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!
Rocco and His Brothers has been restored by the Cineteca di Bologna and the Film Foundation and it reappears complete with a couple of UK censor’s cuts now included. It’s quite simply magnificent, demonstrating Luchino Visconti’s great strengths of realism and melodrama as presented by a passionate opera director. It also features three central performances, each of which is worth the price of admission alone and which together keep our attention riveted to the action over nearly three hours.
Like many major films of the period this was an Italian-French co-production with two of the three leading roles taken by French actors. Alain Delon would go on to become one of the major French stars of the next twenty years and alongside Plein soleil in 1960 this was the film that established his international reputation. Annie Girardot was a major new female player in France in the 1950s, surprisingly ignored by the Cahiers critics-turned-filmmakers in the early 1960s but here getting the international exposure she merited. Visconti himself began his film education as an assistant to Jean Renoir in the 1930s before making Ossessione (Italy 1942), often regarded as the first neorealist film. I was reminded of Ossessione several times in watching Rocco and His Brothers, especially by scenes around Lake Como and by the bleakness of the outskirts of Milan. The story of the film is relatively straightforward. Rocco (Delon) is the third of five brothers and at the start of the film the four youngest brothers arrive with their mother in Milan to join Vicenzo the eldest, already trying to start a new life. The family comes from what is now known as Basilicata in the far South of Italy. The brothers struggle to establish themselves but eventually the second brother, Simone (Renato Salvatori), wins some fights as a professional boxer. This will eventually prove to be an unfortunate development as his success attracts the attention of a beautiful but dangerous prostitute, Nadia (Girardot). She later develops a rather different kind of relationship with Rocco and the resulting love triangle tears the family apart. Salvatori gives the third great performance. He has the look and the body of a boxer, something he trained for in preparation for the role. Several commentators have suggested that Coppola and Scorsese were both very impressed by Visconti’s film. Nino Rota wrote the score for Rocco and His Brothers and went on to work on The Godfather for Coppola. Salvatori’s performance was perhaps an inspiration for De Niro in Raging Bull?
The script is not without flaws. Visconti presents it in five chapters titled after each of the brothers in turn, but they don’t each get the same screen time and it is as if Visconti uses the other three characters to explore the sociological and cultural questions about the migration to the North while the melodrama rages around Rocco and Simone. Vicenzo marries the respectable Ginetta (an under-used Claudia Cardinale) and begins a family. Ciro, the fourth son, continues his education and becomes a ‘new worker’ – a skilled man at the Alfa-Romeo factory. The fifth brother is still a child at the beginning of the film and his main contribution (apart from running errands) seems to be to prompt Rocco into thinking of moving back down South to reclaim the family’s roots. (Rocco is named after San Rocco – the saint associated with the city of Potenza in Basilicata.)
In some ways the film’s story runs counter to the idea that the South is the source of corruption (and organised crime) and that the North is the new modern, ‘civilised’ Italy (a view partly derived from Gramsci). Geoffrey Nowell-Smith links Rocco and His Brothers to Visconti’s other ‘historical’ ventures, including his similarly long film on the tuna fishermen of Sicily, La terra trema (1948) and the rather different Senso (1954) set at the time of the Austrian loss of Northern Italy in 1866. It’s fascinating to read Nowell-Smith’s 1967/73 ‘Cinema One’ book on Visconti some forty years later. He points out that Delon is both ‘wrong’ as a peasant from the South, and as the boxer who is drawn into the fight game by his brother’s actions – but also very ‘right’ as the seemingly weak, puny character who has great strength in his convictions. Smith also recognises that Rocco is actually much more concerned about his traditional view of the family than he is about the safety of Nadia. There is great complexity in the triangular relationship of the melodrama and it requires analysis and reflection to work through the links between the two types of drama. Max Cartier as Ciro doesn’t have Delon’s star power. In a different film his performance would have worked well. Here he comes across as a vehicle for statements of aspiration and his action in exposing his brother’s crime seems like a betrayal of family. In a different way the high melodrama performance of the Greek actress Katina Paxinou (an acclaimed international theatre star) as the mother of the family works in terms of the central melodrama but perhaps not in a neo-realist narrative.
I’ve noted that positions on Rocco and His Brothers have tended to change over time. Nowell-Smith in his entry on Visconti in Richard Roud’s Cinema, A Critical Dictionary in 1980 seems to have moved towards a more damning criticism of the melodrama narrative. He seems to feel that the problem with Rocco is that Visconti does not have a literary source which might ‘reign in’ his melodrama and opera tendencies. Other critics have in fact tried to find literary sources that might have influenced Visconti, including Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers. Part of the problem for critics has been that the films of Fellini and Antonioni from the same rich period of Italian cinema have to some extent pushed Visconti into the background. My own preference would always be for Visconti and I think it’s time his work was re-evaluated. Many of Visconti’s films are not ‘in print’ as either cinema prints or DVDs in the UK and this makes it difficult. However, Rocco is part of the Masters of Cinema DVD offer (2008) which also had Bellissima from 1952 but that now seems to be no longer available.
