John Sayles has been away from UK cinema screens for a long time. I think Honeydripper was the last of his films to get a UK release back in 2008 . These days the ‘godfather of American Independent cinema’ is mostly based in Mexico it seems, or at least concerned with Spanish-language films. Casa de los babys is an earlier film made in Mexico, partly in English as well as Spanish. The film was never released in the UK but I bought a Region 1 DVD some time ago and finally managed to watch it. I wasn’t disappointed.
The ‘House of Babies’ of the title is a seaside hotel ‘somewhere in Latin America’. The country isn’t named but the location for the shoot is given as Acapulco. There are six ‘anglos/gringas’ who have come to this city in the hope of adopting a baby to take back to the US. Sayles has acquired a starry cast, no doubt attracted by his reputation for female-centred melodramas with a political edge. The Americans are Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mary Steenburgen, Marcia Gay Harden, Darryl Hannah, Lili Taylor and the Irish actor, Susan Lynch. The hotel they are staying in is run by the indomitable Rita Moreno.
The large ensemble cast is no surprise in a John Sayles film. He often writes screenplays which bring together several personal stories and this film is no exception. The criticism of Sayles’ films tends to have been that, because he usually edits his own films, he allows the blend of narratives to develop into a meandering multi-strand narrative. That’s certainly not the case here. He’s still the editor but the film is a concise 95 minutes and if anything is cut short rather than allowed to dawdle.
The focus is not just on the Americans but also on the local characters, a maid in the hotel, the hotel manager’s family, three young boys sleeping on the street, a 15 year-old pregnant girl, a student and an older man desperate to emigrate to Philadelphia (the ‘home of Liberty’ as he explains to the women). Each of these characters shares the spotlight at some point, allowing Sayles to explore the complex relationships between ‘North and South’, ‘Latin America’ and ‘Anglo America’. The six women do not necessarily get along. Nan (Marcia Gay Harden) is the most aggressive towards the locals, while most of the others are, perhaps naïvely friendly (naïve because the don’t speak Spanish), and grateful for the opportunity. Leslie (Lili Taylor) is the most sussed, a Jewish New Yorker and a single woman who speaks Spanish. Skipper (Darryl Hannah) is mistrusted by some of the others and seen as fitness-obsessed. But like most of the women she has a back story to be revealed.
I found the film entertaining and rewarding and, typically for Sayles, the narrative plays fair to all the characters, American or Mexican. Audiences might however feel short-changed as this is not a Hollywood film with a neat ending in which we find out which of the women gets a baby. But that’s OK, I think. The purpose of the narrative is to introduce us to the complexities of what adoption means and especially what it means in the power exchanges between North and South. But it also explores what it means for both the childless Anglos and the Latinas who lose/give up their babies.
Reading some of the negative comments (which are more than balanced by the positive ones) on IMDb it’s amazing just how prejudiced some people can be. This isn’t in any way a didactic film. Sayles simply offers a number of scenes featuring the different characters and allows us to work out for ourselves what the meanings might be when they are edited together. That might sound like it’s a foregone conclusion but really it isn’t. There is a lot more material on the DVD dealing with the production itself and it’s clear that different people involved in the film have their own ideas about the ‘trade’ taking place.
It’s time, I think that some of the UK distributors decided to bring us the more recent John Sayles films on DVD/Blu-ray or download if not in cinemas. We can’t afford to forget what a terrific filmmaker he is – and how different he is to most American filmmakers. Search through the cast list here and you’ll find various actors and crew who have worked with Sayles during the last thirty years and more.
Time Share won a Special Jury Prize (for scriptwriting, World Drama) at last year’s Sundance festival and appears to have been seen little in cinemas outside Mexico (where it won a couple of Ariels). Whether we should be grateful to Netflix for picking up the film for distribution, or berate them for preventing it being shown in cinemas, I don’t know. I do know that director Sebastián Hofmann, who edited the film and co-scripted with Julio Chavezmontes, clearly has a cinematic eye that would greatly benefit from the big screen. Matias Penachino’s cinematography brings out the candy colours of the holiday resort setting that makes it look like a Ballardian hell.
Pedro (Luis Gerardo Méndez) and Eva (Cassandra Ciangherotti) arrive late at their time share villa to find it’s been double-booked with another family. Hofmann and Chavezmontes’ script beautifully captured the apologies of corporate speak that mean nothing and the families are forced to co-habit. A parallel plot focuses on Andres (Miguel Rodarte) and his wife Gloria (Montserrat Marañon) who are taking opposite trajectories as workers for Everfields, the American owners of the resort. The corporate environment is causing Andres to lose his grip on reality whilst Gloria relishes the promotion that gives her the opportunity to sell time shares to the holiday makers.
I don’t know the location of the film’s setting, a building designed to look like a Mayan temple, but I’m guessing it is an actual resort and wonder how the filmmakers managed to finesse making such an excoriating satire at the expense of the industry. ‘Excoriating’ only to an extent: the final half hour doesn’t quite have the punch of what precedes it. I’d have preferred that they had gone full blown ‘madness’ rather than keep the narrative world in touch with reality. Grotesquerie is reserved for the credit sequence at the end.
As noted above, Hofmann creates some stunning shots (the golf buggies’ dreamy movement, for example) and uses shallow depth of field, occasionally, to give a surreal look to the setting. A pink flamingo makes its appearance a couple of times suggesting that the pharmaceuticals given are designed to do more than pacify and relieve pain.
This was Hofmann’s second feature as a director and I hope I get to see his next one in a cinema.
I was lucky to catch Roma on the big screen after a mad dash from Kings Cross to Leicester Square and then to the Curzon Soho – I was briefly in London with three hours to spare. I refuse to subscribe to Netflix so the only other option was a trip to tiny screens in Curzons in Sheffield or Ripon. (See Keith’s earlier posting on the difficulties of seeing the film in West Yorkshire.) I didn’t worry though. I knew the effort would be worthwhile and it was. A great deal has already been written about Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘memoir’ and I wonder if I can say anything new? I’m not one, I hope, to be taken in by all the hype that surrounds a Golden Lion winner at Venice. So I’ll try to be dispassionate.
Much as been made about Cuarón’s multiple roles as writer-director, co-producer, cinematographer and editor. Roma‘s camerawork has plenty of attention. Cuarón shot the film on an Alexa 65 digital film camera. This means that he recorded more visual data via the ‘capture chip’ in the camera than most digitally shot films. The projected film is shown in black & white in a CinemaScope 2.35:1 ratio and it looks very good. There are possible ‘flaws’ however. Cuarón is fond of both tracking shots and pans to construct scenes in long takes. Because much of the film is set in an upper middle-class district of Mexico City (‘Roma’) in streets and inside a family home using only ‘available’ light, there is often a quite shallow field of focus and several shots throw characters out of focus or distort the image as the camera pans and tracks (I assume that this is a function of the lenses and the focal length). This in turn offers a comment on the neo-realist qualities of the cinematography. Occasionally, Cuarón swings the camera up and catches a jet airliner flying high over the city. But most times that a wide vista offering the deep focus of classic neo-realist imagery in long shot is developed it is in the scenes set outside the city centre such as where a large group of young men are practising martial arts moves in a form of parade ground setting or when the family travel to the beaches near Vera Cruz. I mention neo-realism simply because it is one of the cinema aesthetics mentioned by critics writing about the film, but Roma is not a neo-realist film. It does, however, achieve the emotional impact of some of the classic neo-realist melodramas.
The look of the film has been seen as very important for several reasons. Cuarón has said that he went to Netflix because traditional Hollywood studios would question a project on this scale presented in black and white and without a conventional genre-based narrative or recognisable international stars. Cinephiles also have expectations of the camerawork and staging which were so important in the closing scenes of Children of Men (2006 US-UK-Japan) and throughout Gravity (UK-US 2013). Cuarón himself has further generated expectations by promoting 70mm film screenings and making claims about the details in the projected image. (Screen 1 at Curzon Soho has both 35mm film and 4K digital projection. I assume what I watched was a DCP but whether it was 2K or 4K, I don’t know.) But while the image (visual and aural) attracts cinephiles, several film fans on IMDb complain that “there is no story”. I don’t agree, but I can see where the complaint comes from.
The film is a ‘memoir’. It is set over roughly one year from the summer of 1970 to the middle of 1971. Alfonso Cuarón had his 9th birthday in November 1970 in a similar house in the same district of Mexico City. His younger brother Carlos was 4 at that time and I believe Alfonso also has a sister Christina. Mexico hosted the Olympic Games in 1968 and the World Cup in 1970. Large scale student demonstrations in Mexico City broke out in 1971 resulting in the ‘massacre’ of 120 student protestors in June. The latter, known as the ‘Corpus Christi massacre’ features in the film. The civil action was part of a protest during the so-called ‘Dirty War’ in Mexico. The fictitious family presumably mirrors the social class position of the Cuarón family at this point.
[I should guide any readers at this point to the dossier of essays on Roma published by Mediático “a collectively authored media and film studies blog, which showcases a diverse array of research, news, views and perspectives on Latin(o/a) American, Spanish and Portuguese media cultures”. The dossier can be found at http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/mediatico/2018/12/24/introduction-to-the-special-dossier-on-roma-alfonso-cuaron/ These experts on Latin American cinema know far more than I do. I’m still going to make my comments, but you can use the dossier to explore the issues in more detail.]
