2018 saw the release of six films of the highest quality which took many of the top prizes around the world at festivals and national awards. Cold War was followed into UK distribution by Shoplifters and then Roma. Burning appeared in early 2019 and now we have Capernaum. Happy as Lazzaro appears next month. What a year 2018 was! And there are others to come which I haven’t seen yet. We might struggle to find such quality across this year’s output.
Capernaum (the title translates as ‘chaos) is one of the most controversial of the six films. While many audiences and critics have raved about the film, there are some who have accused Lebanese writer-director-actor Nadine Labaki and her musician-producer partner Khaled Mouzanar of various kinds of offences. The most widely expressed of these centres on the concept of ‘poverty porn’, something previously visited upon Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire (UK-US-India 2009). I struggle to understand exactly what ‘poverty porn’ might be but first here’s a brief outline of Capernaum and its production.
Lebanon is a country which has suffered more than most because of its own internal divisions, partly derived from its colonial past, and its proximity to the wholescale disruption of people’s lives in Palestine and Syria and the subsequent migrations of refugees to Lebanon. At the same time, Beirut has maintained its position as a major economic and cultural centre for the entire region. Nadine Labaki has attempted to bring together several social issues as the basis for her story about Zain, a 12 year-old Lebanese boy who leaves his family and for a brief period lives with a migrant worker and her infant child. The story engages with the ‘street culture’ of Beirut, the refugee camps, the difficulty of achieving resident status and the ways in which so many people can easily become ‘invisible’ because of their lack of official recognition. Thus the ‘chaos’ of life in Beirut. Labaki’s strategy is to create a narrative which at one level appears to explore this world using the techniques of neo-realism, but also with some of the more expressionist devices of contemporary cinema such as the drone shots which show the extent of of cheap housing and shacks. The narrative structure uses a series of flashbacks from a central court case in which the young boy sues his parents for bringing him into this world of chaos.
Nadine Labaki’s previous films as director are Caramel (2007) and Where Do We Go Now? (2011). The first is a form of realist melodrama centring on the lives of women from different backgrounds who meet at a local beauty shop. The second is an unusual form of musical comedy which explores questions about civil war via the idea of women in an isolated village attempting to defuse hostilities by manipulating the sexual desires of the men. Capernaum is in some way an amalgam of the styles of the first two films, bringing together a realist style with the narrative device of a courtroom in which the trial becomes an indictment of a whole structure of government policies in Beirut. This is something used in a slightly different way in a film like Bamako (Mali-France 2006). Nadine Labaki also starred in her first two films as a director (she also works as an actor in both French and Lebanese cinema) but in Capernaum she plays the role of the Zain’s counsel in court, an important, but secondary role. Although the trial seems an unlikely event, Labaki consulted retired judges to ensure that the scenes have some credibility. Many of the actors in the film are non-professionals, often with ‘real-life’ experience of the kinds of roles they play.
Only a vocal minority of commentators are against this film which scores a very high 8.4 on IMDb. But it is worth looking at the negative reviews to try to understand the issues a little more clearly. The Slumdog Millionaire comparison is interesting because some of the critics refer to Capernaum as ‘Oscar bait’ and accuse it of ‘manipulation’. (The film was distributed in the US by Sony Classics in the US, giving it a higher profile than Labaki’s earlier films.) At the same time there are charges from some critics that the film is ‘without cinematic merit’ while for others its use of hand-held camera and drone shots (and its flashback structure) are cinematic devices which ‘get in the way’ of presenting the real conditions faced by the thousands living in cheap housing or on the streets in Beirut. The charge is that Labaki is a relatively wealthy woman exploiting her non-professional actors in order to make American audiences cry – and presumably to make themselves feel better. One commentator calls Labaki a ‘Western woman’. But not everybody who is educated, talented and speaks French and/or English is ‘Western’. It seems that Nadine Labaki had to help some of her non-professional actors in ‘real life’ because of their precarious positions. ‘Zain’ is played by Zain Al Rafeea, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon and ‘Rahil’, the woman he meets and befriends is played by Yordanos Shiferaw, an Eritrean refugee in Ethiopia who became an illegal migrant worker in Lebanon. Both Zain and Yordanos were helped in different ways. The parents of the little girl who plays Rahil’s son were also arrested during the shoot and the crew had to intervene. Even so the mother and child were deported back to Kenya and the father to Nigeria. This information is taken from the film’s Press Pack.
But what about ‘poverty porn’? Describing something as ‘porn’ suggests that it is produced in order to ‘arouse’ audiences/readers, to stimulate an excessive interest in something. In the case of ‘gastro-porn’ or ‘gardening porn’ it’s used as a criticism of middle class readers who revel in the expensive beauty of these objects of consumption. But how does this work with images of poverty? Their status as pornographic images can derive only from the perceived exploitation of the actors or the behaviour of those who watch/read the imagery. However, unlike haute cuisine or beautiful gardens, images of poverty are also concerned with exposing and circulating ways of living/surviving that are often excluded from cinema screens. There is always a case for showing not excluding. The argument must be about how they are shown, but also about the need to show them in such a way to attract audiences who might not otherwise be aware of the issues.
If I think about my own reaction to the film, I don’t think I was ‘shocked’ or that I felt ‘manipulated’ by the film. Many scenes are certainly difficult to watch and I was emotionally engaged but I’ve seen similar films before. Once or twice I was struck by similarities with Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988) and, more oddly, I thought about Battle of Algiers (Algeria-France 1966) – I think it was the prison scenes. I was very impressed by the performances of the non-professionals. Zain in particular is a very distinctive young boy, small for his age but seemingly fearless. The fact that he is a very attractive and appealing child has perhaps fuelled some of the negative reviews. The German-Lebanese cinematographer Christopher Aoun is still in the early stages of his career but I thought his work was very effective. The music by Khaled Mouzanar worked for me and he and Nadine Labaki have produced a film with a universal story that is stunningly presented in the context of Beirut.
I don’t know Nadine Labaki personally and I can’t judge whether she has exploited her non-professional cast. All I can do is watch the film and read what she has said about its production. Her most vocal critics might have some local knowledge about life in Beirut but from my perspective this is a powerful film that deserves its large audience. The claims that it has no ‘cinematic merit’ just seem silly. In the wider context I hope that Capernaum makes audiences more aware of the refugee crisis in Lebanon and exerts pressure for changes in international policies affecting the region. It would be good if attention switched to a little further down the coast and focused on the major causes of the refugee crises in Lebanon over the past 70 years – the forced flight of Palestinians from their homelands and the proxy war that has just been fought in Syria. I’m also looking forward to whatever Nadine Labaki produces next.
Here’s the Canadian trailer:
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.
What is the status of Michelangelo Antonioni today? In the 1960s he was in some ways the archetypal figure of the European art director. His three English language films, Blow-Up (1966), Zabriskie Point (1975) and The Passenger (1975) then transformed him into a new kind of celebrity artist. For older cinéphiles his great works might be the trilogy of ‘alienation’ films from the early 1960s, L’avventura (1960), La notta (1961) and L’éclisse (1962). But what about the 1950s? Antonioni was born in 1912, making him roughly a contemporary of Bergman (b. 1918) and Kurosawa (b. 1910), but unlike those two prolific filmmakers who were active in their film industries by the early 1940s, Antonioni’s progress is more hesitant. He co-writes A Pilot Returns with Rossellini in 1942 and directs eight documentary shorts between 1947 and 1950 before making his first feature, Cronaca di un amore (A Chronicle of Love) in 1950. Penelope Houston, editor of Sight and Sound from 1956, made the observation that unlike the Cahiers du Cinema writers who became filmmakers in La nouvelle vague or the Free Cinema directors in the UK who formed part of the British New Wave, Antonioni had no clear beginning, no celebrated first film and no clear ‘film movement’ identity. She quotes an interview in 1959 for Positif in which Antonioni explains that in 1943 he was directing a documentary about fishermen on the Po River – the same location used by Visconti for Ossessione, often quoted as the first neo-realist film in 1942. “Today, perhaps I would be cited in a discussion about the birth of neo-realism”, Antonioni suggests. (In Cinema: A Critical Dictionary Vol 1: Aldrich to King, Richard Roud (ed) 1980, Martin, Secker and Warburg.)
What then of La signora senza camelie?, one of three films that Antonioni directed or part-directed in 1953. Neo-realism was still a recognisable influence in Italy in the early 1950s and it certainly informs some of Enzo Serafin’s cinematography in the film. (Serafin worked continuously from 1942 and in 1954 shot Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia.) The narrative is familiar. Clara (Lucia Bosè) is a shop girl from Milan, an outstanding beauty who has been snapped up by a pair of film producers. They have put her into a mundane exploitation film and when the narrative of La signora senza camelie begins she is waiting in the street outside a cinema where her debut is being previewed in a public screening. These opening shots seem to promise distinctive location shooting. What follows certainly has neo-realist moments, especially because of the cinematography, but it is primarily a melodrama and in generic terms, a film about the film ‘business’ rather than about filmmaking per se – though there are some direct comments about performance. There are ‘pre-echoes’ of certain well-known films. It’s difficult not to think of Godard’s 1963 Le mépris (1963) in which an American producer wants to put Brigitte Bardot into a ‘classical drama’. In La signora senza camelie, Clara marries one of her producers, Gianni (Andrea Checchi) who installs her in a beautifully furnished by soul-less apartment and then casts her in a version of Joan of Arc. She goes to the Venice Film Festival and is humiliated when the film fails. In the meantime she has linked up with another hopeless lover, a diplomat who is not prepared to risk being seen with her publicly. She would be better off with the experienced actor Lodi played by Frenchman Alain Cuny, who in one scene teaches her how to make love for the camera. The film’s title presumably refers to The Lady of the Camellias or simply ‘Camille‘, a novel and play by Alexandre Dumas, an opera, La traviata, by Verdi and then a film made famous by Greta Garbo. Poor Clara has none of the mystique of Camille (though possibly all of the beauty).
La signora senza camelie is very much a film about mise en scène – the apartments, the beautiful clothes – and the cinematography. I’m sure there is music too – Clara sings in her début, but I didn’t really notice the music. Cinecitta, the great studio complex in Rome plays a role in the closing stages of the narrative, as do the paparazzi of Rome, ever-present in the studio canteen. Earlier, the two producers (the other one is much more pragmatic) first find a beautiful house belonging to the aristocracy and then fail to make use of its possibilities. Overall, I found the film beautiful to watch (and that includes the luscious Lucia Bosè, who I realise was in the Spanish film The Death of a Cyclist a couple of years later – she married a Spanish bullfighter). The narrative is in one sense quite cynical and in another an exposé of the celebrity culture of Italian cinema and what eventually came to be known as ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’. Fellini’s films make much more sense when you’ve seen this film and perhaps Visconti’s Bellissima (1951) the more ‘neo-realist’ film that traces the story of a mother’s attempt to get her child into the film world. I feel I appreciate Antonioni’s skill more than I did before, but he still feels a bit like a ‘cold fish’.
Like all Italian films of the period the dialogue is dubbed. I was surprised that this is very badly done at one point.
I watched the film on MUBI. It is currently available on a Masters of Cinema dual format DVD/Blu-ray. In the clip below (no English subs) we see Clara and Lodi playing the love scene in her second film. The director is the man in charge, though both the producers are also on set. What are those extras, seen through the window, doing outside?
Ciambra is a small settlement in Calabria in Southern Italy (close to Gioia Tauro) with a large extended Roma family involved in various ‘marginal’ and ‘illegal’ activities. The youngest son in the family is 14 year-old Pio (Pio Amato). Not much older than his own nephews and nieces, Pio is conscious of needing to grow up quickly to be like his much older brother and to get away from the scrutiny of his mother, the matriarch of the family. This sounds like it will be a conventional coming-of-age story, but there is more to it than that. This isn’t a Mafia/Cammora/’Ndràngheta story. Ciambria is an isolated community – more like an isolated encampment than part of a city. Pio goes into the town or to other small communities but avoids mainstream criminals. The Roma boy is concerned about territories and identities. (The real Gioia Tauro is only a small town but it has been associated with ‘Ndràngheta and it has the largest container port in Italy.)
Writer-director Jonas Carpignano (born & schooled in New York, lives in Italy) made a big impression with his first feature Mediterranea (Italy 2015) about the problems of two African migrants coming to Italy. His reward was to be selected as one of the first to benefit from Martin Scorsese’s fund for younger filmmakers and a subsequent offer of support from Sundance. His starting point was to go for the ‘authenticity’ of non-professionals and the whole Roma family appear to be playing themselves if the credits are to be taken at face value. Fairly early on it becomes clear that Pio is not quite like the older members of the family – though he may be a throwback to his grandfather, the man who established the community in the area and who is still around at the start of the narrative. After the screening and after researching Mediterranea (which only got a DVD release in the UK and which I haven’t seen), I realised that Pio and his African friend Ayiva (Koudous Seihon) feature in both films, though whether as the same characters I’m not sure.
