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The voice of the desert
I went to see director Lisandro Alonso's 'Jauja' especially because his earlier trilogy blew me away. 'La Libertad' (2001), 'Los Muertos' (2004) and 'Fantasma' (2006) each observe a solitary man a survivor roaming through the jungle wordlessly, like a wild animal. (The setting of 'Fantasma' is urban, but can also metaphorically be regarded as a jungle.) A decade later, I am still amazed by the power of those films and by how little they rely on plot, dialogue or props. Alonso's 2008 effort, 'Liverpool', is also minimalist and follows a similar theme, but tells a slightly more specific story.
'Jauja' is more elaborate than any of Alonso's previous work. As in 'Liverpool', there is something like a plot and very limited, but significant dialogue (in Spanish, Danish and French, in this case). A gorgeous, more sophisticated cinematography presents landscapes that bring to mind 19th Century oil paintings. This is a period film that involves realistic costumes and the kind of beautifully crafted tools used by explorers and the military in the 1800s. Also, 'Jauja' features a famous actor, Viggo Mortensen of 'The Lord of the Rings', who co-produced it and co-wrote the musical score. I think this was all a great way for Alonso to try something new and fresh, without giving up his very unique style and aesthetics.
Don't expect a linear, mainstream film or you may be disappointed. This is an art-house Western a strange, slow-paced ride through the vast, open space of the Argentine Patagonia. It addresses the exhilarating sense of adventure, but also of violence and dread, that one might experience in the hinterland. The story reminds me of Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness', in that it depicts a struggle between the forces of "civilization" and the primitive, while also drawing a parallel between the wilderness of outdoor nature and our subconscious. (Alonso's film 'Los Muertos', which shows a man travelling along a river, may also have a link to Conrad's short novel.) The film's tempo, surreal situations and the use of places as a reference to states of mind are reminiscent of Tarkovsky's 'Stalker' or 'Solaris'.
We are explained that "Jauja" is a mythical land of abundance, something akin to paradise, whose search in the old days drove many to ruin. Dinesen (Mortensen) aims to establish order in a distant, foreign land, but keeps running into unruly behavior, left and right. It's as if the indomitable spirit of the desert possessed everyone around him and suggested to him with its dreamy voice, sometimes forcefully, sometimes playfully that his stubbornly controlling approach towards life is misguided, a lost cause. Perhaps more than in any other film he's made, the director achieves communicating something magical and ethereal, pointing to the deep, enigmatic wisdom that we each hold inside, but are afraid to listen to. The ending may imply that all these characters are, in fact, interconnected, showing different sides of the same stone (much like the "animus" and "anima" in Jungian psychology describe the male and female aspects in every person, for example).
Like Alonso's earlier trilogy, 'Jauja' poetically hints at the magnificence and mystery of human life in God's garden. Its images and sounds seem to come from far, far away, yet somehow feel eerily familiar and close.
The Shadow (1994)
If you're looking for an entertaining superhero movie that doesn't take itself too seriously, 'The Shadow' might just be it. The film is based on a character created in 1931, who first appeared in pulp novels and then in a popular radio show. Alec Baldwin plays Lamont Cranston, aka The Shadow, a mysterious hero in 1930s New York City, who has psychic powers that allow him to control people's minds and appear invisible except for his shadow. It's a cool concept. He's confronted by the villainous Shiwan Khan, descendant of Genghis Khan, (played by John Lone, of 'The Last Emperor') who shares similar powers with Cranston and has a plot to conquer the world! Baldwin is smooth as The Shadow, but less so whenever he wears a long hair wig... I spent much of the time wondering whether Lone's beard was real or not. Either way, he looks a bit ridiculous as Khan. 'The Shadow' ventures into camp territory and is plain silly at times. But it's funny. Much of it is an exercise in absurdity and I was half expecting the actors to suddenly burst out in laughter. The bottom line is that I enjoyed watching it. The cast also includes Penelope Ann Miller, Ian McKellen and a typically kooky Tim Curry.
Travel diary of a poet
When Catalan director Jose Luis Guerín was invited to several film festivals around the world for his movie 'In the City of Silvia', he took the opportunity to document his experiences as a guest in the places that he visited: Venice, Colombia, Cuba, Peru, Hong Kong and Israel/Palestine.
