Category: Melodrama

Queen of Hearts (Dronningen, Denmark-Sweden 2019)

Peter, Anne and Gustav

Queen of Hearts is currently streaming on MUBI in the UK, but is also available on Sky and Apple TV/iTunes. It appears to have been released by Thunderbird in the UK in February of this year so presumably it got lost somehow during the first UK lockdown? The BFI’s digital Sight & Sound archive has a very iffy search engine and I couldn’t find an entry for Queen of Hearts. This is very odd since the film won many festival prizes around the world and has received very good reviews. If you get the chance to see it, do take the plunge. It’s a compelling watch.

This film is hard to analyse in detail while avoiding major spoilers, although I can see an argument that spoilers don’t really matter since the power of the film is in the performance of the central player and the presentation of the fictional world. Danish cinema is one of my favourite institutions, mainly because it offers some terrific melodramas. MUBI promotes this film through an invocation of Douglas Sirk and the suspense of a Hitchcockian thriller. That’s a strong call but the film is up to it. I did wonder if it’s one of those films that provides plenty of talking points but then might begin to disintegrate under too much analysis. But however it might fare under deep analysis, it is certainly gripping the first time round.

Anne and Gustav with the girls by the river

I won’t spoil the narrative apart from mentioning the one central act I can’t avoid. The central character is Anne played by Trine Dyrholm. Most recently on UK screens in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune (2016), she had an early role in Vinterberg’s Festen (Denmark 1998), in my view the best of the ‘Dogme’ films and a film that has some tenuous links to Queen of Hearts. Anne is a partner in a law firm she started with an older man (perhaps her teacher or mentor?) and she specialises in cases concerning young people and abuse. She’s married to Peter (Magnus Krepper) a doctor of some kind. We learn little about Peter’s job – Anne is our prime focus. The couple have twin seven-year old girls and they live in a spacious modern house with access to a river and woods and no visible neighbours. We assume that the house is somewhere in the Greater Copenhagen area. They are clearly wealthy but there is a coolness between them. Their girls seem bright and are enjoying their lifestyle. The narrative begins after an unusual credits sequence which eventually reveals Anne walking with her dog in the woods. Quickly the narrative will produce two parallel ‘disruptive’ events. Peter is unhappy that Anne brings a client home – something she has promised not to do. He is about to go and collect Gustav, his 17 year-old son from his previous marriage. Gustav has been expelled from his school in Sweden where his mother lives.

Gustav doesn’t settle well in his new home at first, but gradually Anne brings him round and he becomes a friend to the two girls. But something about Gustav attracts Anne in a different way, especially when he brings a girlfriend back one night. Gradually Anne is drawn towards him in a dangerous way and as she becomes more distanced from Peter, desire for Gustav becomes too much – with all the tragic outcomes that you may imagine.

Tryst in the woods

Queen of Hearts is written by May el-Toukhy and Maren Louise Käehne. May el-Toukhy directs, supported by striking CinemaScope photography by Jasper Spanning and music by the Swedish film composer Jon Ekstrand. They all deserve congratulations. One review I’ve seen suggests that the presentation of the house and its grounds is reminiscent of the similar use of the house at the centre of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (South Korea 2019). The two films are very different but the point about the house and grounds makes sense. This one is approached by descending a narrow walled driveway. Queen of Hearts is a family melodrama and much of the narrative is set in the house and its grounds, by the river and the woods. Both Anne and Peter are very busy but there are some family celebrations at the house. Anne’s closest friend is her sister Lina. The photography and score convey an atmosphere of encroaching danger, much of it focused on images of the woods and one specific tree as seen from the house. As well as the score there are several instances of diegetic music in the film. Melodrama needs music, but I know some contemporary audiences struggle with heavy, symbolic choices. Queen of Hearts announces its intentions when in the middle of a drinks party on the terrace with Peter’s friends, Anne gets up and plays ‘Tainted Love’ by Soft Cell rather loudly and dances around the table.

Intimacy in the house . . .