A Ciambra was screened in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes and was chosen as the Italian entrant for the Foreign Language Film Oscar so it has clearly made an impact. A good starting point might be to consider the extent to which the film refers back to neorealist studies of specific communities. Carpignano himself refers in this interview to his childhood memories of De Sica and Rossellini and the kids in their films. Jonathan Romney has referred to Visconti’s La terra trema (1948) because of that film’s similar focus on a tightly-knit community in Sicily. Many critics have tried to place the film in relation to that Italian tradition and more recent approaches. The Dardenne brothers post Rosetta (1999) is one touchstone but I’ve tended to see them as slightly removed from classic neorealism. Carpignano uses his non-professionals filmed on authentic locations and he inserts some traditional neorealist ‘lacks’ (problems) that need to be sorted. This mainly means finding sources of money from increasingly ambitious petty crimes to solve various problems faced by the extended family. Unfortunately, Pio’s education is in stealing credit cards and copper wire and trying to grow up to be like his brother. He has to get another young person to read the messages on his phone because he hasn’t had time to learn to read. There isn’t a great deal of plot but Pio’s ‘coming of age’ comes in a final sequence which I found very distressing. But as my viewing partner pointed out what we were offered is a reality in Italy.
Jonas Carpignano has an Italian father and an African-American mother. This may be a reason why he began his feature film career with a story about African migrants and why in his second film he shows both the mixed race children in the Roma family and the African community in another small community that Pio is drawn towards by his friend Ayiva. The Africans are mainly from Nigeria and Ghana and they speak English as a common language, that is also used by Ayiva from Burkina Faso. The reality is that in the pecking order in Calabria, the Roma come below the Italians and the Africans are below the Roma. Neorealism can be developed as melodrama and this true to a certain extent in A Ciambra which has plenty of music on the soundtrack and a range of emotional relationships. But it also has its own element of ‘magic realism’ in the hallucinations that Pio experiences concerning his grandfather. I thought at first these came from heavy dope smoking – when Pio first sees the horse I thought of a similar moment in La haine (France 1995) when Vinz sees a cow in his housing estate. But then it occurred to me that the fantasies came because of the pressure suffered by Pio. There is a sense that Pio is his grandfather re-born and that he could rise above his misdeeds. I hope so. It’s very difficult not to warm to Pio as a character. He’s 14 years-old and frightened of travelling on a train – he’s not a gangster.
A Ciambria is photographed by Tim Curtin who also lensed Mediterranea and was in the camera unit on Beasts of the Southern Wild (US 2012), another film I haven’t seen. I mention it here because Jonas Carpignano was an assistant director on that film which also included in its crew the film editor and music composer of A Ciambra, Affonso Gonçalves and Dan Romer. I’m pleased to report that Peccadillo Pictures has picked up A Ciambra for a UK release in May. It’s well worth a watch. IFC/Sundance Selects released the film in the US in January:
One of the highlights of ¡Viva! this year, El Mundo sigue is a film made in the early 1960s and then suppressed, only re-emerging in a restoration in 2015. As such, it serves as a form of commentary on the censorship under Franco and therefore as a useful indicator of what La transición had to achieve in the liberation of Spanish cinema. The screening was introduced by Stuart Green from the University of Leeds who also led a post-screening discussion.
Stuart explained that the film suffered from attention by the censors and was re-edited after completion in 1963 in the hope of getting a higher classification (i.e. a licence for wider distribution) but even so its release in 1965 was restricted to a handful of screenings outside Madrid. This was particularly damaging since the narrative focuses on the working class district in Madrid that became the centre for ‘La Movida’ fifteen years later. We watched the restoration screened from a DVD which unfortunately degraded the image in the long shots but medium shots and close-ups were fine. The restoration in 2015 was marked by a short documentary, El mundo sigue: La resurreción de una obra maestra del cine español which I think must be included on the Spanish DVD/Blu-ray.
El Mundo sigue is an adaptation of a 1960 novel by Juan Antonio de Zunzunegui, a distinguished Spanish writer known for ‘social criticism’. It offers a melodrama about a working-class family in which the two grown up daughters are at each other’s throats. Eloísa, the older sister, is a former beauty queen of the neighbourhood who has made an unfortunate marriage to a wastrel, a waiter at a local bar-café. Over the course of the narrative she has to find enough money to feed three young children since her husband wastes his tips and meagre wages on the weekly football ‘pools’. By contrast, her younger sister Luisita ‘progresses’ from a job in an up-market fashion shop into a glamorous life with a string of ‘sugar daddies’ – rich businessmen who buy her expensive gifts. Whenever Elo and Luisita meet at their parents apartment there are fireworks. Their father is a local police officer, their brother a pious young man who left a seminary and their mother struggles each day to feed the family.
The film was directed by Fernando Fernán Gómez (1921-2007), one of the towering figures of Spanish theatre and film as both actor and director. Here he also takes on the key role of Faustino the waiter and husband of Elo. His role is both similar and very different to his lead in That Happy Couple (Spain 1951), another attempt to get round the censors and critique Franco’s Spanish society that was made by Juan Antonio Bardem and Luis García Berlanga. Gómez approaches his film using neo-realism and developing its melodrama possibilities. The opening of the film involves a close-up of the driver’s seat and dashboard of an expensive car – this will also be the last shot of a film which is all one long flashback. The opening shot of that flashback is an observational, documentary long shot of a fruit and vegetable market. When the shot cuts to a location seemingly round the corner, we know immediately that although we are still ‘on the street’, we are now following the worn-down mother of a family, struggling back to her apartment with something for lunch. The apartment on the second floor of a tenement building is relatively spacious and at the rear there is an open terrace. There is space, but not much money to enjoy and exploit the space available. A similar terrace re-appears later in Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1987).
Neo-realism was popular as an aesthetic for several Spanish directors during the Franco era. The censors monitored the import of films, sometimes cutting scenes from those they allowed in. Italy as a Catholic country offered narratives about recognisable communities though they must have been cut because of the sexual content. Neo-realism also offered the ‘look’ of the prestige art films that Spanish authorities would have liked to have seen emulated by Spanish filmmakers at festivals like Cannes and Venice (though such films, like Bunuel’s Viridiana (1961), were sometimes not then released in Spain). Italian neo-realism was often open to melodrama and there are several scenes in which the performances are ‘excessive’ – Luisita and Elo fight and have to be kept apart. In other parts of the film, Gómez uses various expressionistic devices such as noir lighting and a montage of nighttime images. Running at just over two hours, the film is always engaging and watchable. The real question is what offended the fascist censors? What kind of social critique is being made?
During the screening, I thought of two other films from roughly the same time period, which although quite different in some ways did share some of the same themes and plot points. The first is Visconti’s Rocco and his Brothers (Italy-France 1960) which sees a similar family group in Milan and the contrasting fortunes of five sons, one of whom prompts moral concerns about his behaviour which causes pain for his mother. The second is John Schlesinger’s Darling (1965) in which Julie Christie had her breakout role as the middle-class girl who is destroyed by celebrity. I wondered what was ‘absent’ in the Spanish film compared to the other two. In Rocco, the working-class family is in a community (of migrants from the South) in which community and church are important and in which skilled factory employment and eventually unions and politics will become two further structures. In Franco’s Madrid of 1963/5 the Church seems surprisingly absent and, worse still, the pious and ineffectual son in the family is a weak character whose religiosity is mocked. There are no real jobs for women, only as servants or cleaners or shopgirls. Faustino’s job has little structure and father is a state employee in a lowly position. Eloísa is a sad figure, fulfilling a role in the Francoist state of having babies. Luisita is the only one with aspirations but these have been diverted into a form of prostitution and an engagement with the new world of consumerism which is only available to the rich and which is evident in clothes and American cars. I suspect if cuts were made they removed something that explains Luisita’s sudden move into this world. She leaves home after one of her fights with Elo and is suddenly in a modern apartment with a Dansette and a pile of pop records. Stuart Green suggested that scenes were also cut depicting Faustino and Elo in bed together. This despite the fact that they are husband and wife. The ‘freedom’ and consumerism of the young and especially young women in 1965, just prior to Swingin’ London is at the heart of Darling. But Diana Scott (Julie Christie), although she is ‘punished’ for her immoral behaviour has, in modern parlance, ‘agency’. She becomes a celebrity as herself. The clothes she wears and the image she projects are for her pleasure, not as markers of her kept status.
In El Mundo sigue, the absence of those supportive, collective structures for the working-class family is to some extent countered by the presence of the playwright turned theatre critic. Here is a family friend, a writer whose play has only been seen a few times in the neighbourhood and was then barred from opening in ‘town’. Now he writes theatre reviews and at one point is warned not to be too critical of the plays he reviews. He comes to visit the apartment a few times and tries to give advice to the daughters. He is trusted by the mother because he is from the community – whereas the men Luisita takes up with have made their money through conforming to the Francoist regime’s policies.
