51. VOYAGE IN ITALY (Roberto Rossellini, Italy). Ingrid Bergman gave her most probing, penetrating performance in husband Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia. The film surveys a faltering marriage. Rossellini described its subject matter as “a couple’s relationship under the influence of a third person: the exterior world.”
Alex and Katherine Joyce, a British couple, first appear on a vacant, seemingly endless road to Naples. Only Katherine seems open to Italy. She tours alone a Neapolitan museum; ancient sculptures, which Rossellini’s closeups and upwardly tilted camera angles invest with startling life, stir her soul. She visits ionized craters near Vesuvius in Pompeii, where the spark of a cigarette ignites a gorgeous expanse of voluminous smoke; must one “lose” oneself, as in a cloud, to (re)discover a truer self? Katherine also visits ancient catacombs stacked with skulls and, at Pompeii, other remnants of the past: human remains from the volcano’s historic eruption. Molten plaster is poured into these so that the forms “come back to life.” A couple is locked for all time in their last embrace: the act of love; the point of death. All this constitutes Katherine’s soul-turning “voyage in Italy”—a journey contested, however, by her worry that Alex no longer loves her.
At the volcano, the Joyces agree to divorce; but, when a festive street crowd later separates them, they push their way through in order to reunite, spurring their reconciliation.
Rossellini makes us feel that everything depends on the course of this marriage, much as Antonioni, in L’eclisse (see above), would pin the world’s existence on the course of a fragile love affair. Antonioni ends his masterpiece by imagining the end of the world; Rossellini’s Voyage, though, ends in a burst of hopefulness—on however shaky ground. The Rossellinis divorced a few years later.
52. NIGHT AND FOG (Alain Resnais, France). The subject of the Holocaust has generated countless documentaries, including outstanding ones as the twentieth century drew to a close: Harun Farocki’s Images of the World and the Inscriptions of War (1989), Héctor Faver’s Memory of Water (1993) and Dariusz Jablonski’s Fotoamator (1998). But, closer to the event, Alain Resnais’s Nuit et brouillard remains the finest.
Resnais’s theme is the need to preserve historical memory—memory ever poised to slip away. At the sight of the Auschwitz death camp, careless green grass sways in the breeze, while black-and-white photos and newsreel snippets commit the reality of Auschwitz to flypaper. A long overhead shot of a blank field is held until the camera descends to reveal the surrounding barbed wire fence, with this ironical accompanying voiceover: “A placid landscape . . . An ordinary field over which crows fly”—author Jean Cayrol’s reference to Van Gogh’s symbol of matter’s passage into ephemera.
The film’s signature mode is the tracking shot. The camera surveys the camp, noting the massive fence, this time from the inside, and remnants of some of the abandoned structures. The film cuts from one tracking shot to another, edited to compose, seemingly, one mind’s haunted journey, perhaps the return of a ghost. As the camera explores one of the barracks, we hear, “No description . . . can restore [the inmates’] true dimension: endless, uninterrupted fear.” What we cannot grasp is already lost.
Intermittently, Night and Fog revisits human horrors—historical memory’s overload: SS surgical experimentation on prisoners; the bulldozing of mounds of corpses into a mass grave. The commentary ends by weighing the matter of collective guilt (“War nods, but one has one eye open”), addressing denial and revisionism, and wondering aloud how much “the next executioners” will resemble ourselves.
53. A MAN ESCAPED (Robert Bresson, France). Unsurprisingly, one strong nondocumentary about the Nazi death camps is Wanda Jakubowska’s The Last Stop (1948), for which the filmmaker drew upon her own internment at Auschwitz. Robert Bresson was a prisoner of the Germans in Occupied France for a year. His Un condamné à mort s’est échappé, ou Le Vent souffle où il veut, is similarly authentic—and taken from actual events.
In Lyon in 1943, Resistance fighter Fontaine, based on André Devigny, is the prisoner of Germans, who have condemned him to die. Fontaine plots his escape. Long self-sufficient, he must cross a chasm of suspicion to an ambiguous cell-mate, a teenaged boy who may be a plant. Will Fontaine take the risk and include this stranger in his plans?
A Man Escaped is one of the great works of French Existentialism. It is also unmistakably Bressonian, emphasizing the sights and sounds punctuating the routines inside the Gestapo prison. Throughout, subtle lighting implies, too, a gracious presence in the frames. When a fellow prisoner tells him that God will save them, Fontaine responds, “Only if we give him a hand.” But how? All one can do is make personal choices and accept their consequences.
Fontaine, at the last, does the humane thing. We know the outcome, from what happened to Devigny. Yet each fresh viewing revives the suspense that Bresson’s filmmaking, including Fontaine’s voiceover, develops by bringing us into the young lieutenant’s mind in the moment. And just as Fontaine is ultimately rewarded by escape, to execute which his companion proves absolutely essential (God at work?), we are rewarded with one of the most moving shots in cinema: the camera at their backs, the two men, side by side, walking their way at night, barefoot, to freedom.
The Spirit breathes where it will.
54. THE SEARCHERS (John Ford, U.S.). The protagonist of The Searchers is Ethan Edwards (John Wayne, powerful), an embittered veteran of—from his vantage—the War Between the States. Edwards provides the occasion for John Ford’s brilliant investigation of American racism; the film explores the darkest American terrain, where bigotry seems a primitive and instinctual birthright but is, really, a kind of insanity corrupting the moral landscape and tying all into a tangle American ideals, sentimentalism, territorial arrogance, loneliness, isolation, regional paranoia.
Ford sets the film’s action, then, along the great divide of American racial consciousness and collision. In postwar Texas, Edwards searches for his niece, whose parents were murdered in a Commanche raid motivated by revenge following the murder of Commanches by whites. Over time, “tainted” by her sexual relations with Scar, a Commanche, the kidnapped child (Natalie Wood—the film’s one piece of ineptitude) comes to draw her uncle’s hatred, changing the complexion of his mission. At the last, with her, terrified, in his arms, the memory of his having held her in his arms years back restores a profound sense of family connection. But Edwards knows he has no place in the racially mixed U.S. future that she and his adopted nephew, Martin, represent. Dispossessed, although finally emptied of racist demons, Edwards must wander endlessly between the winds.
Ford astonishes with gorgeous seasonal imagery that ironically reflects on a cycle of madness in the American soul. Shot after shot appears to project a facet of Edwards’s mental state: images that disclose the danger and desolation with which America is fraught—for the loneliness that connects Edwards with many other Americans isolates each of them.
Contributing to the film’s ineffable sadness, its sense of monumental lament, is the haunting ballad that dominates Max Steiner’s score, “The Searchers,” by Stan Jones.
55. TOKYO TWILIGHT (Yasujiro Ozu, Japan). Ozu’s deeply affecting Tokyo boshoku illustrates the disintegration of family in postwar Japan. It makes explicit what is implicit in Ozu’s exceptionally poignant Late Spring (1949), suggesting the bitter aftermath of the tenuously hopeful marriage with which the earlier film ends, and suggesting that the father’s Prosperoic sacrifice there—his letting go of his daughter, who had been anchoring his life, into a life of her own—has turned up empty for them both. Tokyo Twilight joins A Hen in the Wind (1948) in being one of Ozu’s bleakest works.
Shukichi Sugiyama’s two daughters, college-age Akiko and older sister Takako, live with him. When Akiko was an infant, Shukichi’s wife, Kisako, abandoned him and their children. Now Takako is conflicted for having left her spouse, an alcoholic brute, and her mother’s reappearance in the neighborhood deepens her anguish. Father and daughters each lead a painfully lonely life.
This is a film of cold, wintry evenings; its dusky and darker grays are correlative to souls at loose ends, living lives they cannot take hold of. With Dreyer’s Vampyr (see above), this is the grayest film ever made—Vampyr, light gray; Tokyo Twilight, dark.
Ozu’s angled shots of a couple, backs to the camera, sitting side by side, generally intimate the couple’s closeness and connectedness. Here, though, the couple aren’t a comfortable pair of married folk. Akiko and her boyfriend, Kenji, sit on a pier, bound together by Akiko’s news that she is pregnant, as fog and the moans of foghorns envelop them. Ozu cuts to a frontal view of the pair and cuts back and forth between them as they quarrel, now seemingly far apart. The couple disintegrates before our eyes.
Setsuko Hara, Ineko Arima, Chishu Ryu and Isuzu Yamada all give remarkable performances.
56. THRONE OF BLOOD (Akira Kurosawa, Japan). Kurosawa’s Kumonosu jo—Spiderweb Castle—transcribes Shakespeare’s Macbeth to medieval Japan.
By focusing on humanity’s confrontation with a shifting, unfathomable universe, for which the fog-drenched, convoluted maze of the forest becomes a symbol, Kurosawa can address Macbeth’s most perplexing paradox: that a bold leader could also be a subservient mate. Washizu’s battle prowess, and his assertions of military authority and political rule, enable him to hide, from himself and others, his fear and trembling; and, at home, he submits to his wife’s dominance only because she points up those deceptive appearances of reality that imply the cosmic ambiguity that terrifies him and proposes such courses of action as might hold his fear in abeyance. When he submits to Asaji’s cynicism and murderous promptings, Washizu is heeding the inner voice he has projected onto his wife. In accordance with the patriarchic culture that the film critiques, Asaji’s whole being has been sacrificed to the dutiful fulfillment of her marital role.
Washizu rallies his troops, reassuring them in order to reassure himself that they remain invulnerable. But for his bravado, Washizu remains awash in fear. And no wonder. The forest, the opposing army’s camouflage, appears to approach the castle on its own, its dark, billowing branches creating a magnificent sense of impending doom. Washizu’s troops turn on him, savaging him with arrows. The dread consuming Washizu is objectified by his awesomely protracted death, his eyes at the last bulging in animal horror at—what? Perhaps the nothing that is.
Grave, powerful, eerily beautiful, Kumonosu jo depicts a world where humanity acts violently in hopes of stilling fear and distracting its eyes from impenetrable mists. Haunted by interminable echoes of slaughter, it is an ancient world—and the modern one of the Holocaust and Hiroshima.