The BBFC gave Queen of Hearts an ’18’ Certificate for the UK. In Denmark it is only a 15 but Danish cinema has a long history of tolerance for sexual display. In the US the film is ‘Not Rated’. The sex scenes are carefully shot to deflect suggestions of pornography but they are much ‘stronger’ than is common in mainstream Anglo-American cinema. Trine Dyrholm is a fearless performer. I note that my review of The Commune I wrote “She gives her all” and that is similarly the case here. There are some strange comments in the reviews I’ve read (in one Anne is described as a woman at “a drab stage in her life – the transition from middle age to elderhood”). Anne is in her late 40s! From what I’ve read about the Danish ‘age of consent’ legal framework, a relationship between and adult and a 17 year-old would not be an offence were it not that Anne is Gustav’s step-mother. What makes it worse is Anne’s other position as a counsellor of young people in precisely this situation. The narrative does offer us a moment when Anne wonders whether she is a monster. The power of the film for me is that Anne can come across as a woman to be admired and also as a despicable human being. Discovering the second doesn’t invalidate the first, though it is shocking (and not because of her desire). At one point she admits that the best things that happen are also the the things that should never happen. The only thing that annoyed me in the film were the throwaway lines of dialogue that imply that Anne came from a poorer background and that something bad happened in her childhood. We do know that her father died when she was only 11, but I’m not sure about the inference that she was abused. My other thought is that the film, like other Danish melodramas, does seem to critique the coldness and sterility of upper middle-class life. This increases my feeling that Anne has herself been ‘fractured’ so that her humanity can be so easily and tragically taken away from her. Can I bear to watch the film again?

Here’s a trailer. It does reveal a little more about the events.

John Ford #4: Three Godfathers (US 1948)

This film is both like and unlike other John Ford Westerns. Many of the Ford stock company are present in the cast and crew and the film is dedicated to ‘The Memory of Harry Carey, Bright Star of the early western Sky’. Carey had starred in the first two adaptations of the story by Peter B. Kyne in 1916 and 1919. Ford directed the 1919 film. Carey became one of Ford’s closest friends and an important actor and mentor on Westerns. He died in 1947. Ford then invited his son, Harry Carey Jr. to appear in Three Godfathers and he would go on to become a regular member of the company. The same story was used also in 1921 (Ford Again), 1929 (William Wyler) and 1936. Ford’s status in 1948 meant that Argosy Pictures was able to arrange distribution via MGM with a substantial budget including Technicolor. The photography was by Winston C Hoch, who would go on to win an Academy Award for his Technicolor cinematography on She Wore a Yellow Ribbon the next year. I have to say that I think Three Godfathers is even more beautiful in its use of colour than the later film – though it might simply be a down to the better quality DVD from Warner Video. The title by the way was originally 3 Godfathers in North America but I’ve always known it by its UK title. In Quebec it was known as Les fils du désert – I wonder what the Laurel and Hardy film was known as in France?

The dedication to Harry Carey Sr.

If you don’t know the story, it must be quite something to be adapted six times you might think. It is actually very simple as a kind of Christian fable, a take on the Christmas story. John Wayne, Pedro Armendiráz and Harry Carey Jr. are a trio of, presumably not very proficient, bank-robbers. After a raid on the bank in Welcome, Arizona they are chased by a posse led by the local sheriff Perley Sweet (Ward Bond) and end up stranded in the desert without water. Here they find a woman in a covered wagon about to give birth. Her husband has disappeared and I won’t spoil any more of the story. You can work out the plot by simply referring to the film’s title. I first saw the film in the early 1970s and I couldn’t remember anything except the sand dunes, John Wayne and the baby.

‘The Kid’ (Harry Carey Jr.) accepts the hospitality of Mae Marsh as the wife of Ward Bond’s Perley Sweet

Escaping to the desert . . .

An iconic image of the trio in the desert, framed by Hoch but under Ford’s instructions

This was one of Ford’s favourite films and there are a number of stories associated with it, several emanating from Harry Carey Jr. who was interviewed by Lindsay Anderson in 1978 and later wrote his own memoir. Carey’s father and Ford eventually fell out or perhaps simply couldn’t cope with each other on set, although Carey Sr. appeared for Ford again in The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936). Each thought the other didn’t want to work with them. Ford arranged for a stunt rider to pose on Carey’s own horse for the dedication shot. He told Olive Carey that he would use Harry Carey Jr. on 3 Godfathers on the day that Harry Snr. died. Harry Jr. had already worked in small roles in a couple of films but Ford gave him an ‘Introducing Harry Carey Jr.’ credit. He also persuaded him to sing in the film. Harry Carey Jr. reveals that Ford actually treated him quite harshly on set, but taught him very well in terms of what was required. Harry Carey Jr.’s other story concerns Pedro Armendiráz. It appears that Ford always chose costume items for characters in Westerns. Armendiráz, who was a very popular and celebrated actor in Mexico, had already appeared for Ford in The Fugitive and Fort Apache and he turned up for the shoot in a tailored outfit fit for Mexico’s leading actor. Ford told him the outfit was completely unsuitable and chose one himself. Armendiráz had made a fatal error and after this film he never worked for Ford again. Ford was in charge and took all the decisions. You didn’t try to make your own. The stock company understood this and were rewarded with future parts. As well as Carey, Wayne and Bond, Ben Johnson was on this shoot in a minor role, Mildred Natwick was the woman having the baby and Mae Marsh was Ward Bond’s wife. Jane Darwell, Hank Worden and Jack Pennick also had small roles. This was definitely a stock company picture. Winton C. Hoch was new to the company and he quickly learned not to make too many suggestions to Ford.

Mildred Natwick as the mother who chooses her ‘3 godfathers’

John Wayne with the baby

Jane Darwell and Ward Bond at the railway halt

The use of the stock company almost exclusively in this film, coupled with the absence of Ford’s usual interest in exploring myth and the history of the West in his films of this period, means that audiences only have two choices. One is to dive into the sentimentalism and religious celebration of the Christmas story and the other is to look for meanings in the relationships of the familiar Ford actors and characters. I can usually cope with Ford’s sentimentalism but on this film I did find it too much in the last section. I’m happy to simply enjoy the playing and the cinematography. The players are generally very good. Some like Mae Marsh and Mildred Natwick seemed to me to be eccentric or deliberately provocative casting decisions and Jane Darwell is definitely ‘excessive’ as a man-hungry woman looking after a remote railway halt. To add to the melodrama (a comedy melodrama of redemption?), Ford uses songs both diegetically and as part of the score. Richard Hageman’s score uses ‘The Streets of Laredo’ as a motif in the opening titles and Harry Carey Jr.’s rendition of ‘Gather at the River’ (one of Ford’s favourite hymns) is matched in the closing sequence with a choral version of ‘Bringing in the Sheaves’ by the women of the town (a more joyous crowd than the women of the town driving out Claire Trevor in Stagecoach). The whole town then gives a second rendition of ‘Gather at the River’ to close the film. 3 Godfathers was a hit with audiences even if some critics didn’t like it.

The Land Girls (UK-France 1998)

The Land Girls, from left: Prue (Anna Friel), Ag (Rachel Weisz) and Stella (Catherine McCormack),

This is the second of my ‘Home Front’ study texts, following Another Time, Another Place. The Land Girls was quite a high-profile release in 1998 (a reported £6 million budget – double the UK median budget at the time) with a number of special screenings set up for former members of the ‘Women’s Land Army’ in the Second World War. It is one of several TV and film representations of ‘Land Girls’ and was based on a 1995 novel by Angela Huth, who was one of the writers of the adaptation alongside director David Leland. I enjoyed the film on release and used it on an evening class. I was disappointed by the general lack of interest from critics which I put down to its use of comedy within a melodrama structure. Critics generally don’t rate comedy (unless the films are extremely popular) and many British critics don’t really understand melodrama at all.

Potato picking

Coming home in the early morning from a dance

The plot is fairly straightforward. In 1941 a Dorset farmer, John Lawrence (Tom Georgeson), is being pressurised by Ministry officials to increase his output during wartime. He eventually agrees to pay a fee to receive three Land Girls and the film begins with their arrival. We quickly realise that two of the ‘girls’ (they are all in their twenties), Ag (Rachel Weisz) and Stella (Catherine McCormack) are experienced and have known each other for some time. They have worked to get this posting so that Stella can be near Southampton where her Navy boyfriend is stationed. The third and younger woman, Prue (Anna Friel) is new to farm work and reveals herself to be a hairdresser from Manchester (a third of Land Girls in the 1940s were from cities). The mixed farm has plenty of work and Joe (Stephen Mackintosh), the farmer’s son, plans to join the RAF to train as a pilot. He hasn’t been conscripted because farming is a ‘reserved occupation’. Though he has a fiancée in the WAAF, Joe is a young man (he’s actually older than the three ‘girls’) who proves attractive to all three Land Girls for different reasons.

Joe and Prue making hay . . .

Ag with her Canadian (Michael Mantas)

David Leland has had a long career as actor, writer and director. He’s probably best known as the director of Wish You Were Here (UK 1987), a joyful and provocative film about a young girl’s ‘awakening’ in a 1950s seaside town starring Emily Lloyd and earlier as the writer of a trio of TV films about youth and education. In 1986 he wrote the hit film Mona Lisa. I think some of the sheer vitality and of those earlier works is evident in The Land Girls. The film was was very well cast and all the players are very good indeed. Catherine McCormack has the lead role in the sense that her voiceover introduces the three young women’s arrival at the farm and also introduces the coda at the end of the film. I think it’s a shame that her two co-stars here have gone on to have more high-profile careers in film and television, though her Wikipedia page suggests that she prefers the stage to the film camera. Our loss, I think. In a sense all three Land Girls are socially ‘typed’ and the roles correspond with the actors’ personae. Ag is a ‘blue-stocking’ Oxbridge scholar and Stella is the daughter of a bank manager.

Lighting the Xmas pudding with Mrs Lawrence (Maureen O’Brien)

I categorise this film as a ‘rural romance melodrama’ with a Home Front narrative structure. Most Home Front narratives are female-centred and the romance possibilities come about because a group of strangers ‘disturb’ a settled and socially conservative rural community. Often, the strangers are men, either from an Allied army (usually, Canadians or Americans in a British context, but also Poles, French etc.) or POWs (German or Italian). The Land Girls (and the munitions workers in other films) provide a female disturbance. ‘Romance’ becomes a sexual liaison because it is wartime and every relationship could be short-lived. These relationships drive the melodrama which runs up against the taboos of rural society. The disruption is presented through uses of music and photography marked by use of landscape, compositions and spectacular events including the appearance of enemy aircraft. In a film like The Land Girls, all these are present and more. Although the tone is light and comedic sequences are including, there are also dark scenes. The script is also careful to show that the Land Girls, especially Ag and Stella had already learned many farm-working skills and are able to improve the farm’s output.

Stella prepares to meet her naval boyfriend

The ‘test’ of melodramas like this is to be found in the narrative resolution in which we expect to learn something about how the women at its centre emerge from their adventures. The assumption is in a wartime film that the women will be changed and possibly that the changes for these women will be representative of potential changes for all women across society. Historically we know that many of the changes were nullified to an extent in the post-war period for various reasons (slightly different in the UK and the US) as men were demobbed. The 1950s are often seen as a return to more socially conservative norms, at least until the mid 1950s. It will depend to some extent on when the films were made. Millions Like Us (UK 1943) as a wartime film is optimistic about ‘winning the peace’ and closing some of the inequality gaps in British society. Films made after the war, in the context of austerity are more circumspect. The Land Girls, made 45 years later is likely to have absorbed some of the later social changes, expressed particularly through the character of Prue. Like some other Home Front dramas, The Land Girls does involve a coda in which we meet the five women from the narrative (the three girls, Mrs Lawrence and Janet who was Joe’s fiancée) a few years after the war. It’s an interesting addition which resolves some questions and leaves at least one open. As a melodrama ending it makes very good use of colour and costumes. I wish I knew more about the New Look and what followed in the early 1950s but this is a real visual treat. The idea of this coda reminds me that The Weaker Sex (UK 1948) has a slightly different strategy by offering a narrative that runs from 1944 through to 1948 in what I remember as a continuous narrative rather than a wartime narrative with a separate peacetime coda. I’m also reminded that Powell and Pressburger’s 1944 film A Canterbury Tale makes its female lead a Land Girl played by Sheila Sim.

Another Time, Another Place (UK 1983)

Italian POWs celebrating their freedom. The yellow circles were seen on all POW uniforms

I’m currently doing some work on ‘Home Front’ narratives, stories about wartime communities and especially the disruptions they experience. Another Time, Another Place is a film that made a big impression on me when I saw it on release in 1983. One of the reasons for this is because I had been on holiday in the area where it was filmed only a few years earlier. It’s a story based on a book written by Jessie Kesson which was published at roughly the time when the film was released. Kesson was inspired by her own experiences as a farmer’s wife in North East Scotland from 1939 to 1951. Later she became a BBC radio producer.

