Death of a Cyclist

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Death of a Cyclist (1955) is a powerful film from Spain. I found this via serendipity as the image on the DVD box intrigued me. The Criterion Collection site offers a plot summary I can’t trump, so here that is:

Upper-class geometry professor Juan and his wealthy, married mistress, Maria José, driving back from a late-night rendezvous, accidentally hit a cyclist, and run. The resulting, exquisitely shot tale of guilt, infidelity, and blackmail reveals the wide gap between the rich and the poor in Spain, and surveys the corrupt ethics of a society seduced by decadence. Juan Antonio Bardem’s charged melodrama Death of a Cyclist (Muerte de un ciclista) was a direct attack on 1950s Spanish society under Franco’s rule. Though it was affected by the dictates of censorship, its sting could never be dulled.

Compelling and intense, Lucia Bosé stars as Maria José, the stunning mistress who’s anxious about the black mail and incrimination she faces, while not worrying much about her responsibility for the death of the bicyclist. As the film progresses, the professor faces a career crisis caused by distraction due to his ruminating over the accident. As the university students lay siege to the administration building, the professor gains moral clarity which leads to a most surprising ending.
 

I liked that the story offered unpredictable plot turns. Lucia Bosé’s beauty and style were simple and captivating. The cinematography was bold and showed how black and white films can achieve more stunning results than color more often than not. I do wonder was Spain of the 1950s that immoral? How much of this is exaggeration?

I highly recommend Death of a Cyclist and I’ll look for more films with Bosé and directed by Juan Antonio Bardem.

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Andrei Rublev

At 3 hours 25 minutes long, Andrei Tarkovsky’s (The Passion of) Andrei Rublev is a challenging movie with a narrative structure that’s as far from a Hollywood film as can be. I don’t think I’d say I liked the film, but I will say it impressed me and challenged me. I found it powerful and challenging.

Divided into eight parts, Andrei Rublev sheds light, rather than chronicles as biopics usually do, on the foremost Medieval Russian icon painter. First we see a prologue when a 15th century Russian peasant struggles to fly in a hot air balloon. He’s a true explorer, a risk taker, a visionary. Yet his experiment takes strength and sweat to get off the ground. A mob of peasants curses this endeavor and tries to thwart it by fighting with the ballooner’s assistants who’re steadying the ropes holding the balloon and then trying to blind an assistant by assaulting him with a firebrand into “his mug.” (Thankfully, that took place off camera.)

Yet where was Rublev? Not in the prologue. In fact there are long sequences when we don’t see the painter/monk much or even at all. Tarkovsky preferred poetry and themes to plot points and explication. That’s what makes him interesting and also hard to follow. I’m used to directors who spell things out so at the beginning I was especially unmoored.

Rublev lived in a tough time. His times had Tatar and Slavic marauders were a threat. Poverty and famine were too. On top of this, the pensive Rublev was plagued with big theological questions and the question of pure art. Nothing was easy. His fellow monks and disciples/apprentices questioned him and rebelled. His mentor challenged his motives and ideas. The Tsar would have your head if the commission wasn’t done. Nothing was easy.

The film is a marathon and I admit I watched this 3 hour 25 minute film in chunks over a course of days. It drained me, but that was okay as the masterful cinematography and this look at a time in history was fresh for me. While Andrei Rublev doesn’t purport to be a biography or historical film, since much of the story is fiction, it did rid me of any stereotypes. For example there’s a peasant girl who is rescued by Rublev, but when she meets the marauding Tatars and one of them want to take her to be wife #7 or 8, this simple Russian girl is willing to up and leave with the tribe that teases her. Rublev tries to save her, but she won’t have it. No, she wants to go off with the Tatars who treat her like a toy. Huh. You just wouldn’t see that in most films.

The film ends with a sequence of scenes where a boy*, whose homeland is a wasteland and whose family — parents, sister, uncles, aunts, etc — have died from the plague, convinces the monks that his father passed on the secret to bell making. He can cast the church bell the Grand Prince wants. It’s a testament to filmmaking that I found the mission of casting a bell so fascinating. It helped that the mission was a life or death endeavor. The prince made it clear that if the bell didn’t ring, the boy would be beheaded.

*The boy in this sequence was played by the same actor who starred in Ivan’s Childhood.

If you’re up for a big challenge, do watch Andrei Rublev. Know that you’re in for a beautiful film, but it’s long and somewhat confusing. If you aren’t, well this week I’m taking it easy with an old W.C. Fields film and that might be the way you’d like to go.

By the way,

  • You can find a detailed description of the plot on Wikipedia;
  • I found the commentary after I saw the film and wished I had watched with that turned on;
  • The film, as you might imagine, was banned in Russia for a number of years. It was shown in France and had to be shown outside the Cannes Competition at 4am.

Ivan’s Childhood

I hadn’t heard of director Andrei Tarkovsky before. Nor had I ever heard of actor Nikolay Burlyaev. I haven’t seen many Russian films and I wasn’t particularly looking for a difficult film but something about Tarkovsky’s WWII film Ivan’s Childhood (1962) grabbed me though it took a while.

Around 12 years old, Ivan dreams of his idyllic childhood playing at the beach, chatting with his young mother, running freely. Then he wakes up. He’s in a dark, war-torn, God-forsaken landscape. He trudges through a murky river (which looks like a marsh, but it’s a degenerated river and a symbol the effects of war) before he’s captured by Russian soldiers. Back at the soldiers’ post, Ivan is fierce and orders the soldiers about. He orders the soldiers to call “Number 51 at HQ.” They try to put him in his place, but you’ve never seen a fiercer 12 year old. Played by Nikolay Burlyaev, Ivan is like no character you’ve ever seen. In the dream sequences he’s pure and innocence; once he’s orphaned and becomes an army scout Ivan’s transformed to a force of nature on par with a hurricane.

Ivan prevails in convincing his comrades in arms that he should continue his reconnaissance work and not get shipped off to the much safer military school. Viewing the film, I knew that the soldiers should not have agreed, but that’s where the suspense comes in.

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Tarkovsky gives us amazing images like none I’ve ever seen. He believed in using the environment like the murky river, a bombed peasant farm house and a white birch forest speak volumes. I’ll never forget the dream sequence when Ivan and a little girl are riding in a pick up truck filled with apples. The sky and trees are shown in the negative, which was mind-blowing.

There’s a lot of intense emotion. One example is a scene with an officer flirting with a female junior officer who’s very tentative. He wants her; it’s not clear what she wants. Without graphic nudity or direct language Tarkovsky gives us a powerful scene of cat and mouse in the birch forest that goes on forever.

The Criterion Collection DVD comes with fascinating extras including an interview with the now grown (i.e. middle aged) Nickolay Burlyaev, who recalls how hard Tarkovsky made him work to get the part and then how kind and sensitive the director was during the filming of this emotionally intense story.

I found the film challenging to watch. It’s no day at the beach, which is fitting for a war film. Yet Ivan’s Childhood is well worth watching.

 

 

L’Enfance Nue

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In the same vein as Truffaut’s 400 Blows, L’Enfance Neu presents the story of a troubled boy growing up in 1960s France. In fact, François Truffaut produced this first film directed by Maurice Pialat.

While the actors in both films resemble each other, their personalities and stories are distinct. L’Enfance Neu is about François, an 11 year old, in the foster care system. His mother has abandoned him temporarily when he was 4. She doesn’t write and the boy knows little of her and nothing of his father. At the start he lives with a family, who has had enough of him. He steals, wets his bed, hangs out with the “bad boys” who mistreat cats and probably any other pet or person they impetuously think would be fun to test.

Yet François has his good side. He buys his foster mom a gift with the money his foster father gave him for his own use. He is a normal brother to the foster parents’ “real” daughter, who tells the social worker she likes François and would miss him if he left. The mother has a laundry list of François’ every fault and misdeed and the social worker realizes its pointless to leave the boy in this setting.

So François is shipped off to a new town where he’s placed with an elderly couple, who’ve been foster parents to dozens of kids including the teen Raoul, who lives there now.  The couple is loving and pragmatic. They get exasperated when François gets in trouble with his hooligan friends, but they respond as most parents do and they forget his past deeds and see the good in this troubled boy.

The story doesn’t end by tying a bright satin bow on the end, but neither does it just stop without some resolution. It’s realistic and fair to all sides. It doesn’t provide easy answers. François’ certainly affected by his parents’ abandoning him, but he’s also no worse than the kids who have parents. None of them say, “We shouldn’t through the cat down the stairwell” or “We shouldn’t steal ice cream” at the movie theater. In that scene there were several older boys who knew better. In fact, one of the older boys was a lot more self-destructive than François.

I appreciated the realism and the fair shake all the characters got. You could sympathize with both the foster parents, François and the others in the film. While the foster system is far from perfect, these social workers were conscientious.

Pialat worked with non-actors and the natural performances were as good as any professional’s. This was Maurice Pialat‘s first film, which I highly recommend. I’d definitely seek out others.

Like Someone in Love

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もったいない (mottanai) in Japanese basically means “what a waste!” and that’s how I felt once I was 70% through Like Somone in Love. I’d seen the film on the shelf at the library and was intrigued. When I watched the trailer on YouTube I was duped. I thought the film would be interesting. ちがいます(chigaimasu). Translation: wrong.

Directed by the Iranian director who made Certified Copy, which I did enjoy, though I have to say that film has an unusual and at times mystifying or weird narrative, Like Someone in Love deliberately leaves the audience in the dark about what’s going on or who the characters actually are. The director likes to string people along or make them wonder. We first hear, but don’t see Akiko, a young prostitute, lie to her fiancée. Then her fatherly boss advises her to drop the boyfriend before he insists she go to a new client’s apartment. Akiko is pouty and stupid and that never changes.

Her new client Prof. Watanabe is old enough to be her grandpa and is very kind. It seems he just wants a companion rather than a sex partner. At first Akiko is withdrawn, but soon flips the switch and is talkative and bubbly. She knows how to do her job, how to create interest and warmth, which seems to have se rved her well. She chatters on about her youth and how various people have praised her looks. I thought she was very sly in adopting this “little girl” persona. It’s common in Japan for women to adopt a baby-ish voice to flirt.

Before we know it Akiko pulls poor Watanabe into her violent relationship with a mechanic. At one point, after seeing the mechanic man-handle Akiko, the retired professor tries to advise the fiancé on marriage, but this kid’s a know-it-all.

The best thing about the film is the actor who played Watanabe. Evidently, Tanashi Okuno has been an extra for 30+ years and this is the first film in which he speaks.

I feared that Akiko and the mechanic were total liars and would beat up the old man at the end, but that’s not exactly what happens. In fact, the end is left to viewers’ imagination, which I felt was cheating.

This slice of life film wasn’t worth the time. It’s the mirror opposite of a Doris Day film like Lucky Me. The director aims to avoid Hollywood clichés and as far as that goes, he succeeds. If you want to see a film set in Japan, try Kurosawa, Naruse or Ozu. Skip Like Someone in Love.

Death by Hanging

Oshima’s Death by Hanging has masterful cinematography and great acting. Loosely based on a real crime, Death by Hanging attempts to argue against capital punishment and prejudice against Koreans.

The director directly states statistics of Japanese approval of capital punishment, before introducing the story. Oshima believes if he shows his audience an execution they’ll come to oppose punishing murderers with death. The story begins with all the protocol of an execution. The criminal named R has been convicted of raping and murdering two school girls. R has a champlain, gets a last meal as the officials in charge go through the usual procedures.

However, when R is hanged, he doesn’t die. Now what?

The doctor finds that R is still alive and soon he comes too. But R insists he isn’t R, which means they can’t hang him again. (Evidently, in Japan if there’s a botched execution, they could try again.) Now begins the long process, mainly led by the Education Chief (not sure why someone with this title is part of this process — it seems he has to make sure the felon has understood why he’s getting punished and agrees that he’s guilty). The black farce is turned up to “high” as the film proceeds. It’s full of dark humor as well as the logic behind ending capital punishment or it’s meant to be.

The film goes down some bizarre rabbit holes, which are pulled off by an outstanding cast. The Korean-Japanese actor who played R should have won an award. It’s amazing how he maintains this impassive presence amidst madness.The story drifts back and forth between fantasy and reality and the plot twists and turns and is full of surprises till the last second. I sure did not expect the ending.

I applaud Oshima for presenting the injustice against Koreans living in Japan so directly and thoroughly. Usually such cultural faults are well hidden.

However, the film felt long and was confusing at time. When R’s sister appears from no where and her relationship with her brother takes an incestuous turn, Oshima lost me. The arguments that followed against capital punishment weren’t convincing and in fact made me think, perhaps execution is acceptable since these arguments are the weakest I’ve heard. So in that respect Death by Hanging, while an example of dark humor and powerful imagery, fails. Because it’s incredibly original, I do recommend the film, but I imagine some people will have problems with some of the foolishness of the officials, the sister or the logic. It is a film you’d want to discuss afterwards.

 

Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday

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After watching Jacques Tati’s comedic classic Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, I was surprised to find out it was made in 1956. I’d have guessed during the 1930s. The film uses little sound, but the sound  is used to maximum effect. The sublime, recurring tune keeps playing in my head. Since it’s a happy melody, that’s just fine.

Awkward and unlucky, but well-meaning and kind, Mr. Hulot goes on vacation to a seaside French town. Wherever Mr. Hulot goes, minor disaster follows upsetting the quiet card players or the well-dressed ladies. More often than not, Mr. Hulot is his own worst enemy, but the consequence is usually small–some bruises, embarrassment or car trouble. It’s cool to see an old style vacation

The film is big on gags and short on plot. The characters are nameless stereotypes, but they do make an impression and each one is bound to remind you of someone you know or love.

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday is a delight, but probably isn’t for everyone. The film is slow-paced, a trip to the old days. It’s the first Tati film I’ve seen and folks like Roger Ebert assert it’s his best. I’m glad I saw it because Tati is a master in French film, but I can’t recommend it highly because I think a lot of people want more plot, which they can get from Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd.