The Case for Global Film

Discussing everything that isn't Hollywood (and a little that is).

Posts Tagged ‘neo-realism’

Wendy and Lucy (US 2008)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 28 August 2014

Michelle Williams as Wendy

Michelle Williams as Wendy

Kelly Reichardt’s new film Night Moves opens tomorrow and it seemed an appropriate moment to go back to one of her earlier (critical) successes. Ms Reichardt is in some ways an ‘old school’ independent filmmaker in the US. I’d only seen Meek’s Cutoff, which I liked very much, before watching Wendy and Lucy, so researching what she did earlier and how she has presented herself as a filmmaker since the 1990s has been an interesting experience.

Go to IMDB and there is no ‘biography’ for Kelly Reichardt. You have to read the interviews and articles on the more indy-orientated websites to learn that she left what she describes as the “cultural desert” of her Florida childhood to go to university in Boston. Now she teaches film as well as making her own films – primarily with writing partner Jon Raymond in Oregon. Her formative experiences in the art cinemas of the Boston area and her own classroom explorations seem to have been with the films of Fassbinder, Ozu, Bresson etc. and is intriguing to think that she has mostly worked on very American stories.

Wendy and Lucy is set in small town Oregon with a very simple outline narrative. Wendy Carroll (Michelle Williams) arrives in the small town in her beat-up Honda Accord with just her dog Lucy and a couple of bags of clothes. She appears to be on her way to Alaska where she hopes to find a job. But her journey is halted when first she discovers her car won’t start and then she manages to lose her dog. Much of the central part of the (quite short) film is taken up by the search for the dog – and a place to sleep when her car is impounded. It doesn’t sound much but the film is so skilfully constructed (Reichardt edits as well as directs) that it is always worth watching. Wendy is played by the astonishing Michelle Williams. I had to keep reminding myself that this is the same actress who can convince me that she is Marilyn Monroe. Here she is completely believable as the woman who suffers from one setback after another after making a single mistake.

Kelly Reichardt

Kelly Reichardt

Kelly Reichardt has discussed Wendy and Lucy in terms of Italian neo-realism. I can see the logic of this, though I didn’t think about neo-realism as I watched the film. I suppose I reflected on the use of long shots and the detailed observation of the minutiae of Wendy’s routines. I did think about European social realist filmmaking – but also about the American small town setting. On reflection, the images of the potential hostility of these small towns – even in the beautiful setting of the Pacific North West – is something that seems familiar from American literature as well as certain more mainstream films. Bizarrely the first film I thought of was Rambo (First Blood, 1982) and the initial reception given to the Sylvester Stallone character. I hope it’s not too fanciful but Rambo is a returning Vietnam vet entering a small town in Washington state. He is treated with mistrust and shown the door immediately. Wendy faces similar prejudices and also unwisely becomes entangled with the police. Reichardt grew up with a police officer father so it was odd that one aspect of Wendy’s arrest proved the only point when I doubted the ‘truth’ of the story.

At one point Wendy visits a fast-food restaurant and we see a man reading Ken Kesey’s 1964 novel Sometimes a Great Notion. This is an interesting element in the film’s mise en scène. Seen as one of the most important literary works coming out of the American North West, the book was adapted as a film directed by and starring Paul Newman and released at the end of 1970. Set in Oregon it features a family logging business – an ‘independent’ outfit that keeps producing lumber when the local unionised workforce goes on strike. This appears to be an admirable tactic in the context of US politics but from a UK perspective I found watching the film quite difficult despite the excellent cast. Perhaps I didn’t really understand it back then? What does it mean to Kelly Reichardt, I wonder? I mention the reference because Wendy and Lucy has been taken by many critics to be a commentary of some kind on American society in the latter part of George Bush’s presidency and on the cusp of the economic crash.

The film shows Wendy literally on the margins and finding it difficult to move forward. Several commentators have pointed to a crucial scene in which Wendy is given a small gift of a few dollars by the one character who has actually tried to help her. This is indeed an emotional moment. At other times we see Wendy counting the money she carries in a belt around her midriff. She isn’t actually destitute, she has enough to get ‘home’ to Indiana (?) where here notebook records that she started her journey. But apart from a phone conversation with her (rather unfriendly) sister we learn little about the life that Wendy has left behind. The small town at the centre of the story once had a mill, but now jobs are hard to find. There are still flashes of humanity in the responses to Wendy’s predicament but overall people seem to have ‘pulled up the drawbridge’. I should note however that some audiences have seen the film more from the perspective of Wendy’s loneliness than the evidence of insularity and lack of community shown by the townspeople (like all of us perhaps?).

Wendy and Lucy is of course a road movie and that raises expectations. Road movies are both supposed to ‘test’ their protagonists via new adventures and new relationships and to provide the means to escape and self-discovery. While the town itself is nondescript, the romance of Oregon is represented by the railway yards, the single track running through the trees and gorges, the sound of the train whistle and the camaraderie of the temporary camp for travellers. For an 80 minute film that at first glance offers a slight narrative, Wendy and Lucy actually delivers quite a rich viewing experience. I suspect that I will get more from it the next time I watch it.

Press Notes available here.

The official US trailer:

Posted in American Independents, Films by women | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Ieri, oggi, domani, Italy-France 1963)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 27 July 2014

A pregnant Adelina in 'Yesterday' (still from DVD Beaver)

A pregnant Adelina in ‘Yesterday’ (still from DVD Beaver)

There is a story behind my interest in this film. I went to see it in my local ABC cinema almost exactly 50 years ago on its initial UK release in 1964. I remember queuing up as a 15 year-old with my 13 year-old girlfriend. We just managed to get two seats on the front row of a cinema with over 1700 seats. The film had an ‘X’ Certificate (which at that time supposedly barred under 16s). It was dubbed into English, but even so, the possibility of such an enormous audience (it was probably a Saturday night) is an indication of the potential for dubbed European films in the period. (The film was distributed in the UK via Paramount.) The big attraction (certainly for me) was Sophia Loren. I probably then knew the director Vittoria De Sica as an actor in The Four Just Men TV series. I remembered two of the three episodes in this portmanteau film – but only as outline ideas and one or two images of the sublime Ms Loren.

