This title is one of four films directed by Margarethe von Trotta being distributed by the Independent Cinema Office with support from the Goethe-Institut London and German Screen Studies Network. It is also the first one to be screened in West Yorkshire; at the Hyde Park Picture House this coming Tuesday January 15. Let us hope that it will be followed by the other three. This film was screened at the National Media Museum a couple of years ago. But two other titles, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum / Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (1975) and The German Sisters / Die bleierne Zeit (1981), have not been seen for years. Whilst the fourth title, The Second Awakening of Christa Klages / Das zweite Erwachen der Christa Klages (1978) is getting it first British release.
This film is a biopic of one of the most important and in influential revolutionaries of the early twentieth century. Rosa Luxemburg was a lifelong critic of capitalism and the reactionary governments in her native Poland and in Germany where she worked politically. She was an important contributor to Marxist theory and analysis. Read her ‘Reform or Revolution’ (1900) now and sections offer an astute and detailed critique which applies directly to the recent 2008 crisis of capitalism. Most notably Rosa was one of the few Marxists, along with Lenin and the Bolsheviks and our own Sylvia Pankhurst, to oppose the imperialist war of 1914 – 1918. Finally she was murdered in 1919 after the failed Spartacist uprising.
[[See the recent demonstration to commemorate Rosa and Karl Liebknecht].
“Red Rosa now has vanished too. (…)
She told the poor what life is about,
And so the rich have rubbed her out.
May she rest in peace.” (Bertolt Brecht).
Von Trotta’s film covers most of Luxemburg’s adult life. It is selective, of necessity with a running time of just on two hours. The film opens in one of the many spells in prison; here in 1916 and then cutting to an earlier prison spell in Poland in 19106. This film continues to use changes in time to explore Luxemburg’s adult life. The key characteristics of Luxemburg are dramatised, including her break with the reformism of the German Social Democrats. Luxemburg spent a number of spells in prison and these show the steely conviction of this heroine. The film uses well chosen extracts from Luxemburg’s letters and speeches. The weakness of the film is that whilst it shows the complexity of Luxemburg herself it is not able to do this for her comrades and her enemies. The film does not attempt to explicate the Marxism of the period but concentrates on her battle within the German party and her opposition to the war. It details both her political and personal lives but does no completely integrate them. The film does emphasise Luxemburg’s political action as a woman; making it seem relevant to the present. But it also means that the male revolutionaries do seem pale by comparison. Oddly Lenin and the Bolsheviks only get one brief mention.
Luxemburg is played by von Trotta’s long-time collaborator Barbara Sukowa, who won awards in Germany and at the Cannes Film Festival. Deserved awards as Sukowa creates a complex character who generates sympathy but who also is a difficult person with whom to deal.
Margarethe, as is her wont, has also scripted the film. Her production team is, as usual in her films, excellent. The music, by Nicolas Economou, is orchestral and marks the more dramatic sequences. The cinematography is by Franz Rath, who also worked on the earlier films. The palette, given the subject and settings, is often suitably grim and gloomy. This is especially true of the prison sequences but at other times there are impressive long shots of Rosa against settings that are both realist and symbolic. The Film Editing is by Dagmar Hirtz and Galip Iyitanir in a film that has a complex structure, cutting back and forth in time and space. And the film’s look, with Set Decoration by Stepan Exner and Bernd Lepel and Costume Design by Monika Hasse, catches the period accurately. In the latter part them film also uses archive film to weave this biography into the seismic events at the end of the war and in the immediate post-war world.
We are still waiting for The Young Karl Marx to appear in West Yorkshire but it is good that the portrait of this outstanding and fascinating woman revolutionary is with us. And fortunately the film is of the quality that she deserves. The film is in standard widescreen and colour with English sub-titles. And the German transfers to digital are usually of a high quality.
This was the fourth feature directed by Ida Lupino and produced by her husband Collier Young for their company The Filmakers. It has received far less attention than the first three and suffered more from a critical dismissal. I think there are two reasons for this. First, its subject matter is less sensational/socially conscious than the first three (which deal with unwanted pregnancy, polio and its effect on young lives and rape) and secondly it is adapted by Martha Wilkerson from a novel (or possibly a short story) by John R. Tunis. On the previous three pictures, Lupino and/or Young had been involved in the writing. My own feeling is that although the film has weaknesses it is overall a well-made film on a modest budget that has several good points and provides both an enjoyable entertainment and food for thought – partially provided by the original material by John R. Tunis.
The best way to describe this 77 minute picture is as a sports film and family melodrama hybrid. It tells the cautionary tale of a young female tennis star and her pushy mother played by Sally Forrest and Claire Trevor, the two stars in the cast. Forrest had played the lead in two of the earlier Lupino films, Not Wanted and Never Fear. Claire Trevor was just a few years older than Ida Lupino and had experienced something of a similar career. I remember her from Stagecoach (1939), Farewell My Lovely (1944) and Born to Kill (1946). She would have known Lupino at least through shared experiences of working with Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and other leading stars (e.g. on Key Largo (1948)).
Sally Forrest is Florence Farley, an 18 year-old high school graduate practising tennis shots against the wall when she is spotted by Gordon (Robert Clarke, also in Outrage). He has a temporary job at the local country/sports club and invites her to play tennis there. Florence is seriously talented and before long is a local junior champion and over the next couple of years becomes a contender for National Women’s Champion at Forest Hills and then at Wimbledon. Her rise to tennis stardom is orchestrated by her mother (Claire Trevor) in cahoots with the oily Fletcher Locke (Carleton G. Young), an Eastern tennis agent. Both Gordon and Florence’s father Will (Kenneth Patterson, again, also in Outrage) are left struggling in Florence’s wake.
It is when Florence and her mother opt to travel to Europe with backing by Locke through his contacts with hotel chains and other ‘sponsors’ that Gordon, who has proposed to Florence, refuses to follow her. Instead he rails against the sponsorship which threatens her ‘amateur’ status. I was a little surprised by this (and an earlier similar scene on a smaller scale). I remember how tennis, like athletics and rugby always had the important professional v. amateur divide, but I do wonder how American amateurs could afford to travel to London, Paris and Melbourne without some form of sponsorship – presumably through their official federation? The reason why this is a strong element in the film’s plot goes back to John R. Tunis who was a fierce critic of professional sports and the way they were covered by the media. He usually wrote what would now be termed ‘Young Adult’ fiction (his publishers actually pushed him into writing for younger readers) with a strong moral undertow. Many of his books were about baseball and American football but his novel American Girl (1930) and short story Champion’s Choice (1940) were about tennis. By all accounts Tunis was a highly regarded and very well-known writer as well as tennis commentator. It’s unfortunate that the film’s short running time doesn’t allow Tunis’ ideas to be developed in a more organic way. At the end of the film when Florence has ‘repented’ to some extent, she gives an interview about fair play and being a role model to a journalist who is rolling her eyes in disbelief at the fiercely moral line that is being taken.
The short running time is a feature of The Filmmakers’ films. This was mainly because of limited funding, though in the best films it means a lean and supple narrative. Hard, Fast and Beautiful is one of the films funded and distributed by RKO. According to various sources, Howard Hughes offered The Filmakers around $200,000 per picture but did not interfere in the productions. However, this film certainly shows all the signs of a rushed ending and the narrative almost seems to collapse in the final scenes as Florence performs a volte-face and her mother is left to try to understand what has happened. The quandary for Lupino and Young as The Filmmakers is neatly summed up by the marketing campaign devised by RKO exemplified by the poster above. The imagery and the tagline both oversell and distort what the film has to offer – but on the other hand, RKO muscled the film into cinemas and attracted audiences. However, the film ultimately failed because it actually bears little resemblance to the poster’s suggestions. Hughes organised grand openings for the film in various cities – but The Filmakers picked up the expenses bill and this wiped out their share of any profits. The Filmmakers’ films have also suffered from the label of ‘B picture’ attached to them by critics and general commentators. I suspect the tag comes mainly because of the short length and the relatively low-budget. But Hard, Fast and Beautiful is not a ‘B’ in conception or execution. Ida Lupino herself associated The Filmakers with the director-producers she named as ‘Independents’ including Stanley Kramer, Robert Rossen and Louis de Rochemont (see below). Using this term suggests a link between Ida Lupino and later ‘American Independents’ like John Sayles.
