Sunday, 30 March 2008

Apur Sansar (1959, India, Satyajit Ray)

Concluding the trilogy to perfection, 'Apur Sansar' shows Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee) as a grown man but still experiencing the same ambitions, sense of responsibility and struggles as before. Apu is now an unemployed graduate in Calcutta, feckless as always as he avoids paying the rent and like his father before him using his education and dreams to distract from the realities of working for a living. An aspiring writer, Apu works on a story that is largely autobiographical and has the odd short story published but otherwise Apu rather drfits through life, though this all changes through a chance meeting with an old friend Pulu, who invites him to the wedding of a cousin. It emerges that the bridegroom has a deep mental illness and the bride's mother refuses her daughter to marry him, though the bride's father is concerned about the shame it will bring upon the family to call off the wedding, which would inevitably leave his daughter unable to marry in the future.

This is the pivotal moment in Apu's adult life; the moment in which he accepts responsibility and decides to put another first. He agrees to marry Pulu's cousin Apama (Sharmilla Tagore). As they return to Calcutta, the initial months of their marriage is shown through a combination of confusion, lack of communication and an incrasing awareness of what they both agreed to do. Apu is now aware of his inability to cope with the responsibilities of being a husband, warning Apama that he has no means, no job, no kind of future - that he has nothing to offer her. Against these odds however, their marriage blossoms and becomes increasingly blissful. An obvious love develops between them, told more so in their letters when they are apart than in their conversations. However, as has been the case in the trilogy thus far, any chance of happiness is usually taken away, and this is so when Apama dies in childbirth. Much like his mother before him, Apu is now placed in the position of being a lone parent, and Apu's mindset really couldn't be more different to his mother's. Whereas she took this burden on, Apu goes to pieces, rejecting the son that was responsible for the death of his wife and the end of his happiness, and admits that he doesn't love him and can't care for him. Of course there has to be a period of self-recognition and self-awareness for Apu, for him to finally accept his responsibilities. This duly occurs, but is not conducted in a trite or simplistic fashion. It seems natural, never forced.

Ray concludes his trilogy perfectly and maintains the breathtaking quality of the two films which preceded it. The final scene precisely captures the essence of the trilogy; an uncertain acceptance of responsibility, as Apu tries to learn to become the father to the son he barely knew until now before carrying his son into the distance on his shoulders. Although we see the world through Apu's eyes throughout and learn to sympathise with him, that's not to mean that we don't see every facet of his personality. We fully recognise his fecklessness, his apathy and his tendency towards being irresponsible - it's rare that a main character is so fully rounded, but that's the luxury of devoting three films across a period of twenty or so years allows. In each film, Apu loses a loved one and experiences but finds the strength and capacity to move on; he's a resilient hero whom we come to identify with. It's pitch perfect throughout; flawless film making. Ray was always considered one of the most humane film makers, and you couldn't disagree, such is the warmth and empathy that is at the heart of this justly renowned series of films. 5/5

Aparajito (1956, India, Satyajit Ray)

The second part of Ray's celebrated trilogy follows the life of Apu from the death of his sister until his arrival at university. 'Pather Panchali' ended with the family facing an uncertain future as they left their village in search of a better life. Now living in Benares, a city situated on the River Ganges, the family seem to be just as impoverished and disadvantaged in the more prosperous urban regions as they were in the comparatively backward countryside. The family live in a crowded apartment area with shared amenities and Harihar, Apu's father struggles to make ends meet with his occupation as a priest. What's interesting here is how religion was of little importance in 'Pather Panchali'. Although we knew that Harihar was a priest, we saw very little demonstration of this. Benares is a noted holy city of Hinduism in Northern India attracting millions of pilgrims each year and the Ganges itself is worshipped. Ray shows us the elaborate celebrations that occur during religious festivals. It's an intriguing contrast and it's possible that the family moved here because of Harihar's vocation, in that it would be easier to find work, but maybe Ray is suggesting something about the urban/rural divide in terms of religion.

The fortunes of the family change when Harihar falls ill. Though he claims to be better and returns to work, he fatally collapsing ascending the steps from the river as Shankar's score becomes more rapid and dissonant, informing us of what is about to take place, and Ray films this through a narrow archway from distance. His death is also symbolically represented by flocked birds suddenly flying away with coincides with the first time we saw Harihar preaching with birds flying in the sky amongst him. Even though Apu's mother, Sarbojaya finds work as a maid and cook for a wealthy family, staying in Benares is no longer an option; relatives want her to return to her village, whilst her employers wish for her to join them when they move. This typifies the intense burden that has been placed on her after a series of tragedies which saw her not ony lose her daughter and become a widow, but also the sole parent to a young boy. Ray uses both close up and then zooming out to illustrate the significance of her dilemma, and how the decision she makes will affect both her and Apu's life forever.

Returning home, Apu decides he wants to attend school. As a promising student he is offered a scholarship to study in Calcutta. In his adolescence, Apu is shown as somewhat ungrateful and unappreciative of the sacrifices his mother has made for him and the fact she is the sole parent having to bring up a child without a second thought for her own needs. Sarbojaya has no-one to support her, she is now alone, so naturally has misgivings about allowing Apu to study in Calcutta, despite her intenses pride in his achievements. Her ultimate sacrifice is not only agreeing to him leaving but also giving him her savings to encourage him to make the best of himself. Not that Apu strictly rewards her gratitude. He seldom comes home, admits he feels out of place there. One scene in which Sarbojaya reads a letter is truly heartbreaking as you can see just how distraught she is by news that he won't be coming home. She feels more alone than ever. No doubt this contributes to her illness which she conceals from Apu, fearing the effect it would have on his studies. When he eventually finds out and rushes home to see her, she has already died and in a moment of self-recognition, he realises his mistake.