I haven’t mentioned Giuseppe Rotunno’s excellent cinematography on Rocco (and many of Visconti’s films) and he is listed as ‘supervising’ the visual qualities of the digital restoration at the age of 90. The other feature of the film which probably now gets more attention is the narrative importance of a homoerotic attraction that underpins Simone’s boxing career when he is taken on by a promoter who will eventually be drawn into the struggle between Simone and Rocco. That struggle in turn seems to involve more than just brotherly rivalry in its brutality and sexual humiliation. I’m going to have to watch the film again.
The original Italian trailer refers to the controversies in 1960s about the frankness of some scenes:
Writer-director Alice Rohrwacher made a strong début with her 2011 film Corpo celeste (Heavenly Body) which showed in Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, winning a prize. Although Artificial Eye released the film in the UK in 2012, it got little exposure and I missed it. I’ll certainly seek it out after seeing her new film The Wonders. I understand that both films have something of an autobiographical influence and the director’s sister Alba Rohrwacher, well-known on Italian screens, appears in The Wonders.
Alice Rohrwacher has an Italian mother and a German father who was a beekeeper. These are all part of the ‘narrative material’ of The Wonders. I find it difficult to categorise this film. There are strong elements of neo-realism, sometimes developed in surprising ways, and also moments of if not ‘magic realism’ at least something vaguely spiritual or fantastical. It’s also funny, dramatic and very moving. In genre terms I suppose it is a ‘coming of age’ narrative, but just as importantly it is a commentary on aspects of contemporary society – delivered with humour but also acuity. The Wonders won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2014, but I’ve also seen reviews that describe it as ‘slight’. I couldn’t disagree more.
The family at the centre of the film comprises an Italian mother, Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher), a German father (Belgian actor Sam Louwick) who keeps bees in the organic/’natural’/’bio’ manner, their four young daughters and Coco a family friend (also German, I think). It isn’t clear if they are squatting on the land or renting it. Clearly they don’t have much money and the bulk of the work seems to be organised by Wolfgang, but actually carried out by the eldest daughter Gelsomina. I’m not sure how old she is meant to be – 12-13 perhaps? The ‘business’ has all kinds of problems, but the two ‘disruptions’ that drive the narrative are a reality TV show, ‘The Wonders’, and the arrival of a 14 year-old boy seemingly as cheap labour on some kind of rehabilitation/probation scheme (he’s German as well). The reality show is a brilliant satire of Italian TV in which Monica Bellucci in a long white wig is a kind of carnival queen looking for colourful locals who in this part of coastal Tuscany can represent the farming community and evoke the ancient Etruscan culture. Wolfgang ignores the show but Gelsomina is entranced and secretly registers the family for the show. The boy says very little but entrances the girls with his ability to whistle.
“Le meraviglie is a film about the countryside, about the somewhat peculiar love between a father and his daughters, about missing male sons, about animals and little people that live in the television. It is a film in the viterbese dialect, but when the characters are angry, they even respond sometimes in French and German. Le meraviglie is also a fable.” (Alice Rohrwacher in the Press Notes)
I think that the film can be enjoyed simply on the level of the coming of age/family story (which does have a slight ‘twist’ at the end) but its real strength is Rohrwacher’s commentary on being an outsider – or an outsider community. She stresses that her setting is a specific region of Italy, where Tuscany, Lazio and Umbria meet and where dialect is still important and mingles with the languages of migrants. She points out that though many think of rural areas as somehow more ‘pure’ and monocultural, they are in this region likely to include the mixed family groups of which this family is representative. (Alexandra Lungu who plays Gelsomina comes from a Romanian family.) But it is more than just a story of migrations. Rohrwacher also points to the marginal position of Wolfgang and Angelica in terms of politics and lifestyles:
“They are people that arrived in the country as a political choice because in the cities there were no more jobs and years of demonstrations had been stifled by violence and disillusionment. So they read books, learned to make a vegetable garden with handbooks, tried hard, and fought the seasons alone. They are all ex-somethings, with different languages, distant pasts, but with common ideals. I have met many families like this in Italy, but also in France, in Greece. Small communities untethered to the rest, with autonomous rules and a parallel life to that which we read about in the newspaper. But it is not a simple life: you have to work hard and it is difficulty to survive without the comfort of belonging to a movement. You are not a true farmer because you are not from the land, but you can also not be defined as a city person because you have severed ties to the city. You are not hippies because you break your back from sun-up to sundown, but you are also not agricultural entrepreneurs because you reject the use of more efficient agricultural technology in the name of a healthier life. Not having a movement, a definition which can be ascribed from the outside, all that remains is one word: family.”
