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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
A Genuine Achievement
Boldly announcing himself upon the stage of international cinema with 2009's Let the Right One In, the significant critical and commercial acclaim accorded director Thomas Alfredson clearly proved him a filmmaker capable of pulling off high quality adaptations of complex and dark literary sources.
Called back into service to uncover the identity of a Soviet mole at the height of the Cold War, retired British intelligence operative George Smiley is tasked with unwinding a vastly convoluted web of conspiracy, codenames, double agents, and deceit.
The movement from relatively low-budget foreign language filmmaking to helming star casts in comparably costly productions is one that, historically, holds significant risk for directorial careers. Add to the mix the danger of bringing a much-loved novel to life on screen, and Alfredson is certainly faced with a substantial task. An espionage thriller, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spybased on John le Carré's bookthrows an extremely layered narrative at its audience and insists they keep up, making little in the way of allowance for those accustomed to excess plot exposition. Concerning an approximate dozen key charactersmost of whom go by at least two namesthe film contains a considerable quantity of raw information to be processed, particularly considering its reserved pace; the camera scrolls slowly across the screen in step with the story's measured progression, constantly moving along yet never losing the integral tension of its hastelessness. Alfredson and screenwriters Bridget O' Connor and Peter Straughan demonstrate a keenness for the more tensely-oriented end of the genre, delving into an atmosphere of unease rather than one of brisk spy action. There is almost an air of claustrophobia to much of the film, the caliginous cinematography and mysterious score combining to evoke an aura of noir paranoia. Much like Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy boasts a thrilling visual panache; indeed, Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography is oftentimes so remarkably involving that entire scenes may pass by without any absorption of the dialogical details disclosed thereinthe brain is simply too overcome by the aesthetic bombardment of visual pleasure to decipher the explicit aural signals. One particular shotan extreme close-up of Smiley's wearied face draped in shadow affords the audience the time to study the furrowed ridges of his forehead and the weighted bags of his eyelids, giving us an entitled sense of knowledge of, and familiarity with, this character. It seems almost redundant to offer praise to the film's extraordinary cast; a brief glance at the list of exemplary names will disclose the sheer calibre of talent on display: a veritable dream team of the finest names of modern British cinema. From Firth to Hurt, Hardy to Cumberbatch, Oldman to Dencik, the phenomenal cast plays beautifully together, each actor inhabiting their character with award-courting flair. Where Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy really shines is in its characterisationan all-too often underutilised aspect in this genreeach of them distinctly human rather than simply mouths through which the plot developments are channelled. Their primary concern may be with their espionage, but ours is with them: exploring their motivations; their private lives; their loyalties; and just how a career like theirs affects an existence. A recurring Christmas party scene revisited a number of times throughout the film reminds us regularly that these intelligence agents are not solely extensions of the government's facilities, but rather human beings with emotions, afflicted by the agonies of their toils, burying themselves in vodka-laced punch to just get away from it all.
Hitting all the right notes in its performances, script, and direction, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy triumphantly infuses a challengingly multifarious narrative with a deeper humanity, questioning by proxy the way in which devotion to duty affects all aspects of our lives. Shot with unforgettable effulgencecommitting to memory eternal every last contour of Oldman's storied browit is a genuine achievement in cinematic storytelling.
The Wicker Man (1973)
The Wicker Man: Impossible to Forget
What makes a great horror film? It might seem a frivolous question, a near rhetorical one to which the answer "a film which scares" is obvious. Yet few would interpret The Wicker Man, the 1973 British cult classic, as particularly scary in the traditional sense. It is in the themes and ideas behind the film, however, that the element of horror is to be found. Like its American contemporaries The Exorcist and The Omen, The Wicker Man deals with that most effective of horror themes: religion.
Having been anonymously alerted to the mysterious disappearance of a young girl from the remote Scottish island community of Summerisle, Sergeant Neil Howie encounters difficulties in his search for answers in the form of the obdurate islanders, who fervently deny the girl's existence.