'Aparajito' is a seamless transition from its predecessor. The success of 'Pather Panchali' allowed Ray to make this film with greater scope and ambition and was rewarded as such with the Golden Lion at the 1957 Venice Film Festival, confirming Ray's staggering promise as a film maker. As before, there is much significance of the use of trains, as the bridge between two words; that of the countryside and the city. Where Harihar and Sarbojaya's generation and those before were content to remain in the countryside, Apu's generation want more and are aware of the opportunities in the city, which Apu chases to the detriment of his mother. This is also demonstrated by the request upon him to perform the last rites of his mother in the village though he declines, explaining he can do this in Calcutta, confirming that this is no longer a place for him. Apu is caught up between his ambitions and his responsibilities and this perhaps is the overwhelming theme of the trilogy overall. 5/5

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Pather Panchali (1955, India, Satyajit Ray)

The work of the great Indian director, perhaps the first director to put Indian cinema on the world map, is something of a notable gap in my knowledge and experience of film. I'd watched a double bill of the excellent 'Days and Nights in the Forest' and 'Devi' last year, but what's considered his crowning achievement, the Apu Trilogy had so far eluded my attention. Across the next three evenings, time permitting, I'll watch the trilogy in full, starting with 'Pather Panchali', which is every bit as great as the reputation of the film suggests. Bearing the influence of the Italian neo-realists and Renoir, whom Ray assisted on 'The River' (which had been filmed a few years earlier in India), it truly is one of the most staggering debuts that I can think of. It's even more incredible to think that the entire personnel working on the film were complete amateurs and that the film was made over four or five years because funds kept running out (eventually financial assistance from the West Bengal government facilitated its completion). Despite these setbacks, and possibly because of them, Ray was able to create a film that can only be defined as a masterpiece.

Set in a rural Bengal village in the 1920s, Ray shows us the hardships and tragedies faced by one family over the course of several years. This starts with the birth of Apu (Subir Bannerjee), who would go on to become the central character of the trilogy, and the film ends with his naive innocence giving way to a degree of experience and reality hitting home. The family is poor, held together solely by the resilience and strength of the mother (Karuna Bannerjee). The father (Kanu Bannerjee) is a feckless dreamer whose education gives him greater aspirations than he is perhaps entitled to. He wants to be a scholar and a writer but struggles to feed and provide for his family and worries that by harassing his employer for his wages on time he'll lose his job - his naive optimism contrasts sharply with that of his wife who is constantly frustrated by him. Their struggles increase when he leaves the village to find work, leaving his wife alone to cope and care for the family. In the father's absence though, tragedy strikes twice with the deaths of the grandmother (Chunibala Devi) and also the daughter Durga (Uma Das Gupta).

A recurring theme within the film is that of respect and social standing; something that seems to have permeated Indian society from the days of colonialism. Durga is caught stealing fruit and accused of stealing her friends' beads, which brings shame upon the family. Neighbours suggest Durga hasn't been brought up well (exacerbated by her absent father) and that she's an accomplished thief. Such is the disgrace this brings upon the family that her mother disciplines her with a sense of cruelty. This scene includes an instance of Ray relying on Ravi Shankar's percussive score taking the place of dialogue - it happens during the scene in which the mother explains to the returning father that their daughter has died. It's as if words aren't necessary; we can judge the mood and situation from mere images and reactions. Furthermore, the father speaks of his education and realising his dreams of becoming a writer which would achieve a sense of respect for them and secure a good marriage for Durga in the process. However this quest for self-respect, built on the naive idealism of the father is responsible for the tragic episodes within the film.

For a director making his first film, Ray is remarkably assured in terms of his handling of images to propel the narrative. The film contains a number of memorable images and scenes which linger in the memory. Reflections in ponds or rain falling into ponds show a keen interest in the elements as symbolism. The film's most celebrated scene contrasts the tradition and backwardness of village life with technology and modernity. Whilst exploring, Apu and Durga see power lines, clearly something they'd never noticed before living in a village where electricity isn't available. Running from one set to the next, they are confronted by the symbol of the increasingly modern age; a steam train, which shows them that there is life outside the village, a life that offers more possibilities and opportunities, a life that ironically Durga's death pushes the family towards (the final scene shows them heartbroken and leaving for the city).

In its evocation of childhood, Ray's film is unsurpassed and comparable with Truffaut's 'Les Quatre Cents Coups' which would follow a few years later. It's scope runs much further than this however, reflecting rural village life with great accuracy and sympathy. Despite its implications of the father being responsible in part for Durga's death - his lack of repairs for the house lead to her pneumonia worsening, and his general carelessness, he is never condemned and eventually shown as doing what he can to support the family. An astonishing achievement - there is no other way to describe it - I hope the two remaining parts of the trilogy maintain this level of quality. 5/5

Monday, 24 March 2008

The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964, Italy/France, Pier Paolo Pasolini)

You'd think directing a film about the life of Jesus Christ would be a strange choice for a Marxist and atheist film maker, but Pasolini's treatment of the gospel in question seems so natural. That said, it was surely controversial at the time. His debut feature 'Accattone' had caused a significant degree of scandal, and this was followed by his segment for the 'RoGoPaG' collective film, 'La Ricotta', which was censored, and earned Pasolini a four month suspended prison sentence for blasphemy. However, after the Vatican opened up dialogue with non-Catholic artists, Pasolini embarked on his own unique account of the life of Christ, which offers an interpretation of Jesus as a social revolutionary and political radical, rather than the typical portrayal of him as the divine Son of God. This would later influence Scorsese's own 'The Last Temptation of Christ' and the director has been very keen to cite Pasolini's film as a serious inspiration upon his own directorial career.

Pasolini's modest take on events involves casting non-professionals in all roles. Enrique Irazoqui, a Spanish student who wrote a thesis on Pasolini's novel 'Boys of Life' was cast in the central role. Pasolini's own mother appears as the older Mary. Filmed in Matera, Italy, where Mel Gibson would film his own 'Passion of the Christ', locals comprised the other roles. This was typical of his approach to film making as a rule; eschewing big name actors for the more natural acting style of non-professionals. This pays dividends. Irazoqui is wholly convincing as Jesus, offering us a subdued and understated performance. Pasolini is reverential towards the character, but never sensationalises or glorifies him. Even his miracles; healing a disfigured man, healing a lame man, walking on water and so on are presented in reserved and simple fashion. But more important, Pasolini's Jesus is a political animal; driven and humble, but leading his believers towards enlightement and aware of the hypocrisy and machinations of those in power and those who preach.

Also interesting is Pasolini's use of music. Odetta's 'Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child', a traditional folk song identified with slavery features heavily, as does Billie Holiday, which contrasts with the classical soundtrack of Bach and Mozart. Despite seeming somewhat anachronistic, it works and increases the spiritual fervour of the film. That Pasolini films the gospel from the perspective of a non-believer, this makes it more affecting and moving for atheists and agnostics. Pasolini almost removes the entirely religious apparatus entirely, making it a secular and humane account. Other accounts of the life of Jesus are almost certainly going to be overly reverential; this is detached and views from a distance, which is one of the film's great positives. Considered Pasolini's great masterpiece, it's possibly the case because it has an emotional resonance that his other films probably don't possess, which entwines with the political sensibilities of those films. 4.5/5

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Marnie (1964, USA, Alfred Hitchcock)

A commercial and critical failure upon release, 'Marnie' is now seen by many, myself included, as one of Hitchcock's masterpieces, and probably his last great film in fact (whilst 'Frenzy' was an admirable return to film making in the UK, it doesn't really compare too favourably with the films one identifies with Hitchcock). It's also one of his most psychologically daring films; in many ways re-exploring the themes of 'Vertigo' of warped romantic intentions and obsessions. It also coincided with Hitchcock acting as "star maker" to novice actress 'Tippi' Hedren, a former model who was cast in 'The Birds' off the back of a shampoo commercial and groomed as a substitute for Grace Kelly, who had retired from film after marrying into the Monaco royal family. It is alleged that Hitchcock's intentions with Hedren were as obsessive as Scottie Ferguson's in 'Vertigo' and one might suggest the same in terms of the central male protagonist, Mark, towards Hedren's Marnie. It would not be the first instance of the male protagonist being a substitute for the actor himself. Cary Grant was often said to be cast as the man Hitchcock would like to be, but James Stewart's more flawed and neurotic 'hero' pursuing an unattainable woman was always the more realistic persona. Whatever occured during filming, this spelt the end of the Hitchcock-Hedren relationship, and arguably the director never recovered.

The opening scene is typical Hitchcock. His roots in silent films made him the archetypal visual director; a close up shot on a handbag which is then revealed to be carried by a woman leaving a train. Then he cuts to the details of a robbery at Strutts being reported. The thief of course is Marnie (Hedren), and when she dyes her hair blonde and replaces the social security card in her purse, we know she's a career criminal - a kleptomaniac who steals from one employer to the next before vanishing and changing identity. Her luck runs out though when she starts work at the company of Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), who recalls her from Strutts (she is given the job at his request, eager to find out about the enigmatic Marnie). Naturally she steals from Rutlands, achieved in a precise and breathtaking scene - thinking a cleaning lady will hear, she tiptoes from the building but her shoes fall from her pocket seemingly ruining her carefully laid plans. The cleaning lady of course is deaf.

Mark, having taken an interest so far, realises what has happened and finds her. Then he embarks on a strange form of revenge - he marries Marnie. Until this point Hitchcock hinted at Marnie's psychological problems; her fractured relationship with her mother, her dramatic responses to the colour red and thunder and lightning, as well as dreams that hint at a childhood trauma. Hitchcock then reveals Mark to be equally psychologically and emotionally damaged. His fixation with Marnie goes beyond seeking to understand her - he wants to possess her; in her own words "You don't love me. I'm just something you've caught! You think I'm some sort of animal you've trapped!" Their honeymoon features the film's most contentious scene, which cost Hitchcock more than one screenwriter and has been discussed ever since; Mark's rape of Marnie. If you believe the reports of some, Hitchcock was unrelenting in his desire to keep this scene. His aborted 'No Bail For The Judge' was intended to include a scene of the rape of Audrey Hepburn. This does nothing to contradict the accusations of misogyny that has plagued Hitchcock. It's disconcerting to watch for sure, and whilst it might cost Mark the sympathy of the audience, it's somewhat in keeping with his dark and threatning sexuality. Viewing it in context of the director's obsession with his actress, it becomes all the more disturbing.

'Marnie' remains one of Hitchcock's most controversial and polarising films, infused with the degree of psychological depth that many films of this period (such as 'The Birds', 'Psycho' and 'Vertigo') featured. Marnie's frigidity and kleptomania are born out of a childhood incident that she cannot remember, that her mother has concealed, but gradually becomes apparent and explains her fears of various images and sounds. Hitchcock's most forgiving critics might look at the obviously fake backdrops and explain them as devices which highlight Marnie's alienation and detachment, though more likely is the fact that Hitchcock was one of the most studio-bound of directors filming during the end of the studio system, unable to change with the times. Accordingly, his fortunes would decrease after 'Marnie'; a combination of age and changes to methods of film making that would make directors like him less relevant, though as mentioned before, I believe this to be Hitchcock's final masterpiece and the most overlooked and unfairly neglected film in his entire ouevre. 5/5

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Redacted (2007, USA/Canada, Brian De Palma)

Easily the most controversial of the current wave of Iraq-focused films, 'Redacted' goes where war films seldom go and breaks that unofficial condition that directors adhere to; by all means criticise the decision makers who send our men and women off to war, but do not criticise the soldiers themselves. De Palma is not interested in the war on a national or global level - you never see politicians or people at home discussing, justifying or opposing war. Instead, his focus is on the ground at the very basic level; primarily showing the action from the perspective of one troop and how they try to maintain whatever passes as peace, order and stability, and also how they (mis)conduct themselves in an alien country.

Perspective, in the sense of situations as seen by numerous different people has been a common feature of De Palma's work. Rashomon, perhaps cinema's finest example of this has been a long term influence, most notably evident in his 1998 thriller 'Snake Eyes'. Here, De Palma uses perspective to show the war from the viewpoint of several individuals or institutions, intriguingly using different media forms. There's the aspiring film student Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz) who keeps a video diary, the Iraqi domestic television stations, French documentary teams, fundamentalist Islamic websites amongst others, all reporting on the war, and on specific event in particular - the murder of a family by American troops, which included the rape of the fifteen year old daughter. One point that I think De Palma makes is that despite all these media forms being available, the "truth" is still no more apparent or available. Officially, the incident is hushed up as a Shi'ite/Sunni dispute, with the Iraqi/Islamic media outlets suggesting otherwise. The film's tagline is "truth is the first casualty of war"; a comment on the official line on the "success" of the war in Iraq. 'Redacted' shows American (we can't really say Allied, as you see troops of no other nationality) troops hardly in control of the region.

The incident referred to is an obvious reprise of the main focus of De Palma's previous war film 'Casualties of War' (1989). Set in Vietnam, this showed the kidnap and rape of a Vietnamese girl. Here, after arresting the father of a family on spurious suspicions of being an insurgent, a group of soldiers take out their frustrations on the family, as outlined above. The death of their sargeant, the unhealthy close contact of men together deprived of women (their discussions are usually very lurid; pornography is everywhere), their casualness about killing civilians, their overt racism - these all create those conditions and circumstances in which soldiers could commit such atrocities at random. This incident also pulls the rug from under our feet in a different sense. Until now we assumed that Salazar was the troop's moral compass, reporting the truth of the war, seemingly at odds with his more extreme colleagues. However he is involved in the rape and murder, not perpetrating the acts themselves but willing to go along with it. The moral compass now belongs to Lawyer McCoy (Rob Devaney), who tries to convince his colleagues not to commit the atrocities they had planned, and becomes guilt-stricken from his inability to prevent it and the Army's large indifference to his testimony. There is a telling final scene when having returned home, he is asked at his celebration dinner for some stories. His friends and family no doubt expect something glamorous, but he reveals the truth. As he finishes, whooping and applause begins, as if he had said nothing of the sort - a reflection of the fact that people don't want to hear precisely what is going on, that they're willing to self-censor the truth that might be too harrowing to contemplate.

'Redacted' has no conventional narrative; it's essentially fragments of events. Hence, it's a bit incoherent and wayward, shifting from an entry on a video diary to an Iraqi TV broadcast or segment from a French documentary at a moment's notice. Much has been mentioned about the general poor acting, which is a reasonable enough complaint, I suppose. It must be said though that most of the cast are novices, and furthermore, it's not really the point or intention. 'Redacted' seeks to bring together several perspectives of the war, and whilst its critics will claim it's not balanced and has a distinctly pious anti-war outlook, it should be considered of course that the media at large in the US show no balance. The right, notably Fox's Bill O'Reilly, have responded to the film with typical outrage and protest, suggesting that it plays into the hands of our "enemies". De Palma argues that it is a realistic presentation of the troops, rather than the whitewashed portrait the right-wing media offer.

Whilst I admire the film and consider it an important film, it's hard for me to genuinely recommend it. The reason for this is that it is exceptionally upsetting and distressing to watch. The rape and murder if difficult enough to sit through but the means in which a group of fundamentalist Muslims exact revenge for this (beheading Salazar live in the internet) is equally grim. It's a gruelling ordeal and you'd leave the cinema feeling far far worse than when you entered. Let alone the political controversy, the film's content would be enough to make it a difficult film to market, though it's only likely to really reach the already converted. A shame, because it's a highly intriguing, if highly flawed film. 3.5/5

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Le Boucher (1970, France/Italy, Claude Chabrol)

Made during his exceptionally fertile late 1960s period, which also produced 'La Femme Infidele' and 'Les Biches', Chabrol's most overt Hitchcockian film is a perfect example of the suspense genre, and contains at least two homages (from 'Strangers On A Train' and 'Foreign Correspondent') to the films of the director so admired by Chabrol and his Nouvelle Vague contemporaries. Chabrol sets the scene; an idyllic French rural village, a tight-knit community all in attendance at the wedding reception of a schoolteacher and his wife. At this reception, two strangers meet for the first time; Helene (Stephane Audran), a headmistress and Popaul (Jean Yanne), a butcher who has just completed a fifteen year spell in the army. They start by making small talk - this is the start of a friendship blossoming.

Then Chabrol pulls the rug from under our feet. In this perfect setting there is danger lurking below the surface. Dead bodies have been found locally and the police suspect that a serial killer is on the loose. They have no leads, no clues, but one person in the community has suspicions. In one memorable scene, Helene is taking her class on a trip to some caves. Eating lunch outside, a girl finds blood (with the appearance of ketchup perhaps) in the sandwich. It has fallen from a body on a cliff face above. Investigating, she finds a lighter (the reference to 'Strangers On A Train') belonging to Popaul. Is he the murderer at large or does the fact that he still retains the lighter proof of his innocence? Significantly, Helene never informs the police of this fact. But why? Does she see him as a kindred spirit? They are both lonely - though she doesn't strictly have romantic feelings for him, it is obvious they have a bond. Does she not want to lose this? Much is made in analysis of Hitchcock in that his film oftens had a recurring motif known as "exchange of guilt", which is prominent in 'Strangers On A Train'. Here, Helene is complicit in Popaul's suggested crimes. She is drawn to him, unwilling to voice her suspicions.

Chabrol handles Popaul's guilt/innocence very ambiguously. The lighter found at the scene of one crime is never confirmation of Helene's suspicions either way. Chabrol uses this to increase the tension to unbearable limits. As Helene distances herself from Popaul, rejecting his advances, she locks herself inside the school frantically, turning off lights. As she notices Popaul has left by his disappearance outside, we know of course than he has found his way inside. Chabrol's characterisation of Popaul is also vague. He's an accomplished butcher of course, who speaks constantly of the best way to cut meat. His experiences in the army; in Indo-China and Algeria, have left him mentally scarred. When some locals discuss the discovery of a body, he explains of the horrors that he has seen, though one local's retort it that "this was war, murders like these are savagery". Popaul hardly has any obvious characteristics that might suggest he is capable of these crimes either. It's the contradictions within his personality that allows Chabrol to maintain the tension and the credibility of the entire film.

'Le Boucher' is a tight and concise thriller, expertly handled and able to maintain its suspense for the entire duration until its tragic climax. This is a film about people who've suffered emotional damage; Popaul has seen the worst things imaginable in the army, Helene has had a love affair turn sour in the past, making her unable to commit herself to Popaul. Chabrol is both fair and sympathetic to these two people, demonstrating their need for connection and to overcome their demons. Whether he is guilty or not of the crimes that Helene suspects him of is perhaps, much like the Hitchcock Macguffin, largely secondary to the more overwhelming theme at hand. 4/5

Saturday, 15 March 2008

The Round Up (1966, Hungary, Miklós Jancsó)

To coincide with the DVD release of the film by the excellent Second Run Films (who have also previously released Jancsó's 'My Way Home' and 'The Red and The White'), the Curzon Mayfair cinema broadcast a special screening of 'The Round Up' on Friday 14 March, with Jancsó in attendance and participating in a Q&A with renowned critic/commentator Tony Rayns afterwards.

A little context. In 1848, the Habsburg Austrian Empire faced several revolutions from nationalist movements within its borders. One such revolution occured in Hungary, which was quickly and brutally supressed. 'The Round Up' concentrates on the authorities' attempts to track down the leaders of the rebellion; namely to find Sandor Rozsa and his men. Supported by the middle classes, the entire rural community were considered criminals and outlaws. This was a pitiless regime as Jancsó shows in the opening iconic scene that provides the film's title. A group of peasants are indiscriminately herded together; none directly suspected of being associates of Rozsa, but through applying psychological and physical pressure, it is hoped that the group will either expose itself or be exposed by others.

The tension and horror of the film resides in this approach. What disturbs us is just how "fair" the authorities are. Indiscriminate slaughter of the prisoners would be simple, but the more effective approach is interrogation, encouraging prisoners to inform on each other, and forcing them to watch other prisoners being psychologically or physically abused. It is a dehumanising and depersonalising process - these are less rounded human characters than mere symbols of oppression. One scene in which a naked young woman is repeatedly whipped by soldiers results in several prisoners jumping to their deaths as if they could take no more. One recurring image of psychological abuse is forcing prisoners to wear hoods. Seen now, it can only make one think of the famous image of the prisoner at Abu Ghraib. An inadvertent coincidence of course, but gives the film a frightening contemporary significance; that the means of undermining and abusing prisoners seldom changes through the ages.

The technical prowess which Jancsó was to become famous for was being well developed in 'The Round Up'. His stylistic trademark of long takes in deep focus are used frequently, as well as overhead shots as he observes the ritual dehumanisation of the prisoners. The camera is in perpetual movement, as are the actors within each scene. For instance, when two prisoners attack each other, as one accuses the other of betrayal, the camera swirls in a 360 degree motion as the actors do the same. Jancsó doesn't strike us as a director overly interested in the processes or psychology of acting. The prisoners are just pawns or props for his greater interest of choreographing the movements of human beings. Derek Malcolm's review of this film suggested that watching a Jancsó film was akin to watching ballet, and you see his point. Jancsó's framing of each scene is phenomenal.

It's possible to draw parallels between this film and events in Hungary just a decade before -the revolution of 1956, which was also supressed brutally. Jancsó was fairly cagey in terms of making a comparison. However, if the allegorical aspect of 'The Round Up' is apparent to us then would it not be apparent to the state authorities which allowed this film to be made? Jancsó was also fairly bemused by the fact that he was able to make films without state interference since they hardly conformed to Socialist orthodoxy. 'The Round Up' is a fascinating but clinical account of oppression and imprisonment; a directorial tour de force from Jancsó, though one needs to appreciate his intentions in making such a dehumanised piece of work. 4/5

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Irma Vep (1996, France, Olivier Assayas)

The process of film-making is an often used concept in film; just think of Truffaut's 'Day For Night' and Godard's 'Le Mepris' for the definitive examples of this. Not that it's just a French preoccupation of course, but Olivier Assayas follows in the footsteps of the aforementioned New Wave film makers with 'Irma Vep', which like their films, traces the hazards and pitfalls of making films, in this case a remake of Feuillade's 'Les Vampires'.

The start lets us know we're in dangerous territory; frantic discussions about finance and locations, arguments amongst the crew, a missing director - scenes and conversations which all overlap but relate to each other. At the centre of this intended film is Maggie Cheung (herself), the Hong Kong actress who was specifically cast by Vidal the director (Truffaut veteran and alter-ego Jean-Pierre Leaud) for the part of the title character. Here she gently spoofs herself; an actress who for years was cast in action films as little more than the heroine playing second fiddle to her male star but managed to break out of this stereotype thanks to directors like Wong-Kar Wai and Stanley Kwan. Discussing the film she has just completed, she cites a rather ridiculous and contrived plot, almost a parody of the action films she was once cast in. We see scenes of 'The Heroic Trio' (1993) later, which appears ludicrous, yet Vidal cast her on the basis of this film, though we suspect he just likes the idea if her as a slinky heroine in latex. Of course when journalists interview her about her career, all they are interested in is working with the likes of Jackie Chan on such films. 'Irma Vep' shows Cheung to be an accomplished comic actress with a nice line in self-deprecation.

We then witness event after event that shows the incompetence behind the film, even putting the entire production at risk at times, such as struggling to buy a PVC catsuit in a sex shop, early rushes from the film meeting unanimous dissatisfaction, and Vidal's nervous breakdown. All the while, Cheung has to deal with the romantic intentions of a female crew member, as well as take a slightly sinister interest in her part, almost living the role for real, as she walks the roofs of Paris on wet nights. The entire narrative more or less exists within the film production besides one dinner party. Assayas shows the intimacy of the film making processes, and whilst he shows the production of a fairly lousy looking film made by an over the hill director, it's never nasty in tone. It has the right satirical edge to it, and says plenty about contemporary film in both France and the United States. French journalists criticise the kind of films Vidal makes; dull, intellectual films that represent an older French cinematic tradition, whilst remaining enthusiastic about popular and mainstream films, as well as the action films of Hong Kong and the United States. It's thr triumph of commercialism over art, which is a pretty apt summation of the times in which we live.

It's a neat gimmick, even if it seems a bit disposable. I know the likes of Jonathan Rosenbaum have described this as a masterpiece in the past, and I can kind of see his point. It makes a number of salient points about contemporary film making but ceases before it really gets going. That said, it was written and shot on the hop. Rosenbaum also criticised the interpretation of many critics of 'Irma Vep' existing as a self-examination of French cinema. It does, but also much more. This is a film that examines cinema globally. 4/5

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Masculin Feminin (1966, France/Sweden, Jean-Luc Godard)

'Masculin Feminin', a film in fifteen chapters, is not so much a film about youth, but in Godard's own words a film about "the idea of youth" and as one of the chapter titles suggests"the children of Marx and Coca-Cola". This is a generation which is both political but reared on pop culture, and Godard captures it at a very specific time, nominally expressed through the awkward courtship between Paul (Jean-Pierre Leaud) and Madeleine (Chantal Goya).

He's just completed his national service and works as a journalist; she's an aspiring pop singer (Goya was a real life ye ye singer). They meet, discuss politics and culture, though they barely have a thing in common. He seems a lot more interested in her than she does him and therein lies much of the comedy, such as his terrible attempts to flip his cigarette into his mouth as if he's Jean-Paul Belmondo in 'Breathless'.

Typically radical with narrative and structure, Godard throws in numerous random and bizarre events - a couple arguing behind Paul and Madeleine in a cafe, then the wife shoots the husband as they leave, a man intimidating Paul inexplicably sticks a blade into his chest, a woman shoots two black men on the Metro, a man borrows matches and then sets himself alight - all of these are random acts of violence which have no real impact on the film whatsoever, but remain anarchic and spontaneous, in keeping with not only this film but much of Godard's work to date. As befitting the increasing influence of Godard's leftist politics into his films, the spectre of Vietnam and US involvement is everywhere. The self-immolating man performs this act in protest, whilst Paul participates in the vandalism of US vehicles, daubing anti-American slogans on them - 'Peace in Vietnam' etc. France at that point was politically to the right with the re-election of De Gaulle as president. Godard had always been critical of the de Gaulle regime, describing the upheaval in Paris in 1968 as the direct result of the authoritarianism of the republic.

There are the usual pop culture references (Bob Dylan, Sandie Shaw) and film intertextuality (Bridgette Bardot, star of 'Le Mepris' rehearses lines, Paul and Madeleine watch a parody of Bergman's 'The Silence', Madeleine mentions Godard's own 'Pierrot le Fou'). However the disconnected structure feels a bit too alienating, though maybe that's the point. Godard favoured Brechtian methods of distancing audiences from his films, removing them from any natural and realistic context. Godard's weaker films are usually more interesting than most directors better films, and 'Masculin Feminin' certainly is not short of ideas. It just didn't engage as much as Godard's classics of the era; the likes of 'Pierrot le Fou' and 'Le Mepris. 3.5/5

The Leopard (1963, Italy/France, Luchino Visconti)

Visconti's 1963 Palme D'Or winner is epic film making in the best sense, recording the consequences of revolution and social change upon an aristocratic family, headed by Prince Don Fabrizio Salina (Burt Lancaster). Their Sicilian paradise is threatened by the rise of the Risorgimento, the political movement which included Garibaldi, which set out to unite the states of Italy and instigate a new social order - that of democracy and the rise of the bourgeoisie at the expense of the aristocracy. Visconti had personal reasons to make this film. He was from aristocratic stock himself, but also considered himself a Communist. This conflict between his background and his political thinking is apparent in this film, and also explains why he is able to handle the material so sensitively, sympathetically and without judgement.

The film's opening scenes are a masterclass in cinematography as Giuseppe Rotunno's (who worked on several Fellini films) camera roams around the sprawling country estate of the Salina family. Their communal prayers are then interrupted by news of rioting in the city (a dead soldier is found in the garden) and the fleeing of several similarly aristocratic families. This is one of several superb set pieces that Visconti choreographs. The battle scenes between Garibaldi's Red Shirts and loyalist forces which inspired Scorsese's 'Gangs of New York' (Scorsese is a fervent admirer of this film) and the astounding 45 minute ballroom sequences which concludes the film are amongst the most memorables scenes you will ever see in the cinema.

As the momentum towards Italian unification is in full flow, Don Prince Fabrizio tries to remain as pragmatic as he can despite the impending replacement of his social class by another (the aspiring middle classes). He accepts it's just the substitution of political groups; that the middle classes just want to replace the upper classes, not destroy them. In a conversation with a Father, he notes that in a world of radical change, the church has immortality, social classes do not. The church manages to co-exist with the new ruling class rather well. Further evidence of how much the Salina family's world is in flux is shown in the marriage of Prince Don Fabrizio's nephew Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon) to Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), the daughter of a wealthy merchant and politician. Whilst not a marriage of convenience, it is mentioned that her family has considerable wealth, even if she lacks the manners and values of aristocratic birth. Don Prince Fabrizio defends the union, that they must move with the times and it is best for the survival of the family, even though the rest of his family largely disapprove, stating that it is tantamount to surrendering to their enemies.

Visconti also shows that even during periods of great upheaval, normality is restored very quickly. As said, all the revolutionaries genuinely believed in was substituting one ruling class with another. The church was restored and respected. Aristocrats were invited to sit in the Senate (which Don Prince Fabrizio rejects). Garibaldi's unruly rebels just morphed into a respectable army under the command of King Emmanuel the Second. As Tancredi, who is more adept at changing with the times than anyone else explains; "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change", whilst his uncle remains far more rueful about what has been lost.

'The Leopard' is a stunning achievement. Three hours long but without any padding - every minute of this film matters. Visconti documents a snapshot of Italian history with such meticulous detail and insight. Watch the effort that goes into the ballroom sequence, with hundreds of extras and elaborate costumes. Whilst the plaudits will naturally be the director's, the cast are all superb and Visconti's co-writers collaborate on a perfect script. Virtually flawless. 5/5

Lift To The Scaffold (1958, France, Louis Malle)

Though the advent of the Nouvelle Vague is usually credited to the first features of its most prominent film makers (Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol), it might be said that its roots existed in certain early features by Jean-Pierre Melville, and also 'Lift To The Scaffold' which preceded the likes of 'Breathless' by a year or two. They were not part of the movement perhaps, but they shared several things in common with the early Nouvelle Vague films - outdoor location shoots, natural acting and dialogue, low budgets; essentially rejecting the traditional production and shooting methods of conventional French film making, which the Cahiers du Cinema collective denounced as too literary and classical.

'Lift To The Scaffold' unfolds in typical noir fashion. Two lovers speak on the telephone, both repeating "I love you" over and over. We can sense they are not married, and when we see Julien (Maurice Ronet) with a gun in his possession, we sense murder is on his mind. The pair have been plotting the perfect crime, to kill Florence's (Jeanne Moreau) husband, a wealthy arms dealer, so that they might be together. Of course we know what they say about the best laid plans. What Malle does though is show the preparation involved in committing the crime in painstaking detail, though refrains from actually showing us, or letting us hear the actual act being carried out (he cuts to Julien's secretary sharpening pencils, which would also block out the sound). Malle then shows the aftermath, as Julien tries to make Florence's husbands death look like suicide.

The irony here is that the crime has been conducted so well that police assume it was suicide. However, Julien's attempt to retrieve evidence he left at the scene sets in motion a chain of events that would have greater consequences for him than being charged with the murder he actually committed. His car is stolen by a young couple who then kill two German tourists, and everything points to Julien having committed the crime, whilst he unknowingly is trapped in a lift back at his place of work. All the while, Florence searches the streets of Paris for him as he failed to meet her at their designated time and place. Picked up by the police for having no ID, she inadvertently increases the suspicion against Julien by jealously suggesting he was cavorting with another woman (the murder of the Germans was carried out by a couple).

'Lift To The Scaffold' also features an excellent Miles Davis score which has been rightly considered famous in its own right, capturing the sounds and atmosphere of Parisienne nights and the loneliness of Florence as she wanders in the wet early hours, wondering what became of Julien. Malle's debut is a film whose strengths reside in its economy. Though the plot twists and turns, he doesn't try to overcomplicate things; he keeps it natural and simple. The set up is familiar from dozens of films before it and after, but retains a sense of freshness and vigour that sets it apart from films you could compare it to. It's the film that introduced the wonderful actress Jeanne Moreau to the world and which started Malle's long and successful career both in France and latterly the US. 4/5

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Ivan's Childhood (1962, Soviet Union, Andrei Tarkovsky)

'Ivan's Childhood' was the debut feature of the great Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky. It was one of a number of films made during the Krushchev Thaw which focused on the Second World War in a human context rather than pure political propaganda extolling the heroics of the Great Patriotic War. 'The Cranes Are Flying', a sublimely poetic account of lovers separated by war is perhaps the peak of these such films, but 'Ivan's Childhood' is no less effective, and Tarkovsky works wonders from deceptively slight material.

Ivan, a twelve year old boy is seen looking through a cobweb, running through the forest and then levitating. It is a dream which ends with the boy calling for his mother. The reality is then shown; Ivan wading through muddy waters to reach a group of Soviet troops, arriving in a shivering and half dead state. It emerges that he has been on spying missions for the Soviet high command, something he has been able to achieve due to his small and slight stature.

Ivan is a boy in an extraordinary situation, and Tarkovsky shows how he deals with this through contrasting reality and dreams. Where reality is manifested by dark and claustrophobic environments where troops await the advance of the Nazis, Ivan's dreams are of happier times with his mother and sister, on sunlit beaches. Are these dreams a reflection of a past reality or just Ivan's imagination at work? We later discover just why Ivan is so determined to put himself at risk on dangerous missions; he vowed to avenge the death of his family at the hands of the Nazis - in his dreams, Ivan's mother asks him to avenge them. Even when Soviet officers attempt to send him to military school, he threatens to leave and join the partisans. Despite this maturity and dedication, Tarkovsky does not over-emphasise Ivan's heroism, making it an emotive decision that risks his own life.

Nearly twenty five years later, 'Come and See', directed by Elem Klimov followed similar themes - an orphaned boy thrown into the horrors of war and the psychological effects of this, so they make pretty useful companion pieces in that respect. Even at this stage though, the poetic and artistic dimension of Tarkovsky's film making approach is evident; recurring motifs of the elements (dripping water) etc, but the effectiveness of this film lies in its simplicity, which contrasts with the greater depth and ambition of Tarkovsky's subsequent films. A film that has been considered an inspiration by no less than Bergman, Paradjanov and Kieslowski, there are surely few better debut features. 4/5

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

The Conformist (1970, Italy/France/West Germany, Bernardo Bertolucci)

Having been on something of a creative slump over the last two decades, it's quite easy to overlook Bertolucci's achievements as a film maker. The Last Emporer was the last film of his that genuinely could be described as anywhere near greatness. Everything since seems to be less than fully realised and disappointing in comparison to his greatest films. Of course when you attain so much so young (Bertolucci was just 30 when he made this film), that creativity can be difficult to sustain long term. Still, this is nothing short of astonishing considering the youth of the director. It seems the work of someone far more mature.

A huge inspiration on New Hollywood, primarily Scorsese and Coppola, who paid tribute to one scene from this film in The Godfather Part Two. Such was the effect that it had on the latter that he hired Bertolucci's DoP Vittorio Storaro to work on Apocalypse Now. It's easy to see why because Storaro's work on The Conformist seriously is amongst the greatest cinematography you will ever see. Exceptionally innovative; shooting Trintignant's character (Clerici) from strange angles, using an incredibly fluid camera that seldom stays still (for instance, when Trintignant visits the Minister and the camera zooms out as he walks in the opposite direction), and capturing such iconic scenes, such as the opening scene with Trintignant's face coloured a shade of red from the neon lights outside his hotel room, and the leaves blowing in the wind in his mother's garden that Coppola would later reference.

The Conformist works so well because there are numerous remarkably talented individuals involved - the source material is derived from Alberto Moravia, who wrote the novel on which Godard's 'Le Mepris' was based (which is one of my favourite films). Georges Delerue, who scored 'Le Mepris', 'Jules et Jim' and 'Shoot The Pianist' was the film's composer, and then you have Jean-Louis Trintignant who was so great in Kieslowski's 'Three Colours Red' and the stunning Dominique Sanda in lead roles.

Trintignant is a mid-level civil servant in 1930s Italy who throws his lot in with the Fascists, not solely to enhance his career prospects, but mainly to achieve normality. He wants nothing to be anonymous and blend in with the crowd - he takes a wife he doesn't really love (he explains that normality is marriage, children, having a family), joins the Catholic faith, etc. But why this obsession? Does it go back to a nightmarish incident he experienced as a child, which Bertolucci shows us in flashback? Or the issues with his parents - his father is now in an asylum and his mother is drunk and seemingly having a fling with the chauffeur. The repeated emphasis on normality arguably reflects Bertolucci's thoughts about the nature of Fascism; that it can be achieved through mere compliance and acceptance.

The ultimate act of fitting in becomes accepting an order to assassinate his former university professor, now a dissident living in Paris with his young wife, and considered dangerous and provocative by the authorities. However, the feelings that he starts to develop for the man's wife complicating matters. Professor Quadri and his wife immediately suspect Clerici and question his motives to reacquainting himself with them, although this never dissuades them from meeting, or Quadri's wife having a short-lived affair with Clerici. After the inevitable, Bertolucci shows the aftermath of defeat in war; scenes of Mussolini's statue stolen and dragged through the streets, of young Italians celebrating freedom from dictatorship, and former Fascists turning on each other. Clerici is shown as a political chameleon in that sense, changing his political stance according to the status quo, according to what would help him achieve "normality".

I'm reminded of the phrase attributed to Edmund Burke; "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing" when watching The Conformist. For Bertolucci, Fascism is the desire not to act, to accept and to remain passive. 4.5/5

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972, France/Italy/Spain, Luis Bunuel)

The winner of the 1972 Academy Award for Best Film in a Foreign Language, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a typical surrealist satire from Luis Bunuel. Whilst it's targets are just the same as they always were - the middle classes, the army, the church, politicians and so on, the approach of the satire is more subtle though no less effective.

A number of guests arrive at a dinner party. They discover that they were expected the next day. This is the first of a chain of events in which the guests find themselves unable to eat dinner anywhere. In many ways, this is an inverted version of Bunuel's earlier 'The Exterminating Angel' (1962), in which a number of dinner party guests find themselves unable to actually leave (which in itself had parallels with the Czech film of the time - 'The Party and the Guests'). The dinner party and its social significance is clearly of interest to Bunuel. It provides him with the scope to skewer the values and aspirations of middle class society.

The circumstances in which the guests fail to eat become increasingly absurd, starting from a mix up over the day they agreed to meet, to the guests being gunned down by terrorists or finding themselves on stage in the performance of a play. Bunuel dispenses with logic and conventional rules concerning narrative. Scenarios are revealed as dreams by individual protagonists, therefore they are always unpredictable and anything is in the realms of possibility.

As mentioned, it's not just the middle classes and their vanity adultery, social pretences and shallowness that is being satirised. There's also the clergy as represented by the priest who dons gardener's clothing and is shown shooting the man who apparently killed his parents after giving him absolution. You have Don Rafael, one of the guests who is ambassador of a fictional South American country named Miranda, which is suggested to be a corrupt and repressive country with a widening gap between rich and poor, which also home to ex-Nazis, who Don Rafel describe as "perfect gentlemen".

Made during what might be seen as his most productive period in the ten years or so in which he made 'The Exterminating Angel', 'Belle du Jour', 'Viridiana' and 'Tristiana', this is a biting and wicked satire that is very much effective because of its surrealism and absurdity rather than relying on heavy handed sermonising. 4/5