I realised while watching the film that I’d seen another film about a struggling family living on the land. Will It Snow For Christmas? (France 1996, dir. Sandrine Veysset) is a much bleaker and more realist film but it would be interesting to compare them. I’m still thinking through my readings of The Wonders – there are further remarks from Alice Rohrwacher about the post-1968 generation and conflicting ideas about what the changes post-1968 might mean – but I think it is also worth exploring what the film means in terms of the large number of migrants from Africa now entering Italy as the access point to Europe. I’ll definitely be coming back to this film which has been acquired for a UK release by Soda Pictures.
Titli is another important film in the gradual emergence of an ‘Independent Indian Cinema’. It represented the new strain of Indian cinema at Cannes this year and is still waiting for a release in India after festival screenings around the world. I was excited to see the film at the Leeds Festival – but disappointed in my quick scan of the audience around me by the absence of the local South Asian audience. We struggle to see Indian independents in UK cinemas and often they appear fleetingly in arthouse rather than multiplex cinemas. Titli is a debut (fiction feature) directorial outing for Kanu Behl, a graduate of the Satyajit Ray Film Institute in Kolkata. He himself is Punjabi and in the 1990s he grew up in Delhi with his parents – both actors, writers and directors. In 2007 he began an association with film festival workshops and Titli has been developed as part of a NFDC (National Film Development Corporation) Screenwriters’ Laboratory. Behl worked with Dibakar Banerjee on Oye Lucky!, Lucky Oye! in 2008 and Banerjee is the producer on Titli, making the film the first part of a partnership between his own production company and the mainstream production house Yash Raj Films – best known for Bollywood spectaculars. Banerjee is one of the leading figures in ‘Independent Hindi Cinema’ and took his place alongside Anurag Kashyap as a director on the compendium film project Bombay Talkies.
‘Titli’ means ‘Butterfly’ in Hindi and as a name for the lead character in the film, the youngest of three brothers, it is one of the reasons why he is teased and treated as naive. But Titli has plans to escape his all male family in a Delhi colony. While his elderly father (played by the director’s father) stays in the background, his two older brothers run a racket based on violent car-jackings in conjunction with a corrupt local police chief. Played by newcomer Shashank Arora, Titli is physically weaker, but, we suspect, a little brighter, than his brothers. The eldest brother Vikram, played by Ranvir Shorey (a comic actor in the other performances I’ve seen) is a terrifying brute here with the actor having piled on extra flab. Titli wants to escape and the rest of the family want enough capital to start a legitimate ‘cover’ business. But when the latest car-jacking goes wrong, losing everyone’s cash, Titli is chosen to be the means of recovery – by marrying him off to a young woman who could also be used in the family ‘business’. But the chosen bride (a suspiciously pretty young woman from a seemingly more established family) has plans of her own and she and Titli share a desire to escape. That’s enough spoilers. The script is well thought through and with good performances all round and lively camerawork, Titli is very successful. I’ve seen festival reviews which refer to violence ‘off-screen’ but I found that what was ‘on-screen’ was quite violent enough. I think that the preferred term for characters like Vikram is ‘a goon’ and he uses a hammer as a weapon of choice. This kind of violence is mainstream in India so I clench my teeth and sometimes close my eyes.
I want to recommend Omar’s review of the film on his new blog at Movie Mahal. He suggests that Titli marries the crime film and the traditional Hindi family melodrama – but of course here removes the mother figure. The new wife comes into an entirely masculine home (which production designers made even more claustrophobic by altering the rooms in the ‘on location’ dwelling). The second woman who exerts some external control over the family is Vikram’s divorced wife who demands her dues and causes further financial pressure. As well as this mixing of genres, Omar also notes the possible mixing of filming styles with elements of neo-realism feeding into the action sequences. I’ve seen references to improvised dialogue for many scenes and also the suggestion that the film was shot on 16mm to achieve a grittier feel. Neo-realism does move a narrative forward on the basis of simple but devastating problems associated with lack of money but what is important in Titli is perhaps that Titli the character is something of a fantasist/dreamer and that he has to recognise that he needs to become more realistic in his ambitions. His fantasies are based on the latest scam to involve India’s urban growth – the control of parking franchises in the new tower blocks seemingly rising everywhere in Delhi.
Films like Titli are conventional in the Western sense, i.e. they are recognisable as generic mixes which don’t utilise the specific conventions of the Bollywood (or Tamil/Telugu) masala film. There are no dance routines or ‘item girls’ but otherwise they are associated with the mainstream. I hope that the UK distribution arms of Yash Raj, Studio 18, UTV and Eros can get them into UK cinemas on a more consistent basis.
Kelly Reichardt’s new film Night Moves opens tomorrow and it seemed an appropriate moment to go back to one of her earlier (critical) successes. Ms Reichardt is in some ways an ‘old school’ independent filmmaker in the US. I’d only seen Meek’s Cutoff, which I liked very much, before watching Wendy and Lucy, so researching what she did earlier and how she has presented herself as a filmmaker since the 1990s has been an interesting experience.
Go to IMDB and there is no ‘biography’ for Kelly Reichardt. You have to read the interviews and articles on the more indy-orientated websites to learn that she left what she describes as the “cultural desert” of her Florida childhood to go to university in Boston. Now she teaches film as well as making her own films – primarily with writing partner Jon Raymond in Oregon. Her formative experiences in the art cinemas of the Boston area and her own classroom explorations seem to have been with the films of Fassbinder, Ozu, Bresson etc. and is intriguing to think that she has mostly worked on very American stories.
Wendy and Lucy is set in small town Oregon with a very simple outline narrative. Wendy Carroll (Michelle Williams) arrives in the small town in her beat-up Honda Accord with just her dog Lucy and a couple of bags of clothes. She appears to be on her way to Alaska where she hopes to find a job. But her journey is halted when first she discovers her car won’t start and then she manages to lose her dog. Much of the central part of the (quite short) film is taken up by the search for the dog – and a place to sleep when her car is impounded. It doesn’t sound much but the film is so skilfully constructed (Reichardt edits as well as directs) that it is always worth watching. Wendy is played by the astonishing Michelle Williams. I had to keep reminding myself that this is the same actress who can convince me that she is Marilyn Monroe. Here she is completely believable as the woman who suffers from one setback after another after making a single mistake.
Kelly Reichardt has discussed Wendy and Lucy in terms of Italian neo-realism. I can see the logic of this, though I didn’t think about neo-realism as I watched the film. I suppose I reflected on the use of long shots and the detailed observation of the minutiae of Wendy’s routines. I did think about European social realist filmmaking – but also about the American small town setting. On reflection, the images of the potential hostility of these small towns – even in the beautiful setting of the Pacific North West – is something that seems familiar from American literature as well as certain more mainstream films. Bizarrely the first film I thought of was Rambo (First Blood, 1982) and the initial reception given to the Sylvester Stallone character. I hope it’s not too fanciful but Rambo is a returning Vietnam vet entering a small town in Washington state. He is treated with mistrust and shown the door immediately. Wendy faces similar prejudices and also unwisely becomes entangled with the police. Reichardt grew up with a police officer father so it was odd that one aspect of Wendy’s arrest proved the only point when I doubted the ‘truth’ of the story.
At one point Wendy visits a fast-food restaurant and we see a man reading Ken Kesey’s 1964 novel Sometimes a Great Notion. This is an interesting element in the film’s mise en scène. Seen as one of the most important literary works coming out of the American North West, the book was adapted as a film directed by and starring Paul Newman and released at the end of 1970. Set in Oregon it features a family logging business – an ‘independent’ outfit that keeps producing lumber when the local unionised workforce goes on strike. This appears to be an admirable tactic in the context of US politics but from a UK perspective I found watching the film quite difficult despite the excellent cast. Perhaps I didn’t really understand it back then? What does it mean to Kelly Reichardt, I wonder? I mention the reference because Wendy and Lucy has been taken by many critics to be a commentary of some kind on American society in the latter part of George Bush’s presidency and on the cusp of the economic crash.
The film shows Wendy literally on the margins and finding it difficult to move forward. Several commentators have pointed to a crucial scene in which Wendy is given a small gift of a few dollars by the one character who has actually tried to help her. This is indeed an emotional moment. At other times we see Wendy counting the money she carries in a belt around her midriff. She isn’t actually destitute, she has enough to get ‘home’ to Indiana (?) where here notebook records that she started her journey. But apart from a phone conversation with her (rather unfriendly) sister we learn little about the life that Wendy has left behind. The small town at the centre of the story once had a mill, but now jobs are hard to find. There are still flashes of humanity in the responses to Wendy’s predicament but overall people seem to have ‘pulled up the drawbridge’. I should note however that some audiences have seen the film more from the perspective of Wendy’s loneliness than the evidence of insularity and lack of community shown by the townspeople (like all of us perhaps?).
Wendy and Lucy is of course a road movie and that raises expectations. Road movies are both supposed to ‘test’ their protagonists via new adventures and new relationships and to provide the means to escape and self-discovery. While the town itself is nondescript, the romance of Oregon is represented by the railway yards, the single track running through the trees and gorges, the sound of the train whistle and the camaraderie of the temporary camp for travellers. For an 80 minute film that at first glance offers a slight narrative, Wendy and Lucy actually delivers quite a rich viewing experience. I suspect that I will get more from it the next time I watch it.
Press Notes available here.
The official US trailer: