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Mirrors and Coins
One thing I love about this film is that users either love it or hate it - there's hardly any middle ground. That response corresponds very much to the way the film plays out. It acts as if it was a biopic, but in fact it is only one type of film, a Raoul Ruiz movie. Ruiz takes up an idea and explores it, visually and intellectually. Then he reverses it. He explores the relation between the idea and its opposite. Then he takes that relation and looks at its reversal... and so on: there's always order, but it's always tangled. It's cerebral, but also surreal, and playful. The film is, among others about looking at movies and looking at paintings. Is art a functional depiction of the world, as one character holds - does it work like a mirror? People who criticize this film for not being historically accurate seem to think so - implying that they don't like Klimt, as his paintings were not particularly realistic either. Or is art like the other side of a coin, a complementary reality to the one we experience daily? This is one central question of this film that shows a lot of mirrors and coins. In a painting or a movie, a mirror image looks just as real as a filmed or painted object. Ruiz follows up on this observation. That is why there are so many doubles in the film. Klimt never knows if the woman he desires most is the original or a double. What does that mean for his feelings? He also meets his own double, and beats him up. Then there are coins to denote oppositions. When he first visits that woman, a servant flips a coin, and Klimt meets her in front of mirrors. On another visit, another servant flips a coin, and this time Klimt steps beyond the mirror. The doublings and imaginations seem to increase exponentially in this film. You can look at yourself and you can be looked at. Klimt glances into a microscope and asks: "This is me?" He visits a brothel where all the girls wear mustaches and enters a cage with a Gorilla mask on - the man who creates high-brow spectacles turns himself into a low-brow entertainment. Yes, it makes sense, and yes, it's hilarious. Not many period biopics make you laugh that much. This is also something not too many people seem to notice: This film is funny. Fun is when opposites crash into each other, and Ruiz knows that. I really enjoyed this one.
Stellet Licht (2007)
Tarantino in a pious farm house
I'm putting this a bit sharper than the film deserves. Many people have written wonderful things about it film, and I agree: It is a treasure. Still... still... I have a problem. A problem I already had with Reygadas' first feature, "Japón". Reygadas, I think, is still struggling to find his own voice. He is working in the tradition of philosophical parables of the likes of Tarkovsky or Dreyer, but he combines this austere and perfectionist style with an empathy and enthusiasm for everything that happens in front of his camera which is almost documentary-like. He clearly loves the things his camera can see, the buildings, the machines, the everyday events. If he manages to get these two strands of his film-making into perfect synthesis, he will produce masterpieces. Yet, right now, there's a problem. At the end of this film, he does something which is extremely risky, in terms of philosophy and storytelling, and you have to be very sure of yourself to pull it off convincingly. Unfortunately, Reygadas makes it look like a rip-off. When Marianne enters the room where Esther is laid in state, there is a shot that made me think immediately: "Hey, this looks like Dreyer's 'The Word'". And then, the same thing as in "The Word" happens... Sure, it's also different, and the meaning is somewhat different, too. Still: If you immerse the viewer into the unique world of your film, as this one does, you don't want him, just near the climax, to think of a different movie. If you still struggle to find your aesthetic standing, don't burden your movie with the memories of an unsurpassable masterpiece. As I said, the same thing in "Japón" - that film is strewn with references to Tarkovsky (you can see them here, too, but they are less obtrusive). So, as good as "Stellet Licht" is, the Tarantinoing of its ending almost killed it for me. Reygadas has masterpieces in him - he just needs to stop referencing his masters; or he has to turn ironic. (This is the way Jarmusch gets things done; but would that be good for Reygadas? I think not.)
Chacun son cinéma ou Ce petit coup au coeur quand la lumière s'éteint et que le film commence (2007)
A wonderful omnibus
(This review concerns the DVD version, which omits the contributions by the Coens and Lynch.) Omnibus films are always a mixed bag, but one thing can be said about this one: No other omnibus contains as many films from so many talented directors. So, as omnibuses go, this is pure joy. All these three-minute-pieces deal with being in a movie theater or watching movies. Some goodies and some baddies: Only a few directors manage to compress intensity and emotion into even the briefest, most unassuming forms. One of them is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu – his single-shot entry about a blind movie goer (one of three in this collection) is mysteriously touching and formally exquisite.
Another director of that ilk is Wong Kar-Wai – his film manages to evoke intense feelings of desire and memory with a few almost abstract shots of people in a dark theater, like glowing orange and red strokes on a black canvas, a few intertitles, and dialogue from Godard's "Alphaville": wonderful. Except Wong, all the other Chinese(-speaking) directors show rather wistful visions of the past, including Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Taiwan's Tsai Ming-Liang is the most original among them: In characteristically perfect compositions and hypnotic pace, he imagines his childhood family having a picnic in a movie theater – as if the cinema is a repository of a home long lost. "It's a dream", and not without irony.
Talking about wistful – I like much of Theo Angelopoulos' work, but not that certain underlying pompousness, that "Look at me – I'm a poet!" attitude. Here he has an aged, dignified Jeanne Moreau recite her text from the final scene of Antonioni's "La notte", then addressed to Marcello Mastroianni, to – an actor playing Mastroianni's ghost. Aw, no, Theo! There's just one Marcello, remember? Put his picture on a wall, show him in a scene, but don't replace him with someone else! This is a dedication that backfires. But it is on the foil of such serious arty attempts that other contributions shine, like Lars Von Trier. I had expected something conceptually more intriguing from him, but maybe it is conceptually intriguing to, in the company of illustrious artists, deliver something that is just gross. Trier addresses one of the most serious issues of watching movies: the idiots you're watching them with. He offers an ultimate example of that character, and the ultimate solution. My laugh-out-loud moment. A similar moment of resistance to good taste is Cronenberg's "The suicide of the last jew in the last cinema of the world" – there's not much more to it than the title indicates, but it's fun for one reason. I think the very first film the director ever showed in Cannes was one of his early experimental features, and it just tanked. These early works consisted of dialogue-free scenes with bizarre voice-overs, and Cronenberg uses this form again here. That is irony. And Raoul Ruiz is the man. At his best, he combines Godard's literacy with a reluctant love for storytelling and rich, surprising visuals. Here, he has read Marcel Mauss' "Essai sur le don". A blind man tells how a missionary, a man of God, gave a radio and a movie projector to some Indians. They ritually transform these gifts into ceremonial exchange items and sacrifices. When they give them back to the westerners, they turn them into blind atheists, thus taking away from them both God and the images. And that's just one level of what is happening in these mind-boggling three minutes. Roman Polanski's recurring themes are sex, random cruelty, misleading conclusions and awkward situations – and they are all present here, in this little joke about an elderly couple watching an erotic film. It's quite literal – you could tell it to your friends at a party – but nicely executed. (And why does everyone, except the groaning man, wear glasses?) Abbas Kiarostami's entry is a sketch for "Shirin", his follow-up feature, using the same concept: You do not see the movie, but the reaction of the Iranian women watching it. The film being Zeffirelli's "Romeo and Juliet", the paradigmatic tale of forbidden love, their emotional reactions are powerful and evocative. It makes me long to see "Shirin". And as for the rest, see for yourself.
La vocation suspendue (1978)
Is it bad to be confused?
This is a beautiful and challenging film. It is ambitious, sincere, but also intellectually playful. It is based on Pierre Klossowski's novel of the same name, a book easily classified as "unfilmable" - although nobody would ever contemplate filming it in the first place, except the fact that Ruiz did so. I must admit that I had difficulties understanding both the movie and the book, but the kind of difficulty was the same in both instances, so the adaptation seems adequate. And why expect to understand an ambitious movie from first viewing? Anyway: The central theme of the book, and even more of the movie, seems to be doubt. A young seminarist, a future priest, gets caught in a theological dogma war that ultimately leads to him bailing out. The conflict divides the church into various "zones", each of them trying to subvert the others - a little like the division of Nazi-occupied France at the time Klossowski himself was a seminarist. So is the church war a metaphor for the Second World War? Or is it a metaphor for the divided soul of the young seminarist? To add to the complication, the book appears not as straightforward narrative, but as summary and comment on an anonymous text circulating in the church. Ruiz replicates this formal twist in the structure of the film: A text scroll informs us that the film was initially shot in the 1940s, only to be completed, in a rather reverse manner, much later. Or was it? The off-commentary accompanying the text scroll tells a different story how the two versions of the movie came about. In any case, we have black-and-white scenes resembling a 1940s French movie, and color scenes with different actors set closer to the present. Confusing? Sure, but the confusion unfolds systematically, giving form and meaning to the doubt and tension of values in the story. I found it intriguing and won't take offence if you don't. One thing, though, is indisputable: This is a gorgeously shot film.
Gwai wik (2006)
The premise of this film is startling: Imagine a place where everything abandoned and forgotten, all the thrown-away toys and the unwritten books, the unfulfilled plans, the dead and the unborn are still somehow present. This is a premise that easily attracts all kinds of stories and images, emotions and philosophical ruminations. What would you find in the Re-Cycle? What would you seek, and what would you come across that you were not thinking about? It is quite hard to make a totally bad film from this premise.
And "Re-Cycle" is not a totally bad film. It just misses most opportunities the premise offers. The Pang Brothers decided to film it as a mixture of horror and computer game, and the good stuff is struggling under the load of annoying genre conventions. It is sad to watch when the heroine has to solve some superfluous task ("Cross the bridge without breathing, or the dead will chase you"), when there is so much more interesting and meaningful that could happen instead. How else could you turn a person's inner self into a series a landscapes? Also, the relation with the little girl never gains the substance it needs to make the ending convincing. Sure, there is some amazing imagery here, and some of it even makes sense. But the film left me longing for a remake by somebody who handles both the imagery and the complexity of the idea.
By the way, if you feel the same, check out "After Life" by Hirokazu Kore-Eda. It is very low-key visually, but explores a similarly striking idea in great depth and with great humanity.
Das Gespenst (1982)
It is quite a while I saw this controversial movie, but as nobody else wrote a comment, I feel compelled to do so. The film caused a scandal in Germany in the mid-eighties. The that-time Minister of the Interior Zimmermann, a conservative Roman-Catholic and a Bavarian like director Achternbusch, decided that such a blasphemous movie should not be supported and withdrew state funding which the production already had received. This created more publicity for the movie than, I guess, any other movie Achternbusch had made before. The film is actually quite funny. Jesus (played by the director) returns to present-day Bavaria, walks around Munich in a somewhat dazed manner and strikes up an affair with a nun, arguing that they are married anyway. Therefore, he refers to himself as "Ober" (waiter), obviously the male form of "Oberin" (Mother Superior). He occasionally transforms into a snake when being afraid and is finally carried up into the sky by the nun, who transforms into a bird of prey. Blasphemy? Sure, but in a rather bizarre fashion. The film obviously doesn't take itself too seriously - one particular highlight comes when two policemen try to defecate into two tiny Schnaps glasses. Like in many of his other films, Achternbusch targets Bavaria's everyday culture with his meandering, anarchic, quirky ideas, and like his other films, this has a deliberately amateurish look. The pacing is uneven and can become challenging, but the cinematography is at times quite beautiful. Overall, if you look for edgy, quirky films that deliberately defy standards of slick movie making, this can be some fun.
Papa, umer ded moroz (1991)
Although I saw it more than ten years ago, I just noted that no one commented on this remarkable little film, a situation that demands rectification. It is, though, a strange movie. It's stylistic background is the type of Eastern European visual poetry usually associated with Tarkovski, Sokurov and Paradzhanov: Long shots, unusual narrative that stresses poetic intensity over plot and psychology, a general alignment to the metaphysical condition of human existence. Yet, Yufit's outlook is much darker than that of those above. The central character of this dissociated story travels to see relatives on the countryside, mostly sordid, listless characters that hardly ever talk. A group of men in black suits haunt the area, involving people in weird rituals. In a separate storyline, a blind old man and a sick-looking boy built mortal traps in a labyrinthine bunker. There is very little dialog, little sense of continuity and a deliberate lack of explanation. Yet, the atmosphere of the film is intense - otherwise it would not have stayed with me that long: It is as if all the hopes for redemption or ascension to a higher spiritual level that imbue the films of Tarkovski have ceased to exist and left a black hole, an icy emptiness: The sense of spiritual deprivation is overwhelming. Difficult, but recommended for the tiny audience it was made for.
Elegiya dorogi (2001)
Here is some interpretation of this wonderful visual poem. It starts in Russia where the narrator (who is only seen as a shade, but seems to be Sokurov) passes through a town while remembering its inhabitants' intense fear of death. Next he observes a baptism in the company of a monk. He wonders why Jesus did not beg to be crucified, as this was his destination. He seems to ask: How could the world be redeemed if even God is afraid of death? He then embarks on a journey, taken along by some unknown force, across Finland and Germany, to the Netherlands. In a motorway restaurant he meets a young Dutchman who talks about how humility taught him love to all people, and how God is equated with love - still very Christian, but a more humanist and functional view of God. This seems to liberate man from all expectations towards God and gives him back the freedom to create himself. Thus, in the end, the observer walks through a paintings gallery (actually the Boymans-Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam), and just like in the beginning, vaguely remembers a town and its people from an 18th century painting. Everything there is frozen in time, and with a magical gesture he revives life in the picture - while God has probably abandoned this world to create a better one elsewhere (this is not my interpretation, but it's in the text), man can provide life to this world himself. Just my understanding of this film, but, as with all good art, there's much more to it... All images here look like they were filmed on a water surface, but this is not only done to create a dream atmosphere, but also to stress that we are looking at an artificial image - something we tend to recognize in painting but less so in film. It's important here because Sokurov links film to painting.
Vostochnaya elegiya (1996)
This wonderful visual poem unites many of Sokurov's best traits. Like most of his films, it is less about plot than the unfolding of a specific situation. Here, an observer who merely appears as a silhouette (though it seems to be Sokurov) travels to an old Japanese town on an island. It is an unearthly place, almost empty, old buildings, mist, probably the afterlife. The observer talks to three souls about their former lives which they see as burdensome and unhappy; but they talk in a light-hearted manner. There is a nocturnal feel to everything, the images have a washed-out quality, like varnished old paintings, and Sokurov deliberately keeps them sometimes out of focus (all trademarks of his); the soundtrack is a marvelous composition of gently howling wind, creaking wood and remote music, some classical, some Russian and Japanese folk. The entire movie is a dreamlike reflection on life and death and the view of the dead upon the living. Absolutely recommended for all who like Sokurov and Eastern European poetic film.
The Greenaway Symphony
I never found Greenaways attempts at serious drama very convincing, after all, his films were less about people than about the attempt to catch the world in some sort of system. So for me, The Tulse Luper Suitcases are a return to form: labyrinthine, witty, and formally the most surreal and over-the-top features Greenaway ever made. Greenaway deliberately dissolves any notion of narrative closure: His film is about the longing for a system that covers the world and at the same time the futility of such an attempt. Tulse Luper leaves 92 suitcases in his life, filled with children, candles, coins; honey, water, gold; body parts, Ingres drawings and 55 men on horseback. In a way, he owns the world in these suitcases, but that does not make him free: He spends most of his life in prison, and each episode of the film (Part 2 covering Episodes 4 - 6) is one prison. Also, the film detonates any attempt to capture the world in full by its form: There are windows in the images that show alternative takes of the same shot, there are repetitions, doublings of text in spoken and written form, the same text spoken in different manners at the same time - it's wild. Greenaway has done this kind of thing before, and it always looked redundant to me. Here it makes sense: The world is just too big, and you have to decide how to relate to it: Either you are paranoiac, trying to piece everything together by Greenaways absurd classification systems, firmly believing in some confused master plan; or you decide that everything is nonsense anyway - but then, what about the links between things, the narrative? I decided to just go with the flow, to enjoy the perfidies and little moments, the beauty and inventiveness of the images, like a complex, multi-layered symphony (the almost perpetual music made that even easier). This is the first time Greenaways ongoing talk about a new cinematic language makes sense to me - although, compared with Godard, it's not as revolutionary as he might imagine. Greenaway, of course, has more to say than just things about classification systems: His dark and desperate world view was never more convincing. Violence and death strike arbitrarily, dumb sexual desires rule history, and the best option you have is try to stand aside and make sarcastic comments. There is oppression, injustice, obsession, gender confusion; nothing is stable, and Tulse's obsession with classification and lists is just a desperate grasp at a world that constantly slips away and bites back. At least, Greeneway makes the attempt look good, and I really enjoyed it.
Five Dedicated to Ozu (2003)
SPOILER ALERT! Nah, just kiddin'... There's no plot here anyway. Well, I seriously think the world would be better if there were more films that show nothing but landscape. Of course you need some formal twist or concept to turn it into art. And Kiarostami does this: Even in this film, with its five long takes and no dialogue, he manages to address some of his central concerns: What is "real" and what is "directed"? Where does the director come in? So each shot makes artistic decisions - like to fix the camera on a small piece of wood that broke off of the larger piece of driftwood, until the letter moves outside the frame. Or the seaside avenue: As soon as the four old men gather, no other passersby appear, although there have been many before - was that arranged by the director? The take with the dogs fades out into white very very slowly... Then: Ducks. Many ducks! Walking to and fro. This is comedy! Ducks are funny beasts, anyway. And their footsteps are dubbed: As Tati once remarked, legwork is the clue to good comedy. Then, Kiarostami cheats in the last shot: This is edited. True, the moon on the water is wonderful, and Kiarostami is right in showing it for half an hour. But there is also a rainstorm, and in the end, after a cock's call, it becomes light in undue haste - everybody who ever spent a night outdoors knows it's not that neat. But well... It's still wonderful. Only the Betacam quality of the images is a bit off-putting; HD would have been more effective.
I saw SATANTANGO about ten years ago. At that time, I found it impressive, but quite an ordeal to sit through. But then, years later, I realized I kept thinking back to the images and rhythms of this film. It grows. I also saw other very long movies with very long takes, like TAIGA by Ulrike Ottinger (8 hours) and FROST by Tarr's student Fred Kelemen (4 hours); they didn't work. SATANTANGO stayed with me, like two other films by Tarr, DAMNATION and WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES. Today I consider it as one of the greatest movie experiences I ever had. I do not know how Tarr pulls this off; his most effective takes often seem simple and straightforward. It must be magic. By the way, Gus Van Sant's ELEPHANT uses similar techniques at times (long shots of people walking), and Van Sant acknowledged Tarr's influence.
Ying xiong (2002)
Between shock and awe
This film left me with very ambiguous feelings. Wonderful cinematography, elegant and inventive fight scenes, some of my favorite actors (though underemployed here) - but:
I saw this as a German, and I currently live in Taipei with my Taiwanese wife. So the Court of Qin looked like a Nazi Party rally to me(compare THE TRIUMPH OF THE WILL), and the ending just reinforced this side of the story. Yes, there is a commitment to peace here, but it's only on the side of the swordsmen - for the emperor (both in the film and in history) that was just paying lip service. You also have to take into account that this story, while historical, is told now and could be told in totally different manners - Chen Kaige's "Emperor and the Assassin" is less impressive visually, but gives a much more ambivalent portrayal of Qin Shi Huang Ti. When the message of the film was finally revealed - "The Reich must be united!" - I just had to think about the missiles pointing to Taiwan from the mainland and the constant saber-rattling from Beijing that accompanies all major elections here. It spoiled the film tremendously.
This is not to blame Zhang Yimou for everything. Look at his follow-up, "House of Flying Daggers". It prefers love over politics in its storytelling, and it's much more humane: Forests instead of deserts, mixed colors instead of primary colors...
The Follow (2001)
WKW clones himself
Although this is an oasis of calm and beauty in the midst of the BMW-series of mostly violent car chases, it is not particularly good as a Wong Kar-Wai film. It's the first time he worked from somebody else's script, and one of the few times he worked from a script at all. The supposedly strict production frame of BMW did not allow for his usual approach of improvisation and intuition. Although Andrew Kevin Walker tailormade his script to fit Wong - taking inspiration from his other movies, mostly CHUNGKING EXPRESS - Wong does not manage to deliver more than a weak clone of himself. The vibrant energy and subtle emotion of his other work is mostly absent here. No wonder he only has himself credited as WKW...
Qianxi mànbo (2001)
A story told by light
This wonderful film clings to my mind since I've seen it. This is not due to the story, but for the visual concept. At first, the story seems to be the usual fantasy insecure parents have about their teenage children getting lost in a world they don't know any more - in this case, a fragile young girl spending her time in the bars and clubs of nocturnal Taipei. But it is much more a coming-of-age story, told in a melancholy mood from a future perspective, mourning and accepting all the hardships it took. This is what the visuals of the film tell, more than the dialog or plot: Each scene is filmed in a single shot. Hou, or rather Mark Li, used available light most of the time, which actually produces meaning here: The scenes in bars and clubs are shot using very light-sensitive, so images are very grainy, dark, but warm and very color-intensive - one seems to be inside a protective womb, which becomes gradually oppressive. The forces that keep the girl inside are represented by her neurotic boy friend, who watches her constantly and keeps her from making exams.
After she becomes a stripper, she meets Jack, a gangster but very decent guy who gradually leads her out of this world - in one scene he actually drives her out of a dark tunnel into bright daylight in his car. The outside scenes, given less sensitive film stock, are much clearer, but it's winter most of the time - contrary to the bar scenes it's cold, gray and white, but clear. The ending promises a life in the outside world, with occasional relief provided by movies. Shouldn't we all appreciate this? (... and the soundtrack is wonderful...)
A mostly very recommendable collection of shorts by some of the most renowned arthouse directors. In DOGS HAVE NO HELL a man starts a new life with the woman he loves. Aki Kaurismäki delivers, as usual, grand melodrama in the most deadpan manner. Wonderful photography. Werner Herzog's documentary is his usual ethno-cliche crap: Modernization blows away the culture of a small hunter-gatherer group. Herzog mourns this but uses evolutionist-colonialist vocabulary like "tribe" and "stone age" - he obviously never realizes that his perspective overrates the power of Western culture in the same way as die-hard modernizers do. Embarrassing.
Jim Jarmusch's vignette about movie making combines a calm view of everyday situations with some subdued comedy. Quite unassuming and more complex and substantial in hindsight. Wim Wenders returns to his roots: 35 years after his early shorts we are once again in a car for almost the entire film and listen to rock music. Just this time we get an exciting plot, beautiful retro-psychedelic visuals and a poetic near-death moment: Wenders shows all his abilities.
Spike Lee reports irregularities of the last US-presidential election, quite frightening of course, beautifully shot, but a bit out of place here.
Chen Kaige's 100 FLOWERS HIDDEN DEEP gives us a little parable about the change of modern Beijing, which is a bit silly at first (and includes some awful computer animation), but has a further dimension: The worker's pantomime and the old man's effeminate gestures are stylistic devices from Peking Opera, an art form of the past, virtually surviving "hidden deep" in cinema.
But the one piece overshadowing all the others is Victor Erice's LIFELINE, a portrait of a peaceful afternoon in a Spanish village in 1940, with death and destruction always close at hand: Children play, farmhand reap dry grass, old men play cards, while a baby starts to bleed to death. The beauty and poetic power of the images and sounds is outstanding, only comparable to Tarkovsky (another director with a genuine feel for life on the countryside). Marvelous.
Complementary to Tarkovsky
I liked this film a lot, it sent goose pimples all over my body most of the time, and I felt very relaxed after it. This is something very few film achieve. But some of them are by Andrey Tarkovsky, who filmed "Solyaris" in 1972. And I don't think I can tell right now which film is better. Sure: Tarkovsky is unique, his genius unsurpassed, probably a league of his own, while it is much easier to compare Soderbergh's work with that of others. But Soderbergh looked at Tarkovsky's "Solyaris" very attentively, with self-consciousness and respect. In his version, he stressed the points underdeveloped by Tarkovsky: emotional clarity, acting and closure in the screenplay (the latter not always to the best of the film). He wisely did not try to compete with Tarkovsky in fields in which he can't be beaten: visual poetry and philosophy. Tarkovsky's Kris is great, but so sullen you wonder what kind of psychologist he is to send into such an unclear situation. Clooney is much more convincing in this respect. In Soderbergh's version, people are also much less secretive about their view of the visitors and their emotions.
I do not understand what people do not understand about the ending of the film. It's pretty clear: The visitors are part of Solaris, an alien intelligence. Chris stays on the station and makes contact with Solaris, embodied by the boy. The final scenes are not set on earth, but on an earth recreated from Chris memory by Solaris. He himself is not more than a memory - his original body has been destroyed during the fall of the station. Thus he overcomes the distinction between humans and visitors, and the one between real people and images. Draw from this any philosophical conclusion you want...
