Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Dispatches from Film School: "International Masterworks"

Finally, we'll wrap up the spring semester (three months later) with what was hands-down the most challenging class I have taken so far: International Masterworks. The films themselves come from filmmakers who, in some way, changed the language of cinema and pushed our understanding of what a film could be. That makes the class challenging enough, but it was taught by a professor who pushed us to think deeper about the films. This meant setting aside the typical filmic grammar - character psychology, narrative, symbolism - and thinking about the films in their own terms. Needless to say, this is not an easy thing to do. But, regardless of any other disagreements I might have had with some of his statements, the class proved to enrich my understanding of cinema and how to approach a work of art.

So below is the list of films we watched for the class. I heartily recommend every single one of them, something that I haven't been able to say for my other lists.

Grand Illusion (dir. Jean Renoir, 1937)

These days, Renoir is probably best known for his 1939 farce The Rules of the Game, and rightfully so. But two years earlier, he made Grand Illusion, a remarkable blend of slapstick, satire, and drama, and the first foreign-language film to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Set in WWI, the film concerns a group of French prisoners of war and their German captors, particularly the bond between officers de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim, who also had a celebrated career as a director). Considering the political climate of the time, Renoir shows incredible empathy towards all of his characters regardless of nationality, focusing instead on their shared humanity than their arbitrary differences. Very few war films are this devoid of political ideology or "us versus them" mentality.

A Man Escaped (dir. Robert Bresson, 1956)

Bresson, on the other hand, may have shared Renoir's disinterest in the politics of warfare, but if A Man Escaped is any indication, he didn't see a need for empathy either. French Resistance member Fontaine (Fran├žois Leterrier) is captured by the Germans and imprisoned, but he bides his time by plotting his escape. Bresson (who himself was a prisoner of war during WWII) adopts Fontaine's perspective, presenting every potential ally and threat with wary distrust. Instead, the film focuses on the process of escape, as Fontaine's narration provides access to his clinical planning and understanding of his environment. As such, it can be frustrating at times, since Bresson does not grant the audience access to understanding the other characters. But as a study of understated survival, the film is a triumph.

More after the jump.

Umberto D. (dir. Vittorio De Sica, 1952)

Italian master De Sica's career can be divided into two phases: the neorealist films that popularized the movement and revitalized Italian cinema, and the studio films that were the antithesis of those previous films but nonetheless excelled in entertainment value. Umberto D., arguably his masterpiece, straddles the line between the two phases. Umberto (Carlo Battisti) is a retired government worker threatened with eviction by his landlady (Lina Gennari). In his attempts to find the money to keep his apartment, he befriends a young maid (Maria-Pia Casilio) who is three months pregnant out of wedlock. In the neorealist tradition, De Sica is content to follow Umberto through a number of trials, including trying to find his runaway dog, without concern for underlining the overarching narrative. But foreshadowing his studio pictures, he displays a deep sentimental streak, generating deep investment not only in Umberto but also in the maid, including a stunner of a understated scene featuring her alone. Rarely is a film this genuinely concerned about its characters.

Late Spring (dir. Yasujiro Ozu, 1949)

Ozu practically needs no introduction to cinephiles: the Japanese master of the character-driven drama, with his famous "tatsumi mat angles" (scenes are often filmed from below eye level of seated characters) and narratives involving the tricky navigation of family relationships. Though Ozu was a long-time fixture of Japanese cinema by the mid-century mark, Late Spring was his international breakthrough. The film follows widowed professor Shukichi (Chishu Ryu) and his daughter Noriko (Setsuko Hara) as the former explores the prospect of a new relationship and the latter is pressured to marry. Though the marriages are the impetus for the film's narrative, Ozu is much more interested how they affect the relationship between father and daughter. Ryu and Hara, both frequent Ozu collaborators, deliver arguably the best performances of their respective characters, imbuing their characters with shared history and affection. It's a gorgeously realized film.

Equinox Flower (dir. Yasujiro Ozu, 1958)

Compared to the reputations of Late Spring and Tokyo Story (both ranked highly on the most recent Sight & Sound poll), Equinox Flower is considered a minor work in Ozu's filmography. Ozu's first color film, Equinox Flower centers on Hirayama (Shin Saburi), a Tokyo businessman who, while assisting a colleague (Chishu Ryu) arrange a marriage for his daughter, discovers that his own daughter Fumiko (Yoshiko Kuga) has planned her marriage without his consent. Furious, he refuses to attend her wedding, alienating himself from his family. Like Late Spring, the core of the film is the relationship between father and daughter, but here the bond is much more fractured. True, Saburi and Kuga don't possess the same caliber of performance as Ryu and Hara did in the former film, but Equinox Flower still finds new facets of familial relationships to explore. It may be "minor," but that certainly doesn't preclude it from greatness.

Journey to Italy (dir. Roberto Rossellini, 1954)

Upon its original US release in 1954, Journey to Italy was discussed almost exclusively in terms of the scandalous relationship and subsequent marriage of Rossellini to star Ingrid Bergman a few years earlier (both were married to other people at the time). Thankfully, today the film is better known for its artistic achievements. English couple Alex (George Sanders) and Katherine Joyce (Bergman) travel to Italy to appraise a property they inherited, but the trip strains their already-fraying marriage. As the two explore the country (often separately), they discover things about themselves and their relationship that they now have to face. Rossellini doesn't make this latter portion of the film explicit, though, instead relying on his actors to convey their inner turmoil and discovery. It's a sensitive portrait of a couple in crisis.

The Sacrifice (dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1986)

I've written about several of Tarkovsky's films already, and each one I encounter gives me more of an impression that the Soviet master ranks among my personal favorite filmmakers. The Sacrifice is his final film, shot in exile in Sweden before he died of cancer in 1986 (seven months after the film's Swedish release). Alexander (Erland Josephson) and his family and friends are isolated in their seaside home as a new world war initiates, causing everyone to fall into hysterics. Alexander, however, remains convinced that there may be a supernatural solution to the conflict. One of the most beguiling films in an oeuvre full of them, The Sacrifice never depicts the war itself, questioning what is real and what isn't. But the masterstroke here is how the film overwhelms the senses: every sound is amplified and visual is exquisitely shot, heightening the surreality of the narrative. What does it all mean? That's something to be puzzled over subsequent viewings, if at all. It's worth the experience alone.

Ordet (dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1955)

By the time Danish filmmaker finished Ordet, he had already cemented his place in cinema history as the director of silent classics Vampyr (1932) and The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Ordet, however, represented a new high in his career. Morten Borgen (Henrik Malberg) has three sons: faithless Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen) is married to pious Inger (Birgette Federspiel), Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye) believes he's Jesus Christ after going insane studying Kierkegaard, and Anders (Cay Kristiansen) is in love with the daughter of a Christian sect leader. Complications with Inger's pregnancy threaten the stability of the entire family until a miracle occurs. Dreyer explores the nature of faith without losing focus on the relationships between the characters, and the stylized performances let silences speak more often than the dialogue. For a film that tackles such a grandiose subject, it's surprisingly intimate, leading to a truly breathtaking finale.

A Separation (dir. Asghar Farhadi, 2011)

Farhadi is arguably one of the greatest directors working in the world today, and A Separation is largely the reason why he's known internationally, thanks to its acclaimed worldwide release and Foreign Language Oscar win. The film stars Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi as Simin and Nader, respectively, a couple filing for divorce. Simin wants to leave the country with Nader and their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), but Nader refuses to leave his sickly father behind. An incident between Nader and their new housekeeper Razieh (Sareh Barat) complicates matters even further, adding to their legal woes and further straining their marriage. In a brilliant move, the incident goes unseen by the audience; the narrative consequences are not as important as the personal consequences on the characters. Truth is elusive and relative in Farhadi's film, and the film is all the better for it.

About Elly (dir. Asghar Farhadi, 2009)

Though A Separation is certainly Farhadi's best-known film, About Elly is arguably his best film period. A group of friends, led by Sepidah (Golshifteh Farahani), go on vacation to the shore together and bring along Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), a schoolteacher for Sepidah's daughter. As in A Separation, there's an unseen incident that forms the fulcrum of the film, and it's a truly devastating turn of events. Farhadi's ensemble is impeccable, with Farahani being the standout. To say too much more about the film would be to spoil the experience.

Playtime (dir. Jacques Tati, 1967)

Discussions of physical comedy are often dominated by familiar names: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and, to a lesser extent, Harold Lloyd. Tati should be included in these conversations as well. Playtime finds his familiar protagonist, Monsieur Hulot (Tati himself), traveling to the city and encountering American tourist Barbara (Barbara Dennek). The overarching plot, however, hardly matters, as its simply a framework for Tati's brilliant setpieces. The sound of sitting on leather has never been as funny as it is when Hulot wanders around an office building, as Tati finds humor in the smallest sounds and simplest actions. It all builds to the piece de resistance: a nightclub sequence that is the very definition of gleeful anarchic chaos. So few comedies can match Tati's wit and construction.

Life is Sweet (dir. Mike Leigh, 1990)

British director Leigh made his career on observational films that are largely improvised during his extensive rehearsal periods, with the actors discovering their characters themselves and Leigh developing the script with them. The process provides his characters deep relationships before anything is filmed, and this is perfectly demonstrated in his classic comedy Life is Sweet. Andy (Jim Broadbent) and Wendy (Alison Steadman) are raising their two daughters Natalie (Claire Skinner) and Nicola (Jane Horrocks) in a working class London neighborhood, balancing Andy's desire to have his own restaurant with Wendy's attempts to help her daughters. The film features a number of Leigh regulars, including Timothy Spall, Stephen Rea, and David Thewlis, and the beauty of the film is in the acting. This is a film in which every actor is in their element, completely understanding their characters and conveying enormous empathy for them. It's a beautiful depiction of humanity in all its messy wonder.

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