Saturday, 18 March 2023

Don't Look Now [1973]

 Nicolas Roeg’s acclaimed horror classic Don’t Look Now was suffused with a vivid visual palette, stunning juxtaposition of pulp and desolation, punctuation of ominously calm stretches with jolting hyperactivity, and thrilling evocation of mood and drama through ecstatic use of colours, sounds, editing and characterizations. Its distinctive giallo-inspired style and flavour – which was further accentuated by its atmospheric Italian backdrop – therefore, foregrounded the astute audio-visual stylist in Roeg. At the heart of this baroque adaptation of a short story by Daphne du Maurier is a tragic story of loss, grief and tentative, albeit futile, attempts at moving on, and the horror was built around it by leveraging elements of both gothic and slasher. It begins with the accidental death of Christine – the young daughter of restoration architect John (Donald Sutherland) and his wife Laura (Julie Christie) – while playing outside their English country house. That John had an unsettling premonition just before tragedy struck, but was unable to stop it, formed a key component of the storyline that was brilliantly emphasized at the film’s memorable denouement. Sometime after this event – with Laura still recovering from clinical depression – they relocate to Venice as John has been commissioned by a bishop to restore a dilapidated church. The ancient, crumbling and beautifully photographed city provided the perfect counterpoint to this chilling tale that took a foreboding turn when Laura befriends a pair of elderly neurotic sisters, one of whom – the blind Heather (Hilary Mason) – is ostensibly a psychic who can see the dead Christine. The sensational lovemaking sequence, which was continually intercut with quietly mundane shots of the couple getting ready, provided an audaciously naturalistic depiction of renewed intimacy between a married couple.

Director: Nicolas Roeg

Genre: Horror/Psychological Horror/Marital Drama/Slasher

Language: English/Italian

Country: UK

Saturday, 11 March 2023

The American Friend [1977]

 Wim Wenders’ exhilarating adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s brilliant Tom Ripley novel Ripley’s Game – with the script infused with few elements from the preceding novel Ripley Under Ground too, even though he had rights for only the third Ripley book which was an unpublished manuscript at that point – was strikingly laced with melancholic, impressionistic and existential flavours that his best narrative features abounded in. The sense of urban desolation and nihilism that it evoked – through fabulous picturization of Hamburg’s grimy waterfront, New York’s gritty landscape, Paris’ modernist buildings, and bleak interiors – turned this sparse, fatalist, deliberately paced tale of crime and deception into a work of haunting poetic realism, existential disaffection and stylish bravado. While Wenders made multiple creative changes to the novel – impregnation of transnational spirit and industrial grunge, ironic reversal of the principal locations (France vis-à-vis Germany), wryly playful departures at the climax, etc. – none were as radical as Ripley’s characterization, in which a Stetson-wearing Dennis Hopper brought manic impulsiveness and anarchic edginess into the anti-hero’s personable disposition. The other key character Jonathan, too, was subtly transformed – from a despondent, luckless British expat into a solemn, taciturn German picture framer and restorer who has a deadpan and individualist streak, even if he gets swayed by Ripley into committing two murders for money – by Bruno Ganz’s terrific portrayal. The two crime sequences – one at a Paris Metro station and the other in a high-speed train – were masterfully captured, while the sparingly used operatic score accentuated the moody atmosphere. Wenders, interestingly, cast several fellow filmmakers, including Nicholas Ray as an impersonating painter, Samuel Fuller as a henchman, Gérard Blain as a smooth-talking criminal and Jean Eustache as a do-gooder physician.

Director: Wim Wenders

Genre: Thriller/Crime Thriller/Existential Drama/Urban Drama

Language: German/English/French

Country: Germany

Thursday, 9 March 2023

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three [1974]

 Crime capers centred on hijackings are a dime a dozen, but whoever decides to hijack a subway train, given the seeming impossibility to escape from a hard-bound vehicle and out of an underground tunnel! That was the premise of Joseph Sargent’s taut, gritty and zeitgeisty The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, which became an instant pop-culture icon. Such was its appeal, in fact, that trains originating at 1.23 pm from the Pelham station in Bronx – the rationale for the film’s title – weren’t scheduled for many years! The action kicked off when four code-named men – the crafty mastermind and former mercenary Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw); former train driver and reluctant criminal Mr. Green (Martin Balsam); the psychopathic Mr. Grey (Héctor Elizondo); and Mr. Brown – take control of a bogey that they detach from the train, hold its 18 passengers hostage, and demand a spectacular ransom of $1 million to be delivered within an hour. Veteran transit cop Lt. Garber (Walter Matthau) takes charge of the negotiations and initiates arrangement of the money – notwithstanding the hilarious bureaucracy that the city’s buffoonish Mayor embodies – while intent on nabbing the criminals. Buoyed by the superb jazz score by David Shire, the deadpan and chaotic interactions between and across the different groups – kidnappers, hostages, cops, subway personnel, politicos, administrators – provided for lively drama, while the city’s legendary, throbbing and subterranean subway system was a character in itself. The diverse working-class hostages, in turn, formed an interesting microcosm of the city itself. While the script overdid the humour at times, the proceedings could’ve been moodier and tenser, and the escape plan wasn’t ingenious enough, these didn’t undo the film’s entertainment quotient and cultural currency.

Director: Joseph Sargent

Genre: Thriller/Crime Thriller

Language: English

Country: US

Sunday, 5 March 2023

La Ciénaga [2001]

 The stunning opening sequence of La Ciénaga – the spellbinding debut by Lucrecia Martel, one of the most original voices in contemporary cinema – began with a viscerally arresting depiction of torpor, ennui and vacuousness, wherein a group of flabby, lethargic, inebriated middle-aged adults – idling in sweltering weather, beside a pool filled with putrid, brackish water – are in such a stupor that when one of them slips, falls and cuts herself, others barely react. By putting us in the middle of this messy, ambiguous scene, Martel made it clear that the viewers will need to figure out the characters and their inter-dynamics themselves as the intricately orchestrated narrative unfolded, and in turn marvellously set the stage for the film’s brooding, clammy, chaotic, sensuous and hypnotic atmosphere ominously seething with violence. Martel trained her lens on the extended, cash-strapped, upper-middle-class families of the slothful, alcoholic Mecha (Graciela Borges) – comprising of her dazed husband, pubescent daughter (Sofia Bertolotto) who’s homoerotically enamoured by the family’s Indian servant girl who Mecha verbally abuses, handsome adult son whose playful frolicking with his cousin sister is borderline incestuous, and a one-eyed son addicted to hunting – and Mecha’s saner but acquiescent sister Tali (Mercedes Morán) – comprising of her patronizing husband and three kids, including a little son led to believe in phantom cat-eating African dog-rats. Mecha and Tali make vague plans of visiting Bolivia, their kids indulge in meaningless pursuits verging on disaster, and the television relentlessly covers a Catholic miracle. Simmering socio-political critique – bourgeois self-centredness, racial prejudices, class boundaries, religious frenzy, sexual undercurrents and familial malaise – were, therefore, enmeshed into the desultory proceedings, interlaced with terrific use of diagetic sounds, including captivating lo-fi music playing on stereos.

Director: Lucrecia Martel

Genre: Drama/Family Drama

Language: Spanish

Country: Argentina

Friday, 3 March 2023

The Pinochet Case [2001]

 Like his haunting homecoming essay Chile, Obstinate Memory – which powerfully foregrounded the theme of political memory and amnesia that would profoundly inform his filmography thereon – Patricio Guzmán’s The Pinochet Case too served as a coda to his monumental documentary trilogy The Battle of Chile. This brilliant and harrowing docu dispassionately articulated the belated addressal of Pinochet’s violent overthrow of Allende’s socialist government in 1973 and establishment of military dictatorship, which Guzmán had recorded in his electrifying opus. Pinochet, despite “relinquishing” his presidency in 1990, had retained military powers till his retirement when he appointed himself “senator-for-life”, lived with state-conferred privileges, and holidayed regularly in London, thanks to the preposterous 1978 Amnesty Law through which the army had absolved itself. However, Madrid-based prosecutor Carlos Castresana – a tireless advocate of international justice who’d witnessed the outrageous clemency accorded to Franco in Spain – had tenaciously built a case over 2 years on Pinochet’s crimes against humanity, which judge Baltasar Garzón upheld and the Scotland Yard enforced by putting Pinochet under house arrest in 1998. Using that as hinge, it solemnly covered two interconnected strands – the sensational political discourse that ensued in the UK which stripped him of his diplomatic impunity while also stalling tangible punishments; and poignant first-hand witnesses of tortures, rapes and disappearances that Pinochet’s enforcers had meted out to left-wing dissenters and activists, which Guzmán would expand upon in his masterful ‘Chile Trilogy’. Despite support from odious right-wing apologists and his triumphant return to Chile 1 ½ years later, Pinochet finally found his immunity stripped there too by judge Juan Guzmán. Its indelible parting shot, showing the unveiling of an Allende statue in Santiago, emphasized the ironic circle of life.

Director: Patricio Guzman

Genre: Documentary/Political History

Language: Spanish/English

Country: Chile

Tuesday, 28 February 2023

Secrets & Lies [1996]

 Mike Leigh edgily touched upon class and race identities in his disarmingly ambitious Secrets & Lies. They were, however, meshed into the canvas in a manner that was so nuanced and organic, that they felt intrinsic to this bleak yet broad-hearted kitchen-sink gem. Through its blistering tale of familial fault-lines that end up both magnifying and reconciling closeted wounds, therefore, it ended up crafting a quietly powerful celebration of multiculturalism and multiethnicity. The gradually unravelling domestic tapestry was structured around the complex interpersonal dynamics of five characters that were unapologetically, and at times even ferociously, real people – Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), an overwrought, neurotic and lonely middle-aged woman who’s facing an irreconcilable chasm with her alienated and angry daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook); Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a level-headed black optometrist adopted at birth, whose quest to locate her birth mother leads her to the white working-class and scarcely educated Cynthia, to both their incredible shock initially, which gradually evolves into a surprisingly warm bond; Maurice (Timothy Spall), whose relationship to his sister Cynthia has distanced on account of having moved up the social class as a well-to-do self-employed photographer and his troubled marriage to Monica (Phyllis Logan). These tense and simmering ripples reached a scorching crescendo at a family gathering where years of despair, frustrations, misunderstandings and interpersonal malaise finally erupt – something that the narrative, through its astute digressions, was always building up to. Powerhouse performances by Blethyn and Spall spearheaded the brilliant ensemble cast. The film’s most memorable sequences, aside from the incendiary finale, included a terrific 8-minute, single-take static shot that captured the first interaction between Cynthia and Hortense, and wry fragments from Maurice’s photographing of his diverse customers.

Director: Mike Leigh

Genre: Drama/Family Drama/Ensemble Film

Language: English

Country: UK

Thursday, 23 February 2023

Brigitte and Brigitte [1966]

 Luc Moullet was relatively late in joining the party – vis-à-vis his fellow critics from Cahiers du Cinéma – because, even though he’d made a few shorts, the Nouvelle Vague had already reached its explosive apogee by the time he made his feature debut with Brigitte and Brigitte. Hence, what might’ve garnered greater reception few years back, remained largely under the radar – a phrase that also holds true for Moullet’s prolific filmmaking career in general – and it, therefore, remains restricted mostly to those really in the know. Yet, this slight, amusing, anarchic and steadfastly idiosyncratic work boasted of an astonishing jackpot – something that’s clearly indicative of the respect that Moullet commanded among his peers for his writings on cinema – since this flea-budget film had cameos by the likes of Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Samuel Fuller (who Moullet had been an early champion of), and it was called “revolutionary” by Godard (possibly borne out of his genuine admiration for Moullet’s writings, even if laced with an expression of his ironic self). This tiny time capsule portrayed the absurdly conjoined lives of two eccentric girls having the same name, viz. Brigitte (Françoise Vatel and Colette Descombes) and from the provinces – their farcically coincidental similarities at the beginning were eventually overshadowed by their doltish rivalry – who become flat-mates upon moving to Paris in order to study at Sorbonne. The film’s silliness became tad stretched and even laboured in the second half, but its first half was packed with some inspired and subversive sociocultural satire on cinephilia, college politics, academia, intellectualism and Paris’ postcard monuments. Its funniest sequences included wry street surveys on filmmakers, deadpan rating of famous buildings and dry aphorisms by Fuller.

Director: Luc Moullet

Genre: Comedy/Social Satire

Language: French

Country: France

Saturday, 18 February 2023

5 Broken Cameras [2011]

 ‘Personal is political’ and ‘political is personal’ were equally and ferociously relevant for the remarkable documentary 5 Broken Cameras every minute of runtime, and, in turn, Emad Burnat, the extraordinarily courageous and steadfastly dissident Palestinian man and possessor of what the title so evocatively alluded to. This defiant first-hand chronicle of the daily oppressions and injustices that Israel’s apartheid settler-colonial apparatus perpetrates against Palestine, is centred on the West Bank village of Bil’in where Israelis, through brute military force, have been forcibly occupying farmlands and bulldozing olive groves in order to build walls and settlements, and the fearless collective protests, civil disobedience and opposition that the town’s residents keep putting up despite endless arrests, abuse, violence, extra-judicial despotism and disillusionment. This daring work of political journalism and personal activism, therefore, is the very embodiment of ‘cinema of resistance’. In a fascinating mirroring of Kieslowski’s outstanding work Camera Buff, Emad bought his first camera in 2005 to make home videos on his fourth-born Gibreel, but ended up filming – over the course of the next 6 years – the encroachments, confiscations, destructions and devastations that Bil’in faced, and the valiant stand that they took in response. 5 of his cameras got damaged for different reasons – including a bullet hit that saved Emad’s life – but the footage that they recorded became a testimony to a video camera’s ability to transform into a blazing weapon of dissent. Made in collaboration with progressive Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi, it also portrayed his family – in particular his wife of Brazilian descent and Gibreel who grows up amidst this turmoil – and his fellow participants in this struggle, especially two lion-hearted friends who’re always at the forefront of protests.

Directors: Emad Burnat & Guy Davidi

Genre: Documentary/Political Documentary/Diary Film/Essay Film/Activist Reportage

Language: Arabic, Hebrew

Country: Palestine

Wednesday, 15 February 2023

The Friends of Eddie Coyle [1973]

 The Friends of Eddie Coyle – Peter Yates’ sublime adaptation of George V. Higgins’ massively influential debut novel of the same name that’d established “Boston Crime” as a sub-genre – felt like Edward Hopper meets Jean-Pierre Melville in the way it was soaked in urban desolation, existential anguish, deep sighs of melancholy and fatalism, poetic sparseness, and moody evocation of Boston’s working-class criminals. One such member of that subaltern community is Eddie “Fingers” Coyle (Robert Mitchum), who got his moniker thanks to a knuckle-breaking gangland punishment that he’d once received, and which he recounted at the film’s beginning with the kind of dry, deadpan, digressive and world-weary note that formed a discernible identifier of the film in general and Mitchum’s acting masterclass in particular. A low-level, middle-aged gunrunner who lives with his family in a cramped house, and essentially just about making ends meet and staying alive, he’s presently acting as an intermediary between the smug Jimmy (Alex Rocco) who’s leading a team of audacious bank robbers and the fidgety Jackie Brown (Steven Keats) – the name that’d form the title of Tarantino’s most unheralded work – a deceptively smart gun-supplier in a kitschy automobile. He’s also facing a lengthy jailtime which he’s desperate to avoid, and hence becomes a stoolie – albeit reluctantly, as he’s always been a stand-up guy who never lets his “friends” down – for a cop (Richard Jordan). The film’s most striking aspect – along with its vivid picturization of lonely urban spaces, gritty dialogues, tense set-pieces and magnificent jazz score by Dave Grusin – was that Mitchum, despite his iconic swagger, never overshadowed the ensemble cast, including a brilliant Peter Boyle as Dillon, a matter-of-fact enforcer masquerading as an impassive bartender.

p.s. My earlier review of this film can be found here.

Director: Peter Yates

Genre: Crime/Crime Drama/Crime Thriller/Urban Drama

Language: English

Country: US

Saturday, 11 February 2023

The French Connection [1971]

 William Friedkin is best remembered for the three films that he made back-to-back between 1971 and 1977, viz. The French Connection, The Exorcist and Sorcerer; interestingly, they hardly had anything in common – one a gritty and memorably zeitgeisty policier; one a gleefully exploitative horror; and one a superb, desolate and immersive remake of Clouzot’s magnificent The Wages of Fear – except, perhaps, in their representativeness of the New Hollywood era through their sheer defiance of norms and conventions. This has come to be considered – alongside the works of Woody, Scorsese and Lumet – as one of the most iconic New York films from the 70s, for its grimy, visceral and absorbing verisimilitude, and in the way it captured the city’s locales and atmosphere through grainy, hyper-authentic and arresting visuals. And boy was it also nonchalant in its display of the sordid side of police work! Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman, in arguably his most famous turn) is an incredibly driven cop and an unlikable pig rolled into one; he has a racist streak, aggressive personality and penchant for brutality; he steps on tows, disobeys protocols and keeps emphasizing his hunch even though that’s led to bad consequences in the past; yet, he knows that he’s right that a massive narcotics deal is in the works and he intends to do whatever it takes to thwart it. His partner, Buddy (Roy Scheider), is his polar opposite given his more sedate nature, while the film’s wily antagonist is Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), the wealthy boss of a Marseille-based heroin-smuggling syndicate. Loosely based on true events, it was defined by its moody cinema vérité style, excellent jazz soundtrack, and a thrilling car chase sequence.

p.s. My earlier review of this film can be found here.

Director: William Friedkin

Genre: Thriller/Crime Thriller/Police Procedural

Language: English/French

Country: US

Sunday, 5 February 2023

I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba) [1964]

 Produced by Mosfilm in collaboration with ICAIC to celebrate the Cuban Revolution, and made when the Cold War was at its frostiest nadir – the Bay of Pigs invasion had just been foiled, and the Cuban Missile Crisis was at its craziest peak – Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba was a dizzying, flamboyant, poetic and rousing political agitprop. Yet, ironically, it resonated neither with the Soviets nor the Cubans at the time, and was largely forgotten until its triumphant “rediscovery” by American cinephiles in the 1990s. The omnibus film, set in pre-Castro Cuba, nonchalantly glorified the country’s rebellious streak and revolutionary path through four episodes, where the respective protagonists representing diverse socioeconomic contexts – a young exploited prostitute in a decadent Havana hotel; an impoverished sugarcane farmer whose farms are sold off to the United Fruit Company; an angry student battling against the city’s despotic police alongside his guerrilla comrades; and a devastated farmer turned rebel in the Sierra Maestra mountains – are all at loggerheads with Batista’s draconian system. Sergey Urusevsky’s dazzling cinematography – filled with technical wizardry, bravura single takes, hallucinatory images crafted using wide-angle and infrared photography, oblique camera angles – made this an idiosyncratic tour de force. Its most jaw-dropping tracking shots included  the camera gliding with a fisherman along a narrow canal between shanty houses; capturing a beauty contest atop a crowded skyscraper, traveling down and plunging into a pool; slipping into a traveling bus and culminating with a 360-degree pan-zoom showing a guy’s getting off it, crossing the streets and walking into Havana University; and moving up from a packed lane into a cigar manufacturing unit, flying out of its balcony, and soaring like a bird observing a funeral procession.

Director: Mikhail Kalatozov

Genre: Drama/Anthology Film/Political Agitprop

Language: Spanish

Country: Cuba/Russia

Friday, 3 February 2023

It's a Wonderful Life [1946]

 Frank Capra – arguably one of the most beloved Old Hollywood filmmakers – was, according to the popular line of thinking, a socially conscious man who empathized with the little people; however, according to another school of thought, he was a moralist, populist and closet conservative. It’s A Wonderful Life, being perhaps his most enduring work, was interlaced with both these seemingly irreconcilable facets, and that’s what made this such an interesting film; hence, to just typify it as a heart-warming Christmas classic, is to take a simplistic stance. The first production of Liberty Films – which Capra co-founded with William Wyler and George Stevens – this quintessential Dickensian fable with both religious and political overtones was centred on George Bailey (James Stewart) who, despite his desire to complete college and travel the world, is compelled to put his dreams on permanent hold when his father suddenly dies, in order to defiantly keep afloat his family-run business – aimed at providing affordable housing loans to the town’s working class folks – against all possible oppositions thrown in by the slimy, avaricious and Scrooge-like business man Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore) who wants to gobble up all the land and properties in the town. However, when he’s finally pushed to the brink and contemplates suicide on a Christmas Eve, a guardian angel (Henry Travers) is sent from the heavens to intervene. The film’s sentimentality, contrivances, simplistic religious morality and bathos were among its weakest aspects, while its evocation of the changing American landscape from Depression-era pessimism to Post-War hope, Stewart’s tremendous turn and the nightmarish, Dante-esque alternate reality that Bailey briefly experiences – arguably the film’s most fascinating and problematic segment – saved it from its own overt sincerity.

Director: Frank Capra

Genre: Drama/Romantic Drama

Language: English

Country: US

Sunday, 29 January 2023

Sud (South) [1999]

 Sud might well be one of the most violent films in Chantal Akerman’s oeuvre, even if there’s no display of blood in it; the violence in it, rather, hung in the air – in its defiant gaze, discomfiting silences and understated expressions – like brooding and ominous ether. Akerman, inspired by her love for the writings of Faulkner and Baldwin, had travelled to the American South to film a meditative reflection on the land. However, the gruesome lynching and murder of a black working-class man called James Byrd Jr. at the hands of three white supremacists – who flogged him, chained him to their pickup truck, and dragged him for around five kilometres before dumping his dismembered body in front of a church frequented by the town’s African-American community – which had occurred just before she was supposed to begin filming, radically shifted her attention, as she instead decided to set her documentary completely in Jasper, Texas where this horrific incident had occurred, in order to present a dismayed inquiry into the historicity, manifestation, perpetuation and immediate aftermaths of a hate crime such as this. The interviews with the Jasper’s residents covered a wide-ranging discourse – solemn ruminations on centuries of oppression, violence and hatred that African-Americans have faced; description of the specificities of this very public crime; the disquieting machinations of organized right-wing hate groups; the Sheriff’s casual downplaying of the crime’s racist motivations by attributing it to economic factors instead – and these were alternated with a sobering church service in Byrd’s memory; melancholic observations of the place’s oppressive milieu through silent long-takes; and ending the work with an incredibly unsettling tracking shot of the entire stretch through which Byrd was mercilessly dragged.

Director: Chantal Akerman

Genre: Documentary

Language: English

Country: Belgium

Wednesday, 25 January 2023

The Leopard [1963]

 Luchino “Red Count” Visconti was defined by complex contradictions. On one hand he was an aristocrat, the son of a Duke and a Catholic, while on the other he was a Communist, member of the antifascist Resistance during Mussolini’s reign, a pathbreaker and a homosexual. He, in other words, represented the establishment and also defiantly rebelled against it. The Leopard – the lush, resplendent, sweeping, deeply ponderous tour de force and magnificently mounted 3-hour+ epic that’s considered as his greatest masterpiece – too beautifully evoked powerful opposing forces by portraying a proud nobleman’s reluctant acceptance of a new dawn upon realizing that “the times they’re a-changin’”, while lamenting the irrevocable passage of an era. The tumultuous and epochal transformations that Italy underwent during the Risorgimento around the 1860s was captured through Don Fabrizio (Burt Lancastar, in a display of commanding screen presence and majestic performance), an ageing Sicilian patriarch who epitomizes the old social order. Sensing that change is inevitable, he provides his blessings to his dashing nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) – who he loves like his own son – when he joins Garibaldi’s Red Shirts and thereafter pursues political ambitions, though he doesn’t formally join this change himself. Rapturously cinematographed by Giuseppe Rotunno in vivid colours and marvellously scored by Nino Rota, this melancholic meditation on radical social upheavals and generational transformations boasted of two extraordinary set-pieces – a spectacularly staged battle scene, and an absolutely unforgettable 45-minute ballroom sequence orchestrated through breathtaking mise-en-scène, fastidious art decor and enthralling choreography. In an interesting anecdote, Lancastar, Delon and Claudio Cardinale, who played Tancredi’s gorgeous nouveau riche fiancée, couldn’t communicate with each other on the sets, and acted throughout in English, French and Italian, respectively.

Director: Luchino Visconti

Genre: Drama/Historical Drama/Epic

Language: Italian

Country: Italy

Sunday, 22 January 2023

Rocco and His Brothers [1960]

 Luchino Visconti’s gritty, poetic and tragic jewel Rocco and His Brothers splendidly exhibited neorealist themes, sensibilities and aesthetics that the director had himself co-created and launched with Ossessione – his stunning transmogrification of James M. Cain’s pulp noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice – while also subverting the movement’s core rubric through use of professional actors and production designs. With its sprawling yet tightly structured tale of an earthy, closely-knit family that finds itself slowly but inexorably disintegrating upon migrating from the agrarian and rural “south” to the industrialized and urbanized “north” – with dreams of a better life in Milan – the film was at once timeless in its evocation of paradise, the false enticement of money and the corrupting influence of a metropolis, and representative of the post-War Italian zeitgeist. Though structured like a novel with chapters named after each of the brothers, and intricately weaved around the Perondi family that comprised of an overprotective matriarch (Katina Paxinou) and her five sons, it focussed primarily on the volatile and self-destructive Simone (Renato Salvatori) and the soft-spoken and idealistic Rocco (Alain Delon). The repercussions of their severely contradictory fortunes as professional boxers, and their doomed love affairs with Nadia (Annie Girardot), an alluring and fiercely independent prostitute, led them on a violent collision course. Delon, fresh off his sensational turn in Purple Noon which released in the same year, and Salvatori were both superb, while Girardot gave a smouldering and magnetic performance. Giuseppe Rotunno’s mesmeric, high-contrast B/W photography of Milan – with its cathedral, trams, foggy streets, laundromats and desolate outskirts – and Nino Rota’s melancholic score, added arresting dimensions to the film’s brutal and disturbing sequences that’d led to massive censorship challenges.

Director: Luchino Visconti

Genre: Drama/Urban Drama/Family Drama/Ensemble Film

Language: Italian

Country: Italy

Tuesday, 17 January 2023

Purple Noon (Plein Soleil) [1960]

 Purple Noon’s synonymity with Alain Delon’s magnetic persona, mythical allure, feline profile and eerily shapeshifting performance is both a testimonial to René Clément’s terrific adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s chilling and mesmeric source novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, and a potential trap for losing sight of its many attributes beyond Delon’s star-making turn. Whenever a masterful novel is adapted into an absorbing film, it’s as fascinating to note their alignments as their departures. Clément adroitly retained the complex essence of Ripley’s disturbing naïveté, unpredictability, chameleon-like nature and sociopathy, and also key elements of the book’s addictive plot; however, it transformed the book’s elegant narrative into a more jagged structure – manifested from the get-go by its abrupt beginning in media res –; replaced the book’s ambiguous finale to the film’s fatalist moral closure which Highsmith apparently disliked; downplayed Ripley’s homoerotic undercurrents while imbuing him with narcissism; and turned the character of Greenleaf (brilliantly played by Maurice Ronet) – who Ripley (Delon) is tasked by the latter’s millionaire American father to bring back from Europe – from a docile, drifting and contented guy to an abrasive, casually brutal and violently impulsive man who’s not averse to cruelly hurting his delicate, beautiful and loving fiancée Marge (Marie Laforêt) and humiliating, even punishing, Tom for his dalliances. Tom, who’s literally shoved himself into the couple’s personal space and is allured by Greenleaf’s entitled life, is himself not averse to committing murders, stealing identity, scheming, perpetrating forgeries and embezzlements, and manipulating or deceiving people, including the gullible Marge. The luscious, sun-baked photography of the luxurious Italian setting – from the majestic Rome to crumbling towns and sumptuous coasts – added sinister sordidness and moody atmosphere to this viscerally immersive thriller.

Director: Rene Clement

Genre: Thriller/Crime Thriller/Psychological Thriller

Language: French

Country: France

Saturday, 14 January 2023

Histoire(s) du Cinéma [1988-1998]

 To say that Godard’s magnum opus Histoire(s) du Cinéma – the 8-part video essay conceived while he was on lecture tours during the 80s, 10 years in the making, and clocking at a massive 266 minutes – is a monumental treatise on cinema is stating the obvious. It’s a dense, daunting, discursive, digressive, deeply self-reflexive, incredibly metatextual, unabashedly polemical, and radical reimagining of what cinema is and can be. And in turn this freeform, kaleidoscopic and demanding work – filled with hyperlinks, reflections, juxtapositions, dizzying montage, and intricate interplay of images, sounds and words – manifested everything that Godard was and remains – viz. a pioneer, a pathbreaker, a prophet, a subversive pun artist, a romantic, a rebel, a staggering intellectual, a profoundly progressive critical thinker and someone for whom history (and story) of cinema – as the wordplay in the title alluded to – and its form and dialectics, were inseparable from the history, story, interpretation and politics of the 20th century. His complex and sprawling meditation on the medium, therefore, encompassed everything from the American studio system to Soviet montage, from Italian neorealism to French avant-garde, and from wide-ranging impressions of other artforms (literature, painting, music) to auto-portraiture. These in turn were overlayed with his wry and weary commentary on fascism, imperialism, capitalism, consumerism, tyranny, exploitation and devastating wars that the century was besieged with, along with stirring espousal of revolutionary ideas and melancholic elegy on cinema. While it was impossible to make note of the slew of films that he referenced – which led to inevitable copyright issues, though, ironically, Godard exempted his own work from copyright restrictions – I managed to count 65-odd films that I’ve watched, though I’m sure I missed a few.

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film

Language: French

Country: France

Saturday, 7 January 2023

Black Girl [1966]

 Trailblazing Senegalese filmmaker, renowned writer and avowed Marxist Ousmane Sembène’s landmark debut film Black Girl – made just 6 years after his country’s independence from France – remains a ground-breaking work as much for its being one of the first films from sub-Saharan Africa to achieve global recognition as for being a simultaneously lyrical and lashing commentary on the ugly and still lingering yoke of colonialism, racialism and patronizing exploitation in post-colonial Senegal. That it was presented unequivocally and defiantly from the POV of its African protagonist made it all the more radical, powerful and political in that it gave a clear and articulate voice to the colonized – hitherto never the central piece even in the works of progressive Western filmmakers – and became representative of the broader continent that was in the process of regaining their rightful individual and collective identities. Adapted from a short story by Sembène himself – which, in turn, was loosely based on a real life incident – this was a stark, stirring and formally spare account of Diouana (devastatingly brought to life by Mbissine Thérèse Diop in her first and only acting turn), a young, gullible and dreamy girl who’s employed by a well-off French couple and brought from Dakar to the Côte d'Azur to be a nanny to their kids, only to realize that her job there’s that of a lowly domestic help for her “masters”. As this once carefree girl’s excitement of moving to France is crushed and her self-worth thoroughly dehumanized, leading the minimalist narrative – alternatively accompanied by jazz score and lilting Afro folk-music – to its harrowing and haunting climax, her oppressive “present” is juxtaposed with flashbacks from a freer, jauntier and more hopeful past.

Director: Ousmane Sembene

Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama

Language: French

Country: Senegal

Wednesday, 4 January 2023

Decision to Leave [2022]

 Decision to Leave is one of Park Chan-wook’s most muted works – notwithstanding its arresting set-pieces, panache and controlled stylistic flamboyance – given its relative lack of operatic flourishes. But its theme of dark and self-destructive obsessions, along with its formal palette that was marked with extreme precision – with sprinkles of twisted playfulness thrown in – made this gradually unfolding neo-noir an intriguing new turn for the South Korean maestro. One might also credit that turn to The Little Drummer Girl, his compelling slow-burn adaptation to TV of John le Carré’s Cold War thriller. Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) is an insomniac police detective in Busan in a tenuous marriage. His dull, workaholic and largely solitary existence experiences an electrifying jolt when he takes on the investigation of a retired immigration worker who’s found dead at the foot of a cliff that he loved climbing. His doubts about the cause of death – was it an accident or suicide or homicide – turn into an obsession when he meets Seo-rae (Tang Wei), the victim’s cold, enigmatic, enticing, impossibly alluring and significantly younger widow who’d illegally emigrated from China many years back, works at a centre for elderly care, and harbours tantalizing secrets. Though Hae-jun becomes convinced that Seo-rae has killed her husband, the brilliant but heavily repressed cop – reminiscent of Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct – finds himself inexorably drawn to this stunning woman against his best judgements. Despite some of its narrative contrivances and relatively weaker 2nd half, this moody Hitchcockian thriller – boasting of an absorbing turn by Wei, gorgeous production designs, seductive use of Jung Hoon-hee’s song ‘Mist’, and impish play on the slippery nature of languages – made this a gripping, addictive and oftentimes enthralling crime thriller.

Director: Park Chan-wook

Genre: Crime Thriller/Post-Noir/Romantic Noir/Police Procedural

Language: Korean

Country: South Korea