Janie (centre of the three farmers’ wives) watches the POWs at work in the first few days and ignores the remarks of the tractor driver (Gregor Fisher)

The central character in Jessie Kesson’s story is ‘Janie’, the young wife of an older farmer on the Black Isle in the Summer of 1943. Janie is portrayed in a stunning performance by Phyllis Logan, making her début. The film is directed by Michael Radford and this was his cinema film début after several years in TV which included directing Phyllis Logan in The White Bird Passes as a younger Janie in an earlier story by Jessie Kesson, made for the BBC in 1980. Janie in the 1983 film is unhappy in a marriage which offers little joy and plenty of hard work. As the film narrative opens three Italian prisoners of war are arriving at Janie’s farm to be housed in the ‘pig-man’s bothy’, rudimentary accommodation at best. Janie has tried to clean it out and she welcomes three disparate characters, Paulo, Umberto and Luigi. Paulo is tall, dark and handsome, Umberto is quietly miserable with thick round glasses and Luigi looks lugubrious but is actually the liveliest of the three. Janie at last has something new to excite her. We might expect that Paulo would be the one she is attracted to and we will be surprised when it turns out to be Luigi.

Janie has the difficult and dangerous job of feeding the corn into the threshing machine

One of many beautiful landscape compositions . . .

Radford doesn’t spell everything out for us. It looks as if there are several farms which may each be tenancies and that there is a factor or agent in the form of ‘Findlay’. The farmers’ wives are expected to work collectively on harvesting and planting. Whether Janie’s husband works on his own patch isn’t clear but the couple certainly have their own livestock. The work looks very hard and the cinematography (by a young Roger Deakins) at first presents the area as remote, windswept and bleak. The Black Isle is not an ‘isle’ at all but a broad spit of land pushing out into the Moray Firth. In summer it can be very beautiful with the grain fields running down to the sea. There is no record of what makes it ‘black’ but since it is fertile farmland it may be the rich soil. The narrative follows the seasons and the celebrations – a ceilidh one night when Luigi watches Janie dancing and a Christmas party held by the Italians with singing and dancing. Janie is the only local present.

Janie and Luigi (Giovanni Mauriello)

As a Home Front narrative, my main interest here is in the ‘disturbance’ caused by the arrival of the Italians. Most of the locals are at first reluctant to accept the Italians. One woman in particular has a husband fighting in Italy at Monte Cassino (she ignores a POW protest that it is the Germans not the Italians who are the enemy in that famous conflict). Farming was a ‘reserved occupation’ in the UK in the Second World War. However, younger men under 25 in the farming community were initially allowed to volunteer and many did. Farmers on their own land were generally required to increase production and for this they needed all the women in the community and both Land Army recruits and POWs. One of the few younger men in Janie’s community is the tractor driver played by Gregor Fisher, a well-known figure in both film and TV in the UK, especially as ‘Rab C. Nesbitt’ in the popular sitcom named after the character which ran between 1988 and 2014. This character would be around 30 in 1943. Janie’s husband is in his late 30s/early 40s. Janie herself is in her mid-twenties.

Janie can’t help herself. She dreams about the Italians. Compared to the local men, Luigi might not be a big improvement in terms of his physical appearance, but he can sing very well and he knows how to seduce Janie. For Janie there is sexual desire and excitement but she knows that Luigi is only interested in a physical relationship. Nevertheless she does care about what happens to him and we worry that it will not end well. I won’t spoil the ending but I do disagree with many of the critics who seem to dismiss the ending as predictable. (It may be predictable, but that isn’t necessarily a weakness.) Home Front narratives are usually female-centred for the simple reason that women in wartime are likely to making more decisions for themselves and also working in key roles in society. In Janie’s case we could argue that she has discovered her own sexuality and her capacity to do something about it rather than relying on her husband. Many thousands of women did the same across Europe. It had consequences of course, including ‘mixed marriages’ and a rise in children without fathers – a major societal change in many countries. At the same time some women became more confident and assertive. Post-war, the (male) authorities would try to recuperate the patriarchy, but the changes would have a long-lasting impact.

Dancing is one pleasure that Janie enjoys for herself as well as for how it entertains the Italians

I enjoyed Another Time, Another Place as much, if not more, than when I watched it the first time. Michael Radford went on to have three further successful films, 1984, White Mischief (1987) and Il Postino (1994). His career continued with some other high profile films but nothing that attracted my attention. Phyllis Logan made more films but rarely in leading roles. Instead her career took her into TV drama where she had two big successes in Lovejoy (UK 1986-94), as ‘Lady Jane’ playing opposite Ian McShane as the titular character. I enjoyed episodes of that series very much. Logan appeared in many others and possibly her largest audience internationally came via Downton Abbey (2010-19). I can’t really comment on that. It seems a long way from Another Time, Another Place, which will remain for me a far better representation of her talent. Janie is the central figure of a romance melodrama. The ‘exaggeration’ of emotion in the film comes through in Janie’s dreams both when awake and asleep. It’s also there in the cinematography and the music – several songs in Italian by Luigi, the ceilidh and a plaintive score by John McLeod melded with the winds.

One of the four funders behind Another Time, Another Place was Channel 4 Productions which had started making its own films in 1982 for its new UK TV channel. Channel 4’s entry into the film market could be seen as one of the factors keeping British film culture alive in cinemas in the 1980s. Many films made for TV were released in cinemas. Another Time, Another Place was, as far as I know, always intended for cinema release (even though one of the other partners was Associated-Rediffusion, the UK TV company which lost its ITV franchise in 1968. What was it doing funding a film in 1983? Answers on a postcard please.

Another Time, Another Place can be streamed on BFI Player in the UK and free on Tubi TV in the US.

LFF 2020 #5: Shadow Country (Krajina ve stínu, Czech Republic 2020)

The christening at the start of the narrative. Marie is between her husband and her sister-in-law who holds the infant

This is one of the best films I’ve seen to present the real dangers inherent in nationalism and its inevitable decline into fascism between the late 1930s and the early 1950s. What is so remarkable about it is the humanist approach which is careful not to create monsters but instead to offer glimpses of the decent people who find themselves doing unspeakable things. I think that there are a couple of irredeemable characters and possibly one who is true to her beliefs throughout, but most are not simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’, just ‘ordinary folk’ whose behaviour becomes unacceptable in the extraordinary times. Director Bohdan Sláma told us in the Q&A that the script by Ivan Arsenyev drew on historical events but that the villagers were developed as fictional characters.

Marie’s German in-laws prepare to welcome their new status – but the armband has the swastika reversed

The narrative takes place in a village in the south of Bohemia, i.e the Western part of the state of Czechoslovakia, close to the Austrian border. When the new Republic was founded after the First World War and the break-up of the old Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Czechoslovakia found itself newly independent but with a significant German-speaking minority of over 20% of the total population. These were referred to as Sudeten Germans (named after local mountain ranges) and they were a majority in the new borderlands of the republic around the the Western, North-Western and South-Western parts of the country. Prior to 1918 these communities would have been in Germany or Austria. By the late 1930s and with the loud clamour of Nazi re-armament in Germany, the ‘Sudetenland’ began to make claims for the territories to be returned to Germany-Austria, especially after the Nazis forced the Anschluss on Austria. In the fictional village, the inhabitants voted to become German. Life became difficult for those maintaining their Czech identity and got worse when Germany annexed all of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Adults in the village could now remember living in Austria, then Czechoslovakia and now Nazi Germany.

The Germans arrive in the village

The main period of the war is only a relatively short section of the narrative, principally focusing on the fate of the Jewish family and whatever resistance was possible for the Czechs. More time is spent on the aftermath of the war in 1945 and then on into the early 1950s when further movements of people were still taking place. The film begins and ends with Marie (Magdaléna Borová). As the narrative begins her baby is being christened. She is from a Czech family but has married a German. The whole village celebrates but only a few months later her husband declares himself ‘German’ and though Marie protests, she is classified as German as well. In 1945 she is expelled from the village and forced to live for a time in the woods outside the town as Austria won’t accept her. Then she is taken back by the village but humiliated because of her German connections. She will be moved again and she embodies the struggle to remain true to yourself while those around you are less scrupulous. You feel she will survive and that she represents the strengths of Central European peoples who have had to suffer so many changes of borders and rulers.

Josef, who attempted resistance, returns from the concentration camp in 1945 and is welcomed close to the village

The film features an ensemble narrative, brilliantly choreographed in black and white ‘Scope by the director and cinematographer Divis Marek. Many shots are composed in depth during community gatherings. There are also several music performances and overall there is a real sense of a village culture with separate narrative strands for a large number of characters. The focus on events after 1945 is interesting but very painful to watch as the script cleverly demonstrates how a former principled resistance fighter is forced to act as part of the ‘restoring order’ directive and then later investigated for not following proper procedures. Alongside this we see a number of events that demonstrate the savage ironies of occupation, collaboration and ‘national renewal’. There is no moral superiority in the film as far as I could see.

Marie with her new baby is forced into the woods in 1945

I was a little surprised at the relatively low profile of the Czech Communist party and the absence of Russians after 1945 but this is possibly simply a result of my own ignorance of events in Czechoslovakia from 1945 onwards. The scope of Shadow Country as a narrative with a wealth of characters across a period of some 15 or more years suggests parallels with Edgar Reitz’s long TV serial Heimat in 1984. When Shadow Country ended I felt like I wanted to watch the next episode to find out what happened to the surviving villagers from the late 1930s during the 1950s and beyond. At the same time, I also felt that the film I’d just seen was a real warning for audiences in Western Europe and North America about how fascism can destroy lives and communities. Those seem like major achievements for the makers of Shadow Country and I hope that the film gets seen widely.

LFF 2020 #3: The Salt in Our Waters (Nonajoler Kabbo, Bangladesh-France 2020)

I think this is the fourth Bangladeshi film to appear on my film festival lists over the past couple of years and like the previous three this is both entertaining and informative. Writer-director Rezwan Shahriar Sumit has come through the film festival route (Berlinale 2008) and then the Tisch School of the Arts, NYU. This is his début feature.

Rudro (Titas Zia) is an artist in his early thirties from Dhaka who first meet at the quayside trying to get his large wooden crate shipped to the delta region of the south where he has arranged to stay in a remote fishing village to develop a project. The idea of using the village as a base came from his late father, a coastguard engineer who travelled through the delta. The village turns out to be very small, a dozen or so families, all linked to fishing for ilish, the prized national fish of Bangladesh. Fishing is dangerous in open boats  and especially so during the South-West monsoon which is the time when the shoals of fish are more abundant close to the shore.

Bashar’s family

Rudro’s landlord, Bashar (Ashok Bepari) has a young son and an older daughter Tunni who are quick to discover what is in Rudro’s crate and soon the boys in the village are taking part in art projects, especially trying their hand at modelling figures. This will prove problematic. The small community is in thrall to ‘the Chairman’, a seasoned fisherman who has travelled and installed himself as both local head man and imam. He helps to spread the idea that Rudro’s figures are ‘idols’ and that because of this, the community may be punished and the fish may not be found. The ‘contest’ between Rudro and the Chairman (Fazlur Rahman Babu) becomes the main driver of the narrative.

The Chairman addressing the village men

In the Q&A that followed the film, the director told us that the power of the Chairman and his use of Islam to condemn Rudro’s sculptures could be found in small communities like some of those in the delta – but not in Bangladesh generally. The Chairman tries to convince the fisher-folk that Rudro is the reason why the fish can’t be found and catches are small. It’s the age-old story of modernity vs. tradition. Rudro himself does nothing to prompt these attacks but he doesn’t realise the importance of Tunni’s advice that he shouldn’t try to talk to the young girls or the women in the community generally. She, on the other hand is very curious about him and I realised later that her relationship with Rudro, her father’s house guest, reminded me of two of the three stories by Rabindranath Tagore that Satyajit Ray adapted for his film Teen Kanya (Three Girls, 1961). Ray’s film is set in the same delta region in which two men from the city, who arrive for different specific purposes, become the object of attention from two different young girls.

Tunni and Rudro

Tunni (Tasnova Tamanna) is a bright young woman who is clearly intrigued by life in the city. In fact Sumit is careful in his presentation of all of the villagers and even the Chairman, though he is devious in how he tries to turn the community against Rudro, still retains enough human qualities to avoid becoming a typical ‘villain’. The director explained that he made several visits to the delta during the long preparations for the film. He also became aware of the implications of climate change in the region which is on the frontline for the first major impact of any rise in sea levels and for the increasing power of extreme weather.

Technical credits on the film are excellent, especially the cinematography of Chananun Chotrungroj who the director met via NYU. Her Thai background may have helped her capture the luminous shots of landscape and the villagers which can be seen in the trailer below. The performances are generally very good. Only the Chairman and his henchman are professional actors, I think. All the other roles are either non-professionals or relatively inexperienced film actors like those playing Rudro and Tunni. I haven’t found out the precise reason for the title of the film, though I am aware that ilish is a fish that lives in both the sea and river estuaries and that like the salmon it returns to the river to spawn. The balance between freshwater and salt water is central to the continued livelihood of the fishing villages.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching this film and it made me think longingly of visiting the delta – and eating ilsha (hilsa) cooked in a mustard sauce.