August 27th, 2006
“We have won, and we shall live not to destroy, but to build a new life!”
Synopsis: Veronica and Boris are blissfully in love, until the eruption of World War II tears them apart. Boris is sent to the front lines…and then communication stops. Meanwhile, Veronica tries to ward off spiritual numbness while Boris’ draft-dodging cousin makes increasingly forceful overtures. Winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival, “The Cranes Are Flying” is a superbly crafted drama, bolstered by stunning cinematography and impassioned performances.
Critique: When you know that a film is “historically significant,” it’s easy to treat it like an antique teddy bear: something to be appreciated from a distance, but certainly not embraced. Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying was a landmark film in the history of post-Stalin Russian cinema, a Cannes Palme d’Or winner and a technically astonishing piece of filmmaking, but it isn’t something to watch just because it’s good for you. Consider the number of classic war movies in film history, then consider this: The Cranes Are Flying ranks among the best war movies ever made.
Like most great films, this one is at its heart a love story. In the spring of 1941, Boris (Alexei Batalov) and Veronica (Tatiana Samoilova) bask in the glow of their young love and their plans to marry. But war intervenes, and after the German invasion of Russia, Boris volunteers to go to the front. That leaves Veronica alone at home, waiting for letters from Boris that never come and fending off the advances of Boris’s draft-dodging cousin Mark (Alexander Shvorin).
The Cranes Are Flying appeared at a time when Soviet films were finally being allowed to explore the war without obvious jingoism, and you can feel the sense of liberation in virtually every frame. When the intelligent Boris enlists, the response from his family is not encouragement, but disbelief that he didn’t attempt to gain one of the draft exemptions available to the most talented. A rote speech of patriotic support for Boris from two young girls gets cut off as mere babble by Boris’ surgeon father (Vasily Merkuryev), and a government worker’s announcement about the joy of victory is juxtaposed with one grieving face. Though Kalatozov acknowledges the heroism of Russian soldiers, he refuses to ignore personal tragedy as legitimate, even in the face of global conflict.
He does so largely through a beautiful performance by Samoilova as the sexy, intense Veronica. In the early scenes with Boris, her playful tug of war with a blanket intended to block out a window establishes the affection between them with remarkable economy. Her face grounds the story as she reacts to a diatribe against faithless women, and as she falls into despair over whether Boris will ever return. Though Kalatozov goes to the battleground for one key segment of the film, his interest lies mostly with those left behind and damaged by war indirectly. The emotional force of Samoilova’s acting makes that pain as real as a gunshot.
It would be easy to spend hours dissecting Kalatozov’s powerful individual sequences as textbook examples of visual filmmaking: a collage of farewells to soldiers at a train station; Veronica’s frantic run to her parents’ apartment after an air raid; Boris’ heart-breaking hallucinatory vision of his wedding day with Veronica; Veronica staring off-screen while reading a letter from Boris, his voice-over sending the words directly into her soul. But the virtuoso moments come together for something riveting and completely human. It’s the kind of humanity you can’t just nod to respectfully as it sits in a museum case. You are compelled to throw your arms around it.
- By Scott Renshaw, Apollo Guide
My Thoughts: I couldn’t get over the gorgeous cinematography of “Cranes Are Flying.” Scene after scene comes alive with panoramic cranes, closeups, deep focus shots, wide angle perspectives, hand held camera, super imposed images… all masterfully executed. Tatiana Samoilova’s personality shines through in every scene and her performance carries us with her throughout the entire film. I wish they still made movies like this!
July 31st, 2006
“A stray dog becomes a mad dog.”
Critique: Stray Dog (1949), Kurosawa’s ninth film, is generally considered his first masterpiece, or at least the first for which the term can be reasonably argued. And no wonder. All the elements that would distinguish his later work are in place. There’s the epic sweep, in which a very personal story focusing on a troubled individual(s) is told against a grand background, in this case the panorama of a defeated and humiliated occupied Japan. Dostoyevskian themes and motifs — humanism, class conflict, masculine pain and guilt, doppelgangers — abound. There are stellar performances throughout, including the first great coupling of Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura (in their fourth appearance together in a Kurosawa film). And of course the film’s elaborate visuals, formal complexities, and dramatic pacing announce a career that would be internationally acclaimed with Rashomon just a year later. If he misjudges or overdoes a few of the effects, as I believe he does, these are minor failures in a generally masterful work.
In interviews, Kurosawa claimed several inspirations for Stray Dog, most importantly Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948) with its realist thrust and the novels of Georges Simenon for their meticulous proceduralism. That said, the film is not a whodunit in any real sense. It’s beholden neither to the strict realism of Dassin nor to the mechanical policier approach of Simenon. Kurosawa’s canvas is ultimately larger than its influences, exploring not just the existential angst of a policeman whose stolen gun is being used in a series of terrible crimes, but also the epic hell of postwar Japanese society.
The film begins in July with a seemingly trivial tragedy. Rookie detective Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) has had his gun stolen in a hot, crowded bus. (Guns were, of course, scarce in postwar Japan, available mainly to police and on the black market, so this is a much bigger deal than it might seem.) Murakami is unable to catch the thief despite an exhausting chase, and he returns to the station humiliated and ready to resign. Denied this penance, he continues the search, checking records, discovering suspects, and in a wonderful sequence that begins the film’s tour of postwar Tokyo, following a hardboiled female criminal through the homely housing of Tokyo in hopes of harassing her into a confession. This sequence ends in one of the director’s trademark magical moments when she relaxes and tells Murakami some of what she knows, stretching back to gaze wonderingly at the night sky. It also presages the film’s bravura 8-1/2 minute survey of the slums and black markets of Tokyo.
