This was the key film in the Leeds International Film Festival’s short retrospective of films directed by Ingmar Bergman and set on his adopted home Island of Fårö. This seems to me not only the finest film ever made by Bergman but also one of the outstanding masterworks in World Cinema. It parallels other films that address their own medium of cinema, like Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ (Otto e Mezzo, 1963) and Chris Marker’s La Jetée, [a proposed title early in the project was Cinematography]. This is an intense character study involving two very fine actresses, Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson.
The film opens with an avant-garde montage of film – including the cinematic apparatus and apparently disconnected images: at least some of which do relate to the narrative that follows and some to other films by Bergman. Film as the subject re-appears near the middle of this work and again at the end with another montage which returns us to the cinematic apparatus on which the film relies. In between the narrative is presented in a more conventional style, which at the same time employs rigorous mise en scène, cinematography, sound design and editing. The film is graced by outstanding craft inputs from Bergman’s regular collaborators, Sven Nykvist, Ulla Ryghe, and P.O. Pettersson: and with more extracts from Bach on the soundtrack, [his Violin Concerto in E major]. There is also judicious accompanying music from Lars Johan Werle. And there is [once again] the influence of Strindberg.
The film offers a tight focus on two women characters, Elisabet Vogler (Ullman) and Nurse Alma (Andersson). We also meet a doctor who specialises in mental or psychological illnesses and the Elisabet’s husband .And we hear in the dialogue references to several characters including Alma’s fiancée. Bibi Andersson dominates the narrative because we learn most about the characters through her dialogue. For much of the film Ullman’s character is silent. There is a marvellous moment when we [think that we] hear her speak: reminiscent of the imperceptible movement after continuous stasis in La Jetée.
Whilst there is a tight focus on the two women, the Island of Fårö is important and it is recognisable from earlier films. There is a splendid long tracking shot as the two women walk along the beach. Much of the film occurs in the interiors, [mostly shot in a Stockholm Studio]. Later in the film there is a wonderful sequence running about eight minutes in length which consists of a long take that opens with a dolly, followed by a brief transition shot and then another long take in reverse shot, three increasingly large close-ups and then carefully crafted composite shots. What makes this sequence even more daring is the dialogue. The writing and delivery are impressive. There is an earlier monologue which relies almost completely on voice and tone – and it is far more erotic than many a visual sequence. Whilst near the middle of the film there is a brief male voice over
This is certainly a challenging film: a friend at the screening reckoned that one needed to see the film two or three times to fully comprehend it. It is also a richly complex film that pays the repeated viewings. This was my fifth or sixth screening of the film and I was still noticing aspects or noting possible meanings and references. We were fortunate to see the film in a good 35mm print: the cinematography benefits from the characteristic of the traditional medium. The Festival provides slips so audience members can vote on a scale of 1 to 5 – I ticked 5 on two slips and handed them in together.
This was another strand in the Leeds International Film Festival extremely extensive coverage of short films – local and international, features, documentaries and animation. The British selection comprised 15 films spread over two programmes.
Exchange and Mart (2013 – 15 minutes).The film was set in 1986 in a girls’ boarding school somewhere in the Highlands. The film opened with the teenage girls attending self-defence classes. Then it explored the way that two particular girls responded to and explored the issue of men and sex. The treatment and performances were nicely done. Rather than being dramatic the film struck a droll note, as suggested by the title which is also refers to a prop.
A Generation of Vipers (2013 – 15 minutes). ‘A day in the life of a violent and nihilistic youth …’.As the Catalogue description suggests this is a bleak character study. The young lad is effectively portrayed and there is some context; though I felt this needed more development.
Love Me Tinder (2014 – 11 minutes). This is an evening between two online daters – an older woman and a younger man. The treatment is deliberately oddball, as the title suggests. I found it not surreal enough to be funny but lacking realism it seemed to lack comment.
The Outside In (2014 – 20 minutes). This film used an unconventional set to present a couple where the man dominates and virtually imprisons the young girl. I never quite figured out how the setting was supposed to comment on the relationship, though the intent was clearly symbolic.
- Enstone (2014, 15 minutes. The film was developed from the discovery of 89 reels of Super 8mm film shot in the 1980s by the aforesaid Richard Enstone. The introduction suggested ‘hidden messages’, which never actually seemed to materialise. The film used the Super-8mm footage in a variety of ways – original ratio, stretched, split screen and speeded up. There were also interviews with people who knew Enstone. I thought there was interesting material here but that this documentary did not make adequate use of it.
Woodhouse (2013 – 9 minutes).The film is set in the Woodhouse Nature Reserve in South East London. This is partly fantasy, mainly from the viewpoint of a child. The film makes good use of effects and school artefacts. As the mystery develops a local journalist also becomes involved, but this mystery is too whimsical for the media.
Anthony (UK / Finland, 2014 – 15 minutes). This is a droll tale of Santa, elves, reindeer and, of course, Rudolph. It offers a sardonic take on the winter festival, just the entertainment to follow over-indulgence during the festivities. It has bright, pleasing snow covered settings and has some fine unconventional gags.
Sexlife (2014 – 15 minutes). Another film which is letterboxed within a 2.37:1 frame. It presents a couple facing a minor crisis, to which the husband responds with extreme measures. The opening belies the direction of the story, which presents an intriguing and revealing exchange between the couple. It is effective though I found the conclusion not completely convincing.
Alice (2014 – 5 minutes).Thomas was ten when his grandmother was diagnosed with dementia. The adults in the family are quite inhibited in the relationship, Thomas, unencumbered by adult attitudes, relates effectively and playfully with her. A warn portrait of a very positive relationship.
The Stomach (2014 – 15 minutes). This is a bizarre tale of an extremely unconventional medium. It is definitely sardonic and does tend to schlock. There are some visceral moments and a very effective reversal.
Seagulls (2014 – 14 minutes). This was one of several films produced by Creative Scotland. They all enjoyed high production values: and this was for me the most completely realised. Ryan and his mother, who run a fair attraction, arrive in a small seaside town on the West Coast. Ryan’s life style has limited his opportunities for bonding with other teenagers. Meeting a group of local boys he is invited to join in on their celebration of the longest night. This involves climbing up into the surrounding foothills and soon an unfortunate incident. The film makes good use of both the small town environment and the mountainscape. The there is very effective staging and blocking to comment on the characters and events.
Crow (2014 – 5 minutes). The film uses an extract from a reading by Ted Hughes of his major poem, ‘Crow’. The film adds to this music by Leafcutter John. The animation is visceral and exceedingly well done. Five very rewarding minutes.
Crocodile (A Life to Live, 2014 – 16 minutes). This is a film about bereavement: in this case the loss for a head teacher and his wife of their teenage daughter whilst working for Voluntary Service overseas. The sense of loss and the accompanying performance was extremely well done. The film leads up to a moment of catharsis: I found the final scene unconvincing, but I have always thought crocodiles, whilst dangerous are also oddly attractive.
Blue Train (2014 – 15 minutes}. The train journey in this film is by a man into his past, his dreams and imaginings. The journey involves magical landscapes, and figures from his actual life. The combination is extremely intriguing and the visual splendour gives great pleasure. The film has original music Alexandros Kavadas and Paul Tyan, but there are also some extracts from Duke Ellington’s ‘Caravan’.
1946 (2014 – 15 minutes). Set in a gleaming chromium bar we meet Jimmy Stewart home from World WWII. His agent has a new prestige script but Jimmy will actually go on to make the classic It’s a wonderful Life (1946). This was pastiche, and I always think this is the most difficult type of treatment to get right. The film did not work for me: possibly because the actual Jimmy Stewart is one of my two or three favourite |Hollywood stars.
I thought the second programme was much the stronger of the two. There were a number of fine films in that programme. With some of the weaker productions I felt that they either failed to combine narrative and style effectively, or that generic qualities tended to cliché: I rather thought these stemmed from weaknesses in the script writing. But there are promising young filmmakers out there, as the Brochure suggests,
Prepare to meet the film directors / actors/ key grips of top morrow.
Given what I saw in the best shorts there are also certainly the cinematographers and animators of tomorrow. Plus a number of technical craftspeople whose work contributed to effectiveness of the films.
The Leeds International Film Festival is screening a short retrospective of the films of Ingmar Bergman. Happily the programme opened with this film – a masterpiece and for me one of the finest films by the director. Two friends seeing the film for the first time were impressed. This is one of what are described as Bergman’s ‘chamber works’, strongly influenced by August Strindberg and with the title taken from a Letter by the Apostle Saint Paul to the Corinthians. There is a dedication to his wife Kabi, who provided an important influence on his musical taste and knowledge
The film is set on the Island of Fårö. It involves four characters – a writer and father David (Gunnar Björnstrand), his daughter Karin (Harriet Andersson), her husband a university professor Martin (Max von Sydow), and David’s young son Minos (Lars Passgård). We also hear of two other characters, David’s dead wife and his ex-girl-friend. The action takes place over 24 hours, from evening to evening. The film opens as the four finish a swim in the sea. We learn that David has just returned from Switzerland where he was writing a novel. Karin recently left hospital where she was being treated for mental illness. They have supper and then Minos and Karin (with help from Martin) perform a short play for David. The play appears to have a purpose directed at David. Next day David and Martin leave the Island to buy necessities: their conversation and its filming are very revealing of the two men. Karin and Minos, talk, walk and then shelter in a wrecked boat in the rain. The crisis in the story follows. At the end of the film David talks to Minos as evening closes in. The final shot of the film is a large close-up of Minos in front of a window – behind him we can see the sun low over the horizon. The film then ends with a blank screen or on this occasion the logo of the Festival.
All the performances are superb, but the film is dominated by Harriet Andersson’s Karin. This is a marvellously complex and moving performance. All the performances bring out the tensions, evasions, psychological wounds and character changes in the film. The setting of the Island is beautifully evoked by the superb cinematography of Sven Nykvist, ably supported by the editor Ulla Ryghe and the art director P A Lindgren. And the film makes limited but judicious use of Johan Sebastian Bach’s Violoncello Suite No 2. The light shimmers on the sea, and the changes from dusk to daylight and from light to shadow are exceptional. Fortunately the film was screened in 35mm – it would have need an above average transfer and at least 4K digital to do it justice.
The film is part of a trilogy including Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna, 1962) and The Silence (Tystnaden, 1963). Time Out comments
… films that are generally seen as addressing Bergman’s increasing disillusionment with the emotional coldness of his inherited Lutheran religion.
The Catalogue quotes Bergman’s own claim that
What I wanted, most deeply, was to depict a case of religions hysteria.
But I thought the film was not really about religion but spirituality, possibly in a humanist sense – rather in the manner found in the films of Carl Dreyer and Yasujiro Ozu. It is a powerful representation of the trials and difficulties of family relationships, albeit not a typical family. Like much of Bergman’s work it also relates the past to the present. I think viewers will find themselves considering the influence on Karin’s state of her father, husband and brother. The film is bleak but also offer lyrical moments. In the final sequence there is an ambiguity of the last light of day. And the abrupt ending leaves us to consider what we have seen and heard.
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: