This film is a joy to watch. Perhaps it helps if you’ve ever tried to grow your own maize crop, but the festival wins (Karlovy Vary and many others) and glowing reviews suggest that it’s not just me who was entranced by Corn Island. I’ll be surprised (and upset) if this isn’t picked up for distribution in the UK and many other territories.
The film’s narrative covers a summer growing season. Every spring the river Enguri washes fertile alluvial soil down from the Caucasus Mountains and deposits it further downstream creating temporary ‘islands’ when the river flow slows. These islands are sometimes large enough to attract peasant farmers to grow a crop – in the knowledge that when the heavy rains return, the islands will probably disappear. Into this dangerous environment comes an old farmer and his young teenage granddaughter who together methodically build a hut and then plant a maize crop. Unfortunately, the Enguri also forms the boundary between Georgia and the breakaway ‘autonomous region/republic’ of Abkhazia (one of four disputed territories in the region). The island is therefore on the front line in a dispute that has rumbled on since Georgia itself became independent of the former Soviet Union. Consequently, the old man and the girl feel under surveillance from passing motor boats of soldiers from each side of the dispute (plus soldiers on the shore).
The film works brilliantly because it has the strengths of simplicity. Some of the reviews refer to ‘minimalism’ but I think that isn’t appropriate as the film is overwhelming in the riches of pure cinema. The cinematography (Hungarian veteran Elemér Ragályi) is breathtaking, whether it is the broad sweep of landscape of the hills and the river valley, the close-ups of the two characters building, fishing and sowing or the changing play of natural light on water and vegetation. Just as impressive is the sound design. I confess that I didn’t notice the music (which I think comes mainly at the end of the film) but I was aware that there is virtually no dialogue apart from the exchanges between the old man and the passing soldiers. The man and the girl don’t need to speak, they just get on with their work.
There isn’t a great deal of plot and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that a wounded soldier turns up on the island at one point. I mention this because it refers to a particular sub-genre of the ‘home front’ war picture in which wounded soldiers appeal to the goodwill of the peasants – and in doing so put their hosts at risk from ‘the enemy’. This then links to a second genre which is the ‘coming of age’ film. The girl arrives on her grandfather’s boat at the beginning of the film with a doll. The same doll makes an appearance at the end of the film, but the girl has by then already shown the signs of puberty, both physically and emotionally. Grandfather has to protect the girl as well as the crop. And this, in turn, leads us back towards the theme of fertility and the battle with nature to get the crop in before the rains arrive. When the rains come it means scenes that rival the best of Kurosawa and Tarkovsky.
The performances are excellent, especially by Mariam Buturishvili, the first-timer who plays the girl against the veteran Turkish actor İlyas Salman as the grandfather. The production overall must have been an amazing experience. Writer-director George Ovashvili chose to shoot on 35mm because that is what he was most comfortable with. Initially he hoped to find a ‘real’ island as a location. In the end he decided to build an island in an artificial lake (which would also, presumably, be away from the actual frontline of a smouldering boundary dispute). In an interview Ovashvili explained that the crew actually planted and re-planted different maize crops as needed by the script – the film was shot in April-May and December so it couldn’t be ‘natural’. The results are amazingly good. An initial report suggested that the shoot cost just €1.4 million, but that extra funding was being sought for post-production. The production also involved cast and crew from 13 countries speaking 13 languages (a whole bunch of translators is listed in the credits). Ovashvili in the interview says:
I think the diversity of the crew has strengthened the universal theme of the film.
I’d have to agree. This is the Georgian entry for the Foreign Language Oscar in 2015. I don’t suppose it will win and it’s a shame if most Academy voters will see in on a TV set. This is one film that you want to see on the biggest screen possible (in beautiful 35mm ‘Scope). Please, UK distributors, get this into cinemas!
The trailer from the Karlovy Vary Festival:
My fourth visit to this year’s Leeds International Film Festival offered a mild disappointment followed by one of the best films I’ve seen this year. First I’ll deal with the problematic film. Before 2014 I wasn’t sure if I’d ever seen a Latvian film and then two came along with very similar stories. At Bradford’s festival in April I enjoyed Mother, I Love You (Latvia 2013), an engaging film about a young teenager in trouble at school, deceiving his loving mother and having nighttime adventures in Riga and a brush with the authorities. Modris, the protagonist of the more recent film, is older – he has his 18th birthday during the time period of the narrative – but he also takes off after a dispute with his mother (caused by his need to find cash to feed his slot-machine addiction). Again he is in a single parent family but up till now he hasn’t bothered too much to find his father, accepting his mother’s explanation that his father is in prison.
