Cinema of Portugal
March 31, 2013
January 1, 2013
Die, die, die, 2012! Besides being a period of personal lows, it was a bad year at the movies for me. Not only did the quantity of the films I watched come down, but the enthusiasm with which I watched, read about and discussed films plummeted. That the amount of good films made this year pales in comparison to the last doesn’t help either. Not to mention the passing of Chris Marker. Unlike the years before, there are barely a handful of movies from 2012 that I’m really keen on seeing (most of them from Hollywood). The following list of favorite 2012 titles (world premiere only) was chalked with some struggle because I couldn’t name 10 films that I loved without reservations. Here’s to a better year ahead.
1. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, Canada)
Surely, it takes a bona fide auteur like David Cronenberg to locate his signature concerns in a text – such as Don Delillo’s – that deals with ideas hitherto unexplored by him and spin out the most exciting piece of cinema this year. Holed up in his stretch limo – an extension of his body, maneuvering through Manhattan inch by inch as though breathing – Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) comprehends the universe outside like cinema, through a series of moving images projected onto his car windows. Why not? This world, whose master he is, is experiencing the epistemological crisis of late capitalism: the increasing abstraction of tactile reality into digital commodities. Packer, like many Cronenberg characters, is more machine than man, attempts – against the suggestions of his asymmetrical prostate and of the protagonist of Cronenberg’s previous film – to construct a super-rational predictable model of world economy – a project whose failure prompts him to embark on an masochistic odyssey to reclaim the real, to experience physicality, to be vulnerable and to ultimately die. At the end of the film, one imagines Packer shouting: “Death to Cyber-capitalism! Long live the new flesh!”
2. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France)
Un chant d’amour for cinema, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors is an ambitious speculation about the total transformation of life into cinema and cinema into life – the death of the actor, audience and the camera. The European cousin to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), Carax’s return-to-zero work draws inspiration from the process of film itself – death, resurrection and persistence of vision – and takes cinema to its nascence – fairground attractions, popular theatre and zoopraxography – while opening up to its future possibilities. Uncle Oscar (Denis Lavant, the raison d’etre of Holy Motors), like Cronenberg’s Packer, cruises the streets of Paris in his limo in search of purely physical experiences – a series of performance pieces carried out solely for “the beauty of the act” – only to find that the city is a gigantic simulacrum in which everyone is a performer and a spectator (and thus no one is) and where the distinction between the real and the fictional becomes immaterial. At the very least, Holy Motors is a reflection on the passing of “things”, of physicality, of the beauty of real gesture, of the grace of movement of men and machines.
3. differently, Molussia (Nicolas Rey, France)
Nicolas Rey’s third feature, consisting of 9 short segments (reels, to be precise) projected in a random sequence, is a radical project that re-politicizes the cinematic image. Not only does the randomization of the order of projection of the reels circumvent the problem of the authoritarianism of a fixed narrative, it also exposes the seam between the semi-autonomous theses-like segments, thereby making the audience attentive to possible ideological aporias that are usually glossed over by the self-fashioned integrity of filmic texts. Furthermore, the existence of the film in the form separate reels is a breathing reminder of the material with which it was made: 16mm. The persistent dialectic between the visual – shots of highways, industries, farms and modernist suburban housing in the eponymous fictional city registering the sedate rhythm of everyday life – and the aural – snippets of conversations between two politicized industrial workers about the invisible tendons that enable a society to function smoothly – strongly drives home the chief, Althusserian concern of the film: the essential unity of the various, seemingly autonomous, strands of a state, contrary to claims of disjunction and autonomy.
4. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, Portugal)
A film that is reminiscent of Weerasethakul’s many bipartite films, Miguel Gomes’ singular Tabu, too, works on a range of binaries – past/present, youth/old age, city/countryside, abundance/scarcity, modern/primitive, colonizer/colonized – and sets up a conversation between the carefree, profligate days of the empire full of love, laughter and danger and Eurocrisis-inflected, modern day Portugal marked by alienation and loneliness. The opening few minutes – a melancholy mini-mockumentary of sorts chronicling the adventures of a European explorer in Africa with a native entourage –announces that the film will be balancing distancing irony and classicist emotionality, donning an attitude that is in equal measure critical and sympathetic towards the past. In Gomes’ sensitive film, the heavy hand of the past weighs down on the present both on aesthetic (silent cinema stylistics, film stock, academy ratio, the excitement of classical genres) and thematic (collective colonial guilt, residual racism, punishment for forbidden love) levels and this inescapability of the past is also functions as (sometimes dangerous) nostalgia for the simplicity and innocence of a cinema lost and an entreaty for the necessity of exploring and preserving film history.
5. Paradise: Love (Ulrich Seidl, Austria)
What partially elevates the first film of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy from its rather undistinguished concerns about emotional alienation and old age loneliness is the nexus of intriguing cultural forces that it brings into the picture by having a relatively affluent, 50-year old Austrian single-mother (Margarete Tiesel, in a no-holds-barred performance) indulge in sex tourism in Kenya along with five other women friends. The result is a rich, provocative negotiation along class, gender, race and age divides that upsets conventional, convenient oppressor-oppressed relationships. In doing so, the film wrenches love from the realm of the universal and the ahistorical and demonstrates that between two people lies the entire universe. Seidl’s heightened, bright colour palette that provides a sharp chromatic contrast to the bodies of Kenyan natives and his confrontational, static, frontal compositions (Seidl’s nudes are antitheses to those of the Renaissance), which make indoor spaces appear like human aquariums, both invite the voyeuristic audience to take a peek into this world and place it on another axis of power – of the observer and the observed.
6. With You, Without You (Prasanna Vithanage, Sri Lanka)
Sri Lankan filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage’s exquisite, exceptional adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Meek One (1876) aptly locates the Russian tale of matrimonial discord between a bourgeois pawnbroker and the gentle creature he weds within the ethno-political conflict between nationalist and rebel factions of the country. Unlike humanist war dramas that, often naively, stress the underlying oneness among individuals on either side, Vithanage’s intelligent film underscores how the political haunts the personal and how the tragic weight of history impacts the compatibility between individuals here and now, while deftly retaining Dostoyevsky’s central theme of ownership of one human by another. Though liberal in narration and moderate in style compared to Mani Kaul’s and Robert Bresson’s adaptations of the short story, Vithanage, too, employs an attentive ambient soundtrack that counts down to an impending doom and numerous shots of hands to emphasize the centrality of transaction in interpersonal relationships. The metaphysical chasm between the possessor and the possessed finds seamless articulation in concrete sociopolitical relations between Sinhalese and Tamils, between the army and refugees, between the poor and the wealthy and between man and woman.
7. Walker (Tsai Ming-liang, Hong Kong)
There has always been something intensely spiritual about Tsai’s films, even when they seem to wallow in post-apocalyptic cityscapes and defunct social constructions. In Tsai’s hands, it would seem, an empty subway corridor shot in cheap digital video becomes the holiest of spaces ever filmed. Walker, a high-def video short made as a part of the Beautiful 2012 project commissioned by Hong Kong International Film Festival, crystallizes this particular tendency in the director’s work and centers on a Buddhist monk played by Lee Kang-sheng (a muse like no other in 21st century cinema). As the monk walks the hyper-commercialized streets of Hong Kong at a phenomenally slow pace for two days and two nights, his red robe becomes a visual anchor in stark contrast to the greys of the urban jungle and the blacks of people’s winter clothing and his very being, his eternal presence, becomes a spiritual grounding point amidst the impersonal hustle-bustle of this super-capitalist Mecca. Part performance art with a gently cynical punch line, part an exploration of the limits of DV, Walker is a deeply soothing and often moving work from one of Asia’s finest.
8. Celluloid Man (Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, India)
Moving unsteadily with the help of a walking stick, the 79-year old founder of the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), P. K. Nair, despite himself, becomes a metaphor for the state of film archiving in the country. It is of considerable irony that, in a nation that prides itself for its rich cultural heritage, film archiving is considered a useless exercise. During the three decades that Nair headed the NFAI, he was instrumental in discovering the silent works and early talkies of Bombay and south Indian cinema, including those of Dadasaheb Phalke, the “father of Indian cinema”. Celluloid Man, bookended by scenes from Citizen Kane (1941), draws inspiration from Welles’ film and sketches a fascinating if reverential portrait of Nair constructed from interviews with international filmmakers, scholars, historians and programmers and curiously hinged on the fact of Nair’s “Rosebud” – ticket stubs, promotional material and assorted film-related curios that the man collected during his childhood. Shivendra Singh’s film is a irresistible romp through early Indian cinema and an endlessly absorbing tribute to a man who is fittingly dubbed the “Henri Langlois of India”. To paraphrase one of the interviewees, Phalke gave Indian cinema a past, Nair gave it a history.
9. Laurence Anyways (Xavier Dolan, Canada)
Although it might appear that it is perhaps the hollowness of Xavier Dolan’s previous feature that makes his latest, 160-minute music video look like a cinematic coup, Laurence Anyways really does succeed in accomplishing more than most of contemporary “LGBT-themed independent cinema”. While the latter – including this year’s Cahiers darling – almost invariably consists of realist, solidarity pictures that use social marginalization as shorthand for seriousness, Dolan’s emotionally charged film takes the game one step further and probes the inseparability of body and character, the effect of the physical transformation of a person on all his relationships – a transformation that is mirrored in the flamboyant, shape-shifting texture of the film – without sensationalizing the transformation itself. Rife, perhaps too much so, with unconventional aesthetic flourishes and personal scrapbook-ish inserts, the film rekindles and enriches the youthful verve of the Nouvelle Vague – a move that should only be welcome by film culture. If not anything more, Laurence Anyways establishes that critics need to stop using its author’s age as a cudgel and look at his cinema du look as something more than a compendium of adolescent affectations.
10. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, USA)
Let me confess upfront that putting Wes Anderson’s (surprise!) whimsy, twee and self-conscious Moonrise Kingdom in my year-end list is less a full-hearted appreciation of the film than a confession that I find Anderson to be an important voice that I’m genuinely keen about, but can’t entirely celebrate. I don’t think I’ve seen any film that employs so many elements of industrial cinema yet feels meticulously artisanal, a film that, on the surface, seems to (literally) play to the gallery yet is so full of personality and one that is oddly familiar yet thoroughly refuses instant gratification. Moonrise Kingdom appears to have every ingredient of an obnoxious family comedy, but the unironic, straight-faced attitude and the single-minded conviction with which it moulds the material into an anti-realist examination of the anxieties of growing up, alone, is something not to be found either in cynical mainstream cinema or in the overwrought indie scene of America. Anderson’s neo-sincere film is, as it were, a classicist text couched within a postmodern shell, an emotional film without affect. Paper blossoms, but blossoms nonetheless.
Special Mention: The Queen Of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, USA)
October 21, 2012
“To be on an island inhabited by artificial ghosts was the most unbearable of nightmares,- to be in love with one of those images was worse than being in love with a ghost (perhaps we always want the person we love to have the existence of a ghost)”
- The Invention of Morel (1940, Adolfo Bioy Casares)
May 7, 2011
Ne Change Rien (2009) (Change Nothing)
Pedro Costa’s latest film Change Nothing (2009), at a visceral level, rekindles the experience of watching that stunning cinephile bait of his, O Sangue (1989). Like his debut work, Change Nothing is presented in monochrome (although apparently not shot that way) with a contrast ratio to kill for, in which the white appears whiter and black appears blacker. Consequently, Costa, who shot the film himself in DV, achieves a flat field which results in a number of eye-teasing compositions, such as the one in which actress and singer Jeanne Balibar – the subject and star of the film – seems to have grown a pair of angel wings. More than ever, Costa works with light like a painter who’s been given only a limited quantity of colour would, meticulously sculpting Balibar’s distinct visage out of darkness. This exacting precision required for an artistic endeavour is what Change Nothing is ostensibly ‘about’, as it goes about recording Balibar and co. rehearsing, improvising, recording and live-performing a variety of vocal pieces. (There are also a couple of off-track sequences involving a live choir and a pair of Japanese in a bar). The reference here is, of course, Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil (1968), which interpreted radical politics and art-creation as essentially incomplete ventures requiring audience participation. Costa’s film, however, seems more modest and self-sufficient, as it single-mindedly records Balibar’s relentless dedication to her work (and, implicitly, the director’s towards his as well). It undermines the illusion of a work of art being a smooth, finished product by situating it at the end of a long history of imperfections, goofs and possibilities. Ironically, Costa’s rigorous and ‘perfected’ film perpetuates this very illusion. In a way, then, the 100 minutes that we see is only a minor part of Costa’s project, the majority (the remaining 78 hours!) of which will, unfortunately, go unseen.
March 5, 2011
O Estranho Caso de Angélica (2010) (The Strange Case of Angelica)
Manoel de Oliveira
André Bazin famously remarked that the photographic image, by its very conception, seeks to ‘embalm’ dead objects and preserve them for posterity. Cinema, suggests Manoel de Oliveira’s wondrous new work The Strange Case of Angelica (2010), does one better in that it also resurrects these dead objects back to life. Quite literally here. At heart, it’s the story of amateur filmmaking and budding cinephilia – the joy of discovering the marvel of the moving image, which, like the discovery of sexuality, is a private ecstasy. Two well-read men in the film discuss how matter and anti-matter unite to form pure energy while our anachronistic lead man Isaac (Richard Trêpa) is still bewitched by how mise en scène – his profession – can meet montage to create pure magic. Like the director’s previous film, Angelica straddles two worlds – ‘contemporary’ and ‘classical’ periods – both of which tease and pull and push Isaac. Isaac, admittedly, is a man of old ways (he’s probably exactly 115 years old), marooned in the present economic landscape, who finds his romance thwarted not just by class (as in Eccentricities) but also by religion and by the fact that his love interest is dead. He, however, trusts that he can find love through the power of his art and escape his current predicament. (Alas, he has to die so that he can enter his art). Using unpolished CG that’s almost as old as the protagonist, Oliveira takes us back to (rather, attempts to recreate) the historical juncture at which we might snap out of our sensual numbness in order to start all over and, once again, discover the magic – of romance, of cinema.
April 24, 2010
Lithuanian film director, one of the most outstanding representatives of cinematographers. His contacts with cinema began in 1985 with the TV serial “Sixteen-years-olds” (dir. Raimondas Banionis), where Bartas played one of the main roles. He is a graduate of the Moscow Film School (VGIK). He made his directorial debut with his diploma film, the short documentary “Tofolaria” and mediocre-length film (which called spectators’ attention) “For the Remembrance of Last Day” (1989), where the real personages are “acting themselves” according to the principles of feature film. The author further “purified” the specific cinema language in the full-length film “Three Days” (1991), which was awarded the prize of oicumene committee at Berlin Film Festival (for the problems, the importance of the theme, the profundity) in 1992, and FIPRESCI Prize for the originality of the style, the significance of the theme, the beauty of pictures. This is a story (almost without plot) about three young Lithuanians visiting Kaliningrad-Karaliautchus-Kionigsberg – a moribund, outraged town. The traditional dramaturgy is ignored in later Bartas’ films, as well: “The Corridor” (1994, it was shown at Berlin Film Festival), “Few of Us ” (1995, shown in Cannes, in the program “Other Point”), “Home” (1997, shown in the same program in Cannes). All of them are works of free structure, minimalistic form, philosophical associations. The works of Bartas are not well-known and analysed in Lithuania, but they have a small, faithful round of admirers in the West. (Bio Courtesy: The Auteurs, Image courtesy: Wikipedia)
Lithuanian auteur Sharunas Bartas is the kind of filmmaker one would immediately be tempted to label “pretentious” and “self-indulgent” because there is absolutely no concession whatsoever that he gives to the viewers in terms of the narrative, artistic, political and personal ambitions of his films, burying them deeply within their part-hyper real and part-surreal constructs. All his films have hinged themselves onto a particular moment in Lithuanian history – the nation’s independence from the USSR, just prior to the latter’s complete collapse – and they all deal with the loss of communication, the seeming impossibility of true love to flourish and the sense of pointlessness that the political separation has imparted to its people. The characters in Bartas’ films are ones that attempt in vain to put the dreadful past behind them, traverse through the difficult present and get onto a future that may or may not exist. With communication having been deemed useless, they hardly speak anything and, even if they do, the talk is restricted to banal everyday expressions. Consequently, Bartas’ films have little or no dialog and rely almost entirely on Bressonian sound design consisting mostly of natural sounds. Also Bresson-like is the acting in the films. There are no expressions conveyed by the actors, no giveaway gestures and no easy outlet for emotions.
The outdoor spaces are deep and vast in Bartas’ films while the indoors are dark, decrepit and decaying. The landscapes, desolate, usually glacial, nearly boundless and seemingly inhospitable, are almost always used as metaphors for a larger scheme. His compositions are often diagonal, dimly lit and simultaneously embody static and dynamic components within a single frame. Interestingly, his editing is large Eisensteinian and he keeps juxtaposing people, their faces and landscapes throughout his filmography. But since the individual images themselves possess much ambiguity of meaning, the sequences retains their own, thereby overcoming the limitations of associative montage. Another eccentric facet in Bartas’ work is the amazing amount of critters found in his films. There are puppies, kitten, frogs, seagulls and flies seen around and over his characters regularly. May be, not considering the specific connotations that these creatures bring to these scenes, the intention is Eisensteinian here too – to indicate that the characters have been reduced to a level lower than these beings, unable to either communicate with each other or be at peace with nature, devoid of the notions of nationality and politics.
In many ways, the cinema of Bartas stands in between that of Andrei Tarkovsky and Béla Tarr – both filmmakers concerned with chronicling life in a communist state. While the childhood memories, existential crisis and spiritual yearning in Bartas films directly has its roots in Tarkovsky’s films (all the films starting from The Mirror (1975)), the visual (dancing in entrapping circles, meaningless glances and chatter over banquets and eventual self-destruction of the drifting characters) and aural (the Mihály Vig-like loopy and creepy score consisting of accordions, accentuated ambient noise) motifs, stark cinematography and political exploration are reminiscent of Bartas’ Hungarian contemporary. But, more importantly, it is the attitude towards his characters that puts him right in midpoint between Tarr and Tarkovsky. Bartas’ work has so far been characterized by two impulses – a warm nostalgia and sympathy for his characters that betrays the director’s hope and love for them, as in Tarkovsky’s cinema, and an overpowering cynicism, clearly derived from the (post-neo-realist) films of Tarr, that keeps remarking how the characters are all doomed and done for. This (unbalanced) dialectic is evident in Bartas aesthetic itself, which employs copious amounts of extremely long shots and suffocating close-ups. In the former, characters are seen walking from near the camera and into the screen, gradually becoming point objects eaten up by the landscape while, in the latter, Bartas films every line and texture of their faces with utmost intensity in a way that obviously shows that he cares for them and the pain that they might be experiencing. This conversation between optimism and pessimism towards his people also places him alongside the Armenian filmmaker Artavazd Peleshian – another historian of traumatized lives in a Soviet state before and after independence.
