Cinema of Mexico


Otras Inquisiciones (The Exterminating Angel)

Cahiers du cinéma no. 145; July 1963.

The Exterminating Angel

I remember this sally of Rohmer’s: “Moullet, I know why you love Buñuel. It’s because both of you are slackers.” The greatest compliment of my life.

The title was Rivette’s idea. He told me that it was the title of a publication by a certain Borges. So, I read Borges afterwards.

This film, among the strangest and most audacious in the history of cinema, could’ve been made only on the momentum imparted by Viridiana, grand prize at Cannes in 1961, and, it seems, Last Year in Marienbad, grand prize at Acapulco in December 1961, awarded just before the shooting of this film in February-March 1962. Not that Resnais influenced Buñuel in any way. But the commercial success of Marienbad, combined with the similarity of characters, setting, the related mystery and the apparent incomprehensibility, allowed Buñuel to imagine a commercial future for his old project The Castaways of Providence Street.

The accidental resemblance to Marienbad stops at this superficial level since the two films are as different as they can be: one is extra-temporal and extra-social; the other is a testimony to our times and our society. One describes the psychological world; the other describes the real world and, if the subjective has a prominent role to play in it, we cannot appreciate the work without resorting to certain fundamental, objective and unquestionable interpretations. Finally, if Marienbad is a point of departure, The Exterminating Angel is a point of arrival in cinema history as well as in the career of its creator.

Even so, it’s important that the viewer is thrown into the film without any warning. The work seeks to be like the life that man encounters at birth without any reference whatsoever. And any warning, even an evasive one, places the meaning of the work in a particular territory that can’t be confirmed as its own before the end of the film. Is the film a materially-explicable prank played by the Nobiles? We can suppose so when the lady of the house tells her servant not to let the bear into the living room as planned because one of the guests doesn’t like jokes. Or when the valet appears to deliberately spill the stew. Is it a prank played by Buñuel? We could think so. Many people think so too and believe, not without reason, that it discredits the film. But that’s to forget that a prank can have deeper meaning. The greatest artists, including the most modest and the most personal, like to conceal the depth and the personal quality of their work under the guise of a prank. But, here, the fundamental explanation isn’t a prank; it’s one of the secondary explanations. Is it an intimate reverie like Marienbad, a symbolic, parabolic or a metaphoric film? And which symbols, which parable and which metaphor are we talking about?

The viewer’s uncertainty and hesitation produce in him the anxiety that haunts him every day and from which the discovery of the Fundamental Secret in the very last shots delivers him. The film’s structure hence models itself on the developmental structure of the human mind, from childhood to maturity. Maturity is an individual conquest. No doubt that, to arrive there, one must make a personal effort of breaking through to the Secret that the film’s apparent incomprehensibility and its prankish appearance weakly guard.

The Exterminating Angel is hence a detective film, the greatest of detective films, since its object is not the discovery of the culprit – although, here too, at the end we discover a culprit the nature of whose identity is crucial – but the discovery of the nature of our human and social condition and its motivations. Through the secret of the enigma and the ascent to knowledge, we discover the secret to happiness.

This need for a protective prank explains Buñuel’s attitude: “The best explanation of The Exterminating Angel is that, reasonably, there is none.” There is none, reasonably, but there are some, unreasonably: the film being cosmic and synthetic, it contains the rational and the irrational at once, one inside the other. Reasonable explanations that we are right in giving apply to a world alien to reason. Like the ending of El and Nazarin, even L’âge d’or and Archibald, the whole of The Exterminating Angel can be explained by a mix of reason and affectivity, demonstration and poetry, which allows Buñuel to declare that there’s no conscious intention here. In his works, reason is linked to instinct, and that’s why his film is the first truly abstract film and why it remains lively at the same time. The Exterminating Angel is the first screen adaptation of The Spirit of the Laws (or of Discourse on the Method, or Ethics, or Principia, as you wish), but it’s The Spirit of the Laws by way of Henry Miller.

The Exterminating Angel indeed has all the trappings of a theorem, but it’s not one, it doesn’t aspire to be one, as Buñuel mentions. It’s that there’s no logical continuity in the meaning of its actions, no dramatic scaffolding at the level of characters and their relationships or their oppositions. The work is made of straight lines – essential elements, relatively reasonable and explicable – interspersed with several broken line segments – hard to explain, secondary elements – that seem to contradict the former on a purely logical level, but reinforce them on a superior level, firstly because their meaning is similar and secondly because their lack of a superficial relationship to a theorem eliminates all impression of didacticism.

These straight lines can be defined with the help of two keys, which are also the only keys to the film and which offer an unquestionable and objective character foreign to the rest of the film.

The first is that the impossibility of leaving (or entering, which amounts to the same) is to be explained not by a physical reason, but by the absence of will in a human being living in a particular milieu, a definite society, who can never follow a personal line of conduct, nor stray away from beaten paths.

The second has to do with a metaphor based on the rule of cross-multiplication: just as they are subjected to a slow and complete degradation of themselves when they can’t leave the Nobiles’ residence, the guests will be victims of a similar degradation when they can’t leave the church. In other words, what takes place at the Nobile residence, in fact, takes place at the church. The fear of censorship seems to have necessitated this metaphor, avoided in L’âge d’or, which was a more biased but less disguised adaptation of The 120 Days of Sodom.

This rule of cross-multiplication is made clear by the impression the viewer has of both sections of the film and their mutual relationship. The two sections, by construction, are placed on the same level, with the difference that the first is all about length and precision while the second is about the allusive and imprecise force of its brevity, the evocative mystery proper to its elliptical nature. If we indicate the living-room section by L and the church section by C, we obtain the following relation, whose numbered quality doesn’t seem to take away from artistic reality too much:

Since L = C, we have,

L (Degradation x 84’) = C [(21 x Degradation) x 4’]

The elliptical brutality of the last section and the speed with which we arrive at the renewal of the phenomenon of avolition gives us the impression that it’s going to return with ten or twenty times the force.

Is the relationship between the two sections located on the level of a superior and meaningful reality that one Cahiers writer called Brechtian or on the level of concrete reality, of psychological evolution? Is there an evolution to be traced in the alienated characters who liberate themselves only to find themselves in another, more serious alienation? Here, we are reduced to interpretation. The two possibilities seem to be well-founded in their own way. The first section of the film tells us that man has no escape if he locks himself up in society’s rules, opposed to the imperative rules of nature, which can manifest themselves within society’s rules only in a barbaric and secret form in direct contradiction with the spirit of these social rules.

The second part reveals the profound cause of these social rules: religion; this time, the exterminating angel of the Bible has turned against the faithful. The only way to escape this grip is to take a step back, by a kind of conjuration, to erase the past through the purification of passions Aristotle spoke about. It’s necessary to pull out evil by its roots so that purification can happen, not at the branch level, namely social reforms which are necessarily ineffective, but at the level of religious reformation, without which the degradation of man will persist, just as social troubles will persist outside, as the last shot clearly indicates.

This message isn’t wholly new as an idea. It’s simple, unsophisticated. It might seem extraneous to us who believe ourselves to be free of religion’s stranglehold. But the messages of Griffith, Welles – whose Rosebud is very similar – are of the same simplicity and they are also biased. What counts, in fact, is not the meaning or the intrinsic and discernible value of the message, but the force with which the filmmaker expresses it and his success in making us accept it as he expresses it on screen.

Now, the presentation of the film in the form of a rebus, justified by the mysterious character of concrete reality, compels the viewer, through the same process by which he has recognized the meaning of the film, to “accept” it as the product of an intimate collaboration with the filmmaker. Had the facts been presented more crudely, without any ellipse, we wouldn’t have bought into it since our participation wouldn’t have been required. So much so that the rigour of “instinctive reasoning” here is admirable and flawless: in eighty minutes, all the various forms of man’s alienation and degradation are envisaged, to the point of making us completely forget that they could be biased. We get the impression of a synthetic and cosmic study, too perfect to be false or even incomplete, even less susceptible to be replaced.

The broken line segments pose a problem: isn’t the outside world, represented by the servants, the people, and the police, also alienated since it suffers from an inverse but nevertheless comparable avolition? Aren’t there other parallel, or opposed, forms of alienation taking shape under the influence of these social rules?

The filmmaker’s dark humour manifests itself in many dissimilar forms. It’s either expressed by the characters or it is expressed by the filmmaker at the expense of his characters, whether they are masters or servants, when they claim to make us laugh.

Is it the raft of the Medusa or the ark of Noah, whose sheep were also destined for consumption, in the last shot, or do they evoke the herd of the faithful to be hoodwinked? Triple ambiguity.

Even when they contradict each other, these elements have a half-logical, half-affective meaning that has nothing symbolic about it.

The Exterminating Angel is the only film where there can be no symbols: a symbol is the sign of something abstract located in a concrete reality. Now, everything here is located on a meaningful reality which claims to take the appearance of concrete reality only to satisfy a dramatic necessity – the viewer must make the effort himself to return the film back to the level of reality it’s located in – and to respond to the demands of a modesty which is one of the dominant qualities of the work.

In contrast to Les Abysses, where Papatakis endlessly repeats the same shocking images to the point that they don’t shock anyone anymore, in The Exterminating Angel, Buñuel softens all the diverse actions which, on reflection, turn out to be of monstrous oddity. He arrives there respecting the hard times specific to all life, hard times that are not dead times because they are nonetheless bestowed with meaning. He arrives there eliminating all dramatization and often resorting to a suggestive and less inhumane ellipse.

It’s that there is no misanthropy in Buñuel. Even men alienated by clerical society aren’t contemptible and their efforts, either to liberate themselves or to save their dignity within these social rules, are evoked here with an attention, a respect devoid of any contempt, with an almost-Christian humility.

It is indeed remarkable that the most anti-religious of filmmakers (The Exterminating Angel, in view of its various mocking titles, its construction right from the credits on, and its meaning, is an essentially religious film, but also the most powerful work ever created against religion) – the most anti-religious in “content”, let’s make it clear – is one of the most Christian in “form”. Following Nazarin (1958) and Viridiana (1961), The Exterminating Angel is the third part of the triptych based on the principle of the Christian parable which, under the guise of a contemplative chronicle, justifies this perpetual, distant and inquisitive aerial survey of the camera and places the film on a superior level, that of facts and characters, which sometimes surprises the viewer, accustomed as he is to the actor, to the point of getting bored or falling asleep, with good reason or otherwise, before these chronicles.

The acting style and the simple, monotonic diction so dear to Buñuel seem to coincide perfectly with the principle of the parable film and the principle of repetition particular to a subject exempt almost in its entirely from any progression. The convergent accumulations produce an unseen poetry of reiteration without a particular shot ever being redundantly used. Taken to its conclusion, this poetry attains the level of fascination1.

Buñuel’s power thus lies in producing emotion and in ending up with the greatest efficiency through unusual means that are apparently at loggerheads with the film’s goal: a classical cinema based on acting and aesthetics gives way to a modern cinema based, as I see it, on the Idea and its multiple poetic possibilities, whose success, rare amidst many failed attempts, is of an incomparable degree and proportional to the originality and the difficulty of the undertaking.

For those who blindly consider this new art as the sign of an impossibility of expressing oneself through means more common to the “essence of cinema”, let’s remember that this definitive film, third part of Buñuel’s triptych of parables and third part of his dark humour triptych following El (1952) and The Criminal Life of Archibald de la Cruz (1956), also reprises certain para-surrealist themes and reveals in the dream sequences a visionary power and an imagination comparable to those of Murnau’s Faust and applied to an entirely new material in the rest of the film. That’s why, better than Faust, The Exterminating Angel constitutes one of the most sublime creations of human genius.

 

1Contrary to its reputation, The Exterminating Angel is not difficult to understand, it’s difficult to like: our admiration is a product of the perfection of a “dramaturgy of de-dramatization” as original as it is discreet in its effectiveness. In this hardly-treaded domain, the construction is of an invisible rigour and audacity comparable to that of The Young One in the classical domain. In the American pure cinema, we were frequently aware of the ideas behind shot changes; here, a similar invention takes place with the change of shots, which are in fact dictated by ideas of succession of ideas, by ideas of succession of subjects.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Roma

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is no doubt full of memories. But the question is whose? Made as a tribute to Cuarón’s childhood nanny, Roma unfolds solely through the perspective of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the indigenous-origin housekeeper of a middle-class white family living in the Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City. The family stands for the director’s own and one of the four young children represents Cuarón himself. But we don’t know which one. Roma is not about him or any of his family members. Unlike in Spielberg or Fellini, it’s not the child’s experience that the film intends to recreate. Instead, the film presents the life of Cleo as conceived by the adult Cuarón. This results in a greatly sympathetic and reverential portrait, but the sympathy and reverence often cloud the humanity of Cleo.

One’s intellectual reaction to Roma might depend on where one stands on the issue of appropriation in art: is it right for a white, male filmmaker such as Cuarón to narrate the life of a native woman? I think Cuarón’s decision to hinge a film based on his personal life to the point of view of someone outside it is admirable and shows a humility and maturity surprisingly absent in the most intelligent of filmmakers. Roma makes it amply clear that this is not about Cuarón or his family, even though they are at the centre of it all and have their own cross to bear. It’s the story of Cleo over one tumultuous year.

At the same time, the life that Cuarón imagines for Cleo is curiously circumscribed by his own limited perspective of it. Cleo has little life outside the family and, whenever we see her away from home, it’s in service of the larger narrative thread regarding her romantic betrayal and pregnancy. Played by a non-professional, Cleo barely speaks except for the functional chitchat with the children and never expresses herself. This, of course, could be an empirical reality Cuarón has lived, but he extends this trait to her life outside work as well. Cleo has no inner life and her interaction with the other maid of the house, Adela, are almost always responses to Adela’s remarks. Political and social reality are strictly in the background and Cuarón limits the film strictly to the description of an everyday, emotional reality. We never know, quite intentionally, what relation Cleo bears to others of her community and station, or what she thinks of the protests going on in the city.

Much of Roma exhibits this disconcerting dual-perspective. Cuarón fills the film not with general cultural artefacts of the period but very specific memories – the toys sold outside movie theatres, two men taking shelter from rain under a small protrusion on the street, the tune of a wandering flute seller, stuffed heads of dogs displayed like trophies, the fanfare of the military marching through streets, a Fellini-like forest fire following an evening of revelry – so specific that they couldn’t be anyone else’s but Cuarón’s. Outside of an unsettling shot of earthquake debris fallen over a baby on a ventilator, there’s no sense of Cleo’s memories finding a place in the film. This tension between two incomplete perspectives is never resolved: Cuarón’s commendable intent to give Cleo the narrative space is undermined by the limitation of his vantage point. He can only imagine Cleo as a noble sufferer giving her all to his family – a stance that runs the risk of dehumanizing the character.

Given the “unmarketable” subject matter, the acclaim for the film on either side of the Atlantic is surprising and perhaps even welcome. Roma has the logistical muscle of Hollywood and the calculated reserve of an art film. The long-shot filmmaking with real sound, the use of non-professional actors, the stoic rhythm enabled in part by slow pan shots, measured editing patterns and muted dramatic progression is complemented by the spectacle that the film’s expert set-pieces offer (the scene at the beach is as breath-taking as the opening sequence of Gravity). Too bad that the space left behind by Cuarón’s conscious self-effacement isn’t filled by what he wishes would fill it.

BlacKkKlansman

At the beginning of BlacKkKlansman, a clip from Gone with the Wind is cut to a fake-archival harangue about miscegenation delivered by a white supremacist (played by Alec Baldwin), whom we never see again. The point is blunt; that Gone with the Wind was racist. This cut-and-dried approach is not new to director Spike Lee, whose previous work Chiraq used a range of in-your-face agitprop devices to animate a classical text and imbibe it with a welcome urgency. But here that MO falls flat, applied as it is to a material that has other ambitions. Inspired by a true story, BlacKkKlansman follows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel), a Black detective from Colorado Springs who manages to get a membership to the Ku Klux Klan.

The year is 1972 and, as his first mission, Ron has to attend a speech by Kwame Ture to sense the response of the black students who’ve invited him. At first ambiguous, Lee’s attitude towards the speech is clarified in the precious way he edits it to show its power and influence over the awakening of Ron’s own Black-consciousness. It’s an abrupt transformation for a character that we’ve just been introduced to as a man who knows what he’s doing. Lee’s film proceeds by several such fickle happenings. The supremacists of the KKK that the Ron’s stand-in, Flip (Adam Driver), meets are all intentionally cartoons. They whoop and holler at a screening of The Birth of a Nation – a film geek’s idea of redneck entertainment. There’s a lot of racist slur thrown around whose purpose is not realism but provocation.

Poised between the Black Panthers and the KKK is the Colorado Springs police department Ron is part of. While the racism internal to the department is a talking point, the police force finally comes off as a group of well-meaning, tolerant individuals marred by a few bad apples. There’s an interesting idea about race as performance in the film, but the film’s thrust is towards an emphatic reassertion of identities. Early on, Ron’s assurance that the talk about race war among the Black students is just that, empty talk, is matched with Flip’s comment that the KKK members are blowhards who won’t dare to get into action. Just as one thinks the film is setting up a false and dangerous equivalence, Lee cuts between initiation rituals at the Klan and a gathering of Black students listening to a testimony about the lynching of Jesse Washington. The idea is that the two congregations are fundamentally, qualitatively different: one is about a violent assertion of power and the other is about memory and resistance. The blossoming of Flip’s Jewish consciousness when faced with ghastly antisemitic speech reiterates the notion: that minority identity politics is a defensive reaction to the threat of majoritarian aggression.

Lee is nothing if not topical and BlacKkKlansman is wrapped in a presentist perspective whose target is the current American government. Ron is warned about David Duke’s attempts to become mainstream through politics, the Klan members rail against PC culture, and slogans about making America great abound. After the film wraps up its excuse for a plot, scenes from the 2017 far-right rally in Charlottesville are played: the tiki torch march, Duke hailing the renewal of the right, the car attack and, finally, Trump claiming that both sides are equally condemnable, clarifying Lee’s primary reason for making this film. As the final shot, an upside-down American flag becomes black and white, in case you just woke up.

Que Viva Mexico

Cahiers du cinéma no. 70; April 1957.

Que viva Mexico

            I regret the prudence of this text. The most complex emotions I speak about here aren’t defined, for they are linked to Eisenstein’s sexuality, a delicate subject I didn’t want to broach.

Few among Eisenstein’s laudators hold the fragmentary versions of Que viva Mexico in high esteem. Time in the Sun is no exception to this severity which is certainly justifiable, but only partly true: discovering the work of the greatest Slavic filmmaker through his theories on the montage of attractions, we lose sight of the essential. Our critics can’t recognize the art of the metteur en scène outside of some pretty images, the latter having handed over the responsibility of curating his work to stooges, to friends of banality. This attitude seems excessive to me. It betrays a distrust in the personality of the artist, it’s not paying heed to the most important aspect: that Eisenstein filmed all the shots in his work himself. By limiting the auteur of Potemkin to his aesthetic experiments, one unfairly categorizes him among the great academicians of cinema, the ones we venerate with an indifference at once respectful and contemptuous.

Without trying to defend the editor Marie Seton, one must call out the ingratitude of this work which consists of selecting the best bits of a genius creator and assembling them while seeking to be both faithful and logical. Skilled or careless, such work always lends itself to criticism. The regrets we have for great works lost forever shouldn’t blind us from what we do have. Que viva Mexico marks a turning point, a decisive step: it’s a rupture with certain figures of style, a sketch for deeper quests, which Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible will push to perfection. Moreover, Mrs. Seton, faithful collaborator of the auteur and respectful of his intention, had practically every shot filmed at her disposal if not every take: kilometres of celluloid have enriched the Mexican stock of some companies and some more have been the object of montages. Thunder over Mexico, an admirable film whose knowledge serves as a necessary complement to the viewing of Time in the Sun, Eisenstein in Mexico, Kermesse funebre etc. We can, I think, show our enthusiasm without being ashamed of our initial reaction.

The median line of this gigantic fresco on the history of Mexican civilization is the return to primitive liberty that the revolution of 1910 will give sanction to once and for all. By dividing his film into five parts, Eisenstein sought to throw into relief the contrast between the various stages of the evolution of the Mexican nation. But the final work gives a lie to this primitive construction: it’s monolithic. No opposition, no break in tone across the diversity of actions being offered. The method is similar to each episode, the one where the young peons are atrociously trampled upon, or the one where the curious residents of Tehuantepec sing of their joy and their love. It’s rather in the art, the Eisensteinian furia that we can find a revolutionary value. Spanish capitalism and European beliefs aren’t the targets here. Instead of boxing himself into some criticism, the auteur accepts all the facts and gestures he describes as a given; he seeks to extract all substance from them without any emotional or political consideration. With great interest, he favours the most complete manifestations of the individual, of people’s power, of mass movement as well as religious belief. Through these contradictory engagements, he paves the way for more serious, more complex problems that these lowly quarrels over doctrine can’t broach. Therein lies perhaps one of the principal reasons for the disagreement with Upton Sinclair, a down-to-earth personality who had for his goal the systematic exploration of exploitation.

The essential feature of Eisenstein’s genius lies in the poetic structure of his work. He is, first and foremost, a poet. But it must be admitted that poetry resides not only in the choice of angles and the plastic quality. Beauty, which creates truth here, goes much beyond formal beauty. The smallest human gestures, the most banal objects are transformed into a state which, more faithful to nature, gives them their deepest meaning. More than the best specialists of intimism, the master of cinematic rhetoric proves himself capable of capturing all the graces, all the nuances of a smile, of rendering the ambiguous expressions of old matrons, the loving tenderness of young Indios. And what richness, what originality, there where another would’ve given in to easy exoticism: bull-fighting, symphony of ripped cactii, monuments of Aztec land, the two lovers daydreaming in a hammock, which an enrapturing camera movement soon hides with a play of leaves and shadows. Across this vast overview of the whole of Mexico, this patchwork rich in virtuosities, we can discern a precise enough orientation of the mise en scène that fortunately contrasts with the fundamental modesty of the film.

Under the reassuring guise of a documentary, Que viva Mexico traces the diary of a tortured genius in a way (on this subject, refer to the excellent study by the same Marie Seton focusing on biographical problems). No other genre than this one, opposed to fiction, could have burst open the intimate drama. With a greater intensity and exhaustiveness, it lets us experience the various attempts of the individual to integrate himself to his material, to become one with that which is perfectly opposed to him.

I firmly believe that no other film – and this one doesn’t get there during the screening either – discharges on the viewer such a surge of images and objects, as diverse and oppressive through their dizzying succession (which appears to have a source other than the arbitrary editing): communion with all the elements, the earth especially, the cold and lifeless stone, which a piece of film suddenly reveals to be loaded with a comparable substance. Sometimes this obsessive tendency is pursued to the letter: the trampling and burial of the rebellious peons, the face of the Indio who surfaces from the shadow and becomes one with the ancient statue. This coexistence of man and the most primitive element, a theme common to all great poets, bears a relation to the religious act. The profusion of material that constantly circumscribes individuals attains its peak in the last episode, this mad dance where extremes meet, where life and death become one for eternity, in an enthusiastic reunion. The richness of the spectacle, the omnipresence of the camera, and these shots which seem to give in under the weight of their content, to express the frenzy of the world, become superficial attractions, quick to conjure the inner malady the creator suffers from. It is to the most exterior form of the object that conscience gets attached to: I want to talk about this aesthetic of “eminences”, so often seen here like in Eisenstein’s later films. Doesn’t it denote an almost pathological desire to make the viewer physically feel some of the most complex emotions?

We must also confront the noblest part of our auteur’s genius with his sense of cinematic mathematics. It is from this conflict, from this duality, which some very subtle elements keep us from (I will only cite the plastic perfection of certain scenes, presented in a new light by a pathological love for the human skin) that the true work is born. As he says himself: “In art, dialectic takes as its base a very curious “binary unity”. A work of art touches you with its double construction: a spontaneous ascent to the highest peaks of lucidity and a simultaneous penetration, discernible by the formal conception, into the deepest layers of the sensual soul. The opposition between these two currents creates the remarkable internal tension that characterizes formal unity and true art. Outside of that, there is no true work of art.”1

 

1[Translator’s Note] The quote as translated by Jay Leyda in Film Form: The dialectic of works of art is built upon a most curious “dual-unity.” The affectiveness of a work of art is built upon the fact that there takes place in it a dual process: an impetuous progressive rise along the lines of the highest explicit steps of consciousness and a simultaneous penetration by means of the structure of the form into the layers of profoundest sensual thinking. The polar separation of these two lines of flow creates that remarkable tension of unity of form and content characteristic of true art-works. Apart from this there are no true art-works.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

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.

(Images Courtesy: IMDb, The Auteurs, Screen Daily)

[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]

Los Olvidados (1950) (aka The Young And The Damned)
Luis Buñuel
Spanish

Watch out, here’s the mangy dog. Look, he’s coming. That’s it. I’m falling into the black hole. I’m alone. Alone! As always, boy, as always…

 

los-olvidadosIf there is a synonym for “iconoclasm” in cinema, it might well be Luis Buñuel. It’s almost as if it is a need for him to go against conventions and established practices, – social, cultural and cinematic – pick out their weak points and hit them so hard that their absurdities are exposed. I’m far from being qualified to make general statements (including the above) about Buñuel, but the few films I’ve watched of him provide a more than clear picture about his role as a cinema pioneer and a social critic. In the legendary debut work Un Chien Andalou (1929), Buñuel and Sali present us a plethora of images – ones that would be termed “Lynchian” nowadays – that refuse temporal and spatial continuity on which popular cinema thrived on at that time. Apart from a filmmaker’s impulse to break stereotypes, what Un Chien Andalou showed us was the way we looked at movies and the elements of cinema that we had taken for granted. The conventional viewer, who tries to assemble the images into some form of theme or narrative, would invariably fail.

Buñuel’s follow up to the first authoritative surrealist film, L’Âge D’or (1930) also shattered conventions, but of a different kind. Apart from employing an experimental structure of the script, Luis Buñuel lashes out at the ultra-prudish morals of the hypocritical aristocracy and our own obsession with sex. Fraught with perplexing and often teasing images, L’Âge D’or confirmed Buñuel’s position as an auteur and more importantly, as a genuine firebrand. His definitive comeback film, which he made in Mexico after years of puzzling silence, Los Olvidados (1950) is no less unorthodox.  After turning Hollywood and Expressionist form of filmmaking inside out in his first two features, it looks like Buñuel had deliberately waited for the next big film movement to establish itself. With Neo-realism rising to power after the war, backed by many critics and theorists, it was but a opportune moment for enter the scenario and create chaos.

Los Olvidados opens with the following lines:

“Almost every capital, like New York, Paris, London, hides behind its wealth, poverty-stricken homes where poorly-fed children, deprived of health or school, are doomed to criminality. Society tries to provide a cure. Success for its efforts remains very limited. The future is not bound to the present: The day will come when children rights are respected. Mexico, large modern city, is no exception to the rule. This film shows the real life. It’s not optimistic. The solution to this problem is left to the forces of progress.”

Following this declaration of depiction of reality, Buñuel cuts to the streets where we see a bunch of noisy kids playing. The setting is apt for another neorealist feature – kids on the streets, the scorching heat and images of massive reconstruction. Los Olvidados follows the life of Pedro, a street urchin and the other children of the locality he spends his time with –  Jaibo, the eldest of the lot who ultimately shapes Pedro’s life, Ojitos aka Small Eyes, a lost kid from the country side and Julian, the only “responsible” person in the gang. The film’s content proceeds from being raw, to cruel, to immoral, to misanthropic and culminates in traumatizing despair.

The older people in Los Olvidados are either sick, perverted, physically challenged or drunk. And the young are no good. But their worlds are not, by any stretch of imagination, mutually exclusive. The youth abstain from responsibility and abuse their agility and power. They could easily be labeled Les Enfants Terrible and Mexico, no country for old men. However, there are no angels in Buñuel’s land. The hypocritical seniors, on the other hand, judge them in plurality. They carry on with their old traditions and spend time cheating each other and cursing the younger ones (The blind Don Carmelo, the first victim of the brats’ “ultraviolence”, supplements his street music with his witch-doctor act). The only neutral elements of the film – the police and the judiciary, possibly representing the bourgeoisie – spend time philosophizing about poverty and the urgent need to eradicate it. This isn’t just a generation gap. What we have here is two competing and almost internecine worlds that refuse to conform.

Buñuel applies magnanimous amounts of violence – both simulated and otherwise – to the already unnerving realism of Mexico streets that is sure to make stomachs churn, especially now that CG has made us numb to everyday violence. But Buñuel’s violence is all the more unsettling, than say A Clockwork Orange (1971), because imminence of its possibility. Kubrick’s mystical and often anti-realistic setting prevents the barbarism of the Droogs to seep into the present and the film itself is, at its best, prophetic. Buñuel, on the other hand, exploits the neo-realist premise to situate the events in the tangible present and, as the opening statement of the film says, universalize the hypothesis. The fact that the victims are the violence are the physically challenged, the “morally” good and children makes it exceptionally scandalous to bourgeois sensibilities. Coexisting with the neorealist wave was film-noir craze where (also) the grey heroes never hesitated to pull the trigger unwarrantably. But even there, the victims themselves were like the protagonists – always carrying with them a fair reason to get killed – thus causing no harm to the existing moral framework.

But Buñuel’s world isn’t an appeasing aquarium which can be gazed at from a safe distance. He gets close to the characters, much more than the neo-realists, even giving us glimpses of their dreams but always eschewing psychoanalysis. Nor does he have one-to-one relation between images and their meaning. The chickens that appear throughout the movie may be a symbol that stands for some deeper meaning or a token for entry into the surreal from the real or plainly, a chicken. Like the eye-slitter of Un Chien Andalou or the cow in the bedroom gag of L’Âge D’or, Buñuel shocks us with one inexplicable image after the other, eventually pushing us to a “zone of no reasoning”, after which one just has to accept the reality that he gives us without questions. “This film shows the real life” says the title monologue. “Reality” here is tricky. It is Buñuel’s reality. He is happy to indulge himself into reality that is not just skin deep. And this is where Buñuel departs from and slays Neorealism.

los-olvidadosThe children in the classic Neo-realist films were sympathetic and often pawns of fate or power plays. Buñuel’s Pedro is also a product of his environment and the prejudices against him. But that does not mean all of Buñuel’s kids are sympathy-magnets. Most of them are, in fact, instigators of social disturbances that the “neo-realist kids” are subjected to. Buñuel breaks away from that “objective gaze” of the Italian pioneers and takes us on a tour into the subconscious world of his protagonists. Moreover, Buñuel questions the moral integrity of its protagonists, or rather does away with that concern completely (Buñuel apparently wanted to put an orchestra as the backdrop to some major scenes which would have broken another tenet of the Italians). But all this subversiveness isn’t just a product of a desperate need to break rules. What Buñuel does here is, like he did in his first two movies, that he exposes the inherent flaws of a cinema movement. In other words, Los Olvidados is a critique of a way of filmmaking written in the form of a film.  Buñuel takes up neo-realism in order to explode it from within and boy, does he succeed! In one of the greatest shots in film history, Pedro, in his reformatory, throws an egg at the soberly observing camera. – An in-your-face advice given by the director asking the neo-realists to cease the nonparticipation and do something about it all. Buñuel has driven the final nail into the coffin of Neo-realism.