'Guest' offers quiet moments of solitude. We also get to see a bit of the action at some of the festivals. But the main focus is on regular citizens, which Guerín actively engages in conversation wherever he travels. Most of them are poor and destitute and many of the discussions revolve around politics or religion. We are introduced to advocates of both the left and the right and it's not entirely clear whether we're supposed to be more persuaded by one or the other. Instead, I understood the message to be that the poor have it tough everywhere, regardless of the political system. Most of the interviews are powerfully poetic, while a few, in my opinion, could have benefited from a little more editing. In an article for twitchfilm.com, the director explained that while he's no expert in sociology, ethnology or politics, his main goal was to express his solidarity to these people and to just listen. The contrast in lifestyles between the traveling filmmaker and the subjects of his documentary helps add perspective. At some point one of them asks him about the price of his hotel room and he replies that he has no idea, as it's all paid by the festival. Not everyone gets to enjoy the relative luxury and glamor of the film industry.
Guerin (best known for his excellent 2001 documentary, 'En Construcción') has a special talent for producing lyrical images in black and white of a universe that seems remote, yet very real and authentic. It's a very low-key movie, but one that I will never forget.
Paco de Lucía: la búsqueda (2014)
Soulful. Guaranteed goosebumps.
Guitar legend Paco de Lucia agreed to collaborate with director Francisco Sanchez Varela on this documentary about his life and some of the lessons that he learned throughout six decades of devotion to Flamenco music. (He began to play the guitar at age 7 and died at 66.) The film features a series of intimate, sometimes hilarious interviews with the Andalusian master, and plenty of his amazing music. We learn about his relationship with other Flamenco greats, like the singer Camaron, and jazz musicians, like John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola and Chick Corea, among others.
De Lucia plays down the concept of 'genius' and attributes success to hard work and dedication, and to learning from those around you. This is one of the main themes of the film. Another one is the tension between him and those Flamenco purists who were upset by his excursions into jazz territory, for example. By the end, however, it appears even his harshest critics had no doubt as to the unique, superlative quality of his music.
The film's production values are top notch, even if the format is rather conventional. You don't have to be a hardcore Flamenco fan to enjoy it. Even if you're a very casual listener like myself, you will find yourself inspired, perhaps even on the verge of tears. Make sure to watch it with good sound!
Kawaita hana (1964)
Lolita / Elegant Japanese noir
Muraki is a middle aged yakuza fresh out of jail for murder. Played to perfection by Ryô Ikebe, he's quiet, disciplined, smokes his cigarettes with style, sports a smart suit and a Johnny Bravo haircut. When a woman from a past affair (Chisako Hara) desperately pleads for his love, he shows no interest in yielding. If anything, he seems almost embarrassed by her need of affection. His mind is only preoccupied by a sense of duty toward his gang and some casual betting. Enter Saeko (Mariko Kaga), a beautiful, young girl with the face of a doll and big, daring eyes. She has the look of someone who has nothing to lose. A wealthy, spoiled brat, a nihilist bored with life, she kills time by gambling away her money. Muraki is immediately drawn to her. At first, he's flattered by her attention, but he soon discovers he's too decent and safe for her, not quite extreme or dangerous enough. His pride is wounded, yet he becomes addicted to her youthful foolishness and decadence. Doom is around the corner.
Everything about this film is superbly elegant: the acting, the art direction and black-and-white photography, the avant-garde music composed by Toru Takemitsu, the man responsible for the soundtrack of any number of Japanese classics, including Teshigahara's 'Woman in the Dunes', Kurosawa's 'Ran' and Imamura's 'Black Rain'. Directed by Masahiro Shinoda, 'Pale Flower' belongs in the pantheon of great films noirs alongside the likes of 'The Big Sleep' and 'The Postman Always Rings Twice'.
***** Spoilers *****
Part of what's most interesting about the relationship between Muraki and Saeko is that it is so Platonic. There's no sign of sexual contact between them. Muraki wants her physically, yet fails to have her. It's a kind of impotence that he experiences. In turn, he becomes more of a protective father figure. After all, Muraki's probably over twice her age. (When they made the film, the actor was 47 and the actress 21.) So there's a sexual tension, an Electra complex (like the Oedipus complex, with the male and female roles reversed). But she saves herself for Yoh, a younger, wilder, more exotic yakuza and this drives Muraki crazy. (This reminds me of Nabokov's 'Lolita', published only a few years earlier.) By the end, a despondent Muraki volunteers to take down the boss of a rival gang, knowing well that this will put him back in prison. But he accepts to do it because he hopes it will excite and impress Saeko. He is sacrificing himself for her pleasure. When he thrusts his knife into the body of his victim at the restaurant, he's projecting onto the act of murder the violence of his frustrated desire for her. Fascinated, she watches from a distance. However, we later learn that Yoh has killed her in an act of passion. So it is Yoh who actually penetrates her with a knife (obviously, a phallic symbol). Muraki has been one-upped again. He has come up with a concept that Yoh ultimately takes to the next level. Saeko's relationship with Muraki remains ideal, while with Yoh it is carnal.
Similarly, Muraki is tormented by the prospect of Saeko doing drugs with Yoh, partly because he wants to protect her as a father figure, but also because that could involve Yoh penetrating her with a needle (another phallic symbol).
Letyat zhuravli (1957)
Casualties of war
Director Mikhail Kalatozov's 'The Cranes are Flying', winner of the Palm d'Or at Cannes in 1958, seems to boast confidently, "This is how you make a classic!" It tells the story of two young lovers who are separated by the arrival of World War II. The film commemorates the lives that were lost in the Soviet Union during the war (between 22 and 30 million, more than in any other country). It observes patriotic self-sacrifice and heroism, but also builds a compelling anti-war message by illustrating the suffering and trauma that the Soviets had to endure during those years of human tragedy. Certain scenes even betray a hint of cynicism towards the government's official discourse. Apparently, this sort of nuance only became possible under the Communist regime after the death of Stalin in 1953.
The director operates in two different modes: one is a form of melodrama that feels a bit rigid and contrived; the other is a daring display of inspired, almost surrealistic flares in which the imagery takes off deliriously, as if suddenly propelled by a boost of adrenaline. This latter style is more lyrical and sets the film apart from the standard.
Kalatozov is also famous for his 1964 effort, 'I am Cuba', a piece of Communist propaganda that I find overrated. The camera-work, carried out by the same cinematographer, Sergei Urusevsky, is again exceptional and I can see why people like Scorcese hail its virtuosity. But unlike 'The Cranes are Flying', 'I am Cuba' is ruined by bad acting and the use of political caricature. Even in Havana, the film was criticized by the audience upon its original release for giving a stereotypical view of Cubans.
'The Cranes are Flying' may have some flaws, but it's still quite impressive and relevant today. I can honestly say that I was shaken by it.
Searching for a way out
Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne wrote and directed 'Rosetta', winner of the Palm d'Or at Cannes in 1999, a film about an adolescent girl who shares a trailer and her entire existence with an alcoholic mother. Its simple story is put together with an intimate, naturalistic style: Rosetta carries the burden of what little is left of her dysfunctional family and aspires to get a job, her own place, to live a normal life, to find freedom; one day, she meets a young man who is willing to help her... The film packs a powerful punch, thanks in great part to the excellent performance of Émilie Dequenne, who won the prize for Best Actress at Cannes that year. Her facial expressions, her posture, even the way she scurries around from place to place, like a raccoon or some other wild animal, all convey the pain, despair, anger and shame that are eating her. I hesitated to watch it at fist, because I didn't know if I was in the mood for something terribly heavy. If you happen to share the same dilemma, fear not: 'Rosetta' isn't nearly as harrowing or difficult as, say, Lars Von Trier's 'Breaking The Waves' (1996). It's emotionally demanding, but the economy of its narrative provides a certain lightness. There's a moment in which the main character falls into muddy waters and has a hard time getting out, and I worried for a second that the film might start going into some not-very-subtle symbolism, which I think would have detracted from its main strength that is, its minimalism and focus on the girl's primitive state of mind, desires, rough gestures. But I don't really think it goes in that direction. Another nice thing about 'Rosetta' is that it clocks out at 95 minutes. It would be too much if it went on for 3 hours. The length is just right.
If you've already watched and enjoyed this film, I recommend 'The Maid' (2009), by Chilean director Sebastián Silva, which is similar in tone and is also very good, one of my favorites.
Die Ehe der Maria Braun (1979)
'The Marriage of Maria Braun' is German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder's best-known and most financially successful movie and it's not hard to see why: it's a big event, a tour de force. This melodrama tells the story of an audacious, beautiful woman who puts her survival instinct to use during the early post-war era, when capitalist West Germany arose from the ashes. The film begins as she's getting married amidst the chaos of the last day of World War II in 1945, and much of what follows has to do with the peculiar way in which she devotes herself to her absent, yet somehow always present, idealized husband. The character of Maria is fascinating as a person, but it also serves as an allegory for Germany during this period of reconstruction, now generally referred to as the "economic miracle" ("Wirtschaftswunder").
Hanna Shygulla gives a perfect performance as the gorgeous and strong-willed Maria. She and Fassbinder were close and had worked together in many plays and films, including 'The Bitter Tears of Eva Von Kant', in 1972. By the time they made 'The Marriage of Maria Braun' in 1979, four years had passed since their last collaboration, so they both regarded it as a special reunion. To me, the film is a testament of the director's nostalgia and adoration for his diva. He was infamously difficult with many of his actors and actresses, yet is said to have treated Shygulla with a special kind of tenderness, and I believe it shows here.
Fassbinder was openly gay, but married twice. His relationships with his first wife, Ingrid Caven, and Moroccan male lover El Hedi Ben Salem, both important actors in his films, are known to have been especially tempestuous. This pattern of love/hate may reflect on some of the characters in his work. He was accused (perhaps unfairly) by some feminists of being misogynistic and by some gay critics of being homophobic. I haven't watched enough of his films to have an opinion on this. But I sense there's a very particular, mixed energy projected onto the character of Maria Braun, who is both hero and antihero, someone who has an admirable tenacity to overcome adversity, yet is willing to prostitute herself and stop at nothing in order to accomplish her goals. It's this complexity that makes the film interesting. Nothing here is easily spelled out as right or wrong.
'The Marriage of Maria Braun' is the first part of Fassbinder's BRD (Bundesrepublik Deutschland) trilogy, along with 'Veronica Voss' (1982) and 'Lola' (1981), which is made available as a set by the Criterion Collection. ('Veronica Voss' was filmed last, but is meant to be viewed as the second part of the trilogy.)
The Act of Killing (2012)
The horror! The horror!
I'd be hard-pressed to name any film I've watched that is as strange and disturbing as 'The Act of Killing' (brought to you by executive producers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris).
When Indonesian president Sukarno allied himself with communists in 1965, he was toppled by a military coup and a bloody, anti-communist purge followed. Ethnic Chinese, deemed disproportionately wealthy and corrupt by other Indonesians, were targeted as well or at least this is how some pretended to justify the genocide of so many innocents. A million people were killed. The same paramilitary death squads that carried out the assassinations are politically strong today and count with government ministers among their members. They proclaim themselves national heroes and boast loudly about their "achievements". Director Joshua Oppenheimer interviews some of these gangsters and invites them to reenact the murder scenes by adapting them to their favorite movie genres (Westerns, musicals, etc.)
I initially wondered whether such a bizarre concept wasn't disrespectful to the victims of the massacre, but I realized that it was precisely this format that enabled the director to revisit history and unearth its truth. Oppenheimer had to stroke the gangsters' egos or he would have never been allowed to film. Some of them, including the main character, Anway, started their criminal careers by scalping tickets at a local cinema and were big fans of Hollywood films. In an article from The Australian newspaper, Oppenheimer explains the documentary's theatrical approach this way: "Killing always involves some kind of distancing from what you are doing. Maybe that always means a kind of performance and acting, some kind of storytelling. Maybe it can just mean drinking first. But for Anwar, in part, it comes from the stories that he would imbibe in the cinema, the images and roles, the process of cinematic identification. The act of killing, for Anwar, was always some kind of act."
The result is both chilling and surreal. It is shocking to see these men proudly celebrating their monstrous crimes, including rape. Have they no empathy? How ignorant, demented and evil can humans be? This reminds me of the BBC documentary mini-series 'The Nazis: A Warning Story', in which former Nazi members speak coldly about their ideology, indifferent to the suffering they have caused. These Indonesian gangsters, however, are still in power and are applauded on national TV, their insanity still shared decades later by a significant portion of the population.
There seems to be a disconnect between these people and their feelings, as if all the violence had somehow rendered them numb. This is most evident in Anwar. While a few of the thugs express some awareness of the harm they have done, Anwar is in a state of denial. He blocks his emotions and appears to bury any remorse for his acts under a fabricated storyline that absolves him. Yet, toxic memories stubbornly surface every night in the form of nightmares. As the film goes on, he slowly wakes up from the cloud of illusion that he has created around him and realizes the horror that he's participated in. This is one of the film's big successes.
It's frightening to picture this kind of cruelty emerge from a marginal, uneducated, third-world environment. But we have to ask ourselves how different we are from them. Don't we turn a blind eye on the killing of civilians carried out by drones in other countries, for example? Don't we also glorify national heroes who wiped out entire populations? As a Venezuelan, I think of the revered Independence leader Bolivar, who ordered the systematic murder of all Spanish civilians with his decree of 'War to the Death'. Every country has its stories. We seem to rationalize these inconvenient facts by telling ourselves that the war was merciless on both sides or that the end somehow justifies the means. Like gangster Adi suggests, history is written by the victors and war crimes are defined by the winners.
At two and a half hours long, the film could use a little more editing, in my opinion. I feel like it would be even more effective if it were stripped down further, removing any hints of sensationalism. I'm confused, for example, as to why Herman, the obese gangster, is dressed in drag during each reenactment. Did he find it comical? Was he aiming for the grotesque? Did he do it out of his own initiative or did the filmmakers encourage this? It gives the impression that someone was trying hard to make things look even weirder, which is completely unnecessary. Maybe there's a good explanation for this. And then again, everything in this film is so bizarre that it often resembles a work of pitch-black satire. Its terrifying strangeness, however, is no joke.
Rough Magic (1995)
Whimsical and unpretentious
When I accidentally caught this on HBO many years ago, I wasn't paying very close attention at first; but as the movie continued, I became increasingly intrigued by its quirkiness. Based on the 1944 book 'Miss Shumway Waves a Wand', the story takes place in L.A. and Mexico, and follows magician Myra Shumway (played by Bridget Fonda) as she escapes from her sleazy, wealthy fiancé and falls in love with detective Alex Ross (played by a young Russell Crowe). Things become more surreal as elements of film noir begin to mix with magic realism.
Much of the focus is on what Myra describes as "that terribly empty space between my heart and my head" that is, the balance between the power of intuition and emotion on one side and calculating rationality on the other. Practical thinking alone, we learn, leads nowhere good. Love, on the other hand, is a liberating force. Unfortunately, in an effort to invoke 'magic' in the film, the word is repeated too many times with an irritating lack of subtlety, especially by a snake-oil salesman played by Jim Broadbent. And that's the film's main weakness: too often it spells out its intentions and gives away its tricks. This said, I was still charmed by director Clare Peploe's daring playfulness. While the film isn't perfect, it has a lot of heart and feels a bit like a strange dream at times. The story takes some wild, unexpected turns and I was entertained throughout, even upon a second viewing. I couldn't disagree more with those who suggest Bridget Fonda isn't right for the role. She's fantastic! I find her quite believable and sexy as Miss Shumway. Russell Crowe is appropriately suave and Mexican American comedian Paul Rodriguez occasionally steals the show.
'Rough Magic' doesn't take itself too seriously. Its kind of fantasy feels both mainstream and eccentric in a way that reminds me of HBO's Tales From The Crypt, only it's romantic, rather than macabre. Check it out one lazy evening, perhaps with the company of some magic potion.