The film’s narrative changes in its second half. Initially it would appear that the drivers of the narrative are Luisita and Elo. Gradually, however, it is Faustino who takes over Elo’s story as his gambling and womanising eventually leads to his downfall and Elo’s degradation. My memory is of Spain as a country besotted by lottery tickets but Faustino cons himself by thinking he is an expert on predicting football scores. The ‘pools’ is a relatively harmless pastime but Faustino is obsessed (we even get a glimpse of Real Madrid playing in the early 1960s when they were even more dominant than they are now). Low level gambling keeps the working-class happy and uninvolved in political struggle (see the rise of the lottery competitions in the UK since the 1990s) and seems a good way of satirising Francoism.
In the discussion that followed, it was clear that people had enjoyed the film. I think it would be very interesting to compare El Mundo sigue with other similar films from across Europe during the same period. I’m sure the differences would be interesting and show up what living under Franco was like for the urban population in the 1960s. Unfortunately the Spanish DVD is listed as only having French subs. The trailer here doesn’t hve subs but gives an idea of the film.
In the clip below from the early part of the film, we see Lusita working in an up-market shop, then Elo arriving at the family apartment seeking money to buy her children food. The pious brother and father are also there and eventually Luisita arrives and the sisters are immediately at odds.
The title ‘Old Stone’ is a play on the English translation of the Mandarin name Shi Lao, a taxi driver in a ‘third tier’ city in Eastern China. Impressively played by Gang Chen, Shi is the unfortunate man caught up in the scandal of road accidents in contemporary China. When a drunk passenger pulls his arm and causes him to knock over a motor-cyclist, Shi foolishly forgets about the ‘proper procedures’ and takes the injured man to hospital where he undergoes emergency surgery and then falls into a coma. Shi then finds himself liable for all the hospital bills. The taxi company’s insurers won’t pay out because Shi moved the injured man (and therefore what caused his subsequent condition cannot be determined). The police won’t release Shi’s taxi or an accident report.
The sensible course for Shi would be to tell the man’s family that he has no money. As soon as Shi’s wife realises that he is paying hospital bills ever day, she closes their joint account and distances herself from him (she runs a children’s nursery). I won’t spoil the narrative further but clearly this situation can’t go on. Gradually Shi is moved to take drastic action. In reality, those who cause motor accidents in China are sometimes driven to running over the victims again and fleeing. The financial penalty for causing death on the road is less than the cost of paying insurance bills. Old Stone will eventually become a form of film noir in which Shi is the doomed man. As his name implies, Shi is stubborn and obstinate in maintaining his responsibility – he remains true to a collectivist spirit which has been lost in China’s headlong rush into ‘modernity’. Eventually however he is going to be forced into desperate measures.
Writer-director Johnny Ma left Shanghai for Canada aged 10 and returned to work in New York and Shanghai after graduating in 2010 from Columbia. Old Stone was made by a mixed Chinese-Canadian crew and lensed by Leung Ming-Kai from Hong Kong on location in China. At a concise 80 minutes this is a tightly edited and very effective slice of social realism morphing into a film noir crime story. It is remarkable as a first feature. I was reminded of both a Fifth Generation film like The Story of Qui Ju (Zhang Yimou, 1992) and a Sixth Generation film like Beijing Bicycle (Wang Xiaoshuai, 2001). Both these films take a simple premise in which a working-class character seeks some form of justice in the face of bureaucracy and a changing society and, as the title of the second implies, they draw inspiration (directly or indirectly) from neo-realism and films like Bicycle Thieves (Italy 1948). Neo-realism also offers the possibility of melodrama and the noirish ending of Old Stone reminded me of a tragic sequence in Rocco and His Brothers (Italy-France 1960). In North America, the legal problems around car accidents might lead to the arrival of ambulance-chasing unscrupulous lawyers and in Carancho (Argentina 2010) Pablo Trapero explores similar forms of criminality around car crashes in Argentina. This is a universal issue effectively used in this new form of independent cinema in China (i.e. ‘new’ in the sense of the mixed crew and the tighter edit).
I feel I must also say something about the look of Old Stone. When the film began I struggled for a moment when plunged into the middle of a street scene. It struck me that some films seem made for a smaller screen. At times the image looked very grainy when seen close on the large Vue screen. I wondered if it had been shot on 16mm, or perhaps post-produced to give that effect. Either way it enhanced the sense of the neo-realist approach. By contrast Ma also offered us lush shots of treetops blowing in the wind, seemingly as abstract images but later revealed as associated with the film’s finale. Again these images struck me as reminders, first of the start of Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild (no connection I could spot, except that they are both enigmatic) and, more directly, Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (South Korea 2003) – a film mixing social and political commentary with a crime investigation by a disorganised and corrupt police team.
Old Stone has impressed at various festivals with Nominations and Prizes. It will definitely be released in North America and I recommend it. Here’s a good trailer.
Court is a singular film and one of the most interesting and, despite being disturbing in its exposure of injustice, most enjoyable films released in the UK in 2016. It has been a prizewinner at festivals around the world and in 2015 was selected as best film in the Indian National Film Awards. Released by the independent distributor ‘day for night’ you can trace its journey across the UK on the company website. If you are in the UK there are still a couple of dates left on its tour. Don’t miss it! Court was released in North America in 2015 by Zeitgeist Films and is now on iTunes in the US.
Court is the first feature film by Chaitanya Tamhane. It’s an impressive production that is the result of meticulous research and preparation. Tamhane takes aim at the Indian judicial system, but also exposes issues of social class and caste. There are many Indian films that feature court scenes but these are usually high profile cases and the court procedures are only seen for a short time. No One Killed Jessica (India 2011) and Guilty (Talvar, 2015) are two recent films that have explored high-profile cases with the attendant interest of the Indian media. After lengthy research and observation of a local court, Tamhane decided to base his story on what happens in a ‘Sessions Court’ in a Mumbai district where cases are usually mundane with little interest by the media. As the name implies, these courts should deal with criminal matters within a single session, but in practice the use of adjournments and the culture of Indian bureaucracy means that cases can drag on for several months or even years while the accused is detained on remand – unless bail can be agreed and surety found. Tamhane wrote a detailed script based on his research but what transpires on screen appears as though it is part of a documentary.
The approach adopted by Tamhane and his crew is very simple – and thus unconventional. Cinematographer Mrinal Desai (who worked second unit on Slumdog Millionaire – a very different kind of film) ‘simply’ plonks down his camera and films in long takes (and often framing in long shot) from that position. It seems simple but requires careful choreography of actors and well-chosen positions from which to view the action. It perhaps sounds dull and although the film is in ‘Scope with vibrant colours, there aren’t many exciting vistas of Mumbai. Yet it works and more than that it works well. The film opens by following a character from an informal schoolroom in a housing block across the city to a square in another suburb. The character turns out to be a performer who climbs onto a makeshift stage and launches into a song/performance poem with lyrics that encourage protest and resistance. During the performance the camera first moves in to frame just the performance itself and then pulls back and, just like the classic scenes in a Rossellini neorealist film like Rome, Open City (Italy 1945), we watch in alarm as police enter the square with officers carefully positioned in the crowd while their leader strides onto the stage and arrests the performer. He is Narayan Kamble, the accused man whose trial we are about to witness.
The same camera style is employed throughout and often it is highly effective in creating that sense of realism often termed the ‘reality effect’. The fixed camera means that we are invited to watch everything that is happening without the framing ‘directing’ us to look specifically at the characters in the central narrative. The camerawork is accompanied by an editing style that works in two ways. Sometimes scenes end quite abruptly and the story seems to leap forward to the next scene. On other occasions the camera continues to film when the characters in the main story have left the scene and sometimes the sequence begins before the characters appear. This means in court that we see the tail-end of one case and the beginning of others. The overall effect is to confirm that what we are following in the main story is just one element in the daily life of the city.
Many of the actors in the film are non-professionals. Some are friends or colleagues of the director. Although the courtrooms look like the ‘real thing’ filming is not allowed inside them so Tamhane built sets – you aren’t likely to notice. The film’s story appears to have been based on a specific real life case, but there are many similar cases.
Finding the human story
A key aspect of the film is the focus on each of the central players (except the accused) – and their lives outside the court. We follow the judge and the prosecution and defence lawyers. The object of this is not so much to drive the narrative forward as to fill in the social context of the trial. All of the central characters are ‘real people’ outside the court with the kinds of problems that everyone has. Crucially the three characters represent different social strata.
The crime at the centre of the court case is frankly ludicrous and the prosecution is based on an obscure and obsolete Victorian criminal code. The purpose of the legal action is to persecute social activists – the kind of community music/poetry activism depicted is real enough and is explored in the recent documentary Jai Bhim Comrade (India 2011) by Anand Patwardhan which focuses on activism in Dalit communities (i.e. the lowest caste groups). Tamhane decides not to tell us about Narayan Kamble himself – apart from what is revealed in the court exchanges. The object is to expose the injustices and bureaucratic incompetencies of the court system. The ‘humanity’ of the film comes partly through the almost surreal humour that underpins certain scenes. Tamhane does not directly undermine any of his characters. Instead he invites the audience to come to their own conclusions (though he does decide what to show as well as how to show it).