The film is photographed by Archie Stout who shot Lupino’s first three pictures but is best known for his work with John Ford and edited by William Ziegler (known for work with Hitchcock). The music is by RKO’s film noir master composer Roy Webb and the two art directors, Albert S. D’Agostino and Jack Okey were responsible for the sets on Out of the Past (1947) – in my view the best noir from the 1940s. This is a list of veteran talent that any ‘A’ film production would be lucky to attract. These were hard-bitten Hollywood pros, some of whom were happy to work with The Filmakers more than once because they admired Ida Lupino’s talent and desire to learn as a director.I think a lot of that industry knowledge is up there on the screen. The tennis matches, mostly filmed in California or at Forest Hills are very well put together. I’m no tennis expert, but Sally Forrest was convincing for me. There are many long shots of the courts with cuts to Forrest serving and returning and she certainly hits the ball ‘hard and fast’. Lupino was well-known for her use of location shooting and for her interest in both neo-realism (she met and admired Roberto Rossellini) and in the American form of ‘semi-documentary’ championed by Louis de Rochemont in which crime and ‘social problem’ pictures were shot on location. Lupino probably also followed the career of Mark Hellinger, the producer for whom she worked on They Drive By Night (1940), High Sierra (1941) and Moontide (1942). In the late 1940s he produced two New York-based films noirs with extensive location shooting, the Jules Dassin directed Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948).
But it is the melodrama which intrigues in Hard, Fast and Beautiful and Lupino must have known instinctively how to direct Forrest and Trevor, having played similar roles herself. In the scene above the mise en scène conveys so clearly the family conflict. Hollywood showed us so many twin beds in married couples’ bedrooms, but I’ve never seen them back to back like this. The divide is very clear and almost doesn’t need dialogue. The film’s script draws on the mother-daughter relationship seen in films like Mildred Pierce (1945) though the roles are reversed to some extent. Mildred has a much stronger story but on the other hand, Ida Lupino and Collier Young present a more realist feel for the situations faced by their characters. Claire Trevor is also a match for Crawford as the mother. I can’t help feeling that if The Filmmakers had had a little more time and a little more money they would have made a fine melodrama.
There are all kinds of ‘festival films’. Some are destined for special genre strands, some are début films, some are from star directors and come with promotional material. And then there are films that only seem to make sense in a festival setting. I generally like to watch films ‘cold’ in a festival. Partly, I want to get a sense of how audiences might respond. Too Late to Die Young seems to refer to the rush of growing up and indeed this is a ‘coming of age’ film of sorts with three central characters. The credits told me that it is a festival ‘workshop’ film – a film supported by major festivals and funds such as Sundance, Doha and Hubert Bals Fund on the basis that its 33 year-old director Dominga Sotomayor is ‘one to watch’ and this third feature is being supported for wide festival circulation. My worry is that audiences might struggle to place its story despite some excellent performances.
As the film began I found it difficult to locate the story, partly because of the list of co-production countries. At one point somebody mentions Mendoza which I recognised as a city/region in Argentina, but then more references appeared which pointed towards Chile. But where in Chile? I didn’t know that Ñuñoa is a middle class district on the eastern outskirts of Santiago. The actual setting is a commune up in the hills above the city which can finally be seen in the distance later in the film. But when is the story set? I’ve seen enough Chilean films to know that the Pinochet dictatorship is still a central factor in Chilean narratives but I don’t think there was any direct reference here. The clothes and battered old cars could come from any time in the past thirty years since the community in which they appear is perhaps best described as an ex-hippy arts/crafts/music commune. I should have noticed there weren’t any mobile phones or tablets and that the music seemed to be from the 1980s but it wasn’t until after the screening that I learned that it was meant to be the December (i.e. Summer in Chile) of 1989 or possibly 1990, the year that Pinochet stepped down as dictator of Chile. The film isn’t directly interested in politics as such but it seems odd not to display the contextual references – I must have missed something. I was made sleepy by the langourous feel of parts of the film. I suspect that the reviewers who gave it positive reviews at Locarno and Toronto had detailed press notes. Audiences for a standard release won’t have access in the same way. Now that I’ve read those Press Notes and several other sources it all makes sense. Dominga Sotomayor was judged ‘Best Director’ at Locarno, a festival that is trying to develop its profile as a major festival with a different overall stance to Cannes, Venice etc. Sotomayor is the first female winner at Locarno.
Dominga Sotomayor was herself brought up in an ‘ecological commune’. Her script is inspired by the real-life events of January 1990 witnessed by the writer-director as a young girl. She was only four or five at the time and as part of her research she watched some VHS tapes of the period shot around the commune. From these came some inspiration for the ‘look’ of the film and also something of the ‘timelessness’ of the narrative. Her principal character is Sofía (Demian Hernández), a young woman of around 16-17. In her first role, Ms Hernández is certainly an arresting presence. Tall and slim with fine cheekbones, long legs and boyish hair she is very striking and seemingly out of reach for her childhood friend Lucas (Antar Machado). She’s already looking out for the older young men who visit the community. Lucas is a budding guitarist and Sofía plays the accordion. Her father is a luthier. Her mother is absent but expected at the New Year’s Eve party which is the endpoint of the narrative. 10 year-old Clara (Magdalena Tótoro) is the third central character, a kind of bridge between the older and younger children in the community. Clara’s pregnant mother is a well-known actor who has to sign autographs when she is out and about.
I’m certainly in agreement with the reviewers who praise the performances and the cinematography by Inti Briones as well as Dominga Sotomayor’s direction. Although the film is not directly concerned with politics, it is definitely concerned with social class (though the director does not talk about this, so it is my reading rather than a stated intention). This manifests itself in the several ways in which this distinctly middle-class artistic community rubs up against local people in the foothills of the Andes. In one specific example there is a tricky interaction with a family of indigenous people. In other instances the commune suffers break-ins and someone tampers with the water supply. The hinterland of Santiago is not 1960s California and middle-class communes are not universally welcomed. This scenario has echoes in some other Latin American films I’ve seen over the last few years. These artists are not as arrogant and aggressive as the wealthy middle-class ‘Europeans’ in other Latin American narratives but they still represent the colonial/post-colonial ‘masters’.
Too Late to Die Young has been acquired by the UK independent distributor ‘day for night’ (which also acquired Sotomayor’s earlier film Thursday Till Sunday (Chile-Netherlands 2012) so it’s possible it will get a limited release before appearing on DVD. I stick by my comments above re the difficulties the film poses for audiences but as a rather beautiful art film I would recommend Too Late to Die Young, not least for the performance by Demian Hernández who sings her version of ‘Eternal Flame’ by the Bangles (a worldwide hit in 1989). If you can engage with the film’s sense of community, you will have a good time watching it. The Press Notes offer an interesting read after you’ve seen the film. Also useful is this interview recorded at Locarno which reveals something else about the production which I was too dumb to spot immediately, but which will probably become a talking point when the film is released.
Girls of the Sun was screened at Cannes this year as part of the Official Competition. It was one of only three films directed by women in the main competition in this year of #MeToo. Unfortunately, while the other two women (Alice Rohrwacher and Nadine Labaki) were both genuine contenders for the big prize with Happy as Lazzaro and Capernaum, Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun was given something of a ‘thumbs down’ by the Cannes critics. I would like to have refuted their putdown, but I have to admit that the film has flaws (not helped by Screen 5 at the Vue suffering sound problems again).
The ‘girls’ of the title are actually women who have joined the Kurdish military in order to fight to liberate their home town which was taken by Daesh. With their husbands and fathers executed, the women and their children were kidnapped and then the young boys were taken to be trained as Daesh fighters. The women, who subsequently escaped, were then recruited for the fight. It’s a harrowing and important story which deserves to be more widely known – see this report on Kurdish women in the Peshmerga. The film was shot in Georgia and the central role is taken by Golshifteh Farahani, the Iranian actor who was so good in About Elly (Iran 2009) but who later left for France and who has subsequently appeared in international films. Farahani plays the role of Bahar, the commander of what the promo material calls a ‘batallion’ of female soldiers. In fact by the time the fighting proper begins this appears to be reduced to more like a small squad of less than ten.