That a film so regularly ranked highly in horror "best of" lists can contain traces of a musical might seem perplexing, even contradictory, the mutual exclusivity of the genres surely set in stone. Much of The Wicker Man's effect, however, can be attributed to its musical heritage, its eerie atmosphere of impending threat engendered primarily through the heavy usage of folk songs. On the second day of his visit, Sergeant Howie encounters a group of children dancing around a maypole, the increasingly rapid tempo of their song lending a sense of unsettling urgency to their otherwise harmless actions. The song outlines the basis of the community's beliefs, namely reincarnation and the old gods of the earth and the sun. The paganism which characterizes the islanders immediately establishes the film's religious commentary. Howie is a fundamentalist Christian, his views steadfast and self-assured. He is repulsed and repelled by what he encounters in Summerisle, the openly practiced sexual rituals and teaching to schoolchildren of phallic symbolism the direct antithesis to his conservative views of celibacy and quietly reverential worship. Played inimitably by Edward Woodward, Howie in many ways represents 1970s British society itself, at one point sternly reminding Lord Summerislethe leader of the island, authoritatively portrayed by the great Christopher Leethat he remains the subject of a Christian country. The dynamic that exists between the two characters juxtaposes their respective faiths, Howie's protestations that Summerisle is a place of heathenism and the community's practices ludicrous indulgences in sacrilegious nonsense countered immediately, the similarly far-fetched elements of Christian doctrine highlighted, scrutinized, and ridiculed as just as unbelievable and absurd. Lee brings an avuncular grace to his performance, his retorts simultaneously firmly definitive and benignly inoffensivea description, incidentally, which rather effectively summates the film itself. Whilst not strictly anti-Catholic, the film takes a skeptical stance to organized religion, Woodward's depiction of his character as uptight and immovably fastidious deliberately preventing the audience from meaningful identification with him. Summerisle and its population are presented in such a way that we are made to question whether the strict society Howie represents is really a more appealing prospect. The island is inexplicably opulent, its crime rate all but non-existent, its inhabitants close-knit and undeniably satisfied with life. Indeed, even Howie himself is tempted by the allure of this alternative way of life, a particularly memorable scene in which the young woman in the room next to his nakedly dances, pounding his wall and singing a hypnotically mesmeric song conveying the testing of his ideologies. Like the audience, Howie is fascinated by this culture and, though he maintains an austere facade, sees in it the kind of free-spirited life which he can never himself enjoy.
Effectively utilizing music to create an atmosphere of tense unease, The Wicker Man is a film replete with religious imagery, symbolism, and detailed commentary upon the role of religion in society and its effect upon its followers. Impressively actedparticularly by its two leadsit is the kind of film which remains embedded in the mind long after viewing, its chilling effect making it impossible to forget. After all, isn't that what great horror should do?
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
The Night of the Hunter: Ethereal Fantasy
Many is the film which has, on initial release, been critically dismissed and largely ignored, only to be later heralded as a masterpiece of cinema. Such is certainly the case with The Night of the Hunter, a film so poorly regarded upon its original 1955 release that its directorthe actor Charles Laughtonwas never again afforded the opportunity to stand behind a camera.
