A Personal Diary of Films that I have watched:
For the year of 2014, I have divided the films into three sections; Masterpieces are those films that I consider them as my favorite films of this year, they are lined up by most favorite to least (Yes, a Richard Linklater film is yet again my favorite film of this year) . Must See are those films that are an essential viewing, and Skip It are those films that I consider unworthy to waste your time on, unless you have much time to waste.
For more film recommendations checkout:
Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014) I have to make a confession; Richard Linklater is my favorite American filmmakers working today. Last year, Before Midnight was my favorite film, and this year, it is Boyhood. Many years from now Linklater might as well be remembered for his Before/After Trilogy, but so far; Boyhood is his masterpiece, it is as if everything that Linklater has done in the past decade has accumulated into this film, and it took him more than 12 years to complete the film, it is nothing short of a miracle put on the screen, much memory drenched in nostalgia and melancholy, it will have a special place in the pages of cinematic history, and might as well be considered as a landmark of an achievement in the coming years. The scale of the film is remarkable, in the scale of a Tolstoy novel, much time, much memory, much characters come and go, and no two are alike, 12 years of life just under three hours in length, and as in life; it flash by quickly, from childhood, to boyhood to adulthood, from first day in elementary school to first day in college, we are with Mason, his sister Samantha, the divorced Father and Mother, as they take an odyssey through life from a small town to Huston, during that time they encounter and pass others, and as times goes by, only traces of memories left, as they age, we become one with them, their memory become that of us, and because it was shot in the span of the time, everything look authentic, the dialogues are real, there is a documentary truth to the film with its honesty of representation and acting of the characters, much of it seem to be improvised, it is hard to capture the essence and truthfulness in a characters’ emotions, let alone doing it over decades with the same characters and capturing such subtle change in them , with such subtle touch of beauty and nostalgia.
Jauja (Lisandro Alonso, 2014) Jauja is not only the best film of 2014, in my opinion; it is one of the best film of the decade so far, it is not just magic realism, but magic itself, every frame is pure gold, another masterpiece from Alonso. The first film that I saw from Alonso was Liverpool in 2008, it was a meditative watch, and within a few month I saw his other previous films; Fantasma (2006), Los Muertos (2004), and La Libertad (2001), so I had to wait for 6 years to watch his next film, and Jauja surpassed all my expectation. Shot in a 4:3 frame, with dark corners on the frame like a Polaroid postcards, the images alone, their memory can hunt you for days recalling them. In the opening prologue of the film, Jauja is described as a “Mythological land of Abundance and Happiness” and many who tried to find this earthly paradise got “lost on the way”. This search for something, be it an object, a person or an emotion is the core of Alonso’s cinema, in all his films, a character is searching for something, in Jauja; the Colonel is searching for his lost daughter, but instead of find his daughter, he not only loses his horse, his sword, his gun, but he loses his way, and in the end; he loses himself. Viggo Mortensen gives a brilliant performance between the subtle father and the furious Colonel, as Alonso’s camera give him priority, with its steady shots, slow pan or the beautiful tracking movement that showcase the vastness of the landscape as the surrounding devour the characters. One cannot write enough about the beautiful cinematography; the vivid colors, the limitless depth of field, the sky never looked more bluer, the grass greener, and the sun’s ray never been captured in such natural beauty in recent films. With its slow pace, Jauja has not only the pace but the look of a classic Western, the narrative is rather ironically similar to John Ford’s The Searcher, but the two film couldn’t have been more different in theme and style, yet, Jauja got the postcard look of a classic Hollywood film of the golden age, with its magical imagery.
Goodbye To Language (Jean-Luc Godard, 2014) When I first moved to US, I wanted to become a Doctor, I studied for one year, only to drop out after watching much films and deciding to become a filmmaker, and one of the biggest influence on my decision was discovering Godard’s film form 60s, four films from Godard always stood above the rest; Breathless, Alphaville, My Life to Live and Pierrot le Fou, so it is no surprise that Jean-Luc Godard is my favorite filmmaker, as Tolstoy is my favorite write, and I loved all of Godard’s film; from his fresh early 60s films, to his radical and political films of 70s, personal films of 80s, and his 90s and later philosophical films, he never looked backed into his career, never made the same films twice, always invented and become more radicalized in it approach to filmmaking and storytelling, and he was always a breath of fresh air, with Goodbye To Language, he has become a philosopher more than a filmmaker, he no longer wishes to tell stories, but reflect, for what is Goodbye To Language? A 3D film about a talking Dog? About broken language? An experimental film on color, sound, line and words? From the music of Giya Kancheli, Tchaikovsky, to Beethoven to Schoenberg, to literature of Conrad and Faulkner, philosophy of Derrida, quotes from Freud, Cocteau, Artaud, Victor Hugo, Proust, etc, it has everything, it is rich with color and sound, chaotically harmonic, it is a Godard film in 3D, unlike any other 3D films.
The Tale of The Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata, 2014) Isao Takahata is a perfectionist, a genius of a perfectionist, and like all perfectionist, he takes his time in order to create, decades has passes since his last film, and in all probability, The Tale of The Princess Kaguya will be his last work. If you think watching Graves of the Fireflies was a tearful one, then try taking on The Tale of The Princess Kaguya, rarely has an animation went as far to reach for spirituality and transcendentalism with its purity. Based on a Japanese folktale of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, the story of a poor bamboo cutter his finding a divine princess and raising her to become a Princess at the hand of Takahata become an animation in lyricism, longing for nature and the innocent of childhood, such richness of details, from taking her first step, growing fast like a bamboo branch, make friends with the country children, creating a bond of friendship and living carefree in the wood that she long too for the rest of her life, to becoming a princess, wearing rainbow clothes, living in a mansion with servants, becoming civilized, by abandoning her wild way, no more nature as she become a lady with manners, but even in her castle of a prison; she takes to drawing to depict nature, masters Koto playing in one lesson, take everything as game and master them only to be bored with it, because her heart belong to nature and her friends, there is always a place she miss, she long for something, she takes to gardening, only to find it fake compared to nature, for she only find her happiness with nature and not just a merer representation of it. She become the most beautiful princess, she is the talk of the land, suitors from nobles birth come chasing her, but she let all of them down, because she is unattainable treasure as she sent out his suitors to find such each unattainable treasure in order to have her, but none can do it, even his majesty, the law of the land ask for her, but she refuses. She become melancholic, her times comes to be taken back to nature, as the moon comes to take her away to the land of magic, she wear the robes of purity and happiness, leaving the grief and sadness of the earth. Every single frame of The Tale of The Princess Kaguya is like a haiku poem in style of Japanese Woodblock Prints of 15th and 16th century, three layers of colors, always with background, middle and foreground, with the warm colors standing out, Joe Hisaishi’s nostalgic music make it a magic creation. Years to come, The Tale of The Princess Kaguya will become cinema’s greatest treasure in animation to cherished by generations to come.
Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014) In today’s Russia’s cinematic scenes, three directors stand above the rest; Alexander Sokurov, Sergei Loznitsa. and Andrey Zvyagintsev, of all three; Zvyagintsev is the one that speak best for the Russian society as of today, his films are search into the depth of finding the modern identity of the Russian soul; in The Return (2003), the generational gap between fathers and sons, in The Banishment (2007) the rural landscape become the mirror of a family torn apart by rage of jealously, in Elena (2011) Zvyagintsev first dived into the Russian political scene with it metaphorical Dostoevskian representation of social injustice, class gap and the social issues of contemporary Russia, but it is with Leviathan that he dig deep into the political and institutional corruption experienced by ordinary people that destroy a family into oblivion. The themes of Leviathan is the essence of Zvyagintsev’s cinema that has all the elements of his previous films; the generational gap between the father and the son, the suffering wife who become a victim of circumstances, the corruption, crime, injustice, power, money and social inequality with the supervision of the Church and the State and approval of the institutions. The final hypocritical sermon from the high priest could have been made by any religious or political figure not only in today’s Russia, but anywhere where corruption and bureaucratic institutions are the dominate law of the land, and there are many places like that on the world map.
Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2014) Two biggest influences on the cinema of Nuri Bilge Ceylan are the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and Russian Literature, so it is only befitting that at the end of Winter Sleep, the credit acknowledges that the film was “Inspired by Chekhov”. Over 3 hours in length, Winter Sleep is an epic dialectical, psychological and philosophical insight into what make us humane, the film takes on every issue; from Politic to Art, to our basic emotions, from pride, to guilt, compassion, love, etc, at times the film drag on into a teaching class on a dialectal argument on different subjects, be it a Tolstoyian argument on nature of evil, or a small issue in relationship between two people, as universal as the film might seen, it is also a personal one; some of the dialogues seem to out of conversation and argument between Ceylan and his wife (she is given co-credit for the script), but what lead to each incident is rather small changes into the daily behaviors of the characters, as if the circle of life is broken apart only to take its course again; like Tolstoy’s The Forget Coupon, one kid’s mischievous lead to series of incident and revelation, a broken window of a car become the center stage of the film when it comes to its narrative, but the film has no unified narrative or plot, the characters don’t change, nor anything happens to signify any change, rather; it is a multiple characters study with Aydin at the center of them, a former actor who takes life for a stage, think he can manipulate others by pretending, playing with people’s emotion, he the King sitting on the hill, talk about morality, religion and poverty (sound like Erdogan, sitting on his billion dollar palace and teaching about morality and religion) think of his writing as his small Kingdom, as he judge and condemn others, his is a rich man who own much of the nearby village, he own Hotel Othello, has Camus on the wall of his room, surrounded by books, he dislike older people for not having much of new ideas, but also despise the young for being too adventures, he has a young wife that is half his age, there is a generation gap, class gap that he refuses to acknowledge, the rocky landscape of the film best reflect his cold emotion, he is an arrogant man who pushes away everyone, selfish, for he command and others must obey, he is loot in the depth of his loneliness that he take for pride, humiliating others, he refuses to be kind, because he think his act of kindness is will be taken for weakness. As dramatic as the script seem to be, there are many giveaway moments that tell more about the characters than the narrative. As always; beautiful cinematography and a rich sound design are the highlight of a Ceylan film.
Hard to be a God (Aleksei German, 2013) Aleksei German, the last giant among the Soviet filmmakers died while making Hard to be a God, the film was finished and edited by his son and those who worked with him on the film, in a way; like Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, we will never really know what the final vision of Aleksei German for the film might have been, but at its current state, with three hours in length, Hard to be a God is one of the great masterpiece of this decade, and many years from now, it will be remembered as such just as his last masterpiece, Khrustalyov, My Car is now considered among the best of the 90s. Hard to be a God is epic film in a grandeur scale, it is a provocative film, in scale of Pasolini’s Salo, with German’s hyperrealism reaching its peak, he never went for color, all his films are black and white, well; not black and white, rather gray, a claustrophobic gray, his camera penetrate into objects, people, faces, texture, all fighting for space in the composition, characters talk to the camera, gesturing to the audience, whisper to them, his signature moving camera, long take, the strange characters, the endless cruelty, all lost in the rain, mud and fog, as Goran the mighty, the noble Don, the God, the unpredictable takes lives from right to left, like all of Aleksei German’s film, the world of Hard to be a God is a dark one, it is not your typical watch, but it is a memorable one, for it is a masterpiece.
The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, 2014) For over 40 years, Hayao Miyazaki has dominated the world of animation, among the very few animators who is film is eagerly awaited by both the public and critics alike, when the news came out that the The Wind Rises was to be the last film of Miyazaki, like many; I eagerly waited to watch the film, would it be going far to say that The Wind Rises is perhaps Miyazaki’s most personal film with a theme that is present throughout his animations dominate the film, that of flight. There is not a single Miyazaki film without a flying sequence in it, flying seem to be a personal obsession with Miyazaki; people, objects, animals, machines, witches, magicians, spirits, even a whole cities and town take into flight in a Miyazaki film, what a beautiful and nostalgic film.
Mood Indigo (Michel Gondry, 2013) Mood Indigo is one of the early Jazz song from the great Duke Ellington, and it is only a befitting title for a Gondry’s masterpiece of a jazzy adaptation from Boris Vian’s existentialist novel, Froth on the Daydream. Ignored by both the public and critic alike, it will take many years for Mood Indigo to be considered a classic, just as Godard’s Alphaville and Pierrot le Fou took decades to be recognize as 60s best films, the reason I mention those two Godard film, is because Mood Indigo is a rich, colorful and complex with its sudden mood and narrative change as any Godard film, there is a childish innocent about the film that is at the same time deep rooted in philosophy, literature, music, art, reference to other films (take the underwater scenes, out of Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante) in a word; it is a film about everything, it shift between the genres of noir, science fiction, musical, drama, etc, every frame is filled with references, rich in composition, beautiful in Mise en scene, and chaotic in narrative, in a word; it is one of cinema’s recent masterpiece, and Gondry’s best since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Jimmy P. Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian (Arnaud Desplechin, 2013) Arnaud Desplechin is a master in creating multiple characters that intertwine perfectly within the narrative of the film, he is almost a mashing of Cassavetes and Altman. In Jimmy P, a friendship between a Native American and a French Anthropologist is established, well; more of a Psychoanalysis than an Anthropologist, as the film take a Freudian route, from Oedipus Complex to a journey into the Interpretation of Dream. Benico del Toro give a Brando performance, one of the best I have seen this year so far. Our Native dreamer, most of the time dream in English, there is a thin line of humor and sadness in the film; the dialogues between the two; two thick English accent, slow paced, rather funny. Jimmy P. is close to Truffaute’s The Wild Child in its approach of decoding and therefore recreating a new man. Dream and Language, its origin and their mysteries are the lock to knowing human brain, in order to to cure a headache, one must understand its psychological reason; “You must breakaway from your past” in order to cure it, but first, he must find that past and remember it, for its deep hidden in the unconsciousness, he must search in order to know the reason; he let all the women down in his past, from childhood to youth to adulthood, women and tragedy has been linked in his brain, now his daughter is what he fear will be next, he must find redemption with her. “Sometime there are scars on our bodies we don’t know where they come from, there scars like that on the mind too”.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014) For a filmmaker to have an imagination is a brilliant, of all the active filmmakers, few have the imagination of Wes Anderson, most interesting aspect of his films are the visual style, everything in his framing is chosen selectively to utmost details, the bright colors, the use of miniatures, his framing glows magically, as for his narrative; he is like Truffaut and Fellini, he manages to create sentimentality and melancholic sentiment from comic situations, all his films are lighthearted comedies with a nostalgic touch, each character is different from others; rarely do two characters behave or talk alike, many filmmakers like to input their own personality into characters, but Anderson rarely does that, a reason that all his films are filled with stars, in The Grand Budapest Hotel, you have a heavy cast, some big names are on the screen for only a few minutes, but they are memorable, his leading character are simple people, but they are outcast, always find friendship with those outside their own circle, yet; they make the best match, and beat all the odds in adventures across places and time that are rich with characters, colors, and and imagined landscape, Anderson films are always an entertaining watch.
Our Sunhi (Hong Sang-soo, 2013) “Is that you talking, or the beer?”, ask one of the former lover of Sunhi, to the end of the film; we never really never know who was talking, “Sunhi or the beer?”. Each year, Hong Sang-soo bring out one masterpiece, if not two, and not since the days of Yazujiro Ozu and Alfred Hitchcock has there been a filmmaker that was so loyal to keeping up with his own style; watch any Hong Sang-soo film and you will be amazed by the subtle use of style throughout his films, among the most simplest filmmakers working today when it comes to staging muse-en-scenes; one shot for one take, the camera is either still throughout the scene, or a sudden zoom or a pan to adjust the framing, in a way, an editor working for Sang-soo will only have to put together in narrative order the scenes, because there is no conventional editing, the long takes allow the characters not only to deliver naturalistic performance, but also improvise, and one wonder; how many takes, or how many times were there rehearsal? The theme of character’s relationship, at times in a triangular love affair is present throughout the films of Sang-soo, in Our Sunhi; three men are trapped in a love affair with Sunhi, the mysteries and unpredictable film student who want to go aboard, she comes into each man’s life, left a mark, then leave, she is like the Greek siren, tying them to a rock, without giving them a reason.
Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Koreeda, 2013) Hirokazu Koreeda is the only filmmaker working today that has the subtly and emotional power in his film to be compared to the great Yasujiro Ozu, and just as all of Ozu’s film were about family, the examination of relationship between people and different generations, so it is the theme of Koreeda’s film, and many of his films is seen through the eyes of children, that is why his films are so innocent and pure in presenting emotions, as tight as his narrative might be, at the end of watching a Koreeda film, we feel as if we have encountered a breath of life on the screen, the characters leave a mark, they seem real like in a Robert Bresson film, they are more than an actor, especially the children, Koreeda is a master in directing children, he make them give a sensitive yet an emotional performance. Like Father, Like Son is a film about parental love for children, it was Tolstoy who once said; “There are as many love as there are many hearts”, and of all the emotional love and attachment, the most purest, the most powerful is the love of a parent to their children, especially at the tender age of childhood, so when that love is shattered, when a parent find that the child does not feel the love, there comes moments of turmoil, in a self-examination of one’s life and behavior.
Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013) In recent years, there has been many films glorying the rise of, and sometime the fall of breakout star from New York City’s Greenwich Village, but rarely does a film captures what it feel like to be a complete failure, no rise or fall, just a flat drive in a circle of nothingness, Inside Llewyn Davis is a film about failure, and few can capture such satirical dark world with such honesty by combining the genre of drama and comedy as the Coen Brothers, they are masters at displaying nihilism on the screen, with their blank face characters and witty dialogues. Sometime you watch characters in a film, and you soon forget about them, it is especially true for secondary characters that have little time on the screen, but in a Coen Brother’s film, everyone has a memorable role to be play, take the two characters in which Llewyn take the ride with from New York to Chicago, Johnny Five and Roland Turner, a beat poet and a jazz musician, one silent, the other talks into the edge of boredom, in any other film, you would have a short transition scene between the two place, but in Inside Llewyn Davis; the ride become the most memorable scene in the film, such mastery of simple brushstroke in creating characters.
Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2014) Marion Cotillard in the role of Sandra is a walking emotion in Two Days, One Night, about to lose her job, she has a short time to convince her co-workers to lose their bonus or hire her back, out of 16 people, how many can she convince that she is worth more than 1000 Euro? The first voting ballet has already been taking, majority has voted to get the bonus, now she must knock at every door to convince them to vote for her. We never know what made Sandra has a nervous breakdown on the first place to make her employer decide to let her go, one thing is for sure; she has low self-esteem and she is nervous around people, her vulnerability make some cry for her, while others wanting a chance to wash away the guilt of letting her down the first time decide to vote for her, but the material need for many is stronger than any emotional bond or friendship in a competitive business. Walking away, at the end of Two Days, One Night; Sandra seem to have found a little glimpse of redemption in others, but her last line, “We put up a good fight, I’m happy”, is not matched by her grim smile, she has a long road to take to recover.
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013) Since F.W. Murnau’s timeless masterpiece, Nosferatu (1922), endless Vampire films has been made, many are considered classic of world cinema, bur rarely were there a film as Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive with its subtle, slow paced examination of living in a world of void that is the dark world of Vampires, each night after the sundown, Adam, Eve and Christopher Marlowe must wake up to dreary nights, they have lived for centuries, traveled the world, played Chess with lord Byron, dated Mary Austin, met Billy Holiday, Newton, Nikolas Telsa, Bach, Buster Keaton, Fat Domino, Kafka, etc, Einstein told them of Quantum entanglement theory, they have read the world’s books, listened to its music. Now; two of them live in Tangier, one live in an abandoned Detroit house, they never see the sun, the world is darkness, as they roam the empty streets, they no longer can prey on human for blood for the fear of industrial contamination, so they must find the good stuff to survive, but as they run out of pure blood, the human are the only prey left to feed on, Christopher Marlowe is first to fade away before admitting he was the one who wrote Shakespeare. Slow, haunting, beautiful film like all other Jarmusch films.
Ida (Pawet Pawlikowski, 2013) Faith; one is born into it, not destined for it, but once indoctrinated, it is hard to escape it, that is the story of Ida. Shot in beautiful black and white, with unconventional framing, unconventional in placing the characters and objects, reminiscent of the Soviet and Polish film of the 60s. The story of three characters; Ida, the little saint, the aunt, whom life has made her tough to a point to living in a world of nihilism, calling herself “the whore”, then there is the Saxophone player, the little artist whom get exposed to Ida for a glimpse of time, then vanishes from her world. Within each boundaries of the character’s faith, there is a leap; the saint take the place of the whore for a short time, the whore has her minutes of faith, but when it does, it destroy her, only the Saxophone player stay loyal to his cause. At times; a person’s action has no logical explanation, so it does with Ida’s sudden sift of faith before taking her vow in a convent, but how can a Jewish girl become a Christian nun after witnessing the horrifying ordeal of her past? The final shot; her walking in a desolated road to the convent is rather ironically befitting to have Bach’s most spiritual music accompanying her, is she escaping into spirituality to washday others guilt? Her guilt? Or is she still, the loyal and faithful nun who still believe? The answer is many.
Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, 2013) In Night Moves, the suspense is in nothing happening but the illusion of something dangerous about to happen is always present on the screen, and the last frame of the film best fit that description; a mirror view shot of two casual people shopping become a mystery to a character that is torn apart with guilt of a crime, in his imagination, the two become an FBI agent, the punishment of living with a guilt has just began, even when a new life seem to on the horizon. What is significant about Night Moves is what is not shown on the screen; throughout the second part of the film, we never see the law or the police, but they seem to be present everywhere, the most significant event is blowing up of the damn, it is not even shown, we only hear the sound, Dostoevsky captures masterfully the guilt of a man that suffers in the aftermath of a crime as he searches for a redemption in Crime and Punishment, in Night Moves, we never know what the characters is searching for, he live with his guilt alone and suffers alone, and by escaping; he dig more holes for himself.
The Immigrant (James Gray, 2013) James Gray is a master in exploring guilt and redemption in a relationship, with a spiritual healing of scolding oneself in the end becoming the central theme of all his films, The Immigrant is rather an innocent tale that take one back to the early days of cinema, one can call it a Chaplin story but with a twist, the innocent girl is rescued, only to be exploited, the beautiful Eva play by Marion Cotillard in yet another masterful and sensitive performance; a Polish immigrant, whose Father and Mother were slaughtered by the Cossacks, with her sick sister, she dream the American dreams, rather simple, to settle down in the States, meet a nice man, marry and have children, but fare has other plan for her; her sister is taken away, she land in the pawn of Bruno, the manipulative but also the suffering guardian angel played brilliantly by Joaquin Phoenix, with a magician coming between the two, with his grandeur vision of the American Dream, as he whispers to others, “I Believe”, only for the vision to be just another illusion like his magic. For all three, it seem that money is the American Dream, for it takes money to have Eva rescue her sister, and it takes much pain, suffering, separation and finding oneself to achieve that little dream.
Camille Claudel 1915 (Bruno Dumont, 2013) As the title suggest; the year is 1915 and we are with Camille Claudel in an asylum, Juliette Binoche gives yet another sensitive and powerful performance in the role of Camille, she is locked among the insane, yet; showing full capability of a sane person. The tragic life of Camille Claudel has already been made into a film by Bruno Nuytten in Camille Claudel (1988), but in Dumont film, Binoche’s sensitive and passionate performance best captures the spirit of an Artist locked away with her imagination alone, unable to create what she desire most, although in the film and in what is written about the case of Camille Claudel, there are traces of Schizophrenia in her behavior, especially her conspiracy accusation to be poisoned and Rodin’s takeover of her studio, but the historical judgment of her character seem to be that she was a sane person locked in an asylum by a tyrannically brother obsessed with religion, Paul Claudel; much space is given to him, as he make his journey of spiritual awakening of God, his never ending love for him, yet, incapable of expressing any love toward his sister.
Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014) Without a doubt; the most talented Actress working in films today is Juliette Binoche, she enlightens the screen with her present, the range of her emotions and the subtlety of delivering it is perfect pitch to every role she plays, in Clouds of Sils Maria, she plays an aged actress preparing for the role in a play that she once played before as a younger actress, now she has to play the older character in the play who is on the edge of suicide, just as in the play, she is in turmoil relationship with her assistant, from a train ride to Switzerland, an award presentation and dinner, living and taking tripe on the Alps as she prepare for the role and becoming obsessed at checking the Google and Youtube for her younger co-star in the role, the old famed actress become envy of the younger one, for she consider her to lack talent and si puzzled by the public admiration and fascination with her. Her real life becomes a reflection of the play. Each part of the film is shot with a unique style, few scenes are tribute to the Mountains films of 20s and 30s (Arnold Fanck and Leni Riefenstahl), the epilogue is set in London; rehearsal of the play with a new assistant, in the day of the opening of the play seem to suggest the beginning of a conflict of domination of each other over the the pace and time and method of acting with her younger co-star, she give in, and her final gaze is a cold stare.
When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2013) Corneliu Porumboiu is the master of the Romanian New Wave cinema, take When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism, on the surface it seem like a simple film, rarely anything happens, but it is a memorable film, a film made by its script, with dialogues full of suspense, action and reaction as it move back and forth between the characters, and there is two main characters, a Director and his Actress, they talk and talk and nothing more, the dialogue shift almost into argument over simple things; is Chinese food more sophisticated than European because Chinese eat with chopsticks and therefore define the food but its content, opposite to the European in which knife and fork define the way the food is cooked? The style as always is simple; Porumboiu simple signature camera setup with long takes, a little tilt or pan to adjust the frame, or the camera is locked inside a car as it observe the moving outside world. There is a lengthy rehearsal scene for the supposed film that the director want to shoot in 20 to 30 minute takes, the rehearsal itself became the heart of the film; itself take 15 minute on the screen with a single camera setup. The use of the wide angle, 2.35 : 1 ratio of the frame, give him the space and depth to stage the scenes without making the viewer a distance or a near observer, he always keep it n the middle. Metabolism is a film about making of a film on a personal level of a director and an actress, yet we never see any film being made, only talked about. it is a film that could drag into eternity, it could have been about any characters; from a Gaffer to the Prop person.
Her (Spike Jonze, 2013) Arcade Fire’s musical score and Joaquin Phoenix solo performance are the highlight of Her. Phoenix not only has to act for his own character, but also has to perform and express the emotions for the voice of Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), few actors are capable of such task, for expressing others emotion through reaction shot is as if living the same thoughts and emotion of another character, in an ideal situation you would have the character facing you, but in Her, the characters is just a voice, she is an operating system that has all the capability of expressing human emotion but lack the physical present, Samantha might be a futuristic operating system, but her present is already here; just think of the social networking site, video games, and the web, the rapid exchange of information, of creating illusionary artificial intelligence, it is only matter of time with the advantage of technology that a Samantha become the latest fashion of a pastime in relationship and love, only; with attachment comes emotional entanglement, just as Theodore’s love letters are the creation of his own imagination, Samantha becomes the fulfillment of that imagination, the Greek knew it thousands of years ago, with Pygmalion falling in love with his own creation, a mere statue.
Heli (Amat Escalante, 2013) Amat Escalante with Carlos Reygadas, are perhaps the two leading and most provocative filmmaker of Nuevo Cine Mexicano; it was no surprise that Amat took the best director at Cannes a year after his friend Reyagadas took the same award. Many years to come, looking back to the year 2014, no film better speak about Mexico than Heli; the imagery, the narrative, the landscape, the amateur cast, the grim violent with no glamor, the raw emotion, and the inability of the innocent to take in and comprehend the the limitless of the violent they are exposed too is something that one sees every day on the news coming out of Mexico, yet; watching it with characters that has names, lives and hope, all being dashed away in a blink of an eye is thought provoking and an uncomfortable watch, a reason that that films of Escalante and Reygadas will always have limited audience, no matter how masterfully it is crafted. There is much to be written and analyzed after watching Heli, but I will note one thing that is so brilliant about the film and may escape the audience’s perception of the film; as much as the war on drug is in the center of the film, we never see any drug dealer, nor the drug cartel, rather; all the violent and calamity is deep rooted in the State institutions; from the army to police.
Enemy (Denis Villeneuve, 2013) What if there is another you? Another being that is just like you, an exact copy? And for once; you two meet? The possibility of it happening might sound more in the science fiction territory, but the reality is; the latest and coolest scientific hypotheses is that of the Multiverse, the possibility of having endless universe and therefore endless existence of you. Now; take away the impossibility of believing in such occurrence, and bring in the psychology of your everyday existence, and you have an endless themes to twist and turn it into any shape of form, and Villeneuve rather take only a simple step in Enemy, more into the classic literature than into the futuristic science fiction; Enemy is more in the territory of Gogol, Dostoevsky and Kafka, and so far; it is the best work from Villeneuve.
Gone Girl (David Fincher, 2014) Amazing Amy Dunne, she is a child star with a pushy parents who has high expectation of her, she is a drama queen in childhood, she becomes more when she goes missing as an adult, for she become the ideal for media’s obsession with murder, the missing person and the public fascination with her, it takes half the film for the narrative and the viewer to realize the real Amy; she is a psychopath who refuse to acknowledge her broken marriage, she refuse to acknowledge that like most marriage her expectation fade away with time, she live in a dream world, for she wanted to be a cool girl, a classic wife, but she reach her breaking point as realize that her marriage is nothing but causing each other pain, manipulating and controlling each other, a rage of jealousy trigger the calamity; she fake her own murder to have her husband punished, framing him, she already has all the plot written in the narrative. Amy Dunne has to be the most viscous femme fatal of recent films and Gone Girl is a modern noir thriller with Hitchockian twist, like Fincher’s The Game and Zodiac, the narrative and plot twisting become unpredictably genius puzzle game, on the surface, the film seem like another missing person drama, they come cheeps nowadays, but this time it is not the Daughter, but the Wife that goes missing, his “Soulmate”, or at least that is what we are told by Nick Dunne, his all loving husband, only; he is not what he is, he has a girlfriend, Amy is supposed to be six week pregnant, she keep a diary, is it a lie or truth?, or lies sold for the truth? It can be both, is the husband trapped or is he pretending? Is the women the victim or is she the villain pretending to be the victim? There is an Aesop’s Fables of a farmer rescuing a frozen snake, warming it his coat, only to be bitten to death, that is the story of Amazing Amy.
The Last of the Unjust (Claude Lanzmann, 2013) Lanzmann made one of the best, if not the best documentary of the last century; Shoah. The Last of the Unjust is not even near the scale of Shoah, but on its own, it stand tall. Over 3 hours in length, it is not your typical documentary watch, and it has its limit of audience, but for anyone who want to understand the complexity of the Holocaust tragedy, The Last of the Unjust is a must watch, for it shows to utmost detail the steps that were taken for Hitler’s “Final Solution” to become a reality, the unjust part of the film is the fact that we are told of a tragedy from a man whom some consider a victim himself, while many consider him an active participant in the Holocaust; Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein, the last Jewish elder to have survived the war, as an Elder in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, does the man feel guilt for being part of a system that annihilated millions? Or can it be justified, that simply by collaborating he survived and helped others survived even if for a short time? “the Banality of Evil”, Hannah Arendt, and Adolf Erichmann, he question them all, and hundreds of other arguments.
Venus in Fur (Roman Polanski, 2013) It is a rarity or rather an impossibility that two people can love each other equally, in every relationship, especially in love relationship, domination is a key factor and present. In David Ives’ play, Venus in Fur, now a Polanski film, there are only two characters on stage, with a phone line connecting to the third, but never heard or seen. Venus in Fur works in a many levels; it can be called a film about obsession and domination in relationship, an examination in domination between two collaborators, in this case; an actress and a director, or a look into the creating process of writing, staging and directing a play, for what is the core conflict between Vanda and Thomas on the stage and their interpretation of Wanda and Severin in the play, we are told that it is dominance, sadomasochism, obsession and love that drive the characters into a circle of miss behaviors, but it is more than that; they are both pushing, searching for the limit of the unattainable, and by doing that, they both are entangled in a a game of madness and domination.
The Reunion (Anna Odell, 2013) For a first feature film from a director; The Reunion is a small masterpiece, and take note of the name of Anna Odell, she is the brightest name to come out of the recent Swedish cinema. Based on her own personal experience in school, and a reunion of her former friends in which she was never invited, Anna Odell recreate an imaginative fictional reunion with her former school friends, lash out at other for her oppressed grief over the years of being bulled at school, then invite them to a showing of the film; what a better way to respond to bullies and satisfy one’s ego, make others feel guilty and have your sweet revenge? Only; we never really know if her fictional recreation has any truth in it, for the second half of the film shed much light into the imaginative recreation of a past that few could remember. Similar in narrative to Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration, the film is divided into two fine parts; one that is shot, edited and directed in pure fictional form; a staged reunion party in which each former student friend is played by an actor, and the second that is more in the field of documentary, with Anna playing the role of both the actress and the director as she confront and track down her former friend, especially those in the “class hierarchy”, as if Anna Odell is on a mission of revenge of a long forgotten past for others, but for her; a mark left by time.
The Double (Richard Ayoade, 2013) Pure and true love can become an obsession, and only one lover can feel it, such emotion lead to suffering on a long term, for one with a gentle heart and a gentle mind; the world is meant to be a place to suffer, because the world is cruel, Fyodor Dostoevsky knew it; he suffered much, he knew what suffering was, he was lonely man, lived in loneliness, knew what it was to to lose your loved one, to love and not be loved in return, he was the saddest man whom ever wrote, and his novel, The Double is a deep insight into the heart of a lonely man, Dostoevsky’s most Gogolian work. The claustrophobic scenery and the abstract use of sound and music best captures that world in The Double; it has a feeling of 60s cinema, some traces of Orson Welles’ The Trail, it captures the essence of the book, the duality of a lonely soul, taking on his ego, the suppressed emotions, or rather the desired emotions surface, the duality in man; as one is kind, but others take his goodness and kindness for weakness, while the other is cruel, and become an attraction to others, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Partner (1968) is another claustrophobic adaptation of Dostoevsky’s book; “I don’t want to be a boy held up by strings”.
Go for Sisters (John Sayles, 2013) For more than three decades, John Sayles has been making independent film quietly, his films always has a political theme to it that is relevant to it time. Sayles leading characters are among the minorities that is rarely seen in the lading role on the screen; women lead the way, then Hispanic and African American characters. In Go for Sisters; a parole officer and her client of a drug addicts, two former high school friends, take a journey to the southern borders into Mexico to search for a missing son, joined by Edward James Olmos, playing a an aged detective on the edge of bankruptcy and blindness, a former cop kicked out of the force for doing a favor to his friend, he still has a golden heart, as he uses his wit to outsmart the drug warlords and Chinese smugglers on the illegal immigration racket. Go for Sisters has a nostalgic feeling of 40s Noir films, only there is no femme fatal, and the bad guys are never seen, they three of them seem to be chasing shadows.
Magic in the Moonlight (Woody Allen, 2014) Woody the magician, the nihilist atheist of a skeptic seem to believe in love and the existence of the soul, or at least pretending to have one; many of his latest film is about a pessimistic character turned into optimist by the power of love, maybe a reason that Woody is now popular in the box office, or at least his films bring in more than put in, in Magic in the Moonlight; two illusionist of magicians are on the collision course, one dealing with the soul, the other with material, they are in French Riviera, everyone speak English, no French, it is a classical Hollywood romantic comedy film that Woody is a master at staging, charming, simple, narrative driving, with your typical Woody philosophical and intellectual dialectics feed to the characters.
Fading Gigolo (John Turturro, 2013) John Turturro does a Woody Allen, with him in the leading role as a former book clerk now turned into a Gigolo and Woody as his pimp, he goes as far as to fix a date for him with a the widow of a Hassidic rabbi. It is rarity that one sees Woody in a film not directed by himself, and he is brilliant in Fading Gigolo, his best performance in years in the role of Murray, a rare book shop owner turned into a pimp, as he goes from philosophical and dialectic argument to pitch a baseball, as for John Turturro; he gives a silent performance, a loner, we rarely know what he is thinking, he think more than he shows, and his charm and mysterious character is what attract the other women.
New World (Park Hoon-jung, 2013) One might call Park Hoon-jung’s New World as Korean The Godfather on steroid, there are many scenes and plot twisting in the film that is right out of Coppola’s The Godfather; the ending montage of the enemies being slaughtered, as Ja-sung take his seat in the top of the chain. The likes of Sam Peckinpah in the 60s and 70s paved way for realistic violence in Hollywood films, but nowadays; such realism can be found mostly in Asian cinema, especially films out of South Korea and Hong Kong, the most memorable scene in New World is the knife fight in the garage and inside the elevator, the sudden burst of violent and mood shift are the highlight of the film.
Ernest and Celestine (Stephane Aubier, Benjamin Renner, Vincent Patar, 2012) In the world of the bears, the mouse are the enemies, and in the world of the mouses, the bears are the enemies, but as the two world collide, there comes a love friendship between the bear the mouse, between Ernest and Celestine, between the musician and the painter whom everyone look down upon, but this incidental friendship become a taboo for both, as they are hated and hunted down, they become renegades like Bonnie and Clyde, only they have not robbed any bank nor killed anyone, just that one has stolen lots of tooth and the other eaten much candies and cookies, with the recent release of the Ghibli films, Ernest and Celestine is among the best animation that I have seen recently; it is colorful, simple, elegant, in a word; beautiful, with a moral.
The Homesman (Tommy Lee Jones, 2014) There is a tragic cruelty in Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman; everyone loses something, because they can’t keep it, lose it and realize too late what they have lost. At every turn, cruelty rule the screen; dark humor, violent, women oppression are the the main themes of the cruel expansion to the West, where guns and money speak, the new Homesteaders conquering the land not only has to battle the Indian, but their worst enemies are themselves, their ego lost in a vast landscape, out of them, two people, two outcast of the society has the willpower and the compassion to take a journey across the snowy desert to deliver three insane women into a Church. The heroine is a religious fanatic who want to be loved, to get married, that is what she pray for, to get a husband, and her good deeds is for the sake of that, she is not your classic Western heroine; she play music on a an imaginary keyboard, only she seem to hear the sound. The imagery are that of a dreary winter landscape, frozen grass, snow and wind, as with the sudden twist in the plot, the landscape changes. A journey of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza with three crazy women, with surrealistic imagery at times; out of the desert, a 5 star hotel appear, and for the sake of piece of bread in absurd world, one must go medieval on them. Tommy Lee Jones give a powerful performance, he is a comically tragic figure, the film has memorable soundtrack.
The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh, 2013) The atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia is well documented, and many films and documentaries has been made about the Cambodian Genocide, but rarely does any of the film come close to The Missing Picture; because it gives faces to the name of the victims, in the case of the filmmaker, Rithy Panh, the film become his personal re-telling of the horror he experienced during his time in the labor camps, as he saw the death of his family, close relative and friends. When I was in Kurdistan, I worked on a few films on the Anfal Campaign and the Chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja by Saddam Hussein, and everyone I met during making of those films had horrifying tales of their experience surviving and losing their loved one, but they only had a voice to tell their stories, in The Missing Picture; Panh uses brilliantly documentary footage, hand made clay and wooden figure in staging a colorful but tragic theatrical events from his memories, it can be a film about any genocide that took place anywhere in the past century, not just in Cambodia.
The Zero Theorem (Terry Gilliam, 2013) Just as the Universe was created out of nothing in a big bang, therefore; the Universe must go back into becoming nothingness, the total value of %100 must equal %0 in the zero theorem, and by proving such theory, man must lose faith in everything, for “All” mean “Nothing”, and we are born and fade into nothings. Sitting in his room for year, day after day on his computer, it is the job of Qohen Leth to prove such theory, yet; he wait for a phone call, for a voice to tell him what the meaning of life is, will he ever get such a call? From nihilism, to existentialism, to spirituality, to absurdity of life, in The Zero Theorem, Gilliam goes back to Brazil, this time, a computer programmer and mathematician is the leading character, he is lost in his room, take to fantasy and imagination for a meaning.
Jimmy’s Hall (Ken Loach, 2014) You know you are watching a Kean Loach film when the images chosen to show New York City of the 1920s, instead of the Jazz Age, you see skyscraper raised to the sky by workers, not your romantic notion of the 20s, instead of NY; you see the Jazz moves in a hall in a small village in Ireland in the aftermath of the Great Depression and the Irish Civil War, now is the battle of the Church vs Jimmy’s Hall, a personal war between an aged Priest against a fiery young Communist, the two at times seem to be the mirror of each other; the Priest know more about Marx than any in the town, and the Jimmy can recite lines after lines from the Bible. The ideological battle shatter the community, tearing families apart, it become ugly; threats, boycott, violence, as the Priest refuse to recognize the commune of the dance hall. Speeches after speech are made, one by Jimmy on the nature of Capitalism that is more about today than 1930s Ireland; Greed, exploitation and class struggle, politician, businessmen, and the police, a fiery speech from the few of last remaining leftist filmmaker. The film has its humor; a keystone cop chase toward the end, and a lost bitter sweet romantic love to sink in the message, Loach always delivers.
Capital (Costa-Gavras, 2012) Maybe today’s Gavras is no longer the Gavras of the 60s and 70s with his political thriller films, but he still got it, like Kean Loach, he still make relevant film to the date. In Le capital, the title also of Karl Marx’s best book, a 21st century examination of the lower and upper scale of capital within the banking cartel is the center stage, I write “Banking Cartel”, because all banks are run like a cartel, run like a Mafia; it is by exploitation, elimination and survival of the fittest that one make it to the top and stay there, each move must be calculated to do utmost damage but with the utmost kindness; insider trading, speculation, dictatorship of the market, speculation, etc, all the relevant quotes of today’s market is in the film, at times, Gavras make use of imaginative flash-forward in rage to score a point the ironic nature of the game. “I make the richer, richer, the poor, poor” says our anti-hero; for he is a modern Robin Hood “We’ll keeping robbing the poor to give it to the rich”.
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (Mami Sunada, 2013) It has been a good year for the Ghibli films; Isao Takahata’s The Tale of The Princess Kaguya and Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises were released, and to top it all; is this wonderful documentary into the working of Miyazaki and his close collaborators in Ghibli studio for two years, while working on The Wind Rises. It is a wonderful two hour documentary on the method used by Miyazaki in creating his animation, as he sit on his table, 10 hours a day drawing storyboards, much time is also spent with Toshio Suzuki, the producers behind many of the Ghibli films, there are many reference to Takahata and his film also, but we only get a few moment of him on the camera toward the end. Nowadays we look back at the Renaissance and the names of DaVinci and Michelangelo stand above the rest, so will many a years to come; Miyazaki and Takahata will be the two name remembered as the men who changed Animation into an art form, they stand tall above the rest, it is rather a nostalgic watch, we are seeing the last days and perhaps we already saw the last films of the two masters.
A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbijn, 2014) By nature; Political Islam is violent, its past is full of violent, and its future is worse, for more than a religion, political Islam is an ideology with aim of power, worse than Nazism and Fascism combined when it comes to making one lost its individual identity. I was in Kurdistan when ISIS ravaged through Iraq and Syria into the borders of Kurdistan, and I sa the atrocities that were committed by these Jihadist and terrorists, many coming from Europe, Chechenia, and Arab countries, many came from rich families, lived a prosperous life, but they came with a sword, chopping the head of Yazidis, Christian and Kurdish women and children in the name of “Allah”, so it is not that oppression or injustice, war or inequality that drive these men, they are driven by the Islamic ideology and many of the so called “Moderate Muslim” and “Moderate Islamic” countries support these savages, Turkey, Qatar, UAE, Jordan, Kuwait. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, etc, many rich Muslims in these countries and in the West working in so called “Muslim Charity Organizations” flooded ISIS with money, that is what the end of A Most Wanted Man is; the Jihadist foot soldiers are taking away, but the real dark forces behind them is hidden, the Kings and Monarchs of many Arab countries that the West consider as a allies, with friends like them, who need an enemy?.
We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson, 2013) For the Punk Music fans, We Are the Best! is a must watch, and for those who are not punk music fan, as I’m not, it is a recommended watch; Bobo and Clara are two girls who are mistaken for little boys with their punk hair style, they resist the notion that “Punk is Dead”, and decide to create a small band, out of boredom and passion, they recruit a shy girl from a conservative Christian family into the band. There is much cynicism and innocent about the two character in the film, their view of the world, politic, sport, art, relationship and establishment. It is an innocent and beautiful film.
Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho, 2013) Among the resent post-apocalyptic film; Snowpiercer stand out, it is a beautifully chaotic grand design in action, narrative driven, with its sudden and rapid shift of mood, Bong Joon-ho gives little times to wonder at the beautify of some of the set designs, with its unpredictable and violent twist, at time absurd, at time a dark comedy, and most of the time; exuberance action sequences. The deception of the front and back passengers of the train is not only a futuristic hypothesis, it is rather more relevant to today’s societies than any future train.
Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrara, 2014) Welcome to New York has a Hitchcockian twist to it; the future president of France is in an American jail being striped naked, only the man is not innocent, and he knows it, what is more ironic is that he knows that he will getaway with it; telling the story of Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair has no suspense to it, its outcome is already known to anyone who watched the news, what make the film a captivating watch is the performance of Gérard Depardieu, what an actor, such simplicity yet perfection in acting, never fade away from giving it all, yet making it look so simple. Welcome to New York is a tale of two city, one man living both of it; from the top to the gutter, the sudden twist and the bureaucracy of the system dealing with the two is inanely tragically funny, there is no room for reason when in the gutter, when on top; the truth is in the form of a green piece of paper, as Jacqueline Bisset said it best, holding her checkbook; “This is the truth, and I’m gonna put it in my handbag”.
The Salvation (Kristian Levring, 2014) A Western with Eric Cantona? You know that sound bizarre, then expect a chaotic, but masterful crafted Western in the old tradition of the classic filmmaking with Spaghetti violent, the narrative is in line with a Budd Boetticher film; a Man loses his wife and children to a bandit, but instead of the whole film being about this Man in search of the Killer as in a Boetticher film, in The Salvation; it only takes a few minutes to track down the killer and get his revenge, what come next is the pure classic Western; the man has to take not only on the well established cruel old West, but the corrupt order of the town, take on the big guns, and he must stand alone facing them, those who help him, vanish, for the law of the land only knows the language of the gun. On the background, the theme of the Western expansion, the black gold of oil. Shot with grander vision, Levring is obsessed with the crane and tracking shots to show the landscape, at times becoming too repetitive, but the final showdown payoff; classic one man showdown against the gangs of the many.
Blind Detective (Johnnie To, 2013) Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai gave the Chinese cinema some of the most memorable and suspense films in the past decade, but they also made a few flops during that time (thinking of Running on Karma). Blind Detective has its brilliant and also its lets down; a former top detective, who once had an eye on the back of his head to calculate utmost detail in a case, now turned into a blind Detective, still he is the master of his domain; at times he can’t find his way to the bathroom, but he sure can crack the most complex case as his imagination become his eyes. Dark humor and violent, silly and childish humor at times, with some of the most bizarre scenes in recreating and staging the crime using unorthodox method; Blind Detective is a comedy in the form of a melodrama, and it is a Must Watch.
Tim’s Vermeer (Teller, 2013) Johannes Vermeer’s painting like that of Da Vinci, Rembrandt and other masters at times can become an obsession with those who challenge the technique and means they were created, of all the Dutch Masters, Vermeer’s use of light and calculation to details is the stuff of genius. I remember early this year at Louvre Museum in Paris I had a chance to see Vermeer’s The Lacemaker; it is amazing how small the scale the painting is, yet so rich with microscopic details. It is no wonder that a man like Tim Jenison is obsessed in finding out the mystery behind Vermeer’s painting as spent five years of his life in an attempt to recreate Vermeer’s The Music Lesson. I’m not a historical scholar of painting nor even have enough knowledge to make any judgment as to how Vermeer managed to capture light and microscopic details in his paintings, but if a camera obscura or mirrors were used in helping to capture the details, there is still a question of the lights; Vermeer’s use of light is nationalistically true to nature, even films and photography rarely captures such truthfulness in light, how did he do it? We will never know, and art’s content and forms comes before the technique, looking for all answers are futile at times.
A Story of Children and Film (Mark Cousins, 2013) The task of critics is to give meaning to subjects, for film critics; they give meaning to films, at times giving much significant to details that the filmmaker might never intended to be seen than way, I do that at times, but take Mark Cousins; I remember watching his 15 hour long documentary on the history of cinema, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, as he take a trip around the world cinema, from the silent era to today, but always with a philosophical, repetitive and on screen narration of signifying meaningless subjects, occurrence, and staging of the film, same can be said of A Story of Children and Film. I give you one example; he takes a shot of Yasujiro Ozu’s An Inn in Tokyo, and analyze the scene of a little boy standing in front of an industrial building as “The camera is at the ground level, the industrial building shot to look massive, dwarfing the boys”, but if you look at the shot, the boys are bigger than the building, if Ozu had the intention of what Cousins describe, then he would have placed his camera at a high angle, not a low angle, but Ozu rarely care about such staging, his style is to have his camera on the around level, that is Ozu style, is has nothing to do with making people look dwarf or buildings look giant, saying that; if you do want to discover some decent film about children, I would say, A Story of Children and Film is a must watch.
The Captive (Atom Egoyan , 2014) Another film where the daughter goes missing, the father figure must find her, the male hero to the rescue of the helpless woman, and this time; not only one woman, but two need saving. With The Captive, Egoyan take a trip back to the memory lane, back to back to The Sweet Hereafter; from the use of the narrative to the snowy landscape, the two are mirrors of each others. Kevin Durand in the role of the Mika, the ringleader of a pedophile group is perhaps the weakest point of the film; with his over the top acting, and then there is Egoyan obsession with Mozart, and the mysteries ring of the pedophiles that are all powerful, to a point; they could kidnap a detective in the middle of a charity party. Despite its flows, it is a Must See.
Devil’s Knot (Atom Egoyan, 2013) The critics bashed Egoyan’s Devil’s Knot upon its release due to the fact that almost many who went to see the film already knew the story of West Memphis Three, and with a plot already known, it leave no space for suspense, but that is a wrong way to look at Devil’s Knot; its more than a suspenseful film, rather a re-telling of a story of lose, grief, and miscarriage of justice. There are some brilliant moment in the film with its emotional power, the scenes with Reese Witherspoon as the grieving mother are the highlight of the film.
Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014) Humanity has prove that the with the advancement of knowledge and science, one of the benefactors of such gain is the destructive and chaotic force of human nature; from Bronze age to the Nuclear Age. Maybe Besson can be forgive for stretching the violent in Lucy, with the macho woman shooting right to left, and he can also be forgiven for the notion that we only use “%10 of our brain”, we use far more than that when it come to the physical ability of the brain, but the physiological ability is even less than “%10”, as Freud and Jung were so deterred to prove it, that our conscious mind is only a drop on the surface of an ocean of unconsciousness, here is what Freud wrote in The Unconscious (1891); “Our right to assume the existence of something mental that is unconscious and to employ that assumption for the purposes of scientific work is disputed in many quarters, To this we can reply that our assumption of the unconscious is necessary and legitimate, and that we possess numerous proofs of its existence. It is necessary because the data of consciousness have a very large number of gaps in them; both in healthy and in sick people psychical acts often occur which can be explained only by presupposing other acts, of which, nevertheless, consciousness affords no evidence.”
Jersey Boys (Clint Eastwood, 2014) Going to 85, Eastwood still got it, he can still deliver an entertaining watch of a film. Throughout the years, Eastwood had a roller coaster of a relationship with the critics; some films were praised, while others damned, as an actor or director, I always found much creativity in his films, there is always a push to create new, something different from one film into another (interesting use of breaking the fourth walls, something out of Goodfellas), in away; he is a link to the last great directors of Hollywoods golden age era, the likes of Hawks and Fords. In Jersey Boys, an energetic film about a group of youngster’s dream to make it to the top is rather ironic to have been made by a man in his mid 80s, at times its both hilarious and nostalgic, in away; Eastwood’s melancholic look back into his own past through Franki Vali and the Four Seasons. Christopher Walken is great in the role of the Godfather to the bunch, and the ending, ah, it is rather pathetic; with the fake makeup, Eastwood did the same in Hoover with DeCaprio.
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013) Under the Skin is a a film that after seeing it; some call it as a junk and some call it as a masterpiece, rarely there is in-between of the two, take the opening scenes; there is no dialogue for the first 12 minute, and when the dialogues come in, they are insignificant or what it seem like improvised dialogues that is out of Kiarostami’s cinema than Glazer, the eery soundtrack and use of sound in abstract manners, surrealists imagery, a story of an alien seductress who prey on men, only to become a prey herself, the sudden shift of the mood and scenery, it is not the cup of tea of any average viewer, no wonder it was a big flop at the box office; the ending scene, as the alien extricates herself from the superficial skin is brilliant, a memorable horror imagery of recent cinema
Kill Your Darlings (John Krokidas, 2013) From Harry Potter to Allen Ginsberg, it is some giant leap for young Daniel Radcliffe. After Walter Salles’s On the Road, Kill Your Darlings is another recent film that is obsessed with re-creating the relationship between the leading figures of the Beat Generation, this time we have; Ginsberg, Car, Burroughs and Kerouac, the film narrative approach is balanced between a triangular love affair and the literal counter culture revolution banner, and like many fictional film based on real characters; the film suffers from historical inaccuracies, the real truth always become the victim of the plot driven narrative, never the less; Kill Your Darlings is a must see.
First Cousin Once Removed (Alan Berliner, 2012) Alan Berliner’s First Cousin Once Removed is a depressing watch, and it is not recommended to everyone. Old age, sickness, memory, death and the mystery of the brain, the last few years in the life of Edwin Honig, a poetic and a literal translator who live in an emptiness of the wilderness of his memories, for he cannot remember anyone or anything, when he does; it is only for a glimpse of time, then forget it. What does it feel to have no memory? In away, without it; one has no past nor a future, always living in the present moment, rather a peaceful existence, for many of our emotional problems arises from our memories, and the only times, sadness appear on his face is when his past is spoken about, his relationship with other, his fame, his poem, achievement in life, all feel like a distant dream that he remembers little of it.
Age of Uprising The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas (Heinrich von Kleist, 2013) Mads Mikkelsen gives another sensitive performance a year after The Hunt, this time in the role of Michael Kohlhaas; the German rebel that took on the lords of Saxon, only to have his head put on a stick. Slow paced at time, dialogue driven, the film has a memorable violent scene in which Kohlhass and his gang of desperado slaughter the lord’s men.
Noah (Darren Aronofsky, 2014) Turn the pages of the Old Testament, New Testament and Koran, they are all drenched in blood; stories of slaughters, annihilation and God’s wrath on mankind, perhaps none of the stories is as violent as that of the Noah; the merciful God wipe out humanity in order to show his love again by rescuing Noah and his family, perfect story of chaos in harmony, of contradiction, that almighty creator, that create and destroy in a never ending cycle of contradiction. Religion, God and Myth are three most imaginative creation of man, and in each; it reflect the nature of man itself, its chaotic and harmonic nature that is always in battle with each other, Aronofsky take from all three in Noah, it has its fault, and it has its brilliant.
My Sweet Pepper Land (Huner Saleem, 2013) Maybe because I’m Kurdish, just returned from Kurdistan, and that is a reason that I found so many wrong and lack of accuracy in My Sweet Pepper Land, the reality that is shown in the film does not match not even the wildest fantasy of anything in the Kurdish culture, take the language spoken in the film; one characters talk Sorani the other Kermanji, the other a mix of the two, but the worst is between brothers and sisters, especially the beautiful Golshifteh Farahani who speak in Eastern Kurdistan Sorani dialect, but her brothers talks Kermanji, I’m yet to see any distance relative to speak two different Kurdish dialect, let alone see brothers and sisters in a family. The film is full of butchered scenes when it comes to language, you can tell by the reaction shot of the actors, they do not understand each other. Saleem’s obsessions with the extreme closeup at times become too repetitive. The characters are not only overacting, they are even over reacting in a simple reaction shot, and the over use of music, Elvis? I’m yet to meet anyone in Kurdistan to listen to Elvis every day, or country music, let alone a border guard with a fedora hat? My Sweet Pepper Land is a film that is sold for a Western; the law and the culture, the Sheriff and the Teacher or the newspaper man, the hero come to the town and leave his mark with a shootout at the end, the characters even talk in English at times; “F*ck off”, they are pretending to be in a Western, so no wonder they act like cowboys with guns. A remote town that one only reaches with horse, yet it is full of concrete houses and paved road, but no car, they only ride horses, I guess they build roads for cars in Kurdistan but only for horses ride them. The worst; the two lovers speaks two different accents, without one trying to understand the other, unintentional comedy at its best. Then there is the depiction of the Kurdish Female Fighters of the PKK, running away from a few smugglers is rather shameful, these Kurdish Female Fighters are now fighting ISIS terrorist in all fronts, take the town of Kobani, they run away from nothing. Then there is the thunder-lighting after the lovemaking scene, it has to be the cheesiest scene I have seen in a long time. Skip it.
Rhino Season (Bahman Ghobadi, 2012) I remember when Ghobadi’s first film; A Time for the Drunken Horses came out, I watched it in a broken down old theater in Kurdistan, sitting beside me there was an old man, and with each scene that showed the smugglers crossing the artificial border between Iraq and Iraq, he would mumble to himself “That is so true, that is how exactly it is”. The Ghobadi that once made such masterpiece in simplicity, touching the tragic corners of live in Kurdistan, using non-actors and down to earth stories, now has become one that imitate Hollywood and Art-house filmmaking, only; the two never matches, and one can see that in Rhino Season; Ghobadi pushes the limit of its use of poetic imagery with a Greek tragic narrative and a Hollywood plot twisting, everything become artificial at the end; the camera is staged on the frozen face of a character, not to convey the emotion, but to capture an image only, that is the fault of the film; it pushes everything to its limit, and it is an epic fail.
Borgman (Alex van Warmerdam, 2013) Black humor can only sustain itself for a short period of time, but to have a film that define its narrative on violent and black humor, pounding you on the head time after time with no clarification of the character’s behaviors, at times, the film feel like a cheap imitation of Haneke’s Funny Games, but as it drag on, it become more bizarre and unsettling by second in a negative way, and the viewer is lost to the twist and turn of the scenario. Skip it.
The Congress (Ari Folman, 2013) After watching The Congress, one thing is for sure, Ari is not the actor’s director nor good at writing dialogues; lengthy useless dialogue dominate most of the scenes in the film. When the film comes alive in the animated zone, it suddenly becomes the tale of two films, the sudden jumps takes a while for the audience to digest, with its hallucinatory imagery, as the narrative suddenly shift between scenes that has little continuity one after the other. On a side note; Stanislaw Lem’s novel with its notion of the futurist digital age in which actors are immortalized is not far from becoming a reality.
Joe (David Gordon Green, 2013) I always had a hard time taking Nicolas Cage seriously in any role, the harder he tries to put in a decent performance, the worse his over acting gets, and Joe suffers from having Cage in a leading a role of a character that ask for sympathy throughout the film. David Gordon Green’s cinema to me always seemed to be a walking on a thin line between the films of Terrence Malick and the literature of William Faulkner, maybe the depiction of the deep south, the wilderness connect him to Faulkner, and his use of documentary, improvisation, natural light, editing style, and the landscape is similar to the cinema of Malick, but I could never get along with his narrative, the sudden shift in characters behavior or the repetitive actions in the narrative that lead to a predictable ending, in Joe; the length kill the film halfway through, as it become an old record playing the same tone. Skip it.
The Golden Dream (Diego Quemada-Diez, 2013) Maybe it is me, but I have seen much film in the style of The Golden Dream; the struggling and suffering immigrant, crossing borders, amid hardship to search for a better dream in another country, only to end up a mere tool for others to exploit, and the golden dream he was looking for, is nothing but a mere unseen illusion.
Vic and Flo Saw a Bear (Denis Cote, 2013) It never ceases to amaze me how many junks are made into films and are called by critics “Art-house Film”, take Vic and Flo Saw a Bear; nobody sees a bear in the film, let lone Vic and Flo, even the title is misleading, shot in a washed color cinematography, with a few characters coming across one another in the wilderness, none of them a likable person, and none of them knowing what they want, or what they search for in others, it is as if these characters are twisted and turn by the director for the sake of the action in the narrative, just as the title of the film signify nothing to the content of the film, so is the characters and the narrative in the film, it comes and goes without a unifying formality in theme or content, worst film I have seen in a while. Skip it.
Starred Up (David Mackenzie, 2013) After watching the first 45 minutes of Starred Up, there was nothing new to look forward too other than counting the profanity in the film, and I could not catch up as to how many times the words “Fu*k” and “Cu*t” was used. A son goes to prison to catch up with his criminal father, only for the two to battle each other and the rest of the prion and the cops, cheap violent with cheap profanity are the highlight of the film. Skip it.
Cold in July (Jim Mickle, 2014) The first 45 minutes of Cold in July is pure suspense, rather masterfully directed; the fear of a father losing his son to a killer who want revenge for his son’s death, one father kill anther’s son after an attempted robbery, everything become fear in his eyes, nothing is what they seem before, but a sudden twist in the plot, make the two enemies friend, and with the arrival of a cowboy detective, the film become crime thriller with the three stooges going around braking into places and solving they mystery of the “missing son”, the coward father who could barely shot a gun, now become a sharp shooter as he join two former Korean war veteran tracking down a “Dixie Mafia Band” in Texas, with a cheap and bloody violent showdown at the end. Skip it.
Yves Saint Laurent (Jalil Lespert, 2014) Over 100 minutes in length, you can divide Yves Saint Laurent into three repetitive sections; Laurent’s relationship with others, lengthy fashion shows followed by lengthy congratulation and applaud, and Laurent’s breakdown and recovery, which lead to Laurent’s search for relationship with others followed by Laurent’s breakdown and recovery, and lengthy fashion shows followed by lengthy congratulation and applaud, the predictable narrative is matched by glamors in the background, from Paris night life, to Laurent’s fancy house and servant, his art collection, etc, just like the women in the fashion show; Yves Saint Laurent might just be a film about characters walking and talking in glamors surrounding, empty of anything new to offer to the audience, other than repetitive tales already been told.
Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier, 2013) There seem to be an obsession with violent, kidnapping, picking up the gun and slaughtering each other in the name of self defense in the recent American and Canadian indie films, this never ending obsession with violent and gun has become rather a sickening watch seen in repetitive recent films, Blue Ruin is another cheap example of that, nothing new here, pass on.
Long Live Freedom (Roberto Ando, 2013) Exchanging places, the wise man taking the place of the king and bringing property to the land, the tale is as old as humanity, in Long Live Freedom; Toni Servillo take the double role of the leftist politician running for election dragging his party down, but his secluded professor of a twin brother replace him, as the politician goes on a soul searching trip to France, the new man running for election take the public by surprise with his philosophical, poetic and truthful speeches, only in the eve of the election to have his brother return and take back his position, predictable narrative.
Locke (Steven Knight, 2013) There are limited way that one can stretch the style of a film without manipulating the audience into boredom, take Locke; a film that is set in its entirety inside a car, with a character driving and talking on the phone, in the span of the drive, he make radical changes to his life and all those who surround them, after the first ten minute of the film; it becomes repetitive and predictable.
Exhibition (Joanna Hogg, 2013) A bored wife, an architect of a husband, a big apartment, and more boring visitors, all coming crushing down on a frustrated middle aged woman, it was Howard Hawks who once said; “If your characters are not interesting, then your film isn’t interesting either”, everything about Exhibition is uninteresting and boring, even the long takes that drag on into becoming nothing but a style forced upon the film to drain it from any emotion.
Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, 2013) Richard Linklater’s Before/After films has a special personal meaning to me, but that is another story that one day I will share with you, the reason I mentioned it, is because; even before watching the film, I knew it would be my favorite film of the year, call that a personal bias, just as, looking back; Before Sunrise is my favorite of 1995 and Before Sunset of 2004, the call already in labelling Before Midnight as being part of “Before/After Trilogy“, only, it is too early to call the film as the last time we see Jesse and Céline on the screen, there sure has to be more. I can’t remember where I read about the five stages in life, it goes something like this; fertilization before birth, infancy, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, and the eight stage of experience; exploring, life calling, focusing, working, excelling, mastering, transcending and regencies. Where are Jesse and Céline in Before Midnight? They are in adulthood, working and mastering, about to transcend, so there is still one stage to go. The first time we see Jesse is in the airport, saying goodbye to his son, and as he leave the airport, the camera follow, in a long shot wee see a woman leaning against a car, we don’t see her face clearly, as Jesse gets into the car, the camera pan to reveal in the backseat, two little girl, who is the woman with him? Can it be that Jesse had a son with Céline and got divorced? All that is answered in the next shot, as we see Céline and Jesse together, that is about the only mystery or a story or plot in Before Midnight, and the mystery is solved within the span of 30 seconds, for Before Midnight is a film about simple events captured in time, in examination of relationship of two people, who once were madly in love, now going into the mid-age, that love is in question, everything seem to have been improvised, even the other characters dialogue, it seem each one wrote their own line, like a Rohmer or a Bresson film, we see these characters as not just a mere fictional representation on the screen, but real people that we relate too, one reason, that the three films already has a cult following, with Jesse and Céline taking an independent life on their own, out of the screen into reality. It is no wonder that sunny south Peloponnese peninsula is the location for the film, it is the sunny stage going by in their lives, before sunrise was in Vienna, then before sunset in Paris, now to Greece, an as always; Linklater, intertwine in the place into the film, Greek culture and heritage; from making Dolma, to Greek Mythology, music, to reference to Elia Kazan, etc, even the title is spelled in Greek when first it appear on the screen. The dialogues and conversation between the characters become a imitation of everything that is relevant today, language is used independently, and you have more than two people tipping in, the conversations that once Jesse and Céline had now become unbearable when they are together, rather, their intimate conversation with each become reminiscence in nostalgia or an argument on their future worries, as the doubts come in whither they are still in love with each, or will be into the future. Did I mention the constant references to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, two of my idols, made me more relate to Jesse, rather cheesy, but true .
V Tumane aka In the Fog (Sergei Loznitsa, 2012) It is expected from a viewer to have a notion of what a war film should be; action and explosion, and when a viewer once in a while encounter a war film that is about the people stranded in the war, a character study of the few, the viewer at first become hostile to it, but a smart viewer, will slowly sink into the film, becoming a participant in a meditative watch, Sergei Loznitsa, among the greatest of recent young talent coming out of Russian cinema, has perhaps made one of the best Russian war film of recent times, if I could think of another war film coming out of Russia with such realism and intensity of pure brilliant, I have to go back to the Soviet era, to Elem Klimov’s timeless masterpiece; Come and See, ironically, both film are set during the German invasion of Belarus, with Come and See being on an epic scale of larger than life war film that grip the viewer from the start to the end, and In the Fog a simple character study, slow pace, long takes, haunting the viewer long after watching it. In the Fog is based of a short novella from the great, but unknown in the West, Vasil’ Bykaw, the film captures beautifully the lyricism in Byakaw’s writings onto the screen. Loznissa’s films are revisionist of the old patriotic Soviet notions of resistance, traitors, collaborators, and passives, similar to Aleksei German’s forgotten masterpiece; Road-Checkpoint, the forgotten ones whom a history remembers as the good or the bad, events black and white, the hero, the soldier and the collaborator, only in reality, nothing is as black and white, a lie become history, washing away the truth, there are those with consciences and those without it, the later is best fitted to survive, for it knows all the trickery to survive the war, and history remembers only the official story, the rest are forgotten, as it disappear into the fog.
La grande bellezza aka The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013) La grande bellezza opens with a quote from Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night, and like Céline’s writings, you are taking into a hyper pessimism of a nihilist journey, this time into the city of Rome, and everything that exist in Rome is of interest to Jep Gambardella, since he was uprooted from his home as a youth, living in Rome, when the reality is too much to take, he takes into his fantasy, walking among the Roman ruins, he sees his vision of the city, in his imagination he creates his own stories and characters, Sorrentino’s camera become his vision, it fly in all direction, defying gravity in a circus of the holy, the profound and the vice, glamor, disgust, vulgar, the serious, the silly, a jungle of sound, noise and music, a wildlife inhabited by creatures feeding upon the past, none happy at the present of existence, with they only route taking out is escapism into the material world of desires, empty pleasures, with the new icon of worship replacing the old, a plastic surgeon is the new Pop to be worshiped and asked for miracles, pure Felliniesque. You got tribute to Italian masters; Fellini, Antonioni, Rossellini, Pasolini, etc, all over the place, just to name a few. La grande bellezza is a beautiful film, a grand cinematography, each scene like a painting on a vast canvas, it is among those films that must be watched on the big screen, otherwise, the collective experience of watching is lost. Jep who seem to be indifferent to everything, cold and distance, like the rest has a incurable wound of his past; the girl he once loved, and lost, his is living his old age, the passions he once had, and now are gone forever, he is lost, suppressing his most sincere emotions, but they show up now and then, as he become aware of himself thought the eyes of others. Rome’s new La dolce vita, the sweet life generation are old and grumpy, they are cold, not sweet anymore, lost in the vast spaces, reflecting upon their failures, they are full of emptiness, pretending to still live the fast life. A mediation on life, love, death, grief, faith, religion, loneliness, youth, old age, melancholic, nostalgia, and Art, or what is considered art with its meaningless and empty values like its creators, among the best scene; a frustrated little girl taking out his anger on a big canvas with paints, looking on are Europe’s biggest art critics and gallery owner, the nothings is given a value, therefore it become art, and she is an artist, earning millions, while the real art is locked up behind the doors. Many comparison has been made between La grande bellezza and Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, and all is to the point, it is modern day La Dolce Vita, with it grander tour de force journey.
Post Tenebras Lux aka Light after Darkness (Carlos Reygadas, 2012) In Spring of 2008, I first watched Reygadas’ Silent Light, I had to watch it three more times in the span of a week, and for a month, I could not stop talking about the films and recommending it to other friends, I had already seen both of earlier work of Reygadas; Japon and Battle in Heaven, and I thought little of them, but after seeing Silent Light, I eagerly waited for his next film, and it is five years later, gain, watching a new Reygadas film, Post Tenebras Lux, and like Silent Light, it has the power to shock you, to leave you for days reflecting upon the imagery, for it is hypnotic in it power. From the first image, of a Little girl, her first words are given to images and color that she sees, sound only she can hear, textures only she can feel, the film search for a style, for a narrative, from the world of childhood that consist of feeling through our senses, to the world of the adults, that consist of feeling and emotions, that become the story of Light after Darkness; light of childhood, and darkness of adulthood, both are elements of existence within nature, and it is nature that conquers both. There is a Father who seem to live in paradise, with a a happy family, only, just as he is gentle with his children, he is equally cruel to other being in nature, a Mother, who only care for her children, but something dark live within her, we never know what it is. Then there is something, someone,, it is always looking in, it live within the lens, distorting the reality, at times it appear, red with a tail, it is the mythical creature; devil, ready to corrupt the happy childhood that is full of mystery. The unpredictability of the film, the experimental use of narrative, the rapid shift and jumps between sequences, make it feel like watching a dream, a fantasy, or a mere recollections of memories, it shift back and forth; quotes from Tolstoy, from Pierre in War and Peace, is mentioned by bourgeoisie, drinking champagne and smoking cigars discussing Dostoevsky and Chekhov, then, next cut; to a nightmarish of an orgy in France, in which the couple are looking for a “Duchamp” room, but they mistakenly get into “Hegel” room, there is a dark element of humor in the film. Everything is in depth of field, the action is center staged, distorted, but always controlled, innovative use of framing and lens, it is a film that distort reality into a nightmarish dream of fantasy.
Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (Hong Sang-soo, 2013) In Hong Sang-soo’s cinema, our first love is with his characters, his films are character study within a framework of a relationship, like Rohmer’s films, but just as Rohmer is formal in his shooting style, the opposite is true for Sang-soo; he loosen his style whenever he desires, his camera is staged like a distance viewer, always observing, and like any observation, as we observe others, the camera become an eye, a little pan here and there become the turning of the head, or glancing of the eyes. His use of color is naturalistic, subtle, yet, there is always a bright color within the frame that attract our eyes (the red sweater that Haewon love to wear), same is true for his composition, they seem very realistic, almost a documentary setup, but they are calculated to utmost details, true is also for the use of sound, the long takes, music and voice-over, as it is with the acting and the characters behaviors, he makes it look so simple, watching his film is like taking a slow walk in the park, when you get lost, you don’t want to find your way out, just as you don’t want to stop observing the characters in Sang-soo’s films, they become intimate friends, that influence comes from Robert Bresson, and if I pick, in my opinion, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon is the most Bressonian of all of Sang-soo’s films to date in his use of space, major actions happens off-screen, only a few line of voice-over is used to inform the viewer of the shift in the narrative, although the one style that makes Sang-soo different from many filmmakers working today is his minimal use of the cut, he never cut within a scene, rather, each cut take the viewer into a different place and time, instead of the cut, he prefer to re-frame, pan, or zoom in, in a way, he is like a master haiku poet; always capturing time and space as it is, as it slowly build up into a climax of pure emotions.
Jagten aka The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg, 2012) There are many ways of analyzing Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, and as you watch it, you come out with your own personal observation as to the film, one thing is for sure; everything that happens, every character’s motive, behaviors, and perception of reality is based on an event that never took place, and to have a character guilty of a crime that is none-existence is like condemning him to live in the abyss of the darkest place in human psyche, there comes the question that examine the nature of; friendship, relationship, ethics, morality, justice, crime, violent, revenge, individualism, mob attitude, forgiveness, redemption, and vindication, I’m sure I have missed many more words and adjective to describe the masterful complexity of the film, it is perfect in every way, and there are many ways in The Hunt.
Araf aka Somewhere in Between (Yesim Ustaoglu, 2012) Araf in Islamic tradition is the border between hell and heaven, it is a thin sharp line between damnation and salvation, also the first encounter to those entering paradise, and for those who leave hell behind, but yet to enter heaven. Ustaoglu’s Araf is that somewhere between the two world, with characters lost in that space, tipping one way or another. Everything is in the middle, nothing do happen, characters are stuck in the middle of indecision, hidden emotions overflows in imagery, sound and motion, wanting to be loved, desired, admired, appreciated, it take a symbolic and meditative stage in which characters sink into their own suppressive emotions, it is the old Dostoevskian psychological dilemma, to quote from Crimes and Punishment; “Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most”, in those moments of indecision, there is a longing, it stretches time into eternity, Araf is about the longing that one feel, but does not see; from Sexual desire, to loneliness, guilt, humiliation, rage, oppression, poverty, fame, fortune, material needs, or the need of simple compassion, or a companion to share one’s happiness and grief, each character show, feel, and react differently to that yearning, and like catch 22, taking the step only triggers more to be taken, or not taking it mean more emotional suppression, it become a paradox in contradictory, with the same cycle repeating with graver consequences, with two not playing equally the game, the women become the victim, and men as the spectator. One has to go back to Ustaoglu’s Journey to the Sun to be gripped and shocked by the horror of characters lost circumstances beyond their control, but Ustaoglu never closes the door, there is always a glimpse of redemption, of starting a new amid chaos, in her films; the good in humanity triumph even if for a simple gesture, and at the end of Araf, there comes that moment that leave one on the edge of tears.
Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012) From the first frame of Frances Ha, the playfulness of the two characters, the string music, the giveaway moments, and the black and white cinematography, one can’t help but think of François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, made 50 years after Truffaut’s timeless masterpiece, Frances Ha is a a different take on relationship gone astray, cold and distance at times, perhaps no other tribute to the master is as clear as the playful use of music as a sudden burst into emotion within each scene (Georges Delerue’s Thème de Camille from Godard’s Le mépris, among the many from Delerue used in the film) the scene where she is running to get cash is pure French New Wave, such nostalgic tribute, even her two brief roommate are copies of Jules and Jim, and expect lots of running, riding bicycle, giveaway moments, more playful, childish behaviors, but in a world in which the reality of the grownup sink in, there comes the nostalgia of finding oneself alone amide the crowd, and the only escape, is behaviors that is viewed by others as abnormal, or rather, childish, that is the problem with Frances Ha; she still want to be a child, in an ever changing world of grownup, and those moments of pure happiness, the few she has, are those she behave on her own, the few time she is happy with others, passes by, and turn into nostalgia for her, to escape it, a sudden impulse drive her, like going to Paris for two days, the reason? only Frances Ha knows, as she end up sleeping away her time in Paris in a little room, when she is out, her Paris a gloomy walk into empty streets, cafes, and apartments, for one sees places as one feel at the time, and her confusion only make her shift into a world of make believes, pretending to others to be what she is not, as Frances Ha slowly shift into the territory of dark humor, the harder she try to fit, the more she falls into the abyss of loneliness and alienation, for like everything else; time can make even friendship into a distance memory of forgotten happiness, and reflection upon it, only make one nostalgic.
Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? (Michel Gondry, 2013) There are many documentaries on Noam, with social and political themes as its main subject, this one is different, Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? is deep rooted in philosophical dialectics examination on linguistic, every word, sentence and meaning is given an image in symbolism, imagery to words with Gondry’s animation speaking Noam’s mind, imagery and sound explain to the viewer the inner meaning that is communicating. As Noam question everything, from his childhood memory, love for Russian literate of 19th century, to classicism in science, Aristotle, Medieval, Galileo, Renaissance, Descartes, Newton, Darwin, Evolution, skepticism, daily perception and interpretation of objects, genetic, inspirations, epistemology, astrology, religion, prejudice, death of his wife, relationship, family, linguistic, human right issues,and his trip to Kurdistan and advocacy of the Kurdish issue. Gondry’s heavy french accent and Chomsky’s masterly of the language, their misunderstand at time is simply hilarious, the film has many humors.
Like Someone In Love (Abbas Kiarostami, 2012) More than half of Kiarostami’s cinema take place inside a car, passengers on a journey, looking out into the passing world, from Tehran, to Tuscany, to Tokyo and beyond. Long dialogues and conversation between characters from different social background that circumstance bring them together for a short glimpse of times, and then separate, never to meet again, traditional, social or generational conflict surface within each encounter, with simple cameras setup, from the perspective of each characters and one from that of the viewer, sound like simplicity and minimalism at its best? That is the cinema of Kiarostami, but with each passing film, he add more flavor to his style; in Like Someone In Love, there are few sarcastically humor scenes that one rarely sees in a Kiarostami films, same is true with building suspense and stretching it, and his experimental use of sound, of creating images and characters off-screen with only their voices, it is simply brilliant, take the Grandmother in the film, we only get a glimpse of her from the window of a passing taxi, yet, she is one of the six characters that make the film, as for the casting, the performances are not as genuine as the non-actors that Kiarostami used to get the best performances out in his films back home in Iran, especially Akiko, she is poor at her reactions, which is the core of Kiarostami’s cinema; as the camera is held more on the observed, than the observer, still, masterful from a Master.
Le Passe aka The Past (Asghar Farhadi, 2013) We are creatures who think; we are living in the present, and only the present and the future matter, but the truth is; everything that we do or we plan to do is determined by the past, for it is in the metaphysical nature of time, that only the past exist; as I type these word, they are present, but now are past, just as the next sentence come from a future thought, but as I type it in the present, it become the past. It is only befitting that a film titled Le Passe, represent a reality on the screen, with characters and circumstances who’s destiny are shaped by muddy events that happened in the past, with the revelation of the truth, comes the unpredictable consequences. As in all of Farhadi’s film, a Dostoevskian examination of relationship of a couple is at the center stage of the film; in About Elly, it was escapism and the failure of the two couple to understand each other, in Fireworks Wednesday, it was the suspicion between the two, in Beautiful City, the two are separated by the norms of society that condemn their relationship, and in Nader and Simin: A Separation, it was the making the hard decision to separate, in Le Passe, all that has been, it the attempt to start a new beginning into the future that is at stake, for the past still hunt each of the characters, as there is this constant tension between characters in Farhadi’s film that slowly build into a climax, their mere present within the same space of each other is enough for the suspense, as each character hide more emotion underneath, than showing on the surface, the periodical release of tensions within them is always taking out at the person that is not part of the conflict, only toward the end, does each person face their inner demons in which they find the source as of being in others, so it is with the adults in La Passe, they each leave the frame, as if running away from the others, as for the children, they are there as contrast to them, they never hide way their emotion, from rage to happiness, they express it emotionally and physically, at the end, there comes those moments of each character, as they breakup into pieces, shattered like their relationship.
Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier, 2012) Oslo, August 31st open like an experimental film, with voices recalling the memory of a day in Oslo, it could have been the story of anyone in the city, but it become that of Anders, a day and a night in the life of a former drug addict, in the morning he is leaving a rehab clinic, he is determent to commit suicide, take a rock with himself and sink himself into a river, but as if resurrected, he surface again, to start his day, into Oslo, to search for what has remain of his past, and what is left of the future, with the constant thought of suicide in between, with the style of the film shifting as the mood changes, perhaps none is more obvious as the examination of everyday life in a cafe, heard and seen from the perspective of Anders, wise use of sound by the process of selectivity and elimination, as in a Kieślowski film. Oslo, day and night, is a cold and distance city, former friends are more cold and stranger to each others than the unknown walkers going by, his only redemption is a girl far away from him, on the other side of the world, calling, leaving messages, to get a second chance at love he once let go by, but the answer never comes, the day and night mean nothing to him at the end, only to realize the grim reality of a past that will never be corrected in the present, nor in the future, what is left to do but to take a journey into the undiscover’d country, from whose bourn, no traveler returns.
Les Salauds aka Bastards (Claire Denis, 2013) There is a magic to Denis as to how she captures the human body, in her films, the flesh, the movement of the muscles, gestures, gaze, even a little twisting of the arm has a significant meaning to the psychology of the characters. I remember the first I watched Beau travail, which was my first encounter with the cinema of Denis; I was so overwhelmed by the poetic beauty of the film, which find itself in the simple gestures and body movement, I kept going back watching the film to know the secret behind its hypnotic power, and that power is in choreographing the simple movement of the body to utmost details, as if a musical performance set to a tempo that know no space nor boundaries, it just flows, same is true for Les Salauds, more formal in its narrative structure, but as bold and innovative as Beau travail, take a journey into the heart of darkness, in which the many faces of darkness become an obscure object of desire in a murky world of the innocents and the guilt, intertwining toward an abyss, great soundtrack form Tindersticks.
Vous n’avez encore rien vu aka You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Alain Resnais, 2012) The essence of cinema consist of two basic emotions; actions and reactions, just as it exist within a metaphysical and a realistic observations; there is the screen, there is the viewer, there is action, there is reaction. The norm of cinema is to capture the two in one, narrative driven, the reaction from perspective of the viewer become that of the film, character take your emotions, as you emphasize with them and the story. Many filmmakers tried to capture the two reality on separate medium, the action and the reaction, the screen and the viewer, and each time, by eliminating on motif of the other, a rather experimental take, films have been made, in which as a viewer, you become aware of the construction of the film, and participate as a viewer within the characters in the film, Kiarostami’s Shirin is an example, as is some films of Godard, or Herz Frank, etc. Resnais has always been one of those filmmakers, with passing time, somehow he managed to innovate himself, find a way to make film on an experimental scale, but narrative driven as if in classic tradition of filmmaking, in You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet the two walk a balance line, it is a film that examine the nature of films, theater, acting, play, literature, painting, music, poetry, architecture and their constant interaction with the viewer, sound like experimental filmmaking, but it is a film more in line of an Agatha Christi mystery tale, especially Then There Were None; a dead man call upon the living, a playwright and his former stage actors to gather in a large mansion in a remote place to perform a modern day version of Eurydice , full of unexpected events, shifting of narrative and character study, past, present and the future exists on the same canvas, the acting is also in three stages, three different people at times, playing the same role, each with a different take as they observe each other, they lost in time, space, places and memories that is forces upon them with no control over it, such classic narrative and style, such subtle form to tell a story, yet, such innovation, such freshness. “I love you too much to live”, says Orpheus to Eurydice, and one tender gaze, one look take away Eurydice back to Hades. Vous n’avez encore rien vu is based on Jean Anouilh’s plays Eurydice and Dear Antoine: or, the Love That Failed, and like Resnais’s earlier film, Melo, which is based on a Henry Bernstein play; both film are an examination on the impossibility of a lasting love, in Melo, it is only a reflection on the woman from two men who both loved her equally, in Vous n’avez encore rien vu, it is one man’s dilemma with two characteristic, love and death, he seem to find both eternal when they become one; Orpheus is with Eurydice at last.