57. A BOUT DE SOUFFLE (Jean-Luc Godard, France). Godard’s A bout de souffle (literally, Out of Breath) helped define the nouvelle vague, the 1950s movement in French cinema that denoted freedom: freedom from the constraints of conventional, worked-through, tied-up narrative, freedom of personal expression, freedom of roving inquiry, and a freedom of camera motion scarcely seen since Dziga Vertov took to the streets of Moscow in the 1920s to record the pulsating synergy of Soviet life. Here is a film that bursts with spontaneity, in cinematographer Raoul Coutard’s gorgeous, unaffected black and white.
The film follows Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo, tremendous), a young hoodlum, from Marseilles to Paris, where he romances Patricia (Jean Seberg, wonderful), an American abroad. A cop killer, Michel is eventually shot to death in the street.
Our dynamic relation with movies: How does the interaction between us and film shape and detail us? Michel’s toughness is an act; but when the “act” is what one relies on, it determines behavior. A related issue: the extent to which movies have so conditioned our perception of reality that we sometimes address this perception as though it were reality.
Breathless has become synonymous with the jump cut—the visual jerk that results when consecutive frames are deleted from a continuous onscreen action. Besides being a distancing device to snap us to analytical attention, the technique reflects the characters’ dissociation from reality and the emotional gap between them.
Patricia says to Michel, “I want to know what’s behind that mask of yours.” But Patricia often also appears enigmatic; and, standing over his corpse at the end, she adopts Michel’s mask, with her duplication of his Bogart lip-rubbing gesture. Patricia, then, had also meant, “I want to know what’s behind my mask.” As do we. As does Godard—in terms of his own mask.
58. THE WORLD OF APU (Satyajit Ray, India). Apur Sansar, the conclusion of Satyajit Ray’s monumental Apu trilogy, from the novel Pather Panchali by Bibhutti-bhusan Badapaddhay, is cousin to Italian neorealism. The small boy from the impoverished rural family in the first part, Pather Panchali (1955), who went to school in Calcutta in the second part, Aparajito (1957), has now graduated from university and struggles to find work. In the meantime, he writes an autobiographical novel. He marries, but Aparna, his wife, dies in childbirth, estranging Apu from their son, Kajole, whom he abandons, and himself. The odyssey culminating in their reunion is the film’s emotional crux.
Apu’s reintegration comes after a great moment of loss and of moving on: from a hilltop, Apu, palms suppliant, unlooses—in a sense, sacrifices—the manuscript he has long labored on, which, given Aparna’s death, has become a record of endless grief. When he reunites with his son, he gives the boy a toy train. Passing trains—memory’s baggage—insinuate continuity throughout the trilogy; but it is a trail of loss, inaugurated by the childhood death of Durga, Apu’s older sister, and (following the deaths of both parents) compounded by the death of his bride—a continuity that, the closing shots imply, Apu’s reunion with Kajole—an image of his lost self—will reconcile him to and redeem. After Apu’s failed attempts to win the boy over, the sight of Kajole at home on his father’s shoulders overwhelms. But the trilogy is as circular as it is linear, with the first part as haunted by the future as the last part is haunted by the past. Still, the trilogy is open-ended. Where will the road of life lead that father and son end up on?
As Apu, Soumitra Chatterjee gives an eloquent, powerful performance.
59. THE 400 BLOWS (François Truffaut, France). François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows has drawn a measure of affection perhaps equalled only by The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, King Vidor, 1939) and La strada (Federico Fellini, 1954). Some rainy days the head says Bresson but we pop The 400 Blows into the DVD player instead. Some of us grew up with this film and don’t know where Antoine Doinel ends and ourselves begin.
Antoine, Truffaut’s alter ego, is, of course, the world’s most famous schoolboy. Priceless scenes take place in the classroom, reveling in the lively pupils’ dear, quirky behavior. Truffaut once said the only reason to make films with children is to express your love for children. Few films are so full of love as Les quatre cents coups—this, despite the fact that it perfectly blends objective realism and personal commitment.
Here, Paris, the City of Lights, the City of Love, is also the City of Adolescence, rendered in gorgeous black and white by cinematographer Henri Decaë. A liberated use of camera is one of the hallmarks of the nouvelle vague. Like Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite (1933), Truffaut’s film is an anthem of freedom.
Antoine’s troubled home life leads to his delinquency. His mother and stepfather have him put into a reformatory. Antoine’s escape is unforgettable: the stirring, aching tracking shot of his flight through the countryside, resolved in the single most celebrated shot in all of cinema: at shore, a startling freeze frame of the boy, who, with no place to run, blindly faces us—we (frozen, too) who cannot reach him to comfort him.
Fourteen-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud’s monumental, heart-piercing performance as Antoine, is, along with Chaplin’s in City Lights (1931), perhaps cinema’s most cherished. And dear Jean-Pierre is still acting, confounding late ’80s reports he had passed on.
60. PSYCHO (Alfred Hitchcock, U.S.). Marion Crane (Janet Leigh, marvelous) steals money from her Phoenix employer. On the way to lover Sam Loomis’s small town, in the rainy dark she inadvertently slips onto a back road, finding a barely functioning motel run by Norman Bates. After chatting with Bates, Marion decides to return the money; but the boy’s jealous mother kills her, and Bates unknowingly tanks the money in a swamp in covering up the crime. Bates’s mother died years ago, it turns out, and Bates—in denial; schizophrenic—periodically “becomes” Mother to reverse her death and assuage loneliness.
Based on the case of Wisconsin farmer and serial killer Ed Gein, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho essays American loneliness, which certain forces compel: rugged individualism as a character goal worthy of especially male pursuit; the suspiciousness, hostility and competitiveness this pursuit fosters; urban impersonality; rural isolation.
Marion steals because she sees no other way of translating her tawdry affair into the respectability of marriage. Bates also is in financial distress, the fortunes of his family enterprise having shifted with the Arizona sands underneath when the main highway, whose traffic the motel once accessed, was moved, banishing the motel to a marginal existence. Sales of hardware should translate into sufficient income for Loomis, but his luck is adrift in the same desert. In the U.S., the unpredictability of survival is peculiarly accompanied by an official insistence that hard work always yields a solvent result and that a contrary outcome is the individual’s fault.
Psycho sharpens its doleful black-and-white vision with wit, as when, from a tightly wound rotation on the murdered woman’s face, the camera, abruptly, appears to float to the stolen money by her motel room bed—a parody of “spirit leaving body” pointing up materialism’s place above spirituality in America’s hierarchy of values.
61. LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (Alain Resnais, France, Italy). Resnais’s grand hotel in Last Year at Marienbad, in haunting black and white, is the Mansion of Europe housing France’s memory. The twentieth century’s traumatic events, beginning with the Great War, have emptied the mansion of inhabitants. Everyone now is a guest in what used to be a home. The place feels abandoned by history. No one quite knows anyone else because people do not quite know themselves anymore.
Resnais and scenarist Alain Robbe-Grillet share an irritation with conventional narrative, that is to say, plot, a lack of interest in character psychology, and a more flexible sense of time than chronology permits. Motivated to forget the century’s horrors, can we be selective and retain the memory of love which once helped bring a sense of continuity to our lives? Few films seem as hermetically sealed as this one, but its insistence that it exists apart from our chaotic shared world only underscores its connection to that world. Hotel guests retreat into a fantastic realm where order can be (however unsuccessfully) imposed.
Fluid, upwardly tilted tracking shots through hotel corridors eternize human preoccupation with time. An elegant pair “reunite” in what may be, actually, their first meeting. How can one remember love when memory exists in time and in time’s passing, but love exists, sublimely, outside time? At once this-worldly and otherworldly, Classical and Romantic, rigorous and at capricious liberty, Resnais’s masterpiece is a compulsive yet unfettered dream that fulfills while yet confounding desire. The film’s trackings are our eye’s journey, the film’s voiceovers the voice that the muteness of dream denies us. Like an epiphany, however mysterious, even unfathomable, Last Year at Marienbad is also crystal-clear—and cold, beautifully cold: the memory of love longing to be filled by the feeling of love.
62. THE FIANCÉS (Ermmano Olmi, Italy). The Fiancés is about the strain on an engaged couple, Giovanni and Liliana (Anna Canzi, trenchant), once Giovanni relocates from Milan, where he works as a welder in a petrochemical factory, to his new job at the company’s new plant in Sicily. Writer-director Ermanno Olmi clarifies the extent to which work directs the course of working-class lives—including working-class love.
Giovanni’s time in Sicily, intended by its job advancement to facilitate his marrying Liliana, proves very lonely. For the first time, the alienating nature of his work isn’t mitigated by any family or social life away from work.
The Fiancés includes a shot of showers of sparks from Giovanni’s worksite set against the dark sky. The image is sorely ironic. Its black-and-white beauty is something that we see; the workers who are inadvertently creating it do not. Through no fault of their own, the beauty does not touch their lives. A related image consists of mounds of salt—eerily lovely to our eye, but also encapsulating the backbreaking labor that created them.
Giovanni’s off-work wanderings through a bleak landscape show the influence of L’avventura (see above). Disconnected from Milan and all that is familiar to him, Giovanni has no place to go and therefore drifts. Is his life “going nowhere”?
His relationship with Liliana takes a terrible beating. The separation, letters unanswered, wayward thoughts that seize her agitated imagination: all this helps make Liliana feel that she is losing Giovanni. Indeed, Giovanni succumbs to loneliness to the detriment of the bond between them. (Absence makes the heart grow fickle.) The context that Olmi provides takes these matters out of the realm of moralistic or (primarily) psychological consideration. What we see is the extent to which Giovanni’s work determines the rocky course of the relationship.
63. IL GATTOPARDO (Luchino Visconti, Italy, France). Following an engrossing, brooding Rocco and His Brothers (1960), about a rural peasant family’s demoralization and disintegration after their move to industrial Milan in order to better their prospects, Luchino Visconti made his most celebrated work: The Leopard, from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, about an aristocratic Sicilian family’s demoralization and disintegration under Risorgimento, the unification of Italy begun with the revolution of 1848.
Prince Fabrizio of Salina is an intelligent, enlightened man; and, although the nationalist movements point to the end of his influence and the death of his elegant way of life, his feelings about the changes are divided. Like Lampedusa, who based Don Fabrizio on his great-grandfather, Visconti was an aristocrat deeply committed to social and economic justice. (He was a Marxist.) Both author and filmmaker, then, identified with the larger-than-life character at the center of their epic accounts. The film’s expense required a considerable star to make it bankable; enter Burt Lancaster, who had never given the slightest indication of acting ability. Here, superlatively dubbed, he impresses, as does Alain Delon as Tancredi (so different from Delon’s Myshkin-like Rocco), Don Fabrizio’s dashing young nephew, who comes to embody realpolitik, beginning as an impassioned enlistee in Garibaldi’s people’s army, and then switching to the cause of Camillo di Cavour, the aristocrat who succeeded at unification where Garibaldi failed, but only by ruthlessly assaulting regional cultures.
A grand ball and, for Don Fabrizio, its ambulatory aftermath: In the last movement, the tracking camera witnesses the proud patriarch’s self-aware eclipse in a lofty world that is losing political ground. Detailed, sweeping and, like the rest of the film, objectively toned (a surprise from Visconti), this phenomenal passage suggests history meditating on itself. Nearly an hour long, it brings Visconti’s masterpiece to a stunning close.
64. LES CARABINIERS (Jean-Luc Godard, France, Italy). Across cultures, with twenty-four years dividing them, Rossellini and Godard, neorealismo and nouvelle vague, unite: cinema’s dream collaboration of the decade. Les carabiniers, a brilliant antiwar film, was adapted, from Beniamino Joppolo’s play, by Rossellini, Godard and Jean Gruault, with Godard directing. Perhaps Godard and Gruault translated and amended Rossellini’s adaptation. It would be interesting to know how this remarkable film evolved.
Reversals of fortune in war sum up war’s futility. Two brothers are recruited to be soldiers. In the service of their king they do their duty; they rape, kill and plunder, only to be put to death themselves by revolutionaries opposing the king. Critic Roy Armes describes the film as a Brechtian fable.
In black and white, hastily shot without concern for compositional refinement, repetitively punctuated by gunfire on the soundtrack and by abrupt cuts and title cards on the see-track, raggedy, minimalist and blessedly free of all “entertainment value,” Les carabiniers prompts us to analyze what we see and hear rather than seducing us with attractive surfaces. (The film begins with a voice summoning military music—music we then hear as the opening credits roll.) Moreover, the film is nonprofessionally cast; there isn’t a Bardot or Belmondo in sight. Newsreel inserts of war footage and a montage of nondescript photographs further contribute to the correctly highly distanced result. This style is compelling; it suits the film’s thematic assault on the dehumanizing properties of war. Doubtless, Rossellini, Godard et al. were motivated by the Western world’s then-current tour of duty in Vietnam, but the masterpiece they wrought, which approaches the force of Dovzhenko’s Arsenal (see above) in addressing war, the worst idea that we have borrowed from lower species, has universal and, appallingly, persistent application.
65. THE SILENCE (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden). Some films we admire more than we love them. Bergman’s work I do not warm up to. But The Silence, which concludes his trilogy on humanity’s relationship with God, is stunning, haunting, bewitching. Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Winter Light (1963), another one of my favorite Bergmans, begin the trilogy.
The sum of Tystnaden’s enigmas is genuine mystery. To a city in some European country—an imagined place?—that either is preparing for war or is being occupied, three visitors—two women and a child—arrive by train. The older woman is dying. Are the women sisters? Lovers? Both? The younger woman is raising the child. Is she his mother, as he believes? Or, proceeding from some clandestine arrangement, is the equally fond and attentive “aunt” really his mother? Is this the cause, or partly the cause, of jealousy between the women?
What remoteness and abstractness of place Bergman coolly achieves here. The hotel seems a world apart. (The rare shot outdoors startles with noise and bustle.) Like the quiet, quizzical old-world attendant and the buzzing room fan (a mortal tease, like the ticking clock with which the film begins), the walls’ whiteness and the hotel’s maze-like corridors evoke whatever “the silence” is—as also do the roaming of the boy on his perplexed own in these corridors, the foreign words scribbled on a piece of paper, and the women’s odd relationship, at once too close and out of touch. Bergman, an atheist, thus tracks down the precise point where the absence of God and the idea of God intersect.
Sven Nykvist’s awesome cinematography consists of shook white satin and black silk. The human heart of Tystnaden, though, comes from Ingrid Thulin giving the performance of a lifetime as the dying Ester.
66. GERTRUD (Carl Theodor Dreyer, Denmark). An Ibsen’s Doll’s House without agenda, Gertrud is Dreyer’s refined, rigorous valedictory—a last work of such nobility and clarity that it transports the viewer to astonishment and grace.
Adding a haunting coda to Hjalmar Söderberg’s play, Gertrud shows the consequences of choice for a woman who, in the early twentieth century, leaves the security of a stifling marriage and ends up—calmly, with dignity—alone. Gertrud’s responsible life discloses her great spirit, releasing it from the distortion of a too highly placed wall mirror in her husband’s vast, cold, empty house; her exercise of free will, and her unquarrelsome acceptance of the disappointing results, help compose her integrity. Austere, poignant, mature, Gertrud is the patient revelation of the gravity and weight of a human life as it incrementally advances—moment by moment, choice by choice—in the direction of eternity. Bergman’s atheism seems crabby alongside Dreyer’s massive faith.
Gertrud’s measured pace; the measured pace of the characters’ speech; the camera’s tactful distance in so many instances; the beauteous black and white; the solitude; the sheer calm: even in the exalted œuvre to which it belongs, Gertrud seems like nothing else. It captures life as life is measured against eternity. It is Dreyer as he prepares himself for God. For us, too, the film seems like some sort of momentous preparation—if only for our next viewing of this inexhaustible masterpiece. Gertrud is a movie to live by.
Nina Pens Rode, as Gertrud, is sublime. Who can forget Gertrud’s final gaze, from her apartment door, as she bids farewell to a guest? Her sight seems to turn inward, approaching private reverie. What is it at the last that she sees? I think I know—perhaps the film that the rest of us have just seen. Gertrud.
67. IL DESERTO ROSSO (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, France). A coda to his titanic trilogy, Antonioni’s The Red Desert continues his consideration of alienation, the signature theme of the sixties. In Ravena, in northern Italy, the film follows another unsettled soul, Giuliana (gorgeous Monica Vitti, superb), a plant manager’s wife, this time peripatetic in an industrial landscape. For whatever she is searching, at one level a sense of self and integrity, Giuliana won’t find it in her extramarital affair with an engineer who, passing through, is already poised to abandon her. In her drab, cold, rainy milieu, the only bright colors are from paint on walls and plastic products. Thus Giuliana dreams of another, radiant space, one of sand, unpolluted ocean, clear sky—and of freedom and escape.
Giuliana’s “sickness” is the modern condition. What the eye takes in reflects our ambivalence toward the modern world. Outdoors, lakes are polluted and polluted air assumes a terrible grandeur, while at home a helper-robot hints the high technology to come—which, while easing work, marginalizes people, as does all the manufactured stuff that turns a home into a house: a circumstance at which Giuliana’s agitated care of her sick child at one point levels a furious assault.
The film’s celebrated use of color as a means of expression rather than decoration contributes to Antonioni’s vision of a world out of joint. (Carlo di Palma is his cinematographer.) It is the world of products that Antonioni will blast into space in Zabriskie Point (1969)—things that take over our lives, sapping our strength, cutting our humanity off at the knees.
Antonioni has always insisted he isn’t a political filmmaker, and I take him at his word. However, his Red Desert delivers a blow to capitalism the force of which few ideological films can match.
68. DIAMONDS OF THE NIGHT (Jan Němec, Czechoslovakia). But for sound effects a nearly silent film, Jan Němec’s Démanty noci is the greatest work of the Czech New Wave, which, along with much else, fell to Soviet tanks in 1968.
Based on co-scenarist Arnošt Lustig’s story “Darkness Has No Shadows,” it is about Czech boys on the run, two “diamonds of the night”: Jewish teenagers, pursued by authorities and hostile locals, after they escape from a train transporting them from one death camp to another. (Lustig spent years in various camps, himself escaping on the way to Dachau.)
All the “actors” are nonprofessionals, and the agitated use of hand-held camera mimics documentary filmmaking. Despite this foundation in at least the appearance of objective reality, Démanty noci proceeds subjectively, its camera sensitively attuned to the boys’ flight and feverish attempts to remain alive. The repetitive circular mosaic that constitutes the film’s method, with its flashforwards and shafts of memory, and perhaps dreams, records the flight as a doomed, fear-fraught standstill. Němec and the magnificent dark, dusky black-and-white cinematography by Jaroslav Kučera move us inside the boys’ consciousness.
As if in a fairy tale, the flight takes the boys to a forest that they must penetrate. They collapse on the ground before their brisk walk into utter darkness, during which, one boy behind the other, their arms, like insects’ antennae, bound out to navigate though the thicket of branches attacking them. Later, one boy enters the home of a villager, who, wary, gives him bread and, on his return entry, milk. The boy imagines killing the woman. His not doing so leads to his and his companion’s capture and murder.
“Well, the boy should have killed the woman”: the film’s humanity may lie in its refusal to submit to this facile conclusion.
69. THE ROUND-UP (Miklós Jancsó, Hungary). Every film exists on a continuum of expression governed by opposite poles of objectivity and subjectivity, documentary, fiction. In Szegénylegények (The Round-up; The Hopeless Ones), the mise-en-scène is objective; the camera, subjective. One presents material; the other interprets it. The film’s creator, Miklós Jancsó, is, like Chabrol and Eisenstein, a master formalist. Viewers breathe according to his shots and their tempo. He is also a minimalist.
Szegénylegények is about state terrorism. In 1848 Hungary tried unsuccessfully to overturn Austrian rule. The failed revolution—echoing the crushed 1956 anti-Communist revolution—plunged the country into residual turmoil as guerrillas kept up the cause. In 1868 Austria concentrated into a stockade captured rebels and anyone else they suspected of supporting a free Hungary. Outside the camp, farmers were encouraged to denounce neighbors. Those officiating at the camp go about their business grimly, sometimes even remorsefully.
In a harrowing passage, peasant women will be made examples of in an open field. The women flee, but mounted soldiers take off after them, into the background of the frame. The next shot returns us to the compound, where the women undress. Two rows of soldiers face one another. The first woman is made to run back and forth four times between the two rows of soldiers. Eight times, therefore, the soldiers’ whips strike the woman’s back. In outrage and sympathy, male prisoners drop to their deaths from the roof of the compound, aborting the procedure below.