This sequence, shot by Inoshiro Honda of Godzilla fame, is like an anti-travelogue for a ruined city. Honda had to shoot in secret, as these were actual black markets full of criminals, whores, vagrants, and other social cast-offs. The camera unflinchingly shows the crush of humanity — lines of dirty urchins; flophouses crammed with the poor; ex-soldiers standing idly on the streets; furtive transactions; all set against a backdrop of clogged, grimy alleys in Tokyo’s killing summer heat. Everything that once-proud, orderly Japanese society had become by this time is on display here in tableaux that are echoed throughout the film, and offer a key motivation for the crimes of the gun-thief.
Murakami’s tormented journey into these “lower depths” — his disguise as a “desperate soldier” becomes increasingly real — is crucial to understanding the world the film is trying to create and to Murakami’s psychology. His search for the missing gun, an emblem of his (and presumably Japan’s) lost power, becomes a mania, and he himself becomes linked both in his own mind and by the gun with the criminal who is using it to rob and kill. In a classic doppelganger trope, both the thief, Yusa (Isao Kimura), and Murakami were soldiers; both had their knapsacks stolen on the train that brought them from the war to their home. But Yusa, we eventually are told, “chose” a life of crime, while Murakami, faced with the same dismal society that could not assimilate its soldiers, chose to become a detective. Yet the film takes pains to show that Yusa’s path was inevitable, the result of social forces that could not be overcome. Murakami was one of the lucky few to get a job of any kind at a time when American control was iron.
Murakami’s progress in locating the elusive Yusa starts in earnest when he’s assigned to a more seasoned inspector, Sato (Takashi Shimura), who begins the dual process of helping Murakami find the thief and recover the gun, and helping the younger man mature as a detective and a human being. Their interplay, the classic simpatico/clash between the thoughtful, mature teacher and the rash, obsessive youth, is one of the pleasures of Stray Dog. Takashi Shimura was never better, capturing his character in simple gestures like wiping his arms, or gazing at Mifune with the indulgence of a loving father. They also share one of the film’s loveliest moments when, from behind a delicate gauzy curtain, they watch Sato’s children sleeping — a quiet reminder that there is as always a future, and it may be different.
That future depends, it seems, on eradicating the rogue element in Japanese society represented by Murakami’s thief, the unassimilable soldier who fought a failed war. Kurosawa doesn’t neglect the technical aspects of this process, though they’re always secondary to the epic and psychological elements. There are classic scenes of ballistics analysis that recall the U.S. “docu noirs” of the late 1940s, and a “bullet countdown” motif — Murakami’s gun had all seven bullets when stolen, and he nervously counts them down as each new crime is revealed. But more important here is the rookie cop’s slow unraveling as he closes in on Yusa. His adoption of a soldier’s guise gives the usually scrubbed detective a much grungier look, making him seem less an interloper than an authentic member of the poverty-choked netherworld he’s infiltrating in his search for the gun.
The search brings him to his nemesis’ girlfriend, Harumi (Keiko Awaji). The film uses one of their scenes together to brilliantly play the class card. Harumi, like many Japanese women at the time, had one foot in the criminal world as a means of survival. In an occupied country this was crucial. One of the products of this alliance is a hopelessly expensive dress Yusa bought her, after seeing her admire it in a shop. In a scene at once magical and horrific, she puts on the dress and twirls through a shadow-drenched room reminiscent of a shadow-swathed Gothic castle chamber, screaming “I’m happy!” Murakami’s assumptions about free will (he “chose” his job while Yusa “chose” to be a criminal) are challenged by this vivid act. Is Harumi’s possession of the dress really a crime? Is Yusa a criminal for stealing the money to buy it for her? How many others don’t have what the want or need? The answers aren’t as easy now for Murakami, and the pressure shows in what looks like a state of barely controlled hysteria that increasingly marks him.
Yusa, though not seen entirely until the film’s last few minutes, is gradually revealed in a kind of off-screen portrait that humanizes him, in the process linking him closer to Murakami. Both are seen as nervous, emotional, almost hysterical men. Yusa’s mother tells the detective, “I found him sitting here in the dark, crying…” Harumi describes his anguish at her desire for the dress, and the viewer is left to fill in the emotions Yusa must have felt between seeing her and the dress, and his purchase of it a week later with stolen money. The fateful meeting between Yusa and Murakami is the literal high point of the film, but perhaps represents an overreaching by Kurosawa. Yusa’s breakdown is a marvel to behold, but the oppositional images in this sequence, flowers and butterflies contrasted with bullets and bruises, hammer the viewer and threaten to overwhelm the emotions. Kurosawa’s operatic tendencies serve most of the film, but look out of place in the crucial meeting of these enemies who are so much alike. What saves the scene are a fine performance by Kimura in a very brief role, and superb work throughout by Mifune, who, only 29 here, established himself as one of the screen’s most accomplished actors.
- Gary Morris Images Journal
My Thoughts: Unfortunetly, “Stay Dog” is one of Kurosawa’s lesser known masterworks. It’s one of the best crime films made, along with “M” and Kurosawa’s own “High Low.” I really enjoy seeing the humanity Kurosawa instills in his chracters. It gives them great depth and makes them far more interesting people. Fittingly, I watched this film on a 100 degree day.
July 14th, 2006
“Strangers bring flowers to his grave.”
Synopsis: Russian soldier Alyosha Skvortsov is granted a visit with his mother after he singlehandedly fends off two enemy tanks. As he journeys home, Alyosha encounters the devastation of his war-torn country, witnesses glimmers of hope among the people, and falls in love. With its poetic visual imagery, Grigori Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier is an unconventional meditation on the effects of war, and a milestone in Russian cinema.
Critique: We are told at the outset that Alyosha is killed at the front, never to return to his mother, to Shura, or to anyone else again. Ballad of a Soldier’s conclusion strikes a single, clear tone with one of the most poignant of wartime questions — what if? What if Alyosha, decent and honorable and deserving of a full life, had not died in the war? What could he, and by extension some 20 million Alyoshas, have become? What could this everyday hero have contributed if he’d been allowed to fulfill his promise? Ballad doesn’t answer the question. Instead it tells us that Alyosha dies a “simple Russian soldier” (a citizen of a country, not an ideology) because he never had the time or opportunity to be anything else.
Technically rich yet possessing a refining simplicity, Ballad of a Soldier is a quietly powerful work that could have diminished into soapy melodrama or government-stamped rhetoric. Instead, director/co-writer Grigori Chukhrai delivered a personal ode, one indeed as emotive and straight-shooting as a ballad, to his own postwar generation. He did so with then-distinctive attention to varying responses war brings out in individual people, with moments of unmistakable (and now sweetly chaste) sexual heat, and without resorting to the clichés, stilted symbols, or pompous phraseology that did so much harm to Soviet cinema. If handsome, virtuous Alyosha is an idealized emblem of the Soviet character, it’s to the degree that, say, Jimmy Stewart or John Wayne personified America’s images of itself. Ballad is artful without being at all inaccessible, and every element — cinematography, sound, and especially the performances of the two extraordinary actors playing Alyosha and Shura — is as energetic and sharply honed as any of the best Hollywood or Western European product.
During the early ’60s, when Kruschev supported a brief thaw in Cold War tensions, Ballad triumphantly toured the international festival circuit. It was (and is) hailed as a gem-like representative of the period’s “new Soviet cinema,” and for Russians it became one of their most beloved movies while also earning awards in Cannes, San Francisco, London, Tehran, and Milan before winning the Lenin Prize at home. In 1962 it was Oscar-nominated for Best Writing (Story and Screenplay) and won the British Academy Award for Best Film From Any Source. Our vantage-point several decades later allows us a broader view of Ballad’s resonant theme. What might writer-director Grigori Chukhrai or the previously unknown acting students — Zhanna Prokhorenko (who’s as lovely and soulful as Ingrid Bergman in her prime) and Vladimir Ivashov (one of the best leading men Hollywood never had) — have achieved if politics and circumstances had permitted greater artistic back-and-forth between the U.S. and Soviet film industries? There’s of course no answer for that, though this release of Ballad of a Soldier hints at what might have been.
— Mark Bourne, The DVD Journal
My Thoughts: What a find this movie was! I loved Alyosha’s sense of honor that he touches everyone he mets on his journey with. In the end, though he was a hero soldier, it was his humanity that made him revered in his short life. The movie culminates in a wonderful scene permeated by a powerful silence. Also noteworthy was the beautiful cinematography.
July 4th, 2006
“Then may He give me the strength to unhorse you. And send you with one blow, back across the sea.”
Synopsis: All the elements of Sir Thomas Malory’s classic ‘Le Morte Darthur’ are here: Arthur (Nigel Terry) removing the sword Excalibur from the stone; the Round Table’s noble birth and tragic decline; the heroic attempts to recover the Holy Grail; and the shifting balance of power between wily wizard Merlin (Nicol Williamson) and evil sorceress Morgana (Helen Mirren). With Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Byrne and Liam Neeson in notable early screen roles, ‘Excalibur’ serves up, ‘The New Yorker’s’ Pauline Kael wrote, “one lush, enraptured scene after another.”
My Thoughts: I’ve seen “Excalibur” more times than any other movie, at least 50. My brother and I watched it often when we were children because it was one of the few video tapes we owned. We got to the point where we could recite the entire movie word for word to each other. Our copy was brought back by our mother who taught a medeval epic class at her college. It was my first real exposure to the Authurian legend and I was hooked from then on.
This movie has everything guys love in movies: chivalry, adventure, knights, combat, friendship, honor, intrigue, love, betrayal, wizards, battles, castles, jousting… “Excalibur” holds a special place in my heart because of the memories it conjures up. It made me want to be a knight. Though I couldn’t ever be an Authurian knight, I could in the sense of upholding ideals such as honor and courage. Even the music from Wagner stirs the blood. This is the movie that made me love movies. There are so many memorable quotes and images which I will try to convey.
“I have walked my way since the beginning of time. Sometimes I give, sometimes I take, it is mine to know which and when!”
“Talk. Talk is for lovers, Merlin. I need the sword to be king.”
“Show the sword! Behold! The Sword of Power! Excalibur! Forged when the world was young, and bird and beast and flower were one with man, and death was but a dream!”
“He who draws the sword from the stone, he shall be king. Arthur, you’re the one.”
“Good and evil, there never is one without the other.”
“Swear faith to me, and you shall have mercy! I need battle lords such as you!”
“I am Lancelot of the Lake, from across the sea. And I have yet to find a King worthy of my sword.”
“Not a boast, sir. But a curse. For I have never met my match in joust or duel.”
“Move aside! This is the king’s road - and the knights you joined arms against were his very own.”
“Lancelot: Your rage has unbalanced you. You sir, would fight to the death, against a knight who is not your enemy. Over a stretch of road you could easily ride around.
Arthur: So be it. To the death!”
“My pride broke it. My rage broke it! This excellent knight, who fought with fairness and grace, was meant to win. I used Excalibur to change that verdict. I’ve lost, for all time. The ancient sword of my fathers, whose power was meant to unite all men… not to serve the vanity of a single man. I am… nothing.”
“The Lady of the Lake!”
“STAND BACK! Be silent! Be still! That’s it… and look upon this moment. Savor it! Rejoice with great gladness! Great gladness! Remember it always, for you are joined by it. You are One, under the stars. Remember it well, then… this night, this great victory. So that in the years ahead, you can say, ‘I was there that night, with Arthur, the King!’ For it is the doom of men that they forget.”
“Looking at the cake is like looking at the future, until you’ve tasted it what do you really know? And then, of course, it’s too late.”
“Knights, of The Round Table!”
“We are innocent, but not in our hearts.”
“When a man lies, he murders some part of the world.”
“That’s the one thing of yours I don’t want! The quest knights have failed. They’re all dead. And YOU… are dead, too. I shall come back and take Camelot by force!”
“Any man who would be a knight and follow a king… follow me.”
“Now, once more, I must ride with my knights to defend what was, and the dream of what could be.”
“Come father. Let us embrace at last.”
“I cannot give you the land. Only my love.”
“DO… as I command! One day, a King will come, and the Sword will rise… again.”
“I have often thought that in the hereafter of our lives, when I owe no more to the future and can be just a man, that we may meet, and you will come to me and claim me as yours, and know that I am your husband. It is a dream I have…”
June 24th, 2006
“You know, a bad doctor can kill you. I won’t kill you, but I might break a couple of arms or legs.”
Synopsis: A testament to the goodness of humankind, Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Red Beard’ chronicles the tumultuous relationship between an arrogant young doctor and a compassionate clinic director. Toshiro Mifune, in his last role for Kurosawa, gives a powerhouse performance as the dignified yet empathic director who guides his pupil to maturity, teaching the embittered intern to appreciate the lives of his destitute patients. Perfectly capturing the look and feel of 19th-century Japan, Kurosawa weaves a fascinating tapestry of time, place, and emotion.
Critique: There are few films that reach as deeply as this one into the realms of the human condition, including despair and caring. At one level, the film is about the nature of medical care, but, in the nineteenth century, medical care was not materially different than the broader term, “caring.” Medicine had few scientifically validated treatments to offer and virtually no capacity to cure ailments. Red Beard knows that his business is as much about giving hope and fighting poverty as it is about disease: “Medical science doesn’t know everything. We know the symptoms and how things go. We can only fight poverty and ignorance, and cover up what we don’t know. If it weren’t for poverty, half of these people wouldn’t be sick.” Fields like psychology and social services didn’t exist, at the time, so medicine encompassed most of what is now divided among many different so-called “helping professions.” Medicine has changed both for better and for worse. On the positive side, doctors now have a much broader arsenal of efficacious interventions for many kinds of disease. On the downside, many physicians have lost the holistic orientation and “bedside manner” that Red Beard embodies and which Yasumoto is beginning to appreciate. Beyond that, the film’s other specific themes are those listed above as the seven lessons learned by Yasumoto. The one about the value of life residing in loving and caring for others is perhaps most central.
The script of Red Beard provides both its greatest strengths and its only significant weaknesses. The general contours of the story were based on a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto, called Red Beard. Shugoro’s writings had also provided the main plot elements for Sanjuro. Kurosawa wrote the screenplay for Red Beard himself, incorporating additional elements from Dostoevsky’s The Insulted and the Injured, as well as some of his own experiences. The story takes place mainly at the Koishikawa Public Clinic in nineteenth century Japan, near the city of Nagasaki. Medicine in Japan was undergoing major changes due to exposure of Japanese physicians to Western medical practices at the Dutch medical school in Nagasaki. The Japanese referred to Dutch physicians as “Red Beards” and their medical practices as “Red Medicine.” Hence the film’s title, “Red Beard.”
The film’s script treats its subject matter with admirable realism. A rich variety of primary and secondary characters are introduced and several undergo character development over the course of the film. Instead of basing the evolution of the main character on one climactic revelatory moment (as all too many films do), Kurosawa allows the deepening of personality and understanding to accumulate gradually as a natural result of numerous experiences (which is how personal growth usually occurs in real life). There’s a profound honesty and simplicity to the script that is downright refreshing. The script is highly literate and provides an excellent balance between humor, drama, characterization, and action.
The film’s major weakness is that the script is somewhat overly episodic. This gives Red Beard something of the feel of a mini-series or soap opera. Kurosawa strays frequently from the main story in extended tangential subplots. The gradual education of the young doctor Noboru Yasumoto provides the only integrating motif. It’s a bit like four or so episodes of Dr. Kildare strung together.
This film is not especially typical of Kurosawa’s output due to the extent of emphasis on narrative. Kurosawa was known, both early and late in his career, for spectacular visuals and highly developed camerawork. There’s nothing that disappoints about the cinematography for this film. It just doesn’t stand out as it does in either The Seven Samurai or Ran. It’s kept subordinate to the story. For many of the scenes in Red Beard, Kurosawa uses telephoto lenses to flatten the visual field and allow the camera to remain in focus as it moves. There’s an assortment of interesting perspective shots, looking down corridors, for example, and a magnificent tracking shot, near the end, by which the camera descends into a well before turning to peer back up at a group of characters shouting into the pit. If the individual images draw less attention than is typical of Kurosawa’s work, they nevertheless exhibit the same masterful composition and richness of chiaroscuro. It’s mainly only the kinetic element and the panoramic landscapes that are less in evidence in Red Beard compared to, say, Ran.
The costumes and sets were meticulously designed with period authenticity firmly in mind. Details of medical practice were verified as consistent with nineteenth century medicine. The soundtrack is mostly unobtrusive, though occasionally resorting to those heavy-handed dramatic sounds designed to tell viewers what they are supposed to be feeling. The music sometimes pauses for extended periods of time to allow natural sounds to permeate the atmosphere.
Both of the lead men provide strong performances. Yuzo Kayama gives us a highly sympathetic character as the central protagonist. It is through his eyes that we see the events unfold. Kayama had earlier appeared in Chushingura (1962) and was something of a matinee idol in his day. Mifune’s performance is restrained and authoritative. He’s magnificent, of course, in the one fight scene, but just as powerful, in other ways, as the compassionate healer and mentor.
This is a high quality film, with a touching story and profoundly humanistic themes. The performances are excellent, the cinematography is superb, and the character development outstanding. You shouldn’t let my small number of quibbles with the film (such as length and an overly episodic script) dissuade you from watching it.
My thoughts: I agree with Metalluk’s conclusion: “I especially recommend this film for anyone anticipating a career in medicine, psychology, social services, or other helping professions. It’s a reminder that we all need to keep our priorities straight and recognize that status and success are less important than making some kind of tangible difference in the lives of our fellow humans.”
June 17th, 2006
“You don’t know yet what an awful place the world can be.”
Synopsis: Anna Magnani is Mamma Roma, a middle-aged prostitute who attempts to extricate herself from her sordid past for the sake of her son. Filmed in the great tradition of Italian neorealism, Mamma Roma offers an unflinching look at the struggle for survival in postwar Italy, and highlights director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s lifelong fascination with the marginalized and dispossessed. Though banned upon its release in Italy for obscenity, today Mamma Roma is considered a classic: a glimpse at a country’s most controversial director in the process of finding his style and a powerhouse performance by one of cinema’s greatest actresses.
Critique: Pasolini was a deeply fatalistic individual and believed that “the only thing that makes man really great is the fact that he will die.” The foremost theme of Mamma Roma might be summed up as the hopelessness (and infectious influence) inherent in the efforts of the sub-proletariat to improve their lot in life. Pasolini despised the consumerism of the bourgeoisie and felt that the sub-proletariat despoiled itself in striving for middleclass status. Mamma Roma’s purchase of a motorbike for her son is emblematic of her contamination by consumerism. One might cynically note that Pasolini late succumbed to the lure of consumerism himself. When he was murdered and run over by his own car at just fifty-three years of age, the car was an Alfa-Romero. At least his tragic death fulfilled his own criterion for greatness.
Pasolini portrays Mamma Roma as virtually imprisoned in her social class and pathetic in her efforts to emerge from it. It was for this reason that Pasolini’s fellow Communists rejected his work, even though it was also vociferously rejected by the neo-Fascists on the right. The Communist perspective on the arts favored portrayals of the proletariat as noble and wholesome individuals unfairly suppressed by decadent capitalists. Pasolini, instead, paints a picture of life in the borgate that is itself morally decadent and anything but noble.
The script for Mamma Roma follows the Neo-realist tradition to the extent of evoking emotions of empathy and concern for the struggling lower class. A story of a struggling mother trying to provide for her family and improve their lot is ordinary enough, but the particulars with which Pasolini fills out his story are exceptional. The sympathetic treatment of prostitution and blackmail was quite original and aroused the consternation of Italian authorities. Pasolini’s script was also exceptional for what it did not tell. Many particulars are left to our imaginations. We don’t know, for example, the identity of Ettore’s father or who raised him in his youth. For that matter, we learn precious little about Mamma Roma’s history.
One of Pasolini’s consistent strengths, as a filmmaker, is the quality of his dialog. Pasolini had a keen interest in language, local dialects, and street language, in particular. He drew both his actors, for this film, and those he later used for dubbing from the borgate, giving the film exceptional linguistic authenticity. Then, Pasolini drew on his experience as poet and novelist to write dialog that was always compelling and sometimes, even, poetic.
There is a pair of standout scenes in this film in which Mamma Roma strides along the prostitute’s promenade, soliloquizing on life, the hardships of prostitution, love, and destiny. As she strolls along, the camera rolls backward, receding at the same pace as she approaches, thus suggesting the unattainable destination that is her dream. As she walks, the people in her life – a mix of hookers, pimps, and customers – momentarily join her, share a bit of dialog with her, and then peel off, each in turn. The two recurrences of this basic motif pretty much sum up the essence of Mamma Roma’s existence: a few passing contacts with the folks mired at her own level of existence combined with striving toward an unattainable objective. Mamma Roma’s boisterous demeanor can be easily understood as defense against genuine involvement.
Pasolini had a deep love for the paintings of the Renaissance masters and his cinematographic style demonstrates it. His mise-en-sceée is always painterly. He emphasizes frontal shots with a shallow depth of field. Backgrounds are carefully selected to set off his characters. Both Mamma Roma and its predecessor, Accattone!, were shot in gritty, high-contrast, black-and-white.
My Thoughts: Richard Gibson was kind enough to recommend “Mamma Roma” as a companion to “Nights of Cabiria.” There were many parallels between these films such as the Catholic symbolism and subject matter. However, I found myself much more sympathetic toward Cabiria than Mamma Roma.
June 16th, 2006
“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
Synopsis: A landmark movie in the film noir tradition, Roman Polanski’s ‘Chinatown’ stands as a true screen classic. Jack Nicholson is private-eye Jake Gittes, living off the murky moral climate of sunbaked, pre-war Southern California. Hired by a beautiful socialite (Faye Dunaway) to investigate her husband’s extramarital affair, Gittes is swept into a maelstrom of double dealings and deadly deceits, uncovering a web of personal and political scandals that come crashing together for one, unforgettable night in… Chinatown.
Critique: Could Chinatown be made today, in a Hollywood climate that rewards productions with no ambition and demands happy endings? Probably not. Even in 1974, screenwriter Robert Towne wanted a more upbeat conclusion, but Polanski believed that the film’s true path intersected with tragedy. From the vantage point of almost 30 years distance, it’s difficult to argue with the director’s interpretation. Had Towne’s vision held, the mediocre climax would have robbed Chinatown of an element of its power. One has to wonder whether it would be held in as high regard.
The most interesting aspect of the ending is how, although much of Chinatown is concerned with the unraveling of the San Fernando land buying conspiracy, the eventual resolution involves events that have nothing to do with the “big picture” and everything to do with the warped relationship between various key characters. In its final moments, we appreciate the manner in which Chinatown works both as a mystery and as an exploration of a deeper, more personal human tragedy. Gittes is not an unattached observer, as many private investigators are, and his involvement lends greater impact to the conclusion - especially since we see events through his eyes. He is, after all, our surrogate throughout the film.
Ever since film noir reached Hollywood, the detective has become a type, with film noir being his playground. It takes a Herculean effort to transform this type into a character and to replace the formula with a story, and Chinatown’s success in both of these regards is one of the reasons it is universally viewed as a classic. The movie is a nearly flawless example of movie composition, with close examination revealing how carefully it was put together. For those who take a less studious and more visceral approach to movie viewing, it’s also worth noting that Chinatown is a superior thriller - one that will keep viewers involved and “in the moment” until the final, mournful scene has come to a conclusion.
-James Berardinelli, ReelViews
My thoughts: The story of “Chinatown” unfolds like the layers of an union until you reach the core. Jack Nicholson gives one of the best performances of his career and John Huston is wonderful. Huston’s character (Noah Cross) exudes an aura of oily sleaziness that can be felt through the screen. This movie revived the Film Noir genre.
June 14th, 2006
Synopsis: One of the most visually beautiful of all black-and-white films, The Virgin Spring won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1961. The picture remains a powerful parable of good and evil, of faith lost and recovered. Adapted from a folk ballad, it is a study in contrasts, but not extremes. Set in a society struggling with the transition to Christianity from Norse paganism and a feudal economy, the film depicts savage violence that begets savage retribution. But there is also hope, and light and shadow, dappled in shades of gray both symbolic and literal, as with the stunning chiaroscuro cinematography—one of many quiet wonders in this rich, deeply moving cinematic experience.
An emotionally devastating experience, The Virgin Spring elicits a deep appreciation of life through its depiction of senseless death and the futility of revenge. Bergman urges his audience to cherish the time we do have, even in the face of incomprehensible cruelty. That sweet sentiment softens a harsh reminder of the fleeting hours ahead.
Steve Evans, DVD Verdict
Critique: In October 2005, Ang Lee took time out from Brokeback Mountain’s festival circuit to record a video introduction for this Criterion edition of Ingmar Bergman’s austerely beautiful The Virgin Spring. In it, Lee says that when he first saw this black-and-white Scandinavian film as an 18-year-old in Taiwan, it “dumbfounded” and “electrified” him. He stayed in the screening room to view it a second time, and “life changed afterward,” he declares. Its quietude coupled with brutal violence, and its whispering fundamental questions — particularly “God, where are you?” — expressed for Lee a “microscope into humanity.” He adds, “Watching that movie made me a different filmmaker.” Lee probably didn’t set out to speak thematically of The Virgin Spring in terms of a filmmaker in transition, though it’s fitting given the film’s place in Bergman’s canon. Released in 1960, it marks the final title associated with the auteur’s classical period, those major films of the 1950s such as Wild Strawberries, The Magician, and The Seventh Seal. Although its visual and existential aesthetics strike us here and now as unmistakably “Bergmanesque,” the director himself became critical of his reliance on imitating the visual styles of other filmmakers, chiefly Kurosawa. Beginning with his next major work, Through a Glass Darkly (’61), we see Bergman’s own distinctive style assertively developing. And in terms of practical professional transitions, after The Virgin Spring ended up winning Bergman his first Best Foreign Language Oscar in 1961, the newfound acclaim brought a financial and prestige boost that helped him ascend to the next phase of his career.
“Adapted from a fourteenth century Swedish legend by screenwriter and novelist Ulla Isaksson, The Virgin Spring is a harrowing, yet ultimately affirming portrait of faith, humanity, and atonement. Using chiaroscuro imagery that interplays light and shadows, Ingmar Bergman reflects the process of spiritual illumination in the transitional era of the Middle Ages where mysticism, amorality, and paganism coexisted with the period of intellectual, artistic, and religious enlightenment: the opening image of Ingeri performing her chores that transitions into an illuminated crucifix as Töre and Märeta pray; the physical dissimilarity between the fair haired Karin and the dark haired “adopted” Ingeri; the stark visual contrast between the dark and claustrophobic interiors of the farmhouse and the sunlit path along the stream; the light precipitation of snow after the brothers’ unconscionable act. As Ingeri (the allusional fallen sinner, Mary Magdalene) becomes a witness to the manifestation of secular discord and divine grace, she follows her own figurative path from religious darkness and moral bankruptcy to a state of spiritual baptism and enlightenment.”
-Acquarello, Strictly Film School
My thoughts: There are emotions that films commonly elicit from people like desire, happiness, interest, surprise, wonder and sorrow. “The Virgin Spring” is the only movie in which I have experienced hate. It’s testimony to just how emotionally brutal this movie is. It will test you, and for some viewers, it will change you.
June 13th, 2006
Sam: [singing] You must remember this / A kiss is still a kiss / A sigh is just a sigh / The fundamental things apply / As time goes by.
Critique: If we identify strongly with the characters in some movies, then it is no mystery that “Casablanca” is one of the most popular films ever made. It is about a man and a woman who are in love, and who sacrifice love for a higher purpose. This is immensely appealing; the viewer is not only able to imagine winning the love of Humphrey Bogart or Ingrid Bergman, but unselfishly renouncing it, as a contribution to the great cause of defeating the Nazis.
No one making “Casablanca” thought they were making a great movie. It was simply another Warner Bros. release. It was an “A list” picture, to be sure (Bogart, Bergman and Paul Henreid were stars, and no better cast of supporting actors could have been assembled on the Warners lot than Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Claude Rains and Dooley Wilson). But it was made on a tight budget and released with small expectations. Everyone involved in the film had been, and would be, in dozens of other films made under similar circumstances, and the greatness of “Casablanca” was largely the result of happy chance.
The screenplay was adapted from a play of no great consequence; memoirs tell of scraps of dialogue jotted down and rushed over to the set. What must have helped is that the characters were firmly established in the minds of the writers, and they were characters so close to the screen personas of the actors that it was hard to write dialogue in the wrong tone.
Humphrey Bogart played strong heroic leads in his career, but he was usually better as the disappointed, wounded, resentful hero. Remember him in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” convinced the others were plotting to steal his gold. In “Casablanca,” he plays Rick Blaine, the hard-drinking American running a nightclub in Casablanca when Morocco was a crossroads for spies, traitors, Nazis and the French Resistance.
The opening scenes dance with comedy; the dialogue combines the cynical with the weary; wisecracks with epigrams. We see that Rick moves easily in a corrupt world. “What is your nationality?” the German Strasser asks him, and he replies, “I’m a drunkard.” His personal code: “I stick my neck out for nobody.”
Then “of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” It is Ilsa Lund (Bergman), the woman Rick loved years earlier in Paris. Under the shadow of the German occupation, he arranged their escape, and believes she abandoned him–left him waiting in the rain at a train station with their tickets to freedom. Now she is with Victor Laszlo (Henreid), a legendary hero of the French Resistance.
All this is handled with great economy in a handful of shots that still, after many viewings, have the power to move me emotionally as few scenes ever have. The bar’s piano player, Sam (Wilson), a friend of theirs in Paris, is startled to see her. She asks him to play the song that she and Rick made their own, “As Time Goes By.” He is reluctant, but he does, and Rick comes striding angrily out of the back room “I thought I told you never to play that song!”. Then he sees Ilsa, a dramatic musical chord marks their closeups, and the scene plays out in resentment, regret and the memory of a love that was real. (This scene is not as strong on a first viewing as on subsequent viewings, because the first time you see the movie you don’t yet know the story of Rick and Ilsa in Paris; indeed, the more you see it the more the whole film gains resonance.)
The plot, a trifle to hang the emotions on, involves letters of passage that will allow two people to leave Casablanca for Portugal and freedom. Rick obtained the letters from the wheedling little black-marketeer Ugarte (Peter Lorre). The sudden reappearance of Ilsa reopens all of his old wounds, and breaks his carefully cultivated veneer of neutrality and indifference. When he hears her story, he realizes she has always loved him. But now she is with Laszlo. Rick wants to use the letters to escape with Ilsa, but then, in a sustained sequence that combines suspense, romance and comedy as they have rarely been brought together on the screen, he contrives a situation in which Ilsa and Laszlo escape together, while he and his friend the police chief (Claude Rains) get away with murder. “Round up the usual suspects.”
What is intriguing is that none of the major characters is bad. Some are cynical, some lie, some kill, but all are redeemed. If you think it was easy for Rick to renounce his love for Ilsa–to place a higher value on Laszlo’s fight against Nazism–remember Forster’s famous comment, “If I were forced to choose between my country and my friend, I hope I would be brave enough to choose my friend.”
From a modern perspective, the film reveals interesting assumptions. Ilsa Lund’s role is basically that of a lover and helpmate to a great man; the movie’s real question is, which great man should she be sleeping with? There is actually no reason why Laszlo cannot get on the plane alone, leaving Ilsa in Casablanca with Rick, and indeed that is one of the endings that was briefly considered. But that would be all wrong; the “happy” ending would be tarnished by self-interest, while the ending we have allows Rick to be larger, to approach nobility “it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”. And it allows us, vicariously experiencing all of these things in the theater, to warm in the glow of his heroism.
In her closeups during this scene, Bergman’s face reflects confusing emotions. And well she might have been confused, since neither she nor anyone else on the film knew for sure until the final day who would get on the plane. Bergman played the whole movie without knowing how it would end, and this had the subtle effect of making all of her scenes more emotionally convincing; she could not tilt in the direction she knew the wind was blowing.
Stylistically, the film is not so much brilliant as absolutely sound, rock-solid in its use of Hollywood studio craftsmanship. The director, Michael Curtiz, and the writers (Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch) all won Oscars. One of their key contributions was to show us that Rick, Ilsa and the others lived in a complex time and place. The richness of the supporting characters (Greenstreet as the corrupt club owner, Lorre as the sniveling cheat, Rains as the subtly homosexual police chief and minor characters like the young girl who will do anything to help her husband) set the moral stage for the decisions of the major characters. When this plot was remade in 1990 as “Havana,” Hollywood practices required all the big scenes to feature the big stars (Robert Redford and Lena Olin) and the film suffered as a result; out of context, they were more lovers than heroes.
Seeing the film over and over again, year after year, I find it never grows over-familiar. It plays like a favorite musical album; the more I know it, the more I like it. The black-and-white cinematography has not aged as color would. The dialogue is so spare and cynical it has not grown old-fashioned. Much of the emotional effect of “Casablanca” is achieved by indirection; as we leave the theater, we are absolutely convinced that the only thing keeping the world from going crazy is that the problems of three little people do after all amount to more than a hill of beans.
-Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
My thoughts: Love stories don’t get much better than this. Ingrid Bergman is heart wrenchingly beautiful; not glamorous beauty but the natural beauty of youth and vitality. She really is stunning. When I think of classic movies, I think of “Casablanca” first.
June 9th, 2006
“I met Death today. We are playing chess.”
Synopsis: A Knight and his squire are home from the crusades. Black Death is sweeping their country. As they approach home, Death appears to the knight and tells him it is his time. The knight challenges Death to a chess game for his life. The Knight and Death play as the cultural turmoil envelopes the people around them as they try, in different ways, to deal with the upheaval the plague has caused.
Critique: Easily, one of the greatest films ever made, The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman’s towering allegory about the human condition, seems at once utterly timeless and acutely aware of the world that it takes place in. Set in 14th-century Sweden, the movie takes place in a medieval land that’s being torn apart by the Crusades and the Plague, but it focuses just as intently on the fleeting moments of happiness that its characters feel as the disasters that they face. Within minutes of its opening, the movie casts itself into a realm of abstraction, trotting out Death itself as a main character, and this distance from reality enables it to look more directly at its philosophical question, which is, basically, “What if there is no God?” A variety of answers are offered up to this question, through the reactions of the diverse assortment of characters that populates the film, and each of them is parlayed with enough conviction from the actor delivering it that it feels as convincing and right as the last. As in many of Bergman’s films, it’s fairly impossible to find a definitive surrogate for the director, since each character is both sympathetic and pitiable.
Every scene seems to be balanced delicately between comedy and drama, and in the best scenes (the confession to Death, the confrontation of the priest turned grave-robber) each line of dialogue seems to change what the scene is trying to say. The theme moves from anger, to revenge, to lust, to freedom, to fear, to forgiveness, from second to second. You realize what it’s trying to do, and succeeding at, is saying all of those things about people at once. Its optimistic and droll moments are all the more impressive because they come after people stare into the abyss. The impending end of the world seems no reason not to keep one’s chin up. Perhaps even more impressively, it shows that the desire to search for answers here doesn’t preclude being afraid that the answer might not be what one hoped. The reaction of a knight (a brilliant Max von Sydow) and his squire (Gunnar Bjornstrand) to spiritual disappointment is contrasted most tragically against that of an angry mob that burns an innocent girl, claiming she is a witch. The power of this harrowing scene is reduced in no way by the shenanigans that surround it, nor the impression that Judgment Day is just around the corner anyway.
Bergman touches on nearly every one of his major themes in The Seventh Seal, and if he might have elaborated on many of them better elsewhere, I’m not sure that he’s ever made such a comprehensive, watchable flick as this one. Man’s self-destructive search for answers is made literally apocalyptic here, but it’s also made apparent that it’s wholly necessary if any meaning is to be found. The complexities that the film offers up as answers seem to hold fragments of universal truth, but nothing definitive, and in that haziness lays the movie’s truest wisdom. The blunt insistence of Death (the unforgettable Bengt Ekerot) that the game of life must come to an end frustrates most since, thanks to the supreme intelligence of the script, we felt we were on the right path, even if still haven’t figured it all out. The movie’s ultimate message is not to look for definitive answers, since nothing is guaranteed to remain as might originally appear. Even inevitable death is a disappointing anticlimax here, since it doesn’t bestow the expected enlightenment with its coming. The serendipitous joys found in the moment are most important in this context because they make no demands and carry with them no expectation. That surprisingly life-affirming message is the one thing in The Seventh Seal that endures long after its striking images of death and decay fade from the mind.
-Jeremy Heilman, MovieMartyr.com
My thoughts: I can relate to the knight, Antonius Block, “I want knowledge, not faith, not supposition, but knowledge.” Like Ikiru, the Seventh Seal is one of the great cinematic expressions of Existentialist philosophy. I love this Movie.