Un monde sans femmes aka A World Without Women (Guillaume Brac, 2012) Ah, what a small masterpiece Un monde sans femmes is, just under one hour in length, it got everything of emotions that many of today’s film lack, it is almost a perfect tribute to the cinema of Ermanno Olmi, with characters that one encounters in daily life, too real for the screen. There are five characters in the film; Sylvain, a shy middle age man, living a lonely life, who fall in love with two strangers; a mother and a daughter, arriving for a short holiday in a small French coastal town. Sylvain become attached to them, and fall in love with the Mother, only to have a rival in Gilles, a local police who seduce the Mother, for she is attracted to guys who want her for a short time, as she confess to Sylvain of her inability to secure a long lasting relationship, heartbroken, there is nothing left for him but a short outburst of emotion in the night before the departure of the two stranger. The guilt of abandonment is felt by the daughter, who in return is the only one who is capable of feeling Sylvain’s pain, for she seem to understand the true nature of love. There is also the character of Marie, a old woman and a friend of Sylvain whom he confide in. In today’s ever macho cinema, it is hard to come upon a film like Un monde sans femmes, to find a sensitive, shy and passive character as Sylvain.
La Vie d’Adèle aka Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013) In reality, the colors of; Red, Orange and Yellow are the warmest colors, Blue is a primarily color, but with Green and Violet, they are cool colors, but that is in reality of what is dictated by the norm, in the other alternative of one’s reality, the spectrum of the colors can change depending on one’s state of mind and perception of nature, for Adele, discovering who she is, escaping the forced reality dictated on her life; blue become the warmest color. Abdellatif Kechich’s cinema is all about the spontaneity of performance, his tight framing shots, tight close-up, he hold on those shots forever, while cut away fast from the wide shots, as if the wide shots are there only to justify the present of the characters within the surrounding and the frame. Kechiche love to examine the human face, he is like a painter, with his camera capturing little details of gestures here and there; the twisting of the mouth, a glance, a curve in the neck, etc. What attract a person to another? Is it the opposite pole of the scale, or the similarity that crashes when the two meet? A love of two, Adele and Emma, two from a far world, two different social class and mentality; Adele’s parents are more traditional, her education comes from school, from French’s earliest literature; La Princesse de Clèves, she want to be a teacher, while Emma comes from a family that is deep into culture, she is into to Sartre and existentialism, and into art, one aim for the norm of life, the other, the top of the ladder. Even in their taste, they are different; Adele into earlier, more lighter version, more raw emotional purity in everything, yet, she get lost in the existentialist world of Emma, she step into a world not only colliding with her former life, but with her mere existence of living the same life, and that is tragedy; the inescapable fact in one’s life which one refuse to admit too, when in love or in separation, her emotion take control of her, grief and joy are never lasting, but for Adele, she live in each as if it is a never lasting moments, especially her desires, she is emotionally primitive, unable to control her tears in the face of the grim reality of separation, worse, she is incapable to pass that stage, to start afresh, that is a tragedy; to be lost in someone else’s world, incapable of escaping.
Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, 2012) Leviathan is a challenging watch for any viewer, take 10 of them to watch it, 9 will expect to see a sea monster, and will walk out of the film within a few minute of it, just go to Youtube and read some of the comments of the trailer for the film, let me copy and paste some of the comments; “What is the point of this movie? Does it shows the sea monster?”, or, “Are you kidding me! i wasted 3:04 mins of my life! Come on!”, or, “Buy a camera you don’t give a shit about, toss it onto a fishing boat and just let it get kicked around for a couple hours. You’ll have just filmed the sequel to this worthless documentary”, or, “This movie is for the fishes.”, or, “”wtf is this !!”, but, if you want to observe what cinema is capable of expressing, to watch and listen, and think in between, then Leviathan is a film for you, it is an experience you shall never forget, for the camera and the sound does everything for you, with the sound designing of the film, that very few or recent films can match, it is an experience to have in a theater. In Leviathan, literary, the camera become a character, a person, with a voice, it become a hand, an emotion, a movement, it breath, it fly, it swims, it takes all shapes and form; a fish, a rope, the deck of a ship, the ocean, a seagull, it looks, it examine, it captures textures, it shows a hell in a the middle of an ocean, it is not a film that forces upon you an idea or a theme, rather, it flows, and you observe. Once a friend told me that after reading Leo Tolstoy, he got convinced to become a vegetarian, well, if Tolstoy does not convince you, give it a try watching Leviathan, you got a big chance of becoming a veggie, if not, becoming aware of the mass consummation, waste, the ecological disasters that humanity is giving to nature; as it take the living, and throw back the dead. Don’t expect the lyrical beauty of Sweetgrass from Lucien Castaing-Taylor, in Leviathan, he takes the opposite direction of documentary filmmaking, more of an experimental visceral in surrealism. In his Surrealist Manifestos, Andre Breton define Surrealism as “psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express functioning of thought. Thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought.” Well, there you go, you have the definition of Leviathan.
Nostalgia de la luz aka Nostalgia For The Light (Patricio Guzman, 2010) Many years ago I first encountered the cinema of Patricio Guzman, after watching The Battle of Chile, among the best, but forgotten documentary of 1970s. His cinema can be defines as one rooted in the Soviet montage of the 20s, pace and rhythm, emotions, poetic voice-over all matched by subtle combing of imagery in dialectical manner. In Nostalgia For The Light, he examine our collective memory from all perspective, from scientific search of life’s origin, questions of Where did we come from? Where are we? Where are we going? to nature of time, the metaphysical existence of reality and our the perception of it. His search take place in the remote Atacama Desert of Chile, there we encounter astronomer and archeologist, the heaven and the earth, in search of the past, not far from it is the remain in the vast emptiness, Pinochet’s concentration camp, were we find former prisoners who document and recall history based on their memories, they become a transmitter into the past for Guzman, as a telescope is to an astronomer or a rock is to an archeologist, with their high powered telescope, they search for calcium among the stars, not far away from the camp and observatory, is a group of women search the desert for the remain of their relatives who were lost during the oppression, they are also looking for calcium, but in the bones of their loved one. The paradox; one gathers information from billions of years ago, while incapable of doing the same from a half a century ago, forgetting their recent past, bust searching for that of the distance. Of all of them, it is those women who are searching for an answer, they are the most passionate and determinate to find an answer, to fin the bones of their loved one, and to bury them again. In current Chile, that yet to reconcile itself with its past, with the time of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, and the darker past of state oppression. The most moving moment in the film come from a woman, on her 70s, still searching for her husband, “I wish those telescope would not only look into the sky searching, but into the earth, so that we could find them.”
The Last Time I Saw Macao (João Pedro Rodrigues, 2012) It is strange how a word can trigger the memory, to relate an object into another; whenever I hear the word “Macao”, it trigger imagery right our of Josef von Sternberg and Nicholas Ray’s timeless noir film, Macao, with its gorgeous black and white cinematography, the sea, the boats, the seamen, the night club, Mitchen and Russel, so it is no wonder that I expected a film with the tile The Last Time I Saw Macao to drift into the same category, and it did not disappoint, at times, like the character in the film, it feel like watching time reminded backward in a never ending slow motion. Like many recent films out of Portugal, the intertwining of poetic literature in the form of a narrative of a voice-over is as refreshing as ever, with the simple use of documentary footage, and the camera as the seeing eyes of the character, which we never see, but hear. My favorite film of last year was another film from Portugal; Miguel Gomes’s Tabu, which has similar theme to that of The Last Time I Saw Macao; both of the story take place in a former colony of Portugal, with a man’s search for a woman who he had lost once upon a time, but just as in Tabu, we are always in the middle of the action with the characters, The Last Time I Saw Macao, we never see any action, nor see any characters, rather, we only hear the recount of what had happened, what is happening and what is about to happen, we see what the camera sees, as that of a distance observer of daily events, places and strangers occupying the space, yet, somehow, we become intrigue more and more and sink into the narrative. Reminiscence of Orson Welle’s Mr. Arkadin and Raoul Ruiz’s Three Crowns of the Sailor, did I tell you that the tribute is complete with end song being sand by no other than Jane Russell, from Macao.
The Unspeakable Act (Dan Sallitt, 2013) Someone mentioned that they could only watch The Unspeakable Act only halfway through, for it had “Zero entertainment value”, only, cinema is not meant to be just entertainment, to grab you and shake you, The Unspeakable Act is among the best American independent film of recent time that I could thing of. A summer with Jackie, a frustrated young girl, sensitive to the core for she desire and has a notion of love that collide with what society define as norm, she think she is a evolutionary reject, outside the chain, she is attracted to things that she knows best, and afraid of discovering mystery in others, she is attracted to the unattainable, as she grow into adulthood, her frustration grows more unbearable. The heart of the film is Jackie’s voice-over; it is the most personal, as her appearance is cold and distance with other characters in the film, especially her close, but cold family, for the exception of her brother, who’s gravity filed conquer her, her narration make the viewer the only thing that she confide in , and we empathize with her, no matter what her deeds are, we become the pages of her diary, even when she talk to her psychoanalysis, she is talking to us, we listen and we react, it a cinema in which characters talk about actions that happens off-screen , rather than action defining characters in the narrative which many of today’s big blockbuster Hollywood films love to do, same goes for its minimal use of music, naturalist use of sound, and realism that flows in uninterrupted path, it seem like an amateur work, but it is not, its naturalist use of light is brilliant, long takes of scenes that let the time flows realistically with no manipulation of editing, similar to the films of Hong Sang-soo and Eric Rohmer, and the film is dedicated to Rohmer, I don’t have to mention the acting, it is simple, capturing emotions as it is, with no attempt to act, but just to be, the script is crisp, although it feel as if many scenes has been improvised on the set, yet, they are staged to utmost details.
Reality (Matteo Garrone, 2012) The English word; Reality is the title of the Garrone’s film, or how the media can destroy one’s illusion of reality. Take a trip into the fantasy and the reality world of Luciano, a happy guy, got a job selling fish, with a beautiful family, living an ordinary life in Naples, but still pushed to look for fame and fortunes, after he encounter a former Big Brother participant, Enzo, telling him, “Never give up”, he repeats it, even not knowing what the words mean, but Enzo become his role model to follow, “Never give up”, the fake pop cultures of reality shows in which if give the illusion of everyone can make it to the top. As he take the trip to Rome to audition for the show, coming home, he become a changed man, he think he got the part, already planning for the a life after his fame, he changes his behaviors as every stranger to him become a representative from the hosts of the shows, checking his behaviors, he become obsesses with the culture of glamor, fame and fortunes, sell his fish-stand, invest everything in the show, not only his hope. Even when down and out, reality sink in, as he hide away from his friends from shame, becoming a stranger in his town, he still turn into the TV for more fake hope, gets himself more into the hole, by giving way everything to charity, driving his wife and children to leave him, the film slowly shift into the a Kafkaian world, into the absurd, the dark humors world of Gogol, as everything in the mind of Luciano become an illusion of the other reality, one forced upon by a media obsessed culture, he goes into a world of his fantasy, a bright light amide the darkness, that become his reality. Hilarious watch in the tradition of Italian comedies, with non-actors in the main and roles of extras.
Something in the Air (Olivier Assayas, 2012) Something in the Air, another melancholic to the aftermath of May 68’s student’s mini revolutions lost in the counter culture of the time, from Gregory Corso’s collection Gasoline, beat generation, protest, Phil Ochs, Mao’s cultural revolution, there those, like Gilles, on his little revolution, his girl is going away to London, but he stay, riding is motorbike, hanging up revolutionary posters, writing graffiti, like a Bressonian character, he only talk when answering others, his own thoughts is deep behind an iron wall, impenetrable to others, he struggles, for it is not easy to be a revolutionary while all formers are becoming nihilist, anarchist, counter culture reactionary, hippies, others search for spirituality in the East, some want to be an artistic, but there they are still around, all the way down to Italy, they still believe in the cause, hardline Communist, divided in all front, from Maoist, to Stalinist, to Trotskyist, one minute making revolution, next minute, making love. Like many of recent films about past failure of leftist revolutions; Gilles’ dream of a revolution, like his dream of becoming an experimental filmmaker become nothing but a a distance memory, like the girl he once loved, they slowly fadeout from his world like an image on the screen.
Toată lumea din familia noastră aka Everybody In Our Family (Radu Jude, 2012) Marius, he leave his room, full of DVDs, books, poster of Tolstoy, Che, to get his vacation, singing Pink Floyd, reciting haiku, a divorce who get only 15 days in a year for the custody of his daughter, he need a car to get there and have to get it from his father, the all loving and welcoming father one minute, only to be outraged next, by his son’s tolerance (which he view as cowardice) toward his former life, so it start his first day of the holiday, with his father kicking him out of the house, calling him “Coward”, only for his mother to run after him in pajamas to give him the key to the car. The film comes alive when he meet her little daughter, charming and full of humor, always asking questions, in return, he ask more question about her Mother, Step-dad, and Grandmother and their treatment of her, all he gets is negative review, you think getting the key for the car was humiliating for him, imagine getting permission to take her daughter to the seaside, as he goes off his track, only, for his ex to come into the show, he goes back into his shells in front of her one minute, next, exploding in anger and violent, more stubborn than ever, target his violent on the man she left him for, and his insulter on her, as for the poor little girl, it becomes the game of “you are going” and “you are not going”, like a magnets, she shift between each pole, never knowing which one to choose, as her vacation becomes a nightmare, only, all their differences, argument, shout and anger is from the past, of many years collecting its toll for an event like this to make it explode, rarely does a film comes to such realism in examining domestic violence, there is a very thin line between humor, anger, tenderness and madness in the characters, and the unpredictability of their behaviors. Another masterpiece in dark humor form Romanian New Wave.
Poziția copilului aka Child’s Pose (Calin Peter Netzer, 2013) The events depicted in Child’s Pose might take only a few day time on the screen, but its psychological motivation is deep rooted in the past; a demanding mother spoiling her only son by wanting total command over him, by shaping his thoughts and desires, the deep rooted connection comes down crushing as outside force shape their future destiny, yet, instead of facing reality, she sink deeper into wanting to shape the reality in her own fantasy, but each step she takes, only pushes away his son more into a distance, it takes both to face their guilty consciences to find the little redemption that is left in them to heal the guilt they carry. Another realistic film from the Romanian New Wave, although I was never a fan with the style used, especially the camera movement, consciously make itself aware to its technical capability in crooked movements from fast zooming to panning, making itself present, but as always, it give it the edgy realism that one slowly forget as you sink into the narrative.
Gloria (Sebastián Lelio, 2013) Gloria, she is reaching old age, divorced for 10 years already, but still live in her 20s, and wishing to live the fast life, listen to 80s music, drive her car, goes to work, meet her son and daughter who are always busy, attend parities at night, meeting old friends, few remembers her, then one night, she meet a total stranger, he is also a divorce, and they click, there begin a steamy affair, love after the mid-age crisis, but can such two start a fresh and not let the past hunt them? but it is the present of the mysteries stranger that drive Gloria to edge, to the breaking point, but giving her sensitive nature, her outburst is limited to minimalism, she goes back to the beginning at the end, along, among the crowd, on the dace floor, taking out her loneliness swinging. Reminiscence of a Cassavette film.
Museum Hours (Jem Cohen, 2013) During the early days of birth of cinema, the argument was whether cinema was a descendant of Photography, Theater, Painting, or any other arts; the realistic vs the fictional portrayal of life favored the first two, but one also can argue that cinema is also a descendent of paintings, with its calculated use and arraignment of space, in Museum Hours, Jem Cohen masterfully balance the use of painting by colliding it with exploration of everyday reality, as the Guard of the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna become our guide into both world, and like an appreciation of a painting, one must allow time to stop, or at least, slow down in the process of discovering its many layers; from appreciation of paintings, to a story of friendship, reflection of past memory, the city of Vienna, a voice-over always present to punctuate what we see on the screen, like Pieter Bruegel’s painting, in which the film goes into details to explain, Museum Hours is a detailed examination of many elements captured into one.
Impardonnables aka Unforgivable (André Téchiné, 2011) A crime fiction writer goes to Venice to write his next novel, an ex-model, an ex-detective, an amateur ex-criminal, a drug dealer with a taste for classic art, a rich countess, all intrigued in a web of suspense as a daughter goes missing. The crime fiction writer marry the ex-model, is it his daughter that goes missing, and he suspect the drug dealer who is the son of the rich countess to have ran away with her, he hires the ex-detective to search for her, and she a long time friend of his wife, rather, her former lover, her son is the ex-criminal just out of jail. Sound complicated, wait, there is more; he is jealous of every single movement of his wife, thinking she is having an affair, as he hires the amateur ex-criminal to spy on her, chasing her in the canals and narrow streets of Venice, only to be caught on his first day by her, and to confess to her who hired him, but they go on playing the game, and he himself is been chased. In Unforgivable, everything is catch-22. whatever decision one make, action one takes, it will comes back to hunt one, as everyone has a secrete hidden from others and in-between each other, reveling it will only make it worse, and hiding it, more suspenseful, as some forgive and forget, others go on never forgetting nor forgiving.
To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, 2012) Strange, how many never noticed the influence of Godard on Malick, until they saw To the Wonder and heard the French voice-over , but one only has to go back to Malick’s first film, Badlands, to see the pattern of Godardian influence that will repeat on all his films, especially the influence of Pierrot le Fou is clear in Badlands; the voice-over, the fast shifting of scenery, music and montage, and the never ending feeling of improvisation. the elimination of the surrounding for the individually, as in each sequel, we are with one or the other, only that Godard cut it at the peak of the sequence, but Malick stretches it to the limit. Malick might have lived many years in France, but his take on Paris and surrounding is pure view of a tourist, discovering the place for the first time, as for rural America, that is where he find himself at home. To the Wonder is a search of the wonder, of love, physical or spiritual, it is the search for the unseen, the universal force that unite two into one, and the doubts, separation, alienation from it, for time never stops for the sake of one over the other, as from two lovers, full of joy like children playing games, to the pain of separation, and in-between, Martin Heidegger’s book can best describe it; Being and Time, that is what To the Wonder is; it is being in time, and and examination of love, in all it forms, his most spiritual film to date. One criticism that justly put forward against Malick is his repetition and stretching of his style for the sake of the narrative, there are scenes that the film could have done without, as it seem to repeat itself at times, but his eyes for the image is always that of the master, with his never ending love for shooting during during the magic hours.
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012) The vision of a dream of a mother, letter from girlfriend whom he cry over, and he just arrive home from a war on a Pacific island, The Master start like that, sound like a character and a sequel to Malick’s The Thin Red Line, but the world of P.T Anderson is a dark one, one in search of the psyche, what make one tick, his characters are mysterious, we never get too close to them, always at a distance. Joaquin Phoenix delivers a knockout performance as Freddie Quell, an alcoholic war veteran on a post WWII Odyssian journey across America. its inhabitant, places, his memory, and he is always in conflict with it all, take it out by drinking and forgetting, only for the past and the present to catch up to him, as he sink into the hypnotic world of a cult figure and his follower, that of Dodd , there it begin the search of the past for the cause of the unknown world which seem to be more real than the present one they live in, they might be two character from two different worlds, only, they are mirrors of each others, one filling what the other is missing, through psychoanalyzing, they dig into the psyche of Freddie, only to discover a wall impenetrable, as it closes more tighter into its own spaces, his only escape of a lost identity is to replace it with a fake one, by following, by attachment to an idea, a cult, and every insult to it, even a single skepticism is taken personally, and breakaway from it, taking back his own identity is a task that will break him, if not eat him alive within the passing of time. One should not forget to mention Jonny Greenwood’s abstract and experimental soundtrack.
Arbitrage (Nicholas Jarecki, 2012) Once a crook always a crook, that is the story of Robert Miller, he has managed to rob many through fraud of a hedge fund, he takes the risk by involving others, he cheat on his wife, lie to his family, leave his mistress in a car to be burned, and step by step, instead of going back, he goes forward with more involvement of others in his dirty games and coverups for his craving of greed and lust, but a life based on lies and deception, will crash into a spectacular downfall, burning down with it the dry and the wet, well, that will take place in a just world, but in a world that is corrupt to its core, such man only triumph in the public eye, but deep down, the ladder he once took his step up, is a crooked, rotten and broken one. Arbitrage is best describe America of the recent time, shown from the perspective of those who run the show, for what was the 2008 economic crash, but many morally corrupt Robert Millers climbing up the ladder ever higher over the ashes of many burned by their ruthless ires. It has been a while since Richard Gere delivered a performance, but he delivers this time in a thriller, watch out for the name; Nicholas Jarecki.
Hannah Arendt (Margarethe von Trotta, 2012) If you could forgive the heavy German accent of Barbara Sukowa, her English remind one of stereotypical German from a Wilder or Lubstich comedy film, or her puffing the smoke as if Lauren Bacall in a Hawk film, at times the film become intellectual debate of different philosophical schools, with the neutral just listening with in between, and Hannah’s thoughts getting lost in a flashback, she is still crossed at Martin Heidegger for joining the Nazi. Forget all that, and watch this masterpiece of dialectical examination in nature of evil: Can one man be punished and set as an example for the crimes of millions? And where does the nature of evil take its root from? Crime of wars and genocide is a collective deeds, but history always seem to find one individual, or a collective individuals to bestow the guilt upon. Minimalist use of music, and innovative use of documentary footage intertwining with the fictional narrative within the film, as Adolf Eichmann become the antagonist of the film, whither on the screen, or off, he outsmart and outmaneuvers everyone in the courtroom, by simply going putting the blame on the system, just obeying the law, for it is the system that drive a man to commit crimes, that as an individual never dare to even think of, let alone take a step toward it, same is true with the victims, everyone become a collective victims of the crime, rarely does history remembers the ones within, that work as a host for the crimes to be committed. Trotta’s influence had always been Ingmar Bergman, here and there, even with characters that appear for a glimpse on the screen, she manages to create an emotional depth to them, each unique in their own way, and one has to only observe their reaction to understand the full emotion that is boiling inside them. Well, Hanna, she went all the way, never shaken.
The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai, 2013) The Grandmaster is Wong Kar-wai’s most commercial targeted film to date, refining his artist style with action packed blockbuster of a film. Only, there is more Kar-wai in The Grandmaster; as the heart of the film is a unattainable love story between Ip Man and Gong Er, reminiscence of In the Mood for Love with its subtle use of the visual to convey the emotion. There has been many martial arts film coming out of China and especially Hong Kong of recent times, but I rarely can recall one with such philosophical depth into the fundamental elements of martial arts, especially Meihuaquan; with its root in Buddhism and tradition, more of achieving spiritual goals through meditation and training. Kar-wai is a master of slow motion, if you think of his film; the most visceral images coming to mind is in slow motion, he take that style to perfection in The Grandmaster, some of the fight scene is choreographed into beyond perfection with its intertwining of elements from nature, as is his use of constructive editing, in spaces are combined thought a mere a gesture of movement.
Drug War (Johnnie To, 2012) There is an old fable from Aesop, called “The Snake and the Farmer“; A farmer finds a snake freezing in the snow, taking pity on it, he picks it up and places it in his coat, the snake, energized by the warmth, bites the farmer, who dies realizing that it is his own fault, my friend, that is the plot of Drug War, and to get there, everything is placed under surveillance, and To takes his time to use all the tools of surveillance within the film, as a tool of the narrative, be it for the editing, as the all seeing eye of the camera, or a plot narrative, the film might be about drug, as the ruthless criminal and the good cop chase the down the big shots of the cartels, but the one repeating theme in the films is surveillance. There is one signature cut to cut scenes that Johnnie To is obsessed with, and if you ever watch any of his film, look for it; the direct match cut of the moving camera from one shot into the next, and he always does is smoothly, from a crane, to a dolly, to a simple pan or zoom, he always find away to match the two shot, in Drug War, the ever cutting, compressing space and time, make it a watch that simply make the film flow in time, watching it, at times it feel like watching a human ballet of movement in action, be it walking, driving, running, or just a simple gaze of a character, there is always some movement in the frame, rarely anything is stable, that is what give the film the illusion of energy, like the cops that seem never to rest, always chasing the criminals, almost with superhuman energy, Johnnie To rarely give the audience a chance to breath, like them, your eyes, your brain, your attention must flow with them, and unlike many artificial fast paced editing films coming out of Hollywood nowadays, in which the overuse of all the technical aspect of filmmaking hammer the viewer into a tiresome watch, in Drug War, the action is balanced, rarely does everything come together to hammer the audience, rather, the manipulation of the emotion sublet, almost silently it build up to its peak, there is always a space left for the imagination of the audience to build its own suspense, rather than be forced upon it, like a piece of puzzle, you might know what the end result is, but it take an effort to put it all together, and To makes sure, he hold the puzzles, and only reveal them one by one. Johnnie To’s best since Vengeance.
Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013) Much criticism has been targeted at Nicolas Winding Refn for its heavy use of style over characters in Only God Forgives, in its showing at Cannes, half the crowd booed the film, the other half, applauded, that is the reaction that one get after watching the film, you either like it, or you hate it, there is no between. I watched the film twice at Beclourt Theater in Nashville while on trip to US, and it took me the second viewing to truly appreciate the film for its minimal use of a plot, the story could have been told during an elevator ride, but Only God Forgives is not about a story, nor characters, it is about a tribute to cinema, as if watching a Western in modern day Bangkok, it is shot like a nightmare, everything is exaggerated in style, slow pace, violence, and minimized in acting; it is a tribute the films of Jodorowsky, Lynch, Kubrick, Jarmusch and even Tarkovsky in its use of style. Years to come, Only God Forgives will become a classic, mark my word on that, for its a masterpiece.
Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, 2013) Watch any news broadcast, read a newspaper, or listen to a radio, check the feeds on your Facebook, and there chance of hearing or reading about an incident of police brutality taking place in the States, it has all become a too common theme. I remember driving home one night in January 2009 and hearing about the riots over the radio taking place in Oakland over a shooting of an African American by the police at the Fruitvale Station, it was in the news for a while, and like everything else it was forgotten. Only, for Coogler to take the event of that night in the life of Oscar Grant into Fruitvale Station. Unlike many Hollywood films on the issue of race in America, such as Crash, with its heavy sentimental notion of open racism, Fruitvale Station avoid such topic, rather, it is an examination of a day in the life of a young man, who love his family, gentle and compassionate to relative, friend and strangers alike, yet, at the end of the day, this young man become another victim of police brutality, the film never force you to examine the reason, but the question as to why such tragic incidents can happen is one that keep repeating in your mind, and the explanation is not that complex to come upon; the racism and prejudice, the legacy of Slavery that once was out in the open in America still exist, only, nowadays it is underground, and the police force is the best example of it; not only does it target is a certain race or color, but it also target a social class, the chance of a poor kid brutalized by the police is far more than that of an upper class, same goes with the division of residency in the States, there are more chance of being pulled over driving in a poor neighborhood, or being pulled over driving a cheap car in a rich neighborhood, but most important; it depend who the driver of the car is. I remember I used to have a black friend at work, at least once month, he would tell that he was getting pulled over for driving in this, or that street, the reason was because he drove a certain car and dressed a certain way, now, on the other hand, I lived in the States for more than 10 years, and I was not pulled over not even once, although I drove the same roads as he did. Now imagine, if you are that person, being harassed, even if not physically, but mentally, looked down upon, encounter such subtle targeted racism by the police, the chances of the two colliding is only a matter of time, for both view the other as a threat. What is more tragic, is the aftermath of such incidents, rarely does the victim’s family get the justice. Have you ever noticed how the statues of Lady Justice; it is a depiction of a woman; blindfold, holding a sword in one had and balance scales on the other? Only in reality, Lady Justice clearly sees between those whom she judge, and the scales is always unbalanced.
The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola, 2013) The crave to imitate and posses the materials of a consumer pop society is the story of The Bling Ring, with only one way our of that craving; crime, to steal from others and posses it, and why not steal from the ones whom you want to be? The story of rich, spoiled kids, living the easy life, but still not affording it, never worked a day, not knowing the value of what they poses, even waters has to be delivered to them, as for their parents, either they are never around, non-existence, or encourage them, they are creatures who only consume, never create, the greed to consume and collect junks that without them would have no value. Coppola dig deep into glamorizing the crave, filling up the emptiness of the characters with glamor shots, props and sets, as they become an object of the surrounding, take the best performance out of her characters, it comes down to casting the right type, and improvising the best out of them, as their existence is in texting messages, getting high, drinking, taking selfies, listing to lousy music, shopping, makeup, clubbing, imitating pop icons, and stealing, with a limited vocabulary in language that express nothingness, “omg, lol, bitches, bro”, etc, their fake spiritual side consist of taking classes from their parents as how admire and egoistically copy those on the upper of the ladder, constantly checking on rumors about their daily lives, they are the next wanna be Paris Hilton and the rest of the pop junks that is feed to them in the everyday media, everything is shallow, as is their friendship, it is all fun and game for them, until reality sink in, then, the color of their true characters shows, but they goes on lying to themselves in make believes, their appearance in court become nothing but a fashion show for some to make it to the top, while for others to end up in the dark cells of prison.
Bella addormentata aka Dormant Beauty (Marco Bellocchio, 2012) Faith, suffering, hope, suicide, humanity, a common compassion, that is the story of Dormant Beauty, an examination in the chaos of Silvio Berlusconi’s divided Italy; as brother, lovers, father, mothers and their children take side opposite of each other based on their social convection, can love, forgiveness and compassion amides such hatred blossom? Bellocchio, his films are always politically aware of its time, and he never shy away from leaning to the left, after all, he was among icon of 60’s Italy’s leftist filmmaker, the power to shock, a mere shift of state of the mind in unpredictability within his characters, I still remember how shocked I was watching the scene in Fists in the Pocket, when the son push her mother of the cliffs, and his reaction is empty, that of nothings, it is shocking, not because of the unpredictable action, but also the reaction of the character. Dormant Beauty is not the first nor the last film to examine Persistent vegetative state, a topic that divide, different family reacting differently to the situation based on their political and religious ground, rather than a moral, the constant battle for the right and left. Marxism and Catholicism is always present is a Bellocchio film, and his characters come from the extreme of each side, or are lost in between. The morality of wanting to save the dying, but letting the living die away when politic and organized religious comes before morality. The two most interesting characters in the film are a drug addicts on the edge of suicide and a doctor who is trying to save her, their battle is that of the wills, two opposite, but still battle it out fairly, because their conviction comes from within, and they are the only two who find something to share.
De rouille et d’os aka Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard, 2012) Audiard’s cinema is out of American’s films of 70s, more melodramatic; A characters that is an outcast, in odd with everything, violent to everyone, but attracted to a woman, whom he consider himself to be her protector and savor, only this time, it works both way, as she become attracted to him, and she wants to save him, but she want to a set line in their relationship, a border not to be crossed, to him, there is no such line, “When you can beat them, join them”, she join him, into his world. Two complete opposite in physical and sensual existence; she is disable, he is a prize fighter, she is romantic, he is only for fun, but both are lost in the same space, they are looking for something, even if he is outside of the circle, he only knows deceptions and cruelty; he lies, he steal, cheat, use violence when thing does not goes his way, he think rage and violence can solve everything, he fight to make money, but also for fun, to him human become another commodity in his world, he even betray his own sister for the boss he work for, only he does it out of ignorance. He think his redemption is to make it to the top the honest way, to become a top a fighter again, to make a fortune, only to realize, what he has in life is enough for him, he is looking far, but not seeing what is near him, but does such realization come too late to redeem him? Is he capable of love?, the one thing that he always run away from.
Outrage Beyond (Takeshi Kitano, 2013) The clock ticks one scene after another, and you are watching, waiting for that second, when Takeshi Kitano makes his appearance, then you notice, you are in the hand of not just a master director, but one of the few actors left on the screen that make the viewer feel the charm of the classic performers, with his silent acting, his long silence gazes, his twist of the facial muscle, always leaning one shoulder sideways, he remind one of the best of the best of the old Humphrey Bogart, his raw, rough, masculine present on the screen hide everyone else into oblivion, he is back with vengeance. It is only obvious to say, that with Outrage, and now Outrage Beyond, Kitano has masterfully reincarnated and transformed the yakuza film genre into the new age; one in which, above all, the once tough guy, street punk, violent, low mannered yakuza are now clean, always indoor, dressed as politicians or bosses and executives of corporations, speak and behave in manners, spending most of their time in meetings, planning their next expansion, they come and go, with their body guards, in and out of their mansions, ruling their empire, they become bedfellows with the politicians, they are two faces, on different side, but on the same coin. As always, the distance, cold execution and the sudden burst of violent amide scenes that are otherwise slow paced, make Outrage Beyond inline with the rest of Kitano’s yakuza films, in which at every corner, in every frame, the ghost of death and violence is present.
La noche de enfrente aka Night Across the Street (Raoul Ruiz, 2012) Ruiz’s last film is a mediation on death, on memories, imagination and fantasy of childhood, reflected upon by an old man, Don Celso, who think death is coming to him in the form of an assassin, but it is the recalling of his childhood memory that pulls the trigger, as he take a journey into a magical and nostalgic world of his past, in a creation of memory and fantasy, creating encounters with fictional to historical figures, from Long John Silver to Beethoven, he take them along to the movies, football games, and introduce them to man’s new inventions, and confide in them, his educations comes from books, cinema, and conversation he pick up in the streets and among strangers, but he is an encyclopedia of knowledge, outsmart everyone, even the adults, yet, he is terrible in math. The innocent world of childhood, the light is always that of the magic hours, golden, with warm colors decorating interiors. More than Don Celso’s tripe to his childhood, it is Ruiz’s trip into an artificial and realistic diminution, that flip whichever way. Ruiz made the film and left it with a note; that it should be seen after his death, and it was seen after he passed away.
Promised Land (Gus Van Sant, 2012) Gus’s take a break, you may call Promised Land his break; more subtle with his never ending camera move, style, more of cheap humors, narrative and plot driven, with everyday characters that one rarely relate to the cinema of Gus, it take more than half an hour for Promised Land to kick in, the minute we hear Frank (Hal Holbrook) set out to ring the tone of conflict in the film, as he become the first brick of a wall in stopping the drilling for natural gas in a rural town, with its population more unified to fight a battle against giant cooperation that see, bigger than life with its power and influences, but the biggest brick on the wall is Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), as his name suggest, a noble fighter with a mission, determined to stop the drilling, as he set out alone to confront the giants. you go along with it, that is, until everything twist around, even the fight is fixed, as only the winner is in the game, as it turns out; it takes the bad guy to become the good one, and the good guy into the bad one, and our perception of the radical change to let the truth triumph, one may argue the climax ending and the speech is a cliché, too many of it comes a dozen, only, it is a pessimist speech that reflect the reality of the time.
Top of the Lake (Jane Campion, 2013) I will make a confession to you; I rarely ever watch shows on Television, but I could not resist watching Campion’s serial drama, Top of the Lake, over six hours in length, it is Campion’s most provocative work to date, it is hard to imagine it come from the same filmmaker who made a lyrical film as Bright Star only four years before. In Top of the Lake, there is a fine line of narrative between characters study and suspense thriller, and one expect the clues of a plot line of a suspenseful serial that drag on for six hours to be revealed between each episode, only in Top of the Lake, the plot comes secondary to the characters, you could even argue that the present of the women in the Paradise Camp is irrelevance to the plot, and it it, take out those scenes of Paradise, and you could still watch Top of the Lake without missing anything, but that is what make it such a wonderful watch, it’s slow pace examination of each characters is the heart of the serial, and not the suspense nor the plot, rarely does one come upon a show on television wish such sublet pace.
Beyond the Hills (Christian Mungiu, 2012) The sign on the entrance of the convent reads; “This is the house of God. Forbidden to anyone of different religion, nonbelievers, and in doubts”, and the mistake is to allow a nonbeliever into the place, Alina, as she does everything to test their spiritual faith, especially that of her former lover and childhood friend, Voichita, when she fail in tempting her strong faith, she take the detour of become one with her faith, only for her inability to live without the notion of worldly love and desire, her rage turn into the faith, taking every opportunity to showcase her anger, only to let herself down at the end. There is aLeo Tolstoy’s masterful short story, Father Sergius, it is is about a man who does everything to stay away from all worldly pleasure, for his faith is weak, and it take a lifetime in finding himself, in Beyond the Hills, Alina does everything to become a believer, when she fails, she does everything to weaken other’s faith and that of Voichita, but she fails in that also, because deep down, she has no argument for either cause, she is a nihilist who does not know what faith is, but believe in love, and instead of living with it, she is determined to to make Voichita believe like her, or make herself believe like Voichita, but she does not know, that faith, love, doubts, and desires cannot be forced upon an individuals when the person deep down, refuses. As much as Mungiu love to move his camera chasing after characters, there are many moments of mise en scène that are staged in depth in the classic tradition of Welles, Wyler and Mizoguchi, with framing and character movement within the space giving priority, just as the use of light is also a contrast of the two; heavy stylized for the indoor scenes of the convents, and the use ore realistic and natural light for the outdoor.
The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012) Suharto’s “New Order” regime in Indonesia and its mass killing of the opposition in Anti-communist purge is another dark legacy of United State and Western intervention, it was all a mastermind plan staged in Washington by CIA to weaken Soviet and Chines influence in the region, but rarely does a Western viewer is aware of the atrocities committed compared to others or recent history that Western media love to showcase, so it no wonder a film like The Act of Killing, shedding light on the events seem to shock viewers, although the events depicted is nothing new, only, the brutality is visualized and reenacted, saying all that, the film is not about the politic behind the events, but about the people, those pawns in the game who carried out the atrocities. The gangsters in the film represent a perfect example of Capitalism in action, they are almost a perfect metaphor for cooperation, as long as things goes their way, they are calm, but when others take charge, refuse to follow the corruption, there comes oppression and elimination, crushing anyone who resist, and rewarding those who follow, and as banks collect their interest, they go around collecting their protection money, only these thugs talk about their crimes passionately, for like all gangsters, they like to showoff themselves, they like to document their atrocities, it given them pleasure to let other know. I remember I visited Iraq in the aftermath of Saddam’s fall, one of the best selling VCD in the market was videos documented archival from Iraqi Muhkabarat (Secret Service) on their activity in torture and murder, they had documented countless hours of cruelty, but those up on the chain of powers, will take the route of re-writing history to hide the crimes, or simply deny such events ever took place, and any re-examination of history will will never reveal the real truth, for many secrete will always be kept hiding. It is rather ironic how one of the gangsters justify his action and defy international law by comparing his crime to that of George Bush and the invasion of Iraq, he make a good argument, for like anything else, international laws and treaties are only meant to judge very few, for other gangsters like Bush and Blair, no such thing exist, as he declare; “War crime is defined by the winners. I’m a winner. So I can make my own definition. The American killed the Indian, has anybody been punished for that, why re-open that case?”, one scene that perfectly define the film with its metaphorical examination in nature of politic, violent, corruption, and the underworld racketeering of governments; One of the gangsters who is running as a candidate for member of the parliament imitating Obama’s gesture and manner of speech on the television, to copy for his next speech, in away, he is imitating his other image in the mirror. We are used to seeing evils portrayed with horns and tails, only, in real life, they don’t have horn nor tail, but are rather full of glamor. In The Act of Killing, even morality is relevant when it comes principles, perfect examination of humanity’s obsession with sadism and violent, none more blunt as as in mass media and cinema.
Room 237 (Rodney Ascher, 2012) At one point or another, critics always give their own meaning to films they write about, even worse, viewers give more meaning to films, in Room 237, it goes exploding; as fans obsessed with cinema of Kubricks, especially, his horror masterpiece; The Shinning, give their own meaning to the film; from Native American genocide and American’s guilt, to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, to Western colonialism, imperialism, genocide, to mythology, to Kubrick’s involvement with the Apolo 11 project and the moon landing; based on the fact that distance of earth to moon is 237 thousands miles, and the mystery room in The Shinning is room 237 (only, if I’m not mistaken, I think the distance is 238,000 miles), arguments are based on objects, from a poster, to typewriter, or special layout of scenes, each given symbolic meaning to mismatch shots, continuity errors, editing laps, or reading an image as subliminal, or a simple props such a magazine. A film is a collective experience, and not just a mere examination in one scene or another, or an object to be given meaning to it. Kubrick’s masterpiece is a psychological horror film, the likes of Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton’s films; the story a man on the edge of his psyche, he crosses into the other side, into the darkness, as many characters cross the same like in a Kubrick film. There is no doubts that Kubrick’s films are full of mysteries, but not every object can have a metaphorical meaning, if Kubrick had been alive and seen it, he would had a great laugh, it is an entertaining watch for any Kubrick fan.
The Rest of my film diary for 2013:
Sweet Sixteen (Ken Loach, 2002) I went back to watching Sweet Sixteen after watching Loach’s The Angels’ Share, because the two film share many similarities, for the depiction of working class ned in the Glasgow area, but just as in The Angels’ Share, the ending is optimistic, the characters is giving a second chance, in Sweet Sixteen, the opposite is true, everything Liam does in the film is for the good of the few people he love most in the film; his mother, sister and best friend, the same people become a trap for him, more cruel than the one destiny and society set out for him, that is why the ending is so heartbreaking; The trap on all side has finally captured him, he become a doom character, a tragic figure, as he get the phone call from the girl whom he love most, she tell him, “Oh, Liam, what a waste, what a waste”, silence, all he got to say is “My batteries are running down”, and when she tell him, ” I love you, Liam”, he is silence, on the edge of tear, unable to express the word, for loving others, caring for them is not enough to save them, that ending is similar to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, but Liam does not look at the camera, there is no freeze frame, he is walking toward the waves, into the ocean, the storm has just began, Loach’s best among his late films.