Praejusios Dienos Atminimui (In Memory Of The Day Passed By, 1990)
One of the finest films by Sharunas Bartas, In Memory of the Day Passed By (1990) is a somber, evocative mood piece set in post-independence Lithuania and opens with the image of large flakes of snow moving slowly along a river. This is followed by a shot of a woman and her kid walking on a vast, snowy plain and moving away from the viewer until they become nonentities assimilated by their landscape. This pair of shots provides a very good synopsis of what Bartas’ cinema is all about. The rest of the film presents us vignettes from the daily life of the people living in the unnamed city, possibly Vilnius, and from the garbage dump outside it. One of them presents a tramp-like puppeteer wandering the streets of the city without any apparent destination. Like the puppet that he holds, the people around him seem as if their purpose of living has been nullified, now that the national strings that had held and manipulated them so far have been severed. Consequently, there are many shots that deal with religion and the intense Faith that these people seem to be having, perhaps suggesting a yearning for the replacement of a superior power that guides them. Bartas suffuses the film with diagonal compositions indicative of a fallen world – a world that can go nowhere but the abyss. Appropriately, the film closes with a variation of its opening image: flakes of snow flowing downriver – an apt metaphor for the many nations that would drift without a base after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Trys Dienos (Three Days, 1991)
Three Days (1991), Bartas’ maiden feature length work, unfolds in a harbor town in Lithuania where two men and a women search for a shelter in the largely uncaring place, possibly to make love. The first Bartas film to feature his would-be collaborator (and muse) Yekaterina Golubeva, Three Days plays out as a post-apocalyptic tale set in an industrial wasteland, complete with decrepit structures and murky waters, where both positive communication (Even the meager amount of dialogue in the film turns out to be purely functional) and meaningful relationships (Almost everyone in the film seems to be a vagrant) have been rendered irrelevant. Every person in this desolate land seems to be an individual island, stuck at a particular time in history forever. The visual palette (akin to the bleached out scheme of the director’s previous work) is dominated by earthy colours, especially brown, and the production design is highly redolent of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). The actors are all Bressonian here and do no more than move about in seemingly random directions and perform mundane, everyday actions. Like in Bresson’s films, there is no psychological inquiry into the characters’ behaviour and yet there is much pathos and poignancy that is developed thanks to the austerity of Bartas’ direction and the intensity of Vladas Naudzius’ cinematography. The film is titled Three Days, but it could well have been titled ‘three months’, ‘three years’ or even ‘eternity’ for, in the film, all time is one, the notion of future nonextant and hope for escape futile.
Koridorius (The Corridor, 1994)
If Three Days presented people stuck in time and moving aimlessly through desolate landscapes, The Corridor (1994) gives us ones stuck geographically and drifting through abstract time. Bartas’ most opaque and affecting film to date, The Corridor is a moody, meditative essay set at a time just after the independence of Lithuania from the USSR and in a claustrophobic apartment somewhere in Vilnius in which the titular corridor forms the zone through which the residents of the building must pass in order to meet each other. Extremely well shot in harsh monochrome, the interiors of the apartment resemble some sort of a void, a limbo for lost souls if you will, from which there seems to be no way out. Consisting mostly of evocatively lit, melancholy faces that seem like waiting for a miracle to take them out of this suffocating space, The Corridor also presents sequences shot in cinema vérité fashion where we see the residents drinking and dancing in the common kitchen. Of course, there is also the typical central character, played by Sharunas Bartas himself, who seems to be unable to partake in the merriment. Conventional chronology is ruptured and reality and memory merge as Bartas cuts back and forth between the adolescent chronicles of the protagonist, marked by rebellion and sexual awakening, and his present entrapped self, unable to comprehend what this new found ‘freedom’ means. Essentially an elegy about the loss of a sense of ‘being’ and ‘purpose’, The Corridor remains an important film that earns a spot alongside seminal and thematically kindred works such as Paradjanov’s The Color of Pomegranates (1968) and Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975).
Few Of Us (1996)
Few of Us (1996) is perhaps the least political of the already highly noncommittal works of Sharunas Bartas. Not that this film does not base itself strongly on the political situation in Lithuania, but that the now-intimate backdrop of independent Lithuania is transposed onto a remote foothill in Siberia where a tribe called the Tolofars maintains a spartan life style. It is into this rugged, almost otherworldly land that the beautiful protagonist of the film (Yekaterina Golubeva) is air-dropped like an angel being relegated to the netherworld. She seems as isolated from the people of this land as the Tolofars are from the rest of the world. However, as indicated by the incessant cross cutting between the worn out terrain of the village and the contours on Golubeva’s face, this mysterious, hostile and unforgiving landscape is as much a protagonist of Bartas’ film as Golubeva is. With an eye for small and intricate changes in seasons, terrains and time of the day comparable to that of James Benning, Bartas pushes his own envelope as he lingers on eyes, faces and landscapes for seemingly interminable stretches of time. Each image of the film carries with itself an air of a still paining, vaguely familiar. All this sure does bring to surface the experimental and, I daresay, self-conscious nature of Bartas’ work, but what it also does is familiarize us with the hitherto alien and draw connection between this abstract representation of protagonist’s cultural disconnection in Tolofaria and the typical Bartas territory of desolate, directionless lives lead by the people of post-Soviet Lithuania.
A Casa (The House, 1997)
The House (1997) opens to the image of a mansion as the narrator reads a confessional letter written to his mother about their inability to communicate with each other. The house and mother are, of course, metaphors for the motherland that would be explored in the two hours that follow. It seems to me that The House is the film that Bartas finally comes to terms with the trauma dealt by the country’s recent past that he has consistently expressed in his work. Consequently, the film also seems like a summation of the director’s previous films (One could say that the characters from Bartas’ previous films reprise their roles here) and a melting pot of all the Tarkovsky influences that have characterized his work (especially the last four fictional works of the Russian). Shot almost entirely indoors, The House follows a young man carrying a pile of books as me moves from one room of the Marienbad-like mansion to the other, meeting various men and women, none of whom speak to each other and who might be real people of flesh and blood, shards of memory or figments of fantasy. The house itself might be an abstract space, as in The Corridor, representing the protagonist’s mind with its spatial configuration disoriented like the chessboard in the film. Furthermore, one also gets the feeling that Bartas is attempting to resolve the question of theory versus practice – cold cynicism versus warm optimism – with regards to his politics as we witness the protagonist finally burn the books, page by page, he had so far held tightly to his chest.
Sharunas Bartas’ chef-d’oeuvre and his most accessible work to date, Freedom (2000) is also one of the most pertinent films of the past decade. Taking off from the wandering trio setup of Three Days, Freedom begins with a chase scene right out of genre cinema transposed onto Bartas’ highly de-dramatized canvas. The two men and women seem to be illegal immigrants who are on the coast guard’s wanted list. If The House was national politics distilled into a claustrophobic setting, Freedom is the same being set in seemingly limitless open spaces. The most rigorous of all Bartas films, Freedom is the kind of film Tarkovsky might have made had he lived to see the new century. Like the Russian’s characters, the people in this film are all marginal characters (and are often aptly pushed from the centre of the frame towards its margins) who want to escape the oppressive, unfair politics of this world and become one with nature and the unassailable peace it seems to possess. Alas, like in Blissfully Yours (2002), they are unable to depoliticize their world and start anew. The tyrannical past is catching up with them, the present is at a stalemate and is rotting and there is no sight of the future anywhere. Bartas expands the scope of his usual investigation and deals with a plethora of themes including the artificiality and fickleness of national boundaries, the barriers that lingual and geographical differences create between people and the ultimate impermanence of these barriers and the people affected by it in this visually breathtaking masterwork.
Septyni Nematomi Zmones (Seven Invisible Men, 2005)
The most unusual of all Bartas films, the pre-apocalyptic Seven Invisible Men (2005) starts off like a genre movie – a bunch of robbers trying to evade the police after stealing and selling off a car. It is only after about half an hour, when one of them arrives at a farm that is near completely severed from the rest of the world, that the film moves into the world of Bartas. Seven Invisible Men is the most talkative, most rapidly edited and the most politically concrete of all the films by the director and that may precisely be the idea – to serve as a counterpoint to all the previous movies. All though there is too much talk in the film, rarely do they amount to meaningful conversations, bringing the characters back to the hopelessness of the director’s earlier works. Like Freedom, all the characters here are people living on the fringes of the society – con men and ethnic and religious minorities – who seem to have sequestered themselves with this settlement of theirs. All these characters seem to be trying to escape their agonizing past and the politics of the world that seems to give them no leeway in order to start afresh (The heist may have been the last attempt at escape), in vain. In the final few minutes that recall Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (1986), we see the house, in which the characters have been living in, burn down to dust. But, unlike Tarkovsky, it is Bartas’ cynicism that overwhelms and he sees his characters as ultimately self-destructive beings that have lost all control of their lives and hope for a better future.
Indigène d’Eurasie (Eastern Drift, 2010)
The trajectory of Bartas’ filmography, in a sense, runs anti-parallel to that of Béla Tarr, with whom the former shares a number of artistic, political and philosophical inclinations, and has moved from extreme stylization to rough-hewn naturalism, from near-total narrative abstraction to flirtation with generic structures, from semi-autobiographical meditations set against the backdrop of Soviet collapse to highly materialist tales of marginal lives in the Eurozone. (In fact, one could say that the exact tipping point occurs at Freedom.) Eastern Drift finds the filmmaker moving one step closer to conventional aesthetic as well as dramatic construction and follows Gena (Bartas himself), who is on the run after he knocks off his Russian boss after an altercation over a hefty sum of money. Even though the film has the appearance of a Euro-thriller, with the protagonist hopping from one major city of the continent to another, each of which regularly gets its token establishment shot (and all of which look very similar for the untrained eye), it actually moves against the grain the sub-genre. Unlike the traditional European action picture, in Eastern Drift movement – the prime action over which the narrative is founded – itself is problematized. A large part of the proceedings is made up of Gena trying to sneak in and out of buildings as well as countries and finding himself thwarted at almost every move. An antithesis to the utopianism of Eurozone and its myth of intra-continental mobility, Eastern Drift crystallizes and futhers Bartas’ preoccupation with suffocating national borders, although the scenario over which he builds his argument remains moot.
["Children Lose Nothing" - Sharunas Bartas' segment in Visions of Europe (2004)]
January 3, 2010
2009 has been one gold mine of a year for world cinema with so many great directors across the globe attempting, one last time, to register their name in the decades’ best list. Even if most of these films turn out to be minor works of major filmmakers, the sheer richness and variety it has brought within a small time span is remarkable. Here is the list of my favorite films of 2009 (in order of preference, with a tie at No. 10). Please note that the movies considered for this list were only the ones which had a world premiere in 2009. That means noteworthy films (some of which could have well made their way into this list) such as Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum (2008), Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) and Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo (2008) were not counted. Unfortunately, I have not seen films from some big names including Rivette’s Around A Small Mountain, Resnais’ Wild Grass, Campion’s Bright Star, Herzog’s My Son My Son, What Have Ye Done?, Farocki’s In Comparison, Noé’s Enter the Void, Denis’ White Material, Costa’s Ne Change Rien, Mendoza’s Lola and Kinatay, Reitman’s Up in the Air, Eastwood’s Invictus, Kashyap’s Gulaal, Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Coens’ A Serious Man. So, sadly, they would have to vie for this list later. And needless to say, the following list will most definitely shuffle and change with time.
1. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, USA)
“I don’t know whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy, but in any case it’s a masterpiece”, says one of the characters, self-referentially, in Godard’s A Woman is a Woman (1961). I’m tempted to say the same thing about Tarantino’s deceptively irreverent, endlessly enthralling and relentlessly inventive piece of bravura filmmaking. At once paying tribute to exploitative war movies and incriminating them, Tarantino’s swashbuckling “WW2-film film” is a war movie that ends all war movies. Absorbing as much from Truffaut as it does from Godard, Tarantino’s film is as potent and as personal as the “genre explosions” of the French directors. Essentially a mere medium of conversation between cinephiles on either sides of the film, Inglourious Basterds is the movie that seals the American auteur’s status as a contemporary giant of cinema and one that has the power to make its mark, deservedly, in our collective cultural vocabulary. With Inglourious Basterds, to steal from Michael Powell, Tarantino becomes the ventriloquist and his doll, the singer and the song, the painter and his palette, the pupil and the master.
2. The Maid (Sebastián Silva, Chile/Mexico)
A sister film, in some ways, to Jonathan Demme’s brilliant Rachel Getting Married (2008), Sebastián Silva’s The Maid is nothing short of a spiritual revelation at the movies. What could have been an one-note leftist tirade about Chile’s class system is instead elevated into the realm of human where one facial twitch, one stretch of silence and one impulsive word can speak much more than any expository monologue or contrived subplot. There is no simplification of human behaviour here, no easily classifiable moral categories and no overarching statement to which truth is sacrificed. Nor does Silva suspend his study of the classes to observe his characters. He merely lets the obvious stay in the background. And just when you think that Silva’s vision of the world is getting all too romantic, he delivers a fatal blow to shatter your smugness – a single, deceptively simple shot during the final birthday party that masterfully sums up everything from the irreconcilable, repressed tension that exists between classes in capitalistic societies to our adaptability as humans to live peacefully with each other despite socio-economic disparities.
3. Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal/France/Spain)
Rigorous but oh-so-tender, centenarian Manoel de Oliveira’s one-hour wonder Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl is a film in one and a half acts. Oliveira translates the work of Eça de Queiroz to the screen, running the 19th century tale of romance through the current economic landscape and harnessing the resultant anachronism to paint an achingly beautiful picture about the inability to transcend class, escape reality and lose oneself in art. Despite its decidedly Brechtian and ceaselessly self reflexive nature, Oliveira’s film is rife with moments of poignancy and touches of humour. Using double, triple and quadruple framing and achieving a mise-en-abyme of art and reality, Oliveira writes a ruminative essay on the impossibility of art and reality to merge, the confusion that exists between them and the classism that exists within and with respect to art. Flooded with references to art and art forms, Eccentricities is such a dense and intricate fabric of the arts that even the past is treated in a detached manner like a piece of art, where each image looks like a painting, each sound feels like a melody and each movement cries out: “cinema!”.
4. The Milk of Sorrow (Claudia Llosa, Peru/Spain)
Of all the recent movies that have attempted to acknowledge dark chapters in national histories and advocated looking forward to the future instead of crying over what is lost, perhaps, none is as sober, ethical and uncompromising as Claudia Llosa’s Golden Bear winner. Llosa inherits her tale from the terrorist atrocities that plagued Peru two decades ago (Inheritance being the prime motif of the film) but, subsequently, discards every possible opportunity for sensationalism or propaganda. Tightly framing the lead character, Fausta (Magaly Solier), within and against claustrophobic structures, doorways, photographs, windows, paintings, mirrors and walls, gradually varying the depth of focus along the movie to detach the protagonist and integrate her with her surroundings and using extremely long shots to dwarf her in vast opens spaces of the tranquil town, Llosa concocts a film of utmost narrative austerity and aesthetic rigor. Punctuating and contrasting these downbeat images of Fausta’s life are slice-of-life sequences from the town depicting various wedding rituals and parties which tenderly highlight Peruvian people’s open-hearted embracing of capitalism and their resolve to come out of the trauma of the past and move on with life.
5. The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, USA/Japan/Spain)
If Inglourious Basterds was a coup from within the system, Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control is an out-and-out war against the machine. The essential piece of cinema of resistance, The Limits of Control eschews simple genre classification and flips every ingredient of Hollywood’s conveyor belt products to surprise, appall, irritate and provoke us with each one of its moves. The complete absence of Jarmuschian brand of deadpan humour announces the film’s seriousness of intent. It is as if Jarmusch wants to establish once and for all that Hollywood does not equal American cinema and that the cinema that the former school marginalizes is truly alive and kicking. The Limits of Control is a film that can easily get on your nerves but, eventually, it succeeds in getting under your skin and evolving gradually to reveal how meticulously crafted it is. Using Cinematographer Christopher Doyle, production designer Eugenio Caballero and editor Jay Rabinowitz masterfully, Jarmusch creates a movie so meditative and relaxing that one feels exactly how William Blake (Johnny Depp) would have at the end of Dead Man (1995).
6. Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)
Porumboiu’s follow-up to one of the most hilarious comedies of the decade, 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), is a companion of sorts to Jarmusch’s film not only in the sense that both of them negate the function of the genre they are supposed to belong to, by completely de-dramatizing their narratives, but also because Porumboiu’s film, too, is a conflict between two types of cinema – the cinema of analytical contemplation represented by the detective-protagonist of the film (Dragos Bucur) and the cinema of thoughtless action represented by his ready-for-ambush boss (Vlad Ivanov). However, more concretely, Police, Adjective is an examination of how our own political and social systems, partly due to the rigidity of our written languages, end up dominating us and how individual conscience and social anomalies are effaced clinically in order to have the bureaucratic clockwork running smoothly. Like Bucharest, Porumboiu, often self-reflexively, sketches the portrait of a bland and pacific city that tries to ape the far west and project itself as more dynamic than it actually is. The film’s disparate themes crystallize deliciously in the final, side-splitting, Tarantino-esque set piece where we witness the police chief urging his subordinates to act by the book, literally.
7. Tetro (Francis Ford Coppola, Italy/Argentina/USA/Spain)
Tetro is a beautiful film. Not just in the way it looks, but in the sheer romance it has for a lost world. The only worthy B&W film of this year out of the four I saw (the other three being Haneke’s The White Ribbon, Villeneuve’s Polytechnique and Lu’s City of Life and Death, the last one being my candidate for the worst film of the year), Tetro is a wonderful expressionistic melodrama in the vein of Powell and Pressburger – figures whose films form the thematic and narrative focal point of this movie. Like many of the films mentioned in this list, but with more optimism, Coppola investigates the possibility of revival of the past and revelation of the obscured using art – movies, theatre and literature, in this case – employing a number of experiments with the film’s aspect ratio, colour and sound. Coppola also comments upon, nostalgically, the filmic medium’s ability to influence people to see cinema as a reflection of personal histories. But most importantly, Tetro is Coppola’s ritual of killing his patron-turned-authoritarian father (like his mentor Bertolucci did in The Conformist (1970)) – Hollywood – as his decisive farewell to industrial cinema and an autobiographical allegory about the obliteration of artistic vision by the alluring yet dangerous, powerful yet ephemeral flash of light called fame.
8. Vincere (Marco Bellocchio, Italy/France)
Writer-director Marco Bellocchio’s ballad, based on a nebulous part of fascist leader Benito Mussolini’s life, can teach those so-called historical dramas a thing or two about locating personal ideologies within collective history without being exploitative or pandering to pop demands. Bellocchio’s film is far from a detailed recreation of Mussolini’s political life. It is, in fact, a commentary upon such “detailed recreations” of history based on documents written by winners. Bellocchio’s formidable script and mise en scène keep probing and remarking upon the tendency of fascist systems to suppress histories – personal and national – and exploit popular media, especially the relatively young and emotionally powerful cinema, to blind people of truth and forge a faux reality – a theme underscored in Tarantino’s film too. What more? Bellocchio constructs the film exactly like one of those Soviet agitprop films – not by easy spoofing, but by retaining their spirit and rhythm – using rapid montage, expressionistic performances and operatic sounds. Be it common folk fighting in a cinema hall over a news reel or a bereaved mother breaking down during the screening of The Kid (1921), cinema registers its omnipresence and omnipotence in Bellocchio’s film.
9. Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, Australia)
The perfect antidote to the summer blockbuster, Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah is an extremely assured and undeniably moving piece of cinema that arrives, appositely, as the golden jubilee reboot to Herzog’s thematically kindred movie, Where the Green Ants Dream (1984). Cleverly relegating specific issues such as the Australian government’s intervention and relocation policies for the Aborigines to the background, Thornton frees his films of broad, propagandist political agendas, without ever making the film lack social exploration. With an extraordinary sound design, Thornton keeps the word count in the film to an absolute minimum, letting the stretches of silence shared by his lead characters speak for themselves. The film’s observations about banality of racism in contemporary Australia, exploitation of tribal art and its consequences, the effect of colonialism, especially due to Christian missionaries, on the Aboriginal culture and the ever growing chasm between the tribal and white life styles themselves are fittingly subordinated to the beautiful, unspoken love story that, essentially, forms the heart of the film.
10. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, France/Italy)
Let me dare to say this: Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet is either the most profound or the most pretentious movie of the year. For now, I choose the former. Audiard’s decidedly unflinching feature breaks free from the limitations of a generic prison drama and takes on multiple dimensions as the apolitical and irreligious protagonist of the film, Malik (played by Tahar Rahim), finds himself irreversibly entangled in ethnic gang wars within and outside the prison. A trenchant examination of religion as both a tool of oppression and a vehicle for political escalation, A Prophet is an audacious exploration of Muslim identity in the western world post-9/11. Although the plot developments may leave the viewer dizzy, it is easy to acknowledge how Audiard confronts the issues instead of working his way around it or making cheeky and superficial political statements. Strikingly juxtaposing and counterpointing Sufism and Darwinism in Malik’s search for identity, Audiard creates an immensely confident and nonjudgmental film that trusts its audience to work with the rich ambiguity it offers.
[EDIT: 7 Jan: Since it seems like The Beaches of Agnes had its premiere in 2008, I'm removing it from this list. That leaves exactly 10 movies on the list]