BOY AND THE WORLD (Brazil, 2013)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

CAST: Vinicius Garcia, Alê Abreu, Lu Horta
MY RATING: 10/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 93% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A little boy goes on an adventurous quest in search of his father.

Filmmaker Brad Bird, the mind behind The Iron Giant, Ratatouille, and The Incredibles, once said something that occurred to me multiple times while I was watching the Brazilian animated film, Boy and the World.

“…animation is not a genre.  And people keep saying, ‘The animation genre.’  It’s not a genre!  A Western is a genre!  Animation is an art form, and it can do any genre.  You know, it can do a detective film, a cowboy film, a horror film, an R-rated film, or a kids’ fairy tale.  But it doesn’t do one thing.”

Boy and the World proves Bird’s statement correct by delivering a succinct, poignant film, virtually without words, that defies classification.  Is it a kids’ film?  It’s colorful, vibrant, and contains no long words, but it was rated PG in America.  Is it a “grown-up” film?  There is absolutely some thematic material that might require some parental explanation, but the style of the film’s images is almost like a children’s book come to life.  Boy and the World is quite unique in animation, at least in the animated films I’ve seen.  The only film I might possibly compare it to is Walt Disney’s Fantasia…or more accurately, I’d say Boy and the World was inspired by Fantasia’s core concept.  It’s a fairy tale and a cautionary tale and a coming-of-age story and a visual tour-de-force all in one.

We first meet the titular Boy in this story as he seems to be hearing music coming from under a colorful rock in a field.  The Boy is never named.  Indeed, what little dialogue we ever hear in the movie is conveyed either by grunts and coughs and harrumphs, or by a peculiar, unrecognizable language.  I turned on the Blu-ray’s subtitles, and it only said “SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE.”  But the film’s story is so well-constructed, a literal understanding of their speech is never necessary.  (Trivia note: I learn from the disc’s special features that the language we hear is Portuguese…spoken backwards.)

The Boy lives with his mother and father in a humble dwelling in the Brazilian countryside during an unspecified time period, though his clothing indicates something close to present day.  One day, his father simply decides to leave, boards a train, and is gone.  We are not given a clear reason for his departure.  The Boy is distraught, so one night he packs a suitcase (its only contents: a photo of him with his mother and father) and sets off to find him…

From there, the movie becomes an absolute visual feast.  I do not wish to give further plot details – and there IS a surprisingly compelling plot – but I do want to give some idea of the startling originality on display during the film.

  • The Boy has a unique ability that no one else in this world seems to have: he can see music.  Whenever his mother hums a tune, or his father (in flashback) plays a song on a recorder, the Boy sees the music appear in the air as little balls of color, like cotton balls or tiny clouds.  Later, he watches a parade go down a street, and the music clouds rise and swirl together in the sky, forming a huge multicolored bird.  Later still, a military formation marches down another street.  The boy sees that music as blacks and greys, and the bird it forms in the sky is far more imposing and ominous.
  • Nothing in the film is a literal representation of what it’s depicting.  For example, when the Boy sees a big city for the first time, most of the vehicles appear to have faces.  The language on all the ads and billboards doesn’t make any sense.  The sports he sees on the TV sets in the shop windows are confusing and nonsensical.  It is more like an impression a child might have of a big city, and it feels more real because of its stylistic liberties.  When he sees large industrial machines in operation for the first time, they look more like elephants and dragons than tow trucks and construction cranes.  This is something animation can do better than any other medium.

  • There is a heartbreaking scene when the Boy sees a train pull in at a station and sees his father step out.  The Boy runs forward…and then his father steps out of another car.  And another, and another.  And soon the platform is crowded with scores of men, all identical to the Boy’s father, and the Boy falls to his knees in frustration.  I interpreted this as an eloquent analogy of how anyone in the Boy’s situation might see a recognizable figure in the distance, only to be disappointed again and again.  Instead of it happening 15 or 20 times in the movie, we got it all at once, and it was an unexpectedly powerful moment.
  • Listen closely, and you’ll hear that a lot of sound effects, from birds in the jungle to car horns honking to clattering machinery, are made by musical instruments or the human voice and/or body.  Yet another unique element to an already unique film.
  • The resolution of the boy’s search took me completely by surprise.  There were little visual clues that had me believing the movie was not going to have a happy ending.  But then it unfolded, and the effect was eye-opening.  I won’t say one way or the other if he found his father or not, but I will say the ending felt earned, authentic, and very satisfying.

All told, Boy and the World is a marvelous little discovery, one that I plan to re-watch soon to drink in its marvelous visual concoction once more.  My colleague, Marc, is a playwright who once wrote a short play as a pantomime.  He believed (and still does, I think) that the main purpose of the visual arts is to show us something new and exciting whenever possible.  Boy and the World would be right up his alley.


By Marc S. Sanders

Edward Berger’s Oscar nominated interpretation of All Quiet On The Western Front is a massive success in filmmaking, storytelling, character and construction.  This 2022 adaptation of the well-known novel by Erich Maria Remarque does not only depict the ugly horrors of a mud soaked, gory and bloody conflict within deep dug out trenches, and on endless plains of wasteland battlegrounds.  It also provides perspective for the difficult peace talks occurring near the tail end of the third year (1917) of the First World War.  Another aspect covers the celebrated commander who leads a charge from the comfort of a German high castle while feasting on grand meals, far away from the front, steadfast to never surrender, and emerge victorious no matter the cost.

The main character is a youth named Paul (Felix Kammerer) who is eager to join the German brigade against the French armies.  He happily takes up with school chums to forge their parents’ signatures and enlist amid the reverie that greets them with cheer from his school superiors raging with heroic propaganda.  Shortly after, he is gifted an honorary soldier’s uniform, pressed, and laundered, that once belonged to another soldier who violently perished in battle.  Paul and his friends are rushed to front line of the fighting, into a muddy German trench and pushed on to slaughter in the name of his country. It does not take long for Paul to realize any derring-do he envisioned is nonexistent as men die by gunfire, grenades, flame thrower attacks and tank armaments.  If the men around him aren’t dead, they are at least dismembered with shredded, bloody stumps in place of limbs.

Elsewhere, the German diplomats travel in class aboard a luxury passenger train to meet up with French leaders in an effort to come to a cease fire.  Germany is greatly failing this conflict with loss of life, territory, supplies and money.  It’s a reluctant meeting to partake as the French are uncompromising with their terms.  Either Germany agrees to the demands of the French, or the war continues.  The Germans only has 72 hours to concur.  Coinciding with all of this is General Friedrichs of Germany (Devid Striesow) who lays out commands while dining and taking his butler service for granted.  He also sheds no tears for the soldiers beneath him as they are giving up their lives to fight a war that can’t be won.  Assuming a complete understanding of what constitutes a soldier based upon the generations who fought before him, he asks “What is a soldier without war?”; a dangerous philosophy for all others but him.

Of the modern war pictures to arrive in the late twentieth century and on (The Thin Red Line, Born On The Fourth Of July, Letters From Iwo Jima, 1917), the battle footage consistently offered a convincing and horrifying reality of the bloodshed that occurred during these historical conflicts.  These are not the John Wayne pictures of yesteryear.  Watching Berger’s film, which he co-wrote, I didn’t necessarily see anything that I hadn’t seen before, like sudden gun shots to the head, rapid gunfire, caked on mud, faces being blown off, or bodies being blasted to bits. Tanks are destroyed with grenades tossed into the cockpits and within their tracks. At times Paul even loses his sensory hearing amid the deafening battles, just as Tom Hanks’ character did in Saving Private Ryan.  Much of the material is identical to these other esteemed films.  What grabbed me though was how three storylines in this new film compound on each other.

Peace talks arrive. However, any kind of reconciliation will not begin until the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.  That’s quite convenient for country leaders to agree on while sitting around a dining table within a luxury train compartment, but the bloodshed continues until that scheduled moment arrives.  Talk of peace also does not force battalion leaders to stand down.  If Germany is to lose the conflict to France, they will go down with one final victorious conquest in battle.  War does not play like a sporting contest where the officials ensure that everyone stops what they are doing as a clock runs out.  War unleashes a rampage in the pawns used to obtain territory and conquest. The fighting gets personal.  One on one fights resort to drowning your enemy in a brutal mud puddle or clubbing an attacker with a rock to the head.  A very personal scene occurs when Paul resorts to stabbing a French soldier multiple times in the heart.  The poor man is giving his last breaths and Paul needs to shut him up to avoid drawing any attention to their location, so he starts to shove mounds of dirt in the man’s mouth.  Soon after, Paul is apologizing to this man and begging his victim to hold on for dear life.  It’s a powerful scene never intended to make any sense, because ultimately in the field of battle, nothing makes sense.  Only frenetic chaos exists.

I have every appreciation for men and women who serve their country with the courageous will to protect against enemy threats and uphold domestic freedom and democracy.  Yet, endless war for achievement of gain does not necessarily translate to protection or honor like General Friedrichs preaches to his battalions from his balcony.  It’s easy for him to heed this policy, dressed in an unstained, decorated uniform with the pride of his fighting generations before him who were all hailed as heroes.  For an insignificant solider like Paul, though, when does he earn the recognition he has sacrificed?  When will his dead comrades gain any appreciation?  Paul’s greatest accomplishment is that he does not get shot and blown away as he runs head on towards a more powerful enemy.  Is that a celebration of the Germany he thought he stood for, though?  Paul encounters an awakening he never expected while fighting at the front line. 

Edward Berger controls a very detailed and forceful piece.  Every ditch or shredded body of a solider tells the real story of this bloody war that cost nearly 17 million lives.  The art direction of the trenches for both the German side and the French, located at the front lines, are endless mazes dug deeper than the heights of the even the tallest soldiers.  Vokel Bertelmann provides the blaring, monstrously echoing soundtrack to the film and uses his horn like chords as an omnipotence to this hellish environment.  His orchestra is so pertinent to the setting of the film.  The craft of makeup and costumes for all the extras and main players in the battle scenes is grotesque with extra thick caked on mud and different shades of blood reds, browns, and blacks.  The sounds of the tanks and the rattling explosions will make you wince with fear and shock for these boys running to their ill-fated doom with just a thin rifle to fight with. 

All Quiet On The Western Front has all of the common tropes of other more modern war pictures.  It works on its own though because the battle scenes are spliced in with the puppet masters, comfortably located elsewhere, who can control the outcomes of these bloody conflicts.  The delay of peace and agreement prolongs the horrifying carnage.  The fate of Paul, his friends, and all the other soldiers rests on what does or does not come to settlement from the people whose commands they serve.

This is a fantastic movie.  One of the best films of 2022.

JEANNE DIELMAN, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 BRUXELLES

By Marc S. Sanders

You ever see a movie that feels like utter torture while watching it, and then when you have time to reflect on it later, you at least appreciate the message it delivered?  I guess this can apply to my experience with Sight & Sound’s recent selection of Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles as the greatest film of all time; number one on their list of the best 100 films of all time.  This picture usurped other achievements like Citizen Kane (number one for close to five decades) and Vertigo (which held the top spot since 2012).

Chantal Ackerman directed this feminist film in 1975, produced in Belgium, about a widow named Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) who lives a very mundane life.  The running time of 3 hours and 21 minutes positions a still camera depicting her everyday activity over three ordinary days.  We see Jeanne boil potatoes, prepare soup, and escort gentlemen callers behind her closed bedroom door.  One man per afternoon.  In the evening, her non talkative adult son Sylvain (Jan Decorte) arrives home and she serves him soup and dinner.  The viewer watches them eat their whole meal with Jeanne barely able to hold conversation with her son who remains mostly unresponsive.  After dinner, the sofa in the living room is unfolded into a cot for Sylvain to prepare for bed.  The following morning, Jeanne takes time to fold her son’s pajamas and shine his shoes.  Jeanne will then run errands like seeking out a particular color of yarn for sowing, or a button to replace on her coat.  She also waits for a colleague (maybe another woman in her line of work) to drop off her baby to be watched for a short period of time, before Jeanne’s next afternoon appointment with another gentleman.  After the appointment, she will fold up the little towel in the center of the bed for where her customer positioned himself.

This is a very tedious film to watch with little dialogue that is delivered in French with subtitles.  There is insight to be gained however, and as I reflect on the film, it mostly comes through in the deliberately long running time.  I believe Ackerman was attempting to make a viewer’s experience with the piece feel as lonely and mundane as the main character.  There are very few cuts in the film.  Often, for long periods of times, maybe as long as four or five minutes, we are watching Jeanne sit in a chair staring into space.  We will watch her walk down her hallway or across the street to the post office.  We will watch her button every button on her coat or house robe.  We observe her take a routine bath.  We see her peel potatoes.  We watch her enter the kitchen to find a utensil and then leave while turning off the light.  She’ll then return to the kitchen for something and turn the light back on.  Near the end of the film, she receives a package and has trouble with a knot while undoing it.  After nearly three hours of this routine kind of activity, I knew she would leave the room, walk down the hall, enter the kitchen, pull open a drawer and look for a pair of scissors. There is nothing special in any of this, but it remains in the final print to be witnessed.  Nothing you see in this film is enhanced with stimulating devices like dialogue, music cues, lighting effects, close ups or strategic editing.  Even the title of the film, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, is very, very boring and ordinary.  We are simply watching how a lonely widow lives from day one to day two and on to day three.

I am one of four members of a movie watching group of friends who get together (hopefully once a month, if our schedules allow it) to watch three movies on a Saturday or Sunday.  One member selected this film out of curiosity with Sight & Sound’s notable recognition of late.  (We also watched Shane Black’s Kiss, Kiss, Bang Bang and Doug Liman’s Go.)  While we are watching these selected movies, we respond like any audience member should to a film.  We’ll laugh or scream.  We’ll comment in moments that seem appropriate and keep the mood lively.  Much commentary was tossed around among the four of us while watching Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.  At times we sounded like locker room boys.  On multiple occasions I told my good friend Anthony how much I hate him for selecting this slog of a picture to watch.  We even started to look for symbolism or inconsistencies in the film.  On several occasions, we see Jeanne enter the kitchen and there is only one chair positioned at the table.  She walks out of the room and when she returns there will be two chairs, only we never saw her or Sylvain bring in a second chair.  What could that mean?  Is this film suddenly going to reveal itself with a supernatural characteristic?  Could there be someone else in the house?  Will Sylvain and Jeanne have dinner at the kitchen table tonight, instead of in the dining room.  Is there something symbolic about this disappearing and reappearing kitchen chair?  I’ll save you the trouble, Reader.  It means nothing.  I could only draw that it is an error in editing or continuity.  Yet, that is where our minds would go to, as we absorbed these long moments of ordinary life.  Blame us for yearning for the quick fix that most movies offer.  We are simply weak, very weak, men.

Bear with me as I tell you that to watch Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is sheer torture.  To listen to a faucet drip into an empty tin pan or watch a strand of grass grow in real time is at least as entertaining.  Movies serve to make us laugh or cry or scream in fear and heighten our suspense.  Movies serve messages that we choose to agree or disagree with.  Movies teach us about a kind of person or industry we may never come across and movies allow us into the mind of an artist’s own imagination.  Movies can disgust us.  Movies can anger us, and movies are also there to frustrate us, like Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

To think back on this film, I’m taken with Jeanne, the character, and what she ultimately does before the film concludes.  I’d never spoil the movie’s ending.  However, it stands as the most memorable moment in the picture.  It’s a scene I won’t forget and it certainly is the most eye opening.  Most importantly, it’s understandable having lived as a witness to Jeanne’s seemingly worthless and boring lifestyle. We’ve all endured boredom.  I’d argue at times we’ve all felt a lack of worth to ourselves and those around us.  I certainly have questioned my value on this earth more times than once.  Therefore, to really feel how hollow Jeanne is with whom she caters to each day, like an unresponsive son or gentlemen callers that lack loving affection while they pay for a quick tryst, a viewer must endure the long running time of the film.  It’s the most assured way to embrace the authenticity of Jeanne’s empty livelihood.  The most important element to Chantal Ackerman’s film is likely the running time.  How else to truly understand how mundane a lonely widow is than to live through a near full three days with her?  Therefore, Ackerman is successful in getting across what she wanted to with her film.

Credit should be recognized for the actress Delphine Seyrig.  To simply sit in a chair staring into space with a camera (likely positioned on a tripod) at the other end of the room and not break character for long periods of time requires extreme concentration and endurance.  To share a scene with another actor that does not respond to anything you are doing, is equally challenging.  Seyrig is a professional actress, whose career I’m not familiar with.  She has likely portrayed more stimulating characters with more hyperactivity in other pieces of work.  To bring a performance down to a level of this most extreme kind of monotony is certainly dexterous while requiring complete focus. 

I’ll likely never watch Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles ever again.  I don’t need to.  I won’t gain anything new on a second or third viewing.  I won’t ever forget the film, however.  It stands apart from most other films I have watched because the construction of the piece is intentionally unexciting and the performances are deliberately ho hum.  There are people who live completely uninteresting lives, and it is certainly sad to acknowledge that.  Movies will tell me that a deranged man will kill people.  They will also tell me that heroes go searching for treasure or that employees have a desire to exact revenge on their boss.  Movies will demonstrate how families will love each other or how two people fall in or out of love.  Movies will also explain how sorrowful it is for a person to experience loss.  Movies will also tell me that people live within a mind that offers no self-worth while their heart beats and beats from one mundane and ordinary day to another.  The best example of that is Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.  An admirable accomplishment for a film dependent on the study of a woman’s sheer emptiness. 


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Joachim Trier
Cast: Renate Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie, Herbert Nordrum
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 96% Certified Fresh Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “Watch a Film with Subtitles”

PLOT: The chronicles of four years in the life of Julie (Renate Reinsve), a young woman who navigates the troubled waters of her love life and struggles to find her career path, leading her to take a realistic look at who she really is.

I love “what-if” scenarios.  There is a whole line of comic books, Marvel and DC, dedicated to intriguing “what-if” questions.  What if Peggy Carter took the super-soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers?  What if Bruce Wayne’s parents had not been killed?  And so on.

Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World is a what-if scenario for film geeks.  What if…Woody Allen wrote a romantic comedy about a woman in her 30s on a road to self-discovery?  And then what if Ingmar Bergman took a crack at the screenplay and decided it was too happy, so he added some material about death?  And then…what if David Fincher directed it on 35-mm film with the bare minimum of CG effects?

Julie (Renate Reinsve, who won Best Actress at Cannes for this role) is a 30-something woman who cycles through career paths before finally settling on photography.  She meets, falls in love with, and moves in with Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a comic-strip creator and author in his 40s.  They are happy together, share deep conversations, discuss kids (he wants them, she doesn’t), and spend time with his family at their lake house.

But then one night Julie walks home from a business function with Aksel and, for reasons she doesn’t quite understand, crashes a fancy party.  Here she meets Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), a charming fellow with a broad smile.  They talk.  There is a clear connection, but they are both in committed relationships.  They decide they will not cheat.  But…what defines cheating?  Does drinking from the same bottle of beer constitute cheating?  What about sharing a secret?  What about smelling each other’s sweat?  How far this little game goes, I will not reveal, but it did not end where I thought it would.  Their meet-cute ends with them walking home in opposite directions, neither giving the other their last names so they won’t be tempted to search for each other on Facebook.  Will they meet again?  Don’t make me laugh.

The Worst Person in the World is brain candy.  I am on the record as stating that I have been, somewhat unsuccessfully, avoiding films with heavier subject matter over the years.  (I can think of no situation in which I would willingly sit and re-watch The Conformist [1970], for example, to see what I missed the first time I slept through it.)  However, over the years I have seen and reviewed some heavy films that were highly rewarding: Amour [2012], Incendies [2010], and Nomadland [2020], to name a few.  The Worst Person in the World is not quite as gut-punching as those other films, but it was intelligent and funny and startling in all the right places, and what more could you ask for in a romantic comedy/drama?

The David Fincher element I alluded to earlier comes from the visual style of the film.  Director Joachim Trier loves to include primary colors, especially white, in his compositions, which is apparently a big no-no when it comes to cinematography.  The result of this choice is that anything containing colors of any kind really <pops> on the screen, while lending a kind of antiseptic feel to some of the scenes, as well.  For some reason, I associate that combination of clinical distancing with popping colors with Fincher.  (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo [2011] comes to mind.)

There’s also a celebrated sequence in which Julie, still in a relationship with Aksel but unable to stop thinking about Eyvind (especially after bumping into him again unexpectedly), conjures a fantasy in which she runs to meet him where he works while the entire world around her remains frozen in place.  The effects in this sequence are flawless, especially when you realize that the only CG effects were those removing visible supports that kept a couple of bicycles and human limbs suspended in midair.  Everything else was done 100% real, in-camera, with real people simply frozen in place.

The effect of this scene is magical.  It evokes that giddy period we (hopefully) all remember when a brand new love has taken hold of us, and the rest of the world goes on hold while we hold hands and kiss and share a sunset and talk and walk and kiss again and time stands still, or goes too fast, depending on your point of view.  The brilliance of this movie is that it evokes those glorious feelings…and the whole time, in the back of the viewer’s mind, is that reminder: “But they’re cheeeatiiiing…”

The movie’s title immediately made me think Julie was the titular “Worst Person”, and for a while it seems to be true.  She can’t decide on a career, she knows she doesn’t want kids with Aksel but can’t really explain why, she impulsively flirts with Eyvind, she writes an internet-famous/infamous article wondering how a woman can be considered a feminist if she engages in oral sex.  But after watching the movie, I don’t believe that’s the movie’s intent.  I think we’re supposed to see how other people, including myself, might make the mistake of thinking Julie is a terrible person.  On the contrary, she’s just as confused and inarticulate about relationships and feelings as I am, as any of us are.  As she breaks up with someone, she makes what might sound like an emotionally cruel statement: “Who knows?  Maybe we’ll get back together again in the future.”  But in reality, she’s just refusing to rule anything out.  Badly phrased?  Perhaps.  But she is being as honest as she knows how to be.

(I haven’t even discussed the sequence where Julie ingests some “magic” mushrooms and goes on a drug trip for the ages, involving cartoon characters, aging, a touch of body horror, and the kind of face painting you’ll NEVER see at a theme park.  The movie even pokes fun at the shock of some of this imagery by inserting a shot of a movie theater full of people visibly cringing…a neat bit of meta-humor/commentary on the value of shocking your audience.)

The Worst Person in the World is worth your time if you’re a fan of love stories that don’t pander in any way, shape, or form.  Director Joachim Trier has gone on record as saying it’s a “romantic comedy for people who hate romantic comedies.”  That’s about right.  Don’t look for a conventional happy ending or a conventional main character.  These are just people searching for connection, who even when they’ve found it, never stop looking.  For better or worse.


Best line or memorable quote?
JULIE: If men had periods, that’s all we’d hear about.

How important is it to you to watch a film in its native language?
Very. But not always. For example, I would not have wanted to watch a dubbed version of The Worst Person in the World. However, I have no issue with watching a dubbed version of something like Akira [1988] or Spirited Away [2001]. It comes down to the medium. For live action, I feel it’s most important to know the precise meaning behind what the characters are saying, and it’s difficult to get that from watching someone’s lips not moving in synch with the sounds coming out of their mouths. However, with animation, I want to drink in the visuals as much as possible, and that’s not as easy to do when you’re trying to read subtitles.

Do you feel subtitles lessen the overall movie experience?
Not at all. Look at Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds [2009]. In that film, subtitles were absolutely essential to the plot, especially the opening sequence at that French farmhouse. There are those who disagree, but that’s my opinion. (But don’t get me started on those who insist on watching English films with English subtitles on…that’s another story.)

LA STRADA (1954, Italy)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Federico Fellini
Cast: Anthony Quinn, Giulietta Masina, Richard Basehart
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 98% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A child-like woman is sold to a traveling entertainer, consequently enduring physical and emotional pain along the way.

Fellini’s La strada, the very first film to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, is widely considered to be one of the greatest movies of all time, a touchstone of the Italian neo-realist movement that grew out of Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D. (1952).  Ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll tell you that, while I appreciate these kinds of films, they are not exactly my bread and butter.  There are some Italian movies that I will probably never watch, and I am quite sure I won’t miss them.  However, I am happy I finally sat and watched La strada.

But why?  La strada is not a happy movie by any stretch of the imagination.  It tells the story of a vaudevillian strongman, Zampanò (Anthony Quinn), who entertains street crowds by stretching a chain across his chest muscles until it breaks.  When the movie opens, he is paying the mother of a large family 10,000 lire for Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina), a child-like woman with a hugely expressive face.  For that princely sum, she will leave her family forever and learn a trade as Zampanò’s assistant.

They hit the road.  Zampanò is not a very nice man.  He teaches Gelsomina the basics but refuses to let her learn any more than is necessary.  When they eat dinner at a restaurant, he picks up a local floozy and ditches Gelsomina for the night.  When she tries to run away, he runs after her and beats her.  When they take up with a traveling circus, he refuses to let her perform with anyone else but him.  Gelsomina despairs of her existence, but she has convinced herself she can’t leave because she can’t think of anywhere else to go.

In a traveling circus, Gelsomina meets a carefree acrobat/clown known only as The Fool (Richard Basehart).  The Fool lives up to his name: performing dangerous high-wire acts and recklessly teasing Zampanò for no apparent reason, even heckling Zampanò during his act.  This is not a smart man, but he manages to steal a quiet moment with Gelsomina where, in his own way, he tries to let her know that her life has a purpose because EVERYTHING has a purpose, even a pebble he picks up off the ground.  “I don’t know what this pebble’s purpose is, but it must have one, because if this pebble has no purpose, then everything is pointless.  Even the stars!”

Examine that statement closely enough and it’s not quite as life-affirming as it seems, but it lights a spark in Gelsomina’s otherwise bleak existence.  From then on, she holds fast to that conversation, referring back to it when new hardships or doubts arise.  Meanwhile, Zampanò remains as cold and ruthless as ever, even trying to steal from a convent.

And then something unexpected happens that seems as if it will finally break Zampanò’s hold on Gelsomina, but no.  Gelsomina clings to the belief that her purpose is to be with Zampanò, no matter what happens or how miserable she might become.

…so, yeah, this isn’t exactly a happy film.  This is not the kind of movie I would normally seek out.  But in its bleakness, it achieves a kind of aching beauty, like Atonement (2007) or The Remains of the Day (1993).

A lot of that beauty is achieved through the must-see performance by Giulietta Masina as Gelsomina.  It’s clear that Gelsomina is stuck in a woman’s body but with the emotional maturity of a child.  Is she developmentally disabled?  The movie never makes it clear.  Perhaps she simply chose to retain her innocence while the rest of the world moved on around her.  In that way, she becomes almost like a character in a fairy tale.  I found myself wondering if the movie would have played the same had Gelsomina been a child rather than a grown woman.  It might have played a lot like the sequence in Pinocchio (1940) when he is captured by Stromboli and forced to perform for street crowds.

Masina’s performance as Gelsomina would be the single best reason I can think of to recommend this movie to anyone who might not otherwise watch it.  Her face and eyes light up like candles on a birthday cake when she smiles.  When she frowns, she puts clown makeup to shame.  And when she dons clown makeup herself and dances and plays the trombone, you can’t help but grin a little.  When she weeps because she can’t see The Fool anymore, she sounds like a little girl who’s lost a pet.  It’s one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen.

That performance is key to the movie.  Zampanò’s cruelty and dismissive nature masks his own fear of Gelsomina’s innocence.  He keeps her down because he doesn’t dare allow himself to believe he might be in the wrong.  Watching the movie, we allow ourselves to hope that perhaps Zampanò will reach a turning point where he throws himself at Gelsomina’s feet, begging forgiveness for his terrible behavior and past misdeeds.  But will it happen in time to make a difference?

On the Criterion Blu-ray of La strada, director Martin Scorsese states in an interview that, if you’ve never seen a Fellini film in your life, you could watch La strada and 8 ½ (1963) and you’d know all there is to know about Fellini and his films.  I’m certainly no Fellini expert, but that sounds accurate to me.  La strada contains all the seeds – the score, the performances, the circus theme – that come to fruition in 8 ½.  But La strada is the more accessible of those two films, in my opinion.  If you’re going to start somewhere, start here.


By Marc S. Sanders

Humans were meant to be distressed.  It just goes with the territory.  It’s in our nature to distress one another and respond with another layer of distress.  It’s also a cosmic element of practically any environment we find ourselves in.  Within our journeys of life, when we are striving to be better as a spouse, a parent or worker, it takes an acceptance of stress to get to where we want to be.  It’s only when we die that we can truly rest in peace.  Wedding planning or road rage or airline travel can be overly taxing. Your car could get towed, a person from your past could turn up or you can even become unreasonably extorted when faced with extenuating circumstances.  It all seems so unfair or inconvenient or intrusive.  So, I find it interesting that director Damián Szifron would provide the credits of the cast and crew for his film Wild Tales against a backdrop of wildlife animals.  Humans may be the dominant species, but even they have animal instincts that can spiral wildly out of control.

With writer, Germán Servidio, Szifron offers up six different short stories in this Argentinian film that was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2014 Oscars.  Each story focuses on an opportunity for revenge or an experience of high stress where people come in contact with other people.  Granted, some of the stories are so outrageous in circumstance, response and outcome that I’d find them hard to believe they truly happened if someone vouched for it.  For example, you likely never saw a wedding reception like the one staged in this film.  I don’t care who you are.  YOU NEVER SAW A WEDDING LIKE THIS!!!!  Still, this is a very entertaining film that left me curious with how each story was going to play out.

A truly engaging airline experience prologues the credits when a beautiful model strikes up a conversation with the elderly gentlemen across the aisle.  When a woman in the next row can’t help but eavesdrop on their exchange, a most unexpected event occurs.  Doom awaits!!!  More importantly, though, why does it await?  It’s a brilliant opening, likely never to occur in real life, but altogether unexpected and humorously shocking.

Following the credits, a question of morality and revenge plays out in an after-hours diner when someone from a waitress’ past enters for a late night meal.  This is the most incomplete vignette of the bunch, but the narrative remains interesting. 

Listed below the airline tale, my next favorite tale involves a road rage incident between the driver of a beautiful black Audi and someone who drives an old jalopy of a car.  Likely, it is the most relatable of all the stories.  We’ve all either experienced some form of road rage, or read about it, or have committed or been tempted to engage.  There’s a strong lesson to be learned from this story and it is rather incredible how this encounter between two descends into madness.

Stories of extortion and unfair city policies fill out the other slots, before finally closing on a wedding from hell.

What’s interesting is that while the stories may rely somewhat on their dialogue, I believe I could watch Wild Tales without knowing much of what is being said.  The cast is phenomenal in expression and response.  Szifron quickly sets up the scene and then has his various token characters react to what faces them.  We see the extremes a bride goes to when an unexpected guest appears at her reception.  We are the lone witness to how a driver will seize an opportunity when another driver is stranded on a lonesome highway with a flat tire.  We can understand the persistence a man will uphold in order to prove he did not commit a parking violation.  Wild Tales does not depend on crackling dialogue.  Instead, the visuals and the performances do a lot of the work.

Too often, I hear that people will not watch films with subtitles.  They cannot stand to “read” a film.  Come on!!!!  You have to allow yourself the opportunity to uncover amazing documents of cinematic escapism beyond the American fare.  No film hinges on the subtitles that flash across the bottom of the screen.  Like any movie, the primary element is the photography of the piece.  Since I am not much of a traveler, domestic or international, it is so refreshing when I’m reminded that cultures, behaviors and customs outside my comfort zone of the United States, are not any different from me or the people I surround myself with.  We are all capable of love, drama, humor, sacrifice, crime and an innate possibility of flying off the handle in very, very extreme ways, whether we are justified or not. 

I am not familiar with many foreign pictures.  Honestly, I don’t get motivated enough to seek them out.  I need to lighten my reluctance.  It is fortunate that my colleague, Miguel E Rodriguez, provided this entertaining, mischievously fun collection of devilish short thrillers to our Cinephile movie group for a Sunday viewing.  Damián Szifron has crafted a film that you can’t take your eyes off.  The photography is striking with amazing camera angles such as a point of view from inside an airplane luggage compartment or from the sidewalk ground level where an automobile owner discovers that his car has been wrongfully possessed.  Miguel says moments like these are Tarantino inspired.  Maybe.  I like to think I’m watching a film by Damián Szifron, an insightful and skilled director at the top of his game.

A MAN ESCAPED (1956, France)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Robert Bresson
Cast: François Leterrier, Charles Le Clainche, Maurice Beerblock
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 100%

PLOT: A captured French Resistance fighter during WWII engineers a daunting escape from a Nazi prison in France.

In an old Peter Benchley novel called Q Clearance, a White House staffer tries to get his chatty secretary to pare down her long-winded stories by saying (I’m paraphrasing here): “I want you to imagine the story you’re telling me is a nice big hamburger patty.  Now put that patty on a hamburger bun and cut off all the meat that doesn’t fit, and only tell me about what’s left.”

In a nutshell, that’s A Man Escaped.  In this prison break film, there are no overly dramatized shots or scenes or performances.  There is no musical score aside from snippets of a Mozart mass heard here and there.  There are no shots showing simmering tensions between our hero and the prison guards or his fellow prisoners.  We are only shown what’s outside the prison twice.  Everything beyond the walls is established by strategic use of sound effects: traffic, train whistles, dogs barking, children playing.  Director Robert Bresson is only interested in showing us the story.  No dramatics, no theatrics, just a good story well-told.  He used only non-professional actors, people who would get on with the business of telling the story without giving a “performance.”

Fontaine is a French Resistance fighter captured by the Germans in France in 1942.  He is brought to prison where he is beaten for trying to escape during his transfer.  A voiceover tells us everything we need to know about his surroundings, his cell, his neighbors, and his desperate desire for escape.  He smuggles a letter to his colleagues outside the walls via a prisoner who is allowed visits from his daughter.  But then that prisoner is transferred, and he is alone once again.

The film is meticulous in the details of his escape plan.  We learn in an opening title card that all the details are based on the memoirs of a resistance fighter who really did engineer an escape.  Even if some of the minute details were changed for the movie, all that matters is that it’s extremely plausible.  We see Fontaine sharpening the handle of a metal spoon to make a chisel; carefully loosening the wooden boards of his cell door; unspooling the chicken wire in his meager bedframe to create rope; even cannibalizing an air duct to create primitive grappling hooks.  When he’s forced to shatter a pane of glass, he dumps the shards into his politely named “slop bucket” and empties it into a well with the other prisoners.

Watching these details unfold, I was reminded of many other prison escape films that seem to have borrowed from A Man Escaped.  His method of disposing waste materials is referenced in The Great Escape and The Shawshank Redemption.  Chiseling through the door panels reminded me of Escape from Alcatraz and Eastwood tunneling through the wall.  At one point, Fontaine must time his efforts with a passing train whistle, just as Andy timed his efforts to thunderclaps in the sewers of Shawshank.  Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you realize somebody else did it first.  Discuss.

The planning of the escape is where the film generates most of its suspense, especially when Fontaine is informed he will be executed.  The next day, another prisoner, Jost, is assigned to his cell.  Fontaine is almost ready to make his escape.  Is Jost an actual prisoner or a snitch planted by the Germans?  In a chilling voiceover, Fontaine realizes he will either have to trust Jost with his plans or kill him when the time comes.  Does he have it in him to do that?  We wonder along with him.

There are bits and pieces of conversations among the prisoners in the shared washroom, and we hear from a preacher and a priest about various spiritual aspects of prison life and our natural tendency towards liberation over incarceration.  There is fruit for discovery there, but I must be honest, I don’t remember too much about it now.  A Bible verse is quoted about Nicodemus questioning the concept of being “born again,” but aside from the obvious similarities of salvation and escape, I’m afraid any larger implications didn’t stay with me later.  I was more impressed with the main storyline of Fontaine’s escape rather than with the spiritual and philosophical implications of imprisonment, communication, liberation, etcetera.  Maybe when I watch it again, I’ll have more to say on that topic, but not today.

A Man Escaped doesn’t have all the fireworks we have come to expect from a prison break movie, but it is still captivating to watch.  The idea that the nitty-gritty details of his plan are even partially based on fact is remarkable.  Ask yourself if you would have known how to make rope out of chicken wire and strips of cloth.  Heck, I have problems tying my own SHOES in the morning, let alone making rope.

LEVIATHAN (2014, Russia)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Cast: Aleksey Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 97% Certified Fresh

PLOT: In a rugged coastal town in northern Russia, Kolya fights against a corrupt mayor to keep his house from being demolished.

The coastal town in Leviathan might be considered beautiful in some other film.  The crashing waves on its rocky shores are reminiscent of Norway or Iceland.  But in this movie, behind every exterior shot of a stupendous mountainside is a sense of dread or gloom.  No doubt there are people in this town who celebrate things like birthdays or holidays or weddings.  Not in this movie.  In Leviathan, the atmosphere seems to prohibit any kind of celebration that isn’t preceded by consuming large quantities of vodka.

Kolya is a husband and father who lives in a house he built (he says) with his own two hands, along with his wife, Lilya, and son, Romka.  He’s currently locked in a legal battle with the corrupt mayor, Vadim, who wants to bulldoze Kolya’s house to make way for what Kolya assumes will be yet another mayoral mansion.  Like all the men in his circle, Kolya drinks a little too much vodka at times and is a bit of a hothead, which is a strike against him whenever he tries to reason with the authorities about his problems.

Kolya calls an old lawyer friend, Dmitriy, in Moscow for help.  Dmitriy does some digging and shows up at Kolya’s house with a folder full of damaging information against the mayor.  We get a good sense of how the mayor operates in a scene where he shows up drunk at Kolya’s house and demands that Kolya learn his place in the grand scheme of things.  He has power and he knows it, but in this scene, and in others where he flexes his power, he’s never far away from a bodyguard or a henchman or three.  He’s a mean little man.

Not that Kolya is a saint himself, either.  He doesn’t shy away from giving his son a sharp smack on the back of the head for sassing Lilya.  When he drinks, he’s more given to insults than jovialness.  But he really does seem to love his wife, and we feel for him when we see his efforts to get the mayor off his back through legal means, when what he’d REALLY like to do is just shoot him and be done with it.

The movie establishes this basic plot relatively slowly.  It’s a great example of a slow burn.  The first few scenes seem unconnected as we see Kolya and Lilya interact with Romka, and Kolya picks up Dmitriy from the train station, and they have a meal, and so on.  It isn’t until we reach a scene in a courtroom where the whole plot is spelled out for us in an astonishing rapid-fire speech from a judge who reads out what sounds like twenty pages of legal findings in about three minutes.  It was almost like listening to a Russian version of a Micro-Machines commercial.

As the story moves on, that sense of dread escalates.  It’s that kind of feeling you read about in books where a storm is approaching.  There’s no rain, but the air is a little sharper, the wind just a tad heavier.  The whole first half of the movie is like that.  Small things happen here and there that point subtly towards impending disaster.  In one shot, Kolya cradles a shotgun in his lap.  In another, we discover that Dmitriy and Kolya’s wife are a little more than just friends.  Kolya is detained by the police for making a scene in a police station.  We see his capability for violence even though it is never truly demonstrated.  That simmering anger underneath everything he says makes any conversation with Kolya a little edgy.

At one point, the corrupt mayor comes down on his cronies, telling them to do their jobs and get Kolya and his lawyer friend off his back.  After that, in a remarkably tense scene, Kolya, Lilya, Dmitriy, and some other friends go out shooting by a small lake and waterfall.  It’s all friendly enough, with a little portable grill and the wives making kebabs and the vodka flowing freely.  But as they set up the targets (empty bottles on a log), and each of the men take their turns with their rifles, I was inexplicably on edge.  I felt, I knew that something was going to happen, I just didn’t know what.  Their children run off to play by the water…is one of them going to drown?  One of the shooters has brought, not a rifle or a shotgun, but a freaking AK-47.  (He makes short work of the target bottles.)  Was this guy going to turn the gun on Kolya?  It’s a masterful bit of suspense that culminates in a completely unexpected direction.

There are other twists and turns in the story that I won’t reveal here, but what is this movie really about?  It’s about nothing more or less than how some men seem to be born to suffer.  Kolya is one of these men.  He has a teenage son who tolerates him, but can’t stand his wife, who is actually the boy’s stepmother.  A powerful man will stop at nothing to seize his house and land, and there doesn’t seem to be anything he can do about it.  The circumstances of how and when he discovers Lilya’s infidelity are traumatic, to say the least.  And for almost two-and-a-half hours, Kolya suffers the trials of Job.  Lilya gets her fair share of grief, too.

And yet, somehow, it was still an entertaining watch.  What separates this film from another movie about human suffering (say, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) is HOW this movie was made.  Rather than presenting the story in a documentary fashion, Leviathan looks and feels like it was shot 100% by a Hollywood crew with Hollywood production values.  It rather looks and feels like a high-end Coen brothers movie.  The story is about suffering, true, but the movie itself is slick and well-constructed.

I liked how the corrupt mayor, Vadim, visits his local Orthodox priest with his woes, and the priest, who seems to be more than a little involved in Vadim’s business dealings, advises him, “All power is from God.  As long as it suits Him, fear not.”  Basically, he’s telling Vadim to use his power to do what’s necessary, and because God is also powerful, He will be on Vadim’s side.  A rather self-serving interpretation of the power of God, but there you have it.  And then, later in the film during a sermon to his congregation, he does a complete about-face, talking about how God sees everything, but he is not honored by a show of force.  Here’s a man who tailors God’s will as it suits him.  If the mayor is a mean little man, this priest is an enabler.  I’m not sure who I disliked more.

(For the record, Leviathan has one of the most interesting and surprising “payoff” scenes I’ve ever seen in a film.  When I saw it, my jaw dropped a little…it almost redefines the movie like a Shyamalan-esque twist.  Almost.  Not quite.  But it’s interesting in that kind of way.)

Earlier, I Googled “famous Russian movie comedies” and found a page that listed ten “essential” Soviet comedies.  None were made before 1984.  I tried again and found a list of fifteen great modern Russian comedies stretching from 1995 to 2018.  I have never heard of a single one of these movies and have no idea how I would go about finding a copy were I so inclined to actually watch one of them.

I mention this because, after watching Leviathan, I needed convincing that Russian directors could direct anything other than deep dramas about the human experience in one way or the other.  Of the six Russian films I’ve seen, three are Soviet era (Come and See [1985], Mirror [1975], Stalker [1979]), and two of those are by the same director, Andrei Tarkovsky.  The others are this film and two silent classics, Battleship Potemkin and Man with a Movie Camera, which doesn’t qualify as a deep drama, I guess, but I include it for the sake of thoroughness.  The best Russian films are well made, to be sure, but light-hearted they are not.  I’m not a film scholar, but I would guess it has to do with the inherent toughness that comes with growing up Russian.  Those crazy winters, the bloody history of the place, the financial hardships, etc.  It would be interesting to see a Russian comedy, if for nothing else just to see what might make a Russian laugh.

(P.S. The IMDb trivia page reveals that, for many of the drinking scenes, the actors chose to drink real vodka. As a result, many of the takes of those scenes in the film are the 8th or 9th take, where the actors are genuinely drunk. Maybe THAT’S what makes a Russian laugh…?)

IDA (2013, Poland)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Cast: Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 96% Certified Fresh

PLOT: In 1962, Anna is about to take vows as a nun when she learns a family secret from her only living relative. Both women embark on a journey to discover their family story and where they belong.

There are countless movies I’ve seen that remind me why I love the movies.  Ida is the first one I’ve seen in a very long time that reminds me why I love Ansel Adams.  Shot in stunning black-and-white and in the old “Academy” format with black bars on both sides – basically a square screen space instead of a rectangle – Ida is composed almost completely of static shots that have been framed in such a way that you could select almost any shot from any scene, frame it, and hang it in a museum.  Frankly, the beauty of the film is breathtaking.  If the story is a tad shallow or cryptic, I can live with it because it was such a pleasure just to drink in the visuals.

Anna is an orphaned novice nun in a convent in Poland in 1962.  She is on the verge of taking her vows when she gets a letter from an aunt she never met or knew existed, but who suddenly wants to meet her.  Anna travels to the city to meet the aunt, Wanda, who rather coldly informs Anna that the parents she never met were Jews who were killed during the war.  Anna is not Anna, but Ida.  Wanda confirms this by noticing Anna/Ida’s red hair and commenting that her parents had red hair.  Ida wants to find her parents’ bodies, so she and Wanda begin a search that will reveal a lot more than just final resting places and familial closure.

At one point, Wanda and Ida have a conversation about the vows Ida is about to take.  Prior to this conversation, Ida has observed that Wanda drinks, smokes, and appears to bring various men home to bed with her on a somewhat regular basis.  Wanda simmers under Ida’s blank but judgmental stare.

Wanda asks her, “Do you have sinful thoughts sometimes?”

“About carnal love?”
“That’s a shame.  You should try.  Otherwise, what sort of sacrifice are these vows of yours?”

My knee-jerk reaction was that Wanda is clearly trying to get a rise out of Ida, but I admire the sentiment and the logic behind that statement.  How does one know what they’re giving up if they’ve never experienced it to begin with?  It’s like a truism: how can you appreciate light if you’ve never been in the dark?  But it’s not that simple.  I do not smoke because I want to be healthy, or at least a little healthier.  You could say that I’ve “given up” smoking, but I’ve never experienced it.  Does it count as giving something up if you never took it up in the first place?  It’s an interesting conundrum, one that Ida has no real response to.

But I want to get back to the imagery.  That is the real draw of this film for me.  The only other film I’ve seen that really captures this same vibe is Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma.  There is one shot that captures Ida and a young musician she and Wanda meet during their journey.  Ida and the young man are having a conversation outside of a small ballroom, sitting in front of doors and windows with some ironwork.  The two of them are framed so they are very small at the bottom center, while the rest of the frame is filled with these black silhouettes, backlit by the ballroom fluorescents.  When they speak, the English subtitles are displayed, not at the bottom of the screen, but near the top across a black bar formed by the dividing line between the window and the transom window above it:

The unexpected placement of the subtitle took me out of the movie, but only momentarily because, again, what a shot.  They are so small in the frame, especially Ida, and the world around her is so huge.  This visual theme is repeated over and over again, and not just with Ida.  When they are driving down a country road, the static shot is not just of the road, but of the trees towering on either side, and the road itself receding into the distance towards the bottom right corner of the screen.  It’s magnificent, and my words are not doing it justice.  You’ll have to see for yourself.

When it comes to the story…to say the dialogue is minimal is, appropriately, an understatement.  The viewer is asked to do some heavy lifting because Ida says very little.  I guess it’s a bit like a Rorschach test.  We observe Ida in a situation, something happens, she says nothing, but proceeds to do something, and we are left to wonder why she does it.

Take that scene with the musician.  Earlier, Ida had been in an argument with Wanda about Wanda’s loose morals.  Wanda asserts that even Jesus loved Mary Magdalene and tries to look up the story in Ida’s Bible, but Ida grabs it from her and storms out of the room.  Later we see she has gone downstairs to the club to meet with the musician in front of those windows.  Why?  It’s up to us to answer the question.  Maybe she’s lived her life believing one thing, and now suddenly her entire belief system is being shaken up, and perhaps this is the only way she can be a rebel before taking her vows.  And she’s just talking to the guy.

The movie is full of moments like that.  An unexpected death occurs.  Ida’s response is to get dressed up and go dancing.  Say what?  When you watch the movie, we’ll discuss what was going in Ida’s head during those moments.  I’m not a hundred percent sure.

By the time the movie’s over, we’ve seen two graves, a suicide, a nun bathing herself, and some of the best cinematography I’ve seen outside of a Kubrick film.  Director Pawel Pawlikowski is virtually unknown to me, although he was up for Best Director in 2019 (losing to, how about that, Alfonso Cuarón for Roma).  His narrative method is a little oblique for my tastes, but his visual style is superb in every way.  I’m glad it’s in my collection.  Whenever I’m in the mood for a visual feast, Ida will do the trick.

BLANCANIEVES (2012, Spain)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Pablo Berger
Cast: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Maribel Verdú, Macarena García
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 95% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A re-telling of the classic Snow White, Blancanieves is a beautiful homage to the black-and-white Golden Age of European silent cinema, set in a romanticized 1920s Seville.

If you are one of the 3 or 4 people in the world who have ever wondered what would happen if Terry Gilliam and Guillermo del Toro collaborated on a black-and-white silent film, your prayers have been answered.  Blancanieves is a beautiful anachronism, a black-and-white silent film created as a tribute to the silent films of nearly 100 years ago that gave birth to the motion picture industry as we know it.  The filmmakers have remixed the classic Snow White fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm into a movie that puts all the recent Disney remakes to shame.  THIS is how you pay tribute to your predecessors.

The updated story takes place in Seville during the 1910s through the 1920s.  Antonio, a famous bullfighter, is gored in the ring and paralyzed.  Traumatized by her husband’s injuries, his pregnant wife goes into premature labor and dies after giving birth to a daughter, Carmencita.  Antonio remarries to a scheming nurse, Encarna (Maribel Verdú, whom you may recognize from Y tu mama tambien or Pan’s Labyrinth).  Encarna, who gives gold diggers a bad name, manages to keep Antonio from ever seeing his daughter, who is raised by her grandmother.  But true to Brothers Grimm fashion, Carmencita (and her pet rooster, Pepe) eventually must come to live with her father and her evil stepmother, whose idea of caring for her paralyzed husband is to leave his chair in a sunny spot of the house while she indulges in a little S&M with the chauffeur.  Why didn’t we see THAT in the Disney version?!

If you know the story of Snow White, you know what happens next.  The insane jealousy, the trip into the forest, the attempted murder, her discovery by a group of little men (only six this time, and they’re bullfighter/clowns).  But everything is turned on its head slightly.  For example, she loses her memory, even forgetting her own name.  She remembers the steps to bullfighting, but she doesn’t know why.

We even get a scene with the infamous apple and the “Sleeping Death,” although the resolution to Blancanieves’s predicament is not quite what I was expecting.  It will take you by surprise, too.  I guarantee it.

This was such a charming movie to watch.  It was full of the kind of shots and edits that are typical of silent films of the ‘20s.  I won’t catalog them all here, but their usage really put me into the “vibe” of that bygone era.  I especially liked the liberal use of double-exposure shots to reinforce a state of mind, or to remind the audience of a piece of “dialogue.”  Or, most effectively, when Antonio reminisces about his dead wife.

And the actress who plays the adult Carmencita, aka Blancanieves, is one of the most beautiful actresses I’ve seen in a while.  For the record.  Films are heavily reliant on faces, silent films even more so.  They found the perfect face for this character.  A true beauty.

There were some nice quirks, too, that reminded me of Terry Gilliam more than anything or anyone else.  Among the six dwarves is one named Josefa.  Josefa is either a really ugly woman or a really bad drag queen.  In miniature.  Her name is mentioned, and that’s it.  No explanation given for her appearance.  We move on.

A word of warning: you know those stories you hear about how the Grimm fairy tales have been “cleaned up” or edited over the years either to remove the more gruesome elements or to tack on happy endings for kids?  Yeah.  Keep that in mind.  That’s all I’ll say.

I used to tell people that, if they’ve never seen a silent film before, The Artist (2011) is the place to start.  Having seen Blancanieves, I think I have to update my statement.  The Artist is a great deconstruction of the art of silent films, but it would be even better to start with a great example of the medium itself.  Sure, there’s always Chaplin and Lloyd and Keaton, but for someone who has historically shunned silent films, Blancanieves is an even better entry point.  It’s a little harder to find, but it’s worth the effort.