Now regularly regarded as one of the finest examples of film noir, The Night of the Hunter is a powerful childhood fable that tackles issues of religious fanaticism, the innocence of youth, and loyalty to one's past and principles. Joining its sibling protagonists as their father arrives home with a gunshot wound and a handful of money which he demands they keep secret, the film sees the children attempt to evade the efforts of a suspect preacher to claim their fortune as he successfully ingratiates himself within their community.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Night of the Hunter is its titular character, and the thematic concerns addressed through him. Shown early in the film to be the cellmate of the children's father before his execution, Reverend Harry Powell is a villain of extraordinary depth. Quickly betrothing himself to the newly widowed mother, he is charming, charismatic, and utterly confident in his belief that he is an instrument of God. That his status as a preacher is not one he has simply adopted in order to attain his goals introduces to the film the theme of religion and the questions of the evil that can be created when faith is misdirected and dogma misinterpreted. In his own eyes, Powell is conducting the lord's work, the crimes he commits justified, even directly suggested, by the need to continue spreading his faith. It is this unabashed zealotry which endears him to Willathe children's motherand her employer Mrs Spoon, who is particularly insistent that Willa settle with a man of God in order to repent for her husband's sins. Powell is a terrifying antagonist, not for the ills he commits, but rather for his belief that they are righteous; that his implementation of such hideous violence is morally vindicated. The deep- seated fury inherent in the preacher is marvellously articulated in the performance of Robert Mitchum, bringing the various stages of the character to life, from benign guardianship to homicidal rage. Mitchum is, however, just one of the film's considerably many facets. Brimming with the visual hallmarks of film noir, the German Expressionist heritage on which the genre so heavily draws is here abundantly apparent. Distorted and surreal angles fill many of the darkly lit sets, their twisting contortions physical realisations of the more sinister side of the film. A particularly memorable sequence sees the children slowly floating down a river as they escape the Reverend, a miasma of natural beauty framing their slow journey in time to the orchestral score. Music, it should be noted, is of crucial importance to the film's effect, hymns used throughout. Powell's regular renditions lend a sombre sense of impending dread, his voice casting him as the omnipresent force of inescapable terror. A chorus of unseen children provides the antithesis to his haunting song, their innocent chanting endowing the film with the quality of an ethereal fantasy, providing an escape from the depths of darkness which fill the film so heavily.
Part extraordinarily dark film noir, part childhood adventure fantasy, The Night of the Hunter raises important questions about the darker side of religious faith and the chilling ways in which people condone their actions through their belief. Expressing as much through its effulgent lighting as through its haunting themes, it is a film of incredible visual appeal.
Blood Work (2002)
Blood Work: Nothing New
Much as was the case with Eastwood's prior directorial credit Space Cowboys, I had long avoided Blood Work despite being a huge fan of that decade of Clint. I can't even explain why really, it was simply a hunch, a suspicion that somewhere along the line something would go wrong.
An FBI profiler forced to retire after suffering a heart attack in pursuit of a serial killer, Terry McCaleb is pulled back into his former life when it is revealed that the woman whose heart he received via transplant was murdered by the very same serial killer in order to keep him alive and in the game.
Okay, so maybe a large part of my fear of this film falling short of the Eastwood high water mark lay in the synopsis above, a synopsis which is worrying at best. The screen has seen its fair share of serial killer thrillers and then some, the amount of times we've seen a profiler/detective personally taunted and egged on by his quarry making the genre bloated, tired, and altogether too unoriginal. It would take something incredibly special to lift a film from the depths of mediocrity which form so dangerous a pitfall for this narrative formula. Drucilla Cornell, in her wonderful book Clint Eastwood and Issues of American Masculinity, suggests that indeed Blood Work does have this special something, citing the recurrent theme of having a woman's heart as the introduction of a deeper exploration of masculinity and femininity to the film. Any fan of Eastwood would do well to encounter this text, incidentally, its ideas fascinating and perspective-broadening. Whilst I understand Cornell's approach, and wholly appreciate and commend it, I myself am not satisfied that the exploration of this idea goes deep enough to escape the ultimate problem that is the film's routine ticking-off of the genre conventions. McCaleb disobeys authority, goes renegade, finds an unusual sidekick, discovers evidence hidden in plain sight, involves himself in a dangerous romance, and discovers that all along, what he was looking for was closer than he thought. The oft repeated assertion that McCaleb will be guided by the heart of Gloria is, whilst an interesting idea that does seem to indicate toward a question of gender roles, insufficient to overcome the plodding dullness of the film's adherence to a standard formula. I appreciate the effort, but it's not even nearly enough. There is nothing new to be found in this movie, nothing that does anything for the genre, nothing to commit it in any way to memory, nothing to make watching it worthwhile.
