Category: Foreign Art House


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Life is as much defined by loss as it is by growth and experience. We lose relationships, our youth, our hair, and, if we get old enough, our memories which are the very nature of our existence begin to fade. Learning to deal with these losses is a defining element of the life experience, and the most successful lives are charted by facing these troubles and persevering. But there are the losses that we can move past: losing a girlfriend, the death of an elderly parent, getting fired from a job; and then there are the losses that create black holes at the center of our very being. The emptiness consumes our entirety and we are broken possibly for the rest of our lives. No film has explored that type of loss with such raw precision as 1993’s Blue from Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski as part of his French “Three Colors” trilogy.

There are few fears more intense than the death of a child. Even for the childless, the safety and well-being of children is paramount, and when children die of cancer or in school shootings or at the hands of a serial predator, it sparks our deepest existential fears. If children, particularly those too young to yet be corrupted by the world, can suffer the pains and cruelties of this world, then the idea of a benign and caring creator seems laughably unlikely. And if you lose both your child and your husband at once, what reason could you have for continuing in a world intent on taking those things which matter above all else? By the end of Blue, it’s impossible to avoid that question ever again.

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(As some of you may remember, I made a vow to stop reviewing all of the movies that I watched for my blog a while back. And that still holds true. I decided to only review films that I give an “A” or an “A+” too because I just don’t have time to write 1000 words about all of the other movies that I watch. And the “A” and “A+” films are films that I’m going to have plenty of substantive and, hopefully, interesting things to say about. Anyways, this is the first film to get an “A” since I made that decision, so here we go. I’m probably rusty at this.)

I’m only 25 years old, and I have already lost countless of hours of sleep thinking of what could have been and what I should have done differently. I don’t necessarily believe that my life is one charted primarily in regret, but there is much in my life that I would do different given the chance. Life is short, and it’s getting shorter every day; throw my innate impatience into the mix, and it’s easy to see why I am tortured by every day that I don’t achieve something magnificent. Plenty of films (and an occasional great one) deal with the disappointment of old age and life poorly spent. But few films deal with the emptiness of that revelation in such stark and powerful terms as 2013’s The Great Beauty, the Best Foreign Language Academy Award winning film from Italy’s Paolo Sorrentino. A visual and emotional tour-de-force, The Great Beauty is a modern Italian masterpiece in the Fellini vein.

After three years of running this blog, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about great Italian cinema, it’s that narrative is secondary to “experience.” Emotions and the evocation of a specific state of mind or place is what defines much of the great Italian cinema. The Bicycle Thief is a transcendentally melancholic experience that evokes the crushing poverty of post-World War II Rome.  Cinema Paradiso captures the wonder films can instill in us when we’re young as well as the beauty (and poverty) of Sicily. And no film has captured the mercurial charm of the creative process as well as Fellini’s 8 1/2. And, The Great Beauty is one of the great cinematic statements on regret and old-age packed with some of the most gorgeous cinematography this side of Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder.

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Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is a celebrated Italian journalist and novelist that has just celebrated his 65th birthday with a hedonistic extravaganza of Rome’s social elite that would rival any of Ancient Rome’s most debauched orgies. But despite his life of luxury and total ease, Jep is not a happy man. He wrote his first novel, an instant classic, when he was a young man and has written another book since. And his interviews may be among Italy’s most read and in its most respected magazines, but it also involves him interviewing “artists” who act simply involves stripping naked and running head-first into brick walls. After the woman who inspired his first novel dies, Jep suddenly realizes he hasn’t done anything meaningful with his life in thirty years, and that all of the people he associates himself with are as empty and shallow as he is.

What makes The Great Beauty different from other films that deal with an old man who gets old and realizes his life has raced him by is that there’s absolutely nothing feel-good or redemptive about this film. The Great Beauty is not a film about Jep’s attempts to regain control of his life. It’s about his slowly dawning realization that his life has become without meaning and that he doesn’t really have the energy to correct this course. The only person he finds in his life with any emotional honesty and sincerity is the 43 year old stripper daughter of a heroin-addicted old friend. And, Jep quickly discovers that he can’t find the redemption in Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli) that he needs. The Great Beauty, like Synecdoche, New York, before it is a film that forces the viewer to confront his own mortality and that when we die, none of the things we’ve done will be there to comfort us. We will only have the things we haven’t done there to cause us pain.

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Toni Servillo’s masterfully understated performance is the glue holding this whole film together. When The Great Beauty begins to meander (rarely to its detriment), Toni Servillo’s natural mercurial charm combined with his deep reservoir of melancholy makes him one of the most arresting screen figures of the 2010s. Jep is what would happen if La Dolce Vita‘s Marcello lived to be an old man and had even less to keep him happy. Servillo understands Jep so well that it doesn’t seem remotely incongruous for Jep to verbally lash a socialite at an otherwise friendly dinner party and to then suggest to that same woman later in the film that they should sleep together because it would give him something beautiful left to look forward to in life. Jep has an innate joie-de-vivre but if he stops moving for even a second, he realizes that these pleasures add up to nothing, and there is never a second in the film where Toni Servillo doesn’t remind us of this.

The Great Beauty deserved an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography, and the fact that it didn’t get one is a crime. It takes nearly twenty minutes before The Great Beauty begins to develop a plot (which is less of a linear narrative and more a series of thematically connected episodes), and it managed to hold my attention in a vise that entire time because The Great Beauty is stunning to look at. Luca Bigazzi’s camera becomes a testament to the eternal beauty of the city of Rome, and Cristiano Travaglioli’s frenetic editing captures the delirious disconnect these wealthy hedonists have from the real world. But, when the film calls for long takes and unbroken meditations on the action at hand, Bigazzi’s camera is there to soak it all in glorious detail and color. The Great Beauty is a must-see because of its cinematography alone.

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The Great Beauty‘s complex understanding of the way that we deal with regret and the notion that there isn’t always a magic solution to live in the moment is going to be off-putting to viewers who require happy solutions and clear-payoffs (or, even, in The Great Beauty‘s case, a cohesive narrative). The film demands that the viewer consider that we’re slaves to our behavioral destinies and that, beyond that, the suffering required for great art may be more pain than the art itself is actually worth. Much like Happiness and Amour, The Great Beauty is a film hiding a cynical and painful world view beneath an inviting title. Although The Great Beauty didn’t leave me nearly as emotionally devastated as Amour, it continues the tradition of the Best Foreign Language Academy Award winners being much better than the American films that win the same title, and it is certainly worth the time of any one who loves powerful and ambitious foreign cinema.

Final Score: A

 

 

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I’ve reviewed Todd Solondz’s brutal dissection of the possibility of human contentment (and the facades that mark all our lives) in Happiness. I’ve lauded the transformative power of the existentially challenging final sequence of Charlie Kauffman’s Synecdoche, New York time and time again. I’ve peered into the nihilistic desperation of Christopher McCandless during the haunting final stretches of Into the Wild. So, it should mean something when I say that perhaps no film has ever presented as powerful an argument for the meaninglessness of life as Lars von Trier’s indie sci-fi drama, Melancholia, a highly flawed picture with moments of astonishing clarity and vision.

I should stop tweeting about the movies I review on Netflix before I write these reviews because I’ve already used up some of the jokes/insights I had into this film but beyond describing Melancholia as Life Is Meaningless: The Movie (Now Shut the Fuck Up About It), I also told a friend that I thought it could have been called Depression: The Movie. Melancholia has many things going for it, but highest of all, it is easily one of the most realistic portrayals of severe clinical depression that I’ve ever witnessed in a film. And the raw details of the hell of chemically induced clinical melancholia (one of two sources of the film’s title) is worth the two and half hour time investment alone.

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Broken into two parts (with each part named for one of the film’s two female leads), Melancholia is a peek into the lives of two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The film begins with a surrealistic montage of slow-motion, seemingly disconnected images of the film’s cast as a large planet collides with Earth and destroys. And from there, we flash back a week prior to Justine’s wedding reception (to True Blood‘s Alexander Skarsgard) at the palatial mansion where Charlotte and her husband John (The Lost Boy‘s Kiefer Sutherland) live.

But, all is not well in the lives of this family. Justine is a self-destructive mess, suffering from severe melancholia and as her wedding reception begins, her brief period of respite is coming to a crashing, cataclysmic close with her mood disorder returning with a vengeance. Her husband is seemingly a good man, but with the presence of her controlling sister, her lecherous father, and her equally depressed mother, Justine has few pillars to rely on, and besides, her illness isn’t simply something that she can just will away.

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Compounding this family’s domestic problems is the present of a massive planet, Melancholia, that has been hiding in the sun’s shadow (Lars von Trier understands depression and family resentments; he doesn’t get astronomy or general physics) will be doing a perilously close fly-over into Earth’s orbit. Scientists and Claire’s husband are convinced the planet will simply fly past Earth and do no harm, but we no from the film’s opening sequence that isn’t the case, and the air of an impending apocalypse hangs over the film’s entire proceedings.

I don’t believe that there is any inherent, a priori meaning to life. I suppose I’m an existentialist of the Sartre bent and I believe that we create the meanings of our lives through the actions we take and the values we adhere to. And that is to say that I don’t believe life is without meaning or value. It just doesn’t exist alone in a state of nature. Lars von Trier clearly believes that life is a futile struggle full of nothing but suffering and pain and then suddenly, in a blink of an eye, all we’ve endured will mean nothing as we disappear into the nothingness of the ether.

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And while I may not agree with Mr. von Trier’s philosophical position, he presents it in stark and convincing terms. Von Trier stacks the deck by placing his story at the end of the world, but he isn’t so cheap as to make that the crux of the argument. Instead, he uses the apocalypse as a way to examine how we deal with the inevitable end of our own lives, particularly when we know the exact moment that it shall arrive. It’s easy to internalize our own mortality when it’s going to happen at some unknown juncture in the future in a way that we can not guess or control. It’s entirely different if we know the exact moment and context of our own demise.

And that raises questions in our mind. If I were to die tomorrow (and I have to drive back to Morgantown in terrible road conditions, so, hey, it’s a possibility), will my life have meant anything? I’ll be dead and I don’t believe in an afterlife so I thankfully wouldn’t have to wrestle with that question, but suddenly, everything I’ve ever been will have no meaning to me. There will be no me. And if, when we die, we cease to be what was the point? And if you argue, “the future of our species,” what’s the point if at some moment, humanity manages to wipe itself out (through nuclear war) or is itself wiped out (aliens/supernova/heat death of the universe)? When life itself ceases to be, what was the point of it ever being in the first place?

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And, Mr. von Trier’s aim is to show that life itself is a cruelty that humanity endures because the only other alternative, non-existence, is hard-wired into our genetics as being unpalatable even if its the far more merciful option. The films I mentioned in this review’s first paragraph dealt with nihilism without being nihilistic themselves (except maybe Happiness). Melancholia is the closest I’ve ever come to understand and agreeing with the basic tenets of nihilism as a philosophy. And, even on some level, I suspect I only disagree with Mr. von Trier because the only other option would be too unbearably sad.

Moving past the philosophical implications of the film (which are vast and will likely consume my thoughts for days to come), Melancholia succeeds on other fronts. It is an absolutely gorgeously shot film (which is ironic considering Lars von Trier’s status as the founder of the minimalistic Dogme ’95 school of filmmaking), and even though I thought the film’s surrealist opening montage was one of the film’s more glaring flaws, no one can deny how well it’s shot. When Melancholia begins to inch closer and closer to Earth, the film’s otherworldly lighting adds not only to the science fiction feel of the film, but it shines a more than metaphorical light on the truths Claire would like to escape.

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And Kirsten Dunst’s performance is a revelation. She’s become something of a running joke to me. Any time I want to bring up a terrible performance in an otherwise great film, I’ll talk about her in Spider-Man 2. In those films, Tobey Maguire’s mask was more expressive and emotional than her. But as Justine, there’s a fearless vulnerability and edge in Kirsten Dunst that I’ve never seen before in her career, and I doubt I’ll ever see again. Her usual air of “What’s happening right now” works great as Justine loses herself further and further in the pits of her crippling depression and alienates and infuriates everyone around her.

And Lars von Trier mainstay Charlotte Gainsbourg is even better as the beset Claire. At first, Claire seems to be the only person in her family that has it at all together. She runs Justine’s wedding even as Justine seems to be going to great lengths to ruin it. She puts up with her status-obsessed husband who may or may not have a sexual attraction to her sister. But, when existence itself crumbles around her, we quickly learn that Charlotte is even more lost and confused than her sister. At least Justine can face the reality of their situation. And Charlotte Gainsbourg does a marvelous job of portraying Claire as her carefully built world explodes in her face.

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Despite the brutal existential queries of the film’s second half, it was never as good or focused as the first part which takes place during Justine’s doomed wedding reception. The value of the examination of the destructive nature of Justine’s depression far outweighed the fiery call of nihilistic futility. And, it also doesn’t help that the film’s focus was (even in the superior first part) never particularly tight. There were too many excursions into aspects of character that while perhaps interesting, they weren’t interesting enough to justify their place in the story.

Melancholia isn’t for everyone. My dad considers it one of the worst films that he’s ever forced himself to sit through (though, had he read this review before he watched it, he might have known it wasn’t his cup of tea). Melancholia requires not only a dedication from the viewer to be willing to dive deep into the flaws and impulses of its female heroines but also an ability to not flinch away from the true horrors of the nature of life itself. If that sounds like an intellectually invigorating way to pass your time, then few films will challenge you the way that Melancholia intends to.

Final Score: B+

 

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I’m uncomfortable with the fact that I’ve only seen four Ingmar Bergman films. Having just watched The Silence, I’ve seen his Trilogy of Faith (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence) as well as Persona. I’m uncomfortable with this fact because, after just four films, I’ve become convinced that Ingmar Bergman is the greatest film-maker to ever live, outpacing competitors like Terrence Malick or Fellini by miles.  For a man whose films have a reputation as being inaccessible and detached, Bergman’s cinematic output radiates the total emotional spectrum of life with an insight and honesty that no other filmmaker is capable of matching.

As I mentioned, The Silence is the final films of Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith, though the films only constitute a trilogy in a thematic sense, and The Silence seems somewhat removed from the religious questions of the first two films. If Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light look at a world where men suffer because they can not find God, The Silence looks at a world devoid of even the desire to reach out and touch him. And it is a dark, cruel world indeed. Out of the four Bergman films I’ve seen, The Silence is the darkest and most disturbing and easily the most difficult to solve, but when the pieces of this particular Bergman puzzle fall into place, it reveals itself as one of his most complex and rewarding works.

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Like all of Bergman’s films, The Silence has a simple story that belies magnificent characters and soul-searching themes. Two sisters, the sexually liberated Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) and the intellectual but sickly Ester (Winter Light‘s Ingrid Thulin), are traveling through an unnamed European country with Anna’s precocious son, Johan (Jorgen Lindstrom). When Ester’s illness interrupts their train ride home, they stay at a post hotel where the emotional, psychological, and sexual tension in this family is allowed to fester and take hold.

There is so much more to the film than that cursory explanation, but if you’re anything like me, part of the pleasure of watching The Silence for the first time will be trying to struggle to understand what it’s about. And I won’t lie. It wasn’t until halfway through the movie that Ingmar Bergman’s intentions with this film became clear. Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Lighare both fairly straightforward by Bergman standards, and The Silence is a Lynchian fever dream in comparison. The surrealist flourishes throughout the whole picture seem superfluous at first, but then you understand them, and you’re bowled over by Bergman’s extraordinary attention to detail.

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Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith is famous for its exploration of religious doubt, but The Silence confirms my suspicions that even more than tackling the Silence of God, the trilogy is about our failures to communicate with each other as human beings. The film is called The Silence, and maybe it refers to the complete lack of God’s presence in this work, but to me, it signifies the utter silence in these women’s lives (and the boy’s) as they are unable to forge real connections with each other. Much of The Silence (particularly the first act) could work as a silent movie, and throughout the whole film, everyone is trying to connect with someone else, and no one succeeds because we’re all too trapped in our own heads and our own problems to notice anyone else.

It is significant, for example, that the sisters stop in a country where Anna, a translator who speaks fluent English, German, French, and Swedish, doesn’t speak a word of the language. Unless the sisters and Johan are speaking to each other, they can’t speak meaningfully to anyone else. And they can barely have meaningful conversations with each other. Ester seems to harbor sexual feelings towards her more liberated sister and can’t be affectionate with anyone else. Johan won’t even let Ester anywhere near him. Johan only feels affection towards his mother (perhaps too much affection), and Anna’s life is so devoid of any meaning of its own (and much resentment towards her controlling sister) that she’ll sleep with anyone just to feel something but never does.

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Outside of Terrence Malick’s recent ouvre (particularly The Tree of Life and To the Wonder), this is easily one of the most beautifully shot films I’ve reviewed since Elvira Madigan. Bergman’s long-time cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, began his fruitful collaboration with Bergman during this Trilogy, and The Silence is the ultimate expression visually of what Bergman was trying to achieve. The deep and cavernous shadows, the painterly composition of every shot, the use of close-ups that reminds you why the close-up was invented in the first place; every visual aspect of the film is sheer perfection.

And, it wouldn’t be a Bergman film without ferocious performances (the only director I can think of who can coax such natural and ferocious performances from his stars is Kenneth Lonergan) from his leads. Like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, Bergman crafts some of the most memorable female roles in cinema history, and Ester and Anna are no exception. It’s hard to say who the lead of the film is because both women seem to have an equal amount of screen on time though I think it’s safe to say that Anna carries the thematic burdens of the film most impressively.

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For an actress that I had never heard of up until November when I saw Winter Light for the first time, Ingrid Thulin has quickly jumped to the top of my list of the greatest actresses of the 20th century which includes Women in Love‘s Glenda Jackson and (obviously) Meryl Streep and Katharine Hepburn. Only Glenda Jackson has managed to make such an impression with so few performances. Her performance seemed a bit over-the-top at first, but once you realized the depth of Ester’s suffering, it all makes sense and her climactic scene in of the film’s final moments is one of the most powerful in any Bergman film I’ve yet seen. And, of course, Gunnel Lindblom, is just as good as the tempestuous and deeply sexual Anna.

I’ve written some 3000 odd words today for both this blog and the one where I write for my cousin. To say that my brain is spent would be an understatement. It feels less like mush and more like mush that has been speeding through a psychotic carnival ride. So let me leave you with this. Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith is one of the great cinematic achievements of the 1960s and filmmaking in general. The Silence isn’t as easy to pierce as its first two entries, but if you’re willing to make the effort, it riches are almost beyond compare.

Final Score: A+

 

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(A quick aside before I begin my review proper. We’re entering another “A+” heavy block after only two last time around. This will be number four for this block but I stand by every single one of these scores. This is partially attributable to the fact that I’m watching all of Ingmar Bergment’s Trilogy of Faith, and as of this review, two out of three of those films have gotten perfect marks. So, I haven’t suddenly lost my critical faculties. I’m just watching a lot of great films.)

Though I am now what Bertrand Russell called a “teapot agnostic,” I was a deeply religious child and teenager. But, and apologies to anyone this statement offends, religion caused me nothing but psychological torment and crippling neuroses. Beyond the deeper metaphysical questions (such as the Alpha and Omega or the concept of an eternal afterlife) that I would drive myself physically ill pondering, the Christian proscriptions towards sexual behavior nearly tore me to pieces during puberty. Although I always wanted to believe in God more than I actually did (more on that and how this whole rant relates to this film soon. I promise.), I didn’t finally give up on religion until I realized how insane it was that I was being consumed by self-loathing every time I was physically intimate with a girl I wasn’t even having sex with. Yet, according to Christianity, I was supposed to feel guilty for this, and I finally called bullshit.

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Perhaps, then, it’s his obsession with religious and sexual guilt that has drawn me so intensely to Ingmar Bergman (Persona). Bergman was the son of a strict Lutheran minister, and in every one of his films that I’ve ever seen, the battle between one’s own sexual urges and the external forces of religious coercion is omnipresent (among other bleak themes such as insanity and heartbreak). Bergman dwelled on these issues and exorcised his personal demons (and the overwhelming guilt of his religious upbringing) through his art, and for anyone who’s ever been consumed by these same themes, his films are required viewing (look no further than Woody Allen who battled the same existentialist themes throughout all of his best works).

And that theme of the nature of God and the suffering that man foists upon itself in order to hear the call and logic of a non-existent God has never been more emphasized in Bergman’s work than in his (apocryphally termed) “Trilogy of Faith.” The first film, Through a Glass Darkly dealt with the ordinary man’s inability to perceive or communicate with God. The only individual in the cast who ever sensed God’s presence was a schizophrenic young woman who then saw him as a malevolent spider god. And, the film became a commentary on how we seek the affection of God when we are unable to receive it from the people closest to us. The bleak and forceful Winter Light expands that then to a study of a man, whose job requires being a conduit for God’s voice encountering instead God’s silence.

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Gunnar Bjornstrand  plays the emotionally handicapped pastor, Tomas Ericsson. Holding sway over a run-down parish where only a handful of parishioners show up for Sunday Mass, Tomas’s heart isn’t in the clergy anymore and hasn’t been for years and years. At his empty mass, one of the church-goers is an outspoken atheist, Marta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin), who only attends hoping that afterwards she can gain the affection of the widower pastor, who has consistently spurned her advances. Another two are a married couple who haven’t been to church in ages but only made it to this session because the husband is suffering in dread fear of a nuclear holocaust. The organ-player constantly checks his watch so that he can leave, and a child sleeps in the pews and licks a chair when he isn’t unconscious. Tomas’s temple is not healthy.

After the mass, Tomas attempts to counsel the terrified Jonas Persson (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close‘s Max von Sydow) are catastrophic as Tomas is experiencing a massive crisis of faith himself. Since his wife’s death, Tomas has received nothing but silence from God and in a nihilistic conversation with Jonas, he ponders if it was ever there. These are not the comforting words that the emotionally fragile Jonas needed to hear and disaster quickly follows. Tomas also rejects the loving and desperately lonely Marta again and again as she only tries to care for him and despite the obvious fact that he cares for her. Tomas can not hear the voice of God, and in his anger and self-loathing, he takes it out on the most vulnerable around him who need his guidance and care.

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With a handful of conversations in Winter Light, Ingmar Bergman does more to pierce the veil of suffering that religion (and the logical doubt caused by its existence) inflicts on its practitioners than any book or academic piece I’ve ever read. The disastrous counseling session between Tomas and Jonas speaks to the dangers of investing all of one’s hopes in the possibility that religion has answers to our most dramatic life problems. Marta writes Tomas a letter and in a beautifully handled long-take, we get the clearest defense of her atheist position in the face of the pain it causes Tomas. And later on, in a schoolhouse, Tomas is in the midst of horrendous pain for playing a role in a specific tragedy and he lashes out at the innocent Marta with as much as force as he can muster showing the hypocrisy of his faith.

From a technical perspective, this is one of Bergman’s least complex films. The camerawork is stark and unpretentious (not that I don’t love the dizzying visual wizardry of Bergman films like Persona) and that fits with the film’s astoundingly somber tone. The cinematography is straight-forward but never once lets you escape the emotional torment these Swedes find themselves in. Particularly, during the five minute long shot of Marta reading her letter, you are made intimately aware of how much she’s hurting (achieved in no small part through Ingrid Thulin’s emotionally grueling performance).

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And, like all Bergman films, the performances are something to be treasured. Even more than his beleaguered David in Through a Glass Darkly, Gunnar Bjornstrand turns Tomas into a haunted and haunting figure. The movie begins during the lengthy closing of Mass at Tomas’s parish, and from the get go, Bjornstrand makes it clear that Tomas’s heart isn’t in this anymore. And as the very definition of his existence continues to fall more rapidly apart as the film progresses, Bjornstrand radiates the horrific torment destroying this figure whose life has no clear meaning anymore.

And ingrid Thulin’s Marta is one of the most devastating portrayals of female desperation this side of Rachel, Rachel or Women in Love. Although Marta infatuation with Tomas borders on the pathetic (any self-respecting woman would have given up on such a cold and callous man years ago), the aging school marm sees the hopes for her emotional salvation in this wounded man. And Thulin captures the breadth of her dreams, desires, and heartbreak. Max von Sydow isn’t in the film for very long, but his brief reunion with his Through a Glass Darkly co-star was the scene that catapulted this scene towards the masterful realm that it then never left.

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In the film’s closing moments, a nearly catatonic Tomas arrives for his final mass of the day to a church completely empty of anyone other than his atheist admirer, the drunk organ player, and the crippled sexton. As Tomas is preparing his sermon, the sexton speaks with Tomas about Christ’s Passion, i.e. the last hours of his life. And the sexton wonders if perhaps we haven’t overvalued Christ’s physical suffering over his emotional suffering from the betrayal and abandonment of his disciples and God himself when he’s on the cross and God won’t answer his pleas. If you understand what makes that so powerful within the context of this film, do yourself a favor and watch another masterpiece from one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live.

Final Score: A+

 

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(A quick aside before I begin this review. I am, to put it lightly, hungover and am worried this review will be garbage because of it. This film is an undeniable masterpiece so I hope I can persevere and make my review do it justice.)

If you were to ask literary snobs if movies could tackle the same grand themes of the best books, their answer would likely be a derisive laugh and a short, “No… just no.” And, 99% of the time, they’d be right. Movies are my preferred art form, but there’s no denying that outside of the absolute best works, their themes can be shallow, repetitive, and not terribly original. But, if there’s one film maker who deserves to stand among the most philosophical storytellers not just of the big screen but of all time, it’s the Swedish master, Ingmar Bergman. Not content to examine the rote, well-trod aspects of human existence, Bergman digs to the core of our existential experience. Questioning not the act of love but love itself, examining not a particular religion but the presence (or lack thereof) of God in our lives, focusing not on the death of one but on the role mortality plays in all our lives, every Bergman film is a mental exercise in critical analysis of our place in the universe. 1961’s Through a Glass Darkly does not disappoint.

Alongside Winter Light and The Silence, the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-winner Through a Glass Darkly constitutes the first entry in Bergman’s “trilogy of faith.” An unofficial trilogy (in so far as Bergman didn’t realize they made a thematic triptych until after he had made them), the movies (from what I understand because I’ve only seen Through a Glass Darkly so far) constitute a meditation on religious faith and whether humans can feel the presence of God if he exists while also asking a serious question about whether he exists in the first place. And Through a Glass Darkly takes a deeply dysfunctional family as a starting point for the exploration of the idea that we use religious attachment and God’s love as a way to make up for a lack of emotional intimacy and personal affection in our own lives as well as a haunting thesis on the way that we create dark mirrors of ourselves in the people we keep around us.

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Described as a “chamber film” (both for its limited locations and characters as well as its use of chamber music in the score), Through a Glass Darkly takes place over the course of twenty four hours on a secluded Swedish island as one bourgeois family is forced to confront its neuroses, dysfunction, and hidden secrets. Karin (Harriett Andersson) has just been released from a mental hospital after a continued battle with schizophrenia. Her husband Martin (The Exorcist‘s Max von Sydow), a compassionate but frustrated doctor is bringing Karin back to her family home where her playwright seventeen year old brother, Minus (Lars Passgard) lives mostly by himself except on those rare occasions when their father David (Gunnar Bjornstrand), a struggling novelist, is home. Thinking that the love and support of her family may be enough to limit the severity of Karin’s schizophrenia, no one expects that the divisions tearing this family apart will have the opposite effect.

Because in this particular Swedish family, the only remotely well-adjusted member is David who is himself suffering from deep sexual frustration and the knowledge that he is slowly but surely losing grasp on his wife. Both Karin and Minus resent their father who is never around, and Minus presents an elaborate play (that he wrote himself and performed in) that is both a welcome home present to his father as well as a not particularly subtle jab at his father’s failure as a writer and a parent. Minus too suffers from deep sexual frustration, what with being seventeen and living on a secluded island by himself with his crazy sister for occasional company. And when his sister finds him reading a Playboy-esque magazine, she teases him nearly to the point of flirtation. And David of course feels guilty about his shortcomings as a father as well as his morbid interest in his daughter’s mental illness considering that his wife ultimately succumbed to the same problem. And, all the while, Karin’s symptoms (which had been in remission) are coming back with a vengeance.

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As you can probably tell from that plot description, Through a Glass Darkly is as bleak (if not more so) than his later Persona. Wrestling with mental illness in a disturbingly realistic and un-Hollywood manner, Through a Glass Darkly is a portrait of a family circling the edge of oblivion and it would be a Bergman film if we weren’t brought past the brink by the film’s end. Dealing with incest, frigidity, sexual guilt, our inability to have a meaningful relationship with God (either because he doesn’t exist or because we can’t touch him), and the particular breed of narcissism at the heart of many artists. Bergman has a deserved reputation as an artist fixated on the concept of human suffering, but through an examination of individuals suffering hellish existentialist crises, Bergman offers up a cinematic opportunity to examine the paths that lead us to suffering and a call to avoid falling into these traps.

Much like Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson in Persona, Through a Glass Darkly is heavily defined by an electric performance from its female lead. That Harriet Andersson was not nominated for a Best Actress Oscar at the 1961 Academy Awards seems like a crime (though with a Sophia Loren win for Two Women and plenty of other great nominees, it was a fairly strong year). Sensual and supremely vulnerable, Andersson’s performance was as emotionally naked as the part required, and like Laura Dern in Inland Empire or Natalie Portman in Black Swan, Andersson’s portrayal of a woman past the verge of insanity is just stellar, and alongside Catherine Denueve in Polanski’s Repulsion, it marks an interesting comment on feminine sexual repression. I would be hard-pressed to name another writer-directed that consistently wrote as many excellent parts for female actresses as Ingmar Bergman did.

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And the men are just as good. It’s interesting just how much tension and conflict Bergman can create with such small casts whether it’s the two principals of Persona or the only four people we see whatsoever in Through a Glass Darkly. Special mention must go to Gunnar Bjornstrand’s David who is the most morally bankrupt person in the family but it is clear that out of the men, he may be the one that suffers nearly as much as Karin. He not only watched his wife succumb to madness but now he sees his daughter doing the same thing and he wrestles with guilt to his natural reaction to her pain. Lars Passgard’s portrayal of a young man struggling with guilt about his own sexual urges should be terriffically painful for any man who ever went through puberty and fought religious sexual guilt. And, as one of the greatest Swedish film actors of all time, Max Von Sydow’s Martin is a sufficiently pained and sympathetic creation.

Alright, I wrote half of this review yesterday in the throes of a killer hangover and I wrote the rest of it today after my brain was drained by a particularly strenuous exam. So, it’s probably time to draw this to a close. Let me end then by saying that Ingmar Bergman is one of the most rare types of filmmakers. Like Terrence Malick or Kenneth Lonergan, his films’ goals aren’t to entertain. They mean to edify. So, is sitting down for the perfectly trimmed 96 minutes of Through a Glass Darkly the right move if you’re looking for a good time or an entertaining experience? Hell no. It’s miserable in the absolute best sort of way (though not quite as painful as Amour). But, you will leave the film knowing that you just witnessed an important piece of art that had something real to say and, honestly, that is the ideal of any art form. And Bergman was one of the truest masters of his.

Final Score: A+

 

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(A quick note before I write up this review. This movie was as heady of an intellectual head trip as I’ve had for a while. I wanted to wait til tomorrow to give this movie the full review it deserves because… Jesus… it’s a doozy. But we’re watching a movie in my film studies class tomorrow and I’d like to actually write that review tomorrow and not have to wait half a week to finally do it like I did for The Public Enemy. So, I spent about two and a half hours or so working on my screenplay [the psychological horror one. not Aftertaste which I’ve written 6 drafts of], and now I feel semi-prepared to jump into a review of what I can easily describe as one of the most absolutely bat-shit insane films I’ve ever watched.)

In Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or David Lynch’s Inland Empire, notions of time, perspective, and the reliable continuity of point of view are decimated in at attempt by each auteur to deconstruct their specific field of work. Pynchon’s sprawling, schizophrenic narrative was a giant “f*** you” to the literary establishment and the conventions of the structure of a novel while Lynch’s surrealist and emotionally disturbing imagery similarly bucked any idea of traditional cinematic content. Although both are essentially fantasies (Gravity’s Rainbow a dystopian delusion of World War II’s horrors as sheer paranoia; Inland Empire the frenzied breakdown of a star on the verge of madness), they capture inherent truths of their chosen medium by obliterating the traditional molds from which they are usually drawn. From a purely technical standpoint, Gaspar Noé’s 2009 indie drama Enter the Void nearly matches both of those works although it ultimately lacks the beating core at the center of those two other masterpieces.

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Much like Gravity’s Rainbow or Inland Empire, trying to explain the plot of Enter the Void is a little bit of an exercise in futility as well as missing the actual point of the film. But here goes. Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) is an American living in Japan with his sister Linda (Choke‘s Paz de la Huerta). Oscar loves psychedelic drugs and makes his living dealing ecstasy at local Japanese night clubs. When Oscar is betrayed by a friend and killed by police in a raid at the Void nightclub, his spirit exits his body and wanders the Japanese skyline as he sees bits and pieces of his sister’s and friends’ lives after his death as well as a traumatic non-linear hodgepodge of incidences from his past. Taken as a loose, psychedelic interpretation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Enter the Void is Gaspar Noé’s attempt to paint a hallucinatory picture of what our spirit perceives right after we die.

Ignoring for the moment that I’m a “teapot agnostic” who doesn’t believe in an afterlife or that anything Oscar perceives in this film after his death would actually happen, let me just open with the fact that Enter the Void is unquestionably one of the most visually striking films ever made. I am more than willing to put it in the same league as Terrence Malick’s masterpiece The Tree of Life in terms of its raw visual beauty. There is not a single wasted frame in this film that isn’t either Gaspar Noé conjuring up some ethereal, beautiful, Electric  Kool-Aid Acid Test bit of psychedelic imagery or blowing your mind with imaginative shot after imaginative shot. I don’t care how many films you’ve seen. Even if you’re a dedicated movie fanatic such as myself, you’ve never watched a movie that looks like this before.

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And much like Todd Solondz’s Happiness, Gaspar Noé isn’t afraid to disturb the hell out of his viewers with depraved and sordid subject matter while still speaking to something essentially true about darker sides of human nature. As an intentional contrast against the film’s hauntingly beautiful visuals (I seriously can’t stress enough how good-looking this film is), Enter the Void tackles some downright transgressive issues in an open and honest way. From incestual attraction to rampant drug use to rape to explicit (bordering on pornographic) sexuality, Enter the Void is one of the toughest films to sit through that I’ve watched in ages simply for the brutality of its subject matter. Death and violence and sex intermingle with the Noé’s masterful visual techniques to the point that you find yourself torn for being visually stunned by a scene while simultaneously being sickened by its content.

When the film is firing on all of the right cylinders storywise, it is almost too intimate to watch. Alongside Todd Solondz or Todd Haynes, this film tackles taboo subject matter without making judgments or presenting a side. It simply observes and the picture never turns away. Part of that functions from the film’s point of view which is told more or less entirely either through Oscar’s eyes or from over his shoulder. We never lose the sense of being right in the heart of the depravity of the film. And there are moments where you want to look away. Where you want Gaspar Noé to take us out of the horror of these disintegrating personal lives (and his imagery would often turn as hellish as the scenes they were portraying), but he wisely knows to force you to confront these issues and it makes for a wildly emotional experience.

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And all of the various ways in which the film is a stunning, resounding success makes the film’s monumental flaws all the more frustrating. First and foremost, the performances are an almost universal trainwreck. Not only is Paz de la Huerta aggressively unattractive, she is an awful actress. She is completely devoid of emotion, intonation, and suggestive expression. You see more of Linda than you actually do of Oscar (who is simply a passive observer in many scenes) and the role deserved a more dynamic When Oscar is still alive, you can hardly hear or understand any of Nathaniel Brown’s monotone dialogue. The Frenchman playing Oscar’s friend Alex is no more understandable. Though at least he is somewhat expressive. And none of the other, smaller bit parts impress in this film chock full of nonprofessional actors.

And, sadly, at the end of the day, while the film may be a technical masterpiece, it is also one of the most self-indulgent and pretentious movies you will ever watch. For every moment of inspired brilliance (Oscar’s pre-death DMT trip, the various flashbacks to his parents’ death, the nonlinear gamesmanship), the film will throw in at least one or two moments that make the film drag to eternity. There was absolutely no reason why needed a view from inside a vagine of a penis thrusting in and out of said vagina and then ejaculating. Unnecessary and gross. While many of the sex scenes are intentionally uncomfortable and depraved, I’m not sure if the unsimulated sex scenes were actually necessary. For a good ten minutes or so, Enter the Void becomes a really artsy porno. I’m sure there would have been a way to maintain the veracity of the film without including actual sex.

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Never have I watched a film that is simultaneously an almost peerless masterpiece while also being somewhat juvenile and deeply, deeply flawed. Despite the movie’s major shortcomings, if you’re into the post-modernist, mindscrew genre of cinema (think David Lynch or Darren Aranofsky), not only must you watch Enter the Void. You must watch it right now. It is powerful, provocative film-making and if Noé can learn to tamper just a bit of his excesses, he could jump to the forefront of international filmmakers. He is that talented. As it is, Enter the Void should enter the canon of visually triumphant cinema even if it ultimately buckles under the weight of its own ambitions and the deficiencies of its principal cast.

Final Score: B+

 

(Side note before my actual review. Man, I’d started to forget what it was like to watch a foreign art house film. It’d been a while. Specifically, I think I haven’t watched one since 8 1/2 in the middle of May back in New York. And it’s been even longer since I’ve taken a journey into the strange and perverse mind of art house film icon Luis Buñuel with Viridiana in July of last year. Nothing like a good foreign film to remind you of how conventional even the most groundbreaking American films can seem)

Subtle political commentary is the most effective when a film is first released and the most incomprehensible commentary decades after the film’s release. Throw in a transatlantic cultural barrier and you have the makings of a movie whose actual message should be completely lost on future foreign generations (unless they do their homework on the film’s subject matter). Luis Buñuel’s (Belle de Jour) 1964 classic Diary of a Chambermaid seems destined to some day suffer that sad fate. However, thanks to my political science upbringing (and a healthy love of foreign history), I was able to peer into the subtle depths of his political satire of the growing French nationalism and neo-fascism of the 1960s to find a wonderfully understated film filled to the brim with Buñuel’s love of shocking and subversive sexuality.

When cultured and haute couture Parisian maid Celestine (Jeanne Moreau) moves to the countryside of 1930s Paris, she is quickly drawn into the political and sexual games of the Rabour/Monteil family. The family’s patriarch, the elderly Monsieur Rabour (Jean Ozenne) never sleeps with the maids but gets his sexual kicks by having them wear racy shoes and reading erotic literature to him. His daughter, Madame Monteil, is frigid and takes her frustrations out on the help by being an overly critical shrew. Her husband, Monsieur Monteil (Michel Piccoli), has a voracious sexual appetite, but since his wife won’t sleep with him, he tries to sleep with all of the women (including the help) in sight. Throw in the family valet, Joseph (Georges Geret), a racist French nationalist, and walking the landmine known as the Rabour household is as much a full-time job for the beautiful Celestine as her actual maid duties. Although Celestine quickly decides that the Rabour household is too much for her to handle, the murder and rape of a 12 year old girl causes her to decide to stay as she attempts to suss out the mystery of who could commit such an atrocity.

While I’m not necessarily as consistently impressed with Luis Buñuel’s output as the rest of the cinema world (Viridiana was brilliant but Belle de Jour was relatively mediocre), if there’s one thing the man can do well, it’s cast sexually vivacious women as his leads, and much like Catherine Deneuve and Sylvia Pinel, Jeanne Moreau is a refreshing slice of sexual liberation. Sexual politics are a recurring theme of Buñuel’s work, and the dominant and playful Celestine is a classic example of a woman in charge of her sexuality without being overly whorish (is there a way to say that without me sounding incredibly sexist?), and her openly liberated lifestyle is often compared to the repressed but no less lustful lifestyle of her bourgeois benefactors. There’s an honesty present in Celestine’s character and Moreau’s performance lacking in the hidden desires of the less aware individuals around her.

Similar to Viridiana, the film’s black and white photography is simply stunning. Although Buñuel, a Spaniard who often worked in France, is not officially associated with the French New Wave, he was similarly ahead of the pack in terms of unorthodox cuts, handheld camera shots, and a willingness to regularly cross the borders of the sacred and profane. His juxtaposition of the enlightened eroticism of Celestine (and to a lesser extent the almost innocent fetishism of Monsieur Rabour) with the dark and violent desires of virtually everyone else around her creates for consistently startling image. Throw in the visual lushness of the film and it’s no wonder that Buñuel developed a reputation as one of cinema’s most exciting visual directors even accounting for the lack of some of his more overt surrealist imagery in The Diary of a Chambermaid (which is markedly straightforward by Buñuel standards).

Where the film really shines is the way that Buñuel eviscerates the rapidly growing fascism of the 1960s in France (which would come to be defined in the 1970s by men like Jean-Marie Le Pen and his National Front party) by drawing the obvious parallels to pre-Vichy France. Nearly all of the men in the film are some form of fascist and are without fail racists (except for Monsieur Rabour who displays no real politics) and xenophobes. By showing their avarice and sexual perversions, Buñuel paints his political opponents (who had essentially ran him out of France for being a subversive during the era where the film takes place) as everything wrong with the French character and as warnings to future French generations. In the same vein to Viridiana however, the proletariat aren’t spared Buñuel’s critical eye any more than their potential oppressors as men like Joseph and his comrades are simply proles waiting for their opportunity to oppress those they don’t like.

Like the entirety of the art house niche, Diary of a Chambermaid isn’t going to be for everyone. Sexual satire and scathing political commentary don’t seem like they go hand in hand, and either one is enough to turn off vast swaths of the common audience. Yet, if you have an appetite for Buñuel’s mercurial wit and can place the film within the context of French history and Buñuel’s leftist politics (which let’s face it, one has to do their homework to discover), it’s a rewarding ride into one of foreign cinema’s most famous subversives. Ultimately, the film lacks the same bite as Viridiana (which remains one of the greatest religious satires I’ve ever seen) but it makes up for it with a stellar visual identity and unerring look at the hypocrisy of the far right.

Final Score: B+

Where do we draw the line between an artist and his art? Through the works of Woody Allen it is easy to tell that the man loves and loathes his home of New York. He is a neurotic and nebbish man who both worships women and alienates them. If you watch any Quentin Tarantino film, you should come away knowing that he knows more about genre cinema than perhaps any other man on the planet. Considering the number of Scorsese films that deal with religious guilt and the sexual degradation of the male psyche, it is not much of a stress to feel that Scorsese was torn as an artist by his Catholic upbringing. If you can summon basic powers of perception (with some psychological intuition) and have seen a large swath of any directors filmography, you can learn a lot about not only the art but the artist. The scripts they choose to direct, the direction they choose to take the subject matter, the consistent (or perhaps telling inconsistent) tone of their films all speak leagues to who the artist truly is. It’s a fun game for students of film to play as we attempt to gleam little tidbits about her celluloid heroes, but rarely do filmmakers themselves ask these sorts of questions. Yet, the battle between art and the men who make it and the psychological forces that shape said art lies at the very center of Federico Fellini’s masterful 8 1/2 which makes for one of the most cerebral and rewarding films I’ve seen in months.

In an obviously highly autobiographical film (of Fellini’s career/childhood), Marcello Mastroianni plays Guido Anselmi, an Italian film-director who has retreated to a remote resort in the hopes of getting some peace and quiet so he can work on his next film. His rest is short-lived when his film’s producers, his mistress (Sandra Milo), and even his wife (Anouk Aimee) arrive at the resort and begin tearing him in opposite directions. As Guido’s writer’s block and creative slump worsen, we are ushered into the unfiltered recesses of his mind where glimpses of his childhood, sexual fantasies, and reality all intertwine. Guido reflects on the many, many women in his life (from his mother to the first prostitute he ever visited) as well as the role of the church and religious sexual oppression all while trying to find the inspiration to make his next film which he hopes will include all of these elements. To sum up the film as simply (though perhaps misleadingly) as possible, it is a semi-autobiographical film about a director trying to make a semi-autobiographical film while simultaneously destroying every accepted rule of structure and style up to that point.

With certain directors (Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman, David Lynch, etc.) it’s impossible to take any one film of their library as a completely separate entity and not as part of their entire canon. I’ve reviewed three films (including 8 1/2) from Fellini’s library now. I have also written about 1954’s La Strada and 1969’s Fellini Satyricon which places 8 1/2 more in the art-house category of Satyricon than the neo-realism of La Strada. While I haven’t seen La Dolce Vita, it was the last full-length film that Fellini wrote and directed before 8 1/2, and in many ways, 8 1/2 is Fellini attempting to follow-up his most commercially and critically successful film yet, failing to do so, and ultimately realizing that he could make a metatextual commentary on the creative process of delivering a follow-up to a rapturously beloved film. The fact that Fellini turned this head-spinning tale of his own attempts to make the movie he’s currently working on into a psychological study of his relationship with women adds the substance that would be missing if Fellini were simply chronicling his own writers block (in an admittedly clever, “meta” way). . This was one of Fellini’s first real art-house films and while it doesn’t totally embrace the surrealism of Fellini Satyricon, Fellnii still masterfully fuses the dreamlike and the real (often in the course of one scene) in what can only be deemed a technically masterful cinematic accomplishment.

In the entire time I’ve ran this blog, I’ve never been so at a loss for how to describe a film on its artistic or technical merits. I finished watching it over four hours ago and I still find new things to mull over in my mind. I’ll recall an overt religious or sexual symbol in a scene that only really clicked when the reason for its import was revealed later in the film. I’ll realize that something happening in one scene probably wasn’t really occurring and was part of one of Guido’s fantasies. I’ll mentally click that the artificial and overtly theatrical nature of early scenes was part of Fellini’s overall commentary on the film-making process. There is so much to talk about in this movie that I desperately crave a dialogue with another person to truly engage with the material. I know that I enjoy the postmodern, dreamlike quality of the film, and I can articulate why I think that makes Fellini such an ambitious and artistically significant (and immensely influential) director, and while those sort of statements are pat enough praise for a lesser film, 8 1/2 deserves an almost academic level of analysis and I don’t see how I can deliver that in this post.

Regardless, this is the format I have and I’ll try to stick to the avenues of praise that I know. Marcello Mastroianni is essentially playing an idealized and semi-fictional version of Federico Fellini himself, and while I don’t know much about Fellini’s personal life other than he married La Strada star Giuiletta Massina and she was to him what Liv Ullmann was to Ingmar Bergman, I can tell you that Marcelo Mastroianni fully inhabited the deeply sexual and ultimately confused hedonist, artist, and lover that was Guido Anselmi. Guido is a slightly pathetic man, unable to make any real decisions over the course of the film, and Mastroianni shows the way he’s being torn apart at the seams in intimate detail. Yet, he’s also a man capable of so much life and passion, and through Guido’s fantasies and his (more rare) happier moments with the women around him (such as his muse Claudia [the breathtaking Claudia Cardinale]), Mastroianni has a chance to explore one of the most dynamic characters of Fellini’s career. Anouk Aimee gave the most impressive performance of the film though as Guido’s long suffering wife Luisa. It’s ironic because I felt the exact same way about the terrible, terrible, terrible musical remake of the film, Nine, where Marion Cotillard (playing Anouk’s character) was the film’s sole saving grace. For a character that was as much caricature as a fully-formed creation in her own right, Anouk Aimee breathed a fire that only a woman scorned can deliver.

Because I feel so ill-equipped to eve discuss this film in a worthwhile manner until I’ve had the chance to discuss it with someone else, let me just state that for a movie that is nearing its 50th anniversary (next year), it’s aged remarkably well. The black-and-white cinematography is as striking in this film as it was in La Strada, and Fellini’s visual flair is really matched only by Bergman, Kurosawa, and Malick. There’s a reason why this film is viewing 101 for every film student in the country, and as someone who regularly bemoans the over-rated status of many “classic” dramas (i.e. dramas before the mid 60s when films were too idealistic and romantic for my tastes), this film hasn’t lost an ounce of its magic even if its inspired an endless stream of less creative imitators. I mentioned that the film was remade into the absolutely terrible, soulless film Nine earlier, and my undying hatred for that film couldn’t even stop me from appreciating how brilliant Fellini’s form is in this picture. It took me about halfway through the film before Fellini’s goal became clear (and I’m sure this film will require several more viewings to fully appreciate), but once I realized what Fellini was trying to accomplish and once the barrier between reality and fantasy in the film became even more thin, it was a non-stop voyeuristic ride into the psychology and creativity of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. If you like foreign cinema or truly challenging (but ultimately rewarding) film, 8 1/2 is required viewing.

Final Score: A+

Out of the over 200 films I’ve reviewed for this blog in the last year, there have been a handful of films that I would immediately describe more as visual poetry/tone poems than as conventionally structured cinema. Stroszek (one of the only films whose score I want to retroactively increase because my respect/appreciation for it has grown infinitely since I first viewed it), La Strada, and The Tree of Life made the conscious decision to forsake complex narrative for unyielding emotion and mood. Imagery and atmosphere took precedence over plot and for that, they’ve always stood out. When I’m watching a film like that, I get the same kind of intellectual engagement that I associate more with reading a book than with watching a movie. It’s ironic since films like this emphasize the visual aspect of cinema (particularly in the way that images can create emotional reactions) but they stimulate my mind more than the wordiest “Award-bait” dramas. Directors like Herzog, Fellini, and Malick realize that form can follow function and the power you can wrest away from the visual story. I love what a new friend of mine called “verbal volleyball” films but sometimes you just need to have your mind and heart overwhelmed with a visually arresting experiencing and 1987’s Wings of Desire from German director Wim Wenders is sure to sate that yearning.

In Cold War Berlin, two immortal angels, Damiel (Downfall’s Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), invisibly observe the comings-and-goings of the world. With a mission to study and testify to the human experience, they float around the city hearing the thoughts of the citizens and providing unknown spiritual comfort to those in need. Both angels joke about discovering what it would be like to cease their eternal existence and take on the mantle of personhood to experience the ups and downs of human life. They long to see color, to be able to touch the world around them, to experience the wonders of life when time finally has meaning. When Damiel’s wanderings draw him to a circus on the eve of its final performance, he espies a young trapeze artist, Marion (Solveig Dommartin), and instantly falls in love with her. Deciding to renounce his immortality once and for all, Damiel becomes a person and experiences the beauty in life that so many of us take for granted while Cassiel is forced to remain an observer of the tragedies of mankind.

When told through the point of view of the angels, the film is shot in such a rich and striking black-and-white that you’d think you stumbled across a long-lost classic from the black and white era. It is only the moments when the film is told through humanity’s point of view that the world is jolted back into color (and the color palette is heavily saturated). Perhaps its because of the wonderful Blu-Ray transfer, but the shadows and contrast in the black and white scenes are among the most sharp and crisp I’ve ever seen. The cinematographer, Henri Alekan, was making films in the early days of Jean Cocteau, and in its Fellini-esque magic, the visual deluge of the film enveloped me in a way that no film has since I watched The Tree of Life. The film has its share of extended scenes (which provide the emotional glue holding the film together) but the heart of the physical disconnect and urban loneliness that the film spends so much time meditating on arises in the loosely connected and disjointed moments where Damiel and Cassiel flitter through the town helping to bear the burden of other’s suffering and in the film’s minimalist script, the beautifully shot scenes surrounding these moments raises the film to a masterwork of cinematic art.

Two months ago, I made it through two-thirds of Bruno Ganz’s historical drama Downfall (covering the last days of Hitler’s life) before I decided to take a nap and I never finished it. His performance as Hitler was one of the most ferocious and ultimately brave (by both humanizing Hitler while still showing how monstrous he could be) performances of any film that’s name isn’t There Will Be Blood. For what I hope are obvious reasons, Damiel is a much more subtle and low-key role than the Fuhrer, yet somehow Ganz manages to make this one nearly as interesting (if not as incendiary). Damiel has very little in the way of lines despite being the main character. In fact, most of his lines are voiced-over inner monologues. Yet, with an expressive face (that forces me to make another Fellini comparison) that seems right out of Fellini Satyricon, his performance moved me to complete heartbreak for a longing for that childlike sense of innocence and wonder. Otto Sander had the even more difficult task as the more taciturn and reserved Cassiel, but in a scene where he fails to prevent a man’s suicide, he tore my heart out with his anguish. Peter Falk also managed to be a scene-stealer essentially playing a fictionalized version of himself (in some really weird meta-commentary that I didn’t really understand).

It’s at moments like these where I truly wish I had a partner for this great experiment in examining the history of cinema. While I would never wish having to sit through garbage like War Horse on another living being, movies that ask such grand questions and paint such a poetic picture practically demand someone else to discuss them with. I have ideas on the themes of this film but as someone who’s read too much Nietzsche, I know my interpretations of something this ambiguous may ultimately only be a reflection of my personality. The film is at times an ode to the transitory. It’s a celebration of life and all its wonders even in its most tragic. These angels aren’t solely guardian angels. As said by Cassiel, their duty is to testify to the history of life (and even what predated life). They are the eternal observers of the human condition. So, in some ways, the film also acts as a commentary of the way we interact with what we observe and the voyeurism of the visual arts (i.e. the film you’re watching). It explores the ripple of memory and the desire to latch onto the past when life is meant to be lived in the now. It’s power is undeniable and I honestly at this point just want a fresh commentary on the film besides my own so if you’ve seen it feel free to leave comments in the comment section below.

I would argue that the only barriers to entry for this film are for those with no patience for foreign films and for those who don’t like more “art-house” cinema (though I would argue that despite its stylistic presentation, Wings of Desire is very accessible as compared to say a David Lynch film). Other than those types of people (who are automatically qualified from being real movie fans in my book), I highly recommend that all of my readers give Wings of Desire a go. It’s a haunting and meditative film whose message has both inspired and moved me. It’s also one of those films that I know I’m going to still be chewing on in the weeks to come. It can be a little slow (when I discovered that I had only been watching the film for an hour and not two like I thought, I was incredibly shocked), but it’s poetic value can’t be diminished even by pacing that may scare off the average movie-goer. As a cynic, you occasionally grow to be distrustful of things that are truly beautiful, but the way that Wings of Desire mixes up melancholy, beauty, innocence, and unbridled joy make it a must-watch film.

Final Score: A