Jancsó is an ironist as well as a formalist. Having been rounded up, Hungarian rebels are interrogated, tortured, killed, all of which is recorded by an intricately choreographed camera whose fluent, relentless trackings and backtrackings thread an impartial noose around oppressed and oppressors alike—those, unaware, who share small breathing space in history’s tightening grip.
70. PIERROT LE FOU (Jean-Luc Godard, France, Italy). The most tender and most troubled of love stories, Godard’s musical-satirical-tragicomedy shimmers with the beauty of love’s and life’s volatility and transience.
At a party, Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo, wonderful) passes through a funny series of monochromatic tableaux, each one with a different group of guests whose “conversation” consists of lines from TV commercials. This commercial vampirism, wherein people’s personalities have been taken over by consumerism, motivates Ferdinand to run off with his children’s babysitter, Marianne (Anna Karina, perfect), abandoning wife, job, home—in sum, his bourgeois life. Ferdinand is also in love with Marianne. He sets out with her, then, to follow his heart.
On the run, the lovers sleep in the wilds in complementary fetal positions, as though possessing a single body and soul; yet they remain separate and distinct. “We never understand one another,” Marianne tells Ferdinand; “You talk to me with words, and I look at you with feelings.” Their romance, she prophesies, will be short and sweet.
They put on a show for a docked American sailor. Marianne, in Vietnamese makeup, protests fiercely; Ferdinand, wearing a naval officer’s hat, spouts Americanese (“Sure”; “Yeah”). Fire and a wooden stick, the latter a prop bomber, assist the pair’s makeshift portrayal of the Vietnam War. Explosions, gunfire fill the soundtrack. “That’s darn good,” the American sailor says about this evocation of American slaughter. The U.S. has moved on to other atrocities; but nothing else in cinema so brings back the horror of that moment in time when America sold whatever shred of soul it possessed in the name of fighting communism.
The final shot of Pierrot le fou casts the by-now dead lovers’ disembodied voices against an illimitable nighttime sky.
Throughout, Raoul Coutard contributes the most gorgeous color cinematography I have seen.
71. CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (Orson Welles, Spain, Switzerland). Banished by Hollywood, Welles made movies where he could. Chimes at Midnight is primarily wrought from Henry IV, Parts I and II, although Henry V, Richard II and The Merry Wives of Windsor are also drawn upon. The film, then, patches together appearances of Shakespeare’s most beloved character, Sir Jack Falstaff, whom Welles himself beautifully plays. Welles described the film as a “lament for Merrie England”—in effect, a lament for all that’s past. Apart from Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (see above), it is the greatest film derived from Shakespeare. Welles was proud of it on another score: No horses were injured or killed during filming. Unlike countless other U.S. filmmakers shooting abroad, Welles did not take advantage of laxer laws regarding the (mis)treatment of animals.
In particular, Welles considers Falstaff’s fatherly tutelage, in taverns and brothels, of Prince Hal (Keith Baxter, brilliant), young heir to the British throne. Alas, their close alliance as fellow carousers does not spare Falstaff royal dismissal once King Henry IV (sonorous John Gielgud) dies and the prince takes his place. By noting from the start the emotional distance between the boy and Falstaff, which the former imposes and the latter ignores, the film makes Hal’s subsequent rejection of his surrogate father less a betrayal of familial love than a signal for the collapse of illusions.
With its melancholy, absurdism and rich comedy, the whole film amazes. One of its sequences, though, is often anthologized as clearest proof of Welles’s genius: the Battle of Shrewsbury. With Falstaff’s armored bulk darting about (“The better part of valor . . .”) lending the film one of its touches of the absurd, the passage becomes a massive, near abstract spectacle of muddy, flashing death—Welles’s stunning portrait of war’s enormity.
72. ANDREI RUBLEV (Andrei Tarkovsky, U.S.S.R.). The episodic nature of Andrei Tarkovsky’s most famous film accommodates not only a panorama of fifteenth-century Russia but also the time’s incapacity to see itself in coherent terms. The experiences of the actual icon painter who serves as the black-and-white film’s protagonist (Anatoli Solonitsyn, wonderful) are signposts directing the viewer’s journey through an historical landscape. “Not deep the poet sees, but wide,” England’s Matthew Arnold wrote. The aborted balloon ride with which the film opens corroborates this, implicitly adding, parenthetically, “imperfectly” right before “wide.” Tarkovsky’s wintry Andrei Rublev begins at a place of religious faith and proceeds to another, different place during the long odyssey that the film recounts. Medieval man ultimately anticipates modern man, with Robert Browning more than Arnold the Victorian poet who ultimately weighs in most resonantly.
Like Shakespeare, Tarkovsky throws everything into his epic mix. At turns he shows the madness and barbaric cruelty of war. Early on, the slow motion that is applied to a horse that has fallen down a flight of stairs announces the influence of Dovzhenko, whose famine-stricken horse from Arsenal (1929) seems to have merged with Arsenal’s collapsing accordian. Tarkovsky collapses the difference between medieval and modern, and between 1918 civil war and Soviet reality nearly fifty years later.
The film’s most moving segment centers on a boy who to escape execution feigns the requisite knowledge for engineering the making of an enormous Orthodox church bell, during which process he comes to embody, for us at least, Russian heart, resourcefulness and resilience. So much has always been necessary, Tarkovsky is implying, just to survive.
Andrei Rublev closes on a color coda of Andrei Rublev’s art. Terrible irony, this, that art (such as Soviet silent cinema) remains the region’s principal legacy, and people, implicitly, the principal sacrifice.
73. MOUCHETTE (Robert Bresson, France). From Bernanos, Bresson’s austere, elliptical Mouchette begins with a woman, alone in a spare church, wondering aloud how her family (husband; three children, including an infant) will fare following her imminent death. We hear her footsteps trailing as she exits the shot. The camera remains fixed, the steadfastness of God, perhaps. Its back towards the camera, a solitary empty chair suggests the departed woman’s soon-to-be-vacated life. The film will end with what appears to be the suicide of the now deceased woman’s daughter, 14-year-old Mouchette. In fits and starts, Mouchette rolls down a hill, entering and departing frames, the camera pausing to remain on the vacated scene rather than following her, just as it had done with her sick mother in church. We miss the point of entry when Mouchette tumbles into the river, but (through a partial barrier of trees) we note the evidence on the surface of the water.
Woods at the outskirts of the provincial village: the intricacy of leaves in daylight. Two men occupy the scene; one, the game warden, hides from the other. In silent inserts, his eyes appear as they, and we, espy a poacher, who is using a twig and looped string to trap a game bird by the leg. It works. The caught bird flutters desperately. After the poacher departs, the game warden undoes the “noose” and lets the bird go. When we see Mouchette, whose name means “little fly,” walking home from school, we associate the bird with her. Later, drunk, the poacher will rape Mouchette and let her go. But is Bresson challenging us to transcend literary symbolism and, by penetrating Mouchette’s sullen mask, her defense against an inhospitable universe, embrace her humanity?
Materiality yields to spirituality when Mouchette drowns. Perhaps Mouchette, for the first time, is going home.
74. WEEKEND (Jean-Luc Godard, France, Italy). A savagely satirical take on “modern times,” Weekend—or Week End—is one of the signature films of the sixties. (A gloriously agile performance by Jean-Pierre Léaud helps certify this.) A typical bourgeois couple take a weekend drive to visit the woman’s mother, whom they murder for her money. The woman later joins the band of revolutionaries who have murdered her spouse, whom they eat for lunch. An alternative title might be: Ties That No Longer Bind—including patriotic ties to nation.
Godard lays claim here to the most celebrated tracking shot of all time: a massive, seemingly endless, corpse-strewn traffic stall revealing the enormity of human folly as disparate, blindly self-contained fates are headlong-prone to one explosive end. Pitched complicitly and elegantly between determinism and documentary discovery, the sunlit shot proceeds gradually, shifting from a straight, rigid course to a course slightly, subtly more relaxed, and catching about the honking metal hulks belligerent confrontations and witty scenes of resourceful recreational activity. What a shot!
Scarcely less remarkable is a later shot that likewise discloses Western civilization’s bankruptcy: a fixed, rotating—continuously panning—camera, flattened by its slow pace, and thus adding inexorability to the noose-like circle it draws around a pianist, encapsulating Western culture, who plays Mozart in a farmyard—a scene both lovely and incongruous. With great love for the music and an appreciation of the irrelevancy of Mozart to so many oppressed lives, Godard can lament the passing of such perfect beauty while yet keenly feeling the need to erase the social and political inequities that have enabled high culture to exist and that still seek to sustain it. Were Godard not tugged in these opposite directions at once, his apocalyptic Weekend would not be the heartrendingly beautiful thing that it is.
75. THE HOUR OF THE FURNACES (Fernando Ezequiel Solanas, Octavio Getino, Santiago Álvarez, Argentina). “Latin America is a continent at war: for the ruling classes, a war of oppression; for the oppressed peoples, a war of liberation.”
In their manifesto “Towards a Third Cinema,” Solanas and Getino argued that Latin American Third World countries should enjoin their political struggles for liberation with the power of images, creating a democratic cinema by “giving cameras to the people.” Nearly 4½ hours long, La hora de los hornos: Notas y testimonios sobre el neocolonialismo, la violencia y la liberación is a collectively-made “guerrilla” documentary. Voiceover narration highlights Latin American dependence—economic, political, cultural. Historically, European colonialism has been replaced by U.S. neocolonialism in collusion with oppressive elements at home; “educational colonialism,” for example, “molds minds” suited to neocolonialism. Argentinean, the film devotes specific attention to Argentina.
Into this eclectic, dark, pulsating black-and-white film are crammed on-the-spot documentary, newsreel borrowings, cinéma-vérité, reconstructions, Godardian visual sloganeering, you-name-it, generating a richly contradictory result. Moreover, subsequent events rendered it additionally problematic. Student uprisings led to Perón’s return from exile and assumption of the presidency in 1973. (Perón had ruled Argentina from 1946 to 1955, when a military junta removed the Laborist who had focused on improving workers’ lives and whose wife successfully campaigned for women’s suffrage.) Perón eventually purged his administration of Leftists, lending Solanas’s Hour, retroactively, a coda of disillusionment.
Encompassing both (first-wave) Perónist and post-Perónist Argentina, Hour is perhaps most trenchant in documenting the heartrending poverty and miserable work conditions (in the fields, mines, factories) to which ordinary Argentines are consigned, and in contrasting this with the high life of the ruling oligarchs. It remains a massive document of oppression whose energetic radical propaganda reaches into historical testimony to forge a kind of national epic.
76. THE MILKY WAY (Luis Buñuel, France). According to Buñuel a “journey through fanaticism,” La Voie Lactée follows two poor pilgrims in the present, one young, one old, an atheist and a believer, through southern France to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where St. James the Apostle’s bones are presumably interred. Their various encounters, along with a stream of historical vignettes, compose a surreal landscape of Christian dogma, heresies, hypocrises, blasphemies. There are also visions and miracles. This brilliant comedy is as fluent as spun silk.
At a village inn, where the pair stop, a priest and a police officer genially converse. Painstakingly the priest explains the dogma of transubstantiation to the officer: The body of Christ is not contained in the wafer, but in the sacrament of the Eucharist the wafer becomes Christ’s body—actually; not symbolically. When the restaurateur mildly asserts that the body of Christ is in the Host like the hare is in the pâté he is serving, the vexed priest counters that in the sixteenth century the Pateliers were burned for that heresy. Now the priest has a revelation: the restaurateur is correct! When the officer expresses surprise at this contradiction, the priest, really vexed, flings hot coffee in his face. Men in white cart away the priest. Thus Buñuel exquisitely mocks religious dogmatic “thinking” (such as currently afflicts Islamic and U.S. Christian fundamentalists). A subsequent argument, about grace versus free will, between a Jesuit and a Jansenist leads to a duel.
Jesus—he spits on the blind and they can see!—and the Marquis de Sade are among the cast of characters. Sometimes, historical characters cross paths with our twosome.
Buñuel: “Bourgeois morality, for me, is immoral and to be fought[—t]he morality founded on our most unjust social institutions, like religion, patriotism, the family, culture.”
77. FATA MORGANA (Werner Herzog, West Germany). Herzog’s hallucinatory Fata Morgana is a non-narrative work, filmed in different places in Africa, including the Sahara Desert and Kenya, its mesmerizing shots, including many traveling shots, pieced together into a visual poem of an alien visit to scenes of a mysterious world, heretofore unknown to Herzog, his crew and, likely, us. Many shots include, on the distant horizon, “fata morgana,” that is, mirages: visible things—water, islands, vegetation, moving automobiles, etc.—that, although capable of being photographed, are not really there: phantasms originating in reflections and refractions of light transporting images of actual occurrences to the eye over vast intervening space.
Comprising three increasingly sardonic sections, “Creation,” “Paradise,” “The Golden Age,” Fata Morgana is, according to Herzog, a science-fiction film with the story—for, originally, a story had been planned—removed. Accompanied by readings from the Popol Vuh, the sacred text that includes the Mayan myth of creation, the images of “Creation” suggest a primordial wasteland, a vast region of hills and sand dunes at some dead-end of civilization. Strewn over the landscapes are the carcasses of vehicles and other things abandoned by European soldiers in World War II. Tracking shots disclose empty gasoline drums in the dunes—more evidence of Western intrusion. We see Ground Zero, where the French, performing atomic tests, exploded a bomb. The juxtaposition of the creation myth and these sullied images, which hint invasion and appropriation, accumulates an aura of sadness, resignation, defeat. Africa is thus portrayed as “Europe’s backyard” or dump—the scene of Western colonialist and neocolonialist presumption.
Europe used Africa but did little or nothing to alleviate African poverty. The pianoed parlor of a Western-style brothel provides an example, post-“Creation,” of what Europe did give to Africa. Europeans in Africa were the ultimate fata morgana.
78. AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (Werner Herzog, West Germany, Peru, Mexico). Herzog’s Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes is the highest attainment of the New German Cinema, a Leftist movement, begun in the sixties and reaching fruition in the seventies, which disdained any sweeping under the rug of Germany’s role in the Second World War or possible German cultural predisposition to fascism. Like Ford’s The Searchers (see above), Aguirre is about a madman, not as a case study, but as a revelation of cultural presumption, cultural insanity. It takes on Western “civilization.”
Based on the Spanish quest for El Dorado, this richly colored work—the cinematographer is Thomas Mauch—follows a conquistador who imposes his will on a splinter group of Pizarro’s army in Peru, in a mad effort to re-create the world in his own image: shorn of rationalization, the colonialist impulse. The film begins and ends loftily, in both instances with an extreme long shot suggesting an implacable God’s-eye view of human endeavor: first, in the beginning, ordered, united, intoxicated by dreams of glory, questers on a steep mountain of aspiration; at the last, amidst taunting monkeys, deprived even of his daughter, the one soul capable of calming his paroxysms, only the conquistador left alive, on a raft in the Amazon River. Herzog, a bit mad himself, committed those making the film—himself, cast, crew—to a daunting experience paralleling the one that the film depicts, perhaps hoping, like his protagonist, to validate both his own existence and the existence of God. He achieves, if not enlightenment, suasive fear and trembling, especially from the contribution of his “best fiend,” lead actor Klaus Kinski, whose ferocious, nearly intolerably moving performance gives the conquistador the massive emotions of Goya’s Saturno.
79. THE AGE OF COSIMO DE MEDICI (Roberto Rossellini, Italy). Rossellini’s three-part examination of Florentine society and culture in the fifteenth century begins with a banking family. Aligned with merchants and the explosion of European trade, the Medicis embody a new pursuit of wealth and power. In its style, this 4-hour film is heir to Rossellini’s sober, immaculate Rise of Louis XIV (1966), which inaugurated his series of minimalist present-tense histories treating figures such as Socrates and Pascal. According to critic John Wyver, the world that Rossellini reveals in his Medici film “is both patently artificial and startlingly real.” Stately formalism and documentary roughness balance each other, creating a secular vision in which the religious, more primitive world of Francesco, giullare di Dio (see above) still hangs lightly about, a ray of residual simplicity in a new world of immense complication.
Leon Battista Alberti, philosopher, painter, sculptor, musician and architect, embodies the humanistic impulse that is also integral to this world. “What use is beauty?” a merchant asks as he peruses art. Art reflects humanity. Masaccio’s painting of Jesus gives scientific attention to human anatomy at the expense of a more traditional, “spiritual” approach. Its linear approach applies principles of mathematics. Art, then, incorporates a range of knowledge and attainments—including the financial, with the couple who paid Masaccio to paint the portrait themselves appearing in the piece!
We see Masaccio’s painting as it is discussed from various perspectives. Indeed, this amazing film contains many conversations on a wide range of matters, including the Florentine tax code. It is especially steeped in architecture and certain organizing ideas: freedom; “the city” as being based on families; the marriage of art and science, which have in common “the progress of mankind.” Alberti is referring to architecture, but, surely, Rossellini also has cinema in mind.
80. THE PHARMACY. In the years just before Mao’s death and the arrest of the Gang of Four, which signaled the end of the Cultural Revolution in China, Joris Ivens and wife Marceline Loridan took their cameras into Pharmacy No. 3 in Shanghai, which in addition to dispensing drugs manages an outreach program of medical services (after attending to peasants, pharmacists work in the fields alongside them), an extension of the pharmacy’s in-house medical care center.
The employees have developed five rules for themselves: to show the same concern for both steady customers and transients, for those who buy and those who simply want information, and for those who buy a lot and those who buy a little; to be equally attentive to customers no matter how busy the pharmacy or whether it is day or night. Their goal is to wholeheartedly serve the public.
There is a fascinating discussion of the competing motives of profit and service; at a weekly employee meeting, one of the participants reconfirms, “We should be concerned [above all else] with people’s needs.” This has nothing to do with dictate (“The customer is always right”) and everything to do with what the workers themselves feel should be motivating them.
La pharmacie Nº 3: Shanghai keeps widening, eventually integrating the employees and patrons into the bustling life of the port city. The opening shot at dawn evokes a Turner painting; the closing one, a long-shot of Shanghai citizens under umbrellas in the rain, Ivens’s Regen (1929), to “de-exoticize” the Chinese.
This documentary is more relaxed and fluent than other brilliant documentaries by Holland’s Ivens; the difference may be Loridan, born Rosenberg, a teenaged survivor of a Nazi death camp. There are no tirades against capitalism, only a warm embrace of Chinese humanity.
81. THE PASSENGER (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, France, Spain). Written by Mark Peploe, Peter Wollen and the director, Antonioni’s The Passenger, a baleful, delicately mournful mystery, tests assumptions about identity, responsibility, authority. Antonioni also prods our perception to the full—for instance, by setting critical action just beyond the camera’s range so that we must listen carefully to hear what is going on.
David Locke, a fatigued, jaded journalist, starts anew by exchanging identities with a corpse in a North African hotel. Maintaining professional distance, seeing detail but always missing the larger picture, Locke has held himself aloof from the revolutionary upheavals he has been covering, discounting their relevance to his own life. Now his new identity places him dead-center in the opportunistic, politically non-committed world of gunrunning.
The Passenger critiques the assumption that the only connections the West can have to the Third World are colonialist, insisting instead on a shared humanity that links all people’s fates. As reporter, Locke stresses the eye (“Tell me what you see now . . .”); as artist, Antonioni stresses the soul.
Antonioni’s penultimate shot resolves his material. (To be precise, it’s a gyroscopically “smoothed” meshing of shots whose outcome gives the appearance of a single slow camera movement.) From inside to out, through a close-barred window in a Spanish hotel, the (seemingly) steadily moving camera draws connections among disparate humans, including Locke, and elements of geographic and political space—indoors, outdoors, indoors again (now using a doorway instead of a window)—before the camera returns to Locke, dead, in his room. Failing to perceive all the connectedness that the camera has just elegantly drawn, Locke has taken a circular stroll into the arms of his own defeatism, uncovering the death lurking beneath the mask/metaphor of the original identity-exchange in Africa: for us, a cautionary experience.
82. HARVEST 3,000 YEARS (Haile Gerima, Ethiopia). “The father grew maize. His son sowed bullets. That black bull will charge if sufficiently provoked.”
Mirt Sost Shi Amit is a Brechtian parable about class division and revolt. Based in the U.S., Haile Gerima returned to his native Ethiopia to shoot this massive, staggering reflection on Ethiopia amidst the collapse of Haile Selassie’s uncaring regime prior to the military takeover.
Tenants work in various capacities on a farm riddled with echoes of feudal colonialism. Mostly silent, the film is punctuated by distancing naturalistic sounds: mooing cows, squawking chickens, dripping water—this last, a sign of something ominous steadily growing. Work is treated neutrally; it isn’t sanctified, in the silent Soviet manner, or identified with oppression. Rather, it is the landlord, equipped with an absolute sense of entitlement, and the social structure he represents that attach oppressed lives to the farm laborers. Indolent (he even has to be shoed by a servant to be ready for church), the landlord berates the shoeless farmers for indolence—a charge that images of their field and other labor piercingly refute. However, this rural situation is metaphorical for all Ethiopia, including urban Ethiopia: “The rich live in high buildings while we, who have worked hard, live in graves.” Someone also says that an Ethiopian without money in a bank in Addis Ababa is out of luck, nowhere.
Political conversations, both veiled and blatant, dot the film. More dramatic are instances of that earlier drip-drip coming to an accumulated point of satiation. One is ironic: the cowherder dying in a flooded-over stream trying to retrieve a cow after the landlord has promised death if she loses any of the cattle. Another: the landlord’s own lethal pummeling, to which conditioned peasants respond as if he were one of their own.
83. KHAK-E SAR BEH MORH (Marva Nabili, Iran). Marva Nabili’s The Sealed Soil revolves around eighteen-year-old Rooy-Bekheir, beautifully played by Flora Shabavis. The rest of the cast consists of actual inhabitants of a small Iranian village. By her age, her mother had borne four children, but Rooy-Bekheir has declined all matches arranged for her. She cannot explain her reluctance to marry. That would take a voice in a place where women unroll a rug so men can sit and decide things—although social upheaval is contriving to undermine even their authority. Rooy-Bekheir is given to tarrying in the woods, deep in thought. One day, shown from the back, she is alone there, seated in silence except for luminous rain. She undresses from the waist up and breathes deeply, her shoulders delicately inflecting as she steals a liberated moment. Soon after, she hysterically kills a chicken. Someone is summoned to exorcise her “demons.” The rituals may have worked, for at film’s end Rooy-Bekheir seems resigned to marry.
We watch sewing, meal preparations—daily routines. Outside the family’s primitive home, squawking chickens and unseen wild birds both interrupt and underscore the quiet. All the shots are static, many with Rooy-Bekheir either walking towards or away from the camera—sometimes alongside a road outside the village, generating incongruous images of the traditionally clad girl and a few motor vehicles in the same frames. The cumulative result of the fixed camera set-ups is an exquisite stillness ironically also denoting, for Rooy-Bekheir, a straightjacketing existence.
The Sealed Soil suggests a more meditative version of Jean-Louis Bertucelli’s powerful Ramparts of Clay (1968). Like that film, Nabili’s ran into political trouble. Once Islamic fundamentalists came to power, the film’s rough cut had to be smuggled out of Iran. The remaining work was done in the United States.
84. CHRIST STOPPED AT EBOLI (Francesco Rosi, Italy). Among the twentieth century’s greatest works, Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (1945) is Carlo Levi’s account of his forced exile in Gagliano, an impoverished southern Italian village in Luciana province, after his arrest for antifascist activities—Levi was a Jewish socialist—in 1934. Levi wrote this account in the form of a novel, bringing into concert his use of the past tense and the spontaneity of stream-of-consciousness. With its clarity of detail, suffused poetically by melancholy, the book is glorious. So is Francesco Rosi’s deeply moving film of it, in its 228-minute version available on VHS from Canada’s Lear Media. The abbreviated 145-minute version available on DVD is less satisfying.
Somber, mysterious, Rosi’s film mines the nostalgic properties of memory. We go back in time, guided by an elderly Levi’s haunted memory. This will be a secular man’s last testament. His memory will become our own.
The strangeness of the village customs; because of his medical training, Levi’s acceptance by the villagers; his witnessing of petty politics; the mistreatment of the alcoholic village priest with a past: the film provides a vast, rich canvas of humanity. The title refers to the villagers’ sense of isolation and wretchedness, which they explain by the fact that Christ never visited their village, stopping short of it.
Rosi captures the sense of a pause in one’s life, with its opportunity to observe and learn. This “pause” is two-fold: the temporary derailment of Levi’s political activism; forty years hence, Levi’s facing natural death. This is a reflective and humanistic film. Everyone whom Levi has met, including the peasants of Gagliano, has become a part of him. This helps explains why he never returned to the village.
Gian Maria Volontè, as Levi, gives the performance of a lifetime.
85. THE HOME AND THE WORLD (Satyajit Ray, India). From a novel by Rabindranath Tagore, Ghare-Baire is Satyajit Ray’s most majestic and splendiferous film. The protagonist is Bimala Choudhury, who recalls her marriage in the early twentieth century. Nikhilesh, her spouse, a wealthy Bengali landowner and merchant, encourages her education and departure from traditional Hindu ways. Bimala eventually has an affair with an old college friend of his, Sandip Mukherjee (Soumitra Chatterjee, brilliant), a leader of the incendiary nationalist movement Swadeshi, whose first female member she becomes. Nikhilesh opposes Sandip’s politics, which he foretells will further divide Hindus and Muslims in a region that the ruling British have partitioned in order to short-circuit an alliance between the two groups. Sandip’s call for a boycott of British imports, Nikhilesh contends, will further impoverish Muslim merchants who are already struggling to survive. When his local agitation falls flat, Sandip organizes and unleashes a terrorist response.
This is no facile Reds (1981), Doctor Zhivago (1965) or Gone with the Wind (1939), where history supplies a sweeping backdrop for soap opera. Ray, instead, creates a rich tapestry in which British imperialism, Indian nationalism, the Choudhurys’ marriage, Bimala’s tentative moves toward a liberated modernism, and her extramarital affair are tightly interwoven, generating a complex vision of a society in upheaval. Bimala is portrayed as existing uncertainly between two worlds, while the two men in her life, political opponents, are each certain of themselves but only in partial possession of the truth. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see the political views of others apart from the prism of your own views? Ray’s final masterpiece enables us to take in a myriad of sociopolitical shades and inflections in a complex, combustible situation. Moreover, it concludes with a devastating shot telescoping a devastated life.
86. HORSE THIEF (Tian Zhuangzhuang, China). In the tradition of Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), Tian Zhuangzhuang’s fictional, objectively toned Dao ma zei, nonprofessionally cast, documents an ends-of-the-world existence, in Tibet, amidst an incarnation of Nature that is as fierce as it is gorgeous to behold so long as one doesn’t live in it and have to cope with it. The prevailing silence, especially in terms of the sparseness of dialogue, is correlative to the primitive existence of the film’s protagonist, Norbu (Tseshang Rigzin, wonderful). His is an elemental life—and an awesome odyssey. Norbu is devout; despite this, due to his harsh existence, he steals from his Buddhist temple and, as a result, when he is caught, he, his wife, Dolma, and their son, Tashi, are banished from their clan. Stripped of communal protection, they are at the mercy of the elements. Tashi dies. Another son is born, steeling Norbu’s determination to ensure the newborn’s protection, no matter what this may take.
Here is the masterpiece of the Fifth Generation Movement in Chinese cinema—a portrait of such human hardship and impossible life choices as to unsettle viewers’ complacency and expand their sympathies. Tian has created an ordeal of enlightenment, a celebration of unearthly beauty—his astonishing color cinematographers are Zhao Fei and Yong Hou—that is perpetually disrupted by assaults on the human condition from within and without. His Horse Thief is also a piercing meditation on social organization, on the family unit within the larger group. We are moved to ponder issues of social responsibility in either direction, between family and community, divorced from the prism of ideological prejudice. Horse Thief is heartrendingly humane, as also would be, in a more conventional narrative mode, Tian’s epic of China’s Cultural Revolution, The Blue Kite (1993).
87. LONG LIVE THE LADY! (Ermanno Olmi, Italy). Written and directed by Ermanno Olmi, Lunga vita alla signora is Italy’s most brilliant film comedy. The “lady” in question, decrepit though still holding on, represents capitalism and wealth. She is her own guest of honor at an elaborate formal dinner/business celebration. Closed-circuit television sets are rolled down the in-between path of the U-shaped dining table to broadcast record high profits.
Her Ladyship wears a veil because, if ever breathed on directly or exposed to too much light, she would disintegrate. She doesn’t attend the opera, because culture might kill her, but she espies distant dinner guests through opera glasses from underneath her veil. Infantile, her Ladyship drinks wine through a straw.
Yet she is not the protagonist of Olmi’s intricately edited, combustibly funny satire. Boys and girls from a cooking school who have been brought in to serve the wine and dinner are the focus. (Cooked by the lady’s own chef and staff, the unusual meal begins with frogs and reaches a climax with an unidentifiable sea-beast—those familiar with Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita, 1959, will savor the joke—whose skeleton, when it is ceremoniously carted away, is picked-clean and bone-dry.) A flashback-insert shows the working-class youths’ instruction and preparation: Don’t turn around suddenly. Don’t look bored, etc. A flashback is inserted inside the flashback, showing one of the boys being similarly instructed years ago in church: “Beware of impure thoughts!” Libenzio’s “career path” has been this: church; school; job. This path of obedience reflects the patriarchal structure that capitalism now dictates more essentially than the Church.
Poignantly, Libenzio and his truck-driver father steal a private moment outside the mansion. After dinner, a guest tries to impress the waiter sexually, but, come dawn, Libenzio flees the maze of Her Ladyship’s domain.
88. MORTU NEGA (Flora Gomes, Guinea-Bissau). Drought has dried the village’s wells. Guinea-Bissau’s war of independence from Portugal has been won and those guerrillas to whom death has been denied have returned home. Fractious, selfish interests war against the unity for which ethnic groups strive. A woman who secured her free allotment of oil before the commodity ran out is selling it in portions. Her rationalization for exploiting others, “I am doing it for my children,” is punctured by the sight of children—the new nation’s future—celebrating en masse, first, war’s end and, finally, the end of the drought.
Underwritten by the Guinea-Bissau government, Flora Gomes’s Death Denied is an epic, that is, an expression of the aspirations of a people. The first part, which follows a contingent of guerrillas who have just been resupplied with artillery, is a great, gripping mini-film about war. Instantly the guerrillas are humanized as Diminga participates in the struggle in hopes of reuniting with her husband, Sako, whom she hasn’t seen in years. Almost as soon as they do (most tenderly, most movingly) reunite, an aerial attack wounds Sako, who orders Diminga back to their village, out of greater harm’s way. When Sako himself returns after war’s end, his health is most vulnerable, it turns out, from an earlier war injury, in his foot, that has reopened and become painfully infected. It refers to many things: historical pride, hence, vulnerability; the loss of his children that war exacted (delicately, brilliantly, Gomes mentions this loss only in reference to Diminga); his disillusionment on the heels of victory.
Collapsing time, Gomes includes a song in which Diminga has passed into legend even as she tends to Sako’s needs. The future will commemorate her past; in the meantime, Diminga lives in the present.
And the struggle continues.
89. THE WALL (Jürgen Böttcher, Germany). The final days of the Berlin Wall dividing East and West Berlin, East and West Germany: this is the subject matter of a tremendous work, perhaps the last important East German film, by painter-filmmaker Jürgen Böttcher.
Die Mauer is without commentary, music, “talking heads.” It is pure cinema. It opens with a series of panning shots of dismantled pieces of the wall, their graffiti broken up. A skyward pan discloses a flock of birds; the camera descends to the wall—solid, but in the process of being deconstructed and memorialized by cameras. Pans to the right, pans to the left: the eerily deserted Postdamer Platz subway station encapsulates the moment of transition: everyone, except two subway workers, is aboveground, witnessing history.
Celebratory fireworks light up the sky, echoing the time when Allied bombs rained upon Germany.
Intermittently presented, the film’s most haunted/haunting material also unfolds in the darkness of night. Black-and-white newsreels—Böttcher’s film is in color—are projected onto a still standing portion of the wall. There is Emperor Wilhelm riding through the Brandenburg Gate; there are the Nazis again, in a torch-lit procession: the Wall has become a repository of German history leading up to it. People smiling in the street at the end of the war: Böttcher segues from this, startlingly, to the current, more youthful celebration.
Through a hole in the wall, people test the air on the other side. Into the next night, heavy equipment continues the job of creating an uncertain future.
The Wall is becoming part of the history the film projector projects onto it. The past possesses insufficient allure to contest the sensationalism of the moment, in this case, fueled by a media frenzy to which the young are highly susceptible—ironically, an echo of the Hitler phenomenon.
90. EUROPA (Lars von Trier, Denmark, Sweden, France, Germany, Switzerland). The conclusion of Lars von Trier’s stunning “European trilogy” that began with The Elements of Crime (1984) and Epidemic (1988), Europa is like some ghastly prophetic warning that’s couched in such elusive, ambiguous terms that you don’t exactly know how to protect yourself. As Welles did in The Trial (see above), Trier captures, in a stream of highly suggestive, potent black-and-white (and, also, color) images, the helpless way many of us felt in our Century of Sorrows, the twentieth, which thus far is predicting the twenty-first as its unearthly continuation.
Defeated in the war, 1945 Germany is occupied. Leopold Kessler, an American of German descent, relocates to Germany, where an uncle gets him a job as a sleeping car conductor on the Zentropa train line. Soon, Leo becomes the pawn of two competing sides, the Hartmanns, who own the line, and the occupying forces ferreting out former Nazis. Leo’s neutral position becomes untenable once he falls in love with Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa, giving the decade’s most brilliant performance—as she had done in the previous decade, as Margarethe von Trotta’s Rosa Luxemberg). Post-war, then, eerily feels like pre-war and wartime, with Nazism still an able, if, now, creepily insinuating, force. Max von Sydow’s disembodied narration looms as a voice of doom: European history, which is repetitive, compulsive, tragic. The Holocaust, in particular, strikes Trier as a nightmare there is no coming out of.
One of Trier’s darkest films, Europa (called Zentropa in the States) wraps one up in its grim, gorgeous images (Henning Bendtsen, Edward Klosinski and Jean-Paul Meurisse are Trier’s cinematographers), tightening the folds until one feels like a mummy. The glorious impish comic of The Idiots (1998), Trier’s Dogme 95 masterpiece, isn’t in evidence here. He shouldn’t be.
91. THE SALTMEN OF TIBET (Ulrike Koch, Germany). Ulrike Koch’s Die Salzmänner von Tibet documents elemental, nomadic existence. Four tribal men—Old Mother, Old Father, Lord of the Animals, the Novice—journey to a lake in northern Tibet in order to extract salt to sell for grain. The day before, there is a communal discussion; the price of salt currently being very low, how many yaks can they spare, if necessary, to sell for barley? (Seemingly offhanded; actually, life-and-death.) The trek itself is punctuated by religious rituals, singing, cooking, meals, conversations, and recollections spoken into the camera. A bus passes the quartet on a nearby road, disrupting our sense of theirs being a world unto itself. Indeed, a tribal woman earlier prayed for world peace.
Because it is packed with purposeful activity (including startling shots of people’s hands at work), the tribe’s existence, as represented by the salt-traders, seems sturdier than that of Werner Herzog’s Herdsmen of the Sun (1988). It isn’t. Koch and Pio Corradi, her brilliant color cinematographer, thus conjure images of ephemera. The camera rises to capture voluminous smoke rising from a cooking pot; shadows shimmer across the ground, their substance—yaks—lagging behind. We see the immense shadow from an overhead airplane, whose substance we only hear, its engine’s sound shattering silence. These saltmen shared their experience with the filmmaker, in fact, precisely because they fear that theirs is a vanishing life.
Koch details the arduous labor of raking the salt and collecting it into mounds for the gathering, sacking, and transport by yak. The conclusive shot of the return home, the longest take in a film full of long takes, evokes not only the slow, steady rhythm of tribal existence but also, powerfully, the hope of survival contained in the saltmen’s patience, tenacity, perseverance.
92. MOTHER AND SON (Aleksandr Sokurov, Russia, Germany). Mat i syn is about the familial bond between a dying mother and her grown son, who is her caregiver. It’s a visual poem, spare, spiritual, intense.
The setting is one of sublime isolation: a remote country home amidst ravishing landscapes and skies of pristine, unearthly beauty. (Outdoor space was shot by reflection in gigantic mirrors, giving the film a haunting glow.) These formidable surroundings set off the intimate humanity at the movie’s center. Enfeebled, the woman receives from her son the care she once gave him. He carries her outdoors and “walks” her in his arms.
Aleksandr Sokurov and his cinematographer, gorgeous colorist Alexei Fyodorov, have applied special lenses that appear to collapse space and remove depth, converging the two characters and thus distilling their close connection; as a result, their relationship seems to define rather than fill space.
Exhausted, the mother must take her leave; now her son must let her go. A peculiarly Russian form of irony—it soothes rather than pricks—translates the son’s assurances into the very comfort that the mother needs to pass freely from Earth. Son lays down Mother for her last nap. A butterfly lights on her hand. Walking outside, in sympathy and exhaustion, the son also lies down, while land and sky—rolling-off mists; in the distance, a train’s passing—relate to him his mother’s passing, her journeying out. He rejoins his mother; the butterfly hasn’t quite left her hand. Gently stroking her other hand, he whispers to her spirit, which is to say, himself, “Be patient, Mother; wait for me at the place we agreed on”—this, his final loving assurance.
Humane, mysterious, bathed in tenderness, Mother and Son evokes the stillness of a poet’s soul amidst the silent, steady passage of time.
93. FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan). We do not expect a “period piece” from Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-hsien, but Haishang hua, an exquisitely wrought film about the hapless lives of prostitutes, is set in China in the 1880s. We follow a number of prostitutes in elegant, richly upholstered “flower houses”—brothels—as they try to eke out a bit of self-determination in claustrophobic surroundings, where their destinies are at the whim of madams, clients, and their own schemes and anxieties. The entire action of Flowers of Shanghai unfolds within windowless brothel walls.
Beautifully lit, the film is formally brilliant. The rigorous sculpting of each image is correlative to the restricted lives of the “flowers,” but it also, ironically, consigns the men to a structured existence—this was colonial China—in which the women who serve them become an index of the men’s also limited possibilities. The central relationship is a long-term one; but Wang (Tony Leung Chiu Wai, superb), taciturn and in the grip of melancholy, is tiring of Crimson and dallying with Jasmine, who is younger, much to Crimson’s dismay. The bonds that tie these individuals together are what they have in lieu of love, and their temper-tossed intrigues play out against another prostitute’s circumstance: Emerald buys her freedom from the brothel where she works. It is a meticulous arrangement.
Austere, relentless, nearly merciless, Flowers of Shanghai lacks the tenderness and overflowing ordinary humanity we associate with much of Hou’s work. It is a portrait of blighted lives. Behind their polite, efficient veneer, the brothels hide beatings and instances of sexual sadism. It is hard to believe that Hou isn’t groping for a metaphor for Communist China. (Artists often venture into the past to comment on the present.) In any case, Hou’s least typical film is devastating.
94. THE WIND WILL CARRY US (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, France). In Bad ma ra khahad bord, a fish-out-of-water comedy, a man from Tehran arrives in Siah Dareh, a small, backward village in Iranian Kurdistan, along with a crew. While he waits to record the anticipated death of a 100-year-old resident, Behzad encounters strange people and customs, and copes with the failure of modern technology in so remote a place, encapsulated in his ringing cellular phone, which compels him to seek ever higher ground to try to find the signal that will enable him to hear whoever is calling him. This running gag befits a film that keeps significant action offscreen; very often we must glean what we can from the sounds that we hear. In this, the film is indebted to Antonioni’s The Passenger (see above), whose method, however, writer-director Abbas Kiarostami extends, alienating even more decisively passive viewers who demand plots with the dots connected.
Kiarostami is as sensitive to the arid landscape as to the animals crawling across it; but what engages him most is humanity. One of the characters whom Behzad encounters is a ditch-digger. We hear the ditch-digger’s voice; that’s it. Eventually, the hole the digger is digging collapses on him, and Kiarostami’s unorthodox presentation—not only no closeups of the man, but no shots whatsoever—conveys a searing sense of the victim’s reality. Pursuing fresh milk, Behzad also meets this man’s fiancée, deep down in a dark family cellar, where she is milking a cow—a stunning visual descent into the very idea of how people, how whole peoples, remain hidden to us, invisible.
The Wind Will Carry Us moves us to believe in the reality of other people(s). Once we do, we can better grasp that their lives are no less important than our own.
95. LA COMMUNE (PARIS 1871) (Peter Watkins, France). Fiction yielding to documentary; documentary, to fiction: British filmmaker Peter Watkins, on this occasion working in French, achieves an exhilaratingly elastic result with his ten-hour La Commune (Paris 1871), of which only a version shortened by four hours has been exhibited outside France.
In this film about the doomed Parisian commune that popularly arose during the last gasps of the Franco-Prussian War, a huge cast of nonprofessionals playing the communards slip out of their historical roles to reflect on the state of France and of the current world, engaging in citizen discussions—in their period costumes!—that (like so much else in the film) stress the connections between past and present. Frames interrupting the action provide, moreover, a wealth of relevant written information, not to mention shafts of irony, as the past and the present each becomes a lens through which we apprehend the other. Watkins, then, has fashioned an eclectic work that captivates by capturing a number of levels of flux, interaction, analysis, self-reflexivity.
Although he is scarcely known for merriment, Watkins wrings wry humor from his present-tense disclosure of the past by interjecting into it modern televised media coverage of the unfolding events, thereby comparing accounts that differ according to the reporters and commentators involved—that is, according to their independence or allegiance to the state.
Shot in thirteen days, in and about an abandoned warehouse, using visually rich, black-and-white Beta Digital videotape, this film allows viewers to feel that they are entering history, which here has an immediacy that makes the tragic end of the Paris Commune devastating to watch.
This people’s film reflects the feelings of working-class men and women who want to better their own and their children’s lives, and details the reactionary forces arrayed against their hopes.
96. MULHOLLAND DR. (David Lynch, France, U.S.). Spectral, deeply mysterious, writer-director David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. charts the consumption of hopeful innocence by experience and betrayal in a shifting dream landscape that measures each disappointment against an atmosphere of perpetual possibility, which deepens the disappointment. Dream eventually becomes harrowing nightmare. The dreamer commits suicide, and still the nightmare continues. Fluent and terrifying, Mulholland Dr., like Dreyer’s Vampyr (see above), is a work of sinister enchantment.
All but one of the lead characters shift identities. One of these, Diane (Naomi Watts, phenomenal), has come to L.A. as Betty in search of stardom. Girls and boys in two speeding cars careen down Mulholland Drive and smash into another car, killing the children and ejecting from the third car a woman, setting her off on an amnesiac adventure that crosses her path with Diane/Betty’s—until, that is, it turns out that their paths had already long since meshed into a single path across which their identities have exchanged.
Lynch intuitively addresses one of the core issues of our time: given our heightened self-awareness, the problem of identity. Moreover, he pursues it in a context that suggests its lack of possible solution; for life has become a replaying tape, an illusion, he flat-out declares at the Club Silencio, a theatrical club where musicians play and a singer sings her heart out—only, all the music is prerecorded: a poignant, fatalistic touch. Identity, too, is an illusion; at any moment our identities may shift, or seem to shift, poising us in the direction of our becoming strangers to ourselves and each other over and over.
Mulholland Dr. recalls August Strindberg’s late expressionism and Luigi Pirandello, and resembles a darker version of Jacques Rivette’s intricate, magical film Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974). It is also unlike anything else.
97. SUPPLEMENT (Krzysztof Zanussi, Poland). One of the most moving films ever made, Supplement is writer-director Krzysztof Zanussi’s deepening of Life as a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease (2000). Recycling the three most important characters, it covers the same period, hits several of the same scenes from the lives of these characters, including Dr. Tomasz Berg’s death, but opens up, with new disclosures in some cases and in much greater detail in others, two aspects: medical student Filip’s interior struggle to know the will of his God, and the course of his romantic relationship with Hanka. Supplement—or Suplement—also adds Filip’s relationship with an annoying though loving brother and closes on an overwhelming scene of lovemaking on a mountain ledge.
Filip’s monastic retreat hasn’t helped him decide whether God wants him to serve Him directly, as a priest, or indirectly, as a medical doctor. Deeply religious, Filip feels he must resolve this matter, which means putting his relationship with Hanka at least on hold. If he chooses a life of devotion, of course, Hanka will be permanently dropped from the queue of his concerns, along with other people. Frustrated, Filip becomes a solitary wanderer up a mountain, a haunt to which his brother has introduced him. It is his brother who retrieves Filip, whose end might otherwise have come about. Filip decides that “plain ordinary living is the most important thing.” His crisis of confusion and ambivalence resolved, he must again win over Hanka, who feels she has already waited too long for him.
Darkness often bathes the characters, but we find them by their light and ours. Zanussi explores how we differently balance spiritual, practical and other claims on us, showing again, in a different context, the sparkling friendship between old Tomasz and young Filip, the atheist and the believer.
98. SHADOW KILL (Adoor Gopalakrishnan, India). In early-1940s Travancore, Kaliyappan is the Maharajah’s hangman—considered holy, often deep in prayer (to Kali, Mother Goddess of creation/destruction), the ashes from burned portions of whose used ropes (which hang from a miniature noose) presumably cure the sick. Kaliyappan lives, secluded, with his affectionate family: wife Marakatam, son Muthu, 13-year-old daughter Mallika. An older daughter, married, lives nearby. Someone he executed Kaliyappan knows was innocent. Could hanging an innocent man be blamed on the executioner?
An execution awaits. Sick with dread and alcohol Kaliyappan tries begging out; but the State won’t budge. Journeying to the appointed place, Kaliyappan enters the dark night of his soul. “The condemned man cannot sleep [the night before the execution],” one of those accompanying him remarks, “so neither should the hangman.”
A story now told Kaliyappan, which we see as he envisions it, takes on a postmodern twist, casting Mallika as a rape-murder victim, Kaliyappan’s son-in-law as the predator, but Mallika’s gentle boyfriend as the one who pays. Tomorrow morning Kaliyappan will hang the boy, the storyteller explains, thus conflating both unjust hangings. Kaliyappan, overcome, collapses and Muthu is ordered to fill in—which he does, although as a Gandhian he is non-violent. As with Prince Hal upon becoming Henry V, Muthu must complete his father’s work.
Writer-director Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Nizhalkkuthu indicts the pernicious ethos of individual responsibility, arguing instead for social responsibility, community, shared identity. (There is no moral “division of labor.”) It is a film of rituals, such as that marking Mallika’s entry into womanhood after her first menstruation. Gopalakrishnan finds humans resorting to religious faith to unburden themselves of the weight of personal responsibility that power structures have foisted upon them. The film distinguishes between authentic and illusory freedom, between dependency and independence, including national independence.
99. Final Segment, 11’09’’01 (Shohei Imamura, Japan, France). For 11’09”01 (the DVD here is titled September 11), eleven filmmakers, each from a different country, were invited to contribute an eleven-minute film responding to the 2001 attack on the U.S. Shohei Imamura’s Japanese contribution is brilliant.
World War II continues. Outdoors, a snake is slithering on the ground. On the floor of a family hut, a man wearing an army cap is also slithering. Not using his hands, he drinks water out of a container on the floor. “He fought for his country,” a relation notes. In addition to compassion, Yukichi’s family feels disgust. In becoming a snake, Yukichi has shed his human skin; humanity now, for him, is identified with war’s inhumanity. But it is precisely for field combat that Yukichi was trained to crawl on his belly.
He devours a large rat, head first. Yukichi’s blank eye shows he is dissociated from the act, much as he attempted to dissociate himself from what was happening while in combat; but dissociation from his home environment, ironically, implies Yukichi’s entrenchment in memories of war.
Imminent humiliating defeat has transformed the villagers’ impression of the war. Yukichi’s reduced state now reminds them of their reduced state. Driven out of his home, Yukichi is hunted as a criminal—a scene out of Imamura’s beautiful Ballad of Narayama (1993).
“What does the Holy War mean to you?” Yukichi asks a comrade-in-arms in a flashback. An image of humility because he is close to the ground, Yukichi now seems human, sacred. We see a pristine waterfall in the moonlight and trees animated by wind. Yukichi crawls into the river.
Is it Imamura’s voice we hear reading aloud the script that appears on the left side of the screen? There is no such thing as a Holy War.
100. MOOLAADÉ (Ousmane Sembène, Senegal, Burkina Faso). “The father of African cinema,” Senegal’s Ousmane Sembène, was 81 when he made Moolaadé, a movie both elegant and incendiary. Its topic is tribal female circumcision; its theme, tradition clung to in order to maintain the status quo, in this instance, male supremacy. The action takes place in Djerisso, a tiny, impoverished village in Burkina Faso, in East Africa. Female circumcision, however, is practiced throughout Africa, in thirty-eight countries.
A marker of the village is its bizarre, irregular mosque, which is patterned after the adjacent termite hill. Showing male elders emerging through its arched doorways, dark, irregular gaping holes, Sembène applies a satirical spin to their humorless demeanor and reactionary activities.
The protagonist is the village chief’s wife, Collé Ardo, who refused to have their daughter, Amsatou, cut because her own genital mutilation cost her two babies in childbirth. Collé is publicly whipped by her husband for her declaration of Moolaadé, that is, “Protection,” for four girls who have fled their parents and taken refuge with Collé rather than be cut. During Collé’s beating, one of the mothers kidnaps her daughter from the protected compound, thereby ending the Moolaadé, and has her daughter cut. The girl dies as a result. Now radicalized, the mother joins Collé in opposing the practice of female cutting and in confiscating the circumcision knives from the women elders who use them.
Sembène’s finely judged distancing techniques gradually dissolve; their disappearance following their use makes all the more powerful the representation of reality that remains. Intended as the middle part of a trilogy begun with Faat Kiné (2000) and yet to be completed, Moolaadé is stark, humane and radical, as befits an artist who studied under Mark Donskoi (the Maxim Gorky trilogy, 1938-40; The Rainbow, 1944), no less, in Moscow.
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please note: Elsewhere on this site, under the categories “film reviews” and “Hollywood film reviews” (see list of categories at the right), full essays appear on a number of the films included in the “100 Greatest Films” list.