Modris is an apathetic teen, the kind of guy of whom older people are likely to say: “He doesn’t do himself any favours”. While that’s true it doesn’t mean that we can’t have any sympathy for his position, but writer-director Juris Kursietis makes it more difficult for me at least in shooting many scenes handheld in close-up and sometimes very shallow focus. Close-up and handheld here means an extremely off-putting image. And why shoot in ‘Scope if you are going to waste the potential for widescreen compositions? I can cope with handheld if it’s done with care but here it seems to be striving for some kind of effect. The young man playing Modris, Kristers Piksa, was present at the screening and in the Q&A he told us various things about the production. Kristers was not trained as an actor and he got the role almost by accident. A perceptive question from the audience prompted him to tell us that many of the handheld scenes were shot in one take – but that sometimes it might take anything up to 16 takes to achieve the desired result. Researching the film after the screening and taking on board the actor’s comments, I note that director was trained in the UK at the Northern Media School (Sheffield Hallam) and that this was his first fiction feature after documentaries and short films. He seems to have followed the ‘Ken Loach approach’ of giving his actors only the pages of script that they need for a specific scene, so that they remain fresh, reacting to events. I note also that Bogumil Godfrejow, an experienced and award-winning Polish cinematographer and some established Latvian actors in the cast means that even with a limited budget (€350,000?) there was the opportunity to make an interesting film. In the end it is the script that lets the film down. The story is based on a real character (who Kristers Piksa told us is now somewhere in the North of England) so it should have credibility. Kristers himself definitely has a screen presence – tall and gangly with a memorable nose. At times he presents an air of bemusement and incomprehension that reminded me of Vincent Cassel’s performance in La haine. But too much is unexplained or introduced and not followed up, so it becomes difficult to really care about the character. The potential narrative about gambling addiction seems to get lost completely.
There are, however, a number of interesting aspects of contemporary Latvian culture that do come to light in the narrative. The most obvious is the disconnect between what appears to be a society that validates music and other forms of cultural expression and has created a relatively high wage economy but which also operates a draconian criminal justice system that can lock up offenders for relatively trivial offences (i.e. the kinds of offences many teenagers commit. The film also offers the frictions of social class difference (like Mother I Love You) and hints at the legacy of Russian control of Latvia prior to 1991 and contemporary issues about migration. I wanted to like Modris more than I did. Perhaps on another day I would have done – but it needs a better script. I have to point out that the film has received good reviews from various festivals and Toronto called it “tough, but compassionate”. This trailer for the film makes it look much more exciting than I found it in reality:
This film was the closing act in last year’s Leeds International Film Festival. It returned for two showing this year to packed and appreciative audiences. Chris Fell, the Festival Director, introduced the film.
It is a compilation of hundreds of film extracts, a sort of long and varied homage to the greats of cinema. Chris advised us that the film is not usually available for screening and is not available on video. This is because there are copyright issues around most of the extracts. However, the Festival is able to screen it as special occasion. The director and his four editors, together with a sound crew, have put together an amazing and intelligent selection of visual and sound clips.
The film also offers a simple romantic story. Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, another man or husband threatens the pair but is packed off: they make love, they marry and conceive a child, war arrives, the man enlists or is called up, battle scenes, he is killed – but the magic of cinema brings him back and they are reunited. This final sequence revisits earlier clips to produce a satisfying climax, ‘Nothing will ever die’.
That is the plot that binds together disparate extracts from Hollywood, Bollywood, art cinema and foreign language films (for every audience). The period range from the silent era right up until the 21st Century. There must be about every genre in film studies, plus the occasional avant-garde film. The plot idea is simple but does not work all the time – some sequences demonstrate a trope or motif not necessarily apt for the story.
Sequences are composed of numbers of shots. Some are familiar tropes from film – smoking a cigarette, eating, symbols for coitus, ringing and knocking on doors. There are sly inserts like several shots from Psycho (1960) and from Belle de Jour (1967). There are also surprising omissions – Tom Jones (1963) from the sequences of eating. Some are familiar but less fortunate tropes – like men slapping women. But there is also a sequence for forthright women, opened by Thelma & Louise (1991). And some feature fairly explicit sex and violence. The film would be a likely candidate for an 18 certification and one of the BBFC’s little homilies.
