified by the five-film French DVD box set of his Haitian films (one of which is The Man by the Shore reviewed below). Elsewhere he has turned his attention to thinkers like the American James Baldwin (in the documentary I Am Not Your Negro), to leader Patrice Lumumba (of what was then called the Republic of the Congo, later Zaire and now the DRC, subject of a 1992 documentary as well as the biopic below), and of course to a formative period in the life of Karl Marx.

Continue reading “Three Historical Dramas by Raoul Peck: The Man by the Shore (1993), Lumumba (2000) and The Young Karl Marx (2017)”