The importance of language
The film uses four languages. The official languages of the court are Hindi and English. However, the working-class Mumbai communities use the local language Marathi (which, incidentally, has quite a strong local/regional film culture) which is allowed in court. The defence lawyer is a middle-class, upper caste man who takes the case much like a pro bono lawyer in North America. At home he speaks Gujarati with his family, but in court he speaks English – and is seemingly at a disadvantage with important defence witnesses who speak only Marathi. He speaks the local language but not fluently. Sometimes, characters use phrases from different languages in the same sentence – a common feature of Indian cinema. Do the judge and the prosecution counsel have an advantage in speaking three languages in court? Mumbai attracts migrants from across India so in some cases witnesses may not speak any of the three languages of the ‘Bombay’ court (as it is still officially known). The court system is clearly out of date and needs reform. The language question suggests that one of its chief problems is the lack of equal access to quite literally ‘speak’ in court.
The language of the judicial system is English and the archaic laws were introduced under the British Raj. They are now being used by Narendra Modi’s government to curtail the actions of political activists in much the same way the British curtailed political activity in the early 20th century. The three legal figures in court are all in one sense ‘middle-class’ which is a difficult concept in Indian society and in practice they live very different lives. The defence lawyer inhabits a global world of delicatessens and Western music bars with an income boosted by family wealth. The judge is part of a clubbable local community with its outings and social events. The prosecution lawyer has perhaps the most difficult job in managing both a professional life and her family – but this in turn perhaps makes her harder on the people she prosecutes. In the UK she might be a lower middle-class Tory, especially hard on working-class activists.
Court, in its quiet way, dissects and exposes the workings of contemporary India. It’s essential viewing.
The filmmakers discuss how the film came into being:
Jafar Panahi’s film opened on just 18 screens in the UK. It got some excellent reviews and its modest screen average doesn’t seem to have deterred subsequent bookings (you can find the next couple of weeks’ screenings here). It will travel around the UK but I still feel that it is something of an insult to one of global cinema’s finest filmmakers that his Berlin prize-winning film is treated in this way. Most of the bookings are in London and often the film shows just once. The UK’s three chains of supposedly specialised cinemas Picturehouse, Curzon and Everyman – are not showing this as a ‘circuit film’ even though it outstrips anything else they have to offer. Taxi Tehran is an unassuming masterpiece based on skill, intelligence, creativity and bravery – all attributes Panahi has consistently demonstrated in his ongoing satire on the absurdities of government control of artists in Iran. Don’t these clods ever realise what an alluring and joyful representation of Iranian culture filmmakers like Panahi are offering to the world? Perhaps this is the very reason why they try to silence him.
You may have read that Taxi Tehran consists entirely of footage taken by a dashboard camera in Panahi’s car as he drives through Tehran accepting passengers as if he was offering a taxi service. On a couple of occasions the footage is augmented by footage from his young niece’s digital still camera. If this sounds dull, believe me it isn’t. I won’t spoil the film by detailing all the ways in which the critique works. I’ll restrict myself to one example. When Panahi picks up his young niece outside her school, she comes on with a full diva stance – his car isn’t flashy enough for a famous director. She then tells him that she has to create a film for a school project and that the film must be ‘screenable’. It must conform to the criteria set down by her teacher. These ‘rules’ include all the proscriptions set out by Iran’s censors, including the ban on ‘sordid realism’ and any discussion of social, economic or political ‘problems’. Panahi’s film breaks all these rules in every mini-narrative which develops each time another passenger gets into his car. I admired Panahi’s earlier This Is Not a Film (2011) but it did involve some tedium and intellectual effort to ‘enjoy’. Taxi Tehran is pure cinema, start to finish as far as storytelling is concerned. If you can’t cope with the director as auteur you might find it irritating that several references to Panahi’s other films are important. Personally, I don’t care – Panahi the man comes across here as a lovely man I instantly want to take round to my local pub. He doesn’t have to drink alcohol if he doesn’t want to but I know he would make the lives of ‘ordinary’ people interesting. At one point, somebody asks him how they should find a story for a film. I thought he might use the neo-realist mantra. He doesn’t, but in practice he follows it all the time – stories based on the everyday encounters of people on the streets. Magnifique!