The family comprises the mother Sofía, the father (who moves out in the early part of the film), three young sons and a daughter ranging in age from 4 to young teenager and Sofía’s mother, Sra. Teresa. The household also includes a large dog kept in the closed driveway and two house servants who live in an annex. One of these is Cleo who acts as a maid/nanny and she is the main protagonist of the story. The other is Adela who seems to be mainly concerned with cooking, cleaning and laundry. There is also a male handyman who works mainly as a driver but I don’t think he ‘lives in’. Cleo is based on Alfonso Cuarón’s own nanny, Liboria or ‘Libo’, to whom the film is dedicated.
The narrative follows the daily lives of the household through the period in which the father absents himself, first on a plausible trip to a conference which is then extended. Sofía will at first keep up the pretence that he will return but will eventually be forced to tell the children. Cleo is part of the household but on her days off she has a boyfriend and we follow the course of her relationship with him. If this sounds like an intimate family melodrama, Cuarón makes it into something more akin to an epic ‘city symphony’ using CGI to fill in the period details in the street scenes including memorable visits to cinemas and a theatre, the government hospital (where the father is a senior figure), a New Year house party with relatives in the outer suburbs (Mexico City covers a vast area) and the activities of ‘Profesor Zovek’ (a showman performer played by a famous wrestler known as ‘Latin Lover’ – wrestlers in Mexico are celebrity figures and feature in popular films). So there is a story, which in its final act becomes highly emotional and delivers the punch of a superior melodrama. But, in an important sense, there is much more to the film and it is the wealth of detail and the richness of allusion which makes the film so compelling.
I was struck quite early in the film by the importance of its relationship to Y tu mamá también (Mexico 2001). I’ve written quite extensively on this film in various places and therefore it has stayed with me. I think that audiences who aren’t familiar with the earlier film will miss something because they won’t be prompted to think about the different ways in which the two films approach some of the same ideas. (The dossier quoted above suggests that other Cuarón films are also important but I’ll stick with the one that is most closely connected.) There is too much to analyse in a single post but I should explain that the first film is set in the 1990s and is a form of road trip in which two young Mexican men take a road trip to the coast from Mexico City with an older female cousin of one of them. There is sex, drama and comedy along the way (and a narrative twist) but the film also acts as a social/political commentary on Mexico as a ‘teenage country’ (Cuarón’s term). The two young men Julio and Tenoch come from different social class positions. Tenoch is the character with the Cuarón family characteristics, coming from an upper middle class (in Mexican terms) family. His maid/nanny in the film is played by the real Liboria. Cuarón uses a device in the film borrowed from Jean-Luc Godard in which the ambient sound is cut and a voiceover comments on the action and on Mexican society/polity. So, for instance, when the boys drive through a village, the voiceover tells us that this is Leo/Liboria’s village. In Roma, Cuarón places similar information in the dialogue of the family melodrama. In a way this is more direct, but actually it requires more work to make the connections. For instance, although it is not said explicitly, we can deduce that the family has done very well under the long-running PRI government. They are the beneficiaries of state-supported ‘professionalisation’ – the father is a senior physician, the mother is a bio-chemist and university lecturer. At the same time, government policies have impoverished rural Mexico and encouraged the peasantry to migrate to the city where, like Cleo, they are forced to work as servants. Later in the narrative, Cleo will learn that another government initiative has taken her mother’s land rights away from her. Given the structure of society, the class system is also based on race. The family belong to the 9% ‘European’ population of Mexico. The rest of the population is Mestizo (‘mixed race’) at 60% and Indigenous at 30%. Cleo and Adela speak at various points in the Mixtec language of the peoples of Western Oaxaca (which is on the Pacific coast but is actually not far from the Caribbean coast of Vera Cruz given that Mexico is at its narrowest in this South-Eastern region). The UK print of Roma has two separate subtitle texts with the translation of the Mixtec dialogue shown inside square brackets.
In the dossier referenced above, Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado refers to the distinction above in the two ways of delivering the social/political commentary and suggests that in Roma it is ‘sensorially conveyed’. This is achieved in two ways, first in Cuaron’s approach to the cinematography – i.e. using camera movement, composition and framing to signify the lived culture of the family in the city – and secondly through the soundtrack:
. . . the sound design, Roma’s most brilliant technical feat, building on the territory explored by directors like Lucrecia Martel in La ciénaga, turns the noises and utterances of everyday life, along with the mediascape of Mexican and global popular culture, into a constant set of signifiers related to the affective and social environment of 1970s modernity.
Sánchez Prado is not the only one to single out the film’s sound design and many critics have commented on it. I found it quite disconcerting in the Curzon cinema and it reminded me of the dramatic sound design of films like Apocalypse Now (Walter Murch, 1979). I was sat in the third row of 250 seat cinema and I was conscious of sound from behind me and from the sides of the auditorium. Background chatter and traffic noise were so subtly rendered that I thought for a moment that a door had been left open in the cinema. I can’t imagine the same experience is available via Netflix. I don’t think I could process all the sounds and visual images that I was offered – this is an incredibly rich text. But I would need to go back to a cinema and that looks very difficult. What have you done, Alfonso? I understand that Netflix enabled your creative freedom, but it’s important that audiences can see your film in a cinema. Thank you for this remarkable film, but I want to watch it again.
The triumph of the film is to place us in a position from where we can attempt to understand a world from the perspective of Cleo – played in the film by a non-professional actor, Yalitza Aparicio. Some critics have remarked that Cleo says very little and that the family members treat her badly. But I think that the aim is for us to work out for ourselves what Cleo is thinking about what she sees. I don’t think that the family treats Cleo badly out of malice. I think that they behave towards someone who is very important for them emotionally in ways that have developed within a society structured around race and social class divisions. I enjoyed the film immensely and in the dramatic scenes in the latter part of the film I was unable to stop the tears which were shed for Cleo. The film is 135 minutes long and at the end of the screening, including the long credit sequence, the woman behind me said to her friend: “Gosh, is that the time? It’s hard to believe we’ve been here that long.” That’s the result of watching a great film in the cinema.
Rosario Castellanos was a major figure in twentieth century Mexican literature. Born in 1925, she became one of the leading members of the so-called ‘1950 Generation’ who became highly influential. Rosario was a socialist feminist and produced volumes of poetry, essays and three semi-autobiographical novels. In 1971 she was appointed as Mexico’s ambassador to Israel on the basis of her importance as a writer and activist. She died tragically as the result of a domestic accident in Tel Aviv in 1974. Some claimed her death was suicide and there have been attempts to place her alongside Sylvia Plath as a feminist writer.
‘Los adioses’ translates literally as ‘The Goodbyes’ but has been given the English title ‘Eternal Feminine’. I’m not sure exactly why, except that it fits film marketing ideas. The film is a partial biopic focusing on two distinct periods in Rosario’s life – her ’emergence’ in the early 1950s and the period around the birth of her son in the late 1950s/early 1960s. The film narrative distorts the time periods slightly and offers two sets of actors playing the younger Rosario (Tessa Ia) in 1950 and an older version (Karina Gidi) roughly ten years later. At a student meeting, the young Rosario is challenged in a student meeting by Ricardo Guerra (Pedro De Tavira). Although he is attracted to her and makes a play for her, he marries someone else and it is not until 1958 that an older Ricardo (the Spanish actor Daniel Giménez Cacho – soon to appear on UK screens in Zama), having divorced his wife, now marries an older Rosario. The director Natalia Beristáin had only directed one complete feature and an episode in a portmanteau film before she took on Los adioses and she takes some brave decisions. The film opens with some ‘out of focus’ footage behind the titles that eventually becomes clear as a close-up of two bodies intertwined. We don’t yet know if this is the younger or older pair of actors but the aesthetic of close-ups and shallow focus has been established. Most of the film is set indoors in various apartments and rooms of the federal university in Mexico. I think the only trip away is back to the southern state of Chiapas where Rosario grew up as a small child. This time she goes back to receive an award – and Ricardo behaves badly.
I was a little surprised that more isn’t made of Rosario’s childhood. Her family originally owned land in Chiapas, the most southerly state with the greatest variety of indigenous peoples. Rosario was sympathetic to the plight of the Mayan people who worked on the land and, perhaps because the state bordered Guatemala she was also interested in Pan-Latin American ideas. Probably this history would have complicated the narrative too much so it is referenced obliquely in only a couple of scenes apart from the return visit. Instead the focus is on Rosario as a woman who is a writer, a teacher and an advocate of women’s rights who struggles in a patriarchal society. Ricardo is a Professor of Philosophy. My understanding from the film is that he was excited and challenged by Rosario’s talents but then became jealous of her success. Eventually he became the kind of husband who in the 1950s forced Rosario to choose her work or her child. The film narrative sees him develop from a lover to the worst kind of man for a woman like Rosario. The final sequence juxtaposes Rosario’s lectures to her students about patriarchy and the real battle that she faces in her home and in the university staffroom.
This trailer with English subs suggests that Los adioses is going to get a release over the border in the US, as it definitely should. There are large Hispanic speaking potential audiences there and there are certainly audiences for both female directors and stories like this about feminists who tried to make a difference. The trailer also usefully presents both the visual aesthetic of close-ups and shallow/deliberately blurred focus and the back and forth editing style. (The film is also going to get a release in France, so when will it come to the UK?)
The 31st Archive Festival presented by the Cineteca di Bologna ran from Saturday June 24th until Sunday July 1st. The Festival has expanded rapidly in recent years. During the day there were screenings in four auditoria – The Salas Mastroianni and Scorsese at the Cineteca and the Arlecchino and Jolly cinemas. And there are smaller salons for supporting events. In the evenings these four screens are added to by the Piazza Maggiore in the city centre and the Piazzetta Pasolini at the Cineteca.
My friend Peter Rist worked out that there were 250 titles in this year’s festival, and only a fifth of these had repeat screenings. Thus even the most dedicated cineaste could see even a fraction of the Festival programme. This year those cineastes exceeded 3,000. So popular titles nearly always involved queues and sometimes a fairly crowded auditorium. My strategy for coping was to focus on 35mm; these composed just under half the programme. I managed 30 35mm prints and then ten digital (titles described were in 35mm unless noted otherwise). Even then one had to make choices between interesting and even fascinating films.
‘A Hundred Years Ago: 50 films of 1917 in 35mm’ offered a series of daily programmes, with both short and feature-length films. One that caught a crowd was Abel Gance’s early masterwork, Mater Dolorosa. One of the finest was Thomas Graals Bästa Film / Thomas Graal’s Best Film ((Sweden). Directed by Mauritz Stiller, this was a delightful comedy centred on a scriptwriter working on his next film. The writer and title character was played by Stiller’s fellow-filmmaker Victor Sjöström. And as was often the case in Swedish films of this period there was a strong and independent minded female lead, Bessie (Karin Molander). We also enjoyed a film directed by Sjöström, Tones Fran Stormyrtorpet / The Girl from the Marsh Croft (Sweden). The film was based on a novel by Selma Lagerlöf, whose writings provided stories for a number of Swedish films in the silent era. The plot was familiar, focusing on class, bigotry and the restraints of religious morality. The put-upon young heroine Helga was played with real power by Greta Almroth, whilst future star Lars Hansen played Gudmund. The film made great use of contrasting spaces and offered that exceptional use of natural locations that grace the silent Swedish films.
Also in the programme was a rare Triangle western directed by Frank Borzage, Until They Get Me ; a Lyda Borelli vehicle directed by Carmine Gallone, Malombra; and a German ghost film directed by Robert Wiene with a young Conrad Veidt and distinctive tinting, Furcht / Fear. Needless to say they all proved popular, generating queues of expectant admirers and full auditoriums.
The programme that I managed to see in its entirety was ‘The Japanese Period Film in the Valley of Darkness’. This was another programme curated by Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström. The titles all came from between 1937 and 1941 when Japan was under the control of a militaristic regime: all were jidai-geki or period films. In their introduction Alexander and Johan explained that the series of films selected all explored,
“how to present the past . . .”
and that all these films in some way
“challenge the samurai values . . .”
which were central to the regime.
The opening title was a film that I have read about often but which I had to wait until now to see, Ninjo Kamifusen / Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937). The film was directed by a promising young filmmaker Yamanaka Sadao, who sadly died in the war against China the following year. The film opens with a Samurai suicide and then follows the effects as they work through a small tenement community. The film has a substantial group of central characters and represents the class divisions underlying conflicts through the use of spatial difference. It also offers one of the great endings on film. There were seven others films in the programme, two of which, Hana Chirinu / Fallen Blossoms (1938) and Sono Zen’ya / The Night Before, are set in the crucial year of 1877 when a samurai rebellion attempted to stopped the modernisation led by the Meiji Restoration. And Kyojinden / The Giant (1938) was an impressive though not completely successful adaptation of Victor Hugo’s great French novel ‘Les Misérables’. All the films were interesting and worth watching. However, the print quality of some of these films, dating back decades, was mixed. Several did not have great definition or contrast: in the case of one film this meant that it was difficult to identify all the characters and their actions. The projection accentuated this because it mainly used the sub-titles as a point of focus, and on 35mm there is a slight difference in the plane.
The Film Foundation’s World Cinema project is now an established event in the Festival. The Foundation has now embarked on a project to restore fifty key films from Africa. So, as a real treat, we were able to see three films by Med Hondo. Born in Mauritania Hondo worked elsewhere in Africa and then in France. He took up acting and founded his own company in 1966. Then, working in television and film, he moved into cinema. Like some other notable filmmakers he has funded his film direction by his work as an actor. Since 1967 he has been able to make eight films. The Foundation has produced a digital restoration of his first, Soleil Ȏ (Mauritania, 1970 – DCP). Shot in black and white the film uses avant-garde techniques but it is better described as an ‘agit-prop’ documentary. Whilst it has a dramatised plot line the film presents the experiences of black people in Paris in this period.
“All the scenes were based on reality. Because racism isn’t invented, especially in film. It’s like a kind of cloak put on you, that you’re forced to live with.” (Med Hondo, 1970 quoted in the Festival Catalogue).
It is powerful document and stands up as relevant forty years on.
The programme also included two of Hondo’s later films in 35mm prints from the Harvard Film Archive. West Indies (France, Algeria, Mauritania, 1979) could be described as a period musical. The film presents
“a giant slave ship that symbolizes the triangular relationship between Africa, Europe and the Caribbean – as it explores the parallels between the forced migration of the Atlantic slave trade and the contemporary migration of Afro-Caribbean subjects to former colonial metropoles.” (Aboubakar Sanogo in the Festival Catalogue).
Sarraounia (Burkino Faso, Mauritania, France, 1986) dramatised the historical record and the successful resistance to a French colonial expedition in the late C19th. The film had a more conventional linear narrative and was shot in colour and Technovision. Using African locations (but Burkino Faso not Niger), African songs, griots and cultural artefacts , the film celebrated both African culture and resistance. It also inverted the stereotypes of mainstream cinema with the psychotic French commander reduced to brutal sectarian violence.
Med Hondo was present to his introduce his films. He was clearly moved by his reception and by the re-emergence of his cinema. Hondo also was passionate about his films and the radical political content. The writings of Franz Fanon would seem to be central to his standpoint whilst stylistically the films use montage, both visual and aural, to create their effect. But seeing them in the UK (and likely elsewhere) has always been difficult. Soleil Ȏ, Les ‘Bricot Négres’ vos voisons (1974) and Sarraounia have been screened cinematically in the UK. Channel 4 screened the three films shown in Bologna in its ‘Africa Film’ season in the 1980s, but Sarraounia was cropped to Aacademy ratio.
The Foundation also continued its work in restoring Cuban classics. This year we had Lucía (1968). The film directed by Humberto Solás and also scripted by him together with Julio Garcia Espinosa and Nelson Rodriguez, is a fairly epic work with three stories and running 160 minutes (DCP). The three tales present three women of the same name, from 1895, 1933 and in the present.
“Lucia is not a film about women, it’s a film about society. But within society, I chose the most vulnerable character, the one who is more transcendentally affected at any given moment by contradictions and change. ” (Humberto Solás, quoted in the Catalogue).
There were also two films by Tomás Gutiérrez Aléa restored by the Academy Film Archive: Una pelea Cubana contra los demonios / A Cuban Fight Against Demons (1971 – DCP) and Los Sobrevivientes / The Survivors (1970). The programme was rounded off by a selection of ICAIC Noticiero ICAIC Latinoamericano (1960 – 1970): the complete series has been restored and digitised by the French INA and is available on their website. This is clearly a welcome archival source: my main reservation is that it seems that INA have bought and hold possession of the archive, which would be better retained and controlled in Cuba.
There was a programme of films related to the French writer, ‘Colette and Cinema’. This included documentaries about her; films based on her writing; films that she reviewed as a critic; and films that she worked on providing French sub-titles for foreign language films. One of the famous films from her writings is Gigi: but the festival screened the 1949 French version, directed by Jacques Audry. This seems closer to the spirit of Collette’s writing than the Hollywood musical.
“Gigi opened the way to films focused on the subordination of make characters to female ones ….” (Émilie Cauquy in the Catalogue).
A popular treat was Divine (1935), based on her novella and with dialogue by Collette. The film has a rich representation of the French music-hall, but it was the stylish direction of Max Ophuls that made the film stand out. Her critical work was represented by Mater Dolorosa, directed by Abel Gance, another film from 1917. Collette had some reservations about the style and characterisations but
“I applaud a new use of the ‘still life’, the touching use of props, as in the fall of the veil on the floor.” (College quoted in the Catalogue).
The film is a marital melodrama and was relatively successful on release,. The cinematography of Léonce-Henri Burel is reckoned one of the films outstanding qualities.
The regular programme ‘The Time Machine’ focused on the year of 1897, right back in the pioneer days of cinema,. Both the Lumière Brothers and Georges Méliès featured here. The notable Lumière programme was ‘Palestine in 1896’, a ‘land without Zionists’. And there was a programme of film originated on 68mm by American and British Mutoscope Biograph, now presented on 35mm.
Another regular programme ‘The Space Machine’, included both Mexican and Iranian films of the past. The Mexican programme included Dos Monjes / Two Monks from 1934 (DCP). The restoration also involved The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project. Most of the film was flashbacks prior to the monastery setting that opened the film. What stood out in a melodramatic tale was the style, which was at time expressionist and at time surrealist: visually potent. The stand-out film in the programme was Maclovia (1948), the name of the heroine played by Maria Felix and opposite Pedro Armendáriz as José Maria. The film is set on the Island of Janítzio where an indigenous people have their own mores and also suffer the contempt and oppression of the European élite. The film was directed by Emilio ‘El Indio’ Fernández working with the great cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. The latter’s use of the camera and lighting, together with what seemed to be all the fishing nets from around Mexico, was beautiful, especially as we happily had a 35mm print.
I was less struck by the ‘Teheran Noir: The Thrillers of Samuel Khachikian’. Working in the developing days of the Iranian film industry Khachikian was clearly seeking out the conventions of film production and a style appropriate for the Iranian world of the time. The only title I watched was Chahar Rah-E Havades / Crossroad of Events (1955). The story follows a young man tempted into crime by his desire for a young woman. The tale was fairly conventional and the style did not really seem to suit the melodrama.
The Festival offers all sorts of other pleasures. One of these are the evening screenings in the Piazza Maggiore. A large screen offers open air cinema to thousands of people. There is a screening every night, unless the weather intervenes. The opening night saw the presentation of Jean Virgo’s classic L’Atalante (1934) accompanied by A propos de Nice (1930), part of a programme on this French filmmaker. By the end of the week a fellow French filmmaker Agnès Varda introduced her new film Visages Villages (2017). In between there were a number of digital screenings and two on 35mm; the famous Battleship Potemkin / Bronenosec Potëmkin (1925) with a full orchestral accompaniment; and then in a lighter vein The Patsy USA 1928) starring Marion Davies.
On three evenings the Piazzetta Pasolini was the site of screenings projected from a 1930s Carbon-Arc projector,. Therese events are equally popular and the particular palette from carbon arc through 35mm prints is a delight. The opening screening featured Addio Giovinezza! / Goodbye Youth (Italy 1918). The film was directed by Augusto Genina who was the subject of a programme of screening at the Festival. This was, as the title suggests, a bitter-sweet comedy. The young protagonist leaves his small town to attend Turin university. Not an engaging figure though, he exploits both his student friend and a young woman with whom he has a romance.
There were all sorts of other exciting and/or interesting films in the Festival. There was a retrospective of the US independent filmmaker Bill Morrison. I had seen many of the films when he visited the Bradford Film festival, so this was one of the choices I missed. One recurring programme is ‘The Cinephiles Heaven’. This included the fine restoration of Kean ou Désordre et génie / Edmund Kean, Prince Among Lovers (1924) from the Cinémathèque française which I had seen at the 2016 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. I was able to revisit Trouble in Paradise (USA 1932). This is one of the most delightful comedies by Ernst Lubitsch, with Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins and Kay Francis offering beautifully modulated performances. I also watched The Asphalt Jungle (USA 1950, on 4K DCP), John Huston’s fine crime/noir thriller, with an outstanding characterisation by Sterling Hayden.
‘Una Dominica a Bologna’. This was a varied and fascinating selected of ‘Sunday’ titles. I had to forgo seeing Menschen am Sontag / People on Sunday (Germany 1930) another time. But I did recommend to an Italian friend that he must see It Always Rains on Sunday (UK 1947, DCP).
‘Universal Pictures: the Laemmle Junior Years was a follow-up to the first programme in 2016. There were films directed by Lois Weber, Tod Browning, James Whale and Frank Borzage. ‘The Two Faces of Robert Mitchum’ included the classic film noir Out of the Past (1947) and Home from the Hill (1960). ‘In Search of Color: Kinemacolor and Technicolor’ featured films from as early as 1907 right up to the 1950s: there were the classic Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) and Rancho Notorious (1952), plus three of the melodramas directed by Douglas Sirk in the same decade. And there was a programme dedicated to William K. Howard ‘Rediscovering a Master Stylist’. These were films from C20th Fox, including the much written about The Power and the Glory (1933, 4K DCP). The other featured filmmaker was ‘Watchful Dreamer: The Subversive Melancholy of Helmut Käutner’. His first film was an actor in 1932, then he took up scriptwriting and direction in 1939. He worked through the war years and on into the post-war industry up until 1977.
Unter den Brücken / Under the Bridges (1945/49 – one of those films which was released after the end of the war). There was little sense of the conflict going on around the filming. The story was fairly conventional, two friends running a barge were both attracted to a young waif who fell in their way. However, the film was finely constructed and there were excellent sequences by cinematographers Igor Oberberg and M. Wolfgang Webrum of the canals and especially the bridges that cross them. Ludwig !!. – Glanz und Ende Eines Königs / Mad Emperor: Ludwig II looked good but suffered by comparison with the Visconti film. And there was no Romy Schneider and no dog. Das Glas Wasser / A Glass of Water (1960) was set in C18th Britain, the reign of Queen Anne. It was very much in the style of 1960s tongue-in-cheek period comedy: reminiscent in some ways of The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (UK 1965).
This only gives a sense of part of the Festival but you can check out the complete programme of titles.
The final screenings saw rounds of applause for the organisers and volunteers who worked on the Festival. It ran remarkably smoothly given the complexity of the venues and programming. There was also applause for the team of musicians who provided accompaniments for all the films from the Silent Era. The majority added to the films without overpowering them. There was one guitar accompaniment which I found rather over-the-top. And the projection teams did pretty well with the range of formats for screenings.
The weather, 30% some days, and the queues were an inevitable part of a summer festival. Less acceptable were problems with people using electronic gadgets. There were merciful few ring tones in the auditoriums but there were quite a number of members who seemed to need to check their phones/tablets for the time or something similar; or even for texting. The worst culprits were a few recalcitrant’s who used their machines to take pics during the actual films. One person took something like 20 stills or video clips during a two reel film running only 28 minutes. I did report her but I was disappointed that she did not appear in the stocks in the Piazzetta Pasolini rather in the manner of Maud Hansson in 1957. Mariann Lewinsky, a redoubtable programmer presence in the Festival, did ask patrons to desist before the Carbon Arc screenings, but I think this was the only example of warning given during the Festival. I think for the future they organisers need to introduce some notices before screenings to try and prevent this.
So we now await for 2018. Apart from Battleship Potemkin we only had four pre-revolution features from Russia and a short Danish animation in the 1917 ‘Film and Politics’ section. I hope we will get a revisiting of Soviet films as we pass the Centenary year of the Great October Revolution.
Famously Sergei Eisenstein worked on an unfinished film in Mexico in 1931 and early 1932. The visit to this country came at the end of a tour that took in Europe and the USA, including Hollywood. Europe was productive, Eisenstein was involved in making a short avant-garde film at a conference of progressive filmmakers. Hollywood was [predictably] unproductive though Eisenstein did work on some unfinished screenplays. In Mexico he found an empathetic environment and, for a time, was supported by the US socialist Upton Sinclair in producing a film. The film was to be ¡Que viva México!, which remains one of those lost but tantalising projects in film history.
Now Peter Greenaway has written and directed a film about Eisenstein’s sojourn in Mexico. It is typical Greenaway fare, with his usual stylistic flair but also his idiosyncratic treatment of a subject. I saw Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015) at the Leeds International Film Festival. This screening was the low point of the Festival if not the entire year.
The characterisation of Eisenstein offered in the film clearly possesses some of his known traits, in particular his sexual orientation. There is an incredibly long sex scene. But there is little attention to his intellectual and artistic prowess. And whilst there are number of sequences where we see Eisenstein, with his colleagues Eduard Tissé and Grigori Alexandrov, filming, Greenaway’s treatment shows little real interest in this lost but much discussed film.
In addition Greenaway includes sequences from the seminal films that Eisenstein had already made in the Soviet Union. However, these appear to be from not great quality video and [even worse] they have been reframed in to the 2.39:1 anamorphic frame. There are other recent perpetrators of this practice, but few of them have actually inflicted the very wide letterbox on archive footage.
Greenaway does show more interest in the erotic drawings that Eisenstein produced during his stay. A whole truckload of these were confiscated by the US customs on his return journey. Some of them could be seen in the recent exhibition in London, Unexpected Eisenstein.
Greenaway’s film is now receiving a limited general release. It is recommended only for masochists and anti-Bolshevik types. What would have been more illuminating would be the event held in April at the Regent Cinema Eisenstein in Mexico. This event, jointly organised by A Nos Amours and Kino Klassica, included screenings of several films developed from the some 200,000 plus footage shot by Eisenstein and his colleagues. There was Marie Seton’s Time in the Sun (1939), Alexandrov’s ¡Que viva México! (1979), and a film I have yet to see. Mexican Fantasy (1998). There were also talks and discussions during the event.
My fantasy wish is that the Metropolitans get the Greenaway film and that we deprived northerners get the three-film event.