The film’s title refers to the three stories associated with the South (Naples), the North (Milan) and the capital, Rome. Each story features La Loren with Marcello Mastroianni as different characters. In the first Loren is Adelina, a Neapolitan cigarette-seller in 1954 relying on contraband supplies and facing a prison sentence – unless she is pregnant or nursing an infant. Mastroianni is eventually exhausted by the effort to look after the children and impregnating his wife pregnant. She seems to thrive. In Milan Loren is Anna the bored wife of an industrialist who plays with Mastroianni as a trophy ‘artistic’ lover and in Rome she is Mara, a high-class call girl teasing both a weak Mastroianni and the young seminarian next door.

Anna, the unfaithful wife . . . (from dvdbeaver.com)

Anna, the unfaithful wife . . . (from dvdbeaver.com)

In truth this is a strange trio of stories. The first and the last are broad comedies in which Loren is the strong woman for whom sexual attractiveness is an asset that helps her achieve what she wants and Mastroianni is a weak man and the butt of many of the jokes. The Milan story, from a novella by the well-known Italian writer Alberto Moravia, is much more like a modernist tale with no real narrative. It is by far the shortest of the three and the least entertaining. Having said that, the image of an elegant and coiffured Sophia Loren in a Rolls-Royce, stayed with me from the first viewing. The concept of a portmanteau film in which each episode is directed by the same filmmaker is relatively unusual. Such films with a different director for perhaps four or more separate stories were quite common in this period and usually focused on a single location or theme. The only other ‘single-authored’ compendium which springs to mind is The Yellow Rolls-Royce (dir. Anthony Asquith, UK 1965) with three stories using the same vehicle at different times and with different (star) actors. So, how does De Sica’s selection come together? In some ways the three films are representative of De Sica’s career in films. He began as an actor in the popular melodramas of the 1930s, gained international recognition in the late 1940s with his neo-realist melodramas as a director and went on in the 1950s to move back towards the popular mainstream. ‘Adelina’ could certainly be a neo-realist film given it’s setting and single plot issue (based on a genuine Neapolitan regulation). Ironically, Cesare Zavattini, De Sica’s writing collaborator in the neo-realist period had a hand in the scripts for the second and third stories, but not the first.

Marcello Mastroianni as Mara's hapless 'customer' (from dvdbeaver.com)

Marcello Mastroianni as Mara’s hapless ‘customer’ (from dvdbeaver.com)

There seems to be a problem with the title and the ordering of the three stories. ‘Adelina’ in Naples represents the past. So much is clear. But ‘Anna’ in Milan is surely the future or at least the ‘modern’? Mara in Rome seems very stuck in traditional Roman society. Whereas the first two stories also have some kind of social satire/commentary (on birth control and contemporary marriage and morality) the third story seems very light. Perhaps, after all, the film was just intended to serve the twin purposes of producer Carlo Ponti – to offer a high profile role to his partner Ms Loren (there were problems with the legality of their marriage) and to create an international hit. Loren had already starred in the Two Women (1961) and the ‘epic’ El Cid (1962) and when her three performances in Ieri, oggi, domani helped the film to (rather surprisingly) win the Best Foreign Language film Oscar, Ponti’s plans seemed to have come to fruition. The following year of course saw the Italian release of A Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari) and the beginning of a new form of Italian film export. Carlo Ponti would, however, continue to find success with major productions.

The Eureka R2 DVD that I watched does not offer the dubbed version (which I would like to have watched for comparison). It offers a perfectly good Italian print with English subtitles. I read one American review which suggested that the sex appeal of Sophia Loren is used as a ‘tease’ (literally a striptease in the third story) and that the film resembles the Doris Day comedies popular in the US at the time. I can see that’s an interesting comment but I’m not sure I agree. It would take some time to watch a couple of examples and work through a comparison. I like Doris Day as a performer but not necessarily in those comedies. Sophia Loren is really in a category of her own.

Posted in Comedies, Italian cinema | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

¡Viva! 2014 #1: Los golfos (The Delinquents, Spain 1960)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 18 March 2014

Viva14One of the treats of the ¡Viva! festival is the chance to see classic archive films from Spain or Latin America. This year the classic (shown again on a Wednesday matinee on 19 March) is the first film by Carlos Saura and a key title in Spanish film history. As the title implies, the story is about a group of young men from what appears like a shanty town on the outskirts of Madrid. The group survives manly through forms of petty theft. One young man is ‘legitimate’ and works at a fruit and veg market. He also has hopes of becoming a bullfighter at Madrid’s central bullring. The plot of the film traces his attempts to get to compete in the ring with the rest of the group trying to raise the money for his entry fees and costumes etc. through various scams and robberies.

Presented in black and white and Academy ratio on a battered but serviceable film print from Contemporary Films (it’s a very long time since I’ve seen that logo) the film seems pitched between Italian neo-realism of the late 1940s/early 50s and the French New Wave of the late 1950s/early 60s. One scene almost matched one I watched last year in Rossellini’s Europa 51, set in a similar community on the outskirts of Rome. But as Rob Stone notes in his Spanish Cinema book, the film “avoids the manipulative search for poignancy that characterises many of the Italian films” (Stone 2002:63). Made with few resources and using non-professional actors in several roles, Saura created a film from open-ended sequences with improvised action. Stone links the film to Spanish literary traditions of “low-life realism”.  Núria Triana-Toribio (2003) places the film as a significant entry in the NCE (new cinema of Spain – Nuevo Cine Español) of the period.

The young men (and their mothers and girlfriends – older men are less in evidence in these families) are marginalised and excluded. Their fate is clear in this representation of Spain as a country some 10 years behind Italy and France in terms of economic and social development. Filmmakers in Spain in 159-60 still faced the full force of censorship and restrictions under Franco. Saura was forced to remove footage and dialogue that specifically pointed to the failures of his policies. Even so, the film’s release in Spain was held up. However it somehow reached Cannes where its merits were appreciated and where Saura met Luis Buñuel who he would help to return to Spain for the latter’s Viridiana and another row about bans and censorship. Saura himself went on to make a more carefully disguised critique of Franco’s Spain with La caza (The Hunt) in 1965 which we discussed after a previous ¡Viva! festival screening. What would be good now is to have a complete retrospective of Saura’s work – but we seem to have lost those opportunities for repertory screenings in proper seasons. I hope that ¡Viva! can bring us more examples in future festivals.

References

Stone, Rob (2002) Spanish Cinema, Harlow: Longman Pearson

Triana-Toribio, Núria (2003) Spanish National Cinema, London: Routledge

Posted in Festivals and Conferences, Spanish Cinema | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Nebraska (US 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 30 December 2013

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and his son David (Will Forte)

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and his son David (Will Forte)

Immediately after I saw Nebraska my impression was that I had seen one of the most enjoyable films of the year and also one of the best. Since then I’ve thought about it several times and it’s in danger of becoming the year’s No 1. There are several reasons why it stands out. First it looks terrific in Black and White CinemaScope with slow pans across the flat landscapes and a higher than usual number of long shot framings by Phedon Papamichael, director Alexander Payne’s regular DoP. Second, the excellent casting and wonderful performances give us convincing representations of communities in the small towns of the ‘high plains’ of Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska. This is a film about a ‘real America’ – strangely beautiful even when run-down and tired. I should also mention the excellent score by Mark Orton. I’m actually listening to the soundtrack streamed live as I write.

Of course, part of my fascination is because the film speaks specifically to men of a certain age. The narrative offers us a father and son on a road trip – which, as someone who didn’t like the film pointed out to me, combines two of the most common traits of American cinema. The trip involves a bemused and possibly bewildered retired man who wants to travel from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his ‘winnings’ in what he thinks is a lottery but which in reality is just a marketing promotion by a magazine publisher. This is Woody Grant (Bruce Dern). His wife and sons attempt to dissuade him, but in the end the younger son David (Will Forte) decides to drive him to Lincoln, hoping that the journey will give him time to re-build his relationship with a father who he felt was ‘absent’ during his childhood.

The setting takes Alexander Payne back to his home state and reminds us of both Election (set in a high school in Omaha) and About Schmidt (a road movie, starting from Omaha, with a similarly aged character at its centre played by Jack Nicholson). Like those two films, Nebraska has both comic moments and ‘real’ characters with elements of both hero and anti-hero. One difference, however, is that both the earlier films were literary adaptations but Nebraska is an original script by Bob Nelson, himself a native of South Dakota. Nelson and Payne know the territory and the people and, apart from the intrusion of some black comedy ‘business’ with a couple of ‘goonish’ cousins, the film is pretty close to Rossellini’s ideas for neo-realism. It’s a story taken from a real community with family secrets and relationships that most of us can recognise as ‘real’. I’ve heard criticisms that the film is depressing but I found it to be uplifting and optimistic because it seems to deal with life as it is and not as fantasy.

Father and son outside the old family house in Hawthorne, Nebraska

Father and son outside the old family house in Hawthorne, Nebraska

It has been fascinating to read some of the commentary on the film and some of the interviews and to discover the influences and references, many of which occurred to me watching the film and others which make sense on reflection. The strength of the film in aesthetic terms is its representation of landscape and characters in that region which represents the spine of ‘middle America’ and in Hollywood terms the terrain of the classic Western. In cultural and geographical terms this is the region from Montana down through Wyoming and South Dakota to Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and North-West Texas. The two films that came to mind as I studied the landscapes were Brokeback Mountain and Hud (1963). I remember from Brokeback the opening scenes in Signal, Wyoming and the drama of the huge skies. Similarly with Hud, I remember the Texas landscapes presented in Black & White ‘Scope.  Those two films are linked by the inputs of Larry McMurtry, the great storyteller of the ‘Twilight Western’ who helped to adapt Annie Proulx’s short story for Brokeback and whose novel Horseman, Pass By was the source for Hud. McMurtry has the feel for landscape and communities in the region and I wasn’t surprised to discover that Alexander Payne had always wanted to cast Bruce Dern, a ‘1970s character actor’ in what Payne saw as his own version of a ‘Peter Bogdanovich film’ (see this informative interview with Kevin Tent, the editor on the film). Bogdanovich made two black and white films in the early 1970s – the depression-set road movie (travelling through Kansas) Paper Moon (1973) and the Twilight Western, The Last Picture Show (1971) – based on Larry McMurtry’s novel and set in a Texas town in the late 1940s/early 1950s.

brokeback1

Heath Ledger as Ennis Del Mar walking into the town of Signal, Wyoming at the start of Brokeback Mountain

The Last Picture Show – at the Royal in McMurtry's creation of 'Anarene'

The Last Picture Show – at the Royal in McMurtry’s creation of ‘Anarene’

The small Texas town in Hud

The small Texas town in Hud

The Last Picture Show is the most often quoted reference for Nebraska. As well as the monochrome landscapes and small town views of the plains, there is also a thematic resonance with all three films I’ve mentioned here. The Twilight Western is in this particular formulation a contemporary story set in the geographical ‘West’ as defined by Hollywood. There are usually two central male characters, one upholding the honour/traditions of the West and the other negotiating with ‘modernity’. In both Hud and The Last Picture Show there is also a generational narrative with an older and younger man attempting to learn from the other. These primarily male narratives are about loss – the loss of ‘freedom’ and the ability to ‘act’ with dignity and honour. Perhaps it is a push to equate the confused Woody with older characters such as those played by Melvyn Douglas in Hud or Ben Johnson in The Last Picture Show (or indeed Robert Preston in Junior Bonner with Steve McQueen as the younger man) – but the links are there. Woody has turned to drink and to lassitude, remembering his past as the owner of a small garage. We learn later that he might have been an honourable man in business – but also that he might have suffered from his experience of the war in Korea. Several commentators refer to him as an alcoholic but he seems to me to have been a man who drank beer in bars rather than face his demons at home. That judgement is something audiences have to think through for themselves – the narrative doesn’t judge the man as such. I’m not sure he is suffering from any form of dementia either. He doesn’t say much and his belief in his ‘win’ is perhaps pathetic, but he still has an identity that he cares about. Bruce Dern’s performance is remarkable but it would be a shame if it overshadowed that of Will Forte as David – the genuine protagonist of the narrative. Forte seems to have worked mainly in TV, but he is very good in this film.

Grant_DeVolson_Wood_-_American_Gothic

Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’

CRI_165457

Andrew Wyeth’s ‘Christina’s World’ (print held by the Museum of Modern Art: http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=78455)

The interview with Kevin Tent throws up two more interesting references in terms of the look of the film. One is to note that ‘Woody Grant’ is a name that reverses ‘Grant Wood’, the artist who painted ‘American Gothic’ the iconic portrait of the rural American couple and a potential model for Woody and his formidable wife Kate played by June Squibb – another terrific performer mining the comedy in the script. There is also a suggestion that another iconic painting, Andrew Wyeth’s ‘Christina’s World’ (1948) was an influence – even though Wyeth was from Maine. ‘Christina’s World’ is possibly my favourite painting so perhaps my appreciation of the beauty of these desolate landscapes is somehow triggered by memories of the painting?

The music is the final part of the aesthetic construct. Again, I have to confess that American ‘roots music’ is my favourite form. In this interview from Film Music Magazine, Mark Orton explains his own background and that of his colleagues in the Tin Hat trio:

We had all studied classical music but were all improvisers as well. We listened to Smithsonian records, Thelonious Monk, Iannis Xenakis, and Willie Nelson. We were a composer’s collective and the only thing we had decided about the group early on was that we would stick to an acoustic instrumentation and use extended techniques and preparations rather than anything electric or processed. Whatever of bluegrass’s past that found its way into my/our sound did so naturally. (http://www.filmmusicmag.com/?p=12017).

That’s a pretty eclectic mix and the interview is well worth reading. As Orton puts it, the music takes the film away from a specific genre while at the same time firmly locating it in the American ‘Heartland’. The characters are at one remove from the rural people of the dustbowl stories and the cowboys of the Twilight Western, but they certainly ‘connected’.

Nebraska is a triumph of aesthetics and storytelling. I’m sure there is a great deal more to say. What did you all think?

Posted in American Independents | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

Metro Manila (Philippines/UK 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 12 September 2013

(From left) Andy Willis, Sean Ellis, jake, Robin Foster

(From left) Andy Willis, Sean Ellis, Jake Macapagal, Robin Foster

Cinema 2 in Cornerhouse Manchester was the intimate venue for a preview of Metro Manila with support from BAFTA North. The screening attracted an enthusiastic audience including members of the local Filipino community and afterwards Andy Willis, Reader in Film Studies at Salford University, hosted a Q&A with writer-director Sean Ellis, lead actor Jake Macapagal and music composer Robin Foster.

The script for Metro Manila was written by Sean Ellis and Frank E. Flowers in English and then translated into Tagalog more or less as it was shot. The story was developed from an incident witnessed by Ellis during his first visit to Manila. The cast was recruited locally, led by Jake Macapagal, a local theatre actor. Sean Ellis, who has a background first as a photographer and then as an award-winning shorts director (this is his third feature), shot the film himself. Its first appearance was at Sundance in January 2013 where it won the Audience Award. Since then it has played in France and Belgium. It opens in the UK on September 20th and then has a wide release in the Philippines in October. Sean Ellis suggested that his film “slides from world cinema into a genre thriller”. I was troubled by this statement as ‘world cinema’ still seems like a spurious term – more on this below.

The story is universal and Ellis agreed with an audience comment that it could have been set anywhere. The treatment however places it firmly in Manila. Oscar and Mai and their two small children are forced to leave rural Philippines when the price they receive for the rice they have grown drops dramatically. They travel to the capital in the hope of finding work and they are ripped off like every ‘country’ couple who don’t have friends or family to help them. Mai is forced to take a job in a sleazy bar and Oscar eventually finds employment as a security guard when a recruiter realises that this applicant has served time on military service. Everything seems to be going well at this point – but perhaps too well? Against his will, Oscar finds himself in a dangerous situation with little room for manoeuvre. The final third of the film leads us into familiar crime thriller territory, but there is a further plot twist which returns attention to the social question about rural poverty and the terrors of the big city.

I should say straightaway that the film, as a production, is a remarkable achievement. Language was clearly a key issue. Ellis doesn’t speak Tagalog and the kind of language used in commercial Filipino film and television did not seem appropriate (it’s a conventional language used for popular film and television melodramas). Jake Macapagal explained that the cast tried to use the street language of Manila as seemed appropriate in translating the script. I found this fascinating as Ellis explained that the film was edited for the subtitling – in other words, shots would be chosen with start and end points in the edit, not for the flow of the scene, but because of the time needed to screen the subtitles. Of course, for a predominantly English audience the film looked fine. The Filipino audience members said that they could follow both dialogue and titles. The camerawork, performance and music all worked well and the story is gripping all the way through. My only hesitancy was over the narrative resolution (which I won’t spoil). I find the concept of ‘world cinema’ to ‘crime thriller’ problematic. It’s ‘world cinema’ I don’t like and what it implies (a film intended to be seen mainly in international festivals and art cinemas). I would prefer the film to have a consistent style and it was the case that as the thriller narrative developed we lost some of the sense of ‘experiencing’ the city that came over so strongly in the opening scenes.

Oscar (in the background) works as back-up for

Oscar (in the background) works as back-up for Ong (John Arcilla)

The response to Metro Manila so far has, not surprisingly, made comparisons with the other two titles involving young British directors making independent features outside the UK in challenging locations. Gareth Evans’ Indonesian-set The Raid (2011) and Gareth Edwards’ Mexico-set Monsters (2010) are both more clearly identifiable as genre pictures. I haven’t seen The Raid but the reports I have read suggest that it is possibly more ‘rooted’ in Indonesian popular culture than Monsters with its American couple in Mexico. It’s sad that Rebelle (War Witch, Canada 2011) another film by a Western/’Northern’ filmmaker, this time set in Africa, hasn’t been released in the UK. Watching it in the same Cornerhouse screen last year as part of the ‘French Connection’ season, it struck me as completely successful and arguably melding what Ellis refers to as ‘world cinema’ and the thriller. I guess the central question about Metro Manila is whether the thriller elements interfere in any way with the sense of authenticity that the realist street approach achieves in the first third of the film.

I confess to relatively little knowledge of Filipino culture and I wish I knew more. In particular, I wish I knew more about the ‘creolisation’ of local culture following Spanish colonialism and then American economic colonialism. In the opening scenes of Metro Manila (see the trailer below) the rice paddies farmed by Oscar and Mia are located in a landscape that reminded me of scenes from Latin-American films – an effect reinforced by the gaudily decorated truck that took them to Manila. In the Q&A we learned that the ‘street version’ of Tagalog includes both Spanish and English words and the film includes several important references to Catholicism that I’d like to know more about in its Filipino setting.

I’ve suggested a couple of possible reservations about the film but I want to recommend the film strongly. I plan to watch it again soon and I’ll be paying more attention to the camerawork and to the narrative structure – I realised during the final sequences that the structure is quite complex with a voiceover and flashbacks that I didn’t fully work out.

Thanks to Rachel Hayward, Andy Willis and his guests and all the Cornerhouse staff who put on this excellent session.

Here’s the French trailer (there isn’t any dialogue in it) which represents the film well:

Posted in Directors, Festivals and Conferences, People | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Wadjda (Saudi Arabia-Germany 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 21 August 2013

Wadjda and the object of her desire

Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) and the object of her desire. Photo by Tobias Kownatzki © Razor Film

Undoubtedly one of the most important global films of the last twelve months, Wadjda is highly entertaining and very well-made but also raises a number of questions for film culture and film studies.

Viewed simply as a ‘festival film’ that has ‘broken out’ into wider distribution, Wadjda comes across as a familiar feelgood narrative utilising a neo-realist approach – i.e. taking a simple narrative premise familiar to audiences the world over and locating it in a recognisable ‘real world’ setting. The writer-director is also canny enough to pick up on the success of other recent films in terms of specific story elements. Wadjda is a ten (or possibly twelve) year-old girl who decides that the only way to compete with her neighbour Abdullah is to get hold of a bicycle and race him. Spotting a new bicycle being delivered to a local store in her neighbourhood in the Saudi capital Riyadh she quickly determines that she must somehow acquire the 800 ryals (about £140 or $215) to buy it. Although her family is relatively wealthy, problems between her parents means that they are unlikely to produce the money for her, so she ends up entering a ‘religious competition’ at school in the hope of winning the prize which would be just enough for the purchase. Even though she has no obvious interest in her religion she applies herself to learning to read and recite sura (chapters) of the Koran.

Any story about young people and bicycles has already got a headstart on the opposition. The bicycle offers that sense of freedom for a young person without the means to ride taxis (Riyadh being seemingly without public transport). There are few scenes in cinema as liberating as those featuring boys and girls on bicycles, whether they are Truffaut’s Les Mistons, the messenger in Beijing Bicycle or the Dardennes Brothers’ Kid With a Bike. Wadjda has the two essential ingredients to exploit the the story potential – a winning performance by Waad Mohammed as the girl and a talented creative team with a skilled crew to fully utilise the location and settings. Writer-director Haifaa Al-Mansour then fills out the story with two main sub-plots that arguably act metaphorically to reveal the social conditions and opportunities that face Wadjda (and all other Saudi girls) in the future.

The first of the two sub-plots involves Wadjda’s mother Reema who was married as a schoolgirl but whose husband is now looking for a second wife because Reema is unable to provide him with a son. At the same time, Reema faces problems as a working woman (in a society where women are not supposed to drive cars or be ‘exposed’ to men outside the home). The second sub-plot involves Ms Mussa, the principal of the school, an attractive younger woman (just like Reema) who appears to be a hard disciplinarian with a softer interior and who at one point tells Wadjda that she reminds her of her younger self.

The combination of the three narratives is reminiscent of another film featuring a young woman and a bicycle – Marziyeh Meshkini’s The Day I Became a Woman (Iran 2000). The school/home axis also refers to the first half of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (France/US 2006). These are both films featuring girls and women growing up in Iran after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Iran is not an Arab country but girls and women in Saudi Arabia face similar problems created by the restrictions of a highly conservative form of Islam. Herein lies the problem for Western film critics and scholars who have little exposure to the range of Arab film production. Popular Arab films from Egypt are not easily accessible. The films that do reach the West from Lebanon and Palestine often have different concerns with the effects of war and occupation often displacing the kinds of cultural issues central to Wadjda. Missing also is production coming from the affluent Gulf States where film culture in terms of consumption of mainly American movies in new multiplexes is growing quickly.

Director Haifaa Al Mansour  on the shoot with her crew. Photo by Tobias Kownatzki © Razor Film

Director Haifaa Al Mansour on the shoot with her crew. Photo by Tobias Kownatzki © Razor Film

The result is that a film like Wadjda is singled out and praised as the first Saudi feature film – and a notable film by an Arab woman. The film narrative is then examined primarily in terms of its resistance to the representation of women in Saudi Arabian society. My feeling is that this in fact misrepresents the film itself and the filmmaker – who carries ‘the burden of representation’, being expected to fulfil the role assigned to her by Western media. Wadjda is properly described as a global film. Ironically, its Saudi base is the media company Rotana, arguably the biggest media corporation in the Middle East, which is majority owned by Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal with an 18% stake held by News Corporation. Rotana is the biggest music company in the region and also produces television series for the Arab world. Reem Abdullah who plays the mother is a leading star of Saudi television. The film is officially a Saudi-German co-production. The department heads and the producers are from the German industry. Haifaa Al Mansour herself was born in Saudi Arabia but educated at the American University in Cairo and then completed a Masters in Film at the University of Sydney. She now lives in Bahrain. This background is important in placing the film’s production in context. It does mean that there is a contradiction between the image of the ‘guerilla filmmaker’ who had to hide from view as she directed scenes on the streets of Riyadh (so as not to offend religious sensibilities) and a production backed by one of the most powerful media interests in the region.

Wadjda's father on one of his irregular visits to the apartment plays a videogame – a family scenario familiar from scenes of middle-class homes in many countries

Wadjda’s father on one of his irregular visits to the apartment plays a videogame – a family scenario familiar from scenes of middle-class homes in many countries. Photo by Tobias Kownatzki © Razor Film

Much of the coverage of the film’s appearance at festivals and now on release in the West focuses on the idea that this is the first film to be shot in Saudi Arabia. The fact that it was directed by a woman is then taken to be even more astounding. My point here is not intended as an attempt to downgrade the achievement of the director, but instead to expose the rather simplistic view of film and TV in the region as taken by many in the West. I’m not sure if the film is genuinely a ‘first’. I’ve seen claims that as many as 300 films have been identified in some way with Saudi Arabia and in his useful Guardian piece, Phil Hoad cites two recent examples. Since the 1980s cinemas have been banned in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia but they existed for a shortish period before the 1980s and cinema is accessible via satellite and DVD in homes – or over the border in the Emirates or Qatar. In 2009 Rotana did manage to screen one of their films in several Saudi cities. Does it really matter where the film is shot, who financed it or whether it is a co-production? The important point, as Hoad insists, is for Arab filmmakers generally and Saudis in particular, to create stories about themselves and to circulate them so that they can contribute to the creation of identities for Arabs and by Arabs – rather than through a lens controlled by Hollywood studios or constructed by Western critics.

Wadjda learning how to read and recite from the Koran

Wadjda learning how to read and recite from the Koran

Mother and daughter together on the roof terrace

Mother and daughter together on the roof terrace. Photo by Tobias Kownatzki © Razor Film

Haifaa Al Mansour has created an entertaining and engaging story which contributes towards the ongoing debate about how women can gain more control over their lives under a regime informed by conservative religious interests. In this sense, the film is similar to those family melodramas that have delved into the changing mores of societies in Asia as well as Europe and the Americas. Here’s the director in the Press Notes commenting on the gender representations:

“Maybe it is a women‘s film! But I really didn‘t intend it that way. I wanted to make a film about things I know and experienced. A story that spoke to my experiences, but also to average Saudis. It was important for me that the male characters in the film were not portrayed just as simple stereotypes or villains. Both the men and the women in the film are in the same boat, both pressured by the system to act and behave in certain ways, and then forced to deal with the system’s consequences for whatever action they take. I do really like the scenes of the mother and the daughter together, and I think that a lot of love and emotion comes through in their relationship, when they are cooking or singing together, there is something very beautiful about it.”

This is certainly how I read the film. The performances are very good and the narrative is very accessible. I hope it gets the wider audiences it deserves. In the UK it is still showing in some cinemas and will appear on DVD in January 2014. Here’s an extract on the Doha Film Institute site:

http://www.dohafilminstitute.com/videos/wadjda-trailer#ooid=oweHNrNzqXY-QlWF1lucf7LkTMgzcY-l

And here are some useful links:

http://auteusetheory.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/wadjda-haifaa-al-mansour-2013.html

http://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2013/jul/14/haifaa-mansour-wadjda-saudi-arabia

http://www.sbs.com.au/films/movie-news/907541/wadjda-haifaa-al-mansour-interview

http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/reviews-recommendations/film-week-wadjda

http://www.arabnews.com/news/455973

Posted in Arab Cinema, Films by women | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Rossellini #5: Reading Viaggio in Italia (Italy-France 1954)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 8 July 2013

voyagetoitalyFB

This classic film by Roberto Rossellini was re-released in the UK on a new DCP in May. A more helpful English translation of the title than the usual ‘Voyage to Italy’ is ‘Travel in Italy’ or ‘Journey Through Italy’ as it covers the time spent by an English couple on a trip to the Naples region trying to come to terms with their own relationship and the impact of Italian culture. As in many of the Italian films of this period, there have been several versions of this film. In the version for the UK, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders as the couple speak English. Italian characters speak Italian amongst themselves and some characters speak both languages.

One of the major issues in appraising the film in 2013 is the need to deal with its reception in the mid 1950s (it opened in Italy in 1954 and was seen in other countries over the next couple of years). In America the film flopped badly, but it is difficult to know how much this was associated with the scandal of the Bergman-Rossellini relationship, which was one of the biggest tabloid stories of its time. (Bergman and Rossellini had a child before Bergman’s divorce and her subsequent marriage to Rossellini.) The other problem in the US might have been cuts that robbed the film of some of its important scenes. By contrast, the film was highly praised by critics in France where the Cahiers du cinéma writers hailed it as the first ‘modern’ film. The enthusiasm of Godard, Truffaut et al was typically excessive and a more common reaction by popular audiences then (and to a certain extent ever since) was one of boredom because ‘nothing happens’.

It seems clear now that the Cahiers critics did have a point – and given the more favourable reception of similar films a few years later, Rossellini was once again ‘ahead of the curve’. The film is defiantly ‘unconventional’. José Luis Gaurner in his 1970 Studio Vista book on Rossellini puts the argument very well:

 . . . its subject [is] the breakup of a marriage, but it is not a tragedy. It is about reconciliation, but it is not a comedy. It revolves around Italy, but it is not a documentary . . . As a film about reality and time, it comes into the sphere of the essay. (Guarner 1970: 58)

This concept of an ‘essay’ refers us to the later films of Jean-Luc Godard in particular – light on narrative pleasures but rich in ideas and explorations of culture and politics. This is the form of filmic ‘modernism’ that also leads towards Antonioni and others in the late 1950s and 1960s and which is still part of contemporary cinema (a film like Nuri Bilge Cyan’s Climates (2006) perhaps, or the films of Joanna Hogg such as Unrelated (2008) or Archipelago (2010)).

Rossellini is interested in the marriage between two people who are not Italian and how their relationship is affected by their exposure to Italian culture. This in itself suggests the urge to explore ‘reality’ rather than the familiar conventions of entertainment cinema. Although many couples have wonderful holidays abroad, sharing the delights of exposure to other cultures, holidays are also potentially difficult to negotiate. How do we know how different people (ourselves and our partners) will react to new situations? The usual tensions in a relationship are exposed in new situations. A Hollywood take on an Italian holiday is likely to develop as a romance or a thriller, but Rossellini is not interested in these kinds of narratives.

The car as a barrier between the couple and their environment – or perhaps a cage in which they are trapped?

The car as a barrier between the couple and their environment – or perhaps a cage in which they are trapped?

Casting, scripting and direction

Ingrid Bergman was by 1953 very familiar with her husband’s approach since she had already experienced two difficult and challenging roles in Stromboli and Europa ’51. On the other hand, Rossellini’s use of his wife/star had become almost obsessive (she wasn’t allowed to work for anyone else) and there had been aspects of the scripts of the earlier films which might in some ways have related to the Bergman-Rossellini marriage. As Katherine, Bergman was already under a certain pressure.

Rossellini cast George Sanders – one of several English actors working mainly on Hollywood productions – as Alex. Sanders had no idea of what to expect and he found Rossellini’s approach bewildering and frustrating. In interviews years later Rossellini claims that Sanders hated the way he was forced to work – and of course his discomfort is evident in his performance, which produces exactly what Rossellini wants.

Rossellini maintains that he had a very clear idea of the film he was going to make, but he refused to write it down as a script to give to his two stars. Instead he would supply the dialogue for the day’s shooting but would often change aspects of the shoot dependent on the ‘reality’ of the situation he found in the location. In one much discussed scene Rossellini was tipped off that a ‘discovery’ was about to be unveiled in the archaeological work in Pompeii. He re-organised that day’s shooting and Bergman and Saunders were required to respond to the events as they unfolded. How much of this was contrived (and embellished in later interviews) is open to conjecture but it is certainly true that the film includes several scenes in which Bergman and sometimes Sanders are confronted with aspects of Italian antiquity as well as the Catholic rituals of Neapolitan life, sometimes with quite disturbing results.

In one of the funniest scenes in the film, Rossellini also used the language differences between Bergman/Sanders and the local people who act as servants in the large house where the couple are staying (selling the house which is a bequest by ‘Uncle Homer’ is the ostensible purpose of the visit to Italy). Far from ‘nothing happening’, the narrative is a tightly-wound structure in which the tension comes from the couple’s relationship with each other and the unsettling effects of the environment on each of them separately and together. Rossellini and his cinematographer Enzo Serafin manage to frame the central characters such that the mise en scène is both ‘realist’ and ‘expressionist’, especially in the several scenes where Katherine visits the classical sites of the region and its museums. (See the poster at the top of this piece in which Katherine is shown to be shocked by the eroticism of some of the statuary.)

Alex and Katherine seem far away from each other and lost in the ruins of Pompeii.

Alex and Katherine seem far away from each other and lost in the ruins of Pompeii.

SPOILER

Reading the closing sequence

The whole film up until the last sequence appears to be about the disintegration of a marriage. In fact some of the English titles used by distributors makes this explicit. Yet from the comments above it should be clear that the characters are actually learning something about themselves and each other because of the impact of the ‘otherness’ of Italy. The last two sequences involve the visit to Pompeii when Katherine is overwhelmed by the discovery of the figures of a man and woman miraculously ‘discovered’ in the lava and then finally the car journey which ends with the couple trapped in the crowds for a religious procession.

In Sight and Sound July 2013, Brad Stevens offers a reading of the ending of the film which places it in the small town of Maiori on the Amalfi coast some distance from Naples. Maiori has been the setting for several Rossellini sequences and holds a film festival with a Rossellini prize according to its Wikipedia entry. However, the implication is that the couple are driving through the outskirts of Naples and this is how André Bazin analyses the closing sequence. This isn’t a documentary, so Rossellini simply chooses a suitable location and what is important is that Alex and Katherine find themselves trapped in the crowds in a street where a religious procession is taking place. They are forced to stop their car and get out and in the mêlée that surrounds them as believers rush towards the effigy of a saint carried in the procession, Katherine is separated from Alex. When he realises what has happened, Alex struggles to find her and when they are re-united something miraculous does indeed happen.

The final shot of Katherine and Alex

The final shot of Katherine and Alex

Throughout the closing scenes Katherine has become more emotional while Alex appears to be repressing his emotions – though he says that he has been ‘moved’ by the discovery of the figures at Pompeii. In the previous sequence when Katherine visits Naples with the wife of the agent who is looking after the house, she keeps noticing the number of pregnant women on the streets and the number of women pushing prams. It’s as if there is an explosion of fertility. Later when she and Alex discuss divorce, she wonders if it would have helped if they had children. This seems like an obvious set of narrative connections but Rossellini presents them in a convincingly seamless way – we have to work to make the connections and reflect upon them. The procession which eventually ensnares the couple is, according to Bazin in an essay entitled ‘In Defence of Rossellini’ (1955), one of the annual events associated with Saint Januarius, patron saint of Naples. The local people clearly believe in the restorative powers of the saint and we see a man gesticulating as if he is pleading for/celebrating relief from poor eyesight. Bazin suggests that what we have seen throughout the film is a subjective view of the local environment by Katherine:

“It is Naples ‘filtered’ through the consciousness of the heroine. If the landscape is bare and confined, it is because the consciousness of an ordinary bourgeoisie itself suffers from great spiritual poverty. Nevertheless, the Naples of the film is not false (which it could easily be with the Naples of a documentary three hours long). It is rather a mental landscape at once as objective as a straight photograph and as subjective as pure personal consciousness. We realise now that the attitude which Rossellini takes towards his characters and their geographical and social setting is, at one remove, the attitude of his heroine towards Naples – the difference being that his awareness is that of a highly cultured artist and, in my opinion, an artist of rare spiritual vitality.” (Bazin 1971: 98-9)

In the final scene Katherine can ‘see’ another future – and Alex is finally moved to see with Katherine. Whether this will help to save the marriage is another question – which Rossellini leaves open. His panning camera eventually turns away from the couple and the film finally ends suddenly with one of the bandsmen in the background looking offscreen. It is this framing that Brad Stevens discusses in Sight & Sound. Stevens make the excellent point that this ending with its last glimpse of the bandsman, emphasises for the audience that Katherine and Alex are just another couple amidst the throng of people. Just as Katherine and Alex leave the protective shied/cage of their car, we leave the protected viewing position in which the two characters are privileged and rejoin the ‘real world’. I’ve watched the ending a few times to check these ideas and although I take Stevens’ point, two other observations interest me. One is the camera movements that are both ‘required’ in order to represent the narrative space and also ‘expressionist/symbolic’ in underlining the distance from the events felt by the audience. Rossellini has a camera placed higher up in order to see the procession in the distance. This position also allows us to look down on Katherine and Alex and to see how they are surrounded by people. This isn’t camerawork that we would associate with realist modes (since there is nobody in the scene who could have this perspective) and it would require going back over Rossellini’s earlier films to evaluate if it is a consistent aspect of his style. The second observation emphasises the understanding that Rossellini has taken his actors and crew into a ‘real’ street procession. Just behind Alex and Katherine when they get out of the car are two characters dressed in white suits/coats with white headdresses that might be turbans or something similar. The two men appear to be Indian or African and one is holding a paper cup which might contain crushed ice. I wonder if they are selling ice cream or a cold drink like sugarcane juice? Were traders like this common on the Amalfi coast in the 1950s? Any help on this is appreciated. What the presence of these two does do is to reinforce that sense of a story taking place in a ‘real’ Italy.

If you can find this in a cinema, please go and see it. If you can’t make the big screen, a DVD/Blu-ray package is available from the BFI. Here is a link to Moviemail’s offer.

References

Bazin, Andre (1971) ‘In Defence of Rossellini’ (originally published in Cinema Nouvo, August 1955) What is Cinema?, Vol II, Berkeley: University of California Press

Gaurner, José Luis (1970) Roberto Rossellini, London: Studio Vista

BFI link to Geoff Andrew on Viaggio in Italia and the Neo-realism Season in London.

Posted in Italian cinema, Melodrama | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Rossellini #4: Era notte a Roma (Italy 1960)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 21 June 2013

Another gem from Rossellini, this film (which operates under various titles) is not quite what I expected given the general critical writing on Rossellini. On the other hand, if I’d never read any Rossellini profiles I would have recognised aspects of the film from European cinema generally around 1960.

The common view is that after his break-up with Ingrid Bergman, Rossellini moved away from cinema proclaiming it was dead and turned first towards documentary and eventually towards historical narratives for television. In between he made a few films to make some money but these were of lesser value. I already knew this wasn’t true since many years ago I was lucky to see Viva L’Italia (1961) his Garibaldi film at the NFT in London. I think that was when I first read about his revolutionary new zoom lens device known as the Pancinor. This device enabled the operator to move freely with a subject, maintaining focus and obviating the need to cut – Rossellini devised the technology to allow him to extend the effectiveness of his long take style.

According to José Luis Guarnier (Roberto Rossellini, Studio Vista, 1971) Rossellini used the device for the first time on Era notte a Roma. I confess that I didn’t notice this watching the film – but I did think that the film was very well composed and shot and that is probably the best endorsement.

Era notte a Roma translates via Google as ‘It was night in Rome’ or perhaps ‘To Rome at night’ and actually that title makes sense – more sense than some of the official English titles. The setting is Italy in the latter part of 1943. The Nazis have taken control of Rome, Italians are moving over towards the partisans and the Allies have landed in Sicily. Three soldiers have escaped or been released from an Italian prisoner of war camp in the North of Italy and have made their way South. They are holed up in a village and the villagers arrange a bargain with a group of nuns who are looking for wine and food to take back to Rome. The nuns will take the POWs and in exchange will get ham and wine. But the nuns are actually black marketeers led by a beautiful young woman played by Giovanna Ralli. She wants rid of the POWs as well but she has a kind heart and one of the men, an American airman (played by Peter Baldwin), has an old wound that has re-opened. She ends up letting the men stay in the spacious attic above her apartment. The other two men are a British officer (Leo Genn) and a Russian sergeant (the great Sergei Bondarchuk, a talented actor and director).

The men end up staying for several weeks, culminating in a Christmas dinner. Nobody is fluent in more than one language so communication is difficult, but in the famous Christmas  dinner sequence the Russian makes a moving speech in which the meaning is clear from his intonation and facial expressions. Giovanna is also part of the partisan network and the men meet her boyfriend and others in the movement. Inevitably it becomes impossible to keep the men’s presence a secret and there is a great deal of tension before they are exposed to the fascists and their Nazi bosses. The final section of the film, leading up to the point when the Allied troops arrive in the capital, opens the narrative up further to include the aristocratic family who own the working-class apartment block. They too are on the side of the partisans and the landlord is a Vatican officer whose family entertains an aristocratic German officer. Just as in Roma citta aperta and Paisa there is a sequence involving local priests – with refugees hidden among the novices. This sequence and another in which Leo Genn pretends to be a butler to serve the German officer are played with wit and a gentle sense of the absurd. I was reminded of Fellini’s contributions to the scripts of the earlier wartime films.

Far from being some kind of ‘commercial filler’, I found this to be a moving film about life under occupation and an interesting exploration of the relationships between the occupied population and the escaped POWs. It’s a longish film – according to IMDb the official length was 138 mins in Italy, but only 82 mins in the US (which probably explains some of the negative comments). IMDb also suggests a DVD lasting 151 minutes. The Region 2 DVD that I watched lasted just under 129 mins – the rough equivalent of about 134 mins at film speed. I think Rossellini needed the longer running time to present the ‘reality’ of the lives of the men in the attic and the people who hid them.

The three POWs (from left) Leo Genn, Sergei Bondarchuck and Peter Bradley

The three POWs (from left) Leo Genn, Sergei Bondarchuck and Peter Bradley

The performances are all very good and I was particularly struck by Leo Genn’s British officer. Genn was not only  a distinguished stage and screen actor but he had also been a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Royal Artillery in 1943. When he recreated his wartime persona he was 55 years old, but that doesn’t seem to matter. His calm and ability to speak the Latin of his schooldays and appear to genuinely learn Italian during the course of the narrative give the film a real grounding in the period. This was an actor and trained barrister who prosecuted war crimes at Belsen and narrated both the events at the 1953 Coronation and the opening of the UN in 1947.  The Wikipedia page on Leo Genn refers to his role in “Rossellini’s remarkable and largely forgotten film”. The film is remarkable and it shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s not as ‘dramatic’ as Roma citta aperta but it possibly teaches us more about the experience of wartime in an occupied city.

Posted in Italian cinema | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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