This list, which includes the 100 greatest films I have seen from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean through 2007, proceeds chronologically. However, for a given year the films are given in order of preference. This is the first half of the list. Some films included on this list are more extensively considered in essays categorized as film reviews elsewhere on my blogsite.
1. ¡QUÉ VIVA MÉXICO! See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry 13.
2. THE FUGITIVE. This U.S.-Mexico co-production directed by John Ford and Emilio Fernández, and based on Graham Greene’s “The Labyrinthine Ways,” depicts the stumbling odyssey of a padre (Henry Fonda, excellent) torn between duty and a desire to escape being killed now that the revolutionary government has outlawed the profession and practice of religious faith. The last cleric in a mythical totalitarian state, he is eventually betrayed, caught and executed. Early on, when he opens wide the doors of his church, his shadow shows that his arms are outstretched as in a crucifixion. By delivering the man’s shadow, not substance, and by having this shadow hold its pose a beat or two too long, Ford cunningly undercuts the man’s idealized, posturing self-image. At this point in his journey, then, the priest is a fugitive as much from his own humanity as from the authorities. The remainder of the film charts his progress from would-be martyr to true servant of God, which for Ford, an atheist, means true servant of others—the poor villagers who shelter him.
With symmetrically designed compositions and horses’ hooves bursting through silence, Ford portrays the regime in power not in terms of ideology but in its capacity to impose regimentation, contest freedom, create outcasts. Fear has overtaken people’s lives, transforming the church into a sanctuary and streets into a desperate playground for hunters and the hunted.
Employing ravishing, high-contrast black and white, cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa intensifies the supernal character of Ford’s dignified, stark, somewhat stylized imagery. Spare and essential, images resonate with a heightened naturalism. The film’s rigorous method helped Ford achieve the level of abstraction a universal parable requires. The final image—a Cross of light—transcends religious meaning to convey something more urgent: a persistent light of hope in the dark night of political oppression.
3. EL. Whereas his Los olvidados (1950) focused on Mexico City’s juvenile delinquent poor, Luis Buñuel’s El—in Spanish, the masculine definite article, but released in the States as This Strange Passion—addresses elite society. Mexican landowner Don Francisco is to be reckoned with.
El opens in church. A priest washes and kisses a long line of boys’ bare feet. A subjective camera discloses Francisco’s interest: a string of female parishioners’ shoed feet. The camera wittily backtracks to indicate the pair that wins Francisco’s heart. They belong to Gloria.
Commentators often say Francisco becomes insanely jealous upon marrying Gloria. In truth, he is paranoid earlier in reference to his lawyer’s (mis)perceived disloyalty. The guy has issues. Buñuel tracks Francisco’s romance and machismo.
When poor Gloria seeks sympathy from her mother, we discover that Mexico itself romances machismo.
Here is one of cinema’s great black comedies—until Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), its greatest.
Buñuel’s film keeps going back to church because Buñuel finds the Church’s patriarchic structure informing and buttressing machismo and sexism in Mexico. Francisco attempts to strangle Gloria in a bell tower—a scene that didn’t escape the notice of Hitchcock (Vertigo, 1958), who declared Buñuel one of his favorite filmmakers. (Later, Othello-like, Francisco tries strangling Gloria in bed.) Francisco keeps apologizing to Gloria for his abuse because, while the Roman Catholic Church instills machismo, it preaches humility! In a phenomenal passage, at Mass, quick inserts—quasi-jump cuts—describe Francisco’s delusion that fellow parishioners, altar boy, and even Padre Velasco are laughing at him!
It is time for Don Francisco to calm himself. He enters a monastery. In El’s celebrated final shot, the poor guy, still batty in his holy trappings, walks zigzag down a path, away from the camera. Christian damage may be sublimated but never wholly taken away.
4. ILLUSION TRAVELS BY STREETCAR. Juan and Tarrajas work for mass transit in Mexico City, where working people’s “words and actions are always directed towards the realization of a dream, a desire, an illusion.” The boys are chided for “too much efficiency” in repairing streetcar #133 in record time; the vehicle, “useless” despite being useable again, must be dismantled, which will put the two out of work. Drunk, they take out 133 for one last ride. They charge passengers nothing; some pay anyway. The sum of riders is a diverse portrait of humanity.
Distancing techniques urge an analytical approach to the material. Scenes of passengers shift to long shots of the streetcar. Head-on shots show Tarrajas at the wheel and Juan standing alongside him, both framed by the car’s square front window, creating the effect of a screen-within-the-screen. The Professor, a one-man Greek chorus, explains inflation to the depot watchman: More money is in circulation in the economy; prices go up; wages are stagnant; workers get poorer, while traders and businessmen get richer. Amidst the film’s predominant naturalism, accompanied by deep shadows are phantasmagoric images of the bus at night.
Illusion Travels by Streetcar, the title of Luis Buñuel’s film declares. Two superstructures, religion and capitalism, proffer an illusion of justice while disadvantaging and deceiving the working and nonworking poor. God will redress poverty in paradise; in the meantime, so as not to miss out, people need to harken to what the Church tells them. The “illusion” that travels by streetcar is that things will improve for ordinary people when in fact they will stay the same or get worse.
Most everything in this marvelous comedy having to do with the streetcar and its passengers is imbued with spirit, and none of this spirit owes anything to the existence of God.
5. THE HOUSE OF THE ANGEL. Adapting her own novel, La casa del ángel, Beatriz Guido gave spouse Leopoldo Torre Nilsson an excellent script; but it is Nilsson’s dark, precise, assured filmmaking that generated so memorably turbulent a result. The film also called End of Innocence sets 14-year-old Ana Castro’s coming-of-age amidst the flux of Argentinean mores and manners in the 1920s. Ana (Elsa Daniel, the epitome of adolescent sensitivity and confusion—at once lyrical and achingly real) comes from an aristocratic family; her father is a scheming politician, her mother a puritanical Roman Catholic fixated on maintaining her youngest daughter’s innocence. They live in a Wellesian/Amberson mansion that is beginning to decay; her aging nanny, who sometimes fails to suit her behavior to Ana’s mother’s strict line, is principally charged with Ana’s care. The back-to-back deaths of mother and nanny suggest a combinate loss for Ana—the loss of childhood.
Guido’s intricate script meshes Ana’s reminiscing voiceover and the events she recalls. Pablo Aguirre, a young, handsome colleague of her father’s, shatters Ana’s sheltered world. Drawn into a situation where he feels compelled to defend family honor, Pablo will fight a duel to the death, with pistols, on the Castros’ grounds. At a dance in the mansion the night before his morning of reckoning, Pablo takes Ana into his arms—a phenomenal passage; afterwards, alone, Ana gazes into a mirror, attempting to search out signs of the utter transformation she feels. In truth, she has been infatuated with Pablo for quite a while.
The multiplicity of shots from a fractious variety of camera angles suggests memory’s frustrated attempt to grasp an elusive, complex past.
An Argentinean of Swedish descent, Torre Nilsson creates haunting poetry as his camera, seeking light, roams the mansion’s darkened rooms and halls.
6. NAZARÍN. Luis Buñuel’s finest Mexican film of the 1950s is Nazarín, from the novel by Benito Pérez Galdós. A priest pursues the way of Jesus in Porfirio Diaz’s Mexico
Father Nazario, who lives amongst the poor, is pure of heart. He charitably gives away whatever is charitably given him. He is matter-of-fact about being repeatedly robbed. “The blessed one,” as his landlady sarcastically calls him, is defrocked once he protects a wanted prostitute. When he works for bread as part of a road labor crew, his fellow workers, needing to be paid, oust him. The prostitute becomes his disciple, touting his ability to perform “miracles” even as he insists only “God and science” can save the life of a dying child.
Nazarín is a road film by foot. The pride Don Nazario takes in his humility and devotion is matched by the pride in arrogance the collusion of Church and State manifests. No matter how righteously Don Nazario’s “saintly” virtue sets him apart, there is no “him” separate from the institutional influences his faith and lifestyle humbly contest. Social behavior, even the most solitudinous and outstanding, hence seemingly individualistic, is overdetermined. Like Fellini in La strada (1954), Buñuel challenges the fiction of self-determination. Beings must reach out to fellow and sister beings with compassion and equality—neither lowly nor in condescension—in order to be human.
The film is superbly written by Buñuel and Julio Alejandro, and shot after shot sets Don Nazario in a harsh landscape that is correlative to both his unconscious courting of martyrdom and the difficult road he needs to hoe in his pilgrim’s progress. For now, he appears human only by contrast to the corrupt Church and Mexico’s resident dictatorship, which conspire to maintain the poverty that generates the miserable souls to whom he ministers.
7. VIRIDIANA. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry 22.
8. THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL. We all know the feeling; we’re at a party and we want to leave, but can’t. Luis Buñuel employs this premise for his black comedy The Exterminating Angel, in which guests find that they cannot leave their host’s music room. As hours stretch into days, something of a Lord of the Flies degeneration takes hold. Sheep wander in, which the guests eat. After a mind-boggling moment when they realize that they have all inadvertently assumed the exact same positions they occupied some time earlier, the guests are cleared of their paralysis. They attend church. Upon leaving, they are gunned down.
Many strange, surprising things happen. Early on, for instance, all the posh guests save one have gathered in the music room. The one who has remained in the dining room throws a glass, breaking a window, the sound of which the others hear. Someone tersely explains: “Probably a passing Jew.” Here is the phenomenon of something “outside,” and an outsider, being blamed for what has happened from within. But more: the seemingly crazy explanation, proffered so matter-of-factly, reminds us how irrational sometimes is the basis for social and political statements and actions that the powers that be make appear perfectly rational. In this instance, a shared hatred of Jews makes nonsense seem feasible to the two conversing guests.
Bristling with irony, like so much Buñuel, The Exterminating Angel is hilarious. It is also a harrowing satire on authority—authority, apparently, that feels threatened by even the most trivial and inadvertent deviation from the norm. Moreover, the film is a cunning allegory on Buñuel’s encounter with Franco over Viridiana (see 1961).
Dark, dense, The Exterminating Angel is like a dream. “Its images, like the images in a dream,” Buñuel said, “do not reflect reality, but themselves create it.”
9. . . . A VALPARAÍSO. Three brilliant documentarians worked on the French and Chilean . . . A Valparaíso: its maker, Joris Ivens; in his twenties, Patricio Guzmán, Chile’s future premier political documentarian, who assisted Ivens; Chris Marker, who wrote voiceover commentary suited to Ivens’s images.
Valparaíso, Chile, evidences landmarks from as many countries as have come to port there through conquerors and ordinary seamen. It is a city, we are told, “created, forged, peopled by sailors.” A montage shows buildings designed and constructed to resemble ships and boats.
It must have been the Valley of Paradise prior to development; now it is something else. Down below is the commercial city; at various tiers above, built on hills, is a “cluster” of 42 residential villages, one per hill. It is a system of ramps and stairs. It is a kind of Hell, where the poorer that people are the higher up they live, the farther away they are from the sea, which is the city’s “truth,” and the closer they are to the sun, which is the city’s “lie.” There, considerable effort is required to bring water up from down below. Life’s a struggle.
A one-legged man is shown climbing 121 steps. Marker: “One needs a strong heart and a good memory.” An overhead shot shows another man struggling up different stairs. Nature as well as geography mocks him, for the next thing we see is a chicken springing up the steps.
It’s easier for children—but also damaging. Their lungs, their breathing, are stressed, and they need to work at their play. Their profusion of kites in the sky—a visual echo of seagulls—may be expressing an unconscious dream for themselves of lightness and flight.
A posh woman prods a penguin with her parasol.
Artwork memorializes centuries of Spanish colonial rule.
10. BARREN LIVES. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry 25.
11. BLACK GOD, WHITE DEVIL. Gláuber Rocha’s Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol, literally, God and the Devil in the Land of the Sun, opens with an overhead shot of the sunbaked sertão in northeast Brazil. Impoverished Manuel rides home. En route to landlord Moraes, half the cattle die, for which Moraes demands that Manuel pay. When Moraes whips him, Manuel cuts down Moraes with a machete. Manuel tells wife Rosa they must pilgrimage to Monte Santo. Manuel follows Sebastião, a black mystic preaching rebellion. Manuel, “sick with hope” in her eyes, leaves “faithless” Rosa behind, but she follows. As Sebastião walks alongside him, Manuel, on his knees, hauls a boulder up to Sebastião’s church. Rosa murders Sebastião at the altar; Antônio das Mortes, a gun hired by the Church and landowners to kill Sebastião, massacres his followers, sparing Manuel and Rosa, who, led by Julião, a blind singer, end up following Corisco, a white bandit, whom Antônio eventually kills, releasing Manuel yet again from the grip of a deleterious social or religious influence. Manuel and Rosa, in a spectacular long shot, flee across the land; when Rosa falls down, she is again left behind. Manuel reaches the sea—this final passage an hommage to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), much as Sergio Leone’s westerns will pay homage to Rocha’s allegory.
A seminal work of cinema nôvo, Rocha’s black-and-white film refers to actual events, combining these with shifting chronology, magic realism (a Latin American form of surrealism), neorealismo’s humane concerns, and the nouvelle vague’s formal freedom—elements of cinema nôvo, to which Eisensteinian imagery (¡Qué viva México! is an especial influence) has been added. Rocha shifts from sound to silence and inserts Godardian gunshots into the soundtrack, as well as haunting songs, resulting in a somber yet delirious mix.
12. SIMON OF THE DESERT. Its shooting aborted, apparently, when the producer ran out of money, Luis Buñuel’s Mexican Simón del desierto is set in the past. The film skewers organized religion and laments the gap between one man’s asceticism and the grubby self-interest of those purportedly enthralled by him.
Simon emulates St. Simeon Stylites, the fifth-century fanatic, by standing on a gigantic, narrow column in the desert—on one foot, even, when he feels obliged to do penance. He has been at it for six years, six months, six days when Satan, in the form of a temptress, pops up to taunt and seduce him. At the end s/he takes him by airplane to 1960s Manhattan, where his column has been multiplied into skyscrapers; in a swinging nightclub, when he half-heartedly announces he is going home, s/he informs him that he has already been replaced on top of the column—the implication being, with nobody, including the priests, any the wiser.
In one of the vignettes way below Simon in the desert, a former thief asks for the restoration of his hands—they were lopped off as punishment—so that he can farm again and support his family. Simon prays while one of the large gathering quips, “Maybe today we’ll see one of Simon’s miracles.” Indeed, the hands are suddenly back on the man, whose nonplussed response, however, wittily robs the moment of the miraculous. There is also the implication that, if need be, he will steal again.
Buñuel visually plays with the question mark of whether Simon’s being so far above other humans sets him any closer to God, and the turbulent, windswept black-and-white images of Simon recorded by an upwardly tilted camera, beautifully cinematographed by Gabriel Figueroa, suggest an unsettled soul for all Simon’s air of confident faith.
13. THE LION HUNTERS. Lion hunting, by tradition, is the province of the Gao people. Members of the Fulani, nomadic shepherds in northern Niger and Mali, whose herds are being attacked by lions, approach the Gao for help through the proscribed intermediary of the Songhai, whom the Fulani pay in cattle.
The distribution of tasks and their performance for mutual benefit suggest a social correction to “survival of the fittest.” But killing lions is serious business. Passages documenting the processes by which the Gao forge arrows and brew poison for these arrows index, ironically, the spiritual weight of the life-taking that will result. In a sense, each group represents the precariousness of African life. The shepherds will be lost if the lions continue to devour their animals; the Songhai and the hunters will be lost if they fail to perform functions that tradition has assigned to them. In the mortal realm of Darwinian survival, a cosmic order is being heeded and worked out. Experience has given the Gao an exhaustive understanding of the terrain over which the hunt will proceed; they are presumably connected to the spirits of the grass, trees and water. France’s Jean Rouch thus brilliantly shows the rationalization involved in killing—by implication, in men killing men as well as animals. Killing must be more than killing; it becomes “sanctified,” elevated by its connection to God or to spirits.
How perfectly the Gao understand—that is to say, believe they understand—their prey, to the extent that they can decipher which lion has committed which offense and therefore warrants the proper dispatch. Scapelioning. Their reward comes from the sale of proofs of their slaughtering: skin, skull, etc.
In Rouch’s ethnographic La chasse au lion à l’arc, the primitive casts a light into the heart of darkness of civilization.
14. JAGUAR. Cine-fiction: France’s prolific Jean Rouch coined this term for ethnographic documentaries that are launched by a contrivance. Shot in 1954-55 and edited more than a decade later, Rouch’s Jaguar casts three young African non-actors as three African men who journey from rural, impoverished Niger, along the Ivory Coast, to robust cities in Ghana in search of seasonal work. Their migration is the launch, but the film is the product of Rouch’s research into actual activities and social customs in areas at both ends of the journey and along the way. Jaguar contrasts country and city, the primitive and the more advanced. We may say that the camera follows countryfolk to where people take the camera’s presence—modernity—in their stride.
The slight narrative was improvised by Rouch and the trio, and the soundtrack, consisting of remembered dialogue, ruminations and questions, was improvised post-production. At the time the film was shot, the portable equipment that might have recorded synchronized sound did not exist.
Jaguar is dazzlingly cut and assembled, with perhaps more shots per length than any other film in existence, to convey the complex experience of the trio on their city adventure. This diamond-faceted, restless, highly analytical visual style—Resnais out-Resnaised, and without the long trackings to add countervailing lyricism—is correlative to the real adventure going on: the social elasticity of the protagonists, their Keatsian negative capability, their ongoing need to process the unfamiliar experiences bombarding them, and the mental and emotional agility that allows them to readjust and reinvent themselves as a result. To turn around a famous remark by Tennyson’s Ulysses, all that they have met becomes a part of them. Back home three months after they left, they are partial strangers to themselves and others. Jaguar is a model of technical form analyzing humanistic content.
15. LAND IN ANGUISH. We live with death inside us. . . . As we advance, we retreat.
Using the device of a long dying flashback, Gláuber Rocha’s Terra em transe—literally, Earth Entranced—is a major work of Brazil’s cinema nôvo, the movement that rejected Hollywood-type escapism in favor of native forms and political hot topics. The film’s journalistic, feverishly surreal, and operatic qualities suggest also the influences of Francesco Rosi, Luis Buñuel, Luchino Visconti.
Shot by military police, Paulo Martins is a journalist and poet, and a thread of continuity throughout is his heavy Russian-sounding narration and his speech within the flashback, which is often delivered in the exact same way. Paulo, who finds himself at the vortex of opposing political currents, is based on Rocha, who is thus able to express his ambivalence as to what political course Brazil should take. (The fictional Eldorado, where the film is set, stands in for Brazil.) Through Paolo, Rocha considers the situation of artists and intellectuals following the U.S.-backed military coup that sent Leftist president Joao Goulart fleeing Brazil in 1964.
The film opens with a bravura helicopter shot that entrances us with Brazil’s “entranced earth.” The film is dotted with bizarre, baroque images: on top a hill, a fascist madman, holding a crucifix in one hand and a flag in the other, proclaiming, “I want a new sun”; Paulo, armed, on his back, struggling his way up a long series of steps. When in a street demonstration he says, “I am the people; I have seven children and no place to live,” a peasant is seized and (along with others) strangled with wire on the spot. Immediately the crowd is assured there’s no hunger or violence in Eldorado.
Woven into Terra em transe is documentary footage from Rocha’s Maranhão 66.
16. THE HOUR OF THE FURNACES. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry 75.
17. MANDABI. “Stop killing us with hope!” one of Ibrahima’s two wives says as the postman delivers a money order from Ibrahima’s nephew in Paris. (Most of the money is meant for the nephew’s mother, but Islamic tradition requires that a male handle business transactions.) In their husband’s absence, armed with the gift, the wives buy food and water on credit—a bit of independence for which their spouse will later castigate them. Meanwhile, Ibrahima hasn’t worked in four years, and his small Dakar abode includes seven children. Senegal became independent in 1960, but the removal of colonialism hasn’t given it much success, and the money order, in a way, makes the Diengs once again reliant on France.
Ousmane Sembène’s The Money Order is a satirical comedy that follows Ibrahima’s manifold attempts to convert the money order into cash. A convoluted bureaucracy confounds these attempts—a series of intersecting runarounds. Will any of the gift’s value remain as Ibrahima’s wives keep making purchases on credit, as Ibrahima himself borrows and borrows while trying to get the necessary documentation to be able to cash in the money order, and more and more people prevail upon him for handouts or money owed? Hope indeed is the measure of what France has left the Senegalese—and contentiousness and suspicion. Everyone assumes that Ibrahima is “selfish”—and why? because his wives rule his house. Someone remarks: “There is no solidarity anymore.”
Along the way people either overcharge Ibrahima for helping him or rob him outright. Eventually one of the film’s few “haves” succeeds in turning the money order into cash only to steal the cash, giving Ibrahima instead a bit of rice, which starving neighbors descend upon. The film ends with their testimonies of poverty—and Ibrahima’s conviction that it’s a sin to help others.
18. RAMPARTS OF CLAY. Concentric circles of oppression structure the main action in Remparts d’argile, French filmmaker Jean-Louis Bertucelli’s beauteous, sun-bleached adaptation of Jean Duvignaud’s novel. In a Tunisian village in the early 1960s, a strike by salt mine workers, which is set off when they are paid only half their wages, inspires a young villager to assist in their cause. However, she is deemed by village elders to be somehow possessed for discarding her traditional garb and modest demeanor and for behaving rebelliously, and the women attempt to bring her back to her senses by subjecting her to purifying rituals. But there is no turning back for her; her mind has already touched the border of freedom and self-determination.
Seamlessly mixing actual villagers and professional actors, Bertucelli translates documentary into fiction and fiction into documentary. It is amazing how thoroughly the film absorbs viewers into its reality—an outcome that the sparseness of dialogue facilitates. When villagers spatter the protagonist with fresh animal blood to drive demons out, one is unlikely to ask, “What were these superstitious people thinking in relation to the actress that they were treating as though she were one of their own?” They are simply maintaining their way of life; and one wonders only after the film has ended what parallels are to be drawn between the intruding filmmakers and, in the film, the intruding mining entrepreneur and the thugs he brings in to intimidate the strikers.
Banned in Algeria, where it was filmed, and in Tunisia, Remparts d’argile is a powerful feminist fable portraying a brave, solitary soul’s rebellion against both primitive local custom and intrusive neocolonialism. The workers’ strike helps crystallize both her sense of exclusion and her radical dream of real, not nominal, independence. Her desire is to shed two African pasts.
19. LUCÍA. Ten years after the Revolution deposed Batista, Lucía, by Humberto Solás, expressed hopefulness of the future. Depicting progressive changes in Cuba over more than half a century, the film’s formal design—three episodes, each in its own visual style, showing the role of Cuban women at three different times—implies quantum leaps in political consciousness. Lucía adheres to the dictum that a woman’s lot reflects a nation’s value.
In the case of Cuba, that lot is marked against entrenched patriarchy and socially rampant machismo, one source of which is Spanish culture. The first Lucía is embroiled in a well-heeled romantic melodrama in colonial times, their late nineteenth-century romance at the mercy of her lover’s whims, and the period sets, costumes and florid attitudes—betrayal and madness figure in—correlative to the entrapment of history. In the next, tragic episode, romance strikes out at another Lucía’s insulated world as the political ground underneath the Caribbean island begins to shift. Society-maiden Lucía falls in love with a guerrilla fighter and joins Cuba’s war of independence from Spain. The idea of independence resonates on different levels as the personal and the national cross, resulting in the kind of “intimate epic” that Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming et al., 1939) failed to achieve due to its intellectual vacuity and sentimental compromises. In the final episode, a third Lucía has yet more sociopolitical distance to cover. After the Castro revolution, then what? Progress is being made throughout the island, but Lucía’s spouse, who at times keeps her (literally) locked up, is resistant to any tampering with his male prerogatives. For Solás, “revolution” must be an ongoing thing, and education is the key.
The lukewarm mush of Solás’s recent Miel para Oshún (2001) begs the question: Is the Cuban Revolution dead in the water?
20. FATA MORGANA. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry 77.
21. ANTÔNIO DAS MORTES. A reworking of the myth of St. George and the Dragon, O Dragão da Maldade contra o Santo Guerreiro—literally, The Dragon of Evil Against the Warrior Saint—is Glauber Rocha’s sequel to his Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol (1964), a.k.a. Black God, White Devil. Hired assassin Antônio das Mortes reappears, this time allying himself with oppressed, exploited peasants, whose protector and avenger he becomes. The setting again is the sunbaked sertão. Full of ritual, steeped in folklore, rich in song and dance, this brilliant example of cinema nôvo suggests a heady Brazilian mixture of Francesco Rosi, Miklós Jancsó and Jean-Luc Godard.
Indeed, Rocha presents a landscape of shifting loyalties and betrayals amidst the constants of feudal and colonialist legacies. But the central shift proceeds politically forward: the villain, the Dragon Antônio das Mortes, slays the Dragon Slayer, becoming himself the cangaceiro, the people’s bandit, whose personality suggests the dimensions of guerrilla fighter Che Guevara, whose 1967 death fully released the legend. The film’s formal theatricality, both distancing and visually flat, stabilizes the circus-like shifts, creating a tension that is correlative to the hero’s divided nature, which encompasses the degree to which he is haunted by his past. In a way, like Ethan Edwards in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), he ends up “wandering between the winds,” a solitary figure in a landscape at once both alien and familiar.
The film’s amazing final movement finds the hero moving in and out of remoteness, timelessness and immediate, time-specific traffic, while the film itself moves in and out of sound, in and out of silence. The closing shot finds the hero walking down a deserted road away from the camera, with a Shell Oil station up ahead—a mark of exploitation: post-colonial colonialism.
22. MEXICO: THE FROZEN REVOLUTION. Raymundo Gleyzer’s pulsating, deeply moving México, la revolución congelada is a brilliant Argentinean documentary about the “stillborn” 1910 Revolution that failed to bring economic and social justice to Mexico, but, rather, maintained the desperate poverty and hunger of the country’s indigenous peasants. Gleyzer, 34, was kidnapped and murdered by Argentina’s ruling military five years after this film. (His films are usually about Argentina.) Gleyzer won for it a special prize at Locarno for Third World production.
The film combines historical documentation, consisting of voiceover and old photographs and newsreel footage in sepia or black and white, as well as footage from the Tlatelolco Massacre in Mexico City during the 1968 Summer Olympics, which claimed 400 lives, many of them students, and freshly shot material in color. The latter includes material from the 1970 presidential campaign—at least I think at least some of it is fresh—and interviews with rural peasants, for instance, Mayans.
The materials are dazzlingly assembled; the result, trenchant. Gleyzer explores the reasons for the Revolution’s failure, its departure from socialist principles, its co-option by reactionary forces, including middle-class business, and so forth, and the effect of all this on the lives of actual people. At the outset of the Revolution, 1% of Mexicans owned 97% of Mexico’s land; nominal ownership expanded to about 50%, wherein persisting feudalism kept crops that these “owners” raised, on the land that they worked, nearly entirely out of their hands and their children’s mouths, prompting their further victimization by usurious lenders. All this also entailed the collaboration of Mexico’s exploitational neighbor to the north.
The nobility of starving Mayans is apparent in their faces, their willingness to work, their love of family—and their great ancestral stone carvings, which this peerless film also encompasses.
23. AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry 78.
24. TOUKI-BOUKI. Shimmering in heat waves, a wide-angle shot shows a boy mounted on a zebu leading a herd of the oxen towards camera. Theirs is a single destination that therefore applies, at least metaphorically, to both beasts and boy: the slaughterhouse. What follows is graphic and gory—stuff so discombobulating (for us, in our safety) that we think: No child should be part of this. But no matter how young he is, this village child, Mory, must do what he can to survive. Djibril Diop Mambéty’s The Hyena’s Journey has astonishingly begun.
The next shot is point-of-view; the stylistic rupture corresponds to the fact that time has passed. Mory is a young man now, and he is riding into Dakar—the city—on his motorbike. How do we know this is Mory, only grown up? The horns of a zebu adorn the handles of his motorbike. This is how Mambéty’s masterpiece proceeds: elliptically, expressively.
Mory and college student Anta dream of fleeing to Paris, and much of the film records the couple’s attempts to get the money to do so however they can. (Mory, the hyena, still pursues survival—mental, now, as well as material.) French singing, some of it by U.S. expatriate Josephine Baker, dots the soundtrack. The confusion of western and French icons and emblems reminds us that Senegal had been a French colony. But the point is, the Senegalese need no reminding. Mambéty’s film is about the people’s confusion of cultural and national identity—a legacy of Senegal’s colonization. The dream to escape to Paris reveals the need for a resolution to this confusion.
References to French films—Franju’s Blood of the Beasts (1949), Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965), Truffaut’s L’enfant sauvage (1969) among them—suggest the ironical allure of more confusion as some sort of resolution.
25. HARVEST 3,000 YEARS. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry 82.
26. THE BATTLE OF CHILE: THE STRUGGLE OF AN UNARMED PEOPLE, PART I. On-the-spot documentaries can capture the most unshakable things. La insurreción de la burguesía, the first part of La batalla de Chile: La lucha de un pueblo sin armas (top prize, Grenoble), the immense tripartite film directed by Patricio Guzmán and produced (and partially directed) by Chris Marker, ends with a stunning moment. Democratically elected Salvador Allende, a Marxist, aimed to bring social justice to his nation. One of the soldiers opposing a crowd of Allende supporters after Augusto Pinochet’s September 11, 1973, military coup faces one of the film’s cameramen. Guzmán freezes the frame in which the soldier takes aim at the cameraman; the restoration of motion thus finds the Argentinean, whose camera falls into darkness, recording his own death.
This 3-hour-plus installment spans the election of Allende’s Popular Unity government and its legislative and military opposition. (The U.S. had backed the right-wing Christian Democrats, one of the political parties opposing Allende’s election.) The black-and-white film is blessed with clear, soft, mostly gray cinematography by Jorge Müller Silva that moderates the pulsating hand-held camera work, much as Abilio Fernandez’s measured, soft-spoken narration moderates the political turbulence we watch unfold. Guzmán’s tack is to bring meditative calm to the material so as not to exploit and cheapen this material. The purity this tack cumulatively achieves astonishes; the result is deeply affecting.
One of the most complex passages addresses a copper miners’ strike whose organizers aimed at undermining the government following Allende’s nationalization of the mining industry. Guzmán presents here an unusually sensitive portrait of individual versus national interests that freshly illuminates familiar material.
Guzmán’s cameras, everywhere, record everything: faces; an overhead view of massive humanity. The film is from Venezuela, France, Cuba.
27. XALA. Ousmane Sembène looks back to Senegal’s independence from France. People rejoice in the streets—perhaps prematurely. Fifteen years later, Sembène implies, Senegal still hasn’t come into its own.
The protagonist is El Hadji Abdou Kader Beye, a food merchant who, like other members of the government-connected businessmen’s group to which he belongs, routinely diverts funds intended for the poor, for whom he has contempt. Enamored of power and influence, and having adopted the French colonialists’ smug sense of superiority, he exploits black Africans. He is, after all, a capitalist.
Each group member has been given a stash of cash for business use, but El Hadji uses his for a lavish wedding. His young bride looks miserable at the ceremony, though, and Wife #2 counsels patience to Wife #3. What a hard limit, it turns out, #2’s patience really has!
El Hadji defends his status-seeking third marriage for its “Africanity”—its revival of traditional black African practice. “I am the master here!” he shouts at daughter Rama, a socialist and feminist, after striking her for telling him that all polygamists are liars.
Plainly El Hadji needs to be taught a lesson. The lesson is not long in coming. El Hadji cannot “perform” on his wedding night. His penis, we are informed, “crumpled like a wet piece of paper”—an allusion, perhaps, to the new nation’s Constitution. Has someone put a hex on him—a xala, a curse of impotence? El Hadji tries everything to undo the “curse.” Finally a traditional “healer” succeeds, exacting a capitalist’s price: El Hadji’s full purse.
Overextended, El Hadji goes under financially. Not having been paid, the healer reinstates the curse. Beggars El Hadji once had hauled away by the police now occupy his home and dish out just desserts. Sembène knows his Viridiana (see 1961).
28. THE BATTLE OF CHILE: THE STRUGGLE OF AN UNARMED PEOPLE, PART II. We hear the tumult in the street in Santiago before we see it; the opening credits of El golpe de estado, the second part of La batalla de Chile: La lucha de un pueblo sin armas (top prize again, Grenoble), are blocking our view. The first part begins similarly, but in this instance the procedure formally resonates; for, with the launch of “el golpe”—the coup—against him, Salvador Allende does not quite “see” the people—about a third of the electorate had voted for him—who are so willing to defend his presidency at ultimate personal risk to themselves. Rather, he focuses on the Chilean legislature in pursuit of a course for resolving the crisis that would not “de-legitimize” his presidency nearly three years after his historic election. Ironically, the U.S.-backed Christian Democrats, who continue to oppose him, meet with Allende, to give the appearance of underway negotiations, only after the Catholic Church publicly prays that such meetings take place. Politics are merely forestalling the inevitable military ousting of Chile’s democratically elected Marxist president.
As with the first part of Patricio Guzmán’s monumental black-and-white documentary, light gray predominates; but this time there is at least one jolting scene in which the faces of people in the street are dimmed to darkness.
Speeches and public pronouncements by all sorts of individuals and groups now become the film’s principal mode of content; this, added to the continuing voiceover narration, creates a stream of talk that eventually makes the announcement of Allende’s death a seemingly slipped-in thing. Ironically, one might almost miss the momentous news: Augusto Pinochet has seized power.
Cumulatively, the second part is overwhelmingly sad, tremendously moving.
From Cuba, Chile, France.
29. CEDDO. Banned by his nation, Ousmane Sembène’s Ceddo is set in Senegal’s past, when the Ceddo—the people; those who resist—were forced to convert to Islam by occupying Islamic forces. The film, by turns a mythical and grimly realistic epic, reflects on the African need to retain native cultural roots against whatever outside forces oppose this: Christianity, colonialism and neocolonialism, as well as Islam. A Catholic priest and a white trader crop up as figures of oppression and exploitation.
Ceddo is a film of revolt, a cry to rise up against foreign invaders. (It is worth noting that Sembène, “the father of African cinema,” studied film in Moscow under Mark Donskoi, the director of The Rainbow, 1944, about a Ukrainian village occupied by the Nazis.) Its style is minimalist and, at times, semi-abstract; derived from ideas embodied in its images, the film’s force owes nothing to sentimental manipulation.
Like nearly all of Sembène’s films, this one is feminist, gleaning a connection, a mirror-imaging, between tribal patriarchy from within and oppression from without. The principal agency of this feminism is the character of Princess Dior Hocine, whose kidnapping is the result of her father’s, King Demba War’s, alliance with the Islamic invaders. Communal debate ensues. Ultimately the princess shoots dead the Imam occupying her father’s throne.
Throughout, the distancing techniques that Sembène marshals do even more than make us think (Brecht); they are correlative to the cultural self-dissociation that Islamic and other oppressors seek to impose on native Africans and which the latter, Sembène feels, must do their utmost to resist. His film is graced with long shots of the people, and it’s reasonable to assume that he was partly inspired by one of the two greatest shots of the 1970s: the closing one of Satyajit Ray’s Distant Thunder (1973).
30. JULIO BEGINS IN JULY. Torrentially dynamic, in terms of bold, sharp camera movement and a high degree of human and other motion energizing the mise-en-scène, Julio comienza en julio is an astounding film from Chile. Well written by Gustavo Frías, beautifully directed by Silvio Caiozzi, and brilliantly cinematographed in high-contrast sepia by Nelson Fuentes (although I thought I saw a green-leafed tree), it condemns Chile’s then-current rule, and gets away with it, by suggesting parallels between Pinochet’s military dictatorship and, in 1917, a doomed feudalism.
Wealthy landowner-cattle rancher Julio García Castano, a widower, has three interconnected worries: the nearby Franciscan monastery is claiming ideal grazing land as its own, embroiling him in a legal suit that is taking the courts forever to resolve; Europe’s Great War may wind down, which would deflate the market price of his beef; his son, also named Julio, is turning 15, and he wants to “make a man” of Julito and compel him to “face reality.” To his son’s grand birthday party, Don Julio has invited the local madam, who has brought with her every one of her whores so that Julito has a wide pool from which to choose. Julito chooses María, whom he ardently pursues thereafter. Until it reaches a blatant, predictable finish, Caiozzi’s film pirouettes across a turbulent tangle of politics, family and other human relationships, spinning the theme of ownership—who owns what and whom. Don Julio’s expansive ownership, which includes his lawyer and Julito’s live-in tutor, trumps everyone else’s—but an unexpected rebellion changes this.
Surveying family portraits, the opening movement has us waiting for each pair of eyes to blink.
Felipe Rabat is magnificent as Don Julio; Juan Cristobal Meza, his father’s son—a contumelious shit.
Possible influences: Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Haile Gerima, Luchino Visconti.
31. DE CIERTA MANERA. Sara Gómez Yera was 30 when asthma took her life in 1974. Both Cuba’s first woman filmmaker and first Afro-Cuban filmmaker, the former documentarian was making her first feature. (France’s Agnès Varda had been a mentor.) The film was completed by Julio García Espinosa and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, who would pay homage to its style, a fusion of documentary and fictional elements, in his Up to a Certain Point (see 1983). Gómez’s film, called in the States One Way or Another (In a Certain Way might be more accurate), was partly based on her love affair with a sound technician. In the film, Yolanda is a middle-class schoolteacher; Mario, a factory worker. Moreover, Mario, who is racially mixed, is misogynistic, tied to machismo; by contrast, Yolanda embraces the new sociopolitical order. The divide between lovers may be characterized as past versus future, pre-Castro and post-Batista. Yet Gómez is sharply critical of Cuba’s persistent attachment to elements of classism, racism, sexism; some of this she lays at (what she sees as) Castro’s authoritarian door. These elements are explored in various interruptions of the main story, including newsreel footage, interviews, direct addresses and related elements. Jean-Luc Godard may be a direct influence (or, through Varda, an indirect one).
On the one hand, the film records improvements in the Cuban human landscape. For instance, a principal setting is a housing project that has replaced one of Batista’s horrific slums. Also, Yolanda’s pupils are from the underclass, which Batista had banned from schooling. However, worrisome cultural behaviors persist, such as the Cuban penchant for indolence. A moral crisis for Mario arises when he considers reporting a fellow worker who has taken off from work to have sex.
Both leads are nonprofessional. Yolanda is played by a Yolanda; Mario, by a Mario.
32. BAARA. From Mali, Baara—the title translates as Labor, or Work—is by Soulaymane Cissé. Its three main characters are on a capitalistic collision course. Balla Diarra is an impoverished street porter who lands a job at the local textile factory owned by Makan Sissoko, a man so intent on riding Africa’s westernized wave of the future that he has only one wife at a time. (Sissoko is currently in his fourth marriage.) Between them stands Balla Traoré, who newly manages Sissoko’s factory and institutes a shorter work week and higher wages. He seeks to protect its workers from both their corrupt union and Sissoko’s plans for a massive layoff. Unlike Sissoko and Diarra, Traoré doesn’t quite know his own place yet, nor is his level of confidence sufficient to forge a clear path of action through the morass of his good intentions. Moreover, he is conflicted, as his marriage demonstrates; tied to old ways, he refuses his wife her independence, keeping her at home. By contrast, Sissoko’s wife runs a boutique (another part of her husband’s—forgive—empire); but her freer life encourages her adultery. We have here a symbolical jumble of post-colonial attitudes and uncertainty.
Tribal results ensue, including Sissoko’s sense of betrayal upon learning that Traoré has met with workers (he thus has Traoré killed), and his burst of lethal violence upon catching his wife and her lover together. The police assault on striking workers is, indirectly, another outcrop of his lethal violence. Sissoko’s center does not hold.
In detail the film shows, moreover, the workers at work—work, here, that’s excrutiating to perform as well as monotonous.
Baara is a tad clumsy, arty and melodramatic—but powerful. It shows colonialist imperatives, assimilated by post-colonial capitalism, finding ways of reasserting themselves through greed and lust for power.
33. MALUALA. The final entry of a trilogy begun with The Other Francisco (1975) and Slave Hunter (1976), Maluala is in the mold of Gillo Pontecorvo’s Queimada (Burn!, 1969)—but without the Brandopiness. Fiercely beautiful, Sergio Giral’s film fictionalizes slave revolts in Cuba in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Its protagonist, called Gallo, leading an army of runaways, petitions the Spanish colonial government for freedom and land; he and his followers are met with brutal reprisals. Their settlement tucked away in eastern mountains, Gallo and the others come to presage Castro, “Che” Guevara and their anti-Batista guerrilla forces in the 1950s. The film suggests that the latter revolution has brought to fruition the earlier movement by Cuba’s most oppressed individuals—a connection that Giral, a black Cuban himself, draws with heartfelt conviction. Indeed, the film ends with a freeze frame that perfectly expresses the historical weight that Giral wishes to bring to bear. After engineering a massacre of blacks, the colonial Spanish general—Gallo’s nemesis—is shown surrounded by a taunting crowd of the dispossessed. They represent the future as much as the present, and the freeze frame captures the general’s howl and bulging eyes, slyly anticipating the end to the power upon which the colonial forces then so ruthlessly relied. This man embodies injustices perpetrated against the Cuban people; with hindsight, then, the film looks forward to his getting his comeuppance. The film’s heightened style—its rich colors, music and touches of primitive folklore—helps the connection drawn between the black slave revolt and Castro’s later defeat of the Batista government appear almost mystical. In this, the film owes something to Battleship Potemkin (1925), where a failed Russian revolution looks ahead to the successful one that has already since occurred. Like Eisenstein’s masterpiece, Maluala is a national epic.
34. THEY DON’T WEAR BLACK-TIE. Brazil’s military dictatorship, in place since 1964, had entered a period of liberalization when Gianfrancesco Guarnieri and director Leon Hirszman adapted the former’s 1958 play, Eles Não Usam Black-Tie, in response to industrial strikes occurring in São Paulo, to where they reset the play’s action (from Rio de Janeiro). Both Guarnieri, who also assumed the principal role of union leader Otávio, and Hirszman, whose Polish parents eluded the Holocaust by moving to Brazil, are Marxists committed to workers’ rights and social progress.
At the center of the film are a father and son. Both work in the same metalworking factory that also employs the boy’s pregnant girlfriend, Maria. But while Otávio helps organize the strike at work, Tião opts for a more immediate, practical future, one that entails providing for Maria, whom he wishes to marry as soon as possible, and their baby. In the service of this priority, he becomes a scab, deepening the divide between himself and his father, which his mother, Romana (Fernanda Montenegro—Oscar-nominated for Walter Salles’s 1998 Central Station, but here giving a much more complex and valuable performance), painfully does her best to moderate. Ironically, Tião’s stance also damages his relationship with Maria, who is more in tune with Otávio’s activism.
One of the accomplishments of this fine example of cinema nôvo is the distinction it makes between Romana and Otávio’s modest working-class home and the poorer, more cramped quarters that Maria’s family occupies.
Each one of the characters is admirable in his or her own way, including Tião, who steps up to the plate of quite overwhelming responsibility. The film’s generosity in this regard helps lead to a humane rather than a schematic result. At the same time, there can be no mistaking where the filmmakers’ political heart lies.
35. WÊND KÛUNI. The first film from Burkina Faso is wonderful—a beauteous, visually unaffected pastoral about a 12-year-old boy. It takes place in the early nineteenth century, before the white man’s intrusion, along with his Christianity, before Islam’s intrusion. The film is quiet, tranquil, as rhythmic as a river. The baa-ing of sheep and chirping of birds are recurrent sounds.
The father apparently abandoned the mother when the boy was an infant. At ten, the latter and another child in the village fell ill, causing his mother to be branded a witch. Mother and son were driven out, their hut, burned. That day, his mother died, and he ran for hours, dropping down from exhaustion and nearly dying himself. The film opens as an itinerant merchant gives him water, bringing him back to life, and takes him to the nearest village on his way, depositing him there. The boy cannot speak. Tinga and Lale adopt him, naming him Wênd Kûuni, “God’s Gift.” This is his second rebirth. A couple’s domestic quarrel leads to the husband’s suicide, which Wênd Kûuni uncovers. This restores his voice—his third rebirth. With this voice he discloses his history to his sister, Pognere, thus becoming a storyteller: another rebirth.
Gaston Kabore’s film consists mostly of the family’s daily life. The boy’s adoptive mother hardly ever seems to stop working; she is shown performing numerous tasks. (The village men, by contrast, seem on perpetual holiday.) Wênd Kûuni shepherds the family’s flock. In one shot, he is walking towards the camera in the tall, dry grass in the fields. The animals in front of him become visible later than he—a magical moment. In another passage, we watch Wênd Kûuni make a flute.
Kabore’s Bûud Yam (1997), which I haven’t seen, catches up with Wênd Kûuni’s life.
36. UP TO A CERTAIN POINT. In an interview being filmed, a Cuban explains: “It’s right that men and women should be equal. But only up to a certain point.”
Machismo dies hard in Castro’s Cuba—and maybe, truth to tell, in Castro himself; but at least it finally dies, however slowly. In another of this film’s pseudo-documentary inserts, a Havanan says that her man gave her a choice: him or work. No fool, she chose her job, asking where she would be if he decided to leave her someday. No film I know of better links gender equality to personal destiny and social necessity than Hasta cierto punto.
Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s most captivating comedy looks back to De cierta manera (see 1975), which Alea helped complete upon the death of Sara Gómez Yera, and looks ahead to Carlos Saura’s Argentinian Tango (see 1998). Alea’s film draws thematic and stylistic concerns from Gómez’s film, and in fact pays tribute to it, and, like Tango, is a film about the making of a film—but here the protagonist of the film, Oscar, wrote the script for the film-within-a-film, not directs it. However, there is a similar thematic back-and-forth playing out between Alea’s film and Oscar’s. Oscar’s documentary exposes machismo and consequent Cuban difficulty in realizing gender equality; his romance with Lina, the activist dockworker who appears in the film, suggests the need for cameras to be turned on him. But wife Marian’s friend Flora, wife of the film-within-a-film’s director, counsels a kind of cynicism about men that reflects the men’s own machismo. This machismo, along with labor issues of the dockworkers, Lina included, undermine the Oscar-Lina relationship. It seems that the male sense of entitlement to adultery links new Cuba to the old.
Well, that’s true up to a certain point.
37. MEMORIES OF PRISON. Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s Memórias do Cárcere is based on Brazilian author Graciliano Ramos’s posthumously published account of his yearlong incarceration in the mid-1930s simply for being a suspected communist. No charges were filed against Ramos; there was no trial. Ramos was recently discharged as Director of Public Education of Alagoas.
The film sketches the family life of Ramos’s about to be disrupted and his southward journey to prison in Rio de Janeiro, during which a military officer asks for his autograph. The rest of the film details the culture and daily life at the prisons where Ramos was confined.
It is clear at the point of Ramos’s first arrival that political imprisonment is routine in Brazil. In a heartrending shot, the camera moves across an expanse of cheering male anti-fascists behind bars in countless cells and ends in the female part of the prison, where spirit and nostalgia, expressed in song, is equally strong, and where a cut, disrupting the shot, reveals a peeping male eye. The inmates are in solidarity. The incipient deportation of two female inmates to Nazi Germany provokes outrage in both parts of the prison. “There is no justice nowadays,” Ramos tells his wife on one of her visits. Ironically, Ramos’s incarceration seems to clarify his previously uncertain politics.
Ramos is relocated to the brutal Ilha Grande Correctional Colony. Arruda, the white-outfitted despot at the colony, unmercifully beats a black prisoner for no reason. Arruda asks Ramos, who has been helping fellow inmates with their Portuguese, to write a speech for him; Ramos declines, although permission for his own writing hangs in the balance. Ramos is shipped back to Rio.
Carlos Vereza gives a tremendous performance as Ramos, whose novel Vidas Secas Pereira dos Santos filmed some two decades earlier (see 1963).
38. FACES OF WOMEN. From Ivory Coast, Désiré Ecaré’s Visages de femmes shows a society in transition. Framed and punctuated by a street festival providing linking all-female choral commentary, two overlapping stories address the status of women as this evolves from patriarchal oppression—the residue of both tribal organization and colonialist imposition—to newer demands for equality. The past, deeply entrenched, opposes either protagonist.
Brou suspects his wife of committing adultery with Kouassi, his brother; he barks at N’guessan: “You are my slave . . . I own your body.” The adultery eventually materializes, prompting Brou to respond with brute force. By compounding N’guessan’s voice with several likeminded voices (“Men never trust us. . . . [Brou] deserves to be deceived”), the chorus implies the political strength in numbers necessary to uproot the idea of ownership that Brou professes.
In the second tale, another, older woman has succeeded in the marketplace. Her fish-smoking operation employs 200 women and supports herself, spouse, family. For all this, her husband’s position of authority within the family hasn’t budged. The woman decides to open a restaurant, hoping that making more money will help.
However, the banking system she must approach for the loan needed to launch her new venture hews to its own patriarchic logic. The woman finds herself facing an obstructive kid—an educated banker young enough to be her son. Therefore, she now frames her loan plea in familial terms, hoping a son would not turn down a mother. Humiliatingly, the strategy fails. Despite his youth, the banker stands in for a husband who discounts his wife’s ambitiousness (she has “too many plans,” he tells her). This husband also exemplifies patriarchal form taking precedence over what should be the tender, egalitarian substance of marriage.
Ecaré’s marvelous comedy concludes with women dancing by themselves. They can rely only on themselves.
39. THE OFFICIAL STORY. During the 1976-1983 military dictatorship in Argentina, thousands of citizens were tortured and murdered; they simply vanished, never to return to families who had no idea what had happened to them. Additionally, the children, including babies, of these desaparecidos were turned over to military and other right-wing families. Once the dictatorship fell, mothers of desaparecidos organized, protested and searched for their missing grandchildren. Luis Puenzo’s La historia oficial approaches this material from the opposite dramatic perspective: in Buenos Aires, Alicia Marnet de Ibáñez (Norma Aleándro, in the performance of a lifetime), a high school teacher and the wife of a lawyer, begins to suspect that their five-year-old adopted daughter, Gaby, was one of these state-abducted children. Alicia’s relentless search for the truth sets her on a collision course with her spouse and their bourgeois existence.
For quite a while, Alicia herself wears political blinders. Ironically, she teaches Argentinian history, but it is her students, unruly, self-righteous and inquisitive, who press her to learn more about what has been recently and is now going on in their country. Alicia cannot believe that such things went on as did. A Leftist colleague challenges her: “It’s always easier to believe it’s impossible, right? Because if it is possible, this would require complicity.” Her husband, Roberto, lied to Alicia about the adoption at the time; now Alicia must accept her own complicity in the unfolding national nightmare of which she had been ignorant. Of course, both she and Roberto adore little Gaby.
Eventually Alicia meets a woman who may indeed be one of Gaby’s birth grandparents.
By the film’s end Gaby has mastered the song that she has been attempting to learn throughout. This is part of the lyric: “In the land of I-don’t-remember,/ I take three steps and am lost.”
40. HOUR OF THE STAR. “I’m not much of a person,” 19-year-old Macabéa tells boyfriend Olimpico, and her self-evaluation is accurate. She lives with three other renters in a single small, squalid room. Both Macabéa and Olimpico are impoverished, socially and academically uneducated rural migrants in the city; she, the protagonist of Suzana Amaral’s Brazilian A Hora da Estrela, which is based on Clarice Lispector’s novel, is nicer, though. When Olimpico dumps Macabéa for someone who is more (obviously) attractive, he tells her, “You are a hair in my soup.”
Macabéa, like Olimpico, is an orphan. She works ineptly and painfully slowly as a typist, and is constantly on the verge of being fired. (Olimpico is a factory worker.) Macabéa continually asks Olimpico questions, often about unfamiliar words she has heard used on the radio. When she asks what culture is, he typically hides his ignorance behind a brusque, dismissive response: “Culture is culture.” Macabéa wants to better herself, but she doesn’t know how, and her attempts to do so are routinely blocked.
Yet Macabéa perseveres. She succeeds somewhat in coming to terms with herself in a largely inhospitable environment. For the most part, no one sees her. In a crowded fast-food restaurant, Macabéa is pleased when she thinks a man is noticing her, but as he leaves she realizes he is blind. Throughout, we see her looking at her image in mirrors and windows, and the reflecting surface usually is vague, smudged or given to distortion. At first, she is trying to see herself as others see her; later, she is trying to see herself more clearly, more kindly than others do. Amaral’s at times almost documentary-like film cries out for us also to see Macabéa and people like her.
Profoundly engaging, sometimes radiant, Marcelia Cartaxo is superb as Macabéa.
41. YEELEN. I am not familiar with Mali myth.
Soulaymane Cissé’s medieval Brightness helps us out with this mythological orientation: “The two worlds, earth and sky, exist through light.” This film is about light—but the light of understanding as well as of material illumination. Instances of both abound.
When does a boy become a man? Let me ruminate. As I was growing up, being neither Jewish nor Christian (or, possibly, by dint of my parents, both), I wondered that Jewish males were ritually declared adults at 13 while the Christian demarcation of male maturity was the christological age of 33—a twenty-year difference. How does one reconcile this discrepancy? I decided this: Judaism in this regard is projective, setting maturity as the consequence of a boy’s admittance into the adult community; Christianity, however, focuses on the individual boy’s relation to Jesus. In short, while some religions are primarily social, others are solitudinous.
To confront the person who abandoned them both, the boy here abandons his loving mother. Additionally, the country’s survival is at stake. Soma, the father-king, feels obligated to vanquish son Nianankoro lest his own existence be the forfeit. Nianankoro beds his father’s new, young wife; but the whole to-do is less Oedipal, that is, psychological, than individual/emotional. Nianankoro’s motive and the outcome are less relevant than the journey that takes him to the confrontation with his father and better determines his adult status.
Cissé’s beauteous film speaks its own truth. However, Nianankoro becomes “adult” by dint of experience, not mythological fiat. It is a cumulative process, which we watch unfold. Moreover, we question everything we see, including “the terror” that Nianankoro’s mother indicated that Soma was and would be, but who also plays his part in helping his son realize the full benefits of identity: hopefully, Africa’s future.
42. MORTU NEGA. 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.
43. HERDSMEN OF THE SUN. See 100 Greatest German, etc., Films list, elsewhere on this site, entry 79.
44. ANGANO . . . ANGANO . . . . In Brazilian-born César Paes’s Tales from Madagascar, an ethnographic documentary co-directed by wife Marie Clémence Paes, we hear storytellers recount founding myths of Malagasy culture; rather than these folk historians, who appear in occasional inserts, or dramatic enactments of the tales they tell, we see instead people in the here and now, principally, at work, myths flowing through them, informing who they are and what they do in their everyday lives. Their myths continue to explain their environment.
We begin at the beginning: the Malagasian creation myth—voiceover set to images of sky, sea and earth. Thunder and lightning—war—was the result of conflict between the Gods of Sky and Sea, both of which coveted Earth. The sight and sound of the matching meteorological display obliterates the difference in time. Past is present; all, eternal. Earth raised mountains to attack Sky, but both Gods struck an accord, inventing peace, and decided on a joint project: the creation of the human—shaped from mud, invested with spirit. Set to this voiceover is a long-shot of a boy running towards the camera. Once created, humanity became a bone of contention, reviving conflict between the Gods and within their human creation.
Bored and lonely, humanity made fire, hence, smoke, so God of Sky sent down his daughter to keep Man company. But she missed the taste of rice, so she and her mate visited her father, stole some of his rice and returned to earth, planting the rice. Set to this voiceover are images of rice harvesting. We see, for instance, women chattering away at work, up to their waist in muddy rice paddies—like the original boy, creatures of the mud themselves now, but also part of a sociable community.
Myth and reality flow as one river throughout this radiant film.
45. YAABA. Idrissa Ouédraogo’s Yaaba—Mooré, for Grandmother—comes from Burkina Faso. It is about taking responsibility. Although its focus is a village, Ouédraogo’s concerns are clearly national, regional, continental.
Someone has ignited the grainary. Eyewitness testimony is discounted because it comes from “a drunk”—the role to which villagers have relegated the man. Discounting his testimony, then, confirms their accuracy in assigning him the role, thus blocking any need to take responsibility for their error. But a voice of reason among them remarks that the drunk drinks largely because the community so ridicules and routinely dismisses him.
The village blames the arson on Sana (Fatimata Sanga, wonderful), an elderly woman who also has been categorically defined—in her case, as “a witch.” The communal superstitiousness isn’t purely a matter of ignorance and backwardness; another component is the (false) sense of security that its familiarity imparts. However misguided, however much the practice converts neighbors into outsiders and pariahs, it reassures villagers to maintain faith in the roles that they have assigned others. It enables them to evade responsibility for what happens in their midst. The earlier arson burns with especial irony in our minds when the villagers, scapegoating Sana just as ridiculously for something else (a child’s illness), burn down her hut.
The main characters are young cousins Nopoko and Bila. The boy, Bila, befriends Sana; both children are shown as being skeptical of the idea that Sana is a witch. When Nopoko falls ill, her cousin, at Sana’s instruction, makes a journey in order to bring a healer to Nopoko. In this way the boy is taking responsibility for the outcome of Nopoko’s illness—an act that stands in contradistinction to how the village generally functions.
Indeed, the children represent a more hopeful future, one of responsibility rather than blame.
46. TILAÏ. Filmed in Burkino Faso but set in the pre-colonial past, Idrissa Ouédraogo’s The Law attributes a harsh injunction to an authoritarian/patriarchal bias and the need for social order.
Saga is returning home after a long voyage away, planning on marrying Nogma. Before he can enter the village, Kougri informs him that Nogma has married their father in his absence. It was a “forced” marriage. Nomenaba desires Saga’s acceptance of Nogma as stepmother. Defiantly, Saga remains at the village outskirts, where the pair consummate their adultery and incest. It falls to Kougri to kill his brother. “I’m sorry,” he says to Nogma before informing her that her disgraced father has hanged himself. “You bitch! You made me a widow,” her mother shouts at her daughter at her husband’s burial. “I never want to see you again!” Meanwhile, his life spared by Kougri, Saga is again a wanderer—as is Nogma, in search of him and pregnant, after she learns the truth. A troubled conscience afflicts Kougri, who selfishly followed his heart rather than honoring tradition. News of his mother’s illness splits the reunited couple. Upon Saga’s reappearance, Nomenaba exiles Kougri, who, before leaving, finally kills his brother.
If Ouédraogo’s film is Wagnerian in its observation of the role of sex in familial and communal discord, its intimacy and minimalist style are otherwise. The opening identifies Saga as a solitudinous figure, a solitary moving slowly by mule across a barren landscape, in order to suggest Nogma’s contrary need for social existence that helps explain her acquiescence to a loveless marriage—in effect, a symbolic one to Saga at a generational remove. For Nomenaba, the marriage symbolically made him his own son, whose youthful existence he envies.
“The law”—both men’s laws and “the way things are”—exiles all men from civilization.
47. CABEZA DE VACA. An outgrowth of his earlier ethnological documentaries, Nicolás Echevarría’s most celebrated film is based on explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s 1542 report to Charles V about a 600-man expedition to the New World—the mission was to claim Florida for Spain—that only four others survived. In particular, the film explores the relationship between Cabeza de Vaca and, once separated from his shipwrecked group, native tribes he encounters. But the film departs from what Cabeza de Vaca wrote to the King; Echevarría pursues instead a what if? approach to the historical material. Indeed, Cabeza de Vaca weighs aloud the prudence of telling the King lies, so unbelievable has been the course of his adventures, against a desire to tell the truth.
When indigenes take Cabeza de Vaca away, his comrades assume that he is headed for the roasting pot. Rather, as the fairest of the group, he would perhaps make the best slave. However, the tribe’s shaman takes the white man under his wing, and the Spaniard proves his worth by restoring the sight of a blinded chieftain. When Cabeza de Vaca, thus allowed his freedom, departs, the eyes of Malacosa, the armless dwarf who had once derided him, well up in tears.
Cabeza de Vaca searches throughout America for his comrades. Eventually they reunite. The cannibalism that had seemed to be his destiny proved instead to be theirs, on the other end of the ladle. One of the group attributes his man-eating to “a Christian’s hunger”—an indication of how easily the “civilized” rationalize their own barbaric behavior.
Echevarría’s wild, hypnotic, at times deliriously magical film ends with one of cinema’s most searing wide-angle shots: a gigantic Cross being carried across the landscape—colonial presumption, and the enslavement of indigenes and destruction of their cultures.
48. DANZÓN. Julia Solórzano (María Rojo, radiant, heartachingly good), a single mother who works as a telephone operator in Mexico City, relaxes by dancing the highly formal danzón with Carmelo, an older gentleman whom she meets only on the dance floor. (The wide-rimmed white hat Carmelo always wears denotes his cheished privacy.) One night Carmelo doesn’t show up, and Julia uncharacteristically takes time off to go to Veracruz in search of him. While not finding him there, Julia experiences what working-class persons, especially women, rarely, if ever, get to experience: liberty. This includes friendship with a cross-dresser, whom she teaches to dance, and a love affair with a hardworking boy.
Written by sisters Beatriz and María Novaro and directed by the latter, a former documentarian, Danzón opens with a closeup on Julia’s and Carmelo’s feet on the dance floor and ends quietly, jubilantly, with the pair dancing again. In between, the film follows Julia only, sparking their reunion with both wistfulness and a sense of new possibilities. How important Carmelo is to Julia doubtless reflects how important she also is to him. Novaro suggests how important all kinds of people are to us, both inside and outside of romance.
The film pairs Julia in heartfelt conversation with other women and girls, including co-workers and Julia’s teenaged daughter, whom Julia helps adjust to her new job as operator while retaining a mother’s worry. (In San Juan, a phone operator was raped at her worksite.) Novaro’s delicious comedy owes something to Antonioni in its open sense of adventure and pays (in the tarot-reading scene) homage to Agnès Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962). It expresses our need for both structure and liberty, showing how structure can liberate, and how liberty, so hard for so many to come by, can enrich our lives.
49. THE MEMORY OF WATER. See 100 Greatest Films from Italy, etc., list, elsewhere on this site, entry 85.
50. GUELWAAR. Barthelémy, now a French citizen, has returned to Senegal for his father’s funeral. Pierre Henri Thioune, “Guelwaar” (meaning, Noble One), was a district leader whose especial cause was foreign aid, which he inveighed against for costing people dignity. Senegal won its independence from France in 1960, but assistance since then has kept Senegal dependent on the outside world. Yet Ousmane Sembène tweaks the political underpinnings of this psychological concern by showing how reliant on others Guelwaar remains even in death. Someone’s inability to read French(!) has resulted in Guelwaar’s burial in a Muslim cemetery. Guelwaar was Catholic, as are those now mourning his suspicious death. It falls to Guelwaar’s sons to get officials to unbury his father’s corpse so it can be buried where it belongs.
But things happen slowly in Senegal. Part of the painful comedy of this glorious satire hinges on the pace at which things move. This pace suits the film’s exquisite formality and rigor, as well as the delicate issues involved. The majority Muslim community must be convinced by officials and politicians, all variously motivated, of what’s what. Even the imam initially believes that pesky Catholics are looking for an excuse to violate the Islamic cemetery’s sacred ground. The Muslims insist that the right person, one of their own, is buried in the grave where they are being told Guelwaar is buried. They are poised to shed blood as a result.
“When a vulture attacks your enemy, that could have been you,” the imam concludes, “so do something to get the vulture off him.”
A truckload of charitable commodities is discarded. Catholics pass back their cross as they proceed to the truck; the cross thus recedes, releasing irony’s undercutting. The mass activity we see is a tribute to Guelwaar, not a decision.
51. THESE HANDS. Dedicated to women everywhere struggling to survive in poverty, Flora M’mbugu-Schelling’s documentary These Hands shows women from Mozambique in a sunbaked Tanzanian quarry relentlessly cracking rock into bits with stone hammers. With conversation among the laborers, but without voiceover or other commentary, that is to say, contextualization, the film thus proceeds until its last breath, at which point script appears to inform us that these refugees work for themselves. This is heartening insofar as they aren’t being directly exploited, yet worrisome as well, for, given the harshness and monotony of their toil, it seems evident that they would be doing other things instead if a choice were available to them. These immigrants and pioneers are starting at the bottom—a familiar kind of place for those in an unfamiliar land.
The opening is extraordinary. A barefooted woman is sitting in a space of rock, hammering, both raw material and results in piling abundance between her separated legs: a complex image resonating with equal suggestions of barrenness and fecundity, stasis and productivity. Meanwhile, we hear a cacophony of the hammering, the sound of which continues as the camera follows another woman carrying a basket of stone chips on her head. A wide-angle shot shows an army of the refugees at work as the sound that their labor generates continues and continues. M’mbugu-Schelling’s film condenses a single day’s work, but it also conveys the impression that the activity is endless, that, for the moment at least, it defines these women’s whole existence.
It does not. At one point, asserting her personality and her autonomy, one of the women stops working and breaks into dance, triggering a hand-clapping community of joy in the quarry. Spontaneity; humanity—and then, back to work. Not a regulated factory break, but their own break.
52. THE BLUE EYES OF YONTA. Portuguese Guinea won independence, becoming Guinea-Bissau, in 1974. Vicente fought for it. In Bissau, the West African nation’s capital, he struggles to keep solvent his fish-exporting business, both for himself and the local fishermen who supply him with their catch. Vultures circle in the sky. One day he looks up and sees himself as one of the vultures.
For Vicente’s generation, disillusionment isn’t hard to come by. The struggle for independence has passed into nostalgia; the dream of progress for everyone has failed to become reality. Electricity is a sometime thing in Bissau, threatening to rot Vicente’s stored fish; people and their possessions are being evicted from longtime homes. Meanwhile, a wedding celebration shows the pluck of the younger generation, who may be, however, whistling in the dark.
A high school dropout who helps support her family, Yonta is oblivious to how she has had to adjust her own dreams in order to accommodate reality. Like Vicente, she keeps busy in order to nurture blindness; but the pathos of her vacancy as she sits alone by the sea, waiting for someone who will not show, sums up the wistfulness she suppresses. (She is too young yet to be able to name it.) Yonta’s parents are old comrades of Vicente’s, and Yonta is in love with her romantic notion of Vicente. In turn, Yonta has an unknown admirer who sends her love letters that wax poetically on the subject of her blue eyes. Yonta’s eyes are brown. The boy’s feelings are as idealized as once were Vicente’s hopes for his country.
Flora Gomes’s Udjua azul di Yonta is concentrated and easy, jubilant and heartbreaking. Gomes is of Vicente’s generation. He finds that looking ahead casts an eye backward.
Blue is the color of sky, sea, dreams.
53. HYENAS. In German, Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s tragicomic The Visit of the Old Woman (Der Besuch der alten Dame, 1956) is a modern masterpiece. Its action, necessarily modified, has been transposed to a Senegalese village in Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Hyènes. Colobane, dried up after a run of prosperity, represents Africa beseiged by poverty, drought, exploitation, communal and regional strife, lack of enterprise. When Linguère Ramatou (Ami Diakhate, brilliant), a former resident who is now filthy rich, visits, the townfolk are enticed to help her in her plan of revenge against shopkeeper Dramaan Drameh in exchange for the wealth and goodies, including refrigerators and television sets, that she dangles under their noses. When she was a girl, Dramaan jilted her.
Mambéty’s darkly comical fable brandishes the mirror-imaging of a parched landscape and Linguère’s parched soul. Colobanians are only too eager to allow their human folly to tumble out. Environment clarifies their conduct. In addition, the film’s satirical edge administers appropriate cuts to western materialism. The embittered, withered hag that Linguère has become should discourage anyone from following her; but it doesn’t.
The opening shot sets the humorous tone: a closeup of an elephant’s front feet moving at a lumbering pace. This image of African indolence yields to a wide-angle shot of the herd, with its suggestion of herd mentality. (School children being led in group recitation reinforces this impression.) A red monkey swaying to the beat of a village band’s music—what an image!—rounds out a portrait of defeatism: everyone and everything fiddling, as it were, while Colobane burns.
It is fitting that enterprising, steadily contributing Dramaan should become the one that his neighbors rally against—neighbors, already quarrelsome, who need a target to give themselves some sense of purpose, unity and communal identity, however false that sense may be.