The famously elegant Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren portray two desperately lonely neighbors who forge an unlikely connection the day Mussolini welcomed Hitler to Rome. Loren plays a housewife married to a devoted fascist, and Mastroianni a gay radio broadcaster. By subverting our perceptions of these two icons, Scola shows the futility of romantic ideals, but he maintains that real human connection can break through the groupthink that shunts “undesirables” aside.
Johnnie To’s judo tribute to Kurosawa is fairly quiet and reflective for a contemporary martial arts film, and he withholds conventional exposition. He instead relies on his charismatic performers and beautiful cinematography to pull us in, showing how well-matched fighters (and musicians) achieve a kind of romance.
On an early-pandemic group text thread, Arye Gross shared a video compilation of Bresson’s Hands. As a relative Bresson novice, I’m finally catching up with a movie that carries so much of its tension in images of hands. In his story of a young man who goes from amateur to professional thief, Bresson encouraged affectless performances from his nonactors, leaving room for his pictures to convey incredible weight and feeling.
No one understands anything, but some things you just feel.
Stories you understand were just told badly.
In his adaptation of Brecht’s first full-length, Schlöndorff cast Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Margarethe von Trotta, both remarkable directors in their own right, in the story of a surly drunken poet terrorizing everyone in his path. With this reprehensible character, Schlöndorff tears down the myth of the artistic genius whose body of work justifies the destruction of everyone around him.
An incredibly tense, dark satire featuring two wounded soldiers of opposing camps trapped in a trench together, fumbling for the upper hand while the United Nations high command do their best to avoid taking any responsibility. Tanović targets how both nationalism and neutrality tend to dehumanize others as a means to absolve ourselves of monstrous, cowardly actions and inactions.
This mystery is appropriately Chinese:
what's not there seemed to have just as much meaning as what is there.
Wayne Wang’s San Francisco mystery stars Wood Moy as Jo, the cab driver who turns detective when his friend Chan Hung vanishes, along with the money for his cab license. Every Chinatown resident Jo interviews has a completely different impression of who the missing man is and what his motivations are. These irreconcilable contradictions not only make for a good noir, but they undercut the limitations that Hollywood puts on Asian characters, when just having this many Asian American actors in one story was a radical act.
As bombs fall on Yugoslavia, a truck driver transports an unknown cargo through Kosovo to Belgrade, picking up a young hitchhiker along the way. Without rubbing our faces in violence, Glavonić makes us feel the cold resolve of a man trying to persevere in times of war, the compromises he makes to survive, and the impact of atrocities that threaten to break through his defenses.
Spectacular rain-soaked battles on horseback, romantic longing, and a howling performance from the great Toshiro Mifune make this first installment of Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy a delight. The origin of the storied swordsman Musashi, broken down and transformed by a Zen priest from a skilled but bitter fighter into a balanced warrior.
In honor of Nowruz, I’m returning to Kiarostami’s Koker trilogy, for the director’s recreation of his search for the young leads of WHERE IS MY FRIEND’S HOUSE after the Manjil–Rudbard earthquake devastated the region. As the actor playing Kiarostami drives along, he recognizes and picks up actors from the previous film. The adults and children alike are trying to process the seemingly random inequity of luck. One boy recounts how a mosquito bite brought him out of the bedroom just before the ceiling collapsed on his brother; a man explains why he married his fiancée that very day rather than wait out the recovery and rebuilding. Philosophical but not sentimental, Kiarostami shows the futility of trying to make sense of events so vast in the moment, and how some people will grit their teeth, pick up the pieces, and find a way to watch the World Cup.
Not long after their sister’s funeral, three siblings gather with a group of truly terrible guests for their father’s birthday party, where one son finally works up the courage to turn the mirror on the monsters in attendance, and refuses to let them look away. The inaugural Dogme 95 film, Thomas Vinterberg shot it in accordance with the ruthlessly strict statutes of the movement he and Lars von Trier launched. By rejecting any post-production techniques or special effects, Vinterberg refused to let so much as a tripod or a lighting rig soften the rawness of the deranged proceedings he orchestrated.
Margot Benacerraf’s film captures the lives and livelihoods of a community of salt-miners working on a Venezuelan peninsula on the Caribbean Sea. Heightening her documentary with what she’d call “poetic realism”, Benacerraf immerses us in the generational ritual and the grueling labor these families take on. At different stages of life, each family member has a different task to collect and treat the salt: washing, drying, and shoveling it into 140-pound baskets, carrying it up the giant salt pyramids, weighing and sewing it into bags, while still others cast fishing nets, salting what they bring in. In a land where for centuries all sustenance comes from the sea, the film hauntingly asks how long this way of life can endure.
Based on the true story of Fahrije Hoti, whose husband was among the hundreds in their village in Kosovo who disappeared during the war. With no answers, and desperate to keep her family afloat, Fahrije started her own company, employing widows to help her make and sell ajvar and honey to local grocery stores. Just driving a car makes her a target for vicious hatred and violence from the men in her village, and even her own daughter and father-in-law accuse her of giving her husband up for dead. Writer-director Blerta Basholli and her lead actor Yllka Gashi pay tribute to the courage and fierce resolve of this woman, as well as to the over 1600 people in Kosovo who are still missing 20 years after the war.
Petra, a high-end fashion designer, falls for the beautiful young Karin and takes her into her home, only to feel abused and rejected when she doesn’t love her back. As Petra will admit by the end, hers is more a story about control than love, or how obsession and possessiveness can lead us to confuse the two. Fassbinder confessed that the dynamics in Petra’s immaculate funhouse of narcissism and self-loathing were autobiographical, and so I was particularly fascinated by the character of Petra’s long-suffering servant Marlene. Marlene never leaves the room and never speaks, taking the brunt of Petra’s whims and temper, or observing the mayhem from the sidelines. When a humbled Petra promises to change her ways and restart their relationship as equals, Marlene packs her bags and gets out of town. YIKES.
Chantal Akerman’s Julie restlessly occupies her room, eating spoonfuls of sugar, sliding her mattress along the floor from one wall to another, and strewing pages and pages of writing around her. A half hour into the movie, she finally ventures outside, catching a ride with a truck driver, and eventually winding up at her estranged girlfriend’s flat. Like in JEANNE DIELMAN, Akerman depicts routine with a mesmerizing and maddening patience; through her long, lingering, unobtrusive shots, the sex scenes are as unaffected as the scenes of buttering toast. Over time, they all reveal the strange behavior we use to get people close–but not too close.
Half a century after this couple let a documentary crew into their home, it is still shocking, even in our era of reality TV, to see how the presence of a camera kicks the unraveling of this marriage into overdrive. For all their frankness and modern sensibilities, their communication breakdown is severe, as the husband applies a superior, rational tone to completely unreasonable positions, until tempers boil over and reveal that logic is simply masking his need for control. Their humiliation at being observed at their worst, but still not being able to stop themselves, is almost unbearable to watch, but their funny and tender moments make their relationship’s doomed course all the more heartbreaking.
It is here
It is there
It is far
It is near
It is low
It is high
Yet all we know is:
This it’s not and That it’s not.
María Alché’s directorial debut about a woman dealing with the loss of her sister is deeply insightful into the ways families try to frame a loved one’s life after they’re gone, and how we reckon with what they’ve left behind.
I know Brecht famously railed against the production of this film, and while I’m not inclined to argue with Brecht, he’s dead, and I’ll take what I can get. In particular, seeing Rudolf Forster’s Mack the Knife, Carola Neher’s Polly Peachum, and above all Lotte Lenya’s Jenny immortalized by G. W. Pabst gave me chills. Pabst’s expressionism brings a creeping threat to a city where greed and corruption have linked crime syndicates and banks, murderers and police chiefs, until they become indistinguishable.
One day you will come to me
From the strings of my guitar
That seeks only your love.
Adapted from Vinícius de Moraes’s play, the Orpheus and Eurydice myth set in Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval. French director Marcel Camus uses a romanticized, arguably even primitivist perspective, but the music by Antônio Carlos Jobim and Luis Bonfá, the vibrant color, and infectious performances are all undeniable.
In 1959 Taipei, a bad grade sends a government employee’s kid to night school, where he gets swept up in the street gang culture after he falls for the girlfriend of a gang leader who’s on the run for murder. Working on a scale even more epic but intimate than he would later use in YI YI, Yang takes the real-life crime that inspired his story, and zooms in to explore how the political tension and instability in Taiwan trickled down from the government, to the teachers and parents, and ultimately to the children. Also, the Elvis covers are just excellent.
Early on in the film, Jeanne Moreau’s Catherine walks back from a play with the titular Bohemians, who are loudly debating the merits of the work and the female character in it. Exasperated with their theories about art and women, she suddenly leaps into the Seine. As the years pass, she continues to navigate the perpetually insufficient men around her, while they each try to find ways to contain her expansiveness with their different expectations of the type of woman they need her to be. I’m still mulling over the ending, but as Catherine tells one lover, “I don’t want to be understood.”
The holiday season brings an affair to a head, forcing all parties to make hard choices about what the New Year will bring. Terrific acting from the central trio gives the relatively simple plot real weight, as we sit with them in painfully realistic unbroken shots, until a pediatric orthodontic consultation builds more tension than your average thriller.
A poetic film from Claudia Llosa about a young Peruvian woman who learned from her mother’s truly horrific experiences to fear men, but also to use song to channel her pain and grief. After her mother’s death, she must find a way to raise the money to give her a proper burial, and the physical and emotional barriers she has set to keep the world at bay start to splinter. A moving case for the potential to transform generational trauma into healing.
Staring down a tabloid scandal for drunken brawling and his first-ever box-office flop, a movie star hops a train across the country. En route, he meets a female journalist whose pointed questions make him start to grapple with how much he gave up in exchange for wealth and fame. The performers are as charismatic and effortless as in any Satyajit Ray film, and their spirited debates about what makes an actor more than a puppet, and what you owe your audience and yourself, still resonate a half century later.
One of the most harrowing war films I’ve ever seen, full of the unremitting rage of experience. Soviet partisans scoop up a boy from his village and enlist him to fight the German occupation, during which one out of four of the entire population of Belorussia would ultimately be killed. As he is batted around a nightmarish landscape, we watch him struggle to process a level of devastation that no one, especially not a child, could make any sense of. Klimov occasionally uses almost beautiful images as strange reprieves from the brutality, but the darkest events he recreates are nothing compared to the real footage of the horrors inflicted on civilians that he deploys in the film’s last minutes, before his fury finally gives way to grief.
The celebrated Ann Hui tells the story of a Japanese photographer who returns to communist Vietnam three years after the war. His government handlers guide him through scenes of a thriving society, carefully curated for the outside world’s benefit. The cracks in the façade begin to show, however, when he tours a classroom where the kids are so starved for human contact that they swarm the stranger with a camera and beg to be held. A young city girl and her family then reveal to him the unlivable conditions on the streets that the regime wants to hide. For such an unabashedly political film, in which tragic violence can erupt at any moment, Hui avoids sentimentality by locating an outsider’s disorientation and helplessness in the face of the unfathomable.
The Bri-terion Collection
I’m loving the Criterion Channel streaming service, so every week I’m going to share my favorite new find.