This Sunday morning, I find the following films to be the ten best of the 1970s, which I am giving in order of preference, beginning with my most favorite:
1. THE PASSENGER (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, France, Spain, 1975). 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.
2. CHRIST STOPPED AT EBOLI (Francesco Rosi, Italy, 1979). 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 in North America, on VHS, from Canada’s Lear Media. The 145-minute DVD version 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.
3. AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (Werner Herzog, West Germany, Peru, Mexico, 1972). 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 (1956), 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.
4. THE AGE OF COSIMO DE MEDICI (Roberto Rossellini, Italy, 1973). 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 (1950) 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.
5. THE PHARMACY (Joris Ivens, Marceline Loridan, France, China, 1972-75). 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.
6. HARVEST 3,000 YEARS (Haile Gerima, Ethiopia, 1975). “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.
7. KHAK-E SAR BEH MORH (Marva Nabili, Iran, 1977). Marva Nabili’s The Sealed Soil revolves around 18-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.
8. CARTESIO (Roberto Rossellini, Italy, 1974). Ironically, seventeenth-century mathematician and philosopher René Descartes had to be coaxed into publishing, and no sooner had he done so than he was in political trouble. He took his time in order to allow for the greatest measure of reflection before committing himself to his convictions; but, in reality, the times weren’t ready for him no matter how much time he took.
One of Roberto Rossellini’s present-tense histories, Cartesio, which is phenomenal, brings its in-the-momentness to an open-ended point by leaving its subject in the middle of things. Descartes, beautifully played by Ugo Cardea, describes himself as a pilgrim journeying through his own thoughts; the film becomes torrentially moving once we realize that Descartes also is journeying from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. He insists on clear, honest thought in a world plagued by religious dogma—for which Rossellini devises the most gripping metaphor: as Descartes walks a street, conversing with a friend, those collecting victims of the plague in wheelbarrows are also going about their business.
Descartes contested the falseness of knowledge, the conforming of science to inherited prejudices, including those of faith. For him, Rossellini implies, “original sin” is whatever one has been taught that constructs a barrier between oneself and the truth. Descartes devises a list of twenty-one rules for the mind’s right use, one of which requires a methodical approach to testing hypotheses, observations and evidence that circumvents bias, prejudice. He is quintessentially his own man. Descartes is “attracted to mathematics,” he explains, solely for the “metaphysical truths” that can be accessed through its study.
Rossellini’s frames are elegantly restrained yet bursting with human activity. One series of shots confines people to the lower half of a room, with vast blank walls above them: interiors suggesting humanity’s place in the cosmos!
9. MEXICO: THE FROZEN REVOLUTION (Raymundo Gleyzer, Argentina, 1971). Raymundo Gleyzer’s pulsating, deeply moving México, la revolución congelada is a brilliant 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.
10. DISTANT THUNDER (Satyajit Ray, India, 1973). The “forgotten holocaust”: the Bengal Famine (1943-44), engineered by British prime minister Winston Churchill—Britain ruled India at the time—and abetted by Hindu trader-profiteers, that exacted the lives of 3.5 million Bengals to help keep World War II British soldiers clothed and fed. The price of rice soared beyond the means of rural people to feed themselves and their families; British imports to India were slashed as exports from India increased. Satyajit Ray’s tremendous Ashani Sanket commemorates the tragedy.
Gangacharan Chakravarti (Soumitra Chatterjee, superbly charting a selfish soul’s gradual shame, humbling, enlarged humanity) has moved with wife Ananga to Natungaon in Bengal and, a Brahmin, has taken charge of the rural village because of his higher caste and education. He becomes priest, doctor, teacher, and opportunist, extracting payments when he and Ananga are already much better off than their neighbors. Meanwhile, the rice shortage takes hold, eventually reducing residents to privation and the sway of their basest instincts. It is another front of the war. (The Famine accounted for 90% of British fatalities in the Second World War.)
The film’s phenomenal opening: Grass; sky; trees—pristine Nature, suffused with melancholy. The closeup of a hand in the river: Ananga, bathing. A formation of war planes flies overhead, its drone drowning out the chirps of birds. The planes “look like a flock of cranes.” The intrusion of war; the illusion of war’s distance and normality.
A leper or, possibly, burn victim offers Chutki rice in exchange for sex. She chooses life.
The first village corpse—an untouchable. In closeup, Gangacharan’s hand holds her wrist, to check her pulse.
That celebrated closing shot: an old man and his seven dependants approaching the Chakravartis, to be taken in; the camera pulls back, revealing all the starving Bengalis they represent.
Please, please consider mailing me a check or money order in U.S. currency—to help pay rent, food, electricity, medicine—at the following address: Dennis Grunes, 5712 N. Interstate Ave., Apt. 3, Portland, OR 97217, USA. (12/21/09: please hurry.) Thank you, thank you.