The average shot length is 3 to 5 seconds, but some are under a second. Longer shots tend to feature travelling shots or dialogue that propels the plot forward. All dialogue, from possibly a dozen languages, is subtitled in English, including the US and UK films. Meanwhile sometimes we hear the original soundtrack, sometimes sound (including dialogue) overlaps shots. And sometimes, music or a song carries us through a succession of shots – notably from Saturday Night Fever (1977), The Graduate (1967) and Love Me Tender (1956).
Appropriately enough for this sort of film there are several clips from Cinema Paradiso (1989). The most unlikely clip would seem to be from Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (Chevolek a Kinnoapparatom, 1929). However, I was disappointed that there was only one canine appearance – one of the later Lassie’s. But the human stars are there – Lilian Gish, Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, John Garfield, Marilyn Monroe, Al Pacino, Mifune Toshiro and any number of modern actors, including Sharukh Khan.
The whole collection displays a taste for a wide range of films. The end credits list all the film clips and all the music clips. I think even a hardened cineaste would find it difficult to note all the extracts as they tumble by.
The film is directed by György Pálfi: whose best known film release in the UK is probably Hukkle (2002). The Festival Catalogue quotes him on the film’s production:
I had some extra money which I did not need for I am not your friend, so I decided to make another film. This was I ended up with two low-budget films. The idea for Ladies & Gentlemen is simple, but we quickly realised that it’s a huge project. Actually I was going to make another film, but when the government withdrew their funding, I took the budget I had and made Ladies and Gentlemen.
At the film’s end a title notes that ‘All rights remain with the authors’ and then notes ‘For Educational Purposes. Presumably Hungary has the same ‘fair usage’ entitlement as that in the USA but which is lacking in the UK.
Fans of long slow movies can enjoy what is probably their ultimate cinematic treat with this film. It is screening at the Hyde Park Picture House on the 21st of September courtesy of Scalarama, which runs across the UK through September. As an added treat for real purists the screening will be using 35mm prints. Presumably these will be the same ones screened at the Leeds International Film Festival a few years ago. On that occasion the exhausted but completely satiated audience emerged into the grey light of evening. This time it will likely be twilight as the event starts at 11 a.m. It then runs for over seven hours, 435 minutes of films plus two intermissions.
The film is structured in two parts, the first being the longest: however, these break down into 12 chapters, which are the more important organising principle. The ‘tango’ in the title refers to a complex narrative structure, which like the fabulous Argentinean dance, moves in an intricate forward and reverse motion. The ‘Satan’ refers [along with other aspects] to a strain of millenarianism. The story, [and there is one], is challenging to follow. But filmgoers familiar with the other work of the director Bela Tarr will know that his films are as much about parables and metaphors as they are about stories. The Turin Horse (A torinói ló, 2011) was his most recent [and sadly his last] feature released in the UK. Satantango is adapted from a novel by László Krasznahorkai, which, apparently, is as complex as the film adapted from it.
A recent innovation in film studies is the concept of ‘slow cinema’. Tarr is the master of this form. After 90 seconds of credits Satantango opens with a sequence shot, running just over seven minutes, that tracks round a quiet and dilapidated village as cows in the early morning meander out into the field for grazing. This is folowed by a blank screen and a voiceover [subtitled] that opens the story. This style dominates the rest of the film. However the film uses parallel editing to set up counterpoint among the characters and situations; complicated by overlapping time frames. The sound design is equally complex, often seemingly naturalistic but evocative. The film is clearly an allegorical critique of changing face in Eastern Europe over the 1980s and early 1990s. It references the earlier system of state control and the new free-market capitalist economy, which replaced it, with strong parallels to the work of Miklós Jancsó.
Whilst this is an epic screening I think the film deserves viewing the complete chapters and running time. As we move into the reverse sequences of the later chapters [for me when I saw it] both characters and the contradictions in their situations started to achieve some clarity. It is also a film that one will need [and I think want] to consider and discuss for a considerable time after a viewing.
With the distance of time since I saw the film I think Werkmeister Harmonies (Werkmeister harmóniák, 2000) and The Turin Horse are Tarr’s finest achievements. However Satantango, partly because of its epic length and complexity, is a unique and masterful cinematic creation.