Eva Husson, making only her second cinema feature as writer-director makes a number of important strategic decisions which perhaps seemed a good idea at the time but which I think perhaps didn’t quite work out as she planned. First she decided to present her story as a non-linear narrative with a series of flashbacks woven into the main narrative showing how the women were first kidnapped and how some escaped. At the end of the film we saw possibly the same explosion as at the beginning – which Keith suggested meant that everything was actually a flashback to two different time periods. He may well be correct. I confess at the beginning I was trying to cope with the loud and unfortunately distorting soundtrack comprising rather bombastic music scored by Husson’s regular collaborator, the American musician Morgan Kibby. The second choice was to include the character of a French war correspondent Mathilde played by Emmanuelle Bercot (who I last saw in Mon Roi, 2015). Bercot is a powerful figure (with six directorial credits) and in the film’s opening sequence her character seems to be the protagonist. But in time we realise that Mathilde’s role is mainly to observe/witness the story of the female fighters. Since there is a sub-genre of ‘journalist under fire’ pictures with examples from Hollywood, European and ‘international’ cinemas, I found this a little confusing – as if Eva Husson was not quite sure what to do with her character while the audience is expecting the journalist to become an active agent in the narrative. The journalist’s role seems to be partly as listener when Bahar tells the women’s story. She also enables us to see how dangerous war reporting is during this kind of close fighting.
I don’t want to give the impression that this is a ‘bad film’. Golshifteh Farahani and the other women are convincing fighters and the action scenes are exciting enough. There is a strong sense of this being the story of women literally observed by a woman and that’s fine. I just had the nagging feeling that it wasn’t working as well as it should. It’s perhaps significant that at one point (or was it soon after the film ended?) I was reminded of the Bollywood action epic earlier this year with Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif which imagined a similar scenario with women needing to be rescued from a terrorist stronghold in Iraq. Katrina Kaif’s ‘super spy’ is very impressive in taking out so many black-clad warriors with her choreographed martial arts techniques. This is a very silly film but actually quite entertaining. Girls of the Sun is very serious (rightly so) but a bit clunky by comparison. I remembered later that Agnès Poirier had written an angry piece in the Guardian during the Cannes Festival in which she calls the film exploitative and argues that is not a feminist film since the two lead characters are defined mostly by motherhood rather than by their political activity. She was defending film critics who had called out against the film from the #MeToo activists who blamed poor reviews on male film critics. She has a point but perhaps both sides of the argument need to cool down a bit. Eva Husson’s background suggests an intelligent and talented woman from a family steeped in anti-fascist action. She won’t have attempted to exploit Peshmerga women – but perhaps the script needed a bit more development?
Is there any country in the world with a higher batting average in films produced than Palestine? It’s not even technically a country but an occupied land which, as the funding sources listed above indicate, needs all the help it can get. Yet every Palestinian film I’ve seen has been well worth watching and many of them have been excellent. Annemarie Jacir has made three of the best Palestinian features as director, she also writes and produces (see Speed Sisters) and she acted as curator of the ‘Dreams of A Nation’ Palestinian Film Festival in 2002. She’s a phenomenon.
She wrote and directed Wajib and it is a brilliantly conceived narrative with fabulous performance by the two leads, the real-life father and son actors Mohammad and Saleh Bakri. Palestine is a small country with many people and many more living in exile, as refugees or migrants. The West Bank and Gaza are strips of land a few miles across and on the West Bank penetrated by Israeli settlements. So the obvious solution is . . . a road movie! Not only that, but a road movie set entirely in the Christian Arab community of the small city of Nazareth, the largest Arab city within the state of Israel after its capture by Israeli forces in 1948. This is truly a narrative of a fecund imagination. It’s also unusual as a narrative with a plot that only covers a few hours – though the story depends on events over many years.
The starting point is the ‘wajib’ or ‘duty’ of Abu Shadi in delivering by hand all the invites to his daughter’s wedding on the Saturday before Christmas. Abu Shadi is not a well man and there are a lot of stairs to climb. Fortunately, his son Shadi has arrived from Italy and the two drive slowly around the city in the family’s old Volvo. Everybody needs imagination living as a kind of prisoner in an occupied city. Abu Shadi is a teacher who has seemingly taught most of the young men he meets has had to ‘keep face’ by inventing stories about his son’s life in Italy but now with a son baffled to learn that he’s meant to be something he isn’t, it’s got a lot trickier. Any single man like Shadi is bound to be asked questions about why he hasn’t married and to be offered every eligible daughter.