The Exiles (Kent MacKenzie, 1961) It took 40 years, for many to discover MacKenzie’s The Exiles, simply because it was a lost film, out of circulation, a pity, because it one of the most underrated independent American film of the 60s. The story, rather, the Docu-fiction stories is 12 hour marathon in the lives of a group of Natives American as they roam the night streets of LA, it slowly become an examination of the nihilism within the characters, they only live to drink, smoke, pick up girl, drive fast, listen to rock and roll music, it is a paradox parallel to the opening sequence of the film; Photographs of the old days, as the Native were inseparable part of nature, proud faces in the still as the native music play on the background, the voice-over of the characters in the film also become a paradox for the imagery, for in the voice-over they talk about the what is real in them, and not what the imagery shows. One of the most touching scene in the film is also a look back at a time long gone; As Homer wait for his friend to get him a drink, he pull out a letter from his Mother and his Father, back at the reservation, MacKenzie cut to a scene of the family with nature again, we don’t know if its a flashback to his childhood or present, for we see a little kid playing in the grass, free with nature. Great Discovery.
Kings of the Road (Wim Wenders, 1976) Toward the end of Kings of the Road, Kamikaze, with his suitcase, asks a little kid, who got a notebook and a pen, writing things down; “What are you writing?”, “I’m describing a station, everything I see”, “What do you see?”, “Tracks, gravel, timetable, sky, clouds. A man with a suitcase”, that is the story of the film, two characters, Kamikaze and King of the Road, they are traveling in a bus, one running away from his wife, the other, he is on the road to fix film projectors of old broken down theaters, they are always on the road, but they always observer, and just as much as the film is about the two of them, it is more about what they see, where they go, what they do, it is about capturing places and times, of seeing thing the way they are, without being manipulated. The roads had always been the heart of Wender’s films, and road films has been his favorites, not to be missed.
Two Tars (James Parrott, 1928) You can’t help but feel sorry for the machines at the end of Two Tars; as Laurel & Hardy break everything that move, and with it, the people who move them. The only thing that is missing in the action of destruction of machine is and airplane, the silent shorts of Laurel & Hardy were their best, because they were made for pure action and not dialogues, priceless.
Das Blaue Licht aka The Blue Light (Leni Riefenstahl, 1932) If you think that Riefenstahl’s The Holy Mountain was the most beautiful film of hers, think twice, because The Blue Light is not just beautiful, it is imply a gorgeous piece of lyrical film-making, with Riefenstahl not only directing, but also playing the leading role, and no, she is not dancing in this film, rather, she is play the role of Junta, a mountain girl whom everyone in the village despise, with no friend and no family, she take to the mountain as her refugee, a mystic of a loner, she lives amid nature, with her blue crystal gems on the top of the mountain, in which its beauty, when it is full moon, with its blueish reflected lights, doom many men into their death. Beautiful cinematography; with the sky being gray or pure black, white clouds and moon dominating her, with the mountain always in the frame. Among the best of the German mountain films.
Titanic (Werner Klingler, Herbert Selpin, 1943) You think that James Cameron’s Titanic had a cheesy love story, this version of the film has more than three cheesy love story in it, with a climax in the court room at the end of the film, in which one lover find the other, who has lost his mind, but brought back to his senses. Commissioned by Joseph Goebbels, the film has a German officer in the leading role, doing his best to make the owner of the ship and White Star Line’s chairman (J. Bruce Ismay) aware of the coming danger, but the selfishness and the desire of financial gain of setting a world record of speed and therefore making his stock price to go hire as the Titanic dive into doom, that is the plot of the film, capitalist gain, J. Bruce Ismay was among the few men who took to the boats while leaving his wife and children behind, and the film is not kind to him nor to other wealthy passengers in the boat, as they are shown in irony to the poor emigrants below the deck. Ironically, the German officer is also saved, but to get our sympathy, he save a little girl first and carry her to the lifeboats. One of the first film on the Titanic to have multiple fictional characters set to the sinking of of a ship that was “designed to be unsinkable”. Worth Watching.
Black and Tan (Dudley Murphy, 1929) Interesting and wonderful 18 minute of early Jazz, with Duck Elington on the piano and an all Black cast, where the root of Jazz comes from, avant-garde use of imagery only make it more of a short in the list of a must watch.
The Search (Fred Zinnemann, 1948) There is a moving moment in The Search; the newly arrived children from the concentration camp are put into ambulances and trucks to be moved into a rehabilitation center, the children think they are taken to be gassed, they fear for their lives as they are locked in the back of the cars, they only hear the car moving, they don’t see anything nor do they know where they are taken to, the fear make them want to escape, they start to knock on the door and the walls of the ambulance, to escape. The moment brought back memory of when I was a child, the same age as the protagonist in The Search, it was during the Gulf War of 1991 and the Kurdish uprising, with my Family and millions of others we became refugees in Iran, we had to walk seven days and seven nights from the city of Sulaimani to the Iranian border, when we got to the border, they put all of us into the back of a big truck then closed the door, as the truck began to move, everyone started shouting, “They are taking us back to Iraq, we will all be killed”, and the fear made us knock into the door to be opened, but nothing, it was a long journey into a refugee camp that lasted many hours, not knowing where we were going, what outside looked like, was it day or night, everyone lived in a constant fear of the unknown. That is the story of The Search, Germany of post-war is seen through the eyes of little children who had manages to stay alive in concentration camps, and when outside of it, they are always living in fears, they bring that back to a world in the process of re-building what is left to be build. Shot on location in American occupied West Germany, with children at the heart of the film, the film remind one of an Italian neo-realism film with a Hollywood story, Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero and De Sica’s Sciuscia were made two year earlier. Worth Watching.
Hachi no su no kodomotachi aka Children of the Beehive (Hiroshi Shimizu, 1948) Watching Shimizu’s little tragic film on the orphans of the post-war Japan today is as beautiful and as moving as the day it was made, a neo-realism film coming out from a country struggling to emerge from a devastated war, the camera never stop moving, when it does not move, it is the people who are moving, moving car, carts, it is a film alive with movement, and the camera’s movement is always justifies by an action or movements of objects or characters, it track backward as character walk toward the frame, always outdoor, beautiful location compared to the grim reality of the characters, the wide shots of the landscape is pure poetry. It is a film about little children, the orphans of the war, a soldier returning from the war lead them in the peace time, but because he is honest, does not want to be a black marketer, he has a hard time making a living, he teach the children to work honestly, they travel but they are tired of traveling, want to settle down, but he has to travel with them to find jobs in order to provide for them, to eat, they let other homeless children join in, teach them tolerance and understanding of others, to value collective work, he leads by examples; he give up smoking so the kids wouldn’t smoke, rebuilding of a country devastated by war with the help of children is not easy at first, as they are slackers, running away from works, child labor is not a nice thing, but with so many orphans it is the only way they could survive when the establishments is not there to help, they are at work as other children are at school, the working fields become their school, and the dusty ground their blackboards, their fingers become pens, as they want to learn like others to read, write and multiply numbers, because of work, they don’t have the basic right of children, that of playing. A world of orphans living in poverty, the horror the war might be in the past, but the effect of it is felt in the characters, one kid, Yoshibo, who had lost his mother in the sea after the Hiroshima attack, every time he sees the sea, he runs to its, shouting for her mother, “Mother”, one of the most touching scene in the film is his friend carrying him on his back, to the top of the mountain, to see the sea, it his last dying wish, it is the heart of the film, and Shimizu take his times with it, with its beautiful and lyrical tracking shots, it lingers on, as he crawl into the top of the mountain, carrying his friend on his back, it is a triumph act in friendship, hope and goodwill, but as they reach the peak, it become a tragic movement that best describe the film; the little kid is no longer alive, he dies before he sees the sea again, it is a tear chocker. A road journey across post-war Japan, Children of the Beehive has an optimistic ending; the children cheering the older people, leading them ahead. A little masterpiece.
Pete Kelly’s Blues (Jack Webb, 1955) Take a trip back to the Jazz age and the probation era in Pete Kelly’s Blues, with a narration of a pulp fiction, sharp and witty lines, a colorful noir film lost in Kansas City, a jazzy score, performance from Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee, gangsters, speakeasy, boiler room, band stands, booze, girls, minks, and lots of decorative furniture and lamps to balance the frame, Jack Web knock down Lee Marven not once, but twice, knocking him cold, Lee Marvin is a miscast, a shootout in the end between the gangster and the musician. There is a beautiful and colorful scene in which different filter is used to give the film an overall tent of that color, Godard used it famously in the party scene in Pierrot Le Fou. Worth Watching.
Pasazerka aka Passenger (Andrzej Munk, 1963) One never knows what the Passenger might have looked like, for during it’s making, Andrzej Munk was killed in a car crash, what is now left is unfinished film love/hate story set in Auschwitz, asking for bold sympathy from the viewer to hate and love the characters, despite lacking historical accuracy, to the point of exaggeration, (including a scene in which an SS officer open what is suppose to be a poison chemicals by knocking on it with iron, spilling half of it to the ground, then feeding it to the oven), it is more about character’s relationship, that of a a guard and her prisoner, and little details of what happened in Auschwitz, throw in a self-sacrifice act from a heroine toward the end, and you got nothing short of the many Hollywood films still coming out on the same subject.
American Dream (Barbara Kopple, 1990) Kopple’s documentary films are as suspenseful as any fictional film, yet her style is that of cinéma vérité, in which everything is what you see, despite many manipulative use of music and sound in post-production. What happened in Hormel Foods in Austin, Minnesota between 1985 and 1986 is the old Marx analysis of the capital system; In any Capitalist system there will always be a surplus of labor, which means there will always be large number of unemployment leading competitive and lowering down wages, and, when workers are divided among themselves, and unfair wage is paid to the same work, then, the competition become worse. It is hard to sympathize with the action of the striking workers of Austin, not because they hire aloud mouth freelance strike consultant (Ray Rogers), who seem to be running a presidential election and therefore doom everyone, but because, they are self-centered, and not your typical Marx working class labor, they make more than $10 an hour for the same work that others make for less than $6, and there attempt to keep the wages they have is not for the benefit of all the workers, but only those of Austin, that is why they fail. Worth Watching.
One Way Boogie Woogie (James Benning, 1977) It is always a treat to watch a James Benning, because he take the viewer back to the time of the birth of cinema, when it was just being born, when the camera only captured what existed in reality, a glimpse here and there, a train going by, a person walking, smoke coming out of a factory, etc. For a viewer that is only used to a cinema that is dominated by narrative, then watching a Benning film will be a challenge, for there are no narrative nor any coherent in the imagery or sound to make it even look like a narrative film, rather, it is what you see, and for those who love cinema, love the image, what is capable to express, then a Benning film is always a treat.
Atti degli apostoli aka Acts of the Apostles (Roberto Rossellini, 1969) Rossellini made Acts of the Apostles at a time in which the world was in turmoil, from the worldwide student demonstrations to Vietnam war, but Rossellini take his camera back to the time of the apostles, the story take place 5 days after the crucifixion of Jesus and end with Paul becoming an exile in Rome. Shot for Television and consisting of five episode, Acts of the Apostles is the story of the 12 Apostles, ragged in cloth, but strong in spirit as they roam the Roman Empire teaching the new religion of Christianity while being opposed by the state (Roman Empire), but more strongly by the already established religion of Judaism, indeed the Roman seem more tolerance than the Jews toward the Christians, as Paul is driven away from Jerusalem, he make Rome his home, the same Paul who once was a Saul and opposed the new Christians more violently than others, as he lead others into the stoning of young Stephen for breaking the Sabbath. The film was shot in Tunisia, the use of the local population and the landscape give it the realistic look that Rossellini is so much praised for, and his style is kept to the minimum, avoiding the use of editing as much as possible to a point that many scene start with character waiting to be giving the word “Action” in order to act, instead, he uses panning and zooming to change the shot size, same is true for the music, very simple and lyrical, as is the action, more detail is giving to a man washing his hands than dramatic actions, it flows slowly and beautifully, and watching it, take one back into the ages.
Otets Sergiy aka Father Sergius (Yakov Protazanov, 1917) Tolstoy wrote Father Sergius in 1890, but withhold its publication until eight years later, the story of Prince Stepan Kasatsky who give all worldly desire to become a monk only to be hunted by the desire of the flesh, who only find the peace within himself when he reach the end of life, by discovering that helping others and learning a living by the sweat of one’s own brow is the real commitment to goodness. Protazanov’s Father Sergius was made twenty later and today is regarded as among the first true cinematic film from Russia, Yakov Protazanov is regarded as one of the founding fathers of Russian cinema, his silent films does not depend on montage as later Soviet filmmakers made it famous, rather, he uses blocking rather than cutting to vary the shot size and move the narrative forwards, simple camera set-up and character movement within the film. Masterpiece.
Polustanok aka Whistle Stop (Boris Barnet, 1963) Boris Barnet’s last film, Polustanok, as always is a beautiful one, for an hour we get a glimpse into the lives, or rather, the behaviors of a dozen characters, they meet, know each other, become friend, argue with each other, help each other, love each other, then, they separate from each other and from us, the viewer, but during that time, life goes on, beautifully. The films of Barnet had always been about different characters, each in relationship to others, friendship in its purist form, everyone behave like children, indeed, at times the children command the adults, so innocent and full of life, there is always a song, a chorus of songs. The story of a Mechanic, who has been through everything that the Soviet Union has gone through; he got wounds from the Civil War to the battle of Leningrad, he want to be a painter, to become and artist while on vacation, but always falling to finish his painting due to the demand of the surrounding, but his greatest joy come in the end, by building something useful, using his old trade, building an oven, as he is leaving the people of the town, his two little friend, Barnet hold a big close up on him, staring at what he has build, something that benefit others, and his farewell speech become a voice-over, might as well have been Barnet’s farewell speech to the next generation “I have to go, so, little brother, don’t hold it against me! You gave me so much. Thank you and everyone here. Grow up tall, my friend! You’ll probably do more in life than I did. And probably better We gave you all the things we could accumulate. It’s now your heritage! I know you won’t deceive our hopes. You have so much to do now. And, believe me, here lies your happiness.”, the last word he write on the oven is “Goodbye”, but the word is not finished when Barnet cut away from it, “Good…”, two year later, Barnet committed suicide. A genius left us at his peak.
Annushka (Boris Barnet, 1959) Annushka, from a beautiful young wife to an old mother with gray hair, Annushka always sacrifice herself for her children, she is unsung hero that represent all mothers. The story of of four generation that are apart from each other, but all share the same destiny, there is the older generation who are at the background, the pre-WWII generation that suffers most from the war, Annushka is one of them, losing her husband in the war and raising her children on her own, there is the WWII generation they were little to remember anything of the war, but must take the task or rebuilding, then, there is the post-WWII generation, a new baby being born into the future in the span of that time, from a young woman, Annushka become an old one, she become a grandmother, but all the while, working harder than ever, and worrying more than ever for her children in which she had sacrificed so much for. A Masterpiece.
Vozvrashcheniye Maksima aka The Return of Maxim (Grigori Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg, 1937) In the end of The Youth of Maxim, Maxim become a gun slinger, shooting down the cossacks, the film from beginning to the end is a cycle of the same theme; Maxim arranging a worker strike, mobilization, leading them, on the sideline many speeches in the Duma, caricature portrayal of the officials, etc. The film end with him joining the army as a Bolshevik sleeper cell fighting a useless WWII, and therefore paving away for the October Revolution.
Putyovka v zhizn aka Road to Life (Nikolai Ekk, 1931) Road to Life is a forgotten masterpiece of early sound Soviet film, the story of homeless children roaming the street, soon becoming skilled worker in a new established communes is a battle between Good and Evil, with the evil getting an upper hand at the end, but not for long. Innovative use of sound is used, great use off-screen sound, even when character talk, we only hear them, for they are off-screen, the shot stay on the character listening, camera move side by side, with the technique of a silent a film; rapid montage, close-up, rapid cut, and lack of the formal establishing shot that is essential for sound films, but lots of slang is used in the dialogue, the characters also take a long time delivering their lines, stretching the words. The children are young but already old in soul, realistic portrayal of the street children and the underworld that is hard to find in early cinema or the underworld, far superior compared to Wellman small wonderful film, Wild Boys Of The Road (1933). Mustafa Dude, the protagonist of the film is almost a character out of an animation film, his behaviors are raw and instant like Jimsy from Miyazaki’s Future Boy Conan, that is why his tragic death at the end is shot so poetically, equal in beauty to the death scene in Dovzhenko’s Earth. Abstract use of titles, at time stretches to the limit, there is also the propaganda for the commune, the former slackers, now love to work so much, they can’t get enough of it, when there is no work, they start destroying for sake of working. The film balance sentimentally, anger and laughter in a parallel line, that is why, it is such a wonderful watch.
Gorky Trilogy: 1. Detstvo Gorkogo aka The Childhood of Maxim Gorky (Mark Donskoy, 1938) I recently came upon a new and beautiful resorted version of Donskoy’s Gorky Trilogy, and took the chance to watch all three film in one take, a wonderful experience watching such gorgeous films. The first film of the trilogy is The Childhood of Maxim Gorky, based on Gorky’s autobiography, My Childhood. The film captures to detail the tragic and comical upbringing of Aleksei Peshkov, then 12 years, everything that he love is crushed, all the innocent of early childhood is taken away from him, the only companion to him is his Grandmother and homeless children friends, as he become one of them at the end of the film, but as young as he is, he is a dreamer, he take on the road dreaming and singing of the unknown town on the Kama River, a song that become the heart of all three film; “A town very fair, But we don’t know where! A town on the Kama River. Here or there, or in the air! A town on the Kama River.” I love it.
Gorky Trilogy: 2. V lyudyakh aka My Apprenticeship (Mark Donskoy, 1938) My Apprenticeship is the second part of Gorky trilogy, based on Gorky’s autobiography, Into the World, it is the story of Gorky’s attempt to discover himself and his surrounding amid poverty as he move from one job into another, he is still voiceless, as a teenager, he start his love for books, spending his night, by the moonlight reading, as he tell the rich landlady of the next door who lend him books, “My life is so boring, hurtful. They beat and scold me, but when I read the book, I forget about everything”. The most lyrical part of the film is toward the end, as young Gorky goes back to visit his Grandmother, for the last time, he spend his time with them, going into the wood, collecting firewood and herbs, is in the nature that he find himself, shouting to his Grandmother, full of joy, that he had written a poem, “Winter is drawing near and nearer. Farewell, my summer sun, my dear!”, but her Grandmother has lived, she recite a folk song more beautiful than his poem, telling him, “You can never describe truly what you’ve not been through yourself”. It is experience that young Gorky is looking for, and he leave once again his home and the only people he love, this time on a boat, to explore the vast Russian landscape. Beautiful.
Gorky Trilogy: 3. Moi universitety aka My Universities (Mark Donskoy, 1940) My Universities is the third and final film of Gorky Trilogy, based on Gorky’s autobiography, My Universities, a book that was very dear to me as a kid, as I read it many times in Kurdish, I still recall vividly his description of the seaport, the sun setting, the seamen, all poetically and vividly captured by Donskoy. In My Universities Gorky becoming an adult, and finding his own voice, most of the film is set in a bakery shop, as Gorky does his best to change the condition of the worker for the best, and when he fail, his only way out is suicide, but he even fail in that, after he is released from hospital, once again, he start his journey, this time as a new man being born, and the last 5 minute of the film is a symbolic resurrection of young Gorky, it is beautiful, raw, heavy handed, stylish, symbolic, in one word; it is a beautiful ending to a beautiful trilogy.
Lev Tolstoy (Sergei Gerasimov, 1984) Just as I cried at the end of Hoffman’s The Last Station, as the great Tolstoy was breathing his last, so I cried for the last ten minute watching Gerasimov’s masterful film on the last year of Leo Tolstoy’s life; because on the screen it was not just a man dying but an idea, that of love of humanity that Tolstoy’s teaching was about, his last words is heartbreaking, “The Truth is; I love many, many…All”, he was a perfect man, a genius, my favorite writer, an my idol, that is why I cried for his death, for there shall be no other Tolstoy. Sergei Gerasimov not only directed the film, but he also act in the role of Tolstoy, he is so perfect in the role that you believe you are watching Tolstoy and not Gerasimov playing him. The film is divided into two parts; part one is Tolstoy spending his time with family in Yasnaya Polyana, reflecting upon his past, Gerasimov uses fragment of his fiction non-fiction writing for the first part; There is the final segment from his fable, How Much Land Does a Man Need?, “Just six feet of land”, from My Confession, talk about his times in Caucasus and his dilemma to commit suicides, his views on art from What is Art? religion, happy recollection from his Childhood, his attempt to help the poverty stricken neighborhood in Moscow from What is to be Done?, and his relationship with the material world and his wife, Sonya. The second part is the best; Tolstoy leave home in a cold night, as he take the train to go to the Caucasus, his sickness and death, in all, Tolstoy is portrayed as calm, charming, down to earth man, he sobs when thinking about poverty, listing to a good music, or reflecting upon his past, he was a perfect man, a humanist, a genius, and the greatest of all the writer. Great film.
Chapayev (Georgi and Sergei Vasilyev, 1934) If you ever get a chance to watch this marvels film, watching it with your eyes, but listen carefully to the sound in the film, it has one of the most expressive and brilliant sound design that was way ahead of its times, indeed, the sound mixing is done to such perfection, that I had to pause the film, for I thought I was hearing sound from the street coming into the room. Not only Chapayev is remembered nowadays for its innovative use of sound, but also the fact that the film was a smash hit upon its release, still considered to be the most popular theatrical release of all the Soviet films. The story of Vasily Chapayev, a Bolsheviks commander of the red army fighting the Whites during the Civil War is portrayed in the film as characters that is close in spirt to that of a child, one minute smiling, next, he is boiling in anger, he has to lead an army of cowards, as many attempt to run away from battle, it is his determination that make the men follow him, as he lead by example and not just words. The film is shot beautifully, notice the camera set-up for the wide and long shots, the landscape occupy two third of the lower frame, and most of the action take place on the upper third, as beautiful as any films of Dovzhenko, the action sequence is another must watch, with an explosive ending of sound and imagery that leave one speechless. Masterpiece from a cinema that once spoke Red.
Vyborgskaya storona aka New Horizons (Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, 1939) The third and final part of Kozintsev and Trauberg Maxim’s Trilogy is arguably the weakest of the three film with Maxim going away, after getting a call from Lenin, this time to fight an imaginary German enemy, one piece of propaganda among thousands that is the signature of Vyborgskaya storona; including Maxim discovering a plot to assassinate Lenin, reform the Russian bank, and play a role in sending many to their death in a martial court, there are also Lenin himself in the film making passionate speech on among many as others make pro and anti-Soviet stand in the assembly. It is clear that the character of Maxim is not a realistic nor even an imaginative take on any real character, but a creation of a hero with his action defining the rise of the Bolshevik power. Still, A Masterpiece to end a masterful propaganda trilogy; The Maxim Trilogy.
Yagodka lyubvi aka Love’s Berries (Aleksandr Dovzhenko, 1926) Charming little film from Dovzhenko, a comedy in line with Pudovkin’s Chess Fever. The story of a lover who want to get rid of a baby of her girlfriend to be a future wife is in line with the early slapstick comedies of Chaplin, Keaton and Keystones, but there is no sentimentality here, rather, a very cruel take on life, with the poor baby being wrapped as a gift package, changing one hand to another, there is already a sign of great technical ability of Dovzhenko. Not to be missed,
Zvenigora (Aleksandr Dovzhenko, 1928) It is only befitting for cinema’s greatest poet to adopt a poem for his firs film in his first “Ukraine Trilogy“, as poetic and as beautiful as his two other masterpieces that will soon follow, Arsenal and Earth is, the firs part of the trilogy is a folk legend tale in myth of the Ukraine history, from Viking invasion to the Ukraine on the edge of revolution, it end with newly returned soldiers, riding a fire snake of a train as the light pierces the darkness, in between, there is an experimental, avant-garde, almost an animation in the theatrical re-telling of the old legends, with its senseless war brutality compared to the WWI fighting in the front. Shot beautifully in the Steppe, the films has its share of Propaganda, but its also filled with myth, religious, symbolic and iconic imagery of the peasant customs. The film is not as harmonic as the next masterpiece that would follow from Dovzhenko, the story lack a unified narrative, so is the style, it is in search of a unity in form, but it is a film rich with technical mastery of cinematic technique, beautiful and lyrical.
Bukovina, zemlya Ukrainskaya aka Bukovina, a Ukrainian Land (Aleksandr Dovzhenko and Yuliya Solntseva, 1939) Shot by Dovzhenko and Yuliya Solntseva after the accession Northern Bukovina to USSR as a propaganda film, Bukovina, a Ukrainian Land is shot beautifully with half of it (the other half is pure propaganda) dedicated to the life and customs of the peasants, use of folk music make the film a historical document to be treasured.
Ivan (Aleksandr Dovzhenko, 1932) Ivan, one of the most charming character in all of Dovzhenko’s film, and the film, Ivan, was Dovzhenko’s first sound film, if Earth was his poem to nature, of the old and the new, then Ivan is his poem to the industrial, or, to the sound of the industrial machinery. The film open with a beautiful, lyrical imagery of a river, as the camera slowly captures the surrounding landscape in reflection in the river, with the sound of whistling heard on the soundtrack, but suddenly, the calm river explode into streams and flood the landscape, as the music become that of the orchestral, we see men struggling, but triumphantly to conquer nature, they building Dnieper River dam project, the men, including Ivan and his Father, must leave agricultural work into that of the machinery, as they leave their villages into communes, they work hard together not only to build the damn, but also for Ivan to end up becoming a student, as we see him at the of the film taking a seat in a university. But not everyone is happy with the commune, or with working, there is the Slacker of the village, as other men work, he roam the street, or goes fishing, and he is proud of being lazy, mock fun of Stalin’s “Five Year Plan”, as he star at the audience, claiming, “I will make the Five Year plan to last for one Year”. Among the best of early Soviet sound film of a masterpiece, in line with Dziga Vertov’s Enthusiasm, Pudovkin’s The Deserter and Kuleshov’s The Great Consoler.
Povest plamennykh let aka Chronicle of Flaming Years (Yuliya Solntseva, 1961) Narrated by Sergei Bondarchuk, from a story by Aleksandr Dovzhenko, and directed by his wife, Yuliya Solntseva, Chronicle of Flaming Years is a both an epic war film and a small poetic masterpiece that at times has the touches of the great Dovzhenko. The film chronicle the German invasion and expulsion from Soviet Union, with the land of Ukraine being the heart of the film. The story of Ivan Orlyukov who take arm to expel the German, and upon his return only find ruins, as with his newly weeded wife, at the end of the film, they go back once again to the land, becoming farmers. The battle scene are shot with expressive use of the camera (something that Bondarchuk would use masterfully in War and Peace a few years later), including a poetic nearly death scene amid the battle, as the camera spin with Ivan 360 degree, both staying in the same position but the background changing, as he become delirium and dream of his native land, beautiful and poetic piece of a propaganda film.
Nezabyvayemoye aka The Unforgettable (Yuliya Solntseva, 1969) Another film from Yuliya Solntseva, the widow of the great Alexander Dovzhenko, The Unforgettable, from a Dovzhenko script, the film opens with a family gathering at a lunch table, toward the end, they same scene, only the few who manage to survive the war, sitting at the same place, among the ruin, next; group of Soviet soldier retreating from a small village Ukraine, and it ends with the Soviet troop re-taking the village and marching beyond, in between, multiple story of the devastation and suffering of the civilian in Ukraine, with Nazi officers as cruel as they would get, shot in Color and Black and White, Solntseva cut between the two in the middle of scenes, it is a beautiful film, cruel and poetic.
Zolotye vorota aka The Golden Gates (Yuliya Solntseva, 1969) Yuliya Solntseva’s The Golden Gates is a beautiful lyrical film on the cinema of Alexander Dovzhenko. Narrated by Sergei Bondarchuk, he reads from the writing of Dovzhenko, with the best clips from his films, and a staged re-creation of some of his script that were never made into films, with a poetic cinematography make this one a must watch for any Dovzhenko fan.
Shinel aka The Overcoat (Grigori Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg, 1926) When one think of expressionism in cinema, one think of German silent films, but far away from Germany, Kozintsev and Trauberg masterfully use expressionism in their adaptation of Gogol’s The Overcoat, Andrei Kostrichkin in the role of older Akaky Akakievich become another Nosferatu with his stylish and expressionist acting, the camera is used to the perfection in creating a world in hallucination, every shot is used in its elementarily term; extreme high angle shot to make the character look small and insignificant, low angle shots to make the character a bigger than life figure, a towering figure looking down on poor Akakievich, so is the streets of St. Petersburg, it become a world of nightmare best fitting the world of Gogol in which sentimentality, the absurd and cruelty all exist in the same plain, everyone seem to be living a world of bureaucratic hierarchy, yet, deceptive and lack of emotion toward others drive poor Akakievich into becoming the victim of a system on the brink of insanity, indeed, the ending of the film become as symbolic as it is expressionistic; with Akakievich writing his own death certificate, as he lay dying in his abstract little room, the final shot of film is of a guard turning off the streets lights, among the best of early Soviet silent films, not to be missed.
Chyortovo koleso aka The Devil’s Wheel (Grigori Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg, 1926) The Devil’s Wheel was made the same year as The Overcoat, but the two film is as different from each other as night and day, for the former been in line with the German Expressionism, the later is in style of the new style of Soviet Montage, with the signature stories of Kozintsev & Trauberg; the old underworld of the serial, crime and melodrama mashed to the new Soviet world of correctness. Sergei Gerasimov is brilliant in the role of an illusionist running an underworld in crime, but poor guy, he must meet his end by not just falling literally in a shoot out that is out of the serial films of Louis Feuillade, but falling down from the of ruined building in the ghettos, taking with him the whole neighborhood.
S.V.D aka Union of the Great Cause (Grigori Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg, 1927) At the end of The Devil’s Wheel, Sergei Gerasimov, playing the villain meet his end in the most cruel way, in S.V.D, he again end up playing a villain, a card shark and a back stabber, but it is the hero of The Decemberists that end up dying the most poetic death, by a river, in the arm of the girl that he love most. You may call S.V.D as a continues in line of serial film, from The Devil’s Wheel, this time the story take place in 1825, as a group of army officers attempt a coup, but fail, the story intertwine with the development of the plot of the film, villains and heroes, the underworld, love story, deception, and a shootout, it is all the stuff that early serial films were made of.
Trauberg Novyy Vavilon aka The New Babylon (Grigori Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg, 1929) Among the best silent Soviet film, the best silent from Kozintsev & Trauberg, The New Babylon is masterful dramatization of the 1871 Paris Commune, with the leading role being a woman, the great Yelena Alexandrovna Kuzminaher, best remembered as charming Mariya in Boris Barnet’s By the Bluest of Seas, in The New Babylon, she is paler version of herself, but equally as brilliant. You have a Paris in The New Babylon as a tale of two cities; one is that of the Bourgeois, with their night clubs, orgy of eating, drinking and lovemaking as they sing and dance, the other is the the world of the workers, struggling to get a decent meal, or a pair of shoe to wear, each behave according to its class, with the solider being from the working class, but exploited to do the dirty work of the Bourgeois, to crush the communes, a cruel Paris, among the most expressionist of the Soviet film of montage school; low key lighting, mostly nigh scenes, at times some of the scene only consist of silhouetted figures in front of pool of light, or only shows of characters, also use of depth of field; as most of the time multiple action take place within the foreground, middle and background, juxtaposition of not only images, but also the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, like the fast pace and symbolic of the montage, the music rapidly change its rhythm and tone according to the scenes, the exaggerated and charcuterie portrayal of the Bourgeois is very theatrical, rather radically theatrical, something that comes from the past of the young Kozintsev & Trauberg, as before coming to the film world, they ran a small, but radical theatrical group. There are also many symbolic imagery and scenes, take for example the bar scene of the Bourgeois applauding the young solider and praising the bravery of the French soldier that once “Conquered half the world”, “And soon will conquer it again”, the name of the place, is; Empire. A Classic.
Odna aka Alone (Grigori Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg, 1931) Odna was made in 1930 as a silent film, but a year later, it was released as a partial sound film, and today it survive with some of the scenes missing. For a silent film, it is a great one, with Yelena Alexandrovna Kuzminaher playing as always the sensitive but determined girl and she is brilliant in the leading role, the music of Dmitri Shostakovich make it a better of a silent film than a sound one, for the sound is choppy and it shows that it was forced upon the film. As for the story, it is close to that of Boris Barnet’s Ledolom; the second half of the film take place in a remote and isolated corner of the Soviet empire, arriving as the new teacher, Kuzminaher has to deal not only with the old Kulaks, but also with a corrupt Soviet village leader (Sergei Gerasimov), as she try to teach the student the knowledge she is determined to share, the corruption of the official within the party seem to go hand in hand with the time the film was made, as Stalin was cleaning up the party. It is a beautiful film, and a must watch.
Lunyi Frits aka The Young Fritz (Grigori Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg, 1943) Less than half an hour in length, The Young Fritz is a damming, bold of a propaganda film on the Nazi Germany, with the Nazi being categorized as beasts and animals, from little Fritz taking his first step, to becoming a solider for the fatherland, he never think, but let the leader think for him, that is until Frtiz is locked up at the end of the film in a zoo among the animals; “You have watched a movie featuring one of the great mysteries of our times: How a man can degrade to an ape?”, shot in its entirely on an experimental stage, The Young Fritz is as bold and vicious as a propaganda film would get.
Vesyolye rebyata aka Jolly Fellows (Grigori Aleksandrov, 1934) It has been said, that after watching Jolly Fellows, Stalin loved the film so much, that he ordered the director to be kept away from it, so he won’t ruin it, and Stalin was right, the film is a masterpiece of a musical, in line with other early great one, such as Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight. The opening scene has a masterful lengthy one single take that drag on into eternity, the sound is used masterly not just in the song and the music, but throughout the film, the Soviet early sound film did not made the image suffer for the sake of the sound as it was the case for many American and European film of the same time, the camera flow everywhere. The story of a shepherd who become a conductor become not only an anti-bourgeoisie film in propaganda, but also a masterpiece in satire, the use of Jazz and experimental music is way ahead of its time, it is not only a charming watch, but a hilarious one. The film owe a great deal to the comedies of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, it is no surprise that the film open with animated image of the three, their names and the text follow, “Are not starting in this movie”, you not only got the slapstick, but also the sentimentality of Chaplin in the story, but always to a degree of not moving the viewer to the edge, as our jolly fellow sing a love song, the moon is high in the sky, he is on top of a tree, all lovely, suddenly, the branch fall apart, our hero is back to earth, back to reality. Great one.
The Extraordinary Adventure Of Mr. West (Lev Kuleshov, 1924) Among the first masterpieces of the Soviet cinema, a comedy that is still relevant to today, the story of an American businessman who is brainwashed by the media in his home as to Bolsheviks and the Russian being monsters is relevant to today’s depiction of many countries and its population by the western media; so it is no wonder that the adventure of Mr. West become a nightmare reality as a group of thugs take him for a ride into the isolated parts of Moscow, lead by no other than the great Vsevolod Pudovkin, showing him a ruin as “Our University destroyed by the Bolsheviks” and another one as, “Our theaters”, meanwhile, his bodyguard, gunslinger of a cowboy, played by another future of a great director, Boris Barnet, is lost in the frozen Moscow, as he shoot everything that move, only to meet an American girl that he once knew, she educate him the right way. The Extraordinary Adventure Of Mr. West was the first production of Lev Kuleshov’s cinema workshop, it is an experimental film in a newly style of film-making with the old style of narrative, slapstick comedy and serials, many of the people working in the film would go their own separate way, creating one masterpiece after another, that is why, The Extraordinary Adventure Of Mr. West is not only a charming little film made by young cinema enthusiasts, but one of the first great one of the young Soviet cinema.
Proekt inzhenera Prayta aka The Project of Engineer Prite (Lev Kuleshov, 1918) Kuleshov was only seventeen years old when he made The Project of Engineer Prite, a short film that is in line with the serial of the time; the story of a young engineer in the process of making his discovery a practicing reality, as saboteurs try to ruin him, Kuleshov’s first experience with montage, yet to take it to its full capacity.
Tsirk aka Circus (Grigori Aleksandrov, 1936) It takes a Soviet filmmakers who had seen the States and returning home to make one of the boldest film on racism in America, and Grigori Aleksandrov need to be applauded for making not only a great film, but one with a heart, it would take American cinema two more decades to match the morality of Aleksandrov, even if the ending has to have a portrait of comrade Stalin, as the Soviet population march into a never ending road. The Circus is the story of Marion, an American star who at the beginning of the film is chased by a lynching mob, run away from the State with a playboy of a German to end up performing in a Circus in Moscow, that is where our hero fall in love with Martinov, but she is held hostage by the German, as he threaten her to reveal her secret, as a viewer we think that she has done something immoral to be chased away from the States, and when find out on the beginning of the second act, that her only guilt is to have a child from an African-American, we realize it is prejudice and racism toward her child that she run away from; at the end of the film when the truth is told on the stage of the circus, as the German hold the baby, as if an animal, showing it to the crowd and shouting, “Keep away from that rotten creature, she was a mistress of a Negro, and she gave birth to a Black Child”, the crowd in the circus is made up of the multi-ethnic population of the Soviet Union, and they are bewildered at first by this character, condemning a child because of the color of the skin, they take the child away from him, and each, with a lullaby in their own language comfort the child, one of the most moving moment in the film. The film is masterful technically; especially the use of transitions between scenes, with sound, still, animation, effects, and plain simple trick is used, there is also Charles Chaplin in the film, that is, a character playing his role as a clown in the circus, Aleksandrov was a close friend of Chaplin, the humanity and sentimentality in the film is owed to him, one of the best from Grigori Aleksandrov.
Volga-Volga (Grigori Aleksandrov, 1938) Before making musicals, Grigori Aleksandrov was the right hand man of Sergei Eisenstein, indeed, some of Eisenstein’s best films were made with the help of Aleksandrov, including October and The General Line, with the coming of Sound, Aleksandrov went his way, becoming one of the most prolific director of the light-hearted musical comedies, his start was his masterpiece in experiment with the musical, Jolly Fellows, and Volga-Volga is his formal polished of narrative in musical, with a theme close to that of Jolly Fellows; this time a girl, living in a small village on the Volga, become a Soviet celebrity for her song, “Volga, Volga”, but before that, she must take all that could be taken from the head Soviet village and the boy she loves, who admires classical music to that of her; for none of them believe she has any talent. A charming film with wonderful characters, marvelous musical and dance numbers, and a wonderful ride on the Volga river, make it a must watch, the comedy and sentimentality in the film is pure Chaplain, one of the character (the boatman) always imitate Chaplin’s dance number in Modern Times, indeed, it has been suggested that the tittle of the film was suggested to Aleksandrov by Chaplin. On a sider note, Volga-Volga was favorite film of Joseph Stalin, the guy had a good taste in in films.
Svetlyy put aka The Bright Way (Grigori Aleksandrov, 1940) The re-telling of the story of Cinderella, Stalin style. A great example of Stalinist propaganda of Soviet cinema, I wouldn’t doubt it if Stalin himself had some input to the story; Lyubov Orlova play the role of Cinderella, but her dream is not to have a prince come and carry her on a white horse, that is only a smart part of her dream, her real dream is to become a successful weaver in a factory, to run as many machine as she could, and when the management deemed it impossible, she get sulky, but there is always a comrade to cheer her up, “What do you work for, your own sake, or for your country?”, “Of course, for the country”. Her determination and hard work is rewarded by getting the order of Lenin, and she faint because of that, not because the prince kissed him. Technically brilliant with effect in an orgy or propaganda that include a flying car over the Soviet landscape, showing all her glory, with a chorus signing, not to be missed.
Vesna aka Spring (Grigori Aleksandrov, 1947) Spring start with a camera crew shooting, as the director shout “Action”, and it end with the same crew shooting a scene that we have just seen, and the same director shouting, “Cut”, as the slate claps with the title “The End”, in between, Spring is a musical comedy film about making a film; Grigori Aleksandrov’s wife and favorite star, Lyubov Orlova gives a powerful dual performance as a dry scientist and an inspired want to be a film star. The film evolve around making the two story intertwine; just as a filmmakers in the film want to make a film about the scientist, so the film become the story of what the filmmaker imagine the film to be, the film is constructed in front of our eyes, as the two characters take the identity of each others, confusing not only the other characters, but the viewer also. It is also a love tribute to the art of filmmaking, as we take a tour in the Soviet film studios in its glory days, Aleksandrov, as always, does not shy away from showing all the tricks of the game to the viewer, the simple trick of double exposure to shoot the same actor on the screen at the same time is explained to the viewer at the end, as the two emerge into one in the splitting of the frame, indeed, the two character at the end seem to emerge as one in attitudes and desire, another great one from Grigori Aleksandrov.
Traktoristy aka Tractor Drivers (Ivan Pyryev, 1939) Nikolai Kryuchkov is equally charming in Pyryev’s Tractor Drivers in the role of Klim as in Barnet’s By the Bluest of Seas in the role of Alyosha. Charming Klim, always smiling and singing is a former tank commander on the eastern front fighting the Japanese, now returning home to the steppe of Ukraine, he dreams of working in a collective farm that has a heroine, Marianne, who hold the record of plowing the land by a tractor, she is so famous, that she gets dozen of fan letters each day, and admirer from far away land of the Soviet. In order to get ride of the annoyance, she fake a story of having a fiance, a strong built, but dumb, Nazar, when Klim arrive, despite being madly in love with Marianne, he is encouraged to help Nazar become equally if not more powerful in plowing, so Marianne will have an equal match. Klim success in doing so, but find out that Marianne is also madly in love with him, they get married, have a frosty cold celebration after sowing, in front of a picture of comrade Stalin, on a table full of food, singing patriotic song about defending the Soviet land, going to battle by the command of “Comrade Stalin”, and sacrificing. Beside the characters cheerfully singing and dancing as they work on the field, the film is also propagandist in its glorification of the machinery, just as a former Tank commander is now a Tractor driver, so will the Tractor driver soon become Tanks drivers, as there is no distinction between Tanks and Tractors, they are both there to sever the Soviet power, it is an anti-Nazi film before the war, fast paced, full of charismatic and charming, laughing characters, it is one not to be missed.
Svinarka i pastukh aka Swineherd and Shepherd (Ivan Pyryev, 1941) When it was released in the States, Svinarka i pastukh was tittles as They Met in Moscow, but the accurate translation would be; Swineherd and Shepherd, and the film is the story of a Swineherd and a Shepherd, the Swineherd being no other than Pyryev’s wife and favorite star, Marina Ladynina, playing the role of Ladynina, she live in the northern, snowy region of the Soviet Union, raising pigs, when she is invited to Moscow to attend an all collective farm gathering of the Soviets, there she meet Musaib, a Shepherd from the Caucasus mountains, at first she take his figure and costumes as strange, “So dark-skinned, with a mustache and a big knife”, but a chance meeting make them fall in love, and they make a promise to wait for each other and meet again in Moscow in a year time. Each back to their homeland, nostalgically they sing to each other, Musaib write letters to her, but in his language, she can’t make out head from tail, that is when the treachery of Nikolai Kryuchkov come in, he play a trick on her, translating the letters to suggest that Musaib was married in order to get Ladynina himself, he almost success, but a final charge from Musaib rescue his beloved one, and the film end with the two newly weeded singing a patriotic song on defending the fatherland, reflecting the time the film was made, for half way during the shooting, WWII broke out and many of the crew left for the war. The inter-ethnic love story, the beautiful songs, and the charming characters still has the power to move and entertain the viewer, great one.
Kubanskie kazaki aka Cossacks of the Kuban (Ivan Pyryev, 1949) Ivan Pyryev’s Cossacks of the Kuban opens with an orgy of poetic imagery glorifying the machinery, the workers, the land being plowed and collective farming, as the framers sing and in the background machinery rip part the soil, just as it is a masterful deceptive piece of propaganda filmmaking, it is equally technically masterful filmmaking at its best. Similar in plot with Tractor Drivers and Swineherd and Shepherd, but shot in color, the story of two lovers, this time in their middle ages, both loving each other madly, but one hide the love, as the other persuade her, at the end, all is cleared, and the two live ever happily, as again, they sing about the glory of the Soviet power. There are scenes that are masterful example of Stalinist propaganda in film; Rapid montage with hallucinating music of the collective in which foods and commodities are plain, people of the Steppe take what they desire, very cheaply, and more remain to be sent to Moscow, as for the fearless Cossacks, they are now nothing but men who sulk of being behind the time, as they are in doubts wither to blame the old style mustache or one’s fate, a must watch.
The Idiot (Ivan Pyryev, 1958) Ivan Pyryev’s first adaptation of a Dostoevsky’s work, The Idiot was supposed to be a film of two parts, but Pyryev only manages to make part one, the film end with poor Prince Myshkin chasing Nastasia Philippovna in the snowy streets of St. Petersburg. More than cinematic, Pyryev’s The Idiot is a theatrical adaptation of the novel into a film, indeed, the acting of the characters are pure theatrical; exaggerating gestures, shouting instead of talking, exaggerated movement within the space of the frame, even the scenes are staged like in a theater, props everywhere, each character has an entry and an exit, and the cut between the scenes is smooth, like the closing of the curtain. The version of the film I watched (a DVD version), the color is also exaggerated, red and green dominate the interiors, white and gray of the exteriors as every outdoor scene in St. Petersburg (very few in it) is foggy and snowy. The literal adaptation of The Idiot by Pyryev is the best that I have seen so far, not because it was made in Russia by a Russian, but because it stay truthful to the novel, takes out the atmosphere and little details for the sake of the story and the characters, otherwise, how could one fit half of a brilliant novel into a two hour film, especially the two characters of Prince Myshkin and Nastasia Philippovna, each occupying half of the film, they are both innocent living in a world of guilty people, and they must take others’ guilts upon themselves, but each show it and suffer in their own ways. Masterpiece.
Bratya Karamazovy aka The Brothers Karamazov (Ivan Pyryev & Kirill Lavrov, 1969) The sudden death of Ivan Pyryev two third on his way to finishing The Brothers Karamazov made the studio decide to give the task to his two leading actors to finish the film, and the finished products is nothing short of a masterpiece that Pyryev intended to make, of all this three adaptation of Dostoevsky’s work; The Idiot, White Night and The Brothers Karamazov, the later is not only his best, but his most beautiful color film, every frame seem to be a staging of a Russian Realism painting from 19th century, it is equally beautiful. It is always a challenge to make a novel into a film, but more of a challenge when it is a rich in psychology and philosophy as The Brothers Karamazov, a novel that is bigger than in life in its creation of the many characters, so one could never blame Pyryev for taking out the secondarily plot and characters in the novel, for me, the heart of Dostoevsky’ novel is Alyosha; that ending of the novel, when he is chasing the coffin, in the snow, surrounded by children always move me to the edge of tear, but the heart of Pyryev’s The Brothers Karamazov is Mitya, and the film end with him being taken away to Siberia. I know that I have said it many times to other films; but Pyryev’s The Brothers Karamazov is not only one of the best adaptation of any work by Dostoevsky, but its is one of the best literal adaptation of any work of literature, for the heart of the novel is in the film, never miss it.
Jim Shvante aka Salt for Svaneti (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1930) My friend, watch Kalatozov’s Salt for Svaneti and see how beautiful cinema once was, it is not only a film that speak the pure language of cinema, with imagery, its heart beat by the rhythm of montage like musical tempo, but it is a silent film that has a texture to it that target your five sense ; you not only see, you hear, you smell, you taste, you touch, you also feel pain, joy and awe in a balanced acceleration of cinematic orgasm. Kalatozov will be always be remembered for his beautiful and lyrical, I’m Cuba, but his first fully credited film already has the signature of his style; the powerful compositions, the lyrical imagery, the rough natural surrounding, and targeting the extreme to shock the viewer. There are poetic imagery that more than 80 years later, it still has the power to shock the viewer, among the last silent Soviet film, today it is as culturally and anthropologically as important as it is cinematically.
Lursmani cheqmashi aka Nail In The Boot (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1931) Nail In The Boot was banned upon it release by Stalin’s censures, and it is no surprise, for the whole theme of the film is the failure of collectivism in accepting defeat, rather than one person to be blames, the guilt is bestowed upon everyone, the trail scene at the end would have not matched that of Stalin’s cleaning up the party, as individuals were blamed for the party’s failure. Technically, Nail In The Boot is equally as brilliant as Salt for Svaneti, I watched the film without any sound, no musical accompaniment, yet, not a second of boredom, for Kalatozov uses both the montage of Kuleshov’s formal and Eisenstein’s intellectual montage to the maximum effect, the rapid montage of the guns, the bullet running down is among the best. What is at fault at war, is not one individual decision, heroic deed, mistakes or command, but a chain of effects that determine the outcome, with chance itself being the ultimate decision makers at the end.
Pervyj Eshelon aka The First Echelon (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1955) The theme of collective responsibility against that of the individual is the main theme of Kalatozov’s The First Echelon. The story of a group of young students from Moscow on a collective farm in the steppe of Kazakhstan is not a bold piece of propaganda only, with the student seem to be picking on each other rather than working together, in between, they talk and dance, with a theatrical performance to end it all, it also got psychological examination of love relationship, with no place for individual freedom, even if that freedom is to get drunk and drive tractors. The setting and the story does not allow Kalatozov to use his camera as masterfully as in many of his films, but the ending show case his power, as the fire threaten the crops, the young men and women chase it away with everything they got, the fire scene is the forecasting to that in The Unsent Letter.
Krasnaya Palatka aka The Red Tent (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1969) The story of the crash and the rescue of survival of the Airship Italia was to be the last film of Kalatozov, and it is an epic ending to a wonderful career of a great filmmaker. I watched the film many years ago, a low quality DVD of the international version, I have to say, I did not go for it, now watching the Russian version of the film, which is longer and more complex, I praise it highly, take away the annoying role and the love story of Claudia Cardinale, which was forced upon Kalatozov by the producers, there is also the hallucinations of Captain Zappi (Peter Finch), as he gathers the ghosts of Airship Italia and those played a role, be it negatively or positively on the mission, he gather them to judge him in order to make his conscience at ease, the film could have done it without it, but like the trial scene at the end of Nail In The Boot, the trial at the end of The Red Tent comes to the same conclusion, the guilt lay not with one man, but with many, it is a collective guilt, it is white, cold, freezing, and a snowy film, not just the scenery, but the characters also, not to be missed.
Sudba cheloveka aka Destiny of a Man (Sergei Bondarchuk, 1959) Sergei Bondarchuk first adaptation of a great literary work is Mikhail Sholokhov’s Destiny of a Man, he not only directed the film, but also play the major role of Andrei Sokolov, Sholokhov’s ultimate hero, the one who loses everything, but somehow always find a glimpse of redemption at the end, one can’t help moving to the edge of tear at the end of the film; Sokolov has lost everything, his wife, his children, his home, all his position, as he look upon his ruined home, he meet a little boy, a homeless orphan looking upon the ruins to find something to eat, he remind Sokolov of his son, he even call him by the name of his son, “Vanyushka”, as he drive away, he can’t help taking him for his son, when he lie to him, telling him that he is his father, and the poor kid, he believe him, as a viewer, we believe him, we wish him to be his father, that is sentimentally at its best, but what does the future hold for the two?, we never know, “Let’s go, papa!”, we know they are father and son, they walk away from the camera, getting smaller and smaller, as they take a never ending road of the vast Russian landscape. The first film of Bondarchuk is not as stylish and epic as his later films are, the story is not just of one solider lost among millions, rather, it is tragic story of a one man, one soul that reflect the tragedy of WWII of millions of Russian, his first film already has the signature style of what to become his cinema; The long tracking shots over the vast landscape, the first person narration, the inner monologue, the flashback, direct address to the viewer, the heavy use of music, etc. It is Bondarchuk warning of what is to come.
Waterloo (Sergei Bondarchuk, 1970) How can one who made one of the greatest epic film ever made, War and Peace, three years later manage to make another great epic, and do it equally masterful? Sergei Bondarchuk does it, the battle scenes of Waterloo is epic, equal to the battle of Battle of Borodino in War and Peace, but the Waterloo that is now one sees is not the version that Bondarchuk intended to make, it is the Producer’s version, as Duke of Wellington take equal if not more time as Napoleon on the screen, the extended version of Bondarchuk was supposed to be more than 4 hours, and the version that is now available, its narrative shows that it is missing many scenes, despite that, one can help but call it epic; it boggle the imagination to see his God’s POV shots, recreating the battle with all the man power provided by the Soviet military. If War and Peace was Bondarchuk’s take on Tolstoy’s epic seeing from the Russian side of population in the Napoleonic Wars, then Waterloo is the sequel to the story from the prospective of the leaders that made the wars, everyone else in the film are like pawns, being played with in a chess game, but instead of a chess board, you have vast landscape, and the players are real human, with emotions, passion and fear. Epic.
Oni srazhalis za rodinu aka They Fought for the Motherland (Sergei Bondarchuk, 1975) The opening title credit set up the mood of what is to come in They Fought for the Motherland; raw, slow paced, men and nature destroyed by machinery, little stories about little people fighting in an epic war of steel and fire, smoke and dust, blood and tears, in one word; fighting in hell. Sergei Bondarchuk is back again after 17 year of his first adaptation of Sholokhov, Destiny of a Man, this time it is They Fought for the Motherland aka They Fought for Their Country, it is not a story of one man, before, during and after the war, but the story of a Soviet platoon fighting the impossible, they become like dust in the ground, as they take everything that comes from the Germans; It is man’s ultimate fight against machine, their only hope is to dig deep into mother earth, but even the earth suffer like the men, shattered, ripped apart, and humiliated. If one to look at today’s war film, it all look alike; fast editing, exaggerated sound effect and music, stories with plot that develop in a formal narrative, with characters that aim at a goal, but Bondarchuk reject all that, in war all one is doing is fighting to survive, the film lack a plot, we are with them, they fight, they walk, they talk, the eat, they sleep, and they are back fighting again, that is how a war film is made, in steel and fire, most of the action scene are lengthy takes, no effect, you see real bullet, real bombs, real tanks destroyed, it is that realism which give the film its power of making the viewer not just an observant one, but a participant, the film is tragically remembered for the death of of the great, Vasily Shukshin, as he died while making the film. Another Epic from Bondarchuk.
Boris Godunov (Sergei Bondarchuk, 1986) The most Shakespearean work of Pushkin, Boris Godunov not only the story of the Tsar Godunov, but an examination in lust for power, revenge, treachery, passion and jealousy, in a word, Pushkin pays tribute to Shakespeare by taking everything from him, making it into one play, and what a brilliant work in verse Boris Godunov is, and it is hard to imagine the genius of a mere young man of 25 years old to dig deep into the psyche of an old man, into power and how it corrupt the soul, but it is not Pushikn, but rather, an imitation of Shakespeare by Pushkin, something that Tolstoy was critical of, “For instance, our Pushkin writes his short poems, Evgeni Onegin, The Gypsies, and his stories works all varying in quality, but all true art. But then, under the influence of false criticism extolling Shakespeare, he writes Boris Godunov, a cold, brain-spun work, and this production is lauded by the critics”, I agree to Tolstoy, Boris Godunov is not essential Pushkin, but that does not mean that I should not applaud Bondarchuk’s adaptation of the play, the last major completed work of Bondarchuk, it captures the spirit of the play, neither going to the limit of the cinematic nor a dry theatrical adaptation, the touch of technical mastery of the battlefield is not lost from Bondarchuk, even without the epic crowds as in War and Peace and Waterloo, he captures the battle to utmost detail, this time not stylish, nor glorified, but rather cold, bloody, and mere madness. Not to be missed.
Tikhiy Don aka And Quiet Flows the Don (Sergei Gerasimov, 1957) Mikhail Sholokhov’s epic novel on the live of the Cossacks, before, during and after the Russian Civil War becomes Sergei Gerasimov’s cinematic epic adaptation, what seem to be epic in scale, the essence of the novel and the film comes down to the love story between Grigori Panteleevich Melekhov and Aksinia, it is the story of the old and the new Russia told from the view of the two and the inhabitant of the village of the Tatarsk on the Don River. Six hour in length, you may think that everything in the novel is in the film, but it is not, because a novel can never be literately adapted to the screen, and that is where the genius of Gerasimov come in, instead of taking the novel literally, he takes it thematically, major plot points, character’s death, demise and rise, historical dates, and essential themes are taking out, instead, they are refereed too in simple dialogues, recalling what had happened, take the death of the old Melekhov, we only find out that he is dead from his wife as he tell Aksinia, that is how Gerasimov eliminate one of the essential character in the novel, with a simple dialogue. Gerasimov is not a director of action, he is no Bondarchuk when it comes to staging epic battle scenes, rather, the battles in And Quiet Flows the Don is shot coldly, it is on the screen for a short time, and most of the time, we are with the characters rather than the crowd, one reason perhaps that when the War and Peace project came along in 60s, Bondarchuk was chosen over Gerasimov to direct the film. Sergei Gerasimov is a story teller of characters, not actions and plot, and no other two characters are at the hear of the film as Melekhov and Aksinia, that is why the ending of the film is such a heartbreaking cinematic staging in poetry, Gerasimov let the visual speak and not the dialogue; Laying on the ground, dying in the arm of Melekhov, poor Aksinia cannot even utter a word, “For God’s sake, say at least one word! Why don’t you”, the rest is silence, it is the image that speak; the sun is just rising, she is dying under a tree, not just any tree, one in epic scale, the grass is dying, as winter is approaching, on the background, the horses feed on the grass, unaware of Melekhov and Aksinia’s misfortunes, and when she die, the grief is too much to bear, a long fade into black, as the music rise, we are looking at a black screen, next, cut to the tree, its branches dances amid the wind, Melekhov, heartbroken, sit beside her grave, and the camera, well, the camera flows like the wind around Melekhov, he has lost everything now, the only thing that is remain, his future, is to go back to his two little children, and when he does, it is no cheerful ending, he cross the frozen Don River, as he embrace his son, they walk away from us, even the camera does not dear to follow them, for we only have to guess what future await him. My friend, that is epic filmmaking at it simplicity, never miss it.
Lyudi i zveri aka Men and Beasts (Sergei Gerasimov, 1962) Gerasimov’s follow up of his epic, And Quiet Flows the Don, is a simple story of an epic scale of a Soviet army officer, Alexei Pavlov, taking as prisoner by the German during the siege of Leningrad, travel the world, from a sugar plantation in Mexico to Germany, and after 17 years living in exile return to the Soviet Union under Khrushchev, just as the film is damning condemnation of capitalism in the West, it is also a somber take on new Soviet generation after the war; they seem to be imitating their counterparts in the West, living carefree, not relating to the previous generation’s sacrifices, especially that of a war prisoner, in which many, after their immediate return were labeled as traitors and coward by both the State and the population. More than 3 hours in length, the film uses flashback, and many of the dialogue in the film is spoken in German. Despite its pessimism, at the end of the film, Pavlov seem to find a glimpse of hope in the new generation, as he meet his little nephew, but can they pass that legacy of one generation to the next? The mother desire so, as they approach Baiydar Gate in the Crimean Mountains, seeing the glory of the landscape, she tell her daughter to feel what she had felt at her age seeing it for the first time, “I want you to see it all as I first saw it when I was a little girl. I experienced then a complete happiness, a world full of light and air opened before me, I want you to see it just as I saw it then”, but one cannot repeat the same experience twice, the sky hazy as they look, “Oh, it’s a pity there’s a haze over the sea now”, but the daughter does her best to comfort her, “It’s all right, Mom. It’s all right darling”, what has been will not be again, the new Soviet generation will never match the pervious one nor see the world the same. A forgotten masterpiece of Soviet cinema.
Yunost Petra aka The Youth of Peter the Great (Sergei Gerasimov, 1981) Whenever I hear the name “Peter the Great”, I recall that epic poem by Pushkin, The Bronze Horseman, glorying a man for building a city that was and still is the heart of the Russian intellectual, Saint Petersburg, yet critical of a man, for the poem is the story of a lover who loses his beloved in a flood and blame it on Peter for building the city so close to a stormy sea, Peter is bigger than life character, even after his death, he chases the poor man away for insulting him, “Appalling there He sat, begirt with mist and air. What thoughts engrave His brow! what hidden Power and authority He claims! What fire in yonder charger flames!”. Don’t expect fire nor flame coming from young peter in The Youth of Peter the Great, Gerasimov’s adaptation of Aleksey Tolstoy’s novel, rather, you will see a fragile Peter, as he fell in love with a German maiden, but has to marry a woman he despise, Tsaritsa Eudoxia Lopukhina, he is not heroic, running away in his underpants as his sister sent out Boyars to assassinate him. Without power, young Peter is a common man, he despise aristocracy, work as a laborer with his man, trustworthy, and ambitious. When in power, he is all that, but now, he become fearless, and his ambition is to make Russian one of the great power in Europe, taking it toward modernization, but to do that, he must build a large navy, and he must tax his subjects. Aleksey Tolstoy’s novel is not only a story of a Peter, but also of the man and woman around him, and the common people of the street, we see them all, the first part of the Peter the Great end with him preparing to battle the Ottoman Turks via sea, and to equal the equilibrium of power with Europe via diplomacy and also the sea, but trading, for that, he has to make Russia a powerful maritime power.
V nachale slavnykh del aka At the Beginning of Glorious Days (Sergei Gerasimov, 1981) The second part of Peter the Great open with the death of Peter’s mother, and therefore setting up the stage for young Peter to become an adult, and set out for his becoming his ambitious plans a reality. We see Peter as a man who never take a “No” for an answer, he journey into Holland to learn the tricks of their trade, building ships, and when Boyar rebellion lead him back home to Russia, he ruthlessly crush the rebellion, and when life is back to normal, he sent out the younger Russian to learn science and trade in Europe, his most ambitious plan is to take back the Black Sea from the Ottomans, when he fail at first, he does not give up, but rather, boldly attack again, and when he is victories, he plan for more wars. Peter seem to conquer everything, for the exception of his heart, as the only girl he was ever in love with, leave him for a mere Ambassador, and what does Peter do? Nothing, after finding out about her infidelity, she is on the ground, crying for forgiveness, he raise his head up and up into the air, look down of her, “It’s over”, then walks out to building to his ships, this time to show his muscle to the Ottoman as to make peace with them, as look toward Europe to conquer, to the Baltic Sea . Sergei Gerasimov adaptation of Aleksey Tolstoy’s novel is true to the material, that is why it take more than four hours to tell the story of Young Peter. A Must Watch.
Konyok-gorbunok aka The Humpbacked Horse (Ivan Ivanov-Vano, 1947) Ivan Ivanov-Vano’s career as an animator span for more that 60 years, during that time, he made some of the best Soviet animations films, and perhaps no other of his films is as popular and well known as The Humpbacked Horse, so poplar, that he remade the film in 1975. Based on a poem by Pyotr Pavlovich Yershov, The Humpbacked Horse is an animation in prose, everyone speak in poetry, and if one does not speak Russian, the power and the beauty of the language is lost, but you got the beautiful animation of Ivan Ivanov-Vano that one only need the eyes, colorful, beautiful, and full of movement. A fable is beautiful when it teach a moral, no matter how cruel the outcome of the fable is, and in The Humpbacked Horse, it is very cruel, the old Tsar is boiled alive in boiling water for he commit a taboo, for wanting the impossible, to be young again, and you must have an innocent character who is deemed by everyone as worthless, but always end up making the impossible, possible, that is Ivan, or as they call him, Ivan the Fool, because he is gentle, the magical powers of justice turn the wheels in favor of him, and his little friend, The Humpbacked Horse, always to the rescue, the fable end happily, as Ivan marries the most beautiful girl one can dream of, and they live happily ever after. Grander of a Classic of Soviet animation.
Minin i Pozharskiy aka Minin and Pozharsky (Vsevolod Pudovkin, 1939) Made the same year as Sergi Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, Minin and Pozharsky is in line with many historical patriotic spectacular films of the period to mobilize moral as Hitler’s Nazi empire threaten Soviet. The story of Minin and Pozharsky, two down to earth leaders fighting the Polish threat to burn and destroy Moscow in early seventeen century, Kuzma Minin was a butcher turned commander but in charge of the gathering of the finance for the campaigns, and Prince Dmitri Pozharsky is the tactician behind the deceive battles, the final battle sequence in the film is reminiscence to the epic ending of Storm over Asia, more than a decade later, Pudovkin does it again; masterful compositions, movement within frame and rapid montage captures the retreating Poles and the victories Russian to perfections. If you ever watch Minin and Pozharsky, watch it for one reason the first time, for the dynamic compositions of Pudovkin, just as in Mother, composition was the heart of his film, used literally as a language of communication in emotion in a silent film, in Minin and Pozharsky, it is again used to that effect, the dialogue is not important when the scene is dynamic, it is the composition and the framing that transmit the emotion, dialogue is used only secondary at such a time. Epic from Pudovkin.
Admiral Nakhimov (Vsevolod Pudovkin, 1946) Based on the last few years of Admiral Pavel Nakhimov’s life, his famed battle at at Sinope, defeating not only the Ottomans, but also the joined fleets of the British and French supporting the Turks on the back, signaling Russia’s new maritime power which lead the British and French declaring war on Russia, from sea to land, the last half of the film deal with the heroic defending of Sevastopol in which Nakhimov meets his demise by a sniper’s bullet. Highlight of the film is the magnificent sea battle at Sinope and Sevastopol, Pudovkin’s take on Crimean War might not be as epic as Minin and Pozharsky, but he still create memorable arrangement of crowd scenes in tempo, there is a unity in the actions not only in Admiral Nakhimov but also in Minin and Pozharsky, during the battles scenes, even little details, like a close-up of a character is arranged to create a dynamic compositions of movement within the frame from one shot to another, at times, the only pivot been a smoke coming from guns, as the background of each shot sink in it. Every shot is calculate to utmost details.
Selskaya uchitelnitsa aka The Village Teacher (Mark Donskoy, 1947) Donskoy’s The Village Teacher is a story of two films; the first is a masterful insight into the life of Varvara Vasilyevna, a teacher leaving her lover and Saint Petersburg for Siberia to teach, her tragic love story make her a self sacrificing gentle creature that desire others’ goodwill before herself, the story of her life from a young girl to that of an old woman, shot beautifully, and technically masterful with a unified style; the passing of time is show simply by seasonal change, spinning of the small globe on the classroom desk, or simple ticking of the clock,the use of the soft lens, foggy atmosphere that cluster the frame, use of direct light to highlight the frame, rectangle light to capture the emotion in the eyes, rather highlighted boldly. You may call the second film a propaganda one; Varvara Vasilyevna’s life passes in parallel to the history of Imperial Russia to Soviet after WWII, all the change is for the best, from a society in which a peasant of lower class is denied the basic right to study, Russian Civil War, to WWII, , as her husband take part in all, and as he lay dying, he declare his loyalty for the cause, a communist hero he becomes, after his death, rises the new Soviet, the collectivization, everyone’s life seem to be changing for the best, as her student achieve the impossible in education, the film top it with heroic students now soldiers, each comes home from conquered a Europe, with Varvara Vasilyevna getting Lenin’s order.
Oblomok imperii aka Fragment of Empire (Fridrikh Ermler, 1929) Realistic opening, the red living behind nearly dead soldier in a storm of typhus, shot in total darkness, with low key lighting, brutal war imagery, as animal, landscape and people annihilated, a soldier on the edge of madness, for a decade lost to the political, social and economical progress of new Soviet. Sergeant Filiminov, for ten year he live in darkness, seeing a woman, a short glimpse of a woman on train passing by, and the word; “Epoh”, wake him up from his everlasting dream, in one of the most memorable sequence of Soviet silent cinema, one that Chris Marker would later repeat; imagery in rapid succession as that of memory, as the image of a woman become the starting pivot of a journey into memory, the shock of the awakening is powerful like a train, he remember his wife, she is shot in profile all the time; laughing, in a bride dress, sad, then, train tracks, looking at the audience, train, look up, laughter, train, back to our hero suffering, as he could only recall the imagery and not the memory behind it, all in rapid succession of less than a second of space time, what does he do? He turn the sewing machine like a madman, and Ermler cut into rapid succession of his close-up with eyes matching the moving needle, then it is clear, he was a solider, in a war, when the fog settle down, he now recall what has happened to him, we are back to the long takes, in 1917. Fragment of Empire is a complex film, very complex, one could talk about the many aspect of the film, our hero represent the old Empire, he is lost in a new place, to him, such rapid change is hard to believe, and what he fear most when he realize that he has to live with it, for him the present to become the past, indeed, when he find his wife, he find her married to a high ranking official of an intellectual who mumbo jumbo about women right but abuse his own wife, and for a split second the image of him become that of the old bureaucrat of Imperial Russia, and the film end with an optimistic but also a critical note, the revolution is not achieved yet, for there are still many steps to be taken, it this Stalins’ new vision of reform by taking out saboteur and counter-revolutionists? or is it critical of Stalins’ rise to power itself, it is for you decide, watch this forgotten masterpiece.
Krestyane aka Peasants (Fridrikh Ermler, 1935) Saboteurs and counter revolutionary theme in Soviet cinema of middle and late 30s is a common theme, what drive a hard working collecitve worker to murder his wife and plan revenge on the chief of the village is not only his desire for the old way, but it comes from old grieves, as his mother visit him, telling him about his Father being sent to Siberia, losing all their position, and wanting him to get back to what once was his, how can a man who is so love with his wive and his work suddenly become a villain? Wanting revenge make him so, when his wife tell him that she want his son to become a “Communist”, he loses his mind, for he is for the old ways, after murdering her in a long sequence that is pure expressionism, he take a letter that she has writing as a protest to the village Kolkhoz threatening to kill herself, the official story is that she has committed suicide, but as always, one little mistake at the end get him to confess his crime, but before that, and like a fire, he set out to spread his treachery among other workers, and the only way to stop him is by arresting and eliminating him, we never know what happens to him at the end, the last we see of him is being taken away by a solider, perhaps to Siberia. Indeed the rejection of old tradition is a common theme in the film; when the older generation take an oath to prove their innocent, a young member of the Komsomol refuses to do so, “I’m a Komosomol member, I don’t believe in God”, he therefore take his oath in the name of the Komosomol, and the film end with our young Soviet Village Chief winning his bet, and his reward is to cut the long beard of a former Village Chief, and when the old man is asked “What will you bet on now?”, he is silent, he raises his glass and drink to the young man, next, a cut to a raising sun.
Velikiy grazhdanin aka The Great Citizen (Fridrikh Ermler, 1938) I could clearly picture Stalin, watching The Great Citizen and from time to time, an evil smile appearing on his face in praise of the film. The Great Citizen is an epic Stalinist propaganda of an ideological film, over four hours in length, it is not only epic in length with music by Dmitri Shostakovich, but also in its ideology, praising Stalin’s Great Purge of the 30s, of all the names, it is Leon Trotsky that is the main target, two years after the film, Stalin would sent his assassins to eliminate Trotsky in Mexico, but for now, he must first eliminate his main rival ideologically. The Great Citizen is in two part, the first is set in 1925, in a small factory, an internal struggle is taking place between Shakhov, a Stalinist, an honest hard working Bolshevik loved by everyone, but who is dissatisfied with the new leadership, Kartashov heading them, a western oriented intellectual, he is Trotskyist not only in idea but even his look resemble Trotsky, with his goatsbeard, clearly, the two are metaphor for the internal struggle of the Bolshevik party after the death of Lenin. Shakhov overcome all obstacles to gain leadership with the help of our great friend, Maksim, as he make a cameo appearance out of Grigori Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg films. Driven to the edge, the Trotskyist has no choice but to become counter revolutionaries, saboteurs and foreign agents at the end of the first part of The Great Citizen. The second part take place in 1934, Stalin’s five year plan is in full swing, workers united in building “Mankind’s thousands year dream”, driven underground, the Trotskyist no longer believe in ideological struggle, they become saboteurs, assassins, and they get their planing via spies from Trotsky himself, into building an army to start a counter revolution, they are helped by members within the Bolshevik party, the only solution for the class revolution to triumph and not be hijacked is to have every party member’s personal files checked, any suspicion would mean elimination, as for the saboteurs, Trotskyist, former White Guards and counter revolutionaries, their fate is doomed, but first, the the Bolshevik party must be re-build a new. The last speech in the film might as well have been spoken by Comrade Stalin himself. “The Bolshevik party is building a new life. It is realizing a thousands years old dream of humanity. Anyone who stands in its way, anyone who tries to interfere with our work, will be destroyed by the people. The victorious people have been and will be destroying them. We’ll be merciless to separate persons, in the name of happiness of millions”. Masterful piece of propaganda film.
Pered sudom istorii aka Facing the Judgment of History (Fridrikh Ermler, 1965) Interesting dialectal argument between a Soviet historian, Sergei Svistunov, and one of the founders of the White Army and monarchist, Vasily V. Shulgin, he was one who wisely argued Nicholas II to abdicate, with a recreation of the historical moment in the same train cabinet as it took place, even when emigrating to the West, he still headed White leaders inside Russia, that is until his capture by the Red army in Yugoslavia at the end of WWII. Although not apologetic to his past actions, he seem to get along with the idea of Communism, at times glorying the new system that he fought a bloody war against, he put forward convincing argument from his perceptive, one reason that the film was put on shelf and rarely seen. Ermler’s use of fictional narrative and re-staging of the scenes work perfectly with the documentary narrative structure of the film, a must see for anyone interested in early Soviet history.
Anna Karenina (Aleksandr Zarkhi, 1967) The power and the genius of Tolstoy at describing the last moments of Anna Karenina, as she walk by the train, ready to fall, is such an iconic imagery, that not only me, but I heard of many countless others, that a single image of a train and a woman walking side by side of it remind one of the ending of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, one of the most recognizable literary interpretation into imagery, that is why, Zarkhi make the last moment of his film so memorable, in a film with few scenes that make the viewer aware of the technicality of the film, at the end, everything become technique, the formal, narrative style suddenly explode into a juxtapositions of imagery worthy of 20s Soviet montage, brilliant. Let the Russian adapt their cultural heritage of rich literature into films, for they do it brilliantly, for a Russian is only understood by a Russian.
Prestuplenie i nakazanie aka Crime and Punishment (Lev Kulidzhanov, 1969) It is always a challenge when one take the task of making a film out of a great novel, as it is with Doestovesky’s Crime and Punishment, there are two ways of going about; to take the story and the theme of the novel and make a personal cinematic film as the case is with Aki Kaurismaki’s Crime and Punishment, or, one can be faithful to the work literary, as it with Lev Kulidzhanov’s Crime and Punishment, for a a dedicated reader who love the work as literary masterpiece both film may came under criticism; for in the case of the first one, the cinematic and personal take on the work is criticized for taking away too much from the novel, for the case of the second, the literal adaptation is not sincere enough, that is why, it take one with a great talent to make a great film out of a great novel, and to me, both Aki Kaurismaki and Lev Kulidzhanov achieved their perfection with Doestovesky. I watched Kulidzhanov adaptation of the work, and I was surprised to find Doestovesky’s character come into live, into motion, because the work is as a realistic adaptation as any, close to four hour in length, it gives justice to all the characters in the novel, but especially Raskolnikov and Sonya; Georgi Taratorkin has to be the essential screen persona of Raskolnikov, his expressionist acting is worthy to that of Max Schreck as Nosferatu, his hand, body gestures and eyes do all the acting, just as Tatyana Bedova is a perfect recreation of little, gentle and pale Sonya, as for the murder scene that is the heart of the novel and therefore any adaptation of it, every word is captured masterfully, that is why it take more than 15 minute for the murder sequence to happen. This has to be, literary, the best adaptation of Crime and Punishment, don’t look for another one, you won’t find it.
Dom, v kotorom ya zhivu aka The House I Live In (Lev Kulidzhanov and Yakov Segel, 1957) Came out the same year as Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying, The House I Live In is another masterful, tragic, nostalgic, heartbreaking little masterpiece from the early new wave of Soviet cinema, like The Cranes Are Flying it is a tear chocker, it is the story of the impact of the war on the home front, the suffering mothers, wives, sisters, brothers and lovers, as they are separated, some temporary, others, forever from each other. There is no doubt that the wars films of the Soviet cinema, although more propagandist, is by far much more superior than that of the American, the reason is very simple; the Russian fought the front, they were in the frontline in defeating Nazism and Fascism, they fought in every inch of their homeland, the civilian suffered more than the military, each person in Russia lost someone or knew someone who was lost in the war, something that the American civilian, thousands of miles away was not aware of. So it is no wonder, Soviet cinema has more tell about the war, and The House I Live In does it masterfully, as the story of three family living in one apartment become not only that of a Soviet family during WWII, but any family in any war. The film open in the year of 1935, right after Stalin’s five year plan, the three family move into a new apartment, it is the story of childhood for little Seryozhka, next, we jump to 1941, a few month before the war, this time is the story of first love for teenage Seryozhka for the beautiful, full of life, charming, generous little Galya, indeed, the film has four different love story; A pure and innocent first love of Seryozhka, an older, but again, pure and sincere old love between her mother and father, a broken down and rusted love between his Geologist neighbor and his wife, and his brother’s love for the Geologist’s wife, in which Seryozhka find it despicable. Everything seem normal, that is, until the war break out, that is when it become a tear chocker, separation, forgotten memories of a hopeful past into a tragic future, each scene more heartbreaking than the next, but nothing is as tragic as Seryozhka hearing the news of the death of his beloved, Galya, I dare you watch it and not be moved to tears. Masterful, simply, Masterful.
Kogda derevya byli bolshimi aka When the Trees Were Tall (Lev Kulidzhanov, 1961) Can two people who have no share of memory, build one upon an artificial one? Well, to find the answer, you have to watch When the Trees Were Tall, but when did the trees were tall? When one was a child, that is how Natasha remembers her childhood, the only memory she has of the past, of her lost mother and father all she recount is an image of tall trees surrounding her family house, as she tell the man who claim to be his father, a slacker in search of a lazy live in the countryside, framing Natasha, she believe him to be his father, but as an audience, we know him to be fake, the first emotion that she express to him is what she remembers; “You know, I remember you very well”, scared that she might find out he is a fake, he ask her nervously, “From where?”, “And also, I remember next to our house there were trees, really really big ones”, felt assured she only recall the trees, he assure her, “Oh, that. Back then all the tress seemed very big to you”, indeed, that is the dilemma of a fake father playing on the emotion of sincere Natasha, who even now, she still think like a child, always smiling, gentle and loved by all. Having watched three films by Lev Kulidzhanov, I can’t help noticing two signature style on his film; the vulnerable, charming, innocent and out of this world young girl in his film that everything revolve around them, such gentle voice, big eyes, and innocent look, and those long, long walk and talk of the two lovers, simply, poetry at its peak.
Ukhod velikovo startza aka Departure of a Grand Old Man (Yakov Protazanov, 1912) The story of Protazanov’s Departure of a Grand Old Man is the story of the last few days in the life of Leo Tolstoy, made only a few years after his death, the film had to be withdrawn from circulation after Countess Sophia, Tolstoy’s wife, threatened to take the filmmaker into court, the film created a firestorm upon its reales, many calling for its destruction. Seeing it more than 100 years later, it seem like a harmless film, rather a caricature take on the great Tolstoy, with an epic ending in the clouds, as Jesus himself embraces the genius writer, maybe many were so hostile of the film due to the fact that Tolstoy had died only a few years before, not to mention many scenes in the films is historically inaccurate; Tolstoy suffered from his relationship to his wife, but he was never under her total command when it came to managing his affair as the film suggest, it does its best to make a martyr out of Tolstoy, with the villain being his family, especially poor Sonya, still, worth watching.
Pikovaya dama aka The Queen of Spades (Yakov Protazanov, 1916) The mistaken concept and the illusion that depth-of-field staging started with a film like Citizen Kane, or it came into perfection in the sound cinema is pure illusions, one only has to watch Yakov Protazanov’s silent film to find many scenes that are staged according to the depth of filed, with action taking place in the foreground, middle and background. Perhaps none of his silent film is as perfect example as it is in The Queen of Spades, the long takes, the closed staging and the depth of field only make the film perfect adaptation of Pushkin’s short work, perhaps his best short story, who can forget the magical lines; “Three, seven, ace! Three, seven, queen!”, they are eternal words of illusions that best fit the eternal world of literate, poetry and cinema. Not to be missed.
Satana likuyushchiy aka Satan Triumphant (Yakov Protazanov, 1917) Before there was Ingmar Bergman and his masterpiece, Winter Light, the inability of conquering temptation in time of spiritual crisis, there was Protazanov’s Satan Triumphant, the story of a preacher, Talnoks, he is on strict religious meditation, reject the basic pleasure of life, even when he listen to music, he despise the temptation of listening to sound and seeing the beauty of nature, the pleasure of eating, reject the pleasure of love, preach to others to be like brothers and sisters rather than wives and husbands, his dry emotion make him ruthless toward others when they seem to be enjoying life, he reject everything, believe that love is in God, but welcome his rage, he closes his window to the sunset, but welcome the storm and thunderous as anger of God, he deem the world as full of sin, shouting, “Look! It seems that God himself is going to visit our world, we are lost in sin”, his wishes comes true, but it is not God, but Satan that turns his world upside down. What a charming Satan, witty and always with a smile, lurking into tempting poor Father and his congregation into temptations, he is perfect at everything he does, rather masterfully and all powerfully, he play piano like no others, driving everyone into temptation of believing the sincerity of its emotion, he uses the convincing argument of Nature’s creation of beauty and God’s creation of ugliness, tempting the Father into taking the wife of a Hunchback for the sake of the argument of beauty should not belong to beast, “Should that beautiful woman, her neck, her eyes, really belong to a Hunchback? Is this what nature has wanted?”, rarely one could find such sensuality in a silent film as is in Satan Triumphant, Protazanov made the film in the sam year as his adaptation of Tolstoy’s Father Sergius, one’s man fight of temptations, one against the world, in Satan Triumphant, it is one man’s fight to spread the temptation, to give in, to have, to own, to love, the right to have everything for oneself, the first part of the film end with the downfall and death of Talnoks, the second part began with the rise of his son as pianist, Sandro, but Satan does not leave him alone neither, when he is not present, it is his music and painting, sound and vision that drive him into temptations and vices, can her mother save him? She beg him to find himself again, “You have ruined yourself, your talent, your future”, he answers, “But that is life”, she try harder, “That is a distorted picture of life”, he goes into rage, “All joy is based on evil” Can she save him? Watch it to know it. Despite the fact that most of the ending of the first part and second is lost forever, Satan Triumphant is a timeless epic of early Russian silent cinema.
Aelita (Yakov Protazanov, 1924) Aelita is not it is only one of the early Soviet science fiction/fantasy, but one of cinema’s earliest, influences on Fritz Lang a few years later is clear, Protazanov migrated to Germany after the Russian Revolution of 1917, clear influences of German Expressionism can be felt on the film. A strange radio message is received throughout the world, a scene that has been replicated countless times ever scene, “Anta, Odeli, Uta”. Alexei Tolstoy’s novel was not the first Soviet science fiction novel, nor the first to have a Soviet Utopian dream on Mars, one only has to look back to Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star more than decades earlier, but Alexei Tolstoy’s novel had a profound effect on what followed in Russian literature of science fiction, one does not have to look far to find the rising of the wife, the memory of the re-carnations of the wife at the end of the novel as in Stanisław Lem’s Solaris. Protazanov is not a visual nor a savvy technical directors, he is a storyteller, so, don’t look for a visual effects as eye popping as in a film like Metropolis, rather, a faithful ideological adaptation of Alexei Tolstoy’s novel, on the sideline, the role of Igor Ilyinsky as the a cheap version of Sherlok Holmes is annoying with his over the top stylization.
Zakroyshchik iz Torzhka aka The Tailor from Torzhok (Yakov Protazanov, 1925)
Nowadays, Protazanov’s The Tailor from Torzhok is best remembered for been the first film of Igor Ilyinsky as a leading character, his signature comic gestures that are a mix of Chaplin, Keaton, Loyd and Linder, he does best to make himself ugly in order to be loved, yet, in the film, he is chased not by one, nor two, but many woman, and he is indifferent to them. The film was made and released as silent, but years later, an experimental soundtrack was added to the film. I mention Chaplin, because the plot of the film is pure Chaplin; a slacker is tied down to an older woman for the sake of making a living, he fall in love with a servant who is looked down by everyone and leave his rich mistress for her, in between, he find jackpot of in a lottery ticket, but first, he become a heartbroken, homeless man in the big city of Saint Petersburg, to take away his wining lottery ticket, the master criminals of the city indulge him in the fast life of the city, and he dream of becoming a rich tailor of the city, running home, he marries the girl he love, thinking that his lottery ticket is lost forever, but to his surprise, he find it on his girl, they get marry and his dream of rich man comes true, ironic ending for a Soviet film in 1925.
Protsess o tryokh millionakh aka The Case of the Three Million (Yakov Protazanov, 1926) A masterpiece of satire worthy of Luis Bunuel, for in The Case of the Three Million, Protazanov masterfully attack everything that sympathize a capitalist society, based on Umberto Notari’s The Three Thieves, with a mix of comedy and serial suspence thriller, the story of three thieves, but each from a different class; the first is the one that society most condemn, the small time burglar, a pickpocket here, a break in there, he live in poverty and spent his time in and out of jail, he is Tapioka, played brilliantly by Igor Ilyinsky, the second thief comes from the middle class, he has no identity of himself, he make his living by robbing the rich, but spend his time with the poor, he is smart, and calculate his moves, he could become a rich man or end up in jail, but he is a shark, the society look indifferent to him, that is Cascarilla (Anatoli Ktorov), the third thief is the international one, he is a Banker, a bourgeoisie, who robe everyone, poor, middle class, rich, but according to the law, he does it legally, he live in prosperity. In such a society, the one thing that can define a man is his power and ownership of private property, overnight, when the news spread that Tapioka has become a rich thief, he is treated like a king, and when his friend, Cascarilla comes to the rescue, in the court, shouting his guilt to prove that all of the upper classes are thieves by spreading the stolen three million fake paper money into the air, indeed, the lust for greed make everyone become a participant, in the the chaos, Cascarilla and Tapioka escape into the live of the rich. The film end with our former lower class thief, now, an upper class thief, become more ruthless; when an old man pickpocket a glove from him, he shout to the police, arresting the old man, claiming the logic of capitalism; “What is important is not the gloves, what is important is the sacred principle of Private Property”, indeed, the ownership of so much private property only make a man corrupt, even for a poor man, in a capitalist society, there is no salvation in Socialism when going up the ladder. Masterpiece.
Sorok pervyy aka The Forty-First (Yakov Protazanov, 1927) A few years ago I watched Gregory Chukhari wonderful, colorful adaptation of B. Lavrenyo’s novel, The Forty-First, now, I had a chance to watch Protazanov’s first adaptation of the novel, just under one hour in length, it is Protazanov’s departure from his early silent style of filmmaking into the new Soviet montage, but, it is no radical shifting of style, rather, it is as subtle as it get, even the propaganda in the film is dumbed down, for Protazanov comes from the older generation of Russian filmmakers, and therefor, the adaptation of Lavrenyo’s novel best fit him; the tragic story of a mismatch love, one white, one red, from beginning of the film, the viewer knows it will end tragically, no matter how the power shift, the short length of the film does not allow Protazanov the visual and rich narrative that Chukhari had two decade later, the film is patchy, rapid shift of narrative make the viewer lost at times, but its equally rich, the ending is masterful; the speechless look on the face of our heroine, similar to that of Jean Seabrg in Breathless, but just as in Breathless, she judge the man to who he was, in The Forty-First, she is silent, lost in thought, with a questioning expression as to who he was? One not to be missed.
Don Diego i Pelageya aka Don Diego and Pelageya (Yakov Protazanov, 1928)
I have nothing to say but admiration for this little masterpiece in satirical comedy from Protazanov; The story of a railroad bureaucratic administrator in a small village, so obsessed with the coded bureaucracy that he loses the notion of proportion, condemning a poor old woman, Pelageya, to the court for crossing the railroad track and therefore sending her to three month prison, you think on the lower part of the structure is corrupt bureaucracy, wait until the city official join in the party, one of the most damning condemnation of post-revolutionary Russia, with a twist of championing a clean up in the system form youth Komsomol, indeed, it is the new youth of Stalin that take back the old woman from prison, to her old husband, and they are so in debt to them that they come to join the Komsomol to the surprise of comrade Mikhail Kalinin, as his statue, with popped eyes and mouth wide open stare at the audience. The genius of the laughter and the comedy is the small scale of the story, but the epic ideological satire is the condemnation of the bureaucratic system. The collective farms are effective as long the people working on them know what they are doing, it is the official, the city bureaucrat who has no clues as to what is taking place, they are slackers and their oversight does more harm than good, the legal expert of the village is illiterate, he uses party manifestos and law code as papers to wrap up his tobaccos, as for the railroad administrator, he is living in Spain, reading fantasy books, and twisting his mustache. Many of the rules that are made are full of flows, and it only take one to interrupt it the wrong way to condemn many innocent to their doom, as it happen to poor old Pelageya. The film is a comedy in sentimentality, the old woman taken away form her home is heartbreaking, but it is one rich with laughter, perhaps the funniest scenes is the interrogation of Pelageya; “What were you doing before the October Revolution”, “Digging potatoes for the people”, genius masterpiece in comedy.
Nasreddin v Bukhare aka Nasreddin in Bukhara (Yakov Protazanov, 1943) Let me tell you something my friend, I know I have told you this many times; I simply love this film, and it is by far my favorite from Yakov Protazanov, for there is not a single dull moment in Nasreddin in Bukhara, everything is laughter, pure genius. You think Lev Sverdlin was charming in the role of Yussuf in Boris Barnet’s By the Bluest of Seas, think again, for his role of Nasreddin will be the one to remembered for, he is brilliant. Based on Leonid Solovyev novel, Disturber of the Peace, Nasreddin in Bukhara take many tales of Mulla Nasreddin into the film. Nasreddin Hoca or Mulla Nasreddin goes by many other names in the Middle East and Central Asia, in Kurdish, he is called “Malay Mashur”; this iconic figure of wits and humor, his jokes, anecdotes and wisdoms is still talked about in the region, for he was almost a nihilist of an anarchist, the first rebel to use humor to point the absurdity of the State, religions, science and philosophy, nothing is sacred from his scrutiny. It has been a while since I have laughed to the edge of tears, even now as I type these world, I can’t help but laugh at recalling the imagery and the scenes in Nasreddin in Bukhara. Unlike many stereotypical stories from Hollywood when it comes to the East, in which there always has to be a magic lamp or a flying carpet, in Nasreddin in Bukhara everything is genuine, characters, scenery, the story, even the dialect that is used reflect the time and the authenticity of the region, many times, Nasreddin and other characters burst into singeing in Uzbek and Farsi, majority of the scenes are shot on location, and those that are inside studio sets, they are genuine recreation, it is a a story of a simple man, that is, a simple man that is bigger than life with his wisdom, a rebel of a hero to the people, you can’t help loving Nasreddin, ridding his donkey as he make an ass out of the Emir and his court. This one I shall go back too many a times, for it is a masterpiece, and one to be loved.
Posle smerti aka After Death (Yevgeni Bauer, 1915) Yevgeni Bauer is closes to Chekhov of all the silent Russian filmmaker, for his stories are about characters with little dilemmas, they are sincere creation on the screen, take the character of Andrei Bagrov in After Death, an idealist who is in seclusion after the death of his Mother, rejecting the life of society, he live in solitude, away from attachment, until he meet a girl that dazzle him with her big black eyes, but even then, he goes back to his room, back to his solitude, when the girl stalk him into he temptation of romance, he refuse, her sudden death of suicide become a guilt of conscience that he takes upon himself as he becomes obsessed at recalling her imagery. After Death is a film about the obsessions with the image, of memory, recalling that short acquaintance with her, regretting decision he had made, and living with regret is unbearable to him, it drive him to death. I can’t recall an earlier silent film than After Death with its obsessions with memory, neurotics, sub-conscience, dreams, the supernatural and imagery, it has to be among the first. Bauer was the most artistic of the early Russian silent filmmaker, simple, but masterful use of style, with long takes and camera movements, and little dependency on inter-titles. I don’t if Manoel de Oliveira has ever scene this film, for it shows a clear influence on his film, The Strange Case of Angelica, for both characters are in love with a dead woman, or the image of a dead woman. Magical.
Schastye vechnoy nochi aka The Happiness of Eternal Night (Yevgeni Bauer, 1915) We might never know what could have The Happiness of Eternal Night looked like in its entirety, for the film survived without its inter-titles, a pity. The story of Lili Pleskova, a blind girl from childhood but a maestro violinist, spend her time at her flower garden and reading books, she live a life of normality until her Mother and her suitor, Vadim, decide to have an expansive operation to restore her sight, and when he does, she mistaken his playboy brother, Grigoriy for Vadim, as he is the first man whom she sees. Vadim, thinking of himself as old an unworthy of her, let her imagine so. When she is about to get married to Grigoriy, but find out he has a lover, she has a nervous breakdown, she become blind again, and once again, it is Vadim who take care of her, as she find happiness in blindness when she could not in sight. Is it possible that Chaplin had seen this film, to have influenced City Light? We shall never know.
Za schastem aka For Happiness (Yevgeni Bauer, 1917) If you watch For Happiness, notice the great Lev Kuleshov, he play the young lover and also he was the set designer for the film. For Happiness is another masterful psychological melodrama from Yevgeni Bauer; the story of a young girl, on the edge of blindness, she fall in love with an older lawyer, Dmitrii, who himself is in love with her mother, the triangular love affair come into a climax in the beaches of Crimea, as our pale protagonist refuse her young lover, declaring in favor of the old lawyer, “I’m not free to love you, I have given my heart to Dmitrii Sergeevich Gzhatskii, without this love I should die”, despite her mother’s attempt to Dmitrii marry the you girl, he refuses, this time, there is no place for self-sacrificing, and again, the film end with the tragic down fall of our heroine, falling to the ground, shouting, “Mama, where are you? I can’t see anything”, the mother comes to her, holding her, while Dmitrii is on the background, framed between them, looking at them in bewilderment, the circle is not closed, it goes on, and there is little room for happiness in a Yevgeni Bauer film.
Umirayushchii Lebed aka The Dying Swan (Yevgeni Bauer, 1917) Once again, the the story of The Dying Swan evolve around a young girl with a disability, that of hearing. Based on a short novella by Zoia Barantsevich, the story of a dancer, Gizella, a mute who fall in love innocently with a playboy, after his betrayal, she become a dancer, dancing the Dying Swan, as she encounter a frustrated aristocrat of a painter who searches to find the face of death and capture it in his painting, he find death in little Gizella, only to have her once again find happiness by falling in love with the sam man whom once she was betrayed. When arriving at our artist’s studio, all happy and cheerful, it all become too much to bear, the painter must kill her in order to capture the real face of death, and he does it, looking at her cold face, he declare, “Be still, Gizella, do not move. That is where beauty and peace lie”, that is what I call, psychological drama. Priceless little tragedy.
Zhizn za zhizn aka A Life for a Life (Yevgeni Bauer, 1916) Not all of Yevgeni Bauer’s end with the tragic death of the heroine, in A Life for a Life the film end with the death of a playboy who has ruined not one, but three woman, two sisters and a mother, and his death comes with the price of the downfall of all three, but especially the mother, as she is the one who pulls the trigger. Another triangular love affair is in the center of A Life for a Life, and the moral seem to be; Marry for love but not for money, as climbing up the ladder for the sake richness via others only bring downfall of the five characters in the films.
Revolyutsioner aka Revolutionary (Yevgeni Bauer, 1917) Made during the turmoil of the Revolution of 1917, Revolutionary is an insight into what could have been the future filmmaking of Yevgeni Bauer if he had not died the same year from pneumonia; The story of a Grandad, among the revolutionaries of 1907, arrested and exiled to Siberia, he returns home 10 years later, only to take up arms and continue the struggle, he is full of hope for the future, “These days, when the destiny of Russia is at stake it’s shameful to be a defeatist”, with his son, they take the train, arm in arm to the front.
Korol Parizha aka The King of Paris (Yevgeni Bauer, 1917) The antagonist of the film is a card shark, he is taken under the protection and guides of another old timer of a card shark, he guide him into conquering the city of Paris, they are on top of the world, looking down, the old timers explain “Look! There below, this great city is ruled by depravity and vulgarity, with idols of gold and women. You will hunt among these wolves, tigers, and snakes. Learn to destroy and exploit them, they will devour you. Treat women as your slaves, men as your enemies, businessmen as your puppets. You will be right, strong, and wise, and become king of Paris”, sound very familiar to today’s many politicians and businessmen, from a card shark, to society shark, everything seem to go his way, if it not for the man who counter him, the protagonist of the film, a sculpture who is born rich, but prefer to make his way into the world by his work, our society shark break up his mother’s heart, and in the process, separating him from his son, he also desire to take away his girl, that is where he makes his flop, and like his epic rise, he fall down in epic style. The King of Paris was the last film of Yevgeni Bauer, he died from pneumonia while shooting the film.
Russkiy vopros aka The Russian Question (Mikhail Romm, 1948) Based on Konstantin Simonov’s play, The Russian Question, more than 60 years later, Mikhail Romm’s timeless take on the American media hold more truth ever, more relevant today than the day it was made, the film is a masterpiece in the examination of a manipulative press at the hand of capitalist tycoons, the film does not need my praising, I will let the main character speak for the film, in his final speech of the film, he not only predict the cold war, but the road toward deception that American media will take, a tool at the hand of the Government in manipulating the public through fear toward many the roads of war the America will follow, from Korea, Vietnam, Cold War to Iraq, to war on terrorism, in between, America and its media had always put fear into its public by creating threats and imaginary enemy, just read, or listen to the final speech of Harry Smith, left broken, blacklisted, in poverty for standing up to the truth, he make his final stand by touring America and speaking to the public; “I wrote an honest book about Russia. I’m reciting the contents aloud for the 47th time because no one will publish it in the land of free speech. I lost my job, and got thrown out on the street, but, America’s not Wall Street and millionaires, it’s not press barons and corrupt journalists. America is the people – us! They say our enemies are overseas, in the Soviet Union, but they’re here, a walking distance from here, on Wall Street and in DC! Or, 400 km away from here, in the Department of Defense! Our enemies are those who say Russia threatens us. Lies! No one threatens us. Our enemies are those forcing us into war! They say we’re a strong nation, and we are: strong enough to strangle the war-mongers!”, Unfortunately, the public in the States never been strong enough to stop the war-mongers and media tycoons, they always had the final says. Timeless Masterpiece.
Pyshka aka Boule de Suif (Mikhail Romm, 1934) It is only befitting for Mikhail Romm to have his first film an adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s satirical take on the French bourgeois and aristocracy, the story of Boule de Suif, a small time prostitute who find out the hard way that the world is dived not by borders, but by class. Romm made the film as silent, but a sound voice-over version of the film was re-released in 1955, that is the version I watched, and I have to say, despite the humor of the voiceover that best captures the spirit of Maupassant’s dark humor, the film perfect to be watched silently, for the voiceover only add the artificial flavor that is already captured visually by Romm, the grotesque, Maupassant’s selfishness and contempt for the bourgeois in the short story become that of Romm, out of the many characters in the film, there are only three that are likable; Boule de Sui, the Cook in the house and her Prussian lover of a solider, as for the rest, they as grotesque as one can get, lacking any human compassion, despite all that, both the film and the short story end up a higher note, as Boule de Suif realize the person she considered to be her enemy, the Prussian soldier is her only friend in the carriage.
Obyknovennyy Fashizm aka Ordinary Fascism (Mikhail Romm, 1965) Romm’s most watched film is not his fictional films, rather, it is his documentary, Ordinary Fascism; a brilliant examination of Nazism, at times humors, absurd and at times simply provocative. Romm’s examination of Hitler’s Germany is a simple one, he shows little things that put light on the absurdity of not only the mass population of Germany of the last century, but humanity as a whole, how could a culture that produces some of the best artist, philosophers and inventors bents its knee to a madman like Hitler? The answer is indoctrination of the innocent, especially from a young age of a child, the film begin and end with children; their innocent drawing open the film, and their equally innocent tales end it, it also open and end with an optimistic note, but in between, it examine man’s darkest psyche, before its optimistic note, Romm shows what has already and soon become the Military Industrial Complex, and it predict the rise of new fascism in the form of America’s domination of the world, like Hitler’s army, the American marines are trained to become beasts, killer machines, without thinking, without judgment, as their action in Vietnam soon will show more cruelty than Hitler ever dreamed off, but let us hear the final optimistic quote from Romm, “Nevertheless, I still believe that human beings are intelligent because when they are born they are wonderful. There are no bad children, all kids in the worlds are good. Everything depends on how we will shape their characters, what we will turn them into”.
Moya rodina aka My Motherland (Iosif Kheifits and Aleksandr Zarkhi, 1933) My Motherland is about the Soviet campaign at Manchuria, banned personally by Stalin, it was Iosif Kheifits and Aleksandr Zarkhi’s realism that still shock viewers expecting a propaganda film from early Soviet sound era, with its portrayal of both the Soviet and the Chinese armies, something that must have shocked Stalin, going as far as to say, “This film was not made by a Soviet”. There is no heroic deed in the film, nor is there any hero in the film, rather, it is a take on a war that is fought by little peasants, not knowing why and what for they are fighting for, the fighting scenes are not glorious, they are realistically brutal, the film has no narrative in sequence nor any plot, rather, it is made up of 8 different part, with one missing, each independent from the other, one might as well watch each part separately from the others without missing out much of the previous nor the next sequence, it is a raw film, not to be missed.
Deputat Baltiki aka The Baltic Deputy (Iosif Kheifits and Aleksandr Zarkhi, 1937) Among the many collaboration between Iosif Kheifits and Aleksandr Zarkhi, they are mostly remembered for The Baltic Deputy, it was made the same year as Grigori Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg’s The Return of Maxim, and the film clearly show an influence if not of The Return of Maxim, but the earlier two film of Grigori Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg’s Maxim Trilogy, but unlike the hero of Grigori Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg’s film, Maxim, a young peasant on the rise to become a revolutionary elite, in The Baltic Deputy, the hero is a well known Russian botanist, Kliment Timiryazev, he was already an elite during the Revolution of 1917, and when he sided with the Bolsheviks against the Mensheviks, he was left alone by his colleague, only to be rescued by the peasants and the workers, we see through him the early struggle of the Bolsheviks in controlling the press and running institutions amid boycotts by intellectuals and pro-tsar bureaucrats in the cold winter and hungry night of Petrograd. Lenin is present throughout the film, when he is not mentioned, he on the phone wishing a happy birthday to old Kliment Timiryazev, played brilliantly by Nikolay Cherkasov, his humble talk, his twisted walk, and his bent back with twisting of the mouth become his signature movements throughout the film, if for anything, for his acting, it is a must watch.
Groza aka The Thunderstorm (Vladimir Petrov, 1934) The Thunderstorm is perhaps is the masterpiece in realism from Vladimir Petrov, it is a film in line with that of many dealing with Women suffrage in a culture dominated by men, conservative traditions, religious fanatics, and people’s indifferent toward others’ suffering. The story of a peasant girl, married to a Mama’s boy, who end up in an affair with a city boy, only to end up in tragic fate as that of Anna Karenina, what make the film so tragic is the character of the heroine, Yekaterina, she is almost an angel who is tempted by love, she knows that if she follows her heart, she will be doomed by her conciseness, for she is deeply religious person, if she were not so innocent, not so pure, she could have it her way, but after the affair, her consciousness drive her into the confession of what she considers to be her sin, which drive others into condemning her, as her lover leave her in a moonlight night, her husband drunk in bar telling his friend the only reason he did no kill her because he want her to suffer with her sin, and her mother in-law with her friend condemn her, she has no choice but take the road of Anna Karenina, not the train, but the river. Not to be missed, a masterpiece of early Soviet sound cinema.
Kutuzov aka 1812 (Vladimir Petrov, 1943) It is ironic how history can repeat itself, and never as boldly as on 22 June 1941, during Operation Barbarossa, when Hitler made the same mistake that Napoleon made more than 130 years before, to invade Russia, a grave mistake that lead to the downfall of both men, for the vast landscape of Russia is unconquerable, history has proven that. Just like Napoleon, at the first stage of the war, Hitler thought that he had conquered Russia, for the first two year, he went deeper and deeper into the country, with the Russian Red Army retreating and regrouping ever more, so it is no coincidence that in such a turmoil of a time, Vladimir Petrov would make Kutuzov, a film that is more about Soviet Russia in 1943 than Imperial Russian in 1812, for Mikhail Kutuzov’s retreat from the battle of Borodino, then Moscow, and the burning of the city by Napoleon was viewed by many as not just a tactical retreat, but losing the war, only, patience and time made Kutuzov, same with Stalin, to turn his defeat of the early year in the war, into a triumph and in the process, defeating the invading forces, Kutuzov’s speech might as well been that of Stalin, “But the battle was not a defeat, Because the spirit of the army was not broken. And we didn’t retreat under the pressure of an enemy, but of our own free will. The victory was not theirs, but ours! Because the spirit of the Russian Army was not broken!”, and the final retreat of the French, the frozen, starveling dead soldier, might well has been that of Hitler’s army.
Revizor aka The Inspector General (Vladimir Petrov, 1952) The Inspector General or The Government Inspector is not only Gogol’s most beloved satirical play on the bureaucratic system of Imperial Russia, but it is the essential comical examination of all bureaucratic system that exited, exist and will exist. Petrov’s adaptation of the play is a lengthy two hour of comic laughter, he stay faithful not only to the plot and twist of the play, but to every character in the play, even Khlestakov’s servant, Osip is given a lengthy monologue that the film could have done without, but that is what give the film its comic texture, it stay loyal to Gogol, for it is a theatrical adaptation to a play that is faithful to the characters, the dialogue and the plot, rather than let the cinematic image speech, Petrov’s Gogol’s character speak. Not to be missed.
Seventeen Moments of Spring (Tatyana Lioznova, 1973) If you have ever have 13 hours in life to spend, take that time, and watch Seventeen Moments of Spring, the most intellectually suspenseful thriller of miniseries ever made for TV, simply brilliant, for half of that 13 hours is made up of silence, like a game of chess, everything is played behind the board, it is a pity, for they don’t make them like that nowadays. Vyacheslav Tikhonov in the role of Max Otto von Stierlitz, an SS Standartenführer playing SS against the Gestapo, making a fool out of al the big shots of Nazi party, including Schellnberg, Himmler, Kaltenbrunner, but above all, Muller, but who is Max Otto von Stierlitz? He is soviet spy agent with a real name of Maxim Isaev, doing his best to stop Operation Crossword, the pac between higher Nazi official and the American in order to stop the Soviet dominating post-war Germany, the time is running out for the Nazis, as Red Army, ever more advanced toward Berlin. One may remember Vyacheslav Tikhonov for his masterful portrayal of Prince Andrew in Bondarchuk adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but after watching Seventeen Moments of Spring, he is perhaps, will be remembered in years to come for his role as Stierlitz, he is brilliant, simply, brilliant, in 13 hours, not a single second of boredom. Masterpiece.
Nebo Zovyot aka Battle Beyond the Sun (Mikhail Karzhukov and Aleksandr Kosyr, 1959) Battle Beyond the Sun is significant in Soviet cinema, for it was the first Soviet space film to be made for more than 25 years, what is more significant is the subtle, but beautiful special effect that was way ahead of its time, and its future predication of a space station orbiting the earth, and the message of the film is a humanist one; despite competition between the Soviet and the American on the space race, as the American manned rocket loses its route and head straight to the Sun, or as one of them put it, “To hell”, the Soviet manned rocket, changes its mission to Mars, to save the two American astronaut, despite the risk. Two years after the release of the film, Yuri Gagarin, on 12 April 1961 became the first human to journey into outer space. Not to be missed.
Mechte navstrechu aka A Dream Come True (Mikhail Karzhukov and Otar Koberidze, 1963) If you watch A Dream Come True or rather listen to the sound of the film, do it, if for anything, for Edward Artemiev’s music, it was his debut film. Made four years after Battle Beyond the Sun, after Soviet’s triumph of space, becoming the first nation to send the first human to a journey into outer space, that of Yuri Gagarin, in A Dream Come True, Mikhail Karzhukov goes a step further, this time, man has a space station not on the outer orbit of Earth alone, but a far advanced space station on the Moon itself, as it become the starting point for man to conquer Mars and search for extra terrestrial life on the outer space, they meet them on Mars, as inhabitants of planet Zenturia make contact with human, even if it is all a dream of a young astronaut, it is one to explore.
Planeta Bur aka The Planet of Storms (Pavel Klushantsev, 1962) My friend, this is the film, the essential viewing of any space film of the 60s, for not only did Stanley Kubrick borrowed heavily from Klushantsev for 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the likes of Lucas even borrowed some of the characters for Star Wars, the Robot characters with is brilliant mathematical analysis, yet humors mistakes that almost cost the human their mission to Venus. The landscape of Venus is pure fantasy creation, with oceans, dinosaurs, and savages, a sustainable life that support both plants and animal life, and both are hostile to the humans, there are also signs of human, or rather, an advanced living extra terrestrial life on Venus, it comes in the form of a sound, a siren sound of a woman, like the Sirens in Homer’s Odyssey, the last three minute of the film tells it all; An earthquake shift a sea of water toward the lunching pad of the ship, time is running out to leave Venus back to the mother ship orbiting the planet, but just them, our young, dreamer astronaut, Alyosha, find what is to become the proof of Human life on Venus, in a rock, carved out beautifully is the face of a woman, shouting with joy, he runs to the ship to tell his comrade about his discovery, “Illya Scherba”, he tries to persuade them to stay, “Wait! We Can’t leave. They resemble us” They drag him into the ship, “Wait! Where are you dragging me?”, the door is closed, the ship take off, and a second later, in the water, we see the reflection of a woman, we only see her reflection. What a great ending to a great film.
Mapc aka Mars (Pavel Klushantsev, 1968) Pavel Klushantsev’s informative, witty and beautiful examination of the possibility of life on Mars is a must watch, for it no only inform all that is need to know about Mars in span of just under 45 minutes, it is also a beautifully composed lyrical of a little poem from Pavel in believing, or rather, hoping of life in Mars, he put forward hypothesize, arguments and counter-arguments in having such possibility. Wonderful, with its use of animation, effects and creation of Mar’s landscapes from imaginations.
Ya vizhu Zemlyu aka I See the Earth (Pavel Klushantsev, 1970) Pavel Klushantsev’s short documentary on the exploration of the space during the space age and its benefit to mankind, optimistic in its future look as the new technological achievement would change the way we live on the planet, rather, very optimistic, and never mention the negative side of such technological achievement when it comes to military use, as some nation become dominant over others. Worth Watching.
Berlin aka The Fall of Berlin (Yuli Raizman, 1945) This not an ordinary documentary, Yuli Raizman made the film during and right after the fall of Berlin, you may think that you have seen some of the footage, that is because, since then, many of the footage in the film were used and still is used in documentaries on WWII, there are even stills that has become memorable taken from the film, but rarely does any of them match the raw, ferocity and share boldness of The Fall of Berlin, just notes the masterly of even screen direction that only one that is aware of fictional narrative can achieve such perfect Juxtaposition of imagery; as the map shows the Red Army driving the German out of Soviet Union, from Stalingrad onward a double exposure of a 3D map and footage showing the fast advancing Red army, every single footage is carefully choses, the screen movement is always from left to right, the Russian offensive and destruction of the German defensive line in masterfully edited that matches best the Soviet’s crushing of Naziism and capturing of Berlin in all its glory, including fierce battle scenes in the suburbs and heart of Berlin, as Nazism finally bent its knees to the Red Army, on May 2, 1945, when the victory banner, the Soviet flag was risen over the Reichstag, perhaps the decisive moment of the last century, and the film give it justice, by shouting victory with the words, “To hoist a banner of victory over Reichstag”, amid the hurrah of the Red Army as they storm the building. The Fall of Berlin is a testament to Soviet power in defeating Hitler’s Germany, something that many Western’s historical refuse to admit, but without the Red Army, defeating Hitler would have been a dream for the West never to become a reality.
Kommunist aka The Communist (Yuli Raizman, 1957) There are two scenes that best describe Yuli Raizman’s The Communist from a critical analysis; Vasily and his friend make a long trip to Moscow, the year is 1918, the begging of the Revolution, Vasily is in search of material for to take it for back for a power plant construction in Zagora, they simply need nails, but there are none to found, Vasily visit the Party’s headquarter to get help, and it is Lenin himself that take on the phone, calling places to find nails for young Vasily, as he address him as “Comrade”, at that moment the story take on an epic scale of larger than life characters, but soon, very soon, all come down to earth, when Civil War break out, sabotage cripple the country, the workers at Zagora keep on building, only for hunger to slow them down, when a train full of flours head to the down, it stops miles away from it, as the crew run out of wood for fuel, our hero, Vasily take the task of cutting down a forest in order to save the people of Zagora, as the crew look down on him, working day and night, in determination to get the wood needed for the train, it would take two weeks for him to cut down trees, the others has no choice but to join in, when arriving to Zagora, the trains is sabotages, and young Vasily killed, the moral here is; Revolutions are possible because little people like Vasily, with their heroic deeds make it happen. But will history remember young Vasily, who gave everything for others? No, despite the brief sadness of Lenin hearing the news by accident and not recognizing who the young man was, at the end, he is buried in a desolated graveyard, with very few present, as his wife, take his son away, heading toward an open road, the struggle for them has just began. A Masterpiece.
Osvobozhdenie aka Liberation (Yuri Ozerov, 1969) Yuri Ozerov’s Liberation is not just epic filmmaking, it is beyond the word epic itself, close to 8 hours in length, Liberation is five film made into one, and it has to viewed as one, or else, you miss the masterly of re-creating most of the epic battles of WWII, from the first part, The Fire Bulge, after the defeat Stalingrad, as the German re-group to break the Soviet in Kursk, it is all recreated to outmost details; Battle of Kursk, or hell on earth, armored clashes, including the Battle of Prokhorovka, and the costliest single day of aerial warfare in history, the second begginingg of the end of Nazi Germany, first was in Stalingrad. By far the most extensive defensive works ever constructed by Soviet to stop the attack, one of the beset defensive plan, then counter-offensive maneuver in histoy of warfare, with the mastermind behind it being no other than Georgy Zhuko, the new German Tiger I tank that Hitler was so proud off as to conquer Soviet Union with, they were no match for the well defended tactics of the Soviet with mines, anti-tank guns, and anti-tank artillery, that is what the first part of the film is, to the last part, The Last Assault, which is the Fall of Berlin and the raising of the red flag on Reichstag, in between, it is an epic battle of men, machine and will of the Red Army to be the first to arrive in Berlin at whatever cost, it is the story of little men fighting the battles, but also the big shots making the battles happen, from Stalin, Roosevelt to Churchill, to commanders as Georgy Zhukov and Vasily Chuikov, they are all re-reincarnated for a fictional recreation that was only possible in Soviet of 1969, using the Red Army, with minimum use of effects, it is mind blowing to think how the battles scenes were created, don’t even think about it, just watch, it is a film made by a filmmaker, but also a military historian of a diplomat. Not to be missed.
Dersu Uzala (Agasi Babayan, 1961) Let me tell you about Dersu Uzala, he was a real man and not a fictional creation, as I write, the poster of Akira Kurosawa’s film on his life, Dersu Uzala (1976) is on the wall of my room, right behind my head, above Andre Tarkovky’s Stalker, I did not remember him tonight because of the poster, rather, because tonight I watched Agasi Babayan’s film on his life, and again, I was moved by the little story of a little old man, a child of nature, one with the heart of Gold. Who was Dersu Uzala? You may call him the one man who had found happiness, he was an old man, illiterate, lived all his life in the vast forest of Siberia, we would not be talking about him if it were not for Vladimir Arsenyev’s account of his early exploration in Siberia, Arseniev was an explorer of a map maker, in one of his expedition, he came upon Dersu Uzala and wrote about his journey with him through the vast landscape, unknown to him, but like a book memorized by Dersu. There are many wonderful passage in the book and in both film that show how a man living in solitude with nature can teach a man like Arseniev, well read and educated the basic knowledge of life, Dersu, the most noblest, caring and most beloved character in literature and films that I have ever encountered upon; in one scene, he ask for salts, matches, bread and water, then he gathers woods, put them all in the hut in which they spend the night before, when asked by Arseniev, as to why he is doing that, “You plan to return here?” his answer is; “No, Other people will come. Find this hut, dry wood, matches, and food. So they will not die here, so they will be happy”, he cared for travelers, for strangers whom he would never see, nor would they know who was is that cared for them. Read the book, if you ever get a chance, it is written Jack London style, and then watch the films.
Tropoy beskorystoy lyubvi aka The Path Towards Uninterested Love (Agasi Babayan, 1971) Agasi Babayan’s cinema might be compared to that of Jack London’s literature; if anything, The Path Towards Uninterested Love resemble a lighthearted take on White Fang, with a heroic deed at the end of the film to save his best friend, MikhaIych, and the domestication of Kunak, a wild lynx into man’s best friend takes lesser challenge that that of White Fangs. The film was dedicated to Vitaly Bianki, author of many books on nature, but today he is mostly remembered as children’s writer. The Path Towards Uninterested Love has that innocent of a film made for children, but goes beyond that, with its lyricism and beautifully captured scenery, one only has to imagine as how Babayan captured such rich narrative of scenes in the life of Kunak, one think that directing actors, or harder, directing children is a tough knot, think of doing that with a lynx. A beautiful film, simply beautiful.
Rys vykhodit na tropu aka Rys Follows the Path (Agasi Babayan, 1982) It’s ten years later, and once again, we meet Kunak and MikhaIych, they are both older, one at the end of his life, the other at its peak. Once again, their real enemy is not nature, but man, as they plunder the natural world, with it, the creatures that inhabit it. Kunak is now well domesticated, he guard the forest with MikhaIych against hunters, but they are also become part of the natural landscape, tipping the life of other creatures toward safety. There comes moments when Kunak has to leave his guardian, he is young and looking for love, but soon has to be rescued again by MikhaIych, for its hard for domesticated Kunak to leave alone in the forest, but he does his damage, leaving behind three beautiful little lynx. The love of all being, of nature is the center of the film, but how can one teach others’ to love equally, MikhaIych’s friend it is by tightening the law that on can keep away hunters from hunting, but MikhaIych has another option, “Love”, to teach others to love all other beings, and it has to start at a young age, “Kids shouId be taught to perform acts of kindness since childhood”, his friend argue back, ” Besides, law should be tightened. I bet, we can’t do without tightened measures”, but MikhaIych keep on believing in teaching love and kindness as the only possible solution, “But Iove is more powerful. That’s what I think. And I pin aII my hopes on Love”. That hope is in Agasi Babayan, his two beautiful film on the friendship of Kunak and MikhaIych is a testament to that. When the film end, we don’t want it to end, for we have become friend with the two, when cinema become as real as life itself, “So this is the end of another story from the Iives of our friends. Will we ever meet them again? Who knows…”. Not to be missed, these two masterpieces.
Pechki-lavochki aka Happy-Go-Lucky (Vasili Shukshin, 1972) You only have to read the biography of Vasili Shukshin to know where his heart is, he was born into a peasant family in Altai Krai, grow up as an orphan, lived and worked his childhood and into his youth in a collective farms, so it is no suspire that Happy-Go-Lucky is a a comedy, a story of a common man from the Kolkhoz in search of understating, rather wishing to live in the city, but what he find, his fellow city comrades only look at him as a specie from another planet, he on the train ride to the south to get a health treatment, with his wife, they encounter out right hostility at first, then fake modesty, which turn out to be that of a purse snatcher, now, they only have mistrust toward city people, when finally, they encounter an old Professor of linguistic, they take him for a con, only to find he is interested in their dialects, but even he, look at them through a microscope. Shukshin’s film is about the common man of the Kolkhoz, cut apart from the outside world, and when he is exposed to it, he has a hard time relating to the place, that is why, he even try to call his fellow citizen in they city as “Mister” rather than “Comrade”, for when in city, he has to use a different language in order to get alone. Does he find what he is looking for at the end? He get his wish to take a swim in the Black Sea, but, the film end with a long tracking-pan shot of a vast landscape of the Kolkhoz, as the camera stop on our hero, he is sitting alone, lost in thought, stare at us, the viewer, then, address us directly, “That’s it, guy, the end”. Vasili Shukshin was not only a great actor, a brilliant writer, he was also a masterful director. Masterpiece.
Kalina krasnaya aka The Red Snowball Tree (Vasili Shukshin, 1973) The Red Snowball Tree was one of the favorite films of R.W. Fassbinder, and he was right, it could be anybody’s favorite film. What is it that make this little film such a heartwarming comedy of a tragic film? Vasili Shukshin himself playing the leading role? His name suggest everything, Grief, or, is it the story of a man, doomed from beginning to the end lead a life unlike others, always in paradox when in sadness, and when in pure joy, at the end, he know he will be killed, but he goes for it, despite finding what the viewer might consider happiness, he is still lost as to what he is searching for. The psychology of Grief is many diminutional, like the characters of Fassbinder, at any giving seconds, we never know what he will do, nor do we know, what his actions would lead him to do next, one minute in the edge of madness, only to become like a child, lost in laughter, that is why, he is an anti-hero that we love, and his death at the end of the film, become a tragic moment, unbearable to watch. What start as the story of a prisoner, in search of his pen-pal, become the story of a man not knowing how to find happiness, nor knowing how to search for it. Vasili Shukshin’s role is brilliant, the range of emotion he express in the film is beyond the capability of many actors, never miss this masterpiece, it is a great one.
Mne dvadtsat let aka I am Twenty (Marlen Khutsiyev, 1964) Here is what I wrote after seeing my first film from Marlen Khutsiyev, Spring on Zarechnoy Street; “I love this film, it reminds you of the classic Russian literature. Every character in the film has their own desires and need, bigger than life characters who each seem to symbolize a desire that others need to have, nobody is perfect but they each in their own way are unique. The notion of love that is Spring on Zarechnoy Street is nostalgic for it is innocent, rarely do you see such representation on films nowadays. Beautiful, nostalgic, lyrical and innocent. A great discovery”, now, watching my second film from Khutsiyev, I am Twenty, I could equally write the same sentence and apply it to this film, but also add the following; in I am Twenty, we encounter the post WWII generation who never encountered the hardship of that parents, but they still live in the agony of the war, as three main character on the film, the three best friend who share their outmost felling with each other, are three orphans, never saw their fathers, and no, they are lost in the vast landscapes of Moscow, in search of love, passion, friendship, in a word, in search of some thing to give a meaning to their life. I am Twenty is a beautiful film, both in contents and in look, it has a lyrical voice-over, rather a poetic one, with beautiful and equally poetic lyrical imagery, shot mostly during the magic hours of early morning and evening, the black and white film captures beautifully the mist, the rainy pavement, the white snow, and the grey skyline, with the masterful use of camera movement, as it never stops, always moving, add the love story in the center of the film, and you have a masterpiece in lyricism that bring nostalgia to the age of youth, going to mid 20s, as it become everyone’s story. Watch closely and you will see the young Andrei Tarkovksy. Watch it, and fall in love with it.
Iyulskiy dozhd aka July Rain (Marlen Khutsiyev, 1966) I was watching July Rain with a friend, after an hour, he said, “What is the story of the film”, “Nothing”, I answered, “It is a film about little things in life, about everything, talking, going on picnic, walking, being in relationship, breaking up, singing, etc, it is a bout life”, indeed it is, with the use of pop music of the past, Jazz especially and the classics, folk songs, and sounds of everyday events, it is a symphony of places and people, the wave of the sea get more time if not equal to that of a character, with it, it is an examination of a relationship one step away from the place, which according to her, “Make people happy”, but she never reaches it, that place is the official sealing of the marriage, to lose one’s independent or not? That is the question. Khutsiyev’s camera never shy away from capturing the moments they are, always on the streets, among the crowds, as they stare at us, the films opens with the camera searching among the crowds, who is our protagonist? It searches and searches, until it chases our heroine, and its end up among the crowd, the old Veterans of WWII, meeting once again, now, our heroine is lost among them, just one among the crowd we are again, but the camera no longer chase anybody, they all have a story to tell, as they stare at us, but that is for another time. Masterful.
Poslesloviye aka Epilogue (Marlen Khutsiyev, 1983) Based on Yuri Pakhomov’s short story, Father-in-law Arrived, Epilogue is an examination of kinship between a writer and his father-in-law arriving on a visit to Moscow to see his daughter, but end up spending a week with him in a small apartment, the film is an examination of two generation of Russians, that of the War and of the post-war, they are far apart from each other, spiritually and in viewing of the world, just as the older generation has seen the worst of the world, yet, they are the most optimistic and energetic when facing life, compared to our writer, who has nothing to live for but the small moments of life. The story take place within an apartment, the streets of Moscow and what is shown on Television; alway the arm race between USA and Soviet Union, one of the most spiritual films of Marlen Khutsiyev, and it is among his best, the old Father-in-law might as well been a carbon copy of Leo Tolstoy in the 1980, or he wish to be like him, as he recall his name and writing many a time.
Asya’s Happiness aka The Story of Asya Klyachina (Andrei Konchalovsky, 1966) I could not help but recall the musical films of Ivan Pyryev when watching Konchalovsky’s Asya’s Happiness; they are a world apart in their take on the life of collective farming, in Pyryev’s film everything is taken to the limit; the farms are big, the characters are full of life, the future is bright, and the food table is always full of exotic foods, the lovers always meet a happy ending, in Konchalovsky’s collective farm; everything is small, the past is gloomy, the future is uncertain, characters are lost, the love story is cruel, lovers never meet a happy ending, and the food table and the farm, they are not glamours, they only meet the need of the inhabitant. You may call Asya’s Happiness a retelling and at the same time an ironic realistic twisting of all the collective farming film that came before it, it is realistic, rather reaching the peak of Russian neo-realism, not only because the majority of the characters are real farmers, they are non-professional actors, but because the film seem like an long improvisation of scenes captured documentary styles, with real people telling us real stories, but under Leonid Brezhnev’s rule, the film was banned for many years for its dark look at the “peasantry”. It is a film full of life, rich and a beautiful film.
Pervyy Uchitel aka The First Teacher (Andrei Konchalovsky, 1966) It is incredible to think that Konchalovsky made The First Teacher the same years as Asya’s Happiness, of the two, the latter get the most credit as being the best work of Konchalovsky, but to me, The First Teacher is my favorite, for it speak not only to the early days of the Soviet union and the rest of its history in the Central Asia, but it is the most relevant film to have been made on the battle of modernism vs traditionalism, the forces of changes and with it, the tragic consequences that it create be it for the a better or worst future. The film take place in the first years of Soviet rules in Kyrgyzstan, the story of Diuishen, a young fiery revolutionary of a communist, now on a mission of teach the children of a conservative village on the mountains education, only to find out that changing a society deep rooted in tradition is not easy, and his fiery attitude of a fast revolution of the masses only backfire on him, despite the many obstacles, the short coming, and let downs, he never gives up on his mission, when at the end of the film, the stable now turned into a school is burned down to the ground, he takes an axe and vows to cut down the only tree in the whole region, the tree that symbolize the past and the tradition of the local people that are proud off, he cuts down the tree to build a new school for the future generation, but will it work? We never know, as the screen turns black, and we only hear the sound of the axes cutting down the tree, now it is two of them, as the elder man of the village, the one who’s great grandfather planted the tree help him to cut down, the same man who once advice him on the inability to erase the old way of tradition, “The earth is vast, boundless. It’s so large that people can be lost. What is that keeps people together? It’s the tradition, it’s like a clay vessel. If it cracks, the water will pour onto earth”
Dvoryanskoe gnezdo aka Nest Of The Gentry (Andrei Konchalovsky, 1969) Ivan Turgenev’s timeless masterpiece, Home of the Gentry aka Nest Of The Gentry, on the inability to conquer love was first published in 1859, and more than 110 years later, it is only befitting for a fellow Russian to make a film adaptation of it. Konchalovsky’s film take the short novella and only shows what is essential that cinema is capable to produce, one reason that the ending of the novel is not the ending of the film, for no filmmaker can capture the nostalgia of heartbreaking sentimentality at the ending; As Lavretsky returns to Liza’s house, amid the jubilation of the youth, he only find the past present in his heavy heart, and there is no one to share it with, for the exception of his memory, all seem to have changed, but the garden is the same, the house is the same, older and more gray, and the old piano is in the same place that once Liza played, there is even sound of laughters, but it is not that of Liza. Konchalovsky does not even try to capture that ending, for only the genius of Turgenev is capable of such masterly, for making the reader feel as heavy hearted as the characters in his stories, even now, writing about it, I still recall my first reading Turgenev’s Home of the Gentry, and the feeling that I had reading that ending, a painful joy of discovering what I consider most nobel truth in Art. Not to be missed for any Turgenev and Konchalovsky’s fan.
Dyadya Vanya aka Uncle Vanya (Andrei Konchalovsky, 1970) Unlike Konchalovsky’s adaptation of Ivan Turgenev’s Home of the Gentry, his take on Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is a faithful to utmost detail adaptation of the play; All the action take place inside the house, closes and atmospheric at the beginning, as the film progress, and the characters slowly become who they are, the screen expand, with it the house, as each doorway become a distance frame of a prison on the characters. Chekhov’s most beloved play is perhaps also his most personal; as each character in the play is a part of himself, and each character is equally the other side of the coin of the other, yet, they all desire what seem to be the impossible to desire at such a stage of their life, and when they all, each has to face the reality within themselves, it becomes unbearable not only to themselves, but to the viewer also, and that ending, the most optimistic ending in pessimism ever, as Sonia is left with her uncle, she has nothing to live for, but life itself; “Ah, then dear, dear Uncle, we shall see that bright and beautiful life; we shall rejoice and look back upon our sorrow here. A tender smile and we shall rest. We shall hear the angels. We shall see heaven shining like a jewel. We shall see all evil and all our pain sink away in the great compassion that shall enfold the world. Our life will be as peaceful and tender and sweet as a caress. I have faith; I have faith. We shall rest. We shall rest”, and for a few second, the camera leave the house, as it fly over a half sunken landscape. Ah, What Nostalgia, Chekhov.
Sibiriada aka Siberia (Andrei Konchalovsky, 1979) Siberiade is an epic saga of the struggle within the wilderness of the vast Siberia, spanning more than 60 years, from the Imperial agricultural Russian to the rise of the Industrial Soviet, we see all that happening not through the eyes of the big shots on top, but to that of the little people in the village of Elan, where the two families of Ustyuzhanins and Solomin are in constant struggle between Progress and Tradition; Just as Ustyuzhanins has the dream of building the City of the Sun in the place of the desolated Elan, the Solomins are happy to the way things stands, the struggles goes on from one generation to another, with both becoming victims of the machine of progress, as finally, the dream of City of the Sun seem to come to realization as amid the blazing fire, Oil is officially discovered, but with a price. Konchalovsky’s 5 hour epic is an examination of Soviet history seen through the eyes of the common man, of the unsung heros, colorful cinematography and musical soundtrack by Eduard Artemiev, and innovate use of Montage of colliding history with the story of the film are three hight points of the film, the ending best symbolizes the film; as bulldozers, amid fires, and raining down of dead birds, demolish the graveyard, they are breaking up with the past, with tradition, but at what price?
Magdanas lurja aka Magdana’s Donkey (Tengiz Abuladze and Rezo Chkheidze, 1955) Two masters of Georgian cinema collaborated in making Magdana’s Donkey, the film that put Georgian cinema on the map of World’s Cinema. There no doubts that Italian Neo-realism movement, and especially DeSica’s The Bicycle Thief had an influence on this film; The story of a peasant widow, Magdana, with three children to feed, her only trade is to sell yogurt in a small town close by, every morning she takes a heavy load to walk to the city to make her living, when by a chance encounter, her children discover an abandoned donkey, near his death, on the road to the village, they nourish him back to life, and Magdana now can take her trip into the town without too much stress, but the discovery set into motion accusation by a greedy merchant in the town, who accuses her stealing the donkey, as he bribe the judge, despite the many witness and their testimony, they take away the poor animal from Magdana and her children, and she found out the hard way the corruption and injustice of the Imperial Russian rule, despite all that, despite the broken spirit, and no bright future to look for, the film end with an optimist note, rather like the ending of The Bicycle Thief, as the child take the hand of his father, they walk away from the crowd, in Magdana’s Donkey, the grandfather, and the village walk alongside Magdana and her children, they are not alone, as grandfather comfort her; “What can we do Magdana. Don’t be afraid, daughter. Don’t lose heart. We’re with you”
Me, bebia, Iliko da Ilarioni aka I, Grandmother, Illiko and Illarion (Tengiz Abuladze, 1962) Based on a a novel by Nodar Dumbadze, I, Grandmother, Illiko and Illarion, they story of a young boy’s coming of age during WWII and its aftermath, we see everything through the eyes of Zuriko, as he recall his time with his Grandmother, and two old friends, Illiko and Illarion, not to mention his first love, Mari. Co-written with Nodar Dumbadze himself, the film is a lyrical ode to the youth, the innocent, melancholy and humor in the life of a country boy soon to become a University student. As a young man, Zuriko is full of optimism, one that of conquering everything, with his good natured attitude toward others, and his humors narration of the film, he become nothing short of a lovable character, such optimism of the future only could come from a young heart, as at the end of the film, after the death of his grandmother, a symbolic shot of him passing by a newly cultivated field, he take the wide open road with Mari toward the never ending sky, with it, his optimism; “I will take IIiko and IIarion, and we will live all together. I, IIiko, IIarion and Meri. I’ll have many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and their children, too, and we’ll make up the whole village. Then we will be even more. And the whole world, that’ll be us. We’re the whole world. We’ll never die, never run out, and there will be no end of us.” Beautiful film.
Vedreba aka The Plea (Tengiz Abuladze, 1967) Abuladze takes bites and pieces of poems from Vazha Pshavela to make one of the most stylish film of his career; the battle between individual freedom in a society dominated by loyalty to one’s clan, with its saturated black and white cinematography, symbolism, lyricism in poetry, minimalism in acting, and the raw Georgian landscape, the film is a mediative watch in a soul lost in a constant battle with one’s individual perspective of what is right and wrong as it clashes with that of the culture. You may call the Pleas the first film in line of Abuladze’s trilogy of one’s struggle against all, and one is always condemned, as the innocent perishes helplessly, the other two films are The Wishing Tree (1977) and Repentance (1984), a trilogy on the turbulent history of Georgia, shown from the perspective of the little people, of the the few individual who thought another world was possible, the opening credit of The Plea fit best the mood, a line from Vazha Pshavela; “The beautiful nature of man can never die”, the man may perish, but not the idea. Wonderful.
Natvris khe aka The Wishing Tree (Tengiz Abuladze, 1977) The story of The Wishing Tree takes place in the pre-revolutionary Georgia, as the old tradition take hold of the village more strongly than ever, there comes rebellion among the few inhabitant, they are considered the outsiders to others; The village idiot, who preaches about the upcoming revolution of the working class, look to the bright future that will bring railroad and equation to all, the older village idiot, he only look to the past, to the old glory day of a Christian Georgia, there is the prostitute whom everyone look down upon, but she has more moral than all, there is also the one man who live his life with his children, always looking for a magic tree that will never to be found. Among all these, there is an innocent love story that end in a tragedy, as the Religion and the States in the persona of a priest and the rich clan of the village make sure the two lover never to be happy, as they are lead to death at the end of the film. A poetic attack on the old tradition of the pre-revolutionary Georgia from Abuladze, as all that is innocent must perish.
Monanieba aka Repentance (Tengiz Abuladze, 1984) Well my friend, meet the antagonist of Repentance, Varlam; he got the mustache of Hitler, the face of Stalin, the gestures of Mussolini, the speech of Churchill and the charm of Roosevelt, and he play all against the middle. If Abuladze’s The Wishing Tree was his attack on the mentality of pre-revolutionary Georgia, then Repentance is surely the post-revolutionary Georgia, and it is no wonder the film was shelved upon its release. Varlam is a dictator, that even after his death, he still come back to hunt the living, as the debates goes on to the man’s action and deeds in a bold attack on totalitarianism, that once take the path of destruction even the holiest cannot escape from it, as the past memory of the living must be erased to make way for the new ideology, even if that past is the Art itself. A comic tragedy, Repentance was perhaps Abuladze breaking point in creating his most ideological film on the modern time that he kept it hiding inside for so long.
Aybolit-66 aka Oh How It Hurts 66 (Rolan Bykov, 1966) What a beautiful film Aybolit-66 is, an eccentric comedy of a musical unlike any others, co-written and directed by Rolan Bykov, the story is based on a fairy tale by Kornei Chukovsky, Doctor Aibolit. The innocent story of Doctor Ouch, with his dog, Avva, they join the monkey Chichi, as they travel the ocean to rescue the sick monkeys of Africa, they are Good, but on the way, they face Evil, rather a comic version of the Evil in the form of the pirate and bandit, Barmalei, and the hilarious battle between Good vs Evil takes place. The film has a colorful cinematography, with its use of space on the screen, as the size changes from one sequence to another, it is one of those film that has to be watched on the big screen, as characters, psychically, lean on the edge of the screen to pick up object inside the theater, or address the audience, there is one shot in which one of the characters falls into the theater, out of the screen, only to be rescued. The music and the songs are superb, simply the word “superb” is enough to describe them, even the ocean and the winds sing their songs, not to mention the beautifully choreographed cinematography. The screen is contracted in front of us, it break all the artificial barrier between the audience and the film, all the tricks are shown to us, circus tricks and pantomime above all, in between, showing the technical mastery of making the film, it is an intellectual film made for grownup children, “An Ass, an Ass, my Kingdom for an Ass”, brilliant. Beautiful film.
Chuchelo aka The Scarecrow (Rolan Bykov, 1983) Rolan Bykov’s The Scarecrow is one of the most honest, yet, devastating examination of the cruel psyche in children. Children can be as cruel, if not more, psychologically and psychically as adults are, François Truffaut’s Small Change comes to mind. In The Scarecrow, what start out as innocent children film, soon turn into a nightmarish one, when the realization of a failed hope, of one’s innocent sacrifice goes not only unanswered, but ridiculed, the film become a heartbreaking examination in guilt, forgiveness and redemption. Lena is a young charming little girl, she comes from Moscow to live with her Grandfather in a small town in which everyone knows everyone’s else’s secret, especially the children, on her first day of school, she is ridiculed for being the Granddaughter of of a rich but greedy man who only collect painting yet incapable of buying himself a decent coat, she is considered by all as ugly, she is named “Scarecrow”, and she take all the insult humbly, always with a smile. When she take the blame of betrayal of guilt of another person as nobel gesture for the boy she is in love with, she is boycotted by all the children in the school, they torment her mentally and psychically, she take all pain without telling the others of her innocent, and the boy, well, he betray her, that is where her heart break, from a child, she become an adult living with agony in the cruelty with other, the only way out of her, is to leave all the pain behind, she shaves her head, goes to them for the final time, face to face, she is triumphal but broken in hear, she leave the school with her Grandfather, the take the boat, leave all their belonging to the town, the rest of the Children realize their guilt, now, they live in the agony of betraying, of being cruel, of breaking the spirit of the most noblest of them all, little Lena, this time, the collective ideology fails, and the individual triumph. Masterpiece.
Starik Khottabych aka Old Khottabych (Gennadi Kazansky, 1956) Wonderful charming little film Old Khottabych is. Based on a popular children book by Lazar Lagin, the story of Hassan Abdul-rahman ibn Khattab, an old genie in captivity for more than three thousands years, he is freed by a Soviet Young Pioneer, Volka, only to find out that in the modern day Soviet Union, there is no room for selfish materialistic desires that the old genie wishes to bestow upon young Volka, and it is Volka who has to take the responsibility of making Khottabych into an active member of the society, by educating him the basic knowledge of the modern life and socialism. The story has a simple narrative, with a simple plot line; How would a three thousands old genie behave in a modern society? The possibility for humor is many, including a geographical lesson from Old Khottabych, “If the Earth were round, the water would flow off it, and people would die of thirst! Actually the Earth is shaped like a flat disk and is washed on all side by a great river called the Ocean. The Earth rests on six elephants, the elephants stand on a huge turtle. That is what the world is like from the point of view of science “. A priceless watch.
Chelovek-amfibia aka The Amphibian Man (Gennadi Kazansky and Vladimir Chebotaryov, 1962) Some of the best Utopian science fiction books were written the early days of the Soviet power, Alexander Belyayev’s Amphibian Man is an example; Doctor Salvator’s attempt to create an Utopian world in the depth of the Ocean is faced with a Capitalist prospect creating an army of divers to gather the riches of the bottom of the few, “At the bottom of the ocean there’re neither poor nor wealthy, everyone will be free and happy there”, for that dream, his son, Ichtiander become the victim in the battle of the two, for he is the first Fish Man and is doomed to live in solitude, never to meet a happy ending with girl he loves most. The character of Ichtiande is a tragic one, he seem quite happy to live in his world of the Oceans that is until he fall in love, and when does, coming to the surface only bring with it sadness and hostility from the inhabitants, he can’t grasp the notion of private property nor the notion of owning anything, to him everything belong to nature, all equal with no value attached to them, so it is only befitting that he goes back to where he belong, even if that mean a tragic ending of a love lost. The film has a beautiful color cinematography. Wonderful.
Musorgskiy (Grigori Roshal, 1950) The title of Grigori Roshal’s film is Musorgskiy and the film is a bold championing of Musorgskiy’s modest attempt to go back to the root of Russian folk music and his struggle with the established Tsar controlled art circle, but the film is more about “The Five” that were the founder of the Russian Nationalist movement in music, going back to the root and away from bold and blind copying of European music; Mikhail Glinka, Alexander Dargomyzhsky, Mily Balakirev, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and on top of the circle was the critic, Vladimir Stasov, played by no other than the great, Nikolai Cherkasov, from being black listed, to his triumph performance of Boris Godunov, Musorgskiy and friends are in constance struggle to bring their music to the masses. Colorful cinematography and theatrical recreation of pure fantasy of his Musorgskiy’s operas highlight the film.
Rimskiy-Korsakov (Gennadi Kazansky and Grigori Roshal, 1952) After Musorgskiy, the turn of another “The Five” is that of Rimskiy-Korsakov, old aged, he reflect upon his past from a late ideological awaking, with Nikolai Cherkasov again making an appearance as his moral guide in the role of Vladimir Stasov. Many colorful and fantastic staging of Rimskiy-Korsakov’s work includes; Sadko, Tale of Czar Saltan, and The Snow Maiden, it is a pity, for may favorite of his work, Scheherezade is missing from the film. This time not only does Korsakov has to battle it out with Tsar and its loyal followers, but also with fiery young group of critics who looks toward symbolism, away from realism, fantasy and romanticism that Korsakov and Stasov championed.
Snezhnaya koroleva aka Snow Queen (Gennadi Kazansky, 1966) Kazansky’s Snow Queen is a beautiful, colorful little film that rely more on the power of story telling than first rated visual effect to re-tell the Hans Christian Andersen fable about a little boy, Kay, kidnapped by the icy cold queen of the north, as his heart become icy, with no emotion to register, she lock him up in her palace, only to be rescued by her friend, Gerda, as she make a journey among the kings, robbers and animal in the vast imaginary landscape, triumph over everything by the simple use of her honesty and goodwill, as a magical reindeer, fly her to the icy castle to face the wrath of the Snow Queen and to warm the heart of little Kay into coming home. Wonderful film.
Pervyy paren aka The First Lad (Sergei Parajanov, 1959) Parajanov’s The First Lad is more of an Ivan Pyryev’s musical film than the poetic Parajanov we are all familiar with; Like Pyryev’s films, the story take place within a collective farm, the two lover are mistakenly unaware of how madly they are in love with each other, and they argue to despise each other in order not to confess their love, both has to prove themselves worthy of a hard worker in the farm in order to meet a happy ending, as always, the film end with the upcoming promise of a wedding. Highlight include; musical numbers, comical giveaway scenes, and two football matches, shot rather maturely by Parajanov, for he is a poet of a filmmaker and not a director of actions. Worth Watching.
Ukrainian Rhapsody (Sergei Parajanov, 1961) Among the early films of Parajanov, Ukrainian Rhapsody stand out as his most poetic, in line with his latter films. It is Parajanov’s loved poem to music; from classical to folk, in time of wars, as the guns is the language spoken, there comes a time when the only hope in spirit is that of music, the characters in Ukrainian Rhapsody live by the sound of music, by songs, it connect them to their loved ones, to the past, to peace time, and it make them hope for a brighter future, indeed, as in war, the boundaries are high, each nation battle it out against the other, the one thing that connect them all is Music; and in Ukrainian Rhapsody, all is songs, from Russian and Ukrainian folk, to German classics, to Italian operas, to American Jazz, it got it all, it is Parajanov’s love poem to peace in time of wars. There are beautiful transitions between scenes, amide wars and destruction, one nation’s music is connected to that of the other, it is an intellectual film that speak the language of music, rich in sound and imagery, colorfully poetic, and it span the history of the pre-war to the post-war, as the two lover travel by a train, they tell their stories in flashback, and the question is; Would they meet again? or will fate have them each travel in a different way?, to find out, you have to watch this beautiful film.
Tsvetok na kamne aka A Little Flower on a Stone (Sergei Parajanov, 1962) There are three battle taken place in the soul of the characters in A Little Flower on a Stone; Individualism vs collectivism, choosing love vs choosing organized religions, and, pride vs humility. There are four main characters that has to battle it out, each having to make once of the choice, they are young, for the first time they are away from their families, living in a collective farm, they struggle within themselves and each other. There are protagonist and antagonists in the film also; the protagonist is the leader of the collective farm, who has to look out for everyone’s welfare, the antagonist is a religious priest, who run an underground religious school at night, and doing his best at daytime to sabotage the workforce, he get his Bible printed in NY, yes in Russian, and put fear of God into the soul of those who comes his way, while his real aim is to seduce the women. Take away the propaganda, and you got in A Little Flower on a Stone, here and there, touches of poetry from Parajanov.
Samogonshchiki aka Bootleggers (Leonid Gaidai, 1961) Get to know the mischievous trio; Fool, Coward, and Experienced, the three that seem always to be present in Gaidai’s films. In Bootleggers, they are hiding deep in the snowy forest, making liqueurs, only for a smart dog to lead them straight to the gate of prison. Gaidai’s Bootleggers is a charming little film of color in the tradition of silent cinema, with the mischievous trio being the imitation of silent comedians; the likes of Lauren and Hardy, Keaton and Chaplon, but the creation is pure Gaidai, with his innovative use of music, sound effects, slapsticks and simple gags that become unpredictable in their repetitions. Charming little film.
Delovye lyudi aka Business People (Leonid Gaidai, 1962) A combination of three short stories from O’Henry make up this wonderful film; Strictly Business is the first one of the three, the story of Greed, from a bandit to a Wall Street tycoon, a robber is always a robber, it is shot like a Western, with a beautiful cinematography and directed by Gaidai in perfect harmony of technique that matches the Western of the masters, with its dark humor, the film slowly progress from a Western into a Noir. The second story is squeezed in the middle, and it is the shortest of the three; it is based on O’Henry’s Makes the Whole World Kin, the story of a little time burglar who end up trying to rob a rich man who has rheumatism, they end up becoming a friend, with the our small time burglar taking him for a drink in the end. The third one is the best, and the most hilarious of the three; The Ransom of Red Chief, the story of two kidnappers who end being kidnaped themselves at the hand of a mischievous boy little boy, they end up paying his old man to take the boy back instead of getting ransoms for him, the story is perfect for Gaidai to take his slapsticks into perfection, it is simply a hilarious watch. What a masterpiece in humor.
Operatsiya Y i drugiye priklyucheniya Shurika aka Operation Y and Other Shurik’s Adventures (Leonid Gaidai, 1965) The mischievous trio; Fool, Coward, and Experienced once again make an appearance in Operation Y, the third story in Shurik’s Adventures, and as always, through their stupidity, they trap themselves rather than Shurik’s out maneuvered tactics. Made up of three stories, with young student Shurik (Aleksandr Demyanenko) being the protagonists; The first story is titled Workmate, rather a statical of a comical take on the collective work, as a drunkard of a boor is punished to work fro 15 days with Shurik, they end up playing cat and mouth chase rather than making progress on a building compound, as the head engineer does his best to make him work, putting forward the examples of Soviet satellite conquering and exploring the space and its dancer at the Bolshi, but all he get is to mix work and fun into one; “In an age, when Soviet satellites explore the Bolshi” . The second story is titled Déjà vu; on the morning of final exam, Shurik has to find a textbook to study for his exam, he find it at the hand of a young girl in a bus, he chase her through the streets, halfway through Moscow, up the stairs, into her apartment, the dining table, into her bed, study together, out again, into the University, without them noticing each other, for they are both busy reading the text. When by chance they meet again, and she take him back to her apartment, he is having a Déjà vu as if he has being in that place before, charming romantic comedy. The third story is always the best, Operation Y, a manager of a warehouse, already stolen everything there is to steal, need to a coverup, he hire The mischievous trio to robe an empty warehouse that is guarded by an old granny, when Shurik take over guarding the place, all hell is broken loose, and mischievous trio are back at what they do best, trapping themselves. Wonderful Comedy.
Kavkazskaya plennitsa aka Kidnapping Caucasian Style (Leonid Gaidai, 1966) Shurik is back, this time he is lost in the Caucasus mountains, as he ride his Donkey, half the time, he has to take the burden of making the poor Donkey move, he meet the girl of his dream, a beautiful Komosomol member (Nino), he fall in love with her, and he is made of a fool of by the local into making him kidnap her into a force marriage, for as anthropology student, he take it to be part of the traditional customs of weddings, when the truth is reveled to him. he take his revenge not only on The mischievous trio, but Nina’s uncle and the future husband to be, comrade Saakhov. The film was a popular hit for Gaidai, more than 77 million viewers watched the film. Shot in beautiful locations, the film is full of gags that rival the early masters of silent cinema, Gaidai rarely does rely on dialogue for humor, rather, it is the visual that is the heart of the film, slapsticks with props, and a beautiful musical numbers, and rich sound effects. All the stereotype that is show to be the local of the Caucasus is taken into the limit of satire. A hilarious chase, and comrade Saakhov’s nightmarish dream in style of Poe’s The Raven end the film. Masterpiece.
Brilliantovaya ruka aka The Diamond Arm (Leonid Gaidai, 1969) Leonid Gaidai was the most popular director of the box office in the Soviet Union during his lifetime, and The Diamond Arm was perhaps his most popular film. From the first frame of the film, the title design itsself speak to the audience in language of laughter; “Photographed in the air, on the earth, on the water and underwater by DP: Igor Chernykh”, indeed, the story take place everywhere, breaking all the Nature’s boundaries, and all the artificial geographical limitation, an international picture on the diamond, precious jewels and antique smuggling business that take it all back to Soviet Union, to become the story of a simple man lost amid confusion of a broken arms with diamonds attached to it. What is more brilliant, is the fact that many of the scenes where shot with “hidden Camera”. Gaidai always in direct talk with the audience, his character stare at his, blink, smile or try to tell us a secret as they look directly into the camera, breaking the artificial barriers. What make the film such a wonderful watch is Gaidai’s reliance on the visual to tell the story, unless it is needed, rarely does he use dialogue, his framing of character is in itself is humors; when saying goodbye to his wife, our hero, on board of the ship, tries to find a good spot to see the wife and children, he end up behind the rails, as if in a prion, waving goodbye to them, indeed, prison would have being better for him of what he gets into next. Yuri Nikulin is a brilliant comedian, great for the role, he was a favorite of Gaidai as he make appearance in almost all of his early films. Expect your musical numbers, dark humors, intellectual reference to high art, and slapsticks, and the location shooting are bet fit the mood of the film, I could not help laugh out loud as the shark smuggler get lost in one of the old narrowly build neighbored in the old city, not knowing what turn to make next, for it once happened to me in a similar place, I had made one wrong turn, had to look around for hours to a way out, always ending up in a dead end, how truly hilarious it is. “What are you deaf and dumb?”, “Right!”, “I thought so”
Ivan Vasilevich menyaet professiyu aka Ivan Vasilyevich Changes Occupation (Leonid Gaidai, 1973) Ivan Vasilyevich Changes Occupation is not only my favorite film from Gaidai, but it is also one of my favorite Soviet comedy, all of Gaidai’s comedies are fast paced, but this one is extra fast paced, like the time machine that Shurik build to bring Tsar Ivan the Terrible into the year 1973. Based on M. Bulgakov’s play, Ivan Vassilevich, Ivan Vasilyevich Changes Occupation is a hilarious take on people lost in times, the plot is simple; what would happen if a Ivan the Terrible were to find himself stuck in an apartment in the modern day Soviet Union?, and more important, what would a burglar and a dedicated social man do when they end up in the 16th century Moscow and one is mistaken to be Ivan the Terrible? What would happen is an adventure into laughter, music, slapsticks, and social misunderstanding. ‘A comedy, cinema, should have as few words as possible, and those words must be laconic, sharp-cut and take an unerring aim” once said Gaidai, and Ivan Vasilyevich Changes Occupation is a perfect example of how a comedy should be; sincere, intelligence and full of laughter, Yuri Yakovlev is brilliant in the double role of Ivan the Terrible in his meanest manner, and that of Ivan Bunsha, an apartment manager who doubts his own shadows. Gags in the films includes; The first thing that Ivan the Terrible sees as he explore the new apartment is Ilya Repin’s painting Ivan the Terrible and His Son, he does not even bother to stare at it for more than a few seconds, a cat and mouse chase in Ivan’s palaces, Ivan being interrogated by the police, and enjoy a listen to Vladimir Vysotsky’s music in anguish, My Gypsy Song, meanwhile, the other two, get bored with a cheap imitation of a Musorgskiy’s Boris Godunov concert in the Ivan palace, taking the band to play a jazzy song for them. Masterpiece.
12 Stulyev aka Twelve Chairs (Leonid Gaidai, 1971) Twelve Chairs starts like a Wester; a young man, a stranger enters a town, broke and homeless, Comrade Bender, he set out to make a fortune, among the few period film from Gaidai, the film is set in 1927; Comrade Bender is a scam artist, making the best out of Proletarian and Bourgeoisie, robbing both equally, pretending to be a member of the Komosol, pretending to be doing inspections as he make his steals, once, he encounter an old aristocrat, out of the last century, he tells him the story of diamonds sewed to one chair among dozens of his former master’s state, the chase begins for the twelve chairs, the battle of the chairs is on the way. While Stalin is going on his five years plan, our thieves are chasing diamonds, nationalization is in full progress, but can the chairs stay a private property or it belong to the working class? Similar to Gogol’s General Inspector, our hero makes fool of everyone, as he gather them to become saboteurs for his plans, robbing each one to the bone in a game of dogs eat dogs, and whoever does the eating first, get to the chairs. There is even a reference to a theatrical performance of Gogol’s General Inspector, with the role of the mayor being give to no other than the same actor in Vladimir Petrov’s The Inspector General. Even in montage, Gaidai’s technique is hilarious; he uses the intellectual montage to make fun of it, many a times, in a Gaidai film, in the mid of the action, he cut away to a shot, then back to the action, to make a statement; When fighting over the chair, he cut away to a shot of a pig looking at them in bewilderment, then back to the action of the two fighting, it is up to you to make a meaning out of it. There are even a portrait and quotes from the great Tolstoy; “‘All happy families resemble one another, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’, Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, Part 1, sentence 1”, the argument between a wife and husband as to eat meat or not to eat meat; “Leo Tolstoy did not eat meat”, “When he wrote War and Peace, he ate meat, and when he wrote Anna Karenina he gulped lots of meats”. The best scene is perhaps our con man is being mistaken for an artist, he is given an assignment to draw a Socialist painting of a worker, he get the idea of making his friend’s shadow as model, does his best to draw his shadows on a ship that constantly making turns, the shadow changing with the moving of sun. Simply hilarious.
Lunnaya Raduga aka Moon Rainbow (Andrei Yermash, 1983) No matter how much mankind can explore the universe, even conquer it, at the end, human could never conquer its own psyche; Based on Sergei Pavlov’s novel, the story of Moon Rainbow take place in our century, that is, 21st century, when astronaut land in one of the moons of Uranus, to explore the rich resources and setup mines to extract it, some of the men vanishes, and one comes back in the mind of almost an extraterrestrial but the body and mental capability of himself, others think that he is capable of taking the forms and faces of any being, and also manages to penetrate the radio transmissions and magnetic fields of earth and its missions in the universe, he is deemed as a threat to the security of the planet. Soundtrack by Edward Artemiev is the high highlight of the film.
Konets vechnosti aka The End of Eternity (Andrei Yermash, 1987) Based on a novel of the same title by Issac Asimov, The End of Eternity, the tittle itself is full of paradox, how could there be an end to eternity? How could there be an end to an entity, a place that exists outside of time? It can, when the humans who are enteral take the fight to end it, and in the process, taking away their own immorality of being eternal. That person is Andrew Harlan, as he fall in love with a non-Eternal, she drive him to destroy the dreams of Dr. Twissel of making time travel possible into all the centuries, including the Hidden Centuries which he is incapable to penetrate. There are many a time travel sciences fiction writing, rarely does any of them matches the the thrilling complexity in paradox as it is in The End of Eternity, for going back into time, to change the future, as the future vanishes, you exist in the present which is future’s past, but can the past and the present exist without the future? Off course not, that is why at the end of The End of Eternity, we notice what Harlan sees the first as the first human in his new present; It is Dr. Twissel, he exist in the preset, he run a big Corporation, and the same future might as well be possible that Harlan did his best to escape from, it seem all his effort is has been in vain. A must watch for any Asimov fans.
Chyornaya Gora aka Black Mountain (Aleksandr Zguridi and M.S. Sathyu, 1971) There is a beauty, a lyricism and at the same time a nightmarish examination of nature in Alexander Zguridi’s films, he was a master craftsman of shooting the natural landscape with its inhabitant and making masterful films about it; Shot in India, Black Mountain is based on a story by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, it chronicle a tragic tale of an elephant family living in the jungles of India, when the father, his name is Black Mountain, when he is taken into captivity, he becomes friend with little boy, but missed his own baby elephant and his freedom, when the tragedy occur, he has to decide between his own flesh and blood and that of the human, he makes a fatal decision that leave him broken in spirit, the last shot of the film is that of Black Mountain, leaving the humans, back into the jungle, grief stricken. Indeed, in an Aleksandr Zguridi film, the animals are capable to express the same emotions if not more to that of the humans, and always, as a viewer, our sympathy goes to them. My friend, Black Mountain is not just a masterpiece, it is one with a golden message. Masterful.
Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (Aleksandr Zguridi, 1975) Aleksandr Zguridi’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s short story is both beautiful, innocent and at the same time frighting of a nightmare film on the adventure of a young boy and his mongoose in the British controlled colonial India. The beauty of the film is in the genuine location shooting in India, the exotic plants and animals, as young Teddy and his friend, Jim, explore the natural surrounding, the nightmare begins when Teddy take a dive into a monsoon flooded river to save a mongoose, with his leg frozen, he is unable to walk again, as his only joy is the friendship with Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the name he give to the mongoose. The frighting scenes appear in the film when Rikki-Tikki-Tavi discover a pair of cobras in the garden, the fight begins for survival, as the cobras threaten to eradicate the human family in order to make way for theirs, but brave Rikki-Tikki-Tavi stand on the way, saving the family’s life, not just once, but twice in heroic deeds. Wonderful watch.
Dama s sobachkoy aka The Lady with the Dog (Iosif Kheifits, 1960) I remember clearly the first time I read Chekhov’s short story, The Lady with the Dog, and the first impression that I got from the story was the notion that Chekhov must have written the story with Dostoevsky’s White Nights in mind, for what is the story of The Lady with the Dog, but the continues tale of Nastenka and and our hero, both married now, as they meet again and dream of meeting forever. The film was a favorite of Ingmar Bergman, the atmospheric black and white cinematography, the subtle acting, the hidden emotions, the burst of emotions, the passing of times, and the little reliance on dialogue, rather the emotion rely more on the visual, the subtle use of sound and music, the seasonal change, and the natural landscape in creating an atmosphere of pure Checkhovian, combined all, it makes Kheifits’ adaptation of the best of any Chekhov’s short stories, a wonderful adaptations that best captures the nostalgic world of Anton Chekhov.
Plokhoy khoroshiy chelovek aka The Duel (Iosif Kheifits, 1973) As much as I loved watching Iosif Kheifits’ The Lady with the Dog, I could not convince myself into praising The Duel, another adaptation of a short story by Anton Chekhov. I must have read The Duel more than three of four times, and each time, the ending of the story, in which the two sore enemy now realize that they have more in common in love than hate, and the parting on the stormy sea, always left in me a nostalgia in the past memory that one encounter in the world of Chekhov. The Duel was perhaps the closest work of Chekhov that he got into writing a lengthy novel; it is rich with characters, each unique in their own, no two are by any distance similar to the other, and it would have been a challenge to any filmmaker to recreate that world on the cinematic stage, for each character would have needed to have a film on their own, just over 90 minutes in length, and told in fragment of flashbacks, Kheifits’s adaptation fail to capture the characters as I have read them, maybe I went into watching the film expecting to see the world of Chekhov, one reason perhaps I failed to appraise the film, but one thing is for sure; one must read Chekhov’s The Duel first, then watch Kheifits’s The Duel, or else, you would be lost.
Yevdokiya (Tatyana Lioznova, 1961) Tatyana Lioznova’s film is so rich in narrative, crafted in such perfection that you rarely notice the technical brilliant in her films, for you are lost in the story, but take Yevdokiya, there are brilliantly crafted moment of pure perfection in staging; Watch the last three minute of the end, deep-staging and long take at its best; as the large family now gather in the next room, everyone talking and happy, the camera stay in a wide two shot, as Father and Mother stare at each, eyes full of tear, but joyful, they are proud of what they have achieved in life, the fruit of their labor is on the background. One last close-up of each, then back to the full shot, as the music swallow, cut to the black, for it is too hard to sustain the emotion any longer. Yevdokiya is based on a novel by Vera Panova, it spans a time period from 1920s to 1960s, from the Russian Civil War, to Five Year Plan, to WWII and the post war reconstruction, it is the story of Yevdokiya, the wife, and Evdokim, the husband, they can’t have a children of their own, instead, they adopt those that are needed fostering, they sacrifice all their happiness to that of the children. There is a light touch of sentimentally in the film is a world seeing thought the eyes of women, rarely does cinema, like other major art, dominated by men, does one come upon a film so sincere in reflecting a women’s emotion, for the novel was writing by a woman, Vera Panova, and it was only befitting for the film to be also directed by a woman, the great Tatyana Lioznova. Masterpiece.
Tri topolya na Plyushchikhe aka Three Poplars at Plyuschikha (Tatyana Lioznova, 1967) There are films that one word can describe; Beautiful. My friend, Three Poplars at Plyuschikha is a small masterpiece, every second of its 1h 14 minutes is pure gold, for the main character in the story, Nyura has a golden soul. She remind me of Lillian Gish’s sensitive and beautiful performance in D.W. Griffith’s True Heart Susie, like Susie, Nyura has to be among the most unselfish, kind and beloved characters ever to be put of the screen, she sacrifice her own happiness to that of her family, but she is a victim of her own creations, she bare her suffering rather than to break-up her family. Like True Heart Susie, the film is made of everyday incidents, Lioznova never force or try to manipulate the audience, rather, she take her time with slow pace story telling, simple set-ups, cross-cutting and subtle acting, she manages to build up emotions and bring the audience to the edges of tears, the last 10 minute of the film, the scene of the taxi driver waiting for Nyura to meet her, as she stare at him from her apartment, their outmost inner thoughts is shown not through music, dialogue nor even sound, but rather, through the visual, their gesture, movement of the eyes, lowering the head, looking up and down, and the changing of the shot size, it is all there in a masterful combination to arise in us an empathy toward two strangers that fate made them meet too late in life. As for the final scene of Nyura, back at home, as she listen to Maya Kristalinskaya’s song, “Tenderness“, she realized that she had a chance to be happy, to be in love, she now know the song is not only his favorite, but hers also, but her realization of discovering is as much joyful as it is painful, and she become speechless, heart broken. A masterpiece.
Novaya Moskva aka New Moscow (Aleksandr Medvedkin, 1938) Even the praising of Stalin in the song at the end of New Moskow could not save Medvedkin from his film been put on the shelves for decades to come. What set out as a praising of Stalin’s Five Year Plan, the massive industrial renovation of town and cities across Soviet Union, and the Utopian dream of building a new Moscow for the proletarians, becomes a triangular love story with satire at the heart of the film. When it comes to showing his project of the future of Moscow, the hero of the film, the young engineer, Alyosha is late, as the crowd eagerly wait for the show, the projectionist shows the reels in reverse, the new Moscow goes back Czarist, only to be corrected by young Alyosha, in a show of effects, double exposure and simple camera tricks, we are shown the future Utopian city of Moscow, like Happiness, one has to dig deep in order to find the real message behind the satire that Medvedkin wanted to come across. Not to be missed.
Noch Nad Kitaem aka Night Over China (Aleksandr Medvedkin, 1971) Aleksandr Medvedkin’s Night Over China is a scorching attack on Mao, Maoism, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, just under one hour in length, this short propaganda documentary is both a praising of the Chinese Communist Party, their long collaboration with the Soviet Union, and at the same time a condemnation of Mao’s personality as de-facto ruler ignoring the party. The documentary was made during Cold War’s bitterest conflicts–between the Soviet Union and Communist China, highlight include; The Four Pests Campaign, the plan to eliminate rats, mosquitoes, sparrows, and flies which were deemed to harm the productive growth of the new Five Year Plan. Educational illustrated booklets and posters were distributed all over the country to teach the population about hygienic risks and diseases posed by mosquitoes, rats, and cockroaches. As for the sparrows, the reason given; they were deemed to harm the agricultural growth of rice; “We have a million sparrows. Each sparrow eats a grain of rice, that’s one million grains. One hundred grains per sparrow a day, that’s one hundred million. One year has 365 days. The sparrows will eat us alive. What will the people eat? Extinguish a million birds, save millions of tons of grain. Feed the country”.
Maya Tskhneteli (Rezo Chkheidze, 1959) Maya Tskhneteli might be a light version of Georgian Robin Hood, based on an old Georgian legend, the story of a peasant girl on the run for killing her master, to avoid capture, she changes her appearance to that of a boy, when she encounter a Prince on the road with his serf, she rescue them, identify herself as boy from a noble family, with them, she join the forces of the King, playing the roles of rescuing serfs, her action make her and enemy of the serf owners, at the end of the film, she join a battle to save the King, only at last minute of her death, does she reveal her true identity. Call it a comical adventure film, with a cinematography in the style of Alexander Nevsky, full of dynamic compositions. Worth Watching.
Djariskatsis mama aka Father of a Soldier (Rezo Chkheidze, 1964) If Grigori Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier is the story of a solider on the leave to see his family as he counter only wars and destruction on the way, then Rezo Chkheidze’s Father of a Soldier is the story of a father, living in his small village on the mountains of Georgia, he take on an adventure to see his son, a tank-man fighting in the front, the old man’s search for his son take him many years, from his village to the gates of Berlin. Rezo Chkheidze is not a director of actions, the battles in Father of a Soldier is rather amateurish, they are there only as a plot point to move forward the story, the real talent of Chkheidze is in his humanity to portray the story of a common man’s desire to see his son, we know not about what battle he fight, where he fight, nor what medals he win, but rather, we learn about this man; a country peasant who love more the soil, the grape, the sky than all the glory and conquering of enemies’ territories. There are two times that we see him on the edge of madness; Once when his young friend, wounded and dying, is shot multiple times by a German, the other time, is when two Soviet tank-men run over a vineyard, he goes against the tanks in order to protect the grapes, to him, killing a man and destroying a vineyard is both taking away lives. The climax of the film is a tragic one, see it to feel it.
Nergebi aka Plants (Rezo Chkheidze, 1972) Every director has their masterpiece, a film that standout above the rest, from what I have seen from Rezo Chkheidze, Nergebi is his masterpiece, and among the best films to come of Georgia, it is his most personal film, and one that best reflect the time it was made, as the rapid urbanization left many behind to only stare and not blink at a a new down in which they found not place for them in. Much had been said and praised about Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, but very few know about Nergebi, in which in my opinion it is deserve equal praise if not more. The story of a Grandfather and Grandson, on a journey across the landscape of Georgia in search of a rare pear seeds, in which it bare fruits thirteen years after its first planted, the search lead both of them to the realization that they live in a world of their own, apart from that of the real world, especially the Grandfather, after twenty years of seclusion, in this new world, he only find bitterness among the new generation, as for his past, nothing from that world has remained. Yet, he never give in, at the end, when the rare plants is lost, all his search has been in vain, empty handed with his Grandson, they are riding in the back of a truck, he is sick from the cold, for he used his coat to shelter the plants from dying, when the tragedy become unbearable, his Grandson burst into tears, Grandfather is still hopeful of the future, “Spring will come next years, won’t it?”, as they start to sing together, “The Sun is my Mother, the Moon is my Father, those tiny stars are my sisters and brothers”. Masterpiece.
Karnavalnaya noch aka Carnival Night (Eldar Ryazanov, 1956) Shot in its entirety on indoor sets, a musical journey from all genres, the whole plot of the film, if it has one is about the notion of free expression in music and performance to that of being forced upon, as Comrade Serafim Ivanovich, the head of the organization hosting the new year party does his best to force his notion of art upon them, that of Social Realism, the rest of the gangs, many youngsters does their best to have it their way, when they fail to persuade him, that start using trickery to out maneuver him, indeed Carnival Night is in itself a satirical take on the notion of Social Realism, as it is start like the musical films of Ivan Pyryev, but soon become a film that make fun of the notion of such films, rather, it is a free floating film on the notion of individual performance and creativeness to that of the collective. Beautiful choreographed musical numbers, set designs and comical scenes highlight the film.
Beregis avtomobilya aka Beware of the Car (Eldar Ryazanov, 1966) Can there really be an honest thief? If so, how can one different between an honest thief and a crooked one? You will find that out in Ryazanov’s Beware of the Car; a stylish thriller of comedy, it tell the story of an insurance salesman, Yura Detochkin, on the weekend he is an amateur actor, and at night, he is a thief, rather a thief with a social conscience, as he take the law into his own hand, punishing those who take bribery by stealing their cars, then selling it to other underground crooks for much cheaper price, and giveaway the money to kids in orphanage. What makes the film a thriller of a comedy is the fact that the detective whose chasing him is a fellow amateur actor, rather, he is his best friend, and when he find out that his best friend is the car thief he has been looking for, he only has admiration for him, indeed, in the world of Beware of the Car, our protagonist, the thief, Yura Detochkin stand out above the rest as the one with the highest morals for caring for others, as everyone else is busy with themselves, wanting to go ahead of others, he is standing in his place, does what he deem to be right, even if that mean, having the law on his tail. Wonderful Watch.
Ironiya sudby, ili S legkim parom aka Irony Of Fate or Enjoy Your Bath (Eldar Ryazanov, 1975) I had a Russian friend, Diana, and we used to write to each other, once she wrote to me about a film that she loved most and the fact that “In Russia, there is a tradition: Every year on January 31 to watch the film Irony of Fate“. Well, I never had heard of the film nor even the director, as I began my strict diet of Soviet cinema, and arrived at Eldar Ryazanov, as I watched Irony Of Fate, for a spilt second toward the middle of the film I thought of Diana, “Can this be the film she talked about?”, I was not sure, for I have forgotten the title of the film she mentioned. As I searched my e-mail, found hers, it turn out indeed it was this film that she had mentioned. Well, I have to agree with her, Irony Of Fate is a film that has to be watched over and over again, for there is not, and I say, there is not a single second of boredom in the film, the script is rich, it is masterfully crafted with scenes and dialogues that are not only humors, but pure nostalgic, in between the plot points, like a theatrical play, there is a curtain the form of songs and ballade. Like the many a classic films of two strangers meeting and falling in love, there has to be a limit in time, for the time has to separate them at some point, and Irony Of Fate take place in its entirety in the span of one day and night, that of the new year, it is heartwarming, beautiful, nostalgic, and full of sentimentality and cruelty in examination of love, put it with other masterpieces like Vincente Minnelli’s The Clock, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Abbas Kiarostami’s Copie Conforme. A Masterpiece for all ages.
Garazh aka Garage (Eldar Ryazanov, 1979) If one word were to describe Garazh, it will be; Satire, it is very similar in its structure to Fellini’s Orchestra Rehearsal, both film came out in the same year, like Fellini’s film, Garage takes place entirely inside a room of an Environmental Institute, they have to solve the problem of space, rather space for their cars, as a new highway system will take away three garage, and the dilemma is to chose three people who has to park their car outside of the garage, well my friend, it is a catastrophe in the scale of Armageddon for the people. The film reflect best the time it was made, bot only because building illegal garage in major cities across Soviet Union became a norm, but also, because the film address the notion of corruption within the social structure of the system itself, as personal greed and one’s own prosperity came into clash with the ideology of the system. The limited use of space, almost like a theatrical stage is balanced by the masterful use of staging and witty, fast dialogues in this satirical film. Not to be missed.
Vokzal dlya dvoikh aka Railway Station For Two (Eldar Ryazanov, 1982) Unlike the previous film of Ryazanov (from what I have seen so far), Railway Station For Two is romantic comedy that take place mostly outdoor, unlike Carnival Night, Irony Of Fate, and Garage in which the majority of the action take place indoor, in Railway Station For Two, our two lovers are on the move, always from one place into another, like their love, they are lost to the circumstances they are in. Ryabinin is an amateur pianist in prison awaiting a trail for a murder he had not committed, a hit and run incident that he take the guilt for his wife, when given a few days to leave to visit his sick father, he is detained at a railway station for refusing to pay a waiters for a lunch that he did not eat, the delay lead to his passport being lost, his money stolen, with no place to go, he roam the street of the small town with the waiters that he love to hate, but as times goes by, they fall in love with each other, with a future that none of them could predict its outcome. Eldar Ryazanov is a master craftsman in the genre of romantic comedy, and just like Irony Of Fate, we have a limited time in which the story has to unfold, it is not one day, nor waiting for for the coming of the new year eve, but rather, it is the tragic separation of the two; as one goes back to prison, and the other back to her repetitious life. Masterful.
Zhestokiy romans aka Ruthless Romance (Eldar Ryazanov, 1984) Based on Aleksandr Nikolayevich Ostrovsky’s play, The Dowerless Girl, Ruthless Romance has both the satirical comedy and the sentimentality going alongside each other in a perfect horizontal line that suddenly shift into a downfall vertical as everything collapses on the characters, it best fit the world of Ostrovsky, the man who will always be in the shadows of Gogol, for he wrote under his shadows. For what is the character of Karandyshev but another clerk who instead of getting a coat, gets the most beautiful girl in town, and he uses her to fight for social identity within a corruptly sycophantic social order, that uses him and the beautiful Ogoudalova as a mere pastime subject to be entertained with. The four men that surround Ogoudalova are all equally corrupt if not all has their weakest point, and rarely do we, as a viewer sympathize or relate to any of them, maybe a tittle toward Paratov (Played brilliantly by Nikita Mikhalkov), toward the end, one can’t help feeling sorry for Karandyshev, but his actions, that of a dreamer who has lost all touch with reality for the sake of love, his actions like that of a fool only make him more of distance from the viewer and Ogoudalova. Among the few period film from Ryazanov, it is slow paced, dialogue driven, with your typical songs in between the scenes.
Ya shagayu po Moskve aka I Walk Around Moscow (Georgi Daneliya, 1964) Take a nostalgic, lyrical, poetic trip into the youth around Moscow with young Nikita Mikhalkov. I write that you should take the trip with Nikita Mikhalkov and not Georgi Daneliya, because if Daneliya was the brain behind the film, then Mikhalkov is the heart of the film, he is already got all his signature style of acting already in his bag; the little twisting of his mouth, his sharp glance that goes on without a single blink, the raising of his eyebrows which give him that ironic look of being on the edge of madness and laughter at the same time, then there is his killer smile that make his face into a compression of that of a little child, suddenly his long face gets smaller and smaller as his eyes light with bright and smile starches from ear to ear. Mijhalkov is not alone in the film, he got two other Moskovites friend, with one visiting from Siberia, it is one day, one early morning to the next, in the lives of these four characters. It flows freely, rarely does Daneliya attempt to manipulate the viewer into a narrative, rather, it is about little things in life and nothing more, little emotion arisen from little incidents. There is a thing that best capture the sprit of the film; His Siberian friend has written a short story, they go to the house of a critic to hear his judgment, only to be taught a lesson in the traditional storytelling, not by the critic himself but rather a worker cleaning the floor, he tell them the old Chekhovian weapon scene; “If there’s a rile on the wall, it has to be fired”, (by the way, Chekhov’s argument is for the use of minimalist use of sets and props, it has nothing to do with essence of storytelling), he goes on to argue for actions, plot twisting and manipulations of characters, “It wasn’t for nothing that the Greeks said people are governed by three things; love, hunger, and fear of death, that is egoism”. Well, don’t expect to meet any egoism in this little masterpiece, for everyone has a heart of gold.
Tridtsat tri or Nenauchnaya Fantastika aka 33 (Georgi Daneliya, 1965) Made in 1965, but could have easily being made today, for Tridtsat tri speak more about today’s society and its obsessions with celebrities as did for the time it was made. The story of a common man, working in a beverage making factory who’s world is suddenly turned upside down, as is worshiped by million, as his fame sky rocket for the simple reason that he has thirty three teeth rather than thirty two, the exaggeration of his situation lead to the Government to consider him a Marian and therefore, he take an atomic trip in matters back to his homeland, for his sacrifice, they build him a monument of a statue, not to praise his thirty three tooth, but rather, his travel to Mars. From the opening title of the film, Daneliya warn us of “non-sciencefiction”, indeed, it is a unique film of a genre that Georgi Daneliya loved to tackle, the mixing of satire into the territory of science-fiction. Great one.
Sovsem propashchiy aka Hopelessly Lost aka The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Georgi Daneliya, 1972) Mark Twain’s timeless masterpiece is know to all of us, but, if you have not read it, then you have missed one of American’s literature’s greatest work, and Daneliya’s adaptation of the novel is the best that I have seen so far. Instead of being literal to the novel, Daneliya takes bits and pieces here and there, combine them to make Huck’s adventure along the Mississippi an examination of American’ south at the end of nineteen century; at the heart of the film is the friendship between Huck and Jim, with the theme of tolerance being their driven force, for everything they face from others, no matter how prejudice, hatred, pain and utter stupidity of others that comes their way, they always do their best to live with it, in a world full of cruelty, the live with hope and a smile. Daneliya captures the humors and satirical world of Mark Twain beautifully, but also the sensitivity and sententially in the wise, but always childish innocent logic of Huck’s view of nature and life; he knows the world of the adults is that of utter nonsense, yet, he avoid breaking all the rules unless driven to it by his innocent logic of compassion toward others, when he wants to free Jim, he is aware of the teaching of his local Church that anyone who help a slave to escape will end up in hell, but he is determined to do it, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell!”, but he also has to justify going to hell; “And what’s so good about heaven? What is the point in fooling around with a harp all day?”. Masterpiece.
Afonya (Georgi Daneliya, 1976) The dilemma of Afonya, a plumber who’s worst enemy is himself, for he chases what is deemed unattainable for him, yet, refuses what is in the grasp of his hands. Going into his middle age, aging in such a rapid fashion, that the photo of his passport become unrecognizable to others, nor to his old friends, everything that Afonya only make others distance from him, for the exception of three people who care deeply about him, but to him, they do not exist, or when he realize of their existence, it is either too late, as is the case of his aunt in the village and his friend in the apartment, or, his drinking, wasteful manners and irrational decisions leave them out of his life, as is the case of the nurse Katya, who is madly in love with him. To escape the cruel reality of his life, he refuge to drinking and fantasy, even his fantasy dream has to adjust to the reality, one reason that at end, as he is about to get into the airplane, he hear his name been called, “Afonya”, there its, Katya, but is this reality or his fantasy again?, you decide after watching this masterpiece.
Mimino (Georgi Daneliya, 1977) Daneliya’s timeless masterpiece, Mimino, is a film about chance encounters, everything that happen in the film, all that shapes the future life of our hero, Mimino, happens by chance. Now, as a viewer, when watching a film that lack any logical plot, of action and reaction in logical narrative line, we get to become a distances observer of non-believer from the film as we question the unbelievability of so many chance encounters, but in Mimino, we have to expect the fact that it is a film based on such narrative, it is a film that examine the relationship between characters, but above all, Mimino’s inability to life a normal life, to settle down, he wants chances to determine his life, to face the unknown, but when he does, he get nostalgic, he miss his native village up in the Georgian mountains and his time as pilot of a helicopter that is the only lifeline transport in and out of the village. In his search for a better job, he comes upon chance encounters of the same peoples in the big cities of Moscow and West Berlin, and we rarely question the narrative, for each encounter reveal more about the characters rather then about the plot. Great One.
Slyozy kapali aka Tears Were Falling (Georgi Daneliya, 1982) From what I have seen so far from Georgi Daneliya, I have to say, Tears Were Falling is his not only his best film, but a masterpiece of Soviet cinema, all thanks not only to the minimalist direction from Daneliya, but also the powerful performance from Evgeni Leonov at his peak, he is a madman lost in the territory of sarcasm and madness, indeed, that is what a film Tears Were Falling is, it walks a fine balance, on the edge between a satire and tragedy, rarely does it tip into one side or another, it is a film about anger, madness, about sadness that comes deep from the heart of a man who is lost in a modern world, in which selfish individualism, uncaring for others and one’s inability to change oneself and that of others become a dilemma, with the only way out is that of anger, or rejecting everything that come one’s way, even if that is love and compassion. The reason given for such action comes from the intro of the film: “Once upon a time, an evil Troll had made a mirror, where everything good disappeared and everything bad and ugly reflected and seemed even bigger. Troll’s apprentices carried this mirror far and wide and made lots of bad things. Later they decided to go in heaven but the mirror fell down and broke into pieces. Millions of its pieces flew away. If one of these fragments got into man’s eye, the man began to see only bad things and his life was to become very hard”, well my friend, one of those glass pieces gets into the eyes of Vasin Pavel Ivanovich (Evgeni Leonov), and what follows is a day and a night of anger, sadness, rejections and pure madness in his soul. Masterpiece.
Kin-Dza-Dza (Georgi Daneliya, 1989) If you think the title of the film is bizarre, wait until watching Kin-Dza-Dza, it is a journey into a dystopian world of a science fiction comedy in which everything that one imagine of the futurist or present extraterrestrial creatures is shattered to piece. What start as trip to get some bread for dinner, end up for Uncle Vova and a Georgian student whom he encounter on the street, Gedevan Aleksidze, to take a journey into the planet Pluke, in the Kin-dza-dza galaxy, all you see is deserts, with its inhabitants categorized according to the color of their cloth, if you wear a yellow trouser, then you have the right to make others bow to you, even to kick them if you wish, what consider nobility and what everyone aim for in the planet Pluke is to make others less inferior to you, and the most prized commodity in matches, they don’t use the matches to light fire, rather for the chemicals on the heads, the inhabitants speak Chatlian language, with the need to use only few word to communicate, when they can’t, one word can say the rest for the unknown, “Koo”, but they are capable of adapting into other’s language and even reading their thoughts, but you could easily manipulate your thoughts and therefore deceiving them, the planet Pluke lack any life beside that of its inhabitants, they don’t even have rivers or lakes, for they have used the water to make fuels, it is land of ignorance, inequality, injustice and mass deceptions. A cult masterpiece of dystopian cinema.
Pasport aka The Passport (Georgi Daneliya, 1990) Take a bittersweet trip with Merab Papashvili from Georgia all the way to Israel, as he is mistaken for the identity of his brother, Yasha at first as he board a plain to Vienna, then for a KGB spy, he is taken into the custody of Austrian police, then Jewish Mafia in Vienna as he is send to Israel, only to be kicked around from all sides in the racketeering of the newly arriving Jews from Soviet Union, all he want is to back home to Georgia, but it takes him more than three years and six countries, and when is back, yet again, he is fingerprinted and taken for a criminal. The Passport may speak for the collapse of the Soviet Union as each country in the Union created their boundaries, but it speak more about a man who is lost without an identity in between national boundaries that demand one. Hilarious scenes include; Taken for a prisoner, Merab is put into a cell with an Islamic, he “Shalom” the inmate only to get beaten, when he is taken to another cell, he “Salamu Alikum” the inmates, only to to be beaten again, for he is now in a cell with radical Jewish extremists, whatever he does, Merab always make it worse for himself.
Nastya (Georgi Daneliya, 1993) Georgi Daneliya’s masterpiece, Nastya, on a smaller scale is an examination in the life of a characters in the span of a day and a night, on a bigger scale, Nastya is a parody on the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of the new Russia. Let us take the story of Nastya on the smaller scale; She is your average girl, working behind a counter of a small shop, her mother is sick, to make her happy, she wishes to have a boyfriend, but because of her looks, rarely does anybody even node to her. When one night, she encounter an old woman, she is granted two wishes, the first one is used by her for beauty, she wishes to become beautiful, next morning, she wake up to become the most beautiful girl in Moscow, her look and appearance make every man a servant for her, she is used like an object, and she find out that beauty is more than she could handle, her second wish is to become the girl she was. On a bigger scale, Nastya is the old Soviet, she get what she desires by her action and not appearance when she is herself, when she changes, everything become corrupt; like a freak, she is on a sideshow. Daneliya’s film viewed today best speak for the time it was made; In the new Russia, everyone is corrupt, everyone takes bribery, fuel is in shortage, tanks occupy streets, daytime robbery, public service is no more, the few elite that run places are commanded and gets their phone calls from Washington, the gap between poor and rich is wide, the Oligarch are already on the rise, as they privatize and commercialize everything, Nastya is Daneliya’s bittersweet nostalgia to the old day and a bold attack on the present. Masterpiece.
Oryol i reshka aka Heads and Tails (Georgi Daneliya, 1995) Looking back at Georgi Daneliya’s films, one notice two key signatures throughout his films; the mixing of fantasy and realism in the psyche of his one character in which the film evolve around, as in Afonya, Mimino, Tears Were Falling, The Passport and Nastya, and the examination of multiple characters in a magical landscape with on theme that collectivize them; as in I Walk Around Moscow, 33, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Kin-Dza-Dza. In Heads and Tails, it the mix of the two, we have our main character, Oleg, a young engineer working on the far Northland, when he hear the new that the girl, Lena, whom he was once and is madly in love has gotten married, he take the roads to Moscow to get her back, he sacrifices everything he has to get her back, when she get sick and need a surgery, he work himself to death to pay for her medical bills, only at the end, to have her drop him for another guy, all his works were in vain, he end up where the film started, back in the far north. The theme that the characters evolve around is chaos, it best fit the chaotic 90s Russia, a country that once had the best and free heath care system, now its hospital is empty from Doctors and medicine, it has become the land of dog eat dog, with no compassion to be seen from the State, the few people that help Oleg are as desperate as he is, if not more. Great one from a forgotten master, Georgi Daneliya.
V ogne broda net aka There is no Passage through Fire (Gleb Panfilov, 1967) There is no Passage through Fire is the title of the film, but it is also a metaphor for everything that happens in the film, or rather, that happens to Tanya Tyotkina (Inna Churikova), for without experience one cannot create art; Tanya is peasant girl working as a nurse on a moving train alongside the Bolsheviks during the Civil War, she is rather ugly, but innocent with a golden heart, she believes in a world wide revolution of the working class, but does not know anything about Marxism, Communism, not even what Materialism is, rather, her action define her beliefs, she takes care of the wounded, fall in love with a young soldier, Alyosha, although she lack any desire to even kiss him, rather, she believe him innocently, for she can’t show her emotion in words, only in gestures. When a painter take her to paint with him propaganda and idealistic art on the walls, she take into her own style, expressing the horror of what it taking place around her, indeed, the film is titled “About Tanya Tyotkina and her drawing”, we see the civil war through her innocent eyes, and it is a bleak one, for she can’t imagine the horror that take place around her, for she is a creature that only love and does not want to destroy, but when driven to the edge, even she takes to violent as a respond. The flat cinematography, the use of zoom lens to flatten the space best fit the atmosphere of the film.
Nachalo aka The Debut (Gleb Panfilov, 1970) Add Gleb Panfilov’s The Debut to the list of great film made about the art of filmmaking itself, a story within a story that best reflect the nature of what cinema is; As in There is no Passage through Fire, in The Debut, the story evolve around a shy young girl, who dream of becoming an actress, not for the sake of fame, for she is shy, but rather for the sake of communicating with others what she hide deep inside, for in her real life, she deem herself to be a failure, she fall in love with a married man, and she dream of dying for her love when he goes back to her wife, but in real life she is incapable of doing so, she must create the illusion on the screen as she is burnt at the stake in the role of Joan of Arc. The Debut is a complex film, it challenges the viewer to take part in a dialogue with the film on more than one level, it opens like a historical film; we seem to be watching a film on the life of Joan of Arc only to be taken back to the reality of life in Soviet in the late 60s as the director shout “cuts” and we realize we are set to watch a different film, the story of Valentina (Inna Churikova who was Panfilov’s wife), her friends and the people she comes upon become the story of a reality she live in and the illusionary fictional film she participate in, each intertwining with each other, the action as always is genuinely realistic with dialogues that seem to be more improvised with rapid shifting of action that Panfilov is a master at creating. Masterpiece.
Proshu slova aka I Want the Floor (Gleb Panfilov, 1977) Gleb Panfilov’s I Want the Floor is his Communist Manifesto, it is his love poem for Communism, and at the time his nostalgia for the early days of the Revolution of 1917, for everything in the film is back and forth dialogue between three generation; The older generation who created the Revolution, their sons and daughters who grew up in the Soviet Union, and the future generation of the youth who lack morality to follow the step of their father and grandfathers, in this ideological battle is the story of a family that has to live in the reality of family life and the ideological battle of social life. Lizaveta Uvarova, again played by Panfilov’s wife, Inna Churikova, is an ex-olympic champion of a shooter, when she becomes the mayor of her town, she take the vow to build a new city across the river, almost a Utopian city with men and nature living together in harmony, her plan start by building a bridge to cross the river, and for that, she has to get the Party’s approvals, when at first it is rejected, hear broken, she comes home, take down her suitcase and start to clean the house, if she can’t change the social life of her surrounding for better, at least she could do it to her house. The narrative is chaotically masterful; we never know where we are at any moment, as the past, the present and the future become one, indeed, at the end of the film when Lizaveta hand her request to have the floor to speak in the meeting of the party, we don’t know whither it is after her refusal, or before. Lizaveta’s hero is Lenin, she want to be like her, to live a life in modesty, but her family and surrounding demand more of her, they are materialistic, but she keeps going, for she has faith in Communism, she take the older generation as her example to follow, for they still have faith, a tragic lose in the family is equal to that of an ideological blow, when her son dies tragically, we don’t see Lizaveta crying, but when she hears the news of Salvador Allende killed by the juntas in Chile, she sobs in front of her family, for she live in the world of ideology. A masterpiece.
Tema aka The Theme (Gleb Panfilov, 1979) The most tragic times in one’s life is the consciousness in realization of thoughts that one might have been a failure in life, in deeds, words and actions, such self-examination comes with a price, the more one is aged, the worst the price one has to pay, that is the story of The Theme; an examination in the life of a playwright, Vladimir, he deem himself to be a failure, alway pitying himself, but the people around him always praise him, he take it as a fake complement. When on a trip to a small town to write a historical play, he gets to know a young girl who was once madly in love with his writing, that is when she was in school, but now take them for nothing, when she tell him the truth about his writing, which has no lasting value, at first Vladimir’s ego is crushed, he respond in the state of hysteria, then fool himself into believing that the girl might be in love with him, he want to fall in love with her and start a new, only to realize his dream is far stretched, as the girl is already in love with another man, or as she call him, “Poor Spirit “, the other dilemma of Vladimir is his inability to tell the truth in his writing, his ideological drive make him fantasize rather than reveal what is true about human nature, he prefer to portray his character as honest and abiding by the law when stopped by the police, but in reality, he does his best to bribe them, his privilege, his fake glorification by others and the State corrupted him, and he knows it, but incapable of making any change, the frustration is in his monologs throughout the film, that is what drive him to the edge of madness; the inability to express what he desire most to say, he prefer the illusion of fakery to the reality of truth. Masterpiece.
Vassa (Gleb Panfilov, 1983) The greatness of Maxim Gorky has always been the intertwining of character’s personal dilemma and universal themes that shapes their lives, in his play, Vassa Zheleznova, in which Vassa is and adaptation of; the main characters is Vassa Zheleznova, a tycoon of a businesswoman who’s only aim in life is to gain more wealth and therefore by bribing her surrounding gain power over them, she teaches her children to follow in her footstep, they pretend to be a happy family, all in harmony, but inside, they are rotten, in the name of God and Tsar, she robes, greedy in calculating and managing a single ruble when dealing with others, but when her brother or husband loses thousands in card games, she cares little, when someone stand her way, even if it is her husband or daughter in-law, she takes to violence and treachery to keep them in line, when she is present, her house of cards and the people in it seem to behave to her manners, when she is away, everything collapses, as her legacy of dog eat dog take over the people, and at the end, no one shed a single tear for her, as everyone chases in the game of getting what is left of her fortunes, Vassa is a not only simple of capitalism in the pre-revolutionary Russia, but she is also a symbol for universal state of capitalism in its constant pursuit of power in the most ruthless manners, taking away everything that make one a human, as they become a machine in pursuing selfish desire. Masterful.
Romanovy Ventsenosnaya semya aka The Romanovs A Crowned Family (Gleb Panfilov, 2000) You can make a compassionate and sentimental film about Hitler’s love for his Dog and Eva Braun, and you will see Hitler as man who is capable to love just as much as he is capable of destroying millions, so it goes with Panfilov’s compassionate film on the last year of Nicholas II and his family; we see Bloody Nicholas as a simple man who loves his family, a family like any others, mutual affection, the warmth, gentleness and humor of their relationships, we are always with them, and Panfilov does his best to make us feel sentimental and full of empathy toward them at each passing moment as the clock ticks toward their massacres. We never see the actions of Bloody Nicholas outside his family life, the millions he sent to death during WII, and the millions more who died from starvations while his fortunes made him one the richest man whom ever lived. We would never really know what were the last days of Nicholas’ family, but Panfilov recreate a fictional account, with Rasputin no where to be seen, as for the execution of the family, the order is given by Ural Soviet, but Gleb Panfilov trace it all the way back to Vladimir Lenin and Yakov Sverdlov, but the real reason for the killing might as well have been something else; as Czechoslovakian Legion and the Whites were approaching Yekaterinburg, Yurovsky killed the family as not to fall into the hand of the Whites. The executions is staged to show Nicholas’ family as ordinary civilian massacred, awaken from their sleeps, Panfilov fails to show, but gives the clues, to show the pounds of diamonds that the daughters were hidden under their cloth and in their pillows. The film end with a jump to 2000, Russian Orthodox Church canonization of the family, into sainthood. Must Watch.
Spokoynyy den v kontse voyny aka Quiet Day at War’s End (Nikita Mikhalkov, 1970) Quiet Day at War’s End was Nikita Mikhalkov’s short films submitted for diploma on his graduation at VGIK (All-Union State Institute of Cinematography). For a diploma film from a young student, it is brilliant, for it shows not the talent of a young want to be a filmmaker, but rather a filmmaker on the look out for finding his own style of storytelling, he uses dramatic compositions of classic style that later he would adjust to more subtle one, but as in many later film of Mikhalkov, there is a sharp contrast between the individual serenity of living with nature like a child and the contact with their surrounding, in this case, it is the German soldiers and WWII, the little paradise in which the protagonist of the film, Komarov, has created for himself, including a good number of painting, become hell when outsiders intrude. In time of wars, everything that is innocent perishes, Quiet Day at War’s End is not a film about a hero trying to rescue paintings from been looted by the German, he even reject the Soviet to take away the painting for safety, rather, it is a film about a hero wanting to live his own little life with his painting in his little paradise even for a little time, but in time of war, that is not possible. Worth Watching.
Svoy sredi chuzhikh, chuzhoy sredi svoikh aka At Home Among Strangers, A Stranger Among His Own (Nikita Mikhalkov, 1974) At Home Among Strangers, A Stranger Among His Own was the debut film of Nikita Mikhalkov as a directors, age 29, he pull off a wonderful film that is a mix of a Western in a suspense thriller set during the early day of the Soviet Union, as the government is in dire need of bread to feed the population, ex-revolutionaries, now Red Army officers and soldiers are put to test in delivering the needed gold in a guarded train to Moscow, when the gold is looted, the search begins into not only finding the gold, but also the guilty ones inside the circle, like a Hawk western, the heart of the film is testing of a friendship between old comrades, how far would they go into putting faith and trust into each others? The battle between personal greed of the few and one man’s attempt to regain what belong to the people begins. Beautifully expressive cinematography by Pavel Lebeshev, exotic location shooting in the steppe, lyrical music by Eduard Artemyev, and a staff of well known Soviet actors run the show, for his first film, Mikhalkov delivers.
Raba lyubvi aka A Slave of Love (Nikita Mikhalkov, 1976) In times of famine, horrors and wars, can a self conscious actress, on the peak of her fame, live the life of pleasure and ignore the rest of her fellow countrymen? That is the dilemma of Olga Voznesenskaya in Mikhalkov’s A Slave of Love. In the early days of the revolution of 1917, and up to the end of the civil war, the whole Russian film industry migrated to South Russia, away from the fighting, they made their films, the story take place toward the end of 1917, as the Bolsheviks slowly closes the ropes on the Tsarist, carefree but conscious to plight of the people, Olga has to make a stand between being silent, or becoming a revolutionary, when she is approached by her cameraman, Pototsky, at first she laugh at him, all she care about is her fame, even when she goes into the street, to preach to the rich inhabitant of the town, she is praised for her fame, mobbed by admirer,but no one listening to her, only after she is shown the atrocities committed by the Tsarist,, does she decide to join the fight, to hide and maybe later smuggle the footage into Moscow, but even then, one of the reason is that she fall in love with Pototsky, for she admire his courage for taking the risk of being put in prison or even killed, to her, it is all like a melodrama in a movie, but when the cruel reality slowly creep in, she is bewildered as how to respond, even at the end of the film, as the tram-train take her into the fog, she stare at her enemies, chasing her, in bewilderment, “Gentleman! Gentlemen! You’re beast! You will be cursed by your country, Soldiers”. Brilliant.
Neokonchennaya pyesa dlya mekhanicheskogo pianino aka Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano (Nikita Mikhalkov, 1977) Mikhalko’s Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano is his love poem for Anton Chekhov, it is a complex film with multiple characters and incidents from the world of Checkhov; His plays, especially, Platonov, together with unpublished stories, his diaries and short novellas, co-written with Alexander Adabashyan, the film is a challenge to a viewer who is in love with the works of Chekhov to point out the characters and the stories. The title best describe the film, it is unfinished piece, for each sequence of the film is the story of a single characters, as they gather in country estate to spend the weekend, like a Russian roulette, we spin from one into another, each intertwining with the progress of the story in the film, but also, each sequence is an examination of the characters, they are mostly middle aged, none of them is happy with their current state of affair, they desire for a change, the dream of starting a new beginning, some with their past lovers, others with their future planning and intuitions, but at the end, after a hard soul searching and painful discovering of their inner faults, that of their surrounding, and their meaningless existence of pretending to be happy while in a deep turmoil inside, bankrupt in souls and manners, they come to the conclusion, that they must go on living, for the reality of the moment always conquer the fantasy of the past and the future. Beautiful film.
Pyat vecherov aka Five Evenings (Nikita Mikhalkov, 1978) The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there, in Five Evenings, two characters are emotionally linked by the past, but incapable of recalling that emotion in the present, for the past only remind them of tragic days, the few precious joys moments are lost amid many a sad ones. Based on a play by Aleksandr Volodin, Five Evenings is a bittersweet love story with the word “love” only once being said, and no, it does not comes from the two characters in love, but from a pianist on the television playing Tchaikovsky telling his audience that he love them. Two middle ages characters, the WWII generation, after a decade of separation, they meet again, they are hostile to each other, for none of them desire to make the first step, we never know why is that? Pride, humility, or just plain arrogance? To us, on the first evening, they seem like strangers who might have known each others once, as we progress toward the fifth and final evening, we come to the realization that the were once in love with each other only for the war to separate them, and each of them consider unworthy of the other, as they consider themselves failures, when the moment of realization comes at the end of the film, the tint nightmarish color of the film changes into bright naturalist colors, as Mikhalkov’s camera for the first time examines closely the room we have spent most of the film in, we see the past of these two characters, we begin to know them, who they are, and not what they pretend to be. Great One.
Neskolko dney iz zhizni I.I. Oblomova aka A Few Days in the Life of I.I. Oblomov (Nikita Mikhalkov, 1979) I have to confess, I cried at the end of Nikita Mikhalkov’s timeless masterpiece, A Few Days in the Life of I.I. Oblomov, that magical ending of the film; years has passed since the death of Oblamov, when Stoltz mentions the past, as Olga burst into tears, cut into the past again, into the innocent childhood of Oblomov, as he is free as a bird, the camera track up to show the vast landscape of Russia, he is lost in nature, in search of his mother, “Momma, Momma”, for more than two hours we have been together with them, when Oblamov die, we miss him, his sudden disappearance from the screen makes us feel as we have lost a friend like Olga and Stoltz. So much has been written about Ivan Goncharov’s novel, so much has been written about the man, Oblomov, is he a superfluous man, an anti-social character, or is he a perfect individual that is an outsider to society? Whatever your decisions is, Oblomov is an outsider, he live his own life according to his own rule, he desires to have things only for himself, when he fall madly in love with Olga, he can’t imagine her begin with others, he want perfect attachment, unconditional love, but only mother’s love for their children are unconditional, he is like a child, rather, still a child, full of sentimentally, Nikita Mikhalkov’s film best captures the spirit of the novel, he put aide Olga in favor of Andre Stoltz, and the film become the tale of an innocent friendship, almost like that of an innocent child and a grownup telling him how to behave, talk and live the normal way of life, but a child is always a child, he spent two third of his time sleeping, for in his sleep, he dream of his childhood, he searches for what he had lost, never to be regained, if can not regain his childhood, he could at least live it again in his imagination. He long to be back to nature, to his country home, such nostalgia for the past is beautifully captured by the cinematography of Pavel Lebeshev; his childhood of the past is always sunny, bright yellow and green dominate the screen, the country radiate with colors, when in present, everything is dark and cold, black and gray dominate the screen, outdoor on the cold street of the city, everything is white and black, the white snow, the empty and the dark streets, everything is icy cold, I rarely seen the color of White captured to such perfection on the screen, it is simply beautiful to look at, each scene is like a painting, but one with movement. Add A Few Days in the Life of I.I. Oblomov to the list of films that I love, for it is a timeless masterpiece.
Rodnya aka Kinfolk (Nikita Mikhalkov, 1981) In Mikhalkov’s masterpiece, A Few Days in the Life of I.I. Oblomov, the son’s search for his childhood, the nostalgic memory of his mother of the time past is the center of the film, in Kinfolk, it is the mother’s search for his daughter in a world that seem stranger than fiction to her, for she is a kinfolk from the country with a heart of gold, Maria, angry one moment, then apologizing and caring in the next, when she comes to collision with the modern city life; selfish individuals always in search of one’s happiness in materialist and useless desire, they have lost touch with their inner most human emotions, the bigger the gap between the generations, the worst it gets, her daughter is having an affair while ignoring her daughter, the little granddaughter, at such as small age is already toxicated with pop music to escape the family feud, the father of the family is no better, he refuse to lesson to reason with no desire to forgive, it is this web that Maria get into, she is innocent, she believes she could put everything back together, even if it mean for her to go back to her own alcoholic husband, she is obsessed at fixing their problems, but human nature is complex, with inner psychological dilemmas, when wounded is hard to heal. The film was banned for two years, the reason might have been the ending scene in which new recruits saying farewell to their families as they go to the war in Afghanistan, indeed, there are many indirect reference to the war throughout the film, Mikhalkov uses boldly a dialectal use of imagery as symbolic to the character’s emotions; a sudden zooming or panning of object or actions; an military airplane flying, a field runner, a boat on the sea, a convoy of solider, etc, the sudden change of scenery not only create a break from the peak of the emotion, but also signify the universality of the story, it could have been the story of any of the subjects in the city. As in I.I. Oblomov, the film end with the child, now a grownup daughter, running and shouting “Mother, Mother”, but can she find her this time? Would the mother answer? See it, to know it.
Bez svideteley aka In Private (Nikita Mikhalkov, 1983) In Private was supposed to be a theatrical play from Mikhalkov, it was never staged, and all that is left is the recording of the intense rehearsal for the film. Based on Sofiya Prokofyeva’s two character drama play, Without Witnesses, like the play, the whole film take place within the limited interior of one apartment, in the span of one night, rather on evening, with only two characters on the stage, two other crucial characters are present throughout the film through the use of their photos only, and even one phone call to them, we hear their voice, but never see them, it by no mean a cinematic adaptation, there is rarely anything cinematic about the film, but that is what make it such a meditative watch, it is about two characters confronting each other after nine year of separation, it is about them and nothing more. Like Volodin’s play, Five Evenings, in which Mikhalkov made into a film a few years before, Private evolve around the same theme; The past relationship dominate the present one, and up to the end of the play, both characters avoid a direct encounter with their inner most sincere emotion, but when the climax come, all the cards are put on the table, as the former husband break down into madness as to his deceptive life, but after nine years of her heart broken, can the wife take him back? Watch it, to know it.
Oci Ciornie aka Dark Eyes (Nikita Mikhalkov, 1987) Consider Dark Eyes as Nikita Mikhalkov’s tribute to Fellini, Marcello Mastroianni, and Chekhovian motives. The film is a combination of short stories from Anton Chekhov, the ones that stand out are The Lady with the Dog, The Party, The Wife and Anna on the Neck , the first being the chance encounter between Romano Patroni (Mastroianni) and Elisa, the later the structure of the story as it was told in a flashback from one stranger to another, in between, you have the charming and brilliant performance from Mastroianni with many Felliniesque hilarious touches. Romano is a complex character in odd with himself, he has the courage to take a trip to Russia to find Anna whom he fall in love with madly, a decision he make in a split of a second, but he is a coward as to tell his wife of the fact, nor does he has the courage to start a new life with Elisa, rather, he goes on living his comfortable life, but as we find out at the end of the film, it is not comfortable life, and he might as well have made up all the stories. Romano, the man who is reaching his sixty and only remembers three things in his life; “The lullaby that my mother used to sing to me when I was a child. Elisa’s face the first night and the Russian fog.” Wonderful Watch.
Avtostop aka Hitch-hiking (Nikita Mikhalkov, 1990) Avtostop is one of the most bizarre films from Mikhalkov, it was shot as a short commercial for Fiat Automobile Company, but Mikhalkov had shot so much materials that he managed to make a film out of it, just under one hour in length. The story of a playboy Italian auto-racer who take a speedy trip all the way from Italy to Russia in his new Fiat car, we never know why he is taking that trip, upon the way, his car become his best friend, and a life savor when he encounter a Russian family, he pick up the pregnant wife to take her to hospital, but amide the snowy landscape, she goes into labour, with the Fiat Car saving her life and that of the baby, the shocking incident make our playboy into a family man again, as he call his son back home, promising him to be a good father. The loose narrative of the film is favored to the orgy of imagery glorifying the car, indeed, the main character of the film is the car, it has more shots than the entire other characters combined in the film, Mikhalkov’s commercial for Fiat must have boosted their sale revenue, for he delivers it. Worth Watching.
Urga (Nikita Mikhalkov, 1991) There is a theme that unifies the film of Nikita Mikhalkov; the nostalgic longing of the past, and none of his film represent that theme more boldly than in Urga. Modern civilization in the films is represented by Globalization, and it poison everything that it touches, perhaps none is more poisonous as the Media, be it the form of News Outlets or Hollywood propaganda, as the first thing that Bayyartu sees on the screen is the shameful Rambo III film, which even make Genghis Khan feel a shame of it, but that is Bayyartu’s least problem, he is slowly coming to the realization that his free nomadic life is about to end, although miles away from any towns, he comes under rules of Chinese’s policy of one child per one family, but being a Mongolian, he has the right to have three children, but the problem is he already got three, his wife suggest for him to compromise; “Why not use condom like the rest?”, but how can a man who has Genghis Khan for an ancestor compromise with a condom? Others find it normal, a Russian truck driver whom he take into his tent after his truck breaks down has already bowed down to the rules, he is already corrupted by civilization, but long for the free life of Bayyartu. Taking a trip to the town, on his way home, and while watching the modern wonder of Television, Bayyartu refuse to compromise, he is determined to live his life his way, according to his tradition, but his son is doomed to share the destiny of the rest, as at the end, the place where his father nailed his urga is now a place of a factory, and his son is a mere worker, a pessimist, but realistic ending to a free spirited film.