Category: Foreign Classics


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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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Narrative elegance has become something of a lost art. With the notable exception of Kenneth Lonergan, the idea of a simple story, exceptionally told, rarely graces the silver screen.  The idea that you don’t need a high-concept logline but, rather, just exquisitely drawn characters providing a fresh perspective on the human condition. I don’t mean to dismiss complex narratives or metatextual storytelling (my adoration of Synecdoche, New York should speak to that) or films of the Terrence Malick stripe that nearly abandon plot all together. I simply year for easier access to films with a more natural and understated approach to observing life, in all its forms. And 1948’s The Bicycle Thief is an undeniable masterwork of that species of film-making.

Vittorio De Sica was one of the fathers of the Italian Neo-Realist movement, a post-World War II school of filmmaking rooted in a realistic portrayal of lower-class suffering (Fellini’s La Strada is the closest I’ve come to reviewing a Neo-Realist picture on this blog before, but more accurately, that was a transitional film for Fellini to his later, surrealist works). Neo-Realist films often utilized non-professional actors so the movies would look even more authentic, and they intentionally avoided the glitz and glamour of Hollywood-style film-making. And in De Sica’s magnum opus, The Bicycle Thief, the tenets of Neo-Realism are on full, heart-wrenching display as one man’s quest for survival is chronicled in all of its tragic (non)glory.

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In a post-fascism Italy, unemployment is endemic, and Rome, one of the shining jewels of Europe, is awash in crippling poverty. Jobs are given away by lottery, and on one fateful evening, Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggioriani) has his name chosen to place posters around the city (of a Rita Hayworth film which is a particularly clever joke about this film’s non-glamorized nature). Antonio has been unemployed for so long though that he and his long-suffering wife have been forced to pawn most of their possessions including the family bicycle. And, in the first of many ironic twists throughout the film, Antonio’s new job requires him to own a bike.

Of course, Antonio doesn’t have enough money to get the bike out of the pawn shop and he and his wife are forced to pawn their sheets, which were part of the wife’s dowry on their wedding. And, in another brilliant visual in the film, we see a mountain of sheets that other families in the Riccis same position have had to sell. And so, Antonio finally has his bike and for the first time in ages, he can provide for his family. But, the cruelty of an indifferent world has other plans in mind when Antonio’s bike is stolen at the beginning of his very first day of work, and so he and his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) are forced to go on a day-long mission to find the bike because if they can’t, they won’t have enough money to even eat.

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And, in what I hope isn’t too massive a spoiler considering the brutal nature of the film, they don’t get the bike back but that’s far from the most upsetting element of the film’s denouement. From a plot perspective, that’s all The Bicycle Thief is. It’s a story about a father and son’s failed quest to retrieve a stolen bicycle. But beneath that simple surface is a series of complex statements on the relationship between father and sons, the quiet desperation of the working poor, and the lengths we will go to provide for those we care for. What is Glengarry Glen Ross but The Bicycle Thief with a new coat of Reagan-era, “Me”-Generation  paint?

The Bicycle Thief joins Rachel, Rachel and A Single Man as being one of the most overwhelmingly sad films that I’ve watched for this blog. From beginning to end, the sheer weight of retrieving a stolen bicycle feels like the matter of life and death that it has become. And Vittorio De Sica shoots the film with such honest detail and confident assurance in the audience’s ability to understand the plight of the Ricci family that The Bicycle Thief never has to resort to ham-fisted melodramatics to get its point across. It simply presents this family’s life as it is and it lets the audience come to the natural conclusions.

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The Bicycle Thief has been accused of being political propaganda (particularly that it was some type of Marxist allegory), and though I can understand that interpretation, my response is “So what if it is?” and that the film has so much more going than that. Clearly, Vittorio De Sica is overwhelmed by the poverty and desperation that was destroying his country. And, by taking one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Rome, and reducing it to its poorest elements (only once contrasting it with an upper-crust bourgeois life during the restaurant sequence), De Sica shows the reality of the 99%. But, the film takes pains to not mythologize or romanticize poverty which leads to the film’s most famous sequence, which has now become one of the most powerful film scenes I’ve ever watched.

As I said earlier, Antonio doesn’t get his bike back, but that’s now where his humiliation and degradation ends, and it’s part of what makes the film so powerful. If The BIcycle Thief were made today, Antonio would get his bike back or some kind stranger would help him find a way out of his situation even without the bike. Here, Antonio is pushed so far past the brink of despair that in a moment of weakness, he tries to steal another man’s bike, making the circle of poverty and desperation complete. And, as he’s chased by an angry mob and Bruno watches his father with shameful tears in his eyes, you realize that whoever took Antonio’s bike was likely pushed there by the same cruelties that led Antonio to the same situation.

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And though the film is stripped of a lot of cinematic artifice, it’s black and white photography is still gorgeous though the most impressive technical aspect of the film was editing. The print on Netflix Instant is a fairly miserable transfer job, but there were moments of montage and transposition that were at an Eisenstein-level of brilliance. In fact, I imagine that during the lead-up to Antonio’s failed attempt to steal the bike, De Sica was heavily influenced by the “Odessa Steps” sequence from The Battleship Potemkin. The interplay between the world, not of wealth but merely getting by, against Antonio’s existentialist battle to survive does more to cement what drives him to steal another man’s bike than any amount of exposition ever could.

Lamberto Maggiorani was a non-professional performer as Antonio but his performance was better for its almost total lack of theatricality. A great director can get star performances from the most unlikely sources, and Vittorio De Sica hit a home run with Lamberto Maggiorani as Antonio. Not simply because he looks like the type of man who would be in Antonio’s position, Maggiorani hits the right notes of frustration, desperation, and wounded desire at every corner. Antonio is a man constantly bullied by the cruel whims of fate, and Maggiorani always makes you feel his heartbreak. Enzo Staiola is also excellent as Bruno’s young son particularly when his visions of his father are forever shattered by Antonio’s decision to steal the bicycle.

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But, above all, what makes The Bicycle Thief such a masterpiece is its complete refusal to talk down to its audience or gild the linings of the movie whatsoever. Even before Antonio decides to steal another man’s back, he is pushed to the edge time and time again. He follows an impoverished old man into a church and harasses him during mass on the off-chance the man will help him get his bike back. At one point, he thinks his son has drowned in a river but when it turns out to be another boy that has suffered, he can’t even suppress his smile that at least it’s someone else suffering. If there’s a political statement in The Bicycle Thief, it’s that society can not be surprised if we begin to sociopathically care only for our own needs and desires if there is absolutely no safety net waiting to ensure that we survive.

I had never seen The Bicycle Thief before yesterday, and even after one viewing, it has already leaped its way into being one of the top ten films I’ve ever seen. Occasionally, the films that I idolize for this blog are particularly cerebral and are only appreciable by a niche crowd (The Tree of Life or Through a Glass Darkly). The Bicycle Thief is simple yet so elegant that I can’t imagine anyone not finding something to love in this marvelous picture. For film-lovers, it is the definition of required viewing.

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+

 

(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+

(A quick aside before I begin my review. I think I’m going to start putting promotional posters for the film as the original picture instead of the screencaps that I will use in the rest of the review. I’d love to hear feedback about this decision)

Akira Kurosawa made his mark in history as the peerless director of samurai movies, but even a casual examination of his most famous films (Ran, Seven Samurai, Kagemusha), whether they’re samurai movies or not, reveal that he brought so much more to the table. Along with Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick, Kurosawa certainly has to be considered one of the greatest visual directors of all time (I could honestly watch Ran with the sound off. It’s that gorgeous), and as showcased in Rashomon, he had a mastery of postmodern metatextualism before that was even a recognized “thing” in cinema. His 1950 masterpiece Rashomon was a light years ahead of its time meditation on storytelling and the perspective of fiction along with a deeply cynical (though with some light at the end) take on human nature that created an entire subgenre of cinema in its wake.

A film that is more about the telling of the stories we hear than the actual murder mystery at the heart of the film, Rashomon is a film dripping with as much visual style as it is narrative stylings. As a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) try to take shelter from a storm in the Rashomon temple, they are joined by a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) and seek his advice on a mysterious unsolved murder they can not solve. The woodcutter claims that he found the body of a samurai (Masayuki Mori) that had been murdered. When the woodcutter reports the crime to the authorities, he and the priest are witnesses to the trial as the two other principal parties to the murder, a notorious bandit named Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) and the samurai’s wife (Masako Kanazawa), as well as the samurai’s ghost provide wildly different versions of what transpired.

According to Tajomaru, he was resting in the forest when he saw the samurai and his wife walk by. When he instantly fell in love with the wife, Tajomaru tricked the samurai and tied him up. After he seduced the wife, she forced Tajomaru and the samurai to fight to the death over their honor, and Tajomaru killed the samurai in a fair duel. According to the wife, she was raped by Tajomaru and when her husband refused to speak to her or look at her after Tajomaru fled, she killed her husband in anger. According to the samurai’s ghost (as summoned through a medium), he decided to end his own life because he couldn’t bear the shame that was brought on to him by his unfaithful wife. None of the stories are compatible and when you hear a fourth version of the events from the woodcutter himself (which in itself wasn’t necessarily reliable), it’s anybody’s guess as to who was really telling the truth.

Although some may say that the performances were overwrought, a lot of the melodrama of the film makes complete sense within the context of the stories we’re being told (which all show their respective narrator in the best light possible). Toshiro Mifune was the stand-out performance of the whole film as the bandit Tajomaru (even if his evil laughs were kind of outrageous). Often shot in tight close-ups which captured his sweat-drenched face, there was never a version of the story where he seemed like a good guy, but Mifune’s ability to capture every single possible motivation and alternative personality of Tajomaru was endlessly exciting. Masako Kanazawa was electric in the scenes told from her perspective as her desolation after her rape slowly transforms into murderous rage to the husband who has forsaken her after her violation. Similarly, when you see a more manipulative side from her during the woodcutter’s version of the tale, she is equally impressive.

As always, Kurosawa’s visual aesthetic is second to none. Shot in a gorgeous black and white, Rashomon took advantage of immersive and intensifying close-ups, long and gorgeous tracking shots, expert lighting, and wonderful location shooting. I watched this movie today and the first third two days ago (because I worked all day yesterday and was watching this before I went to bed on Friday), and while it makes it harder to pick out all of the great individual shots, there are still plenty of obvious highlights. The scene from the wife’s point of view where she’s approaching her husband to kill him was shot with her entire body in profile with this hellish light washing over her. When the story is told from the samurai’s perspective, there’s a great moment where the dagger he uses to kill himself is shot like it’s Excalibur in the stone as all of the light in the scene is directed towards it. Kurosawa’s eye is second to none.

Still, the most important part of the film was how Kurosawa turned the whole notion of cinematic storytelling on its head. Prior to this film (and with almost no other exceptions that I can think of), what you saw on screen was what happened? The camera was meant to be used for truth (or in the case of a fictional film, presenting the “truth” of the narrative). Kurosawa realized that  you could use cinema to show competing and ultimately contradictory points of view on the same event, and that discovery’s influence on legions of writers from Quentin Tarantino to Charlie Kauffman to Wes Anderson has been felt for half a century now. He wasn’t simply playing around with linearity (such as what Orson Welles did in Citizen Kane); he was rewriting all of the narrative rules for the cinematic form in terms of perspective and closure.

If you’re looking for one of the definitive films of Japanese cinema (and one of the greatest works from Japan’s master, although I prefer Ran slightly more) or simply one of the definitive films of world cinema period, you need look no further than Rashomon. It’s got a compelling narrative that offers no easy solutions. It has some less than positive things to say about human nature and how cruel we can be to one another. It’s got action (though not as much as Kurosawa’s more specific samurai films). And it’s a gorgeous film even though it was obviously shot on a budget that wasn’t as expansive as his later epics. If there are directors that are guaranteed to almost never disappoint, Kurosawa has to be one of them.

Final Score: A

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+

Here’s some strange irony for you. This will be my 200th film I’ve reviewed for this blog (out of 500 total posts/reviews of other media). It’s a proto-French New Wave film with elements of both film noir and classic heist films. Yet, despite this, I have still yet to watch a proper French New Wave film on here. The closest I came to this was Lacombe, Lucien by director Louis Malle but he was more inspired  by the French New Wave rather than an actual progenitor of the form like Jean-Luc Godard or Francois Truffaut. 1956’s Bob Le Flambeur (translates to “Bob the Gambler”) by director Jean Pierre Melville is considered one of the preludes to the French New Wave for some of its revolutionary film techniques (which I’ll get to later) and is an endlessly entertaining and ambitious take on the classic gangster movie that subverts the audience’s expectations at every point with one of the best film endings that I’ve seen in recent memory. It wouldn’t seem unfair to say that films like Heat or the Ocean’s Eleven franchise wouldn’t have been able to exist had it not been for the artistic re-imagining of the heist film in Melville’s well-deserved classic.

Bob Montagne (Roger Duchesne) is a gambling addict with more class in his cuff-links than most film stars have in their whole body. Even when he’s down on his luck (which is all of the time), he still has a nearly palatial hotel room and enough money to spread around to his friends or even offer food and shelter to a down on her luck working girl, the breathtaking Anne (Isabelle Corey). A professional thief in his past, Bob has retired from his life of crime to simply gamble his days away, but when he loses his entire bankroll in one day (on tilt after Anne leaves him for another of his proteges, the young Paolo [Daniel Cauchy]), he has to come up with money quick. When he hears about 800 million francs sitting in a safe in the Deauville casino, the opportunity to strike it rich is too much to turn down. As his crew’s loose lips and greed threaten to tear the entire operation apart, Bob is forced to make the biggest gamble of his career in order to make one last score.

Easily the most remarkable aspect of this film is Jean Pierre Melville’s love of the iconic film noir greats. With obvious allusions to nearly every Bogart film ever made as well as the sheer visual imagery of the smoke-filled room, the layers and layers of shadows, the well-dressed immaculately masculine men, or the rain-soaked streets, this film exudes the vibes of classic American cinema but with a winking self-confidence and playfulness that American movies are too serious to ever incorporate. The film distinguishes itself in terms of cinematography from its beloved predecessors by incorporating several innovations of its own that would go on to revolutionize French cinema forever. Melville uses a hand-held camera (essentially unheard of at the time) and regularly generates unconventional and interesting camera angles that were just light years ahead of their time. That is classic French New Wave before it began and when you throw in the fact that Melville’s editing and cuts were as frenetic and seemingly random (though not really random) as a Godard picture, you can’t begin to overstate how influential his camerawork would be.

I watched this movie earlier and took an unplanned break between putting up this review so I’m going to draw things to a close (also because I have to write a review for the last disc of Season 5 of Doctor Who plus make my best of films 151-200 list since this was movie 200). Needless to say though, I thoroughly enjoyed this film. It was an ode to film noir while simultaneously allowing itself to be a little cooler and classier than American film noir ever was. Film noir is one of my favorite genres, and there was always something about the smoky stylized atmosphere of movies like Maltese Falcon and Casablanca that made me fall in love with the movies. The film also stands out by being a heist film in name only because it is simultaneously so much more and so much less stripping the genre down to its bare essential and then replacing the parts with something fresh and exciting. For fans of French cinema, film noir, and gangster movies, Bob Le Flambeur is an easy sell.

Final Score: A-

Long time readers of the blog may know that for the last couple of months I have opined the lack of a single movie that I’ve felt was worthy of the elusive score of an A+. Yes, I’ve given several books that score recently, but not since I reviewed Gary Oldman’s directorial debut and cinema verite masterpiece, Nil by Mouth, on August 5th has a movie received top marks. As a matter of fact, we are less than a month away from the one year anniversary of this blog’s existence with almost 170 movie reviews (out of my 441 posts), only 7 films have gotten that elusive score. Well, leave it to the Swedes to finally get me to number 8. During my first review for a Federico Fellini picture (the understated La Strada), I mentioned three names as being arguably the most influential in foreign cinema. Those men were Federico Fellini (Italy), Akira Kurosawa (Japan), and Ingmar Bergman (Sweden). Lo and behold, those three men are now responsible for three of the best movies I’ve watched for this blog (and none were films I had seen at any point earlier in my life). Fellini Satyricon has come to symbolize for me the A Clockwork Orange of historical epics, and Kurosawa’s Ran was an absurdly delightful (and visually stunning) amalgamation of King Lear and samurai. Ingmar Bergman’s 1967 classic Persona is much harder to categorize. Alongside David Lynch’s Inland Empire, it is perhaps the most overtly intellectual and symbolic film I’ve watched to date, but at a perfect running time and a marvelous minimalist presentation, Persona had its claws in me from its disorienting beginning to its even more puzzling conclusion.

To describe the plot of Persona to newcomers (such as myself just an hour and a half ago) is to walk a less than metaphorical minefield. Anything short of a scholarly analysis of every scene would belie the inherent complexity of the tale beneath its seemingly simple shell. Bergman’s muse Liv Ullmann plays actress Elisabet Vogler, an actress who has suddenly and inexplicably developed a case of complete mutism. She is assigned a beautiful young nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) to take care of her. After a brief stay at a local hospital, Elisabet’s doctor decides that it would be for the best for Elisabet to get some fresh air by the ocean, and so Alma and Elisabet move into a secluded beach house completely apart from the rest of the world. As Alma shares every last intimate detail of her life with the wordless Elisabet, the women develop a deep (and dangerous) bond, and Alma slowly grows viciously jealous of any attention and affection the mute Alma could potentially show to others. Without wanting to ruin anything for fear of spoiling the pleasure of this truly classic film, the line between reality and fantasy (and even reality and the film you are watching) slowly begins to unfurl, the tightening bonds between these two women threatens to hurtle them both over the edge.

Bergman (alongside Fellini and possibly Goddard) is responsible for so much of the iconic imagery and shot composition of the last 50 years worth of artistically ambitious cinema. Whether it is extreme and intentionally uncomfortable close-ups  of the actors’ faces (so that every twitch and pang is painfully visible) or the oft-parodied shot of one actress facing the camera directly while the other sits at a perpendicular angle or the combination of a spartan set direction with high contrasts of shadows and light such that half the shot is nearly invisible while the other half is washed out in sunlight, this film was obviously made on a pittance but it remains both a visual powerhouse and one of the most stylistically influential films from one of the most influential directors of all time. David Lynch famously recreated the shot of the two heroines’ faces merging in his neo-noir psychological thriller Mulholland Drive. Similarly, this one of the earliest films I can remember watching where a director clearly reminded the audience that they were watching a film. The movie begins through the lens of a projector and brief flashes of old silent films. Whenever possible, Bergman reflects cinematic artifice right back at the audience in order to strengthen the over-all themes of the fleeting nature of reality even going so far as to have the film completely come apart at the seams during a moment of high psychological stress.

There are only five characters in the film, but only Alma and Elisabet are ever on screen for more than a minute or so. Much like Giulietta Massina for Federico Fellini (who was his wife and long-time inspiration), Liv Ullmann was one of Bergman’s most recurring stars and despite speaking only a dozen words or so the entire film, it was immediately apparent why she was able to inspire one of the most creative minds in cinema history. With just her impressively emotive face (often framed in a jarring close-up), she is able to evoke so much pain and tragedy (as well as a tough resiliency) easier than most actresses could do with spoken words. There is a moment towards the end of the film where Alma delivers a lengthy monologue but the shot is framed squarely on Ullmann’s face, and even more than Alma’s scathing indictment of Elisabet’s life, it is the sheer hurt on Ullmann’s face that makes the scene. In no way do I wish to discredit Bibi Andersson’s performanec. She is forced to do virtually all of the speaking of the film. And her characterization of the role constantly reveals hidden complexities in her character through her inhibitionless retellings of past indiscretions and a youthful broken heart. She also channels all of the jealousy and dangerous attachment with the right amount of build-up and eventual explosive intensity.

Discussing the themes of the film is just as tricky as a concise summation of the plot for anything too detailed runs the possibility of ruining the surprise for first-time viewers (though the surprise may not even exist for some viewers and may only be my interpretation of the plot). At its core though, the film was very reminiscent of the David Lynch film Inland Empire (I want to take back the Fellini comparisons I made in that particular review and replace them all with Bergman references) in that is about the artificial nature of storytelling and the various roles we inhabit whether as a person or as someone in the entertainment business. At one point before Alma and Elisabet leave for the beach, Elisabet’s psychiatrist supposes that Elisabet’s mutism is the result of her being tired of being split between so many different personalities and that her silence is the only way for her to achieve the truth. While that may be true on some level, there are also increasing levels of guilt and shame for obliquely referenced problems in her past as well as her inability to deal with human tragedies (signified through allusions to the Holocaust and the Vietnam War). Similarly, sexual guilt plays a heavy role in both women’s lives and a prolonged discussion of an exhibitionist sexual experience from Alma’s past proved to be one of the turning points of the film.

This is art house cinema at its artsiest. Often films like that can be mentally exhausting (eventually one’s mind stops being able to cope with Inland Empire during its epic three hour run), but at less than 90 minutes, Persona manages to keep your brain (and heart) fully engaged for every frame. Even when the film is at its most inscrutable (mainly the moments when it completely demolishes the proverbial fourth wall), it is a cinematic delight and the work of one of the true geniuses of the medium. For anyone with even the most passing interest in foreign cinema and intellectually demanding movies, this is must-watch. I’m now ashamed that I’m nearly 23 years old and still hadn’t seen an Ignmar Bergman film until just now. Without a doubt, this one of the best films I’ve watched for this blog, and it has actually inspired me to go back to a more regular movie watching schedule rather than the seemingly endless television and books that have taken up most of my writing for the last month and a half. Because if there are movies this great out there and I still haven’t seen them, I need to get back to my cinematic roots.

Final Score: A+

 

Two of my favorite directors of all time are Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch. Pound for pound, I don’t think there are two more artistic and stylistic directors out there. They ram more symbols and activity into one frame of a movie than most directors have in their entire oeuvre of films. When I watched Fellini’s earlier film La Strada, I got the impression that he was a director in a similar vein to those two artists, but I never expected I would watch one of his films that I would put int he same league as classics like A Clockwork Orange or Mulholland Drive. I was wrong. I just finished Fellini Satyricon, and though (much like when I first watched the two films I mentioned earlier) I feel the need to watch this film four or five more times to know completely and grasp the fully the film I just watched, I also knew when the final credits rolled that I had watched a brilliant masterpiece.

Fellini Satyricon tells the story of Encolpio, a young Roman (in ancient Rome) and his many, many trials and tribulations. Encolpio’s former best friend is Ascilto, though they are no longer friends because of Ascilto stole Encolpio’s (for lack of a better word) sex slave Gitone, a young, very handsome boy. Encolpio and Ascilto (like most Romans) are openly bisexual and pederasts. I would be lying if I didn’t say upfront that this is one of the most homo-erotic films that I have ever seen. The film continues through escalating troubles as Encolpio is captured and enslaved, kills a demigod, fights a mintoaur in a labyrinth, and must find a cure for his impotence.

As gripping and interesting as the plot gets through its many different episodes (which are often as epic as one of Homer’s poems), the real strength of the film rests in Fellini’s direction and his sense of visual style. There are the times when one’s senses are almost unable to grasp everything that is happening on screen quickly enough to register them the way they must be experienced. Fellini does not let your brain rest. Nearly every scene is filled in both the fore- and background with so much activity and little detail that you find yourself paying attention to pretty much every aspect of the film. It was one of the most visually inventive films I’ve ever watched, and it managed to accomplish in the 1960’s without the aid of computers. Fellini just composed his film like a masterful painting and simply let reality do the talking.

One of my favorite aspects of the film is the way in which Fellini composes the movie much as if it were a stage play and being the master of surrealism, combines the two mediums seamlessly. The film’s opening scene could have been Shakespeare had not been about two gay ancient Romans. From the expository nature of the dialogue literally explaining what the characters were doing on screen at the second to the grand poetry of the lines themselves, it seemed as suited for the stage as well as the silver screen. There are times later in the film a well where stories within stories occur and Fellini manages to combine “reality” with “fiction” in marvelous and original ways.

The only reason I can’t recommend this film to everyone is for the same reason that I can’t recommend A Clockwork Orange or Eraserhead to everyone. It takes a certain intellectual capacity to be able to pay attention for the length of this film in the way it deserves and to constantly be processing all of the sensory information that Fellini throws at you. However, if you think you are up for the challenge of this film and you have a history of being able to handle films by artists like Lynch or Kubrick, then you simply have to watch this movie. It’s one of the best movies that I have seen in a good, long while.

Final Score: A+