I wonder if the slightly smaller audience that the film attracted for its single showing in Hebden Bridge was a result of its relatively low-key presentation of the politics of occupation? We are used in the UK to Palestinian films that involve direct conflict with the Israeli state in some way – often through the military or settlers or movement restrictions. Setting the action in Nazareth doesn’t mean that such issues are not important, but that they are expressed in different ways. There is actually a political discourse but in one sense it is developed in quite subtle ways and in another it is played out in the generational difference between father and son and between ‘staying’ and exile/migration.
I can imagine a similar film being described as a ‘bitter-sweet comedy’ and Wajib does have many small moments of humour, mostly arising from the interactions with friends and relatives who receive the invites. The father-son relationship also functions as a universal story so you don’t need to know that much about life in Nazareth to appreciate the film, but it is so much richer if you delve through the small incidents for their deeper meanings. The father-son relationship does reach a climactic moment which is confidently handled and the film ends at what for me was the perfect moment. To avoid spoilers I haven’t discussed the other characters – present or absent – but be assured there is plenty to enjoy across 95 minutes. Annemarie Jacir’s previous film, When I Saw You (2012) is a must see and is fortunately available in the UK on DVD. Saleh Bakri appears in a lead role in that film and also in Salt of this Sea (2008) which is only on a Region 1 DVD.
SPOILER! The trailer below starts of well, giving a good sense of the ‘feel’ of the film – but then gives away an important plot point. You’ve been warned!
This film took 20 years to be seen because the post-’68 Soviet-backed Czechslovakia government unsurprisingly didn’t like it. The film was Drahomíra Vihanová’s feature debut and the political fallout meant she only directed two more fiction films and they were after the end of the Cold War; she died two years ago. The film is based on Jiří Křenek’s autobiographical story, about a bored officer who wakes with a hangover regretting he’d spent all his money boozing, who spends the day wallowing in self pity.
Although he doesn’t do anything all day the film is incident packed with banality: swatting flies, killing rats, affectionately chatting to a young girl (a neighbour). Although the film is not expressionist, it is a representation of Arnost’s (Ivan Palúch) mental state which, in the days when going to church was the prime Sunday activity, was unlikely to be full of joie de vivre particularly with a regretted hangover. It’s part of the Time Frame strand of LIFF2018 where the films’ plots cover no more than 24 hours; though A Squandered Sunday chronology is sometimes confusing. The film starts with a memory of his mother’s funeral and a statement – by a girlfriend? – that he is ‘too far way’. This ‘far awayness’, it becomes clear, is ennui, not one precipitated solely by middle age but also by the Soviet invasion of 1968. Flashbacks to military lectures about nuclear annihilation give Arnost’s ennui a political dimension. When he wakes up Arnost puts on his radio and hears of natural disasters in Italy and Morocco. Clearly, it isn’t just his life that is shit.
Vihanová doesn’t present this in a straightforward way; after all everything is filtered through the disturbed consciousness of Arnost. He looks out of his window several times and there’s always a dog digging a hole next to a blind man. Or is it the same moment many times? She also favours Eisensteinean montage of repeating the same event in rapid succession. Confusion is fed by the repeating shot of the young woman we saw at the start who is mirrored by the young pre-pubescent neighbour and the middle-aged barmaid who wants to marry him. Are they the same person or three ages of women or three characters? Answer: probably all three.
This uncertainty, along with the formal devices, situate Squandered Sunday firmly in the Czech ‘new wave’ and, in a scene where Arnost finds himself interrogating two female sunbathers who’d wandered onto military property, it’s as if the protagonists of Daisies have shown up to wreak more havoc. Their sexy irreverence plant Arnost into even more misery. The absurdism of the film is typically Czech and is perfect for puncturing the self-importance of officialdom. In the UK this was likely to be couched in humour, such as the Carry On series, but in Czechoslovakia it was much more painful as it has an existential edge that although you can laugh you know it won’t cure anything.
There a number of translations of the title. The subtitles at the screening suggested A Wasted Sunday, others include Deadly Sunday and Killing a Sunday. It doesn’t matter what it’s called, it is a classic of the Czech new wave.
Happy as Lazzaro was the joint winner of the script prize at Cannes this year. It’s due to arrive in the UK in the Spring of 2019, I think. I don’t usually book to see films like this which are sure to be released widely, but this screening was in the right place at the right time and the writer-director Alice Rohrwacher was present to introduce and discuss her film. Ms Rohrwacher is as entertaining a speaker as her films are life-affirming and very wonderful. There are no spoilers below but I hope I can whet your appetite for this glorious piece of film magic.
I’ve seen and enjoyed both of the director’s first two films and she appears to be most interested in characters who are in one sense ‘marginal’ but also ‘magical’ in that they attract attention, usually in a positive sense, at least for the underprivileged. Corpo Celeste (2011) focuses on a young girl who arrives back in Southern Italy after 10 years away and confronts her church and family at the time of her first communion. The Wonders (2014) also focuses on a young girl who is the most dynamic member of a group of migrant smallholders in the countryside around Viterbo in Central Italy. Happy as Lazzaro is set in the same region.
Lazzaro is a young man of 19 or 20 who lives in an isolated community – a village in the hills cut off from the world when a road bridge collapses. Around fifty people live in this isolated spot, working the land and producing cash crops for the landowner, a Marquesa known as the ‘Tobacco Queen’. Tobacco leaves and the other crops are transported to market with great difficulty every few months and life in the village goes on undisturbed. Lazzaro is almost angelic in appearance with wide open eyes and a ready smile. He will do anything for anybody and is consequently exploited by all the villagers, but he doesn’t seem to mind and since there is no wealth held by the villagers, it is only his time and energy that is used. But when the Marquesa comes to the village to stay in the crumbling villa for a few days, bringing her son Tancredi, roughly the same age as Lazzaro, the two develop an odd friendship with the naïve Lazzaro agreeing to Tancredi’s suggestions. When the ‘inciting incident’ takes place it is a long way into the narrative and, in the unusual structuring of events, this incident changes the feel and tone of the film completely.
I’m not going to spoil the narrative and I hope you can manage to see the film without any knowledge of what might happen, so that you can enjoy the full experience of what is a marvellous film. All I’ll say is that there are elements of what some might call ‘magic realism’ with the intervention of a wolf. Wolves have been ‘re-wilded’ in several parts of Europe but in Italy the original wolf population survived attempts at extermination and they now number around 500 along the ‘spine’ of the Apennines. This means that the wolf that appears could be ‘real’ or metaphorical and that’s perhaps the key to the fantastical elements in this film. In the Press Notes, Alice Rohrwacher tells us:
Lazzaro Felice is the story of a lesser sanctity, with no miracles, no powers or superpowers, without special effects. It is the sanctity of living in this world without thinking ill of anyone and simply believing in human beings. Because another way was possible, the way of goodness, which men have always ignored but which always reappears to question them. Like something that might have been but that we’ve never ever wanted.
Lazzaro is the figure of sanctity and what he eventually does is to expose exploitation and the new inequality in Italy between the urban rich and the rural poor, between those with material wealth and those without (including the migrant communities). The film doesn’t lecture us but instead initially entrances us and then reveals a harsh reality.
The film depends heavily on the central performance by the remarkable Adriano Tardiolo as Lazzaro. There seems to be a slight difference between the Press Notes and what Alice Rohrwacher told us in the Q&A, but I think it’s clear that Tardiolo is a young man discovered in a college in Orvieto with no acting experience and initially no real desire to appear in a film. It might be supposed that it was relatively straightforward to ask him to smile all the time and say very little, but I think there must be much more to it than that and the performance under Rohrwacher’s direction is absolutely convincing. During the Q&A a confident questioner told the director that she was drawing on the work of three famous Italian directors (which he named) and asked her to comment on why she chose them. She replied with a smile that she had been told by many people that she had drawn on a whole long list of famous Italian directors and proceeded to name several. Happy as Lazzaro is completely an Alice Rohwacher film but several scenes do remind us of the history of Italian cinema and in particular the impact of neo-realism in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The technical credits for the film also suggest a conscious attempt to remind us of an earlier period of cinema. The mostly female crew (including Hélène Louvart as cinematographer) were working with Super 16mm film. Alice Rohrwacher says this, “wasn’t made for reasons of style or nostalgia but out of enchantment with a fantastic technology that influences one’s method of working”. But she did decide to use a slightly cropped version of the 1.66:1 aspect ratio common as a widescreen compromise in European cinema. The film is listed as ‘1.63:1’ with the corners masked as rounded, suggesting a technique from silent cinema. The other intriguing aspect of the production is that tempesta, the main production company (of producer Carlo Cresto-Dina), used new production techniques:
. . . ‘EcoMuvi’, the protocol of environmental sustainability for the film industry created by tempesta. EcoMuvi, first in Europe, is a real“ production process” that can indicate the best solutions to achieve energy savings and environmental sustainability in film production. Not just compensation but anactive step-by-step procedure tomake films with lighter impact on our planet. Thanks to Ecomuvi 10 tons of CO2 were saved in pre-production and production.
Happy as Lazzaro gave me one of the most enjoyable and encouraging afternoons in a cinema that I experienced in a very long time. The trailer is careful not to spoil the narrative surprises.
The first of this year’s London Film Festival offerings that I was able to catch was introduced by a festival advisor as something exotic – a film from Belarus. And indeed, Belarus does produce very few films. It’s very much an ‘in between’ part of the world – in between Poland and Russia, the Baltic states and Ukraine. Throughout history it seems to have been occupied by its neighbours and the present state dates only from the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1990. It is known for its autocratic president in power since 1994 and has some of the lowest international standings for press freedom and general democracy indicators. A place to get away from perhaps? That is certainly true for the film’s protagonist Velya (Alina Nasibullina). The year is 1996 and Velya, a young woman in her early 20s is determined to acquire a US visa, allowing her to travel to Chicago, the home of ‘house music’. Velya is a law graduate but would prefer to be a DJ rather than practise law.
During a spirited intro and a Q&A after the screening the seemingly appreciative audience learned that the writer-director Darya Zhuk was actually drawing on her own experiences in the 1990s. She did get to the US to study film and has now been able to find funding outside the state system to make her début feature. Crystal Swan was programmed by LFF in its ‘Laugh’ strand. I find these strands annoying and often misleading. I certainly smirked a few times and might even have laughed out loud on occasion, but this isn’t what I would see as a simple comedy. Instead it is more akin to the kind of social satire that is often found in Eastern European cinema and I was reminded of several films, but most of all a Romanian film from 2011, Adalbert’s Dream. That film was set in 1986 before the end of Soviet-style communism but the social satire is similar.
The basic premise of the plot is that Velya attempts to forge a letter presented to the US Embassy purporting to confirm that she is a manager at a small crystalware glass factory (she buys a letterhead for the factory’s stationery). But she makes a mistake with the phone number of the factory and when the Embassy official tells her that they will phone the factory to confirm details, she realises the hole she has fallen into. She must travel to the town known as ‘Crystal’ and find the house with the telephone fitting the number on her application and attempt to intercept the Embassy’s call. Cue general mayhem in small-town Belarus, where the household in question is preparing for the wedding of the son of the house. Just like weddings in the North of England, a wedding in Belarus brings out the best and the worst of guests, especially when fuelled by vodka.
I was engaged by the film and I enjoyed it up to a point. There aren’t many dull moments and most of the time there is genuine vitality in the storytelling. For a début film it works well and there is a great performance in the lead role. Alina Nasibullina is intelligent, attractive and vivacious with her colourful outfits, but the narrative includes very dark moments as well as moments of slapstick and good humour. In this sense it is a film for the #MeToo generation. Darya Zhuk told us that when she accompanied film screenings in the East of Belarus (i.e. closer to Russia) she did get a significant number of negative comments (about insulting the Motherland), but when she screened the film in the capital Minsk and in the West of the country it was generally well-received. This makes sense. The script doesn’t pull punches. The men in Crystal behave badly after too much vodka and there is an odd sub-plot involving Velya’s mother (the curator of a Minsk museum celebrating the success of Minsk’s population in the fight against the Nazis) and Velya’s dopehead boyfriend. During the Q&A the film’s supporters were vocal in their praise and I suspect Crystal Swan might do well in the US. I doubt it will get a UK release but you never can tell. The title, by the way, refers to one of the products of the factory which since independence has laid off workers and paid compensation in the form of glassware. The only real hope in the film is that the youngest boy in the Crystal family may turn out OK. Otherwise the film has an open ending.
As the trailer below indicates, the film is presented in Academy ratio. I think the director said she thought this was appropriate to re-produce the way she saw things in the 1990s before TVs in Belarus went widescreen. The trailer also features the bright and optimistic colours that Velya wears.