Sunday, December 30, 2018

Yasujirō Ozu (早春 Sōshun) Early Spring

going hungry
by Douglas Messerli

Kōgo Noda and Yasujirō Ozu (screenplay), Yasujirō Ozu (director) 早春 (Sōshun) (Early Spring) / 1956

Yasujirō Ozu’s longest film to survive, Early Spring, might almost be described as a melodrama, a bit in the manner of the works of American directors Nicholas Ray and Douglas Sirk—except while the American films were generally about women who were unfaithful and doubting. In Ozu’s great film it is the husband, Shoji Sugiyama (Ryō Ikebe) who cheats on his wife, Masako (Chikage Awashima). 
      Working in an office that is just as impersonal, although far more crowded, as Billy Wilder’s terrifying vistas in The Apartment, Sugiyama is unhappy in his daily routine, which Ozu indicates from the very first scene of his film with the sound of his alarm clock and his character’s trudge, along with hundreds of other workers, to central Tokyo, where they are locked into small rooms for accounting, typing, and fact-checking, with an occasional invite out by the higher-ups. The best such a common worker can hope for is to gradually move up in the corporate structure over many years, but like his fellow worker who dies during the movie, Sugiyama has little hope for advancement. For reasons unknown, his and Masako’s only son has himself died—one suspects of lack of nutrition, since the family sometimes cannot even afford their daily intake of rice. Masako is sometimes forced to take advantage of her tart-speaking mother, who runs a local restaurant-bar, in order to simply bring enough food to their table.
      Throughout this film, in fact, Sugiyama often goes hungry, his lunch being interrupted by officials, his dinners replaced by drunken nights with his friends with whom he plays mahjong. He is a man who hungers; so is it any wonder when, invited by an wide-eyed office typist, Chiyo Kaneko (Keiko Kishi), nicknamed because of her large eyes, “Goldfish,” that he is quite literally seduced into joining the office hikers (a thematic in several Japanese films), and even further implicated into her life after she suggests they take the slackers way by catching a hitch on the back of a local truck passing by. Indeed, their fellow would-be hikers are envious of their decision, begging that they too might join them.
      Ozu subtly makes this simple act into a kind of transgression, as the two rides past their fellow workers in complete enjoyment of their “rest,” while the rest must slowly slog on. You can almost hear the gossip that follows roiling up among their fellow employees. And soon after even Masako suspects that something is going on with her husband, while his friends determine to celebrate a rice party wherein, since Sugiyama never shows up, they castigate Kaneko for beginning an affair with their married friend.
      The bleakness of Sugiyama’s life gets even darker when Masako leaves their home to return to her mother, admitting that she has discovered a lip-stick stained handkerchief in his husband’s pocket, while the confused worker is asked to relocate to a provincial city where the company has interests—a move which might be seen either as a demotion or a possibility of new potential—which, obviously, will also take him away from his only current pleasure.
      Ozu, himself, argued that he was attempting "to portray what you might call the pathos of the white-collar life,” while still making it quite clear that Masako, nonetheless, is a good and quite faithful wife. What makes the Japanese director’s work so very different from any Hollywood melodrama us that these humans, who have made grave mistakes, can return to one another and forgive, that their love is somehow deeper than their own desperations.
      We can never know whether Sugiyama and his wife’s lives will improve—Ozu never allows simple summaries of his explorations of deep family life—but we can hope that this unhappy couple may somehow again find their way through life. Ozu’s vision, with regard to the vicissitudes of post-World War II Japanese family life, still believes in the unions into which they originally committed themselves. If they fail, it is also a product of the culture at large, not simply their personal inabilities. One might even argue that for Ozu, family life is the only way to survive such tragic circumstances. Alone, one can find no true solution for survival.

Los Angeles, December 30, 2018
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2018).

Friday, December 28, 2018

Francis Lee | God's Own Country

learning how to love
by Douglas Messerli

Francis Lee (writer and director) God’s Own Country / 2017

Why is it, I have to explore, why I felt Francis Lee’s 2017 film about a young, gay Yorkshire sheep farmer (Josh O’Connor) and a Romanian migrant temporary worker (Alec Secăreanu) to be totally believable and touching, whereas I found Ang Lee’s 2005 gay romance, Brokeback Mountain, about a gay relationship between two sheep-herders utterly unconvincing?
     It wasn’t that I was surprised by the sudden sexual passion between the two rugged Wyoming-based shepherds who get the hots for one another; as I wrote in my review of that year:

The first part of the film, a long laconic testimony to the lonely life of the sheep-herding cowboys and an evocation of the beauty of the landscape in which they work, was perfectly reasonable. And I think it is not at all illogical or even out of the ordinary that these two lonely men, both of whom had come from dysfunctional families, would develop a kind of unspoken bond, even be attracted to one another, and, upon that lonely mountain, find themselves having sex. I don’t care how loud the Christian coalitions yell, men—even straight men which both of these cowboys proclaim themselves to be—sometimes have sex in situations where they exist for long periods of time without women. So, their rather violent sexual outing—although we later suspect that it is not the first time for the Jake Gyllenhall character, Jack Twist—is quite believable.
     The central character of Francis Lee’s movie, Johnny, in this more nuanced work, begins also loving 
with rough and quick sex, the young farmer grabbing up anyone he might encounter in his rural isolation for a quick fuck in the back of his van in which he carries his cows to market. His sexuality is clearly a thing of frustration and anger.
     The young lad with whom we first encounter him having sex tries to encourage a deeper connection through an invite for a drink at a local pub, which Johnny brusquely refuses. He is bitter, forced as he is to run his father, Martin Saxby’s, farm since the elder has suffered a stroke and can now barely walk.
      His grandmother, Deidre (Gemma Jones), with her gorgon-like personality doesn’t help. Johnny is clearly locked up in a world not to his liking and which he has no chance to escape. His only outs are his drunken evenings at a nearby pub, after which he is apparently delivered up by a local taxi, whose drive is forced to literally deposit him, like a piece of rubbish, in the driveway of the farm, a scene which the temporary Romanian worker, Gheorghe, painfully observes from the small trailer near the house in which they have ensconced him.
      Johnny’s first encounter with Gheorghe, given the Yorkshireman’s unhappiness with his life, is not a pleasant one, although we immediately sense that the handsome Gheorghe, given his deferential attitude to life and his gentle responses to the brutal comments of his new employer and the conditions in which he must now live (including an dialect so peculiar that subtitles are needed), might be perfect to calm the angry young man. And that is, precisely, what makes this film so wonderful.
      Gheorghe, a bit like a saint of Pasolini’s Theorama, appears out of the blue in order to gradually tame the beast in Johnny, showing him, without saying a word, how beautiful his Yorkshire landscape truly is, that even a newborn baby sheep “runt,” might be nursed back to health—in one of the most 
painful but enlightening moments of this film, he takes up a knife to skin a stillborn sheep, placing the pelt around the runt, which when the dead sheep’s mother smells, encourages her to nurse it—and helps Johnny to learn that another male body is not just an ass to be intruded, but a being to caress and even kiss. Sheep are not simply something to be sheared, but produce, if you are knowledgeable, a beautiful cheese that is not only delicious but possibly financially beneficial.
      For the bitter Johnny, these lessons, particularly when he realizes that he cannot possibly bring his new lover into his house, are learned slowly. And when drunkenly and casually he chooses to fuck another young gay man in the local pub in the presence of his new “teacher,” Gheorghe determines, as the agreement has always been, to move on. The angel has flown off to Scotland.
      When Johnny’s father has another stroke, however, the son realizes that he must now take charge, and despite the dismissive stares of the gorgon grandmother, determines to find his Romanian lover and bring him home and, presumably, into his own bed.
     These events, large and small, are what make the love between these two unlikely gay lovers so very different from the other Lee’s simple-minded, lust-induced cowboys. We believe in this relationship because we can comprehend it; we understand what they do and don’t have in common and perceive how together they have worked to create something different, a world unthinkable in the Yorkshire wilds. In order to have a true relationship, you can’t just drop in from time to time on a married man to restore that “oh such special feeling”; you need to wake up, recognize yourself and your love and act on that.
      Francis Lee, unlike Ang Lee, using his own experience as the basis of his filmmaking truly comprehended what love (any love, not just gay) is all about. And in a world in which gays are not yet accepted, you need to simply take a stand, bring the boy into the house and let him work with you to make a better life together. Even the gorgons will surely back off; besides Gheorghe is a much better cook! And that goat cheese he has left behind looks so very delicious.

Los Angeles, December 28, 2018
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2018).

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Jean-Luc Godard | Les Carabiniers

seeing the world
by Douglas Messerli

Roberto Rossellini, Jean Gruault, and Jean-Luc Godard (screenplay), Jean-Luc Godard (director) Les Carabiniers / 1963, USA 1967

Way back in 1963, the great French director Jean-Luc Godard showed us where many of today’s “yellow vest” protesters come from, the country outposts of the French landscape, some, like the Stan and Laurel-like brothers, Ulysses (Marino Masé) and Michel-Ange (Patrice Moullet)—about as 
far away as you can get from the great voyager and the talented artist—living, as these two do, in a ramshackle hut with their equally ill-named wives, Venus and Cleopatra (Genevieve Gaela and Catherine Ribero), hometown beauties who are left behind. These poor idiots haven’t even been to Paris.
      Suddenly they are visited my two military carabiniers (riflemen) who deliver them a letter signed by the King inviting them to join the war. What war, you might ask? In Godard’s dark anti-militarist satire, it hardly matters as—after being assured that, as Roger Ebert summarized, “they will be allowed to loot, plunder, deface, see the sights and in general have a smashing time. ‘Will we be able to slaughter the innocent?’ asks Ulysses. "Of course," the carabinier snaps, ‘this is war.’" They are even promised swimming pools, Maseratis and Ferraris. With pure anticipation, the brothers enlist.
     The war or, I should say, wars that follow represent a trek through Europe, the mid-east, the far-east and even the US that might suggest any imaginable battle that existed in the 20th century. And their adventures, other than their occasional participation in precisely those activities they were promised—plundering, raping, torturing, and creating general mayhem—is structured around postcards which they send home featuring the sites (among them the pyramids, the Parthenon, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa) along with their impressions of their adventures. Indeed, these wide-eyed innocents might almost be perceived to have become true adventurers and artists in their discovery and evident enjoyment of the world they finally get an opportunity to encounter.
      Surely, the scenes of violence and death Godard shows us are not pleasant, but even the would-be heroes of this piece are made by Godard to be slightly ridiculous as they spout political slogans while standing before firing squads or race unnecessarily into harm’s way, whereupon the idiot brothers and others simply shoot them down.
      Along the way there are also delightful scenes, as when one of the brothers visits his first movie theater, attempting to join the naked star in her onscreen bathtub. And, even occasionally, a war scene itself, as when Godard, working in black-and-white, suddenly lights up the screen with a burst of fireworks that signifies to the villagers and to the two dumb brothers that the war is now over, represents a startingly beautiful series of images.
      Pauline Kael inexplicably found the first hour of this 1 hour and 20-minute film “pure hell”—as I have made it apparent through the My Year volumes, I do not share the adoration that some of her readers have awarded her over the years—yet I do agree with her that the best scenes of Godard’s black comedy are its last, where we discover that the riches the brothers have returned home with consist of a suitcase of postcards, catalogued into various topics, which tell the story of their numerous adventures. Like tourist connoisseurs, the two lay out for their wives, again and again, the signifiers of their many years of travels, lovingly displaying them with perhaps a far greater joy than their actual experiences. Like my mother, who always enjoyed travel more in hindsight that, in reality, these brothers almost come to worship their past peregrinations.

      Alas, as Godard makes in this black comedy clear, all good things must come to an end. As soldiers for the losing King, Ulysses and Michel-Ange are now traitors, and new carabiniers suddenly appear upon the landscape, this time stand them up against the wall to shoot them as participants on the wrong side of the previous wars. As the director makes clear, there are never any winners in warfare, socially nor as survivors in real-life. Through the voice of his narrator Godard reiterates who these innocent fools they have been all along: “Henceforth the two brothers slept for an eternity, believing the brain, in decay, functioned beyond death, and its dreams are what constitute Paradise.”
        If this represents high sarcasm against the ignorant faith of the masses, it is also—given the scenes of simple joy they express in reviewing the images of their life adventures—an almost Pasolini-like praise for the common man. Sometimes delusions are simply better than reality. And, after all, unlike so many of their peers, they did see the world.

Los Angeles, December 22, 2018
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2018).

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Joel Coen and Ethan Coen | The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

masters of mayhem and death
by Douglas Messerli

Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (writers and directors) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs / 2018

Those bad-boy brothers of American cinema are at it again in their new anthology of 6 short films, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, serving up along with Thanksgiving dinner, mayhem and death. I used to describe Joel and Ethan Coen as being cynical, but over the years I guess I become inured to their so very well-made films, now preferring to perceive most of their works as American versions of the Grand Guignol theater, a popular French-born format mostly featuring rape and death, with larceny, robbery, and other dark-doings dropped in for free.
     In many ways their film-making is a sort of arthouse version of the films of Tod Browning with a large dash of James Whale thrown into the brew of spices of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, whipped up with a postmodern syrup that gives us a stew that despite its sour aftertastes is utterly delicious. Yes, I mix my metaphors, but so too do they.

      Throughout their work the brothers have treated the most serious topics not simply the way the Grand Guignol masters did, as subjects of absolute fascination and utter significance, but as only Americans might, with a sense of innocence and good humor. If you’re going to kidnap a baby, you might as well leave him on the roof of your car (Raising Arizona, the very first Coen brother’s movie I saw with Dennis Phillips in Sacramento), if you intend to create a Frankenstein, you can’t do better than Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men). And it is no accident that these always winking kids choose Western shoot-‘em-up myths as the background for some of their films, in particular True Grit and now the 6 films that make up The Ballad.
       It doesn’t hurt that the Coens’ work with some of the very best cinematographers (in this case Bruno Delbonnel), composers (central to the film replete with singing cowboys are the musical compositions in this work by Carter Burwell). And it very much does matter that over the years they have employed some of the best of Hollywood (and non-Hollywood) actors as their performers. In this instance, the Coen’s have gathered young and older actors such as Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Jefferson Mays, Tyne Daly, and numerous others—all quite excellent.
      Such a large concept, its immense cast, and various locations—the most difficult of which was “The Gal Who Got Rattled” which required 14 wagons shipped to Nebraska where they filmed and many sets of stubborn oxen and other desert locations for the first, title film and the second, “Near Algodones,” wherein the brothers satirically recreate a “literal” pan-shot when the bank teller who has been robbed comes after the robber draped with pans for protection from any bullets that might be sent his way.
      There are lots of such witty cinematic allusions, including the hilarious rise of the singing cowboy as an angel, lyre in hands, after his death or the wonderful theatrical mish-mash of Shelley, Shakespeare, the Bible, and Lincoln in one of the very best of these films, “Meal Ticket,” in which the lovely armless and legless actor is replaced with a chicken who seems, like the horse Clever Hans, to know how to add and subtract.
       Although I am well known as the spoiler of all times for those who hate to not know ahead of time what the story is—I have myself never cared about knowing the “plot” before seeing a film, focusing instead of how that story is told—I will spoil no further plots this time ‘round. I think I’ve already suggested that all of them ends in single or multiple deaths. The stories are all fascinating in the manner of Bret Harte and O. Henry, with multiple ironic twists and turns. And the Coen’s use of the Western American landscape is stunning and complex.
        This time, moreover, the cleaver brothers have chosen not to release this through a major studio—studios who might surely have all turned the proposition down after 25 years, purportedly, of their work on the project—in order to get their work produced, in this case by the ambitious on-line streaming service Netflix, who released the film to theaters only for a short period, thus delimiting theater revenues. Somewhat like the great European directors, among them Godard and Fassbinder, the Coens have now perceived how to go around the system in order to create something that Hollywood producers simply cannot perceive as safe investments. But oh what a lovely contribution this is. In the hands of Joel and Ethan Coen death is a lovely thing to behold, frightening and as brutal as it may be. I don’t quite comprehend how Netflix evaluate their successes, except for their overall subscribers; and this work has generally been ignored in all the award season selections (which it certainly shouldn’t have been), but kudos for them for having funded such a controversial masterwork.

Los Angeles, December 20, 2018
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2018).

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Ingmar Bergman | Nattvardsgästerna (Winter Light)

the betrayals of christ
by Douglas Messerli

Ingmar Bergman (writer and director) Nattvardsgästerna (Winter Light) / 1963

Generally linked with Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly of 1961, and The Silence, released later in 1963, Bergman’s Winter Light is at the center of a trilogy about mid-to-late-life angst and loss of faith, themes which interlink these works with many of this director’s films.

     Indeed, in some respects, the pastor at the heart of this drama, Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand), is related to the cruel bishop, Edvard Vergérus who Emelie Ekdahl marries after her husband Oscar’s death. And like the Bishop, Tomas, who has also lost his wife, is partially responsible for a death, in this case a parishioner in crisis, Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow), who terrified by the cultural, political, and financial rise of the Chinese—an oddly contemporary concern—brings him to lose the belief that the world will survive, a theme that further resonates with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Swedish-made film, The Sacrifice, particularly when the fisherman Jonas commits suicide after meeting with the pastor to discuss his fears.
     On top of this, Tomas, who has been having a secret affair since the death of his wife with the local school teacher, Märta (Ingrid Thulin), chooses this day to declare how much he despises her, while still taking her along to Jonas’ house to tell that man’s pregnant wife, Karin (Gunnel Lindblom) of her husband’s death.
    Beyond that, Tomas is suffering from the symptoms of a very bad cold, and even more importantly is rapidly losing his entire congregation. By day’s end no one shows up for his evening service, despite that fact that he orders the bells rung and moves forward to a homily delivered to only his staff.
   Even if this might be represented as a kind of survival tale, a story of a man who, despite all evidence to the contrary, is still able to declare that “God is holy and that all the earth is full of His glory,” we recognize there is no glory any longer in Tomas’ small-town world. He is now been emptied of everything that might have represented as a glorious world, he unable to deal with his own disbelief, without love, and without even a purpose in his life—with no one there to whom he can preach what he himself perceives as lies.
   Bergman fills in his barebones plot with intense conversations which involve his various discussions with others, with Märta and through her schoolmarm pronunciations argues that Tomas needs her simply because cannot to continue to exist without love; his failed communications with Jonas; and even the arguments of his loyal sexton, Algot Frövik (Allan Edwall) who poses some of the deepest questions of this film: Why is so much time of the story of Christ’s life spent on his crucifixion and death, when Christ had to live his life with the betrayal of his beloved communicants and God himself. It is both God and man who work together to destroy the faith that some posit into the world, and the issue is at the heart of this film's believers, including the non-believing Karin and the abused Märta, the latter of whom finally in the last scenes begins to pray.
    I suppose for many who no longer believe in religion, Bergman’s film, in this case, might seem almost an artifact from a culture plagued by fears of insignificance and doubt, stirred up by the long, dark winters in a country just too close to the arctic tundra.
     As a non-believer, I too feel that if only these tortured individuals might free themselves from their deeply religious reflections, they could move out into the world again with love, faith in the future, and some realization of why they are on earth.
     Yet, even if you were to remove the religious constraints on these individuals, I fear that what lies behind their fears—strong senses of doubt about their own abilities, hatred of themselves and others, and just fear of the future—might not be erased. Within the “winter light” through they see through the “glass darkly,” their visions, religious or not, are distorted. In order to be made to feel worthy of the light, Bergman seems to suggest, they need to find some feelings within themselves that could help them redeem their lives. Perhaps prayer, Märta’s solution, is all they can hope for. Or, as in the final sequence of this trio of dark films, turning inward to a kind of silence that in simply listening to others and the self they might find a way to truth. Perhaps it was not Christ who has betrayed us in our doubts, so the director suggests, but we who have again betrayed Christ. Accordingly, this film becomes a strangely reconfirming work to be seen near Christmas.

Los Angeles, December 15, 2018
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2018).

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Ofir Raul Grazier | האופה מברלין (The Cakemaker)

undiscovered territory
by Douglas Messerli

Ofir Raul Grazier (writer and director) האופה מברלין (The Cakemaker) / 2017, USA 2018

Israeli director Ofir Raul Grazier’s first feature film is a gentle realist work, with little experimentation involved, but which is nonetheless complex and watchable. The Cakemaker, might almost be characterized as one of the numerous food-based films (think TampopoBabette’s Feast, Julie & Julia, and Chocolat)—except that this work explores, along with baking in this case, the issues of religion, sex, cultural separation that are also the subtexts of two of the above films, Babette’s Feast and Chocolat, in an even more challenging manner.
      Not only are the major protagonists, at least in the early part of the film, an Israeli and a German, a married man and a single baker, but together they have a gay relationship in Berlin. They quickly fall in love with one another in Thomas (Tim Kalkof) small café, which the Israeli-based Oren (Roy Miller) has apparently visited previously, since he not only orders up the baker’s German Black Forest (Schwarzwaelder Kirschtorte) Cake, which the thin man chows down with relish, but orders a container of Thomas’ cinnamon cookies, which his Israeli wife, Anat (Sarah Adler), he reports, loves. After finishing his sweets, the stranger asks if the baker might suggest what Oren might buy as a birthday gift for his young son. After inquiring what the father does for a living—Oren works for an Israeli-German train corporation—he suggests a nearby toy shop where model trains are made and painted by hand. And we suddenly realize, when he asks if Thomas might accompany him to the shop, that something is a bit odd here. By next scene we see are the couple about to kiss.
      The next scenario already establishes that the men have become regular lovers, Oren living with Thomas every time he visits Berlin. Yet, Grazier creates an even more subtle relationship between the two as Thomas queries the obviously bisexual Oren about his sex-life with Anat, suggesting that he, too, might share an interest in women. In short, before we have gone far into this film the director has already established at attitude of sexualities that accords with his equal presentation of massive cultural differences, a young German male living with an Israeli Jewish man.
      When Oren leaves to return to Jerusalem this time, he forgets both his keys and the cinnamon cookies, leading Thomas to call him on his cellphone. There is no answer, again and again, until finally he attempts to contact his lover at his office, where he told that Oren has died in a car accident. And it is at this point where Grazier’s would-be tale of an odd gay couple becomes something even stranger, as Thomas determines to travel to Jerusalem to discover, so we might imagine, what happened to his former companion.
      My clause, “so we might imagine,” is important since the director never tells us what his characters are truly thinking, but represents it only in their silent actions, made even more silent in Thomas’ case when he arrives in the Hebrew-speaking world of Israel, where people can communicate with him only in English. Things are not made easier by the fact that, as Grazier clearly shows us, his world does easily embrace outsiders—particularly German outsiders.
      Moreover, the audience is itself put on edge as we recognize that this particular outsider is almost literally stalking Oren’s wife and child Itai, going so far, with the use of Oren’s left-behind keys, as to open up a locker at a local swimming club and slip in to the dead man’s swimming trunks.
      Ultimately, he even finds employment as a dishwasher/shopper in the café that Anat owns, gradually inserting himself into her and Itai’s life. Given the stresses on Oren’s widow and son, not only the sudden loss of their major provider and clearly a loving husband and father, but along with the constant religious reminders impressed upon her by her brother Moti (Zohar Strauss), it is not terribly difficult for Thomas to enter their lives. When her son suddenly goes missing as a runaway from school, the baker is asked to take over the kitchen, pitting peppers so that that they might be stuffed. We know what she does not, that he is an expert chef, and that he now will be unable to resist the empty oven. Yet the very fact that he opens the oven to bake his delicious cookies is perceived by some as a grave indiscretion.
      When Itai arrives at the café, Thomas skillfully handles the situation by serving him up a hot chocolate and, when Itai finally comes into the kitchen by his own will, allowing him to help decorate the cookies. It is a lovely scene wherein we realize that Thomas might also be a loving father to a child, one which the returning Anat witnesses from a nearby window.
       Yet her brother is furious when he discovers that Thomas has dared to open the stove, which might mean that his sister would lose her Kosher status. And just like the endless microphonic calls to Sabbat, his are shouts of exclusion rather than embracement. However, the not so religious Anat continues to sell Thomas’ cookies to great success. Although Moti may be wary, he helps to find Thomas a nice apartment and invites him to Sabbath dinner. When he later shows up, invited, to Itai’s birthday party with a delicious cake in hand and somewhat drenched from a rainstorm that has impeded his visit, Anat tells him to change into her husband’s clothes, and the tale spins round to an artful conclusion.
      Finally made curious about her husband’s remaining documents, she opens the box to discover his numerous receipts from Thomas’ Berlin bakery and begins to perceive the truth—which in this lovely film is never openly spoken. Eventually the two, Thomas and Amat, have sex, soon after which her brother hands him a ticket back to Berlin.
       Amat, the seemingly accepting one, however, follows him to Berlin. We don’t know whether she plans to confront him or to begin a new life with her husband’s former lover in another world. As throughout so much of this lovely film, the intentions of the characters, even their intimate feelings, remain secret and are kept in silence. Individuals behave in ways that cannot always be known, only witnessed in their actions or what we believe are their actions. Love and sexuality are always an undiscovered territory that cannot be easily explained.  

Los Angeles, December 12, 2018
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2018).

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Alfonso Cuarón | Roma

mothers without a voice
by Douglas Messerli

Alfonso Cuarón (screenwriter and director) Roma / 2018

Based loosely on the director’s upbringing in the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City—hence the film’s title Roma, which also hints of an attachment to “Rome,” and a relationship to the “Roma” population the “Romansh,” who throughout the world are generally described simply as “gypsies.”
      It is a strange title given the fact that the central family upon which this film focuses are upper-middle-class citizens, who not only live in a house with 3-4 servants, but who also have a constantly defecating dog, Borros, as well as several birds and 4 children, this family supported by a doctor father, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), and his rather passive, biochemist professor wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), along with her mother Teresa (Verónica García). In fact this large family is mostly being cared for by their house-keeper (Yalitza Aparicio), who lives in this menagerie mostly as a kind of beloved slave. Throughout the opening credits of the film she washes-down of the home’s entry-way, the dog’s and bird’s abode, which is followed by her desperate attempt to gather up all the dirty laundry before the time arrives for her to pick up the children from their various schools, re-deliver them home, help, with her servant friend Adela (Nancy Garcia) to serve-up dinner, and then, in the very next scene, wash out their clothing on a roof-top eyrie, from where we glimpse others like her performing the very same tasks.
    Without saying anything, director Alfonso Cuarón makes it quite clear that she is on-call for nearly 24-hours each day, rushing to the garage / entry-way each time the master returns in his huge galaxy automobile to hold back the dog, and later in the evening, cuddling up with her young charges as, with their inattentive families, as they watch silly early 1970s television games shows and other fare.
     The director does not, at first, even hint of the abuse she receives, since, in part, Cleo is so pliable and loving that you can’t immediately recognize her condition. She appears more as a trusted and caring nanny that anything else, until Cuarón very gradually helps us to perceive her working conditions, particularly when, at one moment, her youngest charge talks about an imaginary past life as an aged man before he was born, when he claims he was a air-pilot who died in a crash, laying down on a cement protrusion where Cleo is busy cleaning the family laundry, pretending to be dead.  
     One of the wonders of Cuarón’s film is that you never know what the next frame of the film might reveal. Suddenly, upon her youngest charge’s insistence that he has died in a previous life, the wonderful Cleo lays down on the same cement abutment, lying head to head to with the boy, insisting that she too is now dead. We immediately realize, however, that her notion of “dead” is something different from the boy’s imaginative rumination, that she is quite literally feeling so tired that she might as well be dead; and when she proclaims that it feels good, we comprehend that she has simply not ever had enough rest.
     The late-night arrival home of the master, the doctor Antonio, is like a surreal intrusion into their otherwise peaceful lives, as he slowly attempts to maneuver his large Galaxy car into the narrow confines of the courtyard parking space, the giant beast of a machine rolling over the dogshit left by Borros, even after Cleo has cleaned it up. We suddenly perceive that this man is a kind of monster, who demands that everything and everyone attend to him, and it is not surprising that in a scene soon after he pretends to escape to a business conference in Quebec from which he never returns, leaving his wife to have to deal with his exit by pretending to her loving children that he is simply on a longer retreat that he (or she) had expected.
      Distraught, she expresses her hurt in various ways, at one point crying out to her elderly mother, which the eldest of her children overhears, despite Cleo’s attempts to draw him away from his mother’s door. Cleo, herself, is blamed for the child’s sufferings, which he is now forced to keep secret from his brothers and sisters. We are nearing the territory of a Cocteau film.
     Is it any wonder that on their nights out, Cleo and Adela seek the delights of young men? Adela has a steady boyfriend in Pepe (Marco Graf), but Cleo is left with his more handsome, but unreliable cousin, Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), who draws her away from the movie to a rented room where he first, completely nakedly, reveals his impressive martial arts talents before joining her in bed.
     The result is disastrous, when Cleo soon after discovers that she has missed her period and is probably pregnant. We truly realize her boyfriend’s treachery when, soom after, he excuses himself to go to the bathroom and never returns, leaving her to deal with the problems she now is facing, just like her mistress, all alone.
     Fortunately, both Sofia and her mother Teresa, despite their abuse of her, are sympathetic, taking the servant—quite disastrously, given Sofia’s driving skills—to the hospital, where the female doctor confirms Cleo’s pregnancy; and later, with Teresa in control, seeking out a crib into which their working “mother” might deposit her own new progeny.
      Yet here, again, Cuarón reveals that their timing is terribly bad, for that very afternoon the tragic Corpus Christi massacres of young protesting students occurs in the same neighborhood in which they happen to be shopping. In those shootings nearly 120 young people were shot down by paramilitary troops, including, in this case the young now-fascistic Fermín, who enters with others, the very shop where Cleo is attempting to buy her crib, to shoot down a couple of students who have attempted to escape the violence.
     In the stress, Cleo’s water breaks, and with Teresa and their driver, they attempt to escape to hospital safety, but trapped in traffic, are too late to save he maid’s unborn daughter. The director forces us to see the entire scene where Cleo loses the child, demanding we recognize what it truly means to lose a child in a stillborn birth, perhaps one of the most painful scenarios of film I have ever witnessed. It leaves Cleo, as even her charges proclaim, nearly mute.
     Yet the demands of family life are foremost, as Madame Sofia, who has now bought a new, smaller car, insists her children, with Cleo in attendance, drive down in one final Galaxy trip to a Veracruz beach—where she later admits to her children, she has been forced to travel in order to let her former husband ransack their home for whatever possessions he believes are his. The sad table-side admission of what has happened to their father devastates the eldest son while confusing his youngest siblings. Cleo can only look on, realizing her own losses, while hoping to help these children, whom she has basically raised, to gain some equilibrium.
     Their love of swimming in the ocean is their only relief; yet Cleo cannot swim and has never actually been in the ocean. She watches over her charges, taking the youngest of them away to the beach while looking back at the others, disobeying their mother’s orders, and floating out to sea impossible large waves. This brave woman has no other choice but to enter the water herself in an attempt to retrieve them before they drown.
     Amazingly she succeeds, bringing them all ashore just as their mother returns after checking the tires of the "beast" which will return them to their neighborhood Roma. Recognizing the miracle that has occurred, all of them gather on the beach like worn-out survivors—which they surely are—to gather in the love which feel for one another, Cleo finally admitting that she did not truly want her unborn child, with the children soon demanding that, as a family, they can now travel, a bit like the Roma gypsies, everywhere. They are no longer forced to remain in their topsy-turvy household.
     Yet the director simply takes them home, where, now that their father has left, has opened up other rooms, allowing them all to re-inhabit their own space, perhaps even to discover a kind of travel from room to room in their own household—a Disneyland beyond their dreams. Surely, Cleo, the savior of their lives, is no longer simply a servant, even as she climbs, in the last frame, to the roof to wash out the clothing they have worn on their most recent voyage.
     If there is little question that Cuarón’s lovely black-and-white cinematography is a bit too coy—as Howard pointed out to me, in one single tracking scene the director used hundreds of actors to  inhabit his restaurants and shops, and at other times everything was just too beautiful to be believed—I would argue that it is the director’s simple attempt to recreate a semi-autobiographical world in which he, as a child, was so immersed that determined his precise re-creation. In a true sense, this is not simply a “memory,” but a tribute to his own “Cleo” and to all the others who exist throughout Mexican and South American history who played the same roles. These women, mostly without children of their own, raised up entire richer families with deep love and caring. I remember eating a dinner with the Brazilian poet Horácio Costa whose childhood “nanny” had been brought to Sao Paulo to cook a delicious meal for us which he had loved as a child. I’m so sorry that I never got a chance to meet her. Here, at least, we do see the woman, however mutable (and mute) she is as a woman who raised this family, a kind of silent beauty who belongs in such a lovely silvery saga.

Los Angeles, December 9, 2018
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2018).

Friday, December 7, 2018

Wong Kar-wai | 東邪西毒 (Ashes of Time Redux) / first filmed in 1994, revised in 2008

loves that never truly existed
by Douglas Messerli

Wong Kar-wai (writer, based on a story by Louis Cha, and director) 東邪西毒(Ashes of Time Redux/ first filmed in 1994, revised in 2008

It’s difficult to imagine Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai’s spectacularly beautiful Ashes of Time—which we in the US have only in his “redux” version, since the original filming as apparently so stressful, that the director could not properly cut it when it first appeared in 1994, only attending to it again in 2008—represents the popular wuxia epic (historical sword-play romances). Yes, the director does present us with images of swords, at one point The Blind Swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) defending a village against dozens of bandits, and yes, as one critic argued, a great deal of crimson blood gets spilled; but in this film these images are presented as aesthetic art-like, slowed-down, and somewhat pixelated scenes that refuse to get into the truly bloody details of vengeance and death.
     There’s plenty of talk about vengeance and death, surely, as a virtual series of hurt and angry lovers gather, over a period of seasons, at Ouyang Feng’s (Leslie Cheung) desert camp, hoping he will find the proper warriors in order to kill those who have wronged them, including the male in-drag princess Murong Yang (Brigitte Lin) (who, a bit like Fassbinder’s Erwin in In a Year of 13 Moons, becomes a transgender figure in order to find his/her wished-for lover), his/her sister, Murong Yin, the Blind Swordsman, a young bounty hunter (Jackie Cheung), and the notably handsome Eastern Heretic (Huang Yaoshi), who, loved by both Yang and Yin (who may also be the same person) only wants to forget, drinking a bottle of wine he has brought as a gift to Feng that promises to erase all memories of the past.
       As a man who jilted both Yang and Yin, he, more that any other individual, needs that elixir, and gradually over his evening with Feng his memories disappear, with only a glimpse of past love glimmering in the morning light when he encounters the Girl with a Mule (Charlie Yeung).
      The real issues here, as they are in nearly all of Wong’s films, don’t concern a literal battleground, but an emotional one wherein the mind struggles with love, memory, and time; he is the 21st centuries’ Proust, and struggles to untie the gordian knot these three represent in most of his films. And much of this seemingly action-packed genre film languishes on the central figures’ regrets for not having been able to “hold on” to things of value. Love is so fleeting in a Wong film that a single glance, a touch of skin, even a gentle stroke while one is sleeping can alter one’s entire life. Real and intense sexual love hardly occurs.
      Like the passive murderer-to-hire Feng, neither love-making or death itself truly matter (killing is easy, he suggests, then immediately denies it). What is most essential is how the mind retains those images, and how, over time, they decay or over time become distorted, images that now compel these figures to want to destroy the very individuals with whom they were once so fixated.

      In Wong’s films, love as a sexual act is never quite achieved; like wandering Tristans and Isoldes, love is a state of the mind that, as the mind itself decays, is ultimately lost even at the highest moment of passion.
      A man losing his eyesight, another losing his mind, a woman losing her sexual identity, another unable to enact any of the abilities he claims, are the heroes, beings who suffer from a love never achieved. Feng himself is obsessed with his sister-in-law (Maggie Cheung). For Wong love becomes obsession simply because it is not resolved, never enacted, the figures unable to achieve orgasm. The story of how they came to encounter one another, accordingly, hardly matters.
     Yet, strangely, in his remarkable images, in this case realized by cinematographer Christopher Doyle, and in the music, in Ashes of Time composed by Frankie Chan, Wong creates an intense paean to loves that never truly existed.

Los Angeles, December 7, 2018
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2018).

Monday, December 3, 2018

Alice Rohrwacher | Felice Lozarro (Happy as Lozarro)

the happy saint
by Douglas Messerli

Alice Rohrwacher (writer and director) Felice Lozarro (Happy as Lozarro) /2018

Without creating a precise allegory or even pushing her film into complete fantasy, Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher has created a significant work in her Felice Lozarro—meaninglessly translated into English as Happy as Lozarro, when it might have been far more felicitous to simply title it “Happy” or “Lucky” Lozarro—that reads like a mix of fable and a metaphoric tale of a young Christ-like being. Lozarro, the Italian medieval name for Lazarus, the believer who Christ restored to life four days after the man’s death, and for whom Jesus wept. In this film he is presented as a beautiful, young, cherubic teenager (stunningly performed by Adriano Tardiolo) as a true “holy fool,” who lives in the small central Italian village of Inviolata, a place that seems, a bit like Brigadoon, a town that has mostly escaped contemporary life.
     Unlike the Scottish village, whose citizens joyously are brought back to life for one day in each century, the Inviolataese work hard every day for the bitter Marchesa Alfonsina De Luna (Nicoletta Braschi), the self-described cigarette queen, who also raises other vegetables which help to make her rich, while her citizenry are kept ignorant and in debt. Each month her overweight overseer (Natalino Balasso) arrives to declare each of them guilty of spending far more than the amount of pay for their labors owed to them, creating an indentured world that might almost match the Jim Crown US South.
     Nonetheless, Inviolata’s workers make the best of it, while cursing, under their breaths, about the ruthless, yet pratriarcal Marchesa, who knows that even if they hate her, they need a system in which they can work in order to survive. And despite their living conditions, wherein, in some small homes there are 18 inhabitats, they seem to make the best of it, celebrating love, enthusiastically sharing the little quantities of wine, cigarettes, and food they have, even as they gripe.

      At the very lowest level of this horrible hierarchy is Lozarro, who is never offered anything to eat at these celebratory occasions—and, in fact, consumes no food throughout the film. He is the go-for of their world, the one they order about to fetch up the tobacco leaves they pick from the fields, to lift their crates, to carry off the crippled grandmother who appears to be his only relative. At one point, Lozarro runs off to fix coffee for the field workers only to discover, upon his return, that they have all wandered off.
      Strangely, none of this abuse disturbs the happy Lozarro in the least. He works endlessly and willingly, always with a smile pasted to his face. And he is also one of the few villagers invited into the Marchesa’s house—for she too makes use of his absolute servility—and it is there he meets her most unhappy son, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), who has been brought home after, apparently, several debauched years, and is now locked away in the virginal world of Inviolata.
      The frail, young blond Tancredi, who appears to be suffering from consumption, or, perhaps, is just suffering lung cancer from smoking to many of his mother’s cigarettes (as he explains to the innocent Lozarro, “Every time I cough, I need to smoke a cigarette.”) slyly befriends Lozarro and seduces him into helping to pretend that he has been kidnapped in order to get the money to escape her clutches.
      If this is no sexual seduction, it might as well be for the innocent one, who is convinced, when Tancredi tells him the truth—that the Marchessa originally was just another woman from the village with whom his father had sex and that, for all he knows, Tancredi, who has never known his parents, might as well be his half-brother—is reconfirmed in the innocent’s mind when Trancredi, unable to prick his own finger in order to seal his signature in blood, uses Lozarro’s blood. In the mind of this child-like believer Lozarro this truly does make them “blood-brothers.”

Lozarro takes his new and perhaps only “friend” away to his version of the Wuthering Heights’ Peniston Crag, a high mountain crevice where he has secretly made his own place of escape. Bringing his new friend there is as close to a sexual rendezvous that Lozarro will ever encounter, and in his attempt to feed his new friend, who has now moved into deep ditch (a symbolic burial grounds), after Lozarro has fallen into a “fever”—surely a not just a sudden illness, but a psychological reaction to his new-found friendship)—results in this saint’s fall from a high cliff.
      With both boys having now gone missing a maid calls the police, who discover a village that in its horrific conditions stands against all Italian modern codes of living, clear out the town, arresting, presumably the Marchessa who has created these insufferable conditions.
      Most of the critics writing about this film, who I read, suggest that there is now an incredibly sudden shift in the film, concerning which, as A.O. Scott, for example, writes:

Midway through, just as we’ve accepted the semi-fantastical parameters of Lazzaro’s world — his half-secret friendship with the Marchesa’s son, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani); his chaste infatuation with a young woman named Antonia (Agnese Graziani) — our perspective changes. We suddenly see the landscape from above and hear an ancient folk tale in a woman’s voice, and the film takes a double swerve, into harsher realism and more explicit magic.

But, in truth, Rohrwacher takes us quite gently into to this new world by suggesting that the police have ousted most of the previous Inviolata tenants simply in order to save them, to allow them entry into the modern world. Only Lozarro—who like Lazarus and a bit like Rip Van Winkle, wakes up again into life, after having been sniffed out and rejected by a wolf (a major metaphoric figure in this film) who refuses to eat him, declaring that he has sniffed out a totally “honest man”—returns to the village to find thieves removing whatever they might find of value in the Marchesa’s abandoned house. If he frightens them, he still innocently leads them to her drawer of “cutleries,” and even begs them for a ride into the urban future. When they reject him, he walks into a world he might never have imagined. And it is a wonderment to behold, as he discovers, still dressed in his light sweater and loosely knit pants, huge power-lines and gigantic towers of communication.

The world he discovers in Milan and other northern cities is made up of the same people of his small village, now, given their newly established hierarchical roles, forced to steal and sell their gains in the underground. Only there is now a very big difference: they have all aged terribly, almost forgetting their past, while the happy Lozarro has remained ever young. Not only do they, at first, not recognize him, they reject him—until Antonia, the woman who was serenaded in the very first scenes of this film (now played by Alba Rohrwacher, the director’s sister) recognizes him, and forces the others to allow him into their own current metallic hovel.
       Here, Lozarro, despite the same conditions, essentially, he has suffered in the past, is still in love with life, eagerly willing to help out with everything. But his sad re-encounter with Tancredi, where we now perceive the young blond now as an old, stringy-haired barfly, says everything. The wolves have won, and the old world he knew is now about to die.
       Throughout the film, Lozarro is seen as going into a kind of trance during lonely removals from the world in which he exists during which he seems, despite everyone else’s perception of his intelligence, to be considering things, to be evaluating a world in deep concentration.
        Near the end of the film, when his fellow travelers suddenly hear a heavenly music that has left the local cathedral simply to follow them, the innocent turns away again in deep thought. They joke about returning to Inviolata to reclaim what is left to them as squatters. But we know these now somewhat aged street-folk will never be able to reclaim their virgin state. And, so too, must Lozarro know that the past cannot be reclaimed.
        Yet he attempts just that, awkwardly trying to enter a bank, setting off their alarms as he approaches through the wrong door. Behaving, as he does always, rather oddly, the customers suddenly determine that he is armed, and in terror, move away from him. When he perceives their own odd behavior, he moves toward them, trying to explain to himself why they are so fearful; all he wants, as he explains to the tellers, is that everything left behind be returned the Tancredi—not, evidently, even a customer of that particular bank.
      When the terrified customers perceive the intruder’s innocence, and that the gun they thought he was carrying is simply a slingshot, a gift by Tancredi, they attack him, and one by one, beat him to the ground. The wolf reappears, evidently now ready for his feast. By the time the police arrive, the “holy innocent” is bleeding and appears to have died.
       The movie leaves us with the notion that, if he is to survive and come to life again, it can be only in our belief, in our imagination. Like Christ, I wept. Happiness is such a rare thing.

Los Angeles, December 3, 2018
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2018).