Category: Best Foreign Language Film


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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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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+

 

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A few years back, comedian Louis C.K. released a stand-up special for HBO, and one of the first bits of his set was an extended rant about the inherent misery of life. His initial metaphor was that anytime you buy a child a dog, you’re actually setting everyone up for misery sooner or later when said dog dies. He then took it further by saying that all human relationships are predicated on inevitable tragedy. Either you date and you break up, you date and you get married, or you date, get married, and then one of you dies. Louis C.K. was taking human mortality for somewhat deep comedic laughs, but the newest film from Austrian director Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon) is an extended dramatic meditation on the untold tragedy and suffering of what happens if you’re a married couple that’s “fortunate” enough to make it to old age together. And, Amour, the 2012 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language film is nearly as emotional an experience as it gets.

Considering the film’s subject matter (an elderly couple’s battle with Alzheimer’s), it was somewhat ironic that this was the film I watched right now for this blog because my best friend and I had a fairly in-depth conversation on the topic just the other day. Amour wrestles with the question “Is it worth keeping someone alive who is no longer themselves in any sense of the word?” It would be easy to misinterpret this film as a chronicle of one husband’s almost selfless devotion to his wife, but that would be the wrong way to look at the film. The film wonders (in a vein more similar to The Road than one might think) whether the notion that human existence is sacrosanct is really true and if there are, in fact, moments when it would just be better if we were dead. And, if my interpretation of Haneke’s thesis is correct, I would be hard-pressed to name a film that handles these topics with more care or brutal insight.

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An elderly French couple, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne Laurent (Academy Award nominee Emmanuelle Riva), wile away their few remaining years in their well-kept but antiquated Paris apartment. Anne is in her 80s but in her youth, she was a much-respected piano instructor and one of her star pupils, Alexandre, is now a famous concert pianist, and the film opens on Georges and Anne at one of his concerts. Sadly, for this otherwise happily married pair of octogenarians, this will be their last night resembling happiness as Anne is on the verge of manifesting symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease (though it’s never stated as such in the film) and she’s not long away from the first of a series of strokes. And though, Anne is somewhat functional at first, it isn’t long before she loses any semblance of her former self and Georges, with occasional help from his daughter Eva (La Ceremonie‘s Isabella Huppert), is forced to spend every waking moment caring for the shell of a person that used to be his wife.

If you couldn’t tell from that description, Amour is a sad film. It reaches Synecdoche, New York/Rachel, Rachel levels of misery. In fact, it’s safe to say that it exceeds both of those films in terms of brutal heart-ache. Yet, it accomplishes all of this without falling into the trappings of melodrama. There were a million ways that writer and director Michael Haneke could have spun this tale, but he went for horrific honesty. There are few possibles fates in life more terrifying than to succumb to a degenerative mental illness like Alzheimer’s and Haneke captures it without sentiment or embellishment or any possible silver-lining. For those who have seen The Notebook, this film comes off as the antithesis of the big reveal of that film. With haunting realism, Amour stares suffering at its purest in the face and doesn’t blink.

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Emmanuelle Riva was nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards this year for her performance in this film, and now, I honestly don’t know whether or not she or Jennifer Lawrence should have won. I can’t begin to fathom the amount of research Riva put in to nailing all of the physical symptoms of not just Alzheimer’s but also the multiple strokes her character suffered. It is a commitment to a realistic portrayal of a type of mental illness that’s nearly on par with Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. My family had a close friend when I was a child who ultimately succumbed to Alzheimer’s so I’ve seen the torment the illness wreaks on a human being. And Emmanuelle Riva channeled the bewilderment and constant terror that Anne was feeling any second she wasn’t in a state of merciful lucidity.

However, in a vein similar to Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (though at least Anne has an arc, but it’s an arc towards stasis), the real emotional core of Amour was carried by Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges. One can not belittle the suffering that Anne goes through. By the end of the film, she exists as a barely conscious being. But, it is through Georges’s eyes that we experience Anne’s suffering. And slowly throughout the film, Jean-Louis transforms what appears to be a selfless devotion to his wife into an entirely selfish desire to keep her alive because he couldn’t bear to be alone. And Georges is cognizant of his own suffering and has to deal with knowing every day and every night that the woman he’s been with decades is gone and he’s clinging to mere memories and her corporeal existence. And, as a portrait of the malignant reality of getting old and facing the end of everything you’ve ever cared about, Jean-Louis Trintignant is just as good as Emmanuelle Riva. He (along with several other performers) impressed me more than the theatrics of Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, and Day-Lewis is my favorite living actor.

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The cinematography from Darius Khondji paired with Haneke’s direction is uniformly excellent. The camera captures in rich detail every inch of Georges and Anne’s apartment and the quiet life that Georges wants to live versus the tribulations that have been forced upon him and his wife. And, Haneke’s decision to consistently incorporate lengthy takes only adds to the heightened realism of the picture. The takes in Amour become uncomfortably long, but by refusing to turn away from a brutal moment with cuts that alleviate the tension, Haneke forces the viewer directly into the suffering of Amour‘s world. There’s a moment towards the end of the film that I don’t want to spoil for anyone that involves Georges reciting a tale from his childhood to his essentially catatonic wife that ranks among the most effectively shot, written, and acted sequences of modern memory.

Amour is so singular in its dedication to heartbreak that by the end of the film, one may (though it seems mostly doubtful) find themselves inured to the misery. I am a crier. It does not take much to make me cry in a film. And, although Amour is without question one of the most distressing and gut-wrenching films I’ve ever sat through, it did not make me cry. And, I think that was intentional on Haneke’s part. Eventually, Amour begins to leave the realm of sad and enters existentialist horror. You become too overwhelmed with the notion that this could easily happen to you or someone you care about to be able to process the film in typical emotional ways. Or at least, that was my response. By Amour‘s end, I began to experience a physical sense of dread. The misery of this film manifested itself in me as a sense of being physically ill. That’s powerful film-making.

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Watching Amour is a commitment. It’s not entertaining in any traditional sense, and there were moments where the film’s unwavering artistic vision bordered on torturous (in the good sense). You are volunteering yourself to two hours of heart-ache and suffering without any hope of a gilded edge to soften the pain. But, Amour is an edifying experience of truly exceptional power and uncompromising respect for the viewer’s intelligence as well as the plight of its protagonists. For those with an interest in powerful cinema and for film-making that has something to say, Amour was easily one of the best films of last year. However, if you are already depressed or sad about something, hold off on watching Amour until you can come in with a more even-keel because, otherwise, I fear that this film could ruin you.

Final Score: A

(One final note. I have now finally seen all of last year’s Best Picture nominees. This was the last one to come out on DVD/Blu-Ray. And, boy did the Academy really FUBAR what won. For those curious, this is my list of the order of the films nominated for Best Picture [This disqualifies my top two films of the year which weren’t nominated, The Master and To the Wonder]:

1. Life of Pi

2. Amour

3. Silver Linings Playbook

4. Django Unchained

5. Zero Dark Thirty

6. Lincoln

7. Argo

8. Beasts of the Southern Wild

9. Les Miserables

 

It’s not uncommon for film snobs (I sadly include myself in that category) to automatically assume that most celebrated foreign cinema is superior to American films receiving the same type of accolades. Other nations (especially the French, Swedish, and Italians) show a thematic and stylistic boundary-pushing drive that are only present in America’s most experimental film-makers (Lynch, Todd Haynes, Todd Solondz, etc). 9 times out of 10, American films are only willing to go so close to the edge before they pull back for an adult, honest examination of the way the world really works. An Iranian film would be the first foreign nation I’d choose for a mature and intellectually honest examination of tough moral issues considering the theocratic nature of the country’s regime. If last year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner, A Separation, is any indication of Iranian cinema, I clearly haven’t been giving the country the respect it deserves.

Similar to another wonderful (but criminally underlooked) film from 2011, Margaret, director Asghar Farhadi’s film A Separation is a meditation on guilt, responsibility, and family. Strong-willed Iranian wife Simin (Leila Hatami) wishes to divorce her husband Nader (Peyman Noadi). Nader is a relatively progressive man who has never mistreated her. In fact, Simin still loves her husband very much. But, she wants to take her daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), out of Iran to have a better life. Her husband wouldn’t mind and would likely go with Simin, but his father is in the terminal stages of Alzheimers, and he won’t leave him behind. Nader won’t force his wife to stay with him (which he would be allowed to do under sharia law which is what Iran has), but he won’t let Simin take their daughter away, and the departure of his wife has unforeseen consequences.

Nader  must work to support himself and his daughter. Since she is in the sixth grade and he believes in her receiving a proper education (as I said, Nader is a fairly modern man for his culture), neither his daughter nor Nader himself can stay at home to look after his father. He hires another Muslim woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), to care for his father while he works. Because she wears the full-body hijab (the head scarves but in this case covering the whole body), it is not readily apparent that Razieh is actually several months pregnant. One day, Razieh ties Nader’s father to his bed and runs some errands. Nader returns before she does and finds his father nearly dead as well as some money missing. In a fit of anger, Nader accuses Razieh of theft and throws her out of his home for neglecting his father. However, she falls down the stairs and has a miscarriage, and Nader is brought to trial for the potential murder of Razieh’s unborn child. The court has to determine whether he knew Razieh was pregnant and whether his pushing her was what caused the miscarriage in the first place.

This is one of those films where a simple plot description barely begins to scratch the surface of the various thematic implications of this film. At a basic level, it’s a film about one man’s trial for manslaughter and whether he had a substantive enough role in the death of the fetus to be found guilty of a crime. But as the movie’s events continue to unfurl, it’s quickly apparent that the film has bigger statements to make. I don’t want to spoil any of the major twists in the film because a lot of the joy of the film is watching its various thematic threads unravel til you see the final picture, but it’s a movie about our inability to responsibility for our own actions, whether the rigidity of the criminal justice system (under strict sharia law or more generally) actually serves meaningful justice, and about the rationalizations we make to justify our own actions.

A Separation is a terrifically acted film on all fronts. Although most of the film’s promotional materials seem to give Leila Hatami nearly equal (or front) billing with Peyman Noadi, Nader is the real main character of the film, and it’s his moral struggles over the course of the movie that are we most meant to identify with. I have serious problems with patriarchal societies, and although I appreciate and really like many aspects of Islam, I can’t stand theocratic societies of any religious stripe. So, my ability to sympathize so fully with a man like Nader is a testament both to the writing as well as Noadi’s performance. You see his love for his wife and his daughter clashing with his unwillingness to force her to stay as well as his stubbornness to fight for her (which she wants). You see how well he convinces himself and others that he has no responsibility for Reziah’s unborn child’s death even when it becomes clear that things aren’t that simple.

The supporting performances also dazzle. Shahab Hosseini nearly steals the entire film as Reziah’s quick-tempered husband, Hojjat. It’s not easy playing the villain of a piece (though it would probably be inaccurate to call Hojjat a villain), but if you can cross the cultural barriers and understand the society that would produce a man like Hojjat, Shahab Hosseini’s performance seems to define an entire cross-section of middle eastern masculinity. Sarina Farhadi is great as Termeh, Nader’s daughter who is caught not only in the crossfire of her parents’ disintegrating marriage but also the moral ambiguity of knowing that not everything her father has been telling the court is true. It’s a tough role for a young actress, but Sarina shines. Sareh Bayat also turns in a fine performance as the emotionally damaged Reziah whose whole world is turned upside down even though she has her own secrets to hide.

The movie loses its nerve a little bit by the end, and while the first 4/5 of the film promise a resolution cloaked in moral ambiguity, the actual delivery seems cheapened through a simpler answer. Don’t let that very minor quibble deter you from watching one of the best films of last year. This film should have been nominated for Best Picture. Lord knows it was better than The Artist and that’s not getting into the trio of films (War Horse, The HelpExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close) that were outright bad. It’s really a shame that the Academy so rarely nominates foreign language films for Best Picture. I may be incorrect but I think the last one was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. If you like foreign cinema and can appreciate films with a morally complex web of tales, A Separation is most surely for you.

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+

I tend to turn my nose up at kitschy sentimentality. It’s not that I’m incapable of feeling genuine, happy human emotion. I simply think that film-makers try to exploit easily manipulated emotions for cheap dramatic effect. One of the (many) reasons that The Tree of Life was so exceptional to me was the way its optimistic and heartfelt message never once felt artificial or forced. Whenever films come along that an incredibly sentimental and warm emotional undertone, I am immediately skeptical and cynical. So, when one of those films is actually enjoyable and genuine, it is a welcome escape from the pessimism at the heart of so much great cinema. 2001’s Nowhere in Africa won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 2002 Academy Awards (it’s weird that the tenth Oscars since then is Sunday), and while the movie is long (140 minutes) and feels even longer, it is a poignant and obviously heartfelt film with an attention to often overlooked historical detail that should be enlightening for anyone with an interest in foreign cinema and a less studied side of the Jewish WWII experience.

In 1938, after spending six months in Kenya and nearly dying of malaria, German lawyer (and Jew) Walter Redlich (Merab Ninidze) is finally able to bring his wife Jettel (Julianne Kohler) and his young daughter Regina (Lea Kurke as a child and Karoline Eckertz as a teenager) to Africa in order to escape the impending persecution of the Jews in their native Germany. Making his living as a cattle farmer, Walter must struggle to acclimate his high-society wife to the realities of African living while his daughter grows up in a culture entirely different than the one where he was raised. As Regina grows up, she begins to have more in common with the African tribesmen that she befriends thanks to the family’s cook, Owour (Sidede Onyulo), than the other British and German children she meets at her school. This new homeland threatens to tear apart the marriage of Walter and Jettel and matters only become more complicated when the British government arrests every German refugee in the nation and puts them in (very posh) prison camps. When Jettel sleeps with a British soldier in order to secure her husbands release and ability to work on a British farm, their marriage is put to the test and eventually even their loyalties to their homeland over their new home in Africa becomes a problem over the 10 years that the film takes place.

We haven’t watched a German film for this blog since Werner Herzog’s Stroszek in September (which was great) unless you count the Danish (but German produced) The Monastery (which I don’t since it’s mostly a Scandinavian production). Nowhere in Africa continues the streak of nothing but top notch German films that I’ve watched on here (including Das Boot and The White Ribbon). I’m having trouble making up my mind about whether or not I think the film is way too long and just way too slow. Even if it was, it doesn’t undermine my appreciation of the film. The movies plot isn’t exactly propulsive. More often than not, it’s a study in the day-to-day life and fight for survival that the Redlich family endured when they arrived in Africa, but it’s chock full of so many interesting details and cultural tidbits that I can forgive it for inching along at its own deliberate pace. The movie feels at least an hour longer than its already lengthy running time, and while I became very attached to these characters (particularly Regina and Owour), the film took its own time to lay out the details of the complexity and competing desires of this expatriated family.

One of the most engaging aspects of the film was the way it really explored the hypocrisy of many of the refugees who emigrated to Africa and the way that they treated the African natives after they had been abused for racial reasons back in Europe. Jettel doesn’t begin the film as a very nice woman and watching her steady transformation to a woman that loves Africa and doesn’t want to leave its people was one of the most rewarding aspects of the film. Unlike so many films that deal with hot button issues like race and especially the Holocaust, this movie doesn’t find one race miraculously saving a downtrodden other race, but instead finds two people who have experienced exploitation and destruction finding their grace in each other. At no point did I find this film to be either condescending to the Jews (it’s based off an autobiographical novel of the same) or the Africans, and while each groups were show to have their own strange quirks, watching Regina become the primary link between the African tribal culture of Owour and the European genteelness of her family was fascinating. Similarly, Regina’s coming of age was the emotional tie that kept this film from ever becoming too slow as seeing her grow up was always interesting.

Still, despite all my praise for the film, it’s a serious problem when I’ve thought nearly two hours has passed and the movie’s only been on for a little over one. The movie’s languid pace will be too much for some, although for anyone with an interest in emotionally uplifting cinema with a veracity that is far too rare in today’s market, Nowhere in Africa is a delight. The film could have left around 30 minutes or so on the cutting room floor, but even its seemingly endless running time shouldn’t ward you away because at least this excessive attention to detail gives the movie a lived in and authentic quality that is its primary selling point. Whenever I think of the great nations for foreign cinema, Germany is never the first nation to spring to mind, but Nowhere in Africa is just another example from this blog of Germany being one of the most under-appreciated outlets of foreign films. For all students of foreign cinema, this is another movie to add to your list.

Final Score: B+

Since the blog was originally dedicated solely to movies (before it expanded to include other fields0, it should hopefully come as no shock that movies are a fairly integral part of my life. I always loved movies as a youth, but my status as a movie aficionado didn’t really set in until my first trip to Disney World the summer after my 9th grade. While I love virtually every inch of Disney World, MGM Studios remains my undisputed favorite of all of the parks (after three separate visits over the last decade), and even though it’s essentially a glorified tour, MGM Studio’s Great Movie Ride is also my favorite ride at the whole of Disney World. Sitting through that (and to a lesser extent, the Backlot tour) opened up a love of classic and modern cinema that has only gotten stronger with each passing year. During that initial trip, I bought a trivia book about AFI’s Top 100 American movies and tried to devour as many of the films on the list as I could, and when I returned as a freshman in college, I bought not one, not two, but three books on movies, including a comprehensive Oscar history book, a massive coffee table book that is an illustrated history of cinema from the late 1800’s to the early 2000’s, and the NY Times 1000 greatest movies ever made.

When all of the other pleasures of my youth (politics, poker, and countless other hobbies) lost their flavor, movies only grew in stature. I don’t think I could ever participate in the production of the film (though I’ve started on several unfinished screenplays), but watching and writing about the movies I love gives me more pleasure than anything else out there. The first time I was bowled over the gorgeous cinematography of Ran or had my mind blown by a David Lynch film or stood amazed when I saw Daniel Day Lewis act for the first time, those are all memories as tangible and important as anything in “real life”. Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film in 1988, and for anyone with a deep and heartfelt love of cinema and whose heart has been touched by those fleeting images on screen, this is your story brought to life in as haunting and beautiful a way possible. The film drags at times and I occasionally felt lost in cultural references I didn’t fully comprehend, but for all movie lovers everywhere, this is for you.

Cinema Paradiso is the heavily autobiographical and personal tale of director Giuseppe Tornatore’s childhood in Sicily. A successful director, Salvatore “Toto” Di Vita (Jacques Perrin), has lived in Rome for the last 30 years without once returning to his childhood home of Giancardo, Sicily. One night, he comes home to find a message from his mostly estranged mother saying that his childhood mentor, Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), has passed away. The movie then flashes back to Toto’s childhood (played as a child by Salvatore Cascio) in post World War II Sicily with his impoverished mother and a father who in all likelihood died fighting the Russians. Toto befriends Alfredo, the middle-aged projectionist for the local theater, where Toto instantly falls in love with the world of movies (and it seems the town spends most of its time in the theater). As Toto grows up, he eventually takes over the projectionist duties into his teenage years (Marco Leonardi) where he falls in love, spends his time in the army, and eventually grows beyond Giancardo. Alfredo encourages Toto to leave his hometown and pursue his dreams, and Toto doesn’t come back until 30 years later to pay respect to the memory of his departed friend and witness the way his town has changed.

If that sounds like I described essentially the entire story of the film there, I did, but it’s not the plot here that matters. It’s the gorgeous, minute details (which are on rare occasions, excessive). Before I looked up to see whether this film was based on the director’s real life, I could already tell simply because of how honest and genuine this story felt. There are plenty of films out there about making movies (Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Inland Empire spring immediately to mind), but I’ve never seen such a beautiful tribute to movies themselves. The film is abound with footage from classic films, and every detail of the lighting and the framing of the shots reminds you simply of how much Giuseppe Tornatore loves classic cinema. It shows the way films brought communities together before they were a million ways to entertain yourself cut off from the rest of the world (a fact that is already being bemoaned in this film made in the 80’s). It shows how a passion for art and entertainment can transform not only your own life but of everyone else around you. It does all this and manages to avoid maudlin sentimentality and cheap emotional tricks for the entire running time which is a feat in and of itself.

With the possible exception of the youngest incarnation of Toto who goes back and forth between an astonishingly natural performance for a child actor and then a more common state of more obvious child acting, the performances here are simply spectacular. Despite being an uneducated and unsuccessful man, Alfredo is turned into an eloquent and emotionally complex individual through Philippe Noiret’s rich characterization. He quickly became one of the best adopted father figures in cinema history that I have seen and I was even more impressed here than I was with Omar Sharif in a similar role for Monsieur Ibrahim. Marco Leonardi nailed the angst, ennui, and frustration that was eating away at the Toto who was becoming increasingly trapped in his small little world when he was clearly meant for so much more. Jacques Perrin however was the real scene-stealer. He had the fewest lines of all of the incarnations of Toto, but his effortlessly emotive face and marvelously subtle renderings of Toto’s grief and nostalgia upon returning to his hometown made the final thirty minutes of the movie the truly legendary scenes they’ve become.

That isn’t to say that this movie is perfect. Unfortunately, the film can occasionally be scattershot in its approach, and it’s spend a significant portion of its time developing the character of the town Giancardo and its various eccentric figures, such as the priest who bans any scenes of kissing in the theatre (which is originally in his church) or the homeless man who believes the town square to be his or the rich man who spits on the socialists in the theatre when they boo bourgeois characters; however, there doesn’t seem to be much pay-off for any of these characters expect for perhaps one whose details I won’t go into for fear of spoiling one of the few parts of the plot I haven’t explained. The film is only a little over two hours but you often feel like it’s much longer (and I hear the director’s cut adds another hour which would just ruin the film for me), and while it’s ending is perfect and turned me into a sobbing mess of emotion, the rest of the film could have used some steadier editing so that the story could have stayed focus on Toto and his relationship with the loveable curmudgeon Alfredo.

Cinema Paradiso is simply a film made by a movie fan for movie fans. It captures the lost innocence of childhood better than any film I’ve seen in ages, but it gives hope to so many of us out there who may be afraid to pursue our passions. Beautiful acting, beautiful filmmaking equate to an unforgettable cinematic experience. It is a foreign film and therefore subtitled in Italian as a warning to those who find this review compelling enough that you would wish to watch this. Though at this point, I give up on people that can’t watch foreign movies. If you’re at least in high school and can’t sit through subtitles, you are making a conscious (and poor) decision to eliminate the possibility of seeing so many classic foreign films that often make our trite American productions seem embarrassingly amateur-ish in comparison. For anyone with even the slightest interest in deeply emotional storytelling and the great selection of movies from overseas, I have no reservations in recommending Cinema Paradiso to you.

Final Score: A

 On my grandfather’s death bed, he made a shocking admission about my family’s ethnic heritage that no one besides him had known. He told my mother that when our family left Germany in the early 1900’s and came to America, the family’s name was changed from the the more ashkenazi Jew last name Schwartz to Swartz and in an attempt to integrate ourselves into America, we ceased practicing Judaism. While I had suspected that perhaps I had Jewish heritage, none of us really knew for sure until my grandpa dropped that particular bombshell. Ever since I discovered about that aspect of my past, I’ve become fairly fascinated about discovering more about my Jewish heritage and the history of my people.

 

Even before I learned that I was Jewish, I had always been borderline obsessed with the Holocaust, particularly how so many otherwise good people were able to turn their backs on the torment and suffering of the millions of Jews being persecuted by Hitler’s regime. That moral conundrum has always seemed to me like something that would make fine fodder for a film, and with the major exception of Schindler’s List, I’ve never really seen a film that handles that question well. Cinema has a rich history of exploring the psychology of some of our most pressing and disturbing issues and the moral cowardice of being a silent partner in the slaughter of an entire people seems rife for artistic exploration. Well, I now have another film to join Schindler’s List in that company as one of the finest examinations of humanity’s darkest hour that I’ve ever seen. 1965’s The Shop on Main Street is one of the most intellectually engaging and important films that I’ve watched for this blog that is only marred by two fantasy sequences that seemingly serve no purpose in the film.

 

Set against the prelude to the “final solution” to the Jewish problem in Nazi controlled nations (specifically the former nation of Czechoslovakia in this film), a simple minded but mostly good natured Czech carpenter, Tony Brtko (Jozef Kroner) is named the Aryan manager of a local textile shop run an elderly Jewish woman, Rosalie Lautmann (Ida Kaminska). Jews have been stripped out of their rights to own or run their business and Aryans have been placed in control. However, Rosalie is so old, deaf, and blind that she is practically oblivious to the events surrounding her and thinks Tony is just helping her with the shop out of the goodness of his heart. After failing to parlay his true intentions to Rosalie, Tony simply allows her to believe things are the same and she’s still in charge while he sets himself to doing repairs around the shop. As he spends more time with Rosalie and other members of the Jewish community of the town, Tony becomes more and more attached to Rosalie and when the time finally comes where the Jews are being shipped to the concentration camps, he has to decide between his own self-interests or the life and safety of the woman whose livelihood he was meant to steal.

 

The performances from the two leads sell the entire picture. Ida Kaminska was nominated for an Oscar for her performance which is a fairly rare occurrence for foreign language roles. I can only think of a handful of times that has happened. It’s totally deserved though. She seems so willfully oblivious the entire film that when she finally realizes what is really happening, her terror is contagious. However, the real heart of the film was Jozef Kroner’s Tony because his performance carried the entire theme of the film which is one man falling under the weight of the fascist regime. He’s likeable and well done, but when he’s faced with his choices, you can see all of the strain and frustration written over every line in his face. It’s one of the most morally ambiguous roles that I can remember for a good long time, and had Kroner played Tony as too heroic or too cowardly, it would never have worked. Instead what you get is a man faced against insurmountable odds who eventually cracks under the pressure.

 

Tony has to be one of the most interesting film protagonists that I have seen in years. You can never really know a man’s character until it is tested, and had the Fascists never taken control of his village, Tony would have lived his life as a good and honest man. Ultimately, as much as I want to blame him for his actions during this film, he was one man against an army and ideology that was taking over Europe. He had an opportunity to commit at least one heroic act, but he was struck with cowardice at the end and just fed more tragedy to the flames. He could have almost been a character in a Shakespearean play because of how much tragedy was written into nearly every second of the last act of the film.

 

I actually thought the film was incredibly slow when it first started out, but all of that development and attachment building was necessary for the film’s final acts to contain all of the power that they ultimately bore. The pay off of the film wouldn’t have meant nearly as much if you hadn’t found yourself so thoroughly lost in this world. This is now the second best foreign film that I’ve watched for this blog, only slightly behind Fellini Satyricon. This would have gotten an A+ had it not been for the two fantasies towards the end that made no sense to me. Right behind this film is Let the Right One In. If you have any interest in foreign cinema, this is a no brainer. If you are interested in the sort of moral questions this film poses, once again, it’s an easy sell. Honestly, I think everyone should give this one a try. It might not necessarily be for you, but you should at least see if it is. This is fantastic film-making at work.

 Final Score: A

If you were to ask really movie buffs to name the most influential directors of the non-English speaking world, three directors’ names would invariably be mentioned: Akira Kurosawa of Japan, Ingmar Bergman of Sweden, and Federico Fellini of Italy. I haven’t seen any Bergman pictures yet (although there are many to come for this blog), but I’ve seen several Kurosawa pictures, and they are always spectacular. La Strada marked my formal introduction to the films of Federico Fellini, and when the final credits rolled, this incredibly complex and artistic film left me confused as to what it is that I had just watched.

The plot of the film is simple enough and is not where my confusion lies. Gelsomina is an impoverished country girl that is sold by her mother to traveling circus performer Zampano (played marvelously by Anthony Quinn). Gelsomina is quite dim-witted but generally innocent and pure. Her facial expressions and physical gestures give the obvious impression of an attempt at a sort of female Charlie Chaplin. Her actress Giulietta Massina is not given many lines but she is capable of expressing a wide range of emotions simply through her physical expression which is an impressive feat. Zampano, on the other hand, is a dim-witted womanizing brute and drunk who puts Gelsomina through an incredible amount of suffering throughout the course of the film. Rounding out the primary cast is Richard Basehart as The Fool, another traveling performer who gets entangled in a doomed love triangle with Gelsomina and Zampano. The film basically follows Gesolmina’s life as she is dragged from place to place with the menacing Zampano, and that is really the entire film.

This film feels so much like the biggest possible spiritual predecessor to any sort of modern indie art house film. Symbolism is rife throughout. Nothing really major ever happens through out the entire film. There isn’t any sort  of grand statement to be made about life or politics or the world. It just follows the minutiae of its two main characters (and the one major supporter) and lets their lives do the talking. That’s where my confusion with the film lies. I’m not entirely sure what in the hell the point of the film was. Nothing important or significant enough ever happens (with one glaring exception) to ever be able to wrest any sort of higher meaning away from the film. All of the scenes contain their own sort of beauty and power, but I still haven’t been able to figure out what is the over-arching thread that ties them all together.

The cinematography and direction of the film was outstanding however. You can clearly see the influence that Fellini’s camera working would have on generations of future film-makers and it was really ahead of its time. That was probably the aspect of the film (along with the acting) that managed to keep me engaged with the material even after I’d decided I was completely lost on where this film was taking me. This film really, really, really isn’t for everyone. But if you enjoy artier pictures and you don’t necessarily need a plot that is coherent or even important, you should check it out for its role in cinematic history as a product of a man considered to be one of the all time greats.

Final Score: B