Though it tries something new with the tired old genre, Blood Work conforms too lazily with the standard narrative progression of the serial killer thriller to manage to be particularly noteworthy. Unoriginal, and thereby uninteresting, it is a poor offering from a director who has so much more to give than this.
Space Cowboys (2000)
Space Cowboys: Damn Enjoyable
Despite my constant adulation of Eastwood's films of the decade ending 2009, I had never managed to see either Space Cowboys or Blood Work. Surely, I thought, I should be rushing to see both of these, given my fondness for that period of the director's career. Surely they would conform to this extraordinary block of raw talent.
An ex Air Force scientist denied the chance to go into space following the establishment of NASA, Frank Corvin is called upon to bring down a dangerously unstable Russian satellite which employs a now-archaic system he designed. Spying the opportunity to achieve his onetime dream, he rounds up the old team for one last mission.
I think it way have been the nature of Space Cowboys which perhaps subliminally kept me from getting around to it. A cast littered with highly esteemed names, a massive budget, a high-concept premise. None of these things were ever present for the slew of masterpieces which followed (some big names appeared, I grant you, but never so many simultaneously), a factor I must have considered an ill omen for this film's chances with me. I like my Eastwood dark and dramatic, not lighthearted and action-filled. Nevertheless, I was willing to get invested and involved, the cast offering names the like of Eastwood, Jones, Sutherland, and Cromwell, all of whom I'm deeply fond of. The plot is of course rather far-fetched and requires a considerable leap of faith. If you approach this film with cynicism you will be lost immediately upon learning that NASA is willing to send a force of geriatrics into space. That said, it is explained as best as possible; given that Corvin is literally the only man for the job, the government's acceptance of his terms is somewhat less fantastical, especially considering the delicate balance of international relations thereon dependent. The narrative structure is, beyond the age issue, pretty standard, following the well established path of gradual training and the resolution of whatever issues are encountered. When a serious problem threatens the success of the mission, a creaking cliché steps in to fix it. We all know the story, for so many times have we seen it unfold. And yet, in spite of all the problems of sheer unoriginality and a formulaic implementation, the film is damn enjoyable. There is a heart-warming charm to be felt in seeing these actors occupying the screen together and having quite so much fun in the process. They crack jokes, compete physically and sexually, and behave like little boys. Maybe that is the key to the film's charm: the participant's tongue-in-cheek acceptance of their own age, and a bold defiance of the societally imposed limitations thereof. In a way, the absurdity and ridiculousness of the premise is entirely intentional, allowing these onetime cowboys to ride again and feel the vigour of youth. And who are we to deny them that?
Though it is completely and utterly ludicrous and requires quite a substantial suspension of disbelief, one gets the impression that Space Cowboys plays upon just that very aspect of itself, breathing a renewed life into its elderly participants and vicariously so into its audience. An ode to youth and a firm middle finger to the limitations of age, one cannot help being drawn into its fantasy.
Alamar: Deeply Humbling
Named as the film of 2010 by a site in which I invest some credence, Alamar was something I was keen to seek out and take in, its status as an is-it-isn't-it-documentary an added factor to its appeal.
Leaving the urban residence of his mother to spend time with his father and grandfather off the Mexican coast, Natan experiences the wonders of unadulterated nature in this tiny fishing community.
There has been some degree of questioning as to whether Alamar ought to be classed as a documentary, owing perhaps to its lack of a distinct narrative as such. Certainly the lifestyle it portrays and documents is a real one, lived by real people in the real world. The names of the performers seem to suggest that this is a real family, Natan the actual son of these parents rather than simply playing the role. Maybe it is a documentary. Maybe there is fictionalisation; maybe this sets it apart and classifies it as a narrative film. The one thing I can say for sure is that whether it is documentary or not is irrelevant. It matters not in the slightest whether this story is a reality, whether these people really relate to each other, whether they are paid actors, for so engrossing, engaging, endearing, and enthralling is the film that we are made to feel almost as though we are right there with them every step of the way as they travel from city to sea, from urbanity to rurality of the most secluded sort imaginable. To call the film's cinematography majestic would be to call the ocean which plays such a huge part in its beauty wet: a gross understatement. Each frame lovingly captures the dazzlingly effulgent seascapes, every second of audio the enrapturing calm, the comforting hush. The phrase "words can't describe" is tossed about all too often, almost stripped of the true significance of its meaning, but it can be put to use here without even the slightest suggestion of hyperbole. Words cannot describe the encompassing wonder of the images and sounds captured; indeed, it seems only film can do so. One gets a sense that it is exactly this kind of task for which the medium was envisaged: to present that which can be expressed, be conveyed, be imagined in no other way. There is a complex simplicity to the way of life Alamar depicts, a system of frugality and self-sustenance which is deeply humbling, even moving, to witness. Sitting there, watching this astounding film portray this astounding life on my fancy television and DVD player in my suburban home, all but indistinguishable from the hundreds of clones around it, tears of joyous appreciation graced my cheeks; tears of recognition, of understanding that there remains such vast and astounding beauty in the world. For some 73 minutes I was transported into another life, a life wherein I could appreciate something completely different. Many would describe it as a basic existence, but it is so much more than that. So much more. To see the young Natan revel in the regal splendour of the bird he declares "Blanquita" is to be transported mentally, emotionally, philosophically, to an entirely different plane. Words may not be able to describe the feelings which this emotional experience engenders, but one word can sum up precisely the experience itself: cinema. Purely and simply, this is cinema; this is its power, its potential realised.
Writing about Alamar, thinking about it and picturing once more its perspective-altering images makes me immediately want to turn my back on everything I know and live life as these people do, out in the great wild open. Thankfully, I can do just that with the film, for so powerful is its effect, if only for 73 minutes...
The Eiger Sanction (1975)
The Eiger Sanction: A Ludicrous Film
Having been a huge fan of Eastwood's modern directorial career, I had been somewhat trepidatious approaching his earlier works, fearful that they would fall far shy of his current mastery of the art. Fears firmly assuaged by his first three films, I was convinced that the man could do no wrong.
A retired assassin resigned to a life as an art professor and collector, Jonathan Hemlock reluctantly agrees to take on the task of one last "sanction" when he learns that the targets are responsible for the death of an old friend. Discovering that one of the killersthe other has already been easily dispatchedis among an expedition to climb the Eiger, he must discern the identity of the target and take him out, all whilst scaling the deadliest mountain in all of Europe.
Writing the above plot synopsis, I was almost brought to tears of laughter by the absurdity of it. Have another read, go on. Sounds absolutely ridiculous, I'm sure you'll agree. Complete and utter rubbish, right? My thoughts exactly, going into the film. I wondered how my beloved Clint was going to manage to turn such a stupid action premise into a compelling film, as I had no doubt he would. Alas, not even Eastwood could pull such a task off. The Eiger Sanction is a ludicrous film. A key reason for Hemlock's agreement to take on the job is that the government agency which hires him will report his art collection to the IRS if he does not, a leverage he wards off by procuring what the film's Wikipedia synopsis rather charmingly names an "IRS exemption letter". I'm sorry, but that's just funny. As for this secretive organisation, it is headed by an albino ex-Nazi who resides in a darkened red room and survives on regular blood transfusions, all whilst being sure to crowbar the film's title into his painfully expository dialogue. Because there haven't been quite enough espionage thriller clichés gone through yet, let's welcome to the mix an attractive yet ultimately untrustworthy female, an extraordinarily camp former adversary, and a sequence of our hero demonstrating his masculinity by standing on large things. Stop clambering all over Monument Valley Clint, you've lost your right to be there. Startlingly bad, it is genuinely worrying to see the film dedicated to a man whose life was lost in its making. More of an insult than a tribute, it's sad to consider that some poor bugger died for this: a woefully poor, interminably dull, painfully unoriginal, distressingly formulaic, achingly uninteresting, and indescribably unnecessary piece of "action-adventure" tosh.
The sadly inevitable point at which I realised Mr Eastwood is not infallible, The Eiger Sanction is a very poor film which wastes the director's here-absent talents and the skills of the usually wonderful George Kennedy. Stupid, plodding, poorly-written, and badly brought to (decidedly lifeless) life, its only redeeming feature is the laugh factor inspired by the sheer scale of its nonsensicality.
The Beguiled (1971)
The Beguiled: Quietly Harrowing
Working my way through a boxset of the eight films Eastwood made with Universal in his early film career, I expected from The Beguiled a good quality western drama in the vein of the actor's other collaborations with director Don Siegel.
Slowly dying from his wounds, Yankee soldier John McBurney is found and rescued by a schoolgirl who has him taken to her boarding school where he is tended to by her classmates and the school's staff, who eventually decide not to turn him in to the Confederate soldiers under whose watch they reside.
Set toward the conclusion of the Civil War, The Beguiled is, if we insist upon generic classification, more a war film than a western. That said, it is far removed for being simply a war film. Immediately unearthing the idea of wartime loyalty to one's cause, the film examines the moral conflict engendered by the women's knowledge that McBurney will be killed if handed over. They are all loyal to the Confederate cause, but are uncomfortable with the thought that a man's death will be on their hands. This is not, however, the film's primary thematic concern, nor even one which is explored beyond its base dilemma. The issue of sexual appetites and the implications when they are not satiated is that on which the film focuses, portraying to us that of three of the film's female characters. Eastwood's character early identifies his power within this house despite his handicap, his phallic presence key to his manipulation of the sexually charged women who each wishes to have him in their bed. Using his masculinity as a weapon, he engages in a variety of mind games, attempting to prey upon the exasperated libidos; hoping to manipulate them so that he may make his escape. The film explores the issue of gender politics, the ideas of masculinity and femininity, the danger of sexual repression. Surprising enough in itself, it is another aspect of this film which will ensure its ability to be instantly and vividly recalled in the minds of all who see it. The third of these explorationsthat of sexual repressionleads to the film's shockingly escalating horror aspects. A Gothic drama by its conclusion more than anything else, the film tilts toward scenes more terrifying than many self-proclaimed "horror films" in its latter half, pulling out all the stops to completely frighten and baffle the audience with darkness matched only in its comprehensiveness by the darkened wonders of Bruce Surtees' cinematography. McBurney's eventual fate as he becomes the emasculated prisoner of these sex-starved women is truly shocking, in every sense of the word. Though the film builds toward this all along, it softens none of the blow, leaving us wide-eyed and drop-jawed.
One of the most surprising narrative progressions I have ever seen in a film, and one of the most quietly harrowing along with it, The Beguiled is a traumatisingly dark drama that is a shocking output from all concerned. Benefiting from this greatly, it is a simultaneously exasperating, entertaining, and electrifying experience that poses some deeply interesting thematic questions about sexuality and violence.
Breezy: Entirely Believable and Endearing
Ever the Eastwood fan, I came to Breezy as a lover of the director's modern work, not very familiar with his earliest efforts. With his career as a major star still in relatively early days, it was interesting that he should opt not to cross in front of the camera as with his first two helmed films.
A free spirited counter-cultural youth, Breezy is a girl who cruises through life with whatever resources she can manage to encounter. Fleeing the car of a man attempting to take sexual advantage of her, she finds herself at the home of middle-aged real-estate agent Frank Harmon, and each gradually comes to be attracted to the other.
A man becoming ever more known for his roles as tough western heroes, Eastwood's decision to direct a film that he not only would not star in, but would be a romance, must have come as a surprise to many. His debut, Play Misty for Me, was of course a romance film of a sort in itself, and one which Eastwood safely captained, cementing his position as a top emerging director as well as a star capable of taking on more than just one set type of role. Nevertheless, the concept of something like Breezy coming from someone like Clint can't help but encourage one to raise an eyebrow. First things first: the leads. A well-known star in the autumn of his career, William Holden was at this time no stranger to roles as romantic lead, though his age had seen few of these roles come his way in recent years. Her first significant role, Kay Lenz was almost entirely unknown, a young girl faced with the monumental task of sharing the stage with one of Old Hollywood's biggest stars. Both rise to the task expertly, the respective cynicism of age and vibrancy of youth combining to create a wonderful chemistry wherein you completely buy the slow romance of these wholly different people. Frank is a functional member of societyalbeit a divorced, lonely, and embittered onewhile Breezy seems to stand entirely against it. Her clothing is colourful and lively, his gray and drab. She is a sociable, friendly, and cheery character, he a loner who seems content to recede into his hilltop home (incidentally, Eastwood places Holden with the sea in the background and Lenz with crowds behind her to emphasise this, a wonderfully subtle touch). It is the differences between these characters which draw them to each other, and indeed to us. Their relationship, despite its unlikeliness, is entirely believable and endearing, encouraging us to root for them and will them together. Naturally difficulties are encountered, the film teases us and never quite allows the characters to connect as completely as we'd like, and the emotions we invest are played with.
An unconventional love story which examines other issues such as counter-culturalism and becoming old, Breezy is a surprising film from a surprising director. Demonstrating himself to be as skilled behind the camera as he is before, Eastwood gives us an engaging and interesting romance that draws us in with the charisma of its leads.
Pa negre (2010)
Pa Negre: Dark and Deep
Black Bread begins with a familiar scene: a man leads his horse and cart through a darkened wood, glancing around with unease at the various forest sounds which break the tense silence. A fairy-tale quality hangs over the scene, the images framed in wide angles and brought to life with rich autumnal hues; perhaps this will be a fantasy parable. When an assailant attacks the traveller, binds him in the cart, and leads the now-blindfolded horse to the cliff's edge, brutally smashing it in the face with a sledge hammer, our stomachs concomitantly fold alongside the illusion that this will be anything but sickeningly real. It is the first clue to us that we are not in for the easiest of rides; many of the images that will come to us will be disturbing, even distressing.
Set in the years following the Spanish civil war, the film portrays the lingering dissent and tarnished political atmosphere of a nation divided. Andreuthe young boy who discovers the wreckage and is caught up in the post-civil war world of deceit that grips his small village as he attempts to discover the truth behind the "accident"is sent to live with his grandmother, aunt, and cousins when his fatherhaving fought for the losing side along with the murdered manis forced to flee in fear of his own life. Andreu's journey to discover what happened to the cart and its riders takes him into the darkness within his village, his family, and even himself.
It seems to me that there is a recurrent idea in modern Spanish-language cinema: to explore the issues of the civil war through the eyes of a child. Predating Black Bread, there are a number of films such as Butterfly's Tongue and Pan's Labyrinth which use the same concept. Examining the war through young eyes contextualises it, reducing it to its most fundamental perceptible elements and providing a fascinating perspective on (in the case of the former) the senselessness of condemning people by ideology alone and (the latter) the monstrousness of war and the frivolity of conflict. In a way, Black Bread achieves both of these things, though far more so the second. It demonstrates not the horror of war itself, but the horror of the people war creates; the capability for evil of those left living. The dark truths Andreu unearths are as horrifying as any war, the images he dreams up truly disturbing. The child protagonist is a proxy through whom we see things at their most stripped-down, basic, and shocking, exposing to us the sheer lunacy of humanity's follies. Surprising is the film's tackling of a particular societal issue which gradually becomes the centre of its comment upon our race, and the animalistic prejudices which, sadly, so often characterise us. Worth making mention of is the film's name, something of a motif referring to the secondary theme of class and social standing, commenting upon the sickening imbalance between the wealthy and the poor in times of hardship. Most films would do well to achieve half the depth Black Bread manages with this theme, and it is a secondary one.
A worthy addition to the fray of Spanish civil war dramas, Black Bread is a surprisingly dark and deep examination of war's effect upon the lives and personalities of those who suffer through it. Condemning the capability of ordinary people to do extraordinary evil, it is an impactful portrait of guilt, responsibility, society, and family.