I’ve recently published a study guide (you can buy it here). Here’s the introduction:
Pan’s Labyrinth is set in 1944, five years after the end of the Spanish civil war, when the last of the resistance to the fascist forces of General Franco were being crushed. However the inspiration for the film was the 11th September 2001 terrorist attacks on America. In his illuminating ‘Director’s commentary’ Guillermo del Toro states his perception of “brutality, innocence and war” changed after the destruction of the ‘two towers’ in New York. He saw that the response in America to the attacks was one of fear and obedience to a national authoritarian mandate. An example of this was when the American press failed to challenge President George W. Bush’s insistence that Iraq had to be invaded because Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of ‘mass destruction’. This proved to be a lie and although the military intervention deposed the dictator it resulted increased conflict in the region. More recently the authoritarian instincts of President Trump have further tarnished America’s reputation in the world.
In his commentary del Toro was emphasising that the film is not specifically about Spain in 1944, although it has much to tell us about the psychology of fascists. By using the tropes of the fairy tale the film juxtaposes the worldview of an 11-year-old girl, who is open to new experiences, and the restricted mind-set of her fascist stepfather. By mixing the ‘innocent’ world of the pre-pubescent girl with the grim realities of Franco’s repressive Spain, del Toro shows that the brutality inherent in the authoritarian mind-set has no place in civilised society.
Del Toro’s film blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy and illustrates how close-mindedness and self-interest corrupt the human spirit. There is a feeling of doom hanging over the film because we know the resistance, who fought against the fascists, lost their battle and Spain suffered over 30 more years of Francoist rule. Because of this we may feel that Ofelia is better off dead as Princess Moana than alive in a corrupt world. Whether she is dead or actually transformed into a princess is a key question in the film. As we shall see for del Toro there’s no doubt that she survives but the film itself is more ambivalent.
Although the film isn’t about the Spanish civil war only it is helpful to understand the historical context.
The Spanish Civil War
The Second Spanish Republic was formed in 1931 and in 1936 the Popular Front, a coalition of left wing organisations, won power in an election. Later that year a coup d’etat was thwarted however this led to the start of the civil war where right wing groups, led by the military, rebelled against the democratically elected administration. In Morocco, part of which was at the time a protectorate of Spain, General Franco emerged as the rebel’s leader and, supported by Hitler and Mussolini, was victorious after nearly three years of war. The Catholic Church, highly influential in Spain, supported the fascists.
Franco ruled Spain as a dictator until his death in 1975. Afterwards, the monarchy was restored and democracy returned though only at the cost of burying the past. The ‘Pact of Forgetting’, instituted during the transition to democracy, meant that there could be no recriminations for crimes committed during the Franco years but also that memorials to Franco were no longer maintained. It wasn’t until the Law of Historical Memory was enacted in 2007 that it became possible to officially exhume the past, both actually and metaphorically. Attempts were made to identify victims buried in mass graves and to acknowledge the crimes of the Franco era. However, when a conservative government was elected in 2011 support for the law was withdrawn. When, in 2018, the socialists regained power they proposed a ‘truth commission’ to ensure, amongst other things, those with criminal records for opposing Franco would have their names cleared.
Unsurprisingly a number of Spanish films from these years focused on the theme of coming to terms with the past and ghosts were often used as a metaphor:
Their here-but-not-here borderline existence, between the dead and the living, blurs the binary divide that constructs our perception of reality. Ghosts remind us that we need to confront our past if we want to move ahead and construct a better future. (Colmeiro 2011)
Del Toro was responsible for two of these: his third film as a director, The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del Diablo, Spain-Mexico-France-Argentina, 2001), and The Orphanage (El orfanato, Spain, 2007), which he produced. The blurred ‘binary divide’ between reality and fantasy is important in Pan’s Labyrinth too. This film reminds us of those who fought a losing battle against fascism to ensure, hopefully, we do not allow fascists to take power again.
Although del Toro is Mexican, tens of thousands of Spaniards went into exile in his country so the war is also part of his heritage. This no doubt helped him represent a Spanish perspective on the war convincingly unlike Ken Loach whose Land and Freedom (UK-Spain-Germany-Italy-France, 1995), whilst a gripping film, is more obviously one made by an outsider.
Pan’s Labyrinth was a considerable box office success, even outside Spain. The hegemony of Hollywood in the west means that, generally, non-American films struggle to make an impact outside their home markets. Pan’s Labyrinth was successful because of the emotional engagement audiences had with Ofelia’s plight and the supreme craft of the film. It is a terrible state of affairs that his warning against the fascist mind set is even more relevant today than it was when the film was released. After the failure of ‘free market capitalism’, seen most obviously in the financial crash of 2008, right wing populism has made strides at the ballot box in many countries. Del Toro’s humanism is a potent antidote to this inward-looking politics and his film can be read as a warning, through Ofelia’s death, that we are in danger of giving in to the fear whipped up by demagogues.
This is an African-American Independent film that has received significant support for a début feature. The director Boots Riley appears on IMDb with a smattering of different credits as a writer and performer and he has had a successful musical career through the rapping collective The Coup, but for his first feature he has recruited Danny Glover, Forest Whitaker and Rosario Dawson in small parts and has Tessa Thompson in the lead female role. His protagonist Cassius (Cash) Green is played by Lakeith Stanfield, also an established actor, and Riley finds himself as the cover story for Sight and Sound‘s December issue. Inside, the interview conducted by Kaleem Aftab reveals that Riley comes from a family of left-wing activists in Oakland, that he went to film school and that he was inspired by Spike Lee. His film was also supported by the Sundance festival and is distributed by Focus Features/Universal in the UK.
I found the film interesting throughout, but there were also moments when I thought it wasn’t working. Adam Nayman’s review in Sight and Sound makes a couple of points that seem relevant to me. The first is to compare Sorry to Bother You to a film like Black Panther (which I haven’t seen) and to suggest that whatever the flaws in Boots Riley’s film, it is straightforwardly honest in its attempt to expose several different but connected political issues. This is quite different from the political impact of a ‘branded blockbuster’ which requires critical attention to reveal its possible political discourses. Secondly, Nayman suggests that Sorry to Bother You bears a resemblance to Jordan Peele’s Get Out from 2017 and that certainly did occur to me (Peele was also to be offered the role of Cassius until he had his own big success). These two connections go some way towards explaining why Sorry to Bother You has attracted attention.
In attempting to ‘read’ Sorry to Bother You, I did feel caught between a sense of missing some cultural references (e.g. rap music) but also being sidetracked by other filmic references. Our hero ‘Cash’ starts the film broke and living in his uncle’s garage with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a performance artist who earns some money as a ‘human billboard’ advertising local businesses. Cash needs a job and is hired by a ‘telemarketing’ company. This explains the title which is the opening line of a standard script for ‘cold calling’. Riley makes the intrusive nature of the business clear by literally throwing Cash into the same frame as the poor unfortunates who answer their phones. Very quickly, Cash learns from an older colleague (played by Danny Glover) that he will be more successful if he uses his ‘white voice’. He also learns that if he shows promise by hitting high sales targets he might be promoted to ‘power caller’ and ascend to the top, exclusive, floor of the building. Meanwhile, references on local TV and billboards to a new social work/housing programme suggest that this is in fact an ‘alternate Oakland’ in which private enterprise is developing a new quasi-fascist system of communal living and working – mostly it seems for African-Americans.
At this point we realise that this isn’t a simple social comedy but some kind of absurdist satire on US capitalism and its dependence on racial divisions. The narrative then has to bring together the telemarketing scam and the work programme and develop Cash’s role as the seeming innocent who will be drawn into the process and will be offered inducements that will persuade him to betray his friends and co-workers. We know that Cash is an intelligent and generally likeable character who could resist, but the lure of riches is strong when you are broke. Riley chooses to develop a plot involving unionisation of the telemarketing drones and Detroit develops a performance piece which savagely critiques the exploitation of African resources and points the finger at US policy and all individuals who buy phones and other technologies dependent on coltan from the Congo (DRC). The stage is set when Cash is promoted and meets the figure behind the work programme (played by Arnie Hammer). At this point the similarity to Get Out becomes apparent.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative but from this brief plot outline it should be clear that Riley is ambitious in his targets and that’s no bad thing. But political satire is very difficult to pull off and the melding of comedy, politics and fantasy is particularly difficult. In the Sight and Sound interview, Riley says that he spent some time with Spike Jonze and Kaleem Aftab the interviewer later suggests that the film is ‘Brechtian’. Pushing together these two sources of ideas about how to present a narrative gives an indication of the problem Riley faces. I’d add a third in that I was reminded of David Cronenberg’s Existenz (Canada 1999) described by some commentators as a ‘science fiction-body horror film’. I might also add that several lesser American independent films flashed briefly across my mind. And for me that is Riley’s biggest problem – a lack of a consistent tone to his film so that it retains its control over an argument. I can see that there is an argument that this very lack of consistency is itself Brechtian, pushing the audience away and making us think about the film’s construction, but I think other elements work against this idea and that overall the narrative is conventional even as it draws on various genre repertoires.
The supporting roles in the film are interesting. The union organiser in the telemarketing company is ‘Squeeze’ played by the Korean-American actor Steven Yeun. I don’t know whether this has any significance in an Oakland context but it does make the multi-racial union of workers a more potent political force. On the other hand, I think that Tessa Thompson as Detroit is under-used apart from her very disturbing performance piece. I thought she was very good in Dear White People (2014) but again under-used in Creed (2015). She’s also featured strongly in a wide range of other major films. Women generally don’t figure strongly in Sorry to Bother You. They are often simply background figures necessary to present a comic sequence (Rosario Dawson is the voice in the lift to the exclusive floor) and that is definitely a weakness. The sense of (in)coherence is my main concern with the film. But perhaps this can be forgiven in a début film? There are enough well-made political points alongside the visual inventiveness and successful comedy scenes plus music performed by the Coup to make this a film to be recommended and to push forward Boots Riley as a filmmaker to look out for in future. It’s an intelligent film and I’ve deliberately not mentioned some of the links to other specific satires to avoid spoilers.
The trailer doesn’t give away everything – which is a relief:
The BFI has released a restored version of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée as part of their November ‘Fantastique: The Dream Worlds of French Cinema‘ season at BFI Southbank. The new print has been restored by CNC in France and looks good with crisp black & white cinematography from Nicholas Hayer. John Cocteau was a unique figure in French art culture and his limited number of films over a 35 year career from the 1920s are unlike anything else in French cinema. The Sight & Sound article by Virginie Sélavy in the November 2018 issue places Cocteau in context in its exploration of the fantastique in French cinema. He wasn’t part of any movement as such but the tradition of the fantastique – the uncanny in realistic situations – is very strong in French cinema.
The story of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is narrated by Cocteau over the credits and then re-enacted in the contemporary world somewhere in France. Orpheus (Jean Marais) is a famous poet who seemingly accidentally meets ‘the Princess’ (María Casares) who is also his ‘Death’ during an incident outside a café-bar (the Poet’s Café) in a small French community just outside Paris. She will ensnare him and seek to take him to the underworld. She will use Eurydice (Marie Déa) as a tool to break him. Death will be challenged by another character from the community of the dead, Heurtebise (François Périer). Along the way, Cocteau will have a lot of fun in presenting his material to the audience. What should we make of it all?
I deliberately watched the film without any prior research and my first observation was that the film was very difficult to place in the context of French cinema of the 1950s. The Academy ratio (1.37:1) for a film like this is not necessarily a guide (and what a shame the National Media Museum’s usually diligent projectionists didn’t mask the image, leaving the tabs open wide). Many films, especially outside North America carried on using Academy after 1953-4. I thought Orphée might be a 1959 film (Cocteau did make a second film reflecting on the first in 1960, so that might have triggered this thought – there is also Black Orpheus from 1959, an unconnected French film made in Brazil). The film opens with very quickly-paced scenes so that it is difficult to gaze around the image. Caught up in the action, it took me a little while to realise that the characters are mostly young and beautiful. The leads are played by actors in their thirties but there is a large group of younger people led by Juliette Gréco as ‘Aglaonice’ who was in her early twenties and in only her third film. She is the leader of what seems to be a ‘young women’s drinks club’ and she claims to be concerned about the danger faced by Eurydice. (The club represents the ‘Bacchantes’ of mythology, the female followers of Dionysus.) The representatives of authority such as the police inspector, hotel manager (IMDb suggests this is Jean-Pierre Melville) and the tribunal/judges in the underworld are all older but, apart from the postman, there are few older people or children around. I mention all of this only because it adds to the sense of this story presenting a group of young people who might feature in later 1950s films. The ‘mob’ that forms is a youth mob.
Cocteau films in deserted Paris streets and the underworld is represented by ruined buildings which serve to remind us of wartime. The most intriguing characters for me are Death’s two henchmen, dressed as quasi-fascist motorcycle riders wearing helmets, boots and sporting very tight wide leather belts or ‘waspies’. In fact, the use of costume throughout is striking and I thought about many influences on later films. I was taken by all the performances, except that of the central character of Orpheus as played by Jean Marais. I realise that I’ve seen Marais in a range of films across his long career, but not quite so ‘in the spotlight’ as he is here. Orpheus is presented as a vain and rather surly character and Marais appears stolid though potentially beautiful with a leonine head and powerful torso. At one point he poses with a sculpture in his garden. But when he speaks I thought his voice was comparatively weedy. He is supposed to be a famous poet, so perhaps Cocteau was deliberately challenging the stereotypes of poets as ‘fey’ or drunken (like the young poet who challenges Orpheus) or simply not strong and athletic.
If there is a specific artistic discourse in the film it’s possibly something about the need for poets to go through life-changing experiences to make better art but that sounds very heavy. I think Nick Lacey hit the spot on the way out of the screening when he said “I think Cocteau is just being playful”. And the film is playful and quite witty at times. When Orpheus and Heurtebise are on their way to the underworld they pass several lost souls, including a glazier still carrying his glass samples. “Doesn’t he know he’s dead?” asks Orpheus. “Ah, job-conditioning is so strong sometimes!” replies Heurtebise. Well, I laughed anyway. Other than that there is a great deal of play with mirrors and I’d be careful about cleaning mirrors when wearing rubber gloves! Enjoy!
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.