A different language
The biggest surprise about the for Inuit-produced feature is that you do not need to be politically correct to like it. It is, besides a few excusable flaws, just a great film. It is extremely difficult to transfer stories from foreign cultures and oral traditions to the screen - the whole visual language of the media is loaded with subtle assumptions on how stories hold together and characters should act; and these assumptions mostly belong to "Western"-modern culture. I think this films great achievement is to avoid much of it. One example: It's not just due to the villainous character of some persons that they behave badly - the conflicts are not just conflicts between individuals. It's rather the entire community that is ill, due to spirit possession.
The film is told in a somewhat different visual language, and this is what makes it so convincing; this is also what makes it difficult to understand at times (particularly in the beginning), but this is the price to pay - it is rather surprising how comprehensible it gets later. The film as a whole is really exciting and touching. It's pace is slow (and I like slow-paced movies). It's solutions for particular scenes are striking - the appearance of the bad spirit in the end is eerie, and the effect is just done by the camera position. On the other hand, there is a sort a documentary immediacy to everything, as if the camera just happened to be in the right spot when the story unfolded (I liked the burping and spitting a lot).
There are, of course, points that don't work out well: The music is the usual One-World-Tribal-kitsch-mud, with didgeridoos and Tuvan throat-singing, as if every "primitive" culture was just the same (an idea originating from 18th century Europe and strangely enough professed by many "tribal" activists today). But, well, it's pretty discrete...
Sunduq al-dunyâ (2002)
Strange and ambitious
I saw this rather accidentally last night and couldn't turn the TV set off until it was over - a good sign. This film is highly stylized, shots are often composed with the precision of paintings, and the film is acted in an almost expressionist, deliberately apsychological manner; it is sometimes slightly reminiscent of Sergey Parajanov. This strange way of story-telling contrasts sharply with the realistic depiction of its set, a compound made of clay in the mountains. This mixture of stunning visuals and a very unique filmic language made up for a gripping experience, although I have to admit that I did not understand much of what was going on. Mohammad tells the story of two boys and their initiation into life: One is concerned with his love for an orphan girl living in the household, the other approaches maturity when he sacrifices a cow. But there is also a war (with Israel) going on in the background of the story; one of the boys gets possessed by his grandfather; misunderstandings, doubt and tensions dominate family life: It's not an image of cute rural harmony we meet here. To fully appreciate the film, one needs at least two viewings, some knowledge about Islam and politics in Syria and sensitivity to Muhammad's peculiar symbolism. One may object that the film is too dead-serious about its high ambitions, even a bit pretentious; so people who can't do without a laugh should stay away. For everybody curious about new and unique ways of story-telling, it is truly recommended.
As Bodas de Deus (1999)
The Dirty Old Man as high art
This is one of the most extraordinary films I've seen in a couple of years. It's easy to dismiss as a Dirty Old Man's fantasy, but it's D.O.M. fantasy as an art form. Monteiro has invented a screen persona for himself that looks like Jacques Tati had designed a decent late-in-life role for Woody Allen, less neurotic and more rustic. Deus is a wacky old bum who permanently oscillates between poetic wisdom and foolishness. The sets sometimes have the poetic quality of a Tarkovski film, but often enough, glimpses of Gilliamish madness creep in. Shots are static and beautifully composed, a typical feat of art movies which ironically highlights the comical aspects of this film. The story is simple: Deus receives a suitcase full of money from a Heavenly Messenger, spends it on girls and the good life, only to find real love when he's broke. The cultural background of this is clearly Catholic, but nothing should be taken too serious about this film. In its visual inventiveness and its strange take on art and comedy, it seems to me absolutely unique.
Sent her an angel
I have to admit, I like Kieslowski better since he's dead. This one is just as beautiful as any Kieslowski, but Tykwer - who manages a much wider range of style than the older film maker - gives his direction a freshness which is lacking from Kieslowski's somewhat conventional idea of beauty.
The film is dense and calm, artful and exciting at once. It is rewarding to watch it as a deeply religious movie: The young police officer who helps the hapless assassin embodies her personal relation to god - her angel, actually. He was born on the day of her first communion, he bears almost the same name, and by the end of the film, the two even start to look the same. Thus, the film is not about the risks of crime fighting on your own account, but about guilt and redemption.
I'm not religious, but I found that very touching.
This movie is stunning by convening so much magic with such reduced means. Filmed on almost no budget, it was made on 16mm on location in Sicily, with local actors all dressed in plain grey clothes. The story is about a saint who searches for a sinner, his necessary complement. Jesus appears on TV, giving weather forecasts, and in the end, the group of saints all speak with the same voice.
All the effects are done in the most simple of ways; the appearance of an angel is represented only by the actors shadow. In one scene, the saint enters a picture painted by his sinner - simply an empty frame suspended in mid-air - to reach a dream landscape, meeting a talking horse that claims to be a mountain, saying that in this dream mountains look like horses.
It is Ruiz' profound knowledge of the nature of film that enables him to create mysticism and a sense of wonder by just combining simple images and adding wonderful dialogue. So many people thinking it takes a helluva lot of FX to make dreams visible are disproved by this made-on-a-shoestring film.
Wonderful meditation on life after death
At first, I had some trouble getting what the film is all about - and even watching it, as I thought the projectionist had put on a wrong lens. Only later I understood that Sokurov often uses distorting lenses when filming, which makes the characters in many scenes look like skinny Giacometti sculptures.
Still, when I finally got the point, the films meaning unfolded with a wonderful intensity. A young man, an occasional housekeeper at an abandoned countryside manor, meets an old man sporting strange behavior: He touches his own body with amazement and says that everything in the house looks familiar to him and strange at the same time. What is never openly stated: this man is a former inhabitant of the house who has returned from the dead. He is not able to convey the joy to have his physical sensations regained to the young man, who remains a cynical, world-despising character; he is also not able to talk clearly about the afterlife, an experience that escapes words.
Like other films of Sokurov, this one is extremely slow moving, with characters whispering sparse and highly condensed dialogue. Everything important is only said once, or never at all. Sokurov knows, as every good film director should, that not everything can be said and shown, and he knows how to keep a secret: He creates a dreamlike atmosphere which leaves plenty of space for the viewer to detect the unspeakable, invisible behind things.
Sokurov is definitely a master and one of the most important figures in present day cinema.
Die Schlacht der Idioten (1986)
Trashing film history is fun
In this outrageous short - shot for the inauguration of the movie organ at the Film Institute in Duesseldorf, Germany - Schlingensief demonstrates that he's quite able to put his disjunctive, aggressive punk style to a purpose. Filmed in the manner of a silent movie, complete with all the breaks, smears and distortions of an eighty-year-old copy, this film lumps together quite a weird amount of characters. A vampire (Kier), an Indian chief (Edel) and various other cliche figures lifted from the silent film repertoire struggle to get out of their movies and fight for "Queen Quelly". The film thereby does not only relate to film history, but to Schlingensiefs personal history of film reception: The characters also seem to stem from a child's imagination, consequently ending up in a big mess on a playground.
Like most of Schlingensief's films, this one is deliberately disgusting, funny, highly conscious of its form and powerful.
Mysteries of the unconsciousness
Among Schlingensief's deliberately ugly and offending films, this stands out as unexpectedly beautiful - although it's a raw kind of beauty, reminiscent of Derek Jarman's visual poems "Last of England" or "The Garden". Much of the images are strongly processed, turning visuals into a grainy mess of colors; the sound track is coherent with that, accompanying tender love scenes with industrial noise - to great effect. Still, there are moments of intense beauty, as The Hero walks across a misty meadow in the early morning, or the shots of a fishing ship on a frozen seashore.
There is no real plot here, rather a series of scenes and images that map an unconsciousness in which saving and destructive forces are continually struggling, expressed in scenes and characters of a mythological quality. The destructive forces are embodied by Udo Kier's character, who sometimes appears as a restrained nobleman, sometimes as a soil-eating demon with bulging eyes. The object of the struggle seems to be love, embodied by Tilda Swinton (in a rather subdued performance), who is threatened by Kier and abducted by witches. A point to be made out of all this bursting, confusing imagery is, that you should not try to destroy the evil forces inside you but rather embrace and integrate them.
But even if you do not get the film, it's still worth looking at, for the sheer visceralty and overwhelming power of its images.