Wednesday, July 24, 2013


Though considered part of the Czech cinema revolution, the 1966 film Daisies could have just as easily sat alongside its forebears in the French Nouvelle Vague as it does its compatriots in the Eclipse boxed set, appropriately titled Pearls of the Czech New Wave. Věra Chytilová's anarchic political comedy is colorful and fun and as pointed as it is deceptively light-hearted.

Daisies stars Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová as two girls named Marie. Red-haired Marie and Brown-haired Marie. They are young women of the 1960s, possessed of a freedom that borders on entitlement, a combination of flower child and flapper. The loose narrative follows the Maries as they indulge themselves, luring older men into misguided dates where they gorge on food, stick the dudes with the bill, and ditch them at the train station, sending them back to wife and family and duty. Chytilová's filming style is perfectly attuned to the girls' manic activity. Colors change, scenes jump around--the whole movie has a sort of collage feel, matching the decoration on the walls of the Maries' joint apartment. Pin-ups of muscle men are hung next to photos of important people and the scrawled names of the ladies' many conquests. Almost like an enemies list...or maybe a roster of the guilty.

There is a lot of giggling and fun to be had watching the girls take over a jazz club or frolic in bikinis. It's like a William Klein-directed episode of "Laugh-In." (Daisies most closely resembles Klein's Who Are You, Polly Magoo? [review] if we're searching for soul sisters.) The Maries are at times charming, at other times annoying, and even manage to get on each other's nerves. This is by design. They are selfish and demanding. Daisies is as much a critique of the younger generation as it is a merry celebration of the same.

For as silly as it can be, however, Chytilová's movie is not as simple as all that. It doesn't bemoan the problems with kids these days, but rather portrays these two modern gals as indicative of a failure of the system as a whole, of a country that makes promises while failing to deliver substantive opportunities. Daisies is go-go dancing on top of the outmoded communist regime, which has failed to update its dance moves since the days of Charlie Chaplin pantomime. The kids are growing up, the country is not.

The most direct message comes at the end of Daisies, when Chytilová offers us two possible outcomes. There is the conclusion that the movie has been building to the whole time, where the girls push as far as they can through their coquettish chicanery, but are left out in the cold when the con runs its course, and then there is the alternative, where they play the game, only to come to the same ruin. It's a lot less fun, to be sure, which only adds to the tragedy of the results.

We're a long way from 1960s Czechoslovakia, but Daisies remains vibrant and even relevant. Chytilová's experimentation still comes off as fresh and unforced, and anyone coming of age in the 21st Century will see plenty of themselves in the Maries. Misunderstood, exploited, and locked out of the banquet? That doesn't sound familiar. Not at all.

The NW Film Center in Portland, OR, will be showing Daisies on Friday and Saturday, July 26 & 27. They will  be showing it with another Criterion selection, 1966's Closely Watched Trains. I saw Closely Watched Trains several years ago and cannot recommend it highly enough. These two will make for an excellent double feature if you're in the area. Here is the schedule.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

BABETTE'S FEAST (Blu-Ray) - #665

There's a moment in the middle of the third act of Babette's Feast where the Swedish military man, General Lorens Löwenhielm (Jarl Kulle, Smiles on a Summer Night [review]), sinks into reverie while eating the meal that is at the center of Gabriel Axel's 1987 feature. The flavors remind him of a dining experience he had in Paris, and he shares the memory with the rest of the dinner guests, never realizing that, in all likelihood, he is talking about the same chef responsible for his current pleasure, Babette (Stéphane Audran, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie [review]), who has been in exile in Jutland for many years, having fled the violent revolution that took her husband and son from her. It's the irony of legitimate déjà vu.

I experienced a similar feeling during the first twenty minutes or so while watching Babette's Feast. I had the sensation that I had seen it before, I knew every move. As it turns out, I had been shown the film by a friend of mine who was a big fan. Likely I drank too much wine during the screening and so sort of forgot it happened. My irony is that I had texted her prior to watching it this time around to brag that I had the Blu-ray of one of her favorites. Because I'm an idiot.

It's not altogether outrageous, however, nor outside the realm of the Danish film's thematic intent. Babette's Feast is all about how memory and sensation are linked, how the past is always with us, and the way that denying ourselves the indulgence of any of these pleasures will affect us both in the present and the future.

Axel's film, which he both wrote and directed, is based on a story by Karen Blixen, who is more commonly known as Isak Dinesen). The narrative spans decades, touching down with its characters at three separate times. The first period is when its main duo, daughters of a preacher in a remote Danish village, are young women. Martine and Filippa (played first by Vibeke Hastrup and Hanne Stensgaard, and later by Birgitte Federspiel (Ordet) and Bodil Kjer) are denied suitors by their pious father, who sees their denial of the flesh as extensions of his own work. Both have opportunities for great romance, but both turn away from the possibility. For Martine, it is an attraction between herself and Löwenhielm, back when he was just a lieutenant (Gudmar Wivesson); for Filippa, it's when a visiting singer (Jean-Philippe Lafont) hears her beautiful voice and tries to lure her away to a life on the stage.

It's actually this singer that causes Babette to enter the sisters' lives. Years later, after their father has passed away, he sends the distraught widow to their shores for refuge. Though they can't afford to pay her, she stays on and joins their family, serving them for more than ten years, living on their bland food while becoming a bright spot in the drab village. The solitude provides her with solace, and Babette is getting along just fine when she receives word that she won the lottery back in France. The sisters fear that now that Babette is a woman of means, she will leave them and return to her homeland. This concern is only encouraged when Babette announces that she'd like to splurge on a real French dinner for the village. Is it a farewell gift?

They need not fear, however; Babette is not looking to make a hasty exit. Rather, the elaborate meal affords her the opportunity to exercise her craft. For her, cooking is an art form, and just as the preacher expresses his spirit through sermons or the singer through song, the chef expresses herself through her food. She nourishes a congregation and elevates her audience. Adding to the metaphor, the feast takes place on the birthday of the girls' father, so the village partakes in tribute to him--despite their private protestations. They will eat to honor Babette, but they will refuse to enjoy it in honor of their late pastor. Naturally, this will be easier said than done, particularly as Löwenhielm has returned to visit for the first time since he left. Now a man of rank and experience, the General acts as a kind of teacher or guide, demonstrating how to appreciate Babette's cooking in full. By the final course, the diners are satiated, and the feast has served to bring them closer together.

What makes Babette's Feast special is how this is all so elegantly understated. Axel does not resort to histrionics or dramatic revelations. His film actually develops in a manner that reverses the common technique: he begins by expressing more, and he ends by expressing less. The start of the movie, which features the history of Martine and Filippa in flashback, is narrated by Ghita Nørby (Everlasting Moments [review]), presumably reading Dinesen's original prose. The voiceover is all but gone by the time of Babette's dinner. The drama eases into a kind of food coma, inner tensions being released with the loosening of the belt.

In terms of performance, the actors in Babette's Feast take a reserved approach. There is not a lot of dialogue, very little by way of heart-to-heart conversations; what is important is what is not said, what they do not do. By contrast, the visiting singer is larger than life in how he approaches song, which is seen as scandalous; in old age, he comes to understand the lasting satisfaction of virtue, but his understanding is arguably deeper because he knows the balance between excess and reduction. Likewise, when the younger Löwenhielm returns to the Royal court, the soldier carries with him the lessons he learned while courting Martine, and he uses it to endear himself to the Queen and charm his future wife. It's what many of the villagers actually forgot by the time of his return: be honest, direct, and humble in all things.

Babette's Feast was shot on location and lovingly photographed by Henning Kristiansen. A wonderful variety of colors naturally occur at the seaside locale, the gray ocean and rocky beach playing off the blue skies and sunshine, cold versus warmth. The locals dress in dark clothes that match the patch of earth upon which they live, and Babette's red hair, much like Löwenhielm's blue uniform, stands out in sharp relief in much the same way a sunset banishes clouds. They are not from here, they are different--but then, so is God's grace. He gave us these pleasures to enjoy, not to renounce. The food that Babette makes is complex and graceful and as much a joy to look at as we would presume it is to eat; likewise, Babette's Feast could be described in the same way, a banquet for the eyes, an elegantly complex cinematic indulgence.

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVD Talk. Images here were taken from an earlier standard-definition DVD and were not taken from the Blu-Ray under review.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


"I am running out of fantasy. I don't know what else will happen now.."

Werner Herzog speaks those lines at a juncture in Burden of Dreams, Les Blank and Maureen Gosling's 1982 behind-the-scenes exposé of the making of Herzog's film Fitzcarraldo, when his appreciation of irony is rapidly depleting. The Peruvian natives he has hired to be extras and crew on the production have left the location to go answer tribal violence and territorial threats, and Herzog is beginning to realize that, despite his best intentions, his presence in these people's lives has started to affect them in unforeseen ways. In that, he is no different than the rubber barons his script vilifies. He has come to this land to take something from the indigenous people.

It's one of many unfortunate cross-overs that the filmmaker has with his subject. Fitzcarraldo is the story of a European immigrant who went to South America to make his fortune, and once he had, squandered it in hopes of building an opera house to bring his beloved Caruso to sing in person. Klaus Kinski stars as the baron, while Claudia Cardinale co-stars as his love interest, a madame running a brothel. The film's climax details Fitzcarraldo's biggest and most fatal hurdle: getting his boat over a mountain, taking it from one river to another on the opposite side. It's a perilous act, one that is achieved in mud and blood, and at the expense of the lives of the local people he hires to pull it across.

What Burden of Dreams chronicles is how this went from being a written metaphor in a screenplay to an active and lengthy mishap for its author. Over the four years that Herzog tried to make Fitzcarraldo, shooting stalled twice before finally getting underway the last time--only to become elongated by the director's misguided insistence on realism. He shot his movie deep in the Peruvian jungle, far from where it would have been more safe and secure, and then proceeded to demand that his crew pull a boat up a mountain for real. No faking it here!

It's fortuitous that Blank and Herzog chose this particular production for the documentarian to follow. Honestly, the real-life story of Burden of Dreams is far more compelling that Herzog's finished film. It's one thing to create a fiction where a man's goals become a disease and his vision is blinded by obsession and even madness; it's another to watch it happen for real. Herzog, who is infamous for pontificating about his experiences and narrating documentaries where he theorizes about the lives of others, is caught in a philosophical and literary whirlwind of his own design. Burden of Dreams charts the decline of his artistic optimism. As the production becomes increasingly unmoored, so too does the man who would presume to orchestrate it. The last scenes quite literally show Herzog setting one of his boats adrift and trying to capture the chaos on film as he smashes into the rocks, taking his cameraman and star with him.

At the same time this is all happening, Blank and Gosling are also getting to know the local crew that have come on board to assist the crazy German. There is a lot of downtime during the production, and this allows Burden of Dreams to examine local politics, question how white society is encroaching on tradition, and even record some of the customs that still exist amongst the native peoples. There is an interesting contrast between the resilience of an ancient culture and the mutable whims of modern man.

Burden of Dreams was not the only collaboration between Les Blank and Werner Herzog. In the early 1980s, two more of Blank's films featured the director, either directly or tangentially. Herzog makes an appearance in Blank's mid-length feature Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers. (Not included on the Burden of Dreams DVD, but it is on the Criterion Hulu channel.) The director's cameo is a brief side trip in the documentary. Blank's study of the quirky cult of the clove eventually leads him to ponder its place in vampire lore. He asks Herzog about its absence from his remake of Nosferatu. Perhaps more interesting than the answer is Werner's own puzzled query, "Why did you ask me that?" It demonstrates why the two likely got along: they are both endlessly curious about what motivates people.

Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers's main thesis is to understand why garlic had long lacked in popularity in America, and what was at that time causing a change in its reputation. Blank centers his study on the annual garlic festival in Gilroy, a Northern Californian town where much of the country's garlic is grown. (I've driven through there. It will cause you to wonder if people can truly become acclimated to any smell, the day-to-day coping with that odor must be a real challenge.) The odd nature of the gathering, where people dress in costume and sing songs in honor of their chosen spice, sets the tone for the rest of Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers. Garlic is an intense vegetable that inspires intense devotion.

Blank finds a colorful cast of characters. There is the gypsy singer and connoisseur who tells of garlic's important history amongst the Spanish poor; there is the man who literally wrote the book on what he calls the Stinking Rose (and opened a restaurant of the same name); and there are a variety of cooks from many different cultural backgrounds. Blank has tremendous affection for kooks, and his movies gleefully respect that, even if maybe sometimes you wish he'd drop some of the quirks and tighten up the narrative.

Facts emerge as the movie progresses, and the title begins to make sense once we hear testimony of the herb's restorative powers, but this is really secondary to the collage of humanity that Blank has cut together. He moves back and forth through different commentators, comparing customs and culinary techniques, letting the central plant be the common thread between them all. It seems no matter where you are in the world, be it China, Mexico, or the American South, garlic will at some point reach your taste buds. It's the main seasoning in the melting pot of life.

It's no surprise then, that Blank focuses on the big clove of garlic Herzog uses as central flavor when cooking his boot in Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. Based on the fact that the two shorter films (Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is only 20 minutes long) were released the same year, and how Herzog looks in both, the Nosferatu Q&A in Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers likely happened on this shoot. For Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Blank films the German auteur making good on a bet: if Errol Morris could finish his first film, The Gates of Heaven, his mentor promised to literally eat his shoe. Ever the hardline poet, Herzog eats the one he was wearing when the wager was made.

Having seen Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe before, I came back to it thinking it a trifle that did not live up to its reputation. You see a man eat his shoe, and that's that. What a documentarian chooses to show you, however, is telling. For Herzog, this is a bold act. He is confirming for all neophyte and wannabe film directors that the dream is real. Yet, Blank shows how far the man can take such symbolic acts by connecting the leathery meal to the director holding court and quite literally justifying such an absurd event by denigrating his own profession and creating pretentious theories that connect his own perceived shallowness with larger social issues. It's like the folly of Burden of Dreams in microcosm.

What is fascinating, though, is how Blank deflates his subject while also showing more of himself. As a pair, Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers and Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe reveal Les Blank in a way Burden never can. His choice of subject and the cuts he makes in the editing room, as well as the music he lays over the top, demonstrate a sense of humor and a general positive attitude about life's happy accidents that, in Burden of Dreams, gets rolled over by that big boat just like everything else. Burden of Dreams shows Les Blank in service to Herzog's madness; Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers and Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe effectively turn the tables so that the servant becomes the master.

Les Blank died this past April. The NW Film Center in Portland, OR, will be showing all three of these films as a tribute to his legacy on Friday, July 19, and Satuday, July 20. Check their website for times.

Sunday, July 14, 2013


Having just this morning (as I write this) reviewed Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation of Mozart's 18th-century opera The Magic Flute, I felt compelled to revisit Ingmar Bergman's 1975 staging of the same. The day I intend to post this, July 14, also happens to be the Swedish director’s birthday. I call that a happy coincidence.

The difference between the two productions couldn't be more immediately apparent. Whereas Branagh was determined to show the opera as a straight-up movie, completely separated from its stage origins and live performance, Bergman's goal from the get-go seems to be to remind us what a vital experience live theatre can be. Practically the first thing we see is the audience waiting to partake of the opera, including the director and his regular stars Erland Josephson and Liv Ullman (plus cinematographer Sven Nyquist, whom I didn't recognize) mixed in amongst the diverse faces in the crowd (diverse in race, gender, and age). The focus, though, is not on these famous attendees, but on a young girl. We observe her eyes become brighter as she listens to the overture and engages with the painted figures on the soon-to-rise curtain.

The stage and backstage are both visible through much of Bergman's The Magic Flute, with the director erasing any division between artifice and accepted reality. The play is the thing, and its presentation is as real and actual as any other human endeavor. So why not accept its execution as really happening? It is not fiction so much as myth come to life amongst us.

This production (originally filmed for television) is otherwise traditional, down tot the costuming and special effects. Smartly, however, Bergman has the actors play for the camera rather than going broad so as to project to the theatrical back row. The first meeting between Tamino (Josef Köstlinger) and Papageno (Håkan Hagegård) is as intimate and quiet a conversation as you'd find in any of the filmmaker's heavy dramas. Attention is focused on the closeness of the scene, inviting the audience inside what is happening. It's the daring of theatre mixed with the inclusiveness of cinema. When Papageno looks directly into the lens to share his thoughts, he is making us all a part of their quest.

This method makes the fantasy aspects of Mozart's story more believable than in Branagh's updating of it. WWI is maybe too familiar, and so possibly a bad choice as a setting for The Magic Flute. The bullets and blood are too vivid in our collective memory, making it hard to divorce our emotions from what we know and accept that Sgt. York would desert the trenches and rescue a princess. Yet, our common conception of medieval times, as distant as they are from our shard experience, allows for Queens of the Night and flutes that make music capable of blotting out human misery.

Bergman's putting the fairy tale aspect of The Magic Flute front and center is emphasized by his continued cutting back to the girl we met at the outset. Her delight at seeing the performers dressed as bats and lions is infectious. There is a warmth to the movie that Branagh's lacks, regardless of how entertaining his version can be. Likewise, Bergman’s cast benefits from indulging in the illusion of singing live. Seeing them breathe at the appropriate moments, even though their vocals were pre-recorded, is infinitely more convincing. Sound matches image.

Of course, our added investment in the Bergman adaptation also means the darker hues of the fairy tale are all the more frightening, particularly in the second act, when the Queen of the Night makes her move and Tamino must go through his trials to prove his worthiness. Bergman uses moody lighting, claustrophobic framing, and make-up to add touches of horror to the play. (And, dude, what about that weird vision of the Inferno with actual fire and featureless dancers? Like the nightmare in Wild Strawberries!) In childhood, we learn to balance the duality of life, to match our sense of wonder with our fear of the unknown. Laughter and scares go hand in hand. Papageno's romantic journey adds joy in relief of Tamino's potential sorrow.

It's also interesting to note that the darker the story becomes, the more grounded the sets, to the point where it appears that Pamina (Irma Urrila) is actually outside the opera house at the moment of her greatest despair. As hope returns, she is flown back into the theatre. Bergman is underlining the role that stories and art play in bettering our lives--and in so doing, the artists, the Mozarts and the Bergmans, transcend death, like Tamino and Pamina, and find something eternal. It’s not just the flute as a metaphorical object that inspires the suspension of sadness, but The Magic Flute itself.

Friday, July 5, 2013


My current frontrunner for the best movie of 2013 is Richard Linklater's Before Midnight [review], an emotionally turbulent, challenging movie about a long-tem couple who unexpectedly find themselves at a crossroads where they are questioning whether or not their relationship is worth continuing. It's a film that earns all of the feelings in engenders. Not unlike its spiritual predecessor, Roberto Rossellini's 1954 movie Journey to Italy (a.k.a. Voyage to Italy).

The director's crowning collaboration with Ingrid Bergman could serve as a sort of omen: their relationship would eventually disintegrate for good. Here, though, we find the pair perfectly in sync. Bergman plays Katherine Joyce, an upper-class wife of a British businessman. Alex (George Sanders) has recently inherited some property from his uncle, some land and a fancy home in Naples. Alex and Katherine have gone to Italy to sell it, and while they are away, do a little vacationing. Alex is a workaholic and it's hard to get him out of the office, which may explain why, now that Katherine has managed to get some alone time with him, they realize they don't know each other at all.

Ennui and jealousy make for a nasty combination. Husband and wife are bored with each other and the decades-long conversation they've been having. Yet, as is usually the case in such situations, they don't want anyone else being bored by their spouse, that is their right alone. And so it is that Alex begins to resent a dead poet whose verse has outlined Katherine's Italian itinerary. Though this kind of suspicion angers Katherine, she becomes guilty of it herself when they happen to run into a woman Alex has known previously. She is on a group vacation with some friends, and Alex pays the ladies in the traveling party extra attention when they are all out having drinks. Katherine says that she never knew that her hubby was so interested in women. Translation: why aren't you that interested in me?

After a few snippy arguments, the pair goes their separate ways to finish out the trip. Alex goes to Capri to catch up with his friend, while Katherine stays behind in Naples to continue to tour the historical spots and look at the ancient relics. She also spends her time drinking in the local color and observing the people. I was reminded a bit of Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation [review]. Ingrid Bergman wandering about and soaking up the culture has echoes in how Scarlett Johansson spies on ceremonies and customs in Japan while her husband is off pursuing actresses; likewise, George Sanders is gruff and sarcastic, and while not as loveable as Bill Murray, his flirtations with familiar ladies in foreign lands is not that different than Bob Harris.

It all points to a long tradition in world cinema. Many directors have portrayed troubled marriages via wayward nights and heated conversation, be it Ingmar Bergman's prolonged breakdown in Scenes from a Marriage or Michelangelo Antonioni's sharply focused La notte. While plenty of folks lately have been invoking Godard's famous line about all you needing to make a movie is a girl and a gun, Rossellini and those who followed in his footsteps all do without the gun. The girl and a guy provide plenty of drama without firearms ever getting involved.

Perhaps it's because he loved her that Rossellini tips the scales a little in Ingrid Bergman's favor in this film. Katherine is given an internal monologue that, despite its vitriol, humanizes her to a greater degree than Alex. Couple that with her more demonstrable abilities to empathize with her fellow man, and she seems far less beastly than her husband. Alex's self-recrimination is born of failure and rejection, and the standards he nearly sacrifices to try to reclaim some of his wild oats are troubling--even to him. “Beastly” may not be the right word, actually. Alex is less likable, but he's no less human. Sanders is also an actor on par with Bergman, and despite the clash of wills, both performers manage to make the Joyces seem like a real couple. Despite their differences, despite the spite, they fit. It's evident anytime they are in the car, but particularly in their penultimate conversation, when it appears they will call it quits. (Again, automobiles make for a regular staging ground for arguments. The Before Midnight disagreement begins in a car, also while the couple are on vacation; and let's not forget the hot-tempered, cold-blooded exchanges between Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney in Stanley Donen's exceptional Two for the Road .)

As a conclusion to this cycle of films, the trio of Ingrid Bergman vehicles sometimes known as “The Solitude Trilogy,” Rossellini brings it all back around to Stromboli [review]. He does so aesthetically by his incorporation of real locations and real people to the drama, and how her new surroundings affect his leading lady. He also connects it back to their initial collaboration in how he handles the ending. The fate of the Joyces' conjugal union is decided by a religious epiphany, by a miracle--though in this case, not one that happens to Ingrid Bergman. Rather, it happens in her vicinity and threatens to swallow her. It is a human volcano, rather than the literal one in Stromboli; the people who move against her confirm her truth by trying to sweep her away a la Europe '51 [review]. There's a directness to how the director handles it in Journey to Italy that makes it more powerful than the endings of its predecessors. In Journey, the actions of the characters take over, and there is no need for further explanation. The intense feelings that power their decisions speak for themselves.

Journey to Italy plays Saturday, July 6, at 8:45pm, again on Sunday, July 7, at 8pm, and finally on Monday, July 8, at 7pm, as part of the NW Film Center's presentation of "The Solitude Trilogy." View the full schedule here.

Thursday, July 4, 2013


The last entry in the Eclipse box Masaki Kobayashi Against the System jumps ahead a few years from it's forebears, landing in 1962. It's the first film Masak Kobayashi made following his epic-length The Human Condition [review], and as if in response to the breadth of that story, Kobayashi chose a project that was purposely more compact in its scope, though no less complex or ambitious in substance.

The Inheritance is, in a way, a play on the traditional closed-door murder mystery: which of these suspects, all of whom had motive and opportunity, is guilty of the crime? The twist is there is no murder here, at least not centrally, the people of interest won't be directly responsible for the death of the man the majority of them will wrong. Wealthy businessman Senzo Kawara (So Yamamura, Tokyo Story [review]) has been diagnosed with cancer and, at best estimate, will die within six months. Kawara has no official will, and before he will decide how he will divide his fortune, he must track down his three illegitimate children. Depending on how they turned out--they range in age from 7 to early 20s--and whether or not Kawara, no lie, actually likes them, he will give them a share of his estate. If not, it will go to charity.

The only person guaranteed a share is Kawara's wife, Satoe (Misako Watanabe, Take Aim at the Police Van [review]). She was originally his secretary, and they married when she was younger and considered a trophy. She never had kids of her own with Kawara, and their current relations are, shall we say, testy. Satoe immediately begins scheming to cheat the kids out of their money. She has been charged with finding the youngest daughter, while Kawara's underling Furukawa (Tatsuya Nakadai, returning once again) is sent after the older girl. All of the people around Kawara, including his lawyer and his right-hand man, plot to find ways to keep all the cash where they can get their hands on it. They might not have to try all tht hard, though. The lost offspring themselves come with their own problems. Furukawa finds Mariko (Mari Yoshimura), but she's working as a nude model in a seedy club. Not exactly daddy's little girl!

It would seem the dying man's most trusted confidante is his pure-hearted secretary Yasuko (Keiko Kishi again), the girl who replaced Satoe in the position. Kawara assigns Yasuko with finding his son, Narimune (Yusuke Kawazu, Fighting Elegy), and she takes the job seriously. The boy is a disappointment, as well, however: he is a juvenile delinquent who puts the moves on Yasuko. Like father like son, as it turns out: when she returns from the trip, Kawara also casts his lust toward Yasuko.

How the old man's advances and assumptions end up corrupting the sweet girl is reminiscent of how the gangster Killer Joe entrapped the waitress in Black River [review]. Both men use the ladies' trust and expectations against them, leaving them with no other real option. Yasuko finds herself trapped in a cycle of abuse, and it has the unexpected side effect of also giving her bargaining chips with the other scoundrels, who see her increasing influence. Though Kobayashi directs The Inheritance as if it were a chamber room drama--and indeed, some of the events would not be out of place in a serious Bergman film--there is also something almost noirish to how the players maneuver and double-cross. As I suggested, it's like watching a murder mystery where everyone has some kind of blood on their hands, and as the story progresses, we narrow down the suspect pool. Other sins disqualify them from being able to commit the crime in question--stealing all the money for themselves.

In this, The Inheritance is more like I Will Buy You [review] than Black River. The possibility of vast sums of money cause people to do wretched things to the person they allegedly care about. Cash corrupts, and in some aspects, the system itself is rigged. A lot of what Kawara's people attempt is a manipulation of the law. It's a mugging where the weapon is legalese. What disgusts Kobayashi most is how the pursuit of capital gains sullies everyone. Even Kawara's intention to donate to charity is a selfish impulse: he'd be scattering the money to the wind because he finds no one worthy of his lucre. Just like in I Will Buy You, the true puppet master in The Inheritance could end up being the person everyone least expects.

Of the quartet of films in Masaki Kobayashi Against the SystemThe Inheritance is the only one shot in widescreen. The director uses the extended frame to open up the rooms where the narrative plays out, almost as if these large spaces are indicative of the excess of the upper classes. Compared to the cramped residences of the characters in all three of the other films, including the jail cell in The Thick-Walled Room [review], here the bad guys can stretch out and plan their evil deeds. Money has even bought them the time to do it. Yasuko starts to lose her way when she loses her sense of purpose, when her boss' condition means she no longer has her daily work routine. The devil and idle hands, you know? (The resemblance between her window shopping and the window shopping of Holly Golighty at the start of Breakfast at Tiffany's [review] has to be more than coincidental.) Perhaps the director is also saying something in how blasé everyone is about what is happening. All of the performers play their roles with a particular restraint. They are laid back about their thievery, they don't have the desperation of survival. 

This, of course, separates them from the artist that brought them to life. Masaki Kobayashi's victories were hard-won, coming from The Thick-Walled Room being shelved to actually pulling off something like The Human Condition in less than a decade. His next move would be to shift into historical drama, with Harakiri [review] soon to follow The Inheritance, but the change of timeframe would do nothing to dull the bite he developed cutting his teeth in the early movies in Masaki Kobayashi Against the System. That the last film, The Inheritance, seems so effortless is only a testament to what a vital filmmaker Kobayahi had become.

Read the full review of Masaki Kobayashi Against the System at DVD Talk.


Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman reteamed the year after Stromboli [review] for a more conventional melodrama, though one that also had a strong role for a female lead and a message that is both spiritual and political. Released in 1952, Europe '51 (sometimes also known as Europa '51) is easier terrain than Stromboli, as Rossellini continues to massage the ragged edges of Neorealism to fit inside the boundaries of more traditional cinema.

Once again Bergman plays an immigrant living in Italy, the wife of an ambassador who has been in country since before the war. Irene Girard and husband George (Alexander Knox) are wealthy and run in society circles, and perhaps are better off now than they were before WWII--though of a status not wholly unearned. George fought on the front lines, leaving Irene to raise their young son (Sandro Franchina) on her own. This has caused mother and child to have an uncommon bond, perhaps too close. He is a sensitive child who can't stand time away from her or share her attentions.

The youngster's clinginess provides Europe '51's inciting incident. When his mother is dismissive of him before a dinner party, the boy disrupts the event by throwing himself down the stairs. Whether he intended to kill himself or not is never clear, but the child succeeds regardless. Irene's world becomes unmoored, and she sees no purpose in carrying on. That is, until her leftist friend, Andrea (Ettore Giannini), a journalist, introduces her to a family who is too poor to buy their child life-saving medicine. Unwilling to allow another mother lose her baby, Irene gives them the money they need, and she finds some satisfaction in this charitable work. Seeing how the family lives--in a tenement, where the sense of community transcends finances--the sheltered wife is awakened to the struggles of her countrymen. She begins to help out other people, including finding a gregarious single mother of six (the great Giulieta Masina, La strada [review]) a factory job and then filling in for the woman so she doesn't lose it. This brief yet overwhleming assembly line experience would be enough to push just about anyone toward Communism, no matter how much it is frowned upon by friends, family, and society at large. It's Irene's first taste of real labor, and she doesn't care for the flavor.

Irene's metamorphosis is not just political, however, nor is it achieved lightly. Rossellini walks a fine line connecting Marxist philosophy to early Christianity and Jesus' role as a liberator of slaves and champion of the poor. Europe '51 suggests a moral and religious justification for Communism, and reminds us that the defense of the least amongst us is the greatest of virtues. In the most obvious parallel to New Testament parables, Irene cares for an ailing prostitute, defending the woman against doubts and aspersions cast by her neighbors. There is no promise of reward for doing so, the motivation is simply that it's the right thing to do.

Bergman gives a sensitive performance as Irene, avoiding any histrionics or showboating. There are no big monologues here. The stronger emotion comes from what she keeps in reserve, in how little she telegraphs Irene's interior pain. Even in the movie's third act, which bears no small resemblance to the metaphysical melodramatics of Douglas Sirk (Magnificent Obsession [review], for instance), Irene is unflappable when faced with disbelief. Rossellini, it would seem, is transferring lessons learned from his cinematic interpretation of St. Francis of Assisi two years earlier: the more opposition Irene faces, the more courageous her convictions. Her devotion is challenged for real when her husband and mother have her committed to a mental institution. Even there, she becomes an angel of mercy. (Is it crazy that Raffaello Matarazzo's The White Angel [review] comes to mind?)

As with Stromboli where Rossellini juxtaposed Bergman's star-quality with the non-professional actors that rounded out the cast, here the director uses the ostentatious apartments of the rich, and the illusion of movie wealth, to illuminate the other side of life. Shooting on location in real slums, and capturing actual laborers at work, he shows the conditions that the class system creates for those on its lowest levels. It's an indictment of upper-class excess, but in a nod to his Neorealist roots, Rossellini is also questioning the accepted representation of the high life in popular cinema. Most of us don't live like Irene, but our movie watching has made her wealth seem practically normal; at the same time, the majority of us are (hopefully) still shocked by images of the working poor. Real life is far less familiar to a movie screen than fantasy.

The impact of the movie comes not from the tears shed, however, but from the way the director uses one specific experience and spreads it out to show the impact the individual can have on the world around her. The film is called Europe '51 because what Irene sees, despite being confined to one neighborhood, represents the problems that plagued the entire continent. By extension, she is a citizen without borders, her example serving as a lesson to all. If she can change, why not the rest of us?

Europa '51 plays Saturday, July 6, at 6:30pm, and again on Sunday, July 7, at 5:45pm, as part of the NW Film Center's presentation of "The Solitude Trilogy." View the full schedule here.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


Stromboli, the first collaboration between Italian director Roberto Rossellini and actress Ingrid Bergman, is still, even sixty years later, overshadowed by the real life drama and romance that erupted during its filming. The 1951 picture is where a long-term relationship began between the filmmaker and his married star, one that would prove fruitful both artistically and in the family way. The resulting scandal was used against Bergman, a victim of the mores of her time, and Hollywood, the paragon of moral virtue that it is, shunned her for several years. At least until box office receipts and acclaim swung her way again (specifically, the success of Anastasia). Then Ingrid must have been shocked by how many friends she really had!

It's easy to see what would attract an actress to a movie like Stromboli, and by extension, the man who afforded her the opportunity. Stromboli, in both style and script, is designed to showcase the lead performer. It's Bergman’s triumph or failure to have, depending on how well she does her job.

The Casablanca star takes point here as Anna, a Lithuanian whose flight from the Nazis in WWII landed her in an Italian prison camp. There she returns the flirtation of Antonio (Mario Vitale), a prisoner on the men's side of the jail. He woos her through the fence. Since Antonio is an Italian citizen, becoming his wife is Anna's ticket to freedom. As a refugee, she just has to prove that she has somewhere to go and won't be a burden on society.

Antonio's home isn't much better than the camp, however; he takes her back to the Sicilian island where he grew up. Stromboli is a harsh and unforgiving place populated by harsh and unforgiving people. The locals get by on fishing and religion, the only options they have trapped on a rocky landscape where nothing else will grow. Their bounty comes from the sea. Indeed, one could even argue that the earth does not want them. The island has a volcano at its center, and the mountain’s angry rumblings regularly send the citizens scurrying for safety.

Anna gets on poorly in her new locale. She is bored and lonely. The elder men on Stromboli take a liking to her, but the self-righteous women find her both shameless and shameful. Antonio also has a violent, jealous streak. Though how he expresses his suspicion can be appalling, he has good cause for concern: Anna does tend to flirt with other men on Stromboli, and most obviously with the rugged lighthouse keeper (Mario Sponzo). It's not really lust, though, much less love--it's an attraction of convenience. One can surmise that she has gotten used to seeking out men who can ferry her to safety. Any willing body will do, it doesn’t take a man in a tower to illuminate her way. In Stromboli's most uncomfortable sequence, Anna makes a move on the island preacher (Renzo Cesana). Her seduction technique is to be a helpless close-talker, invading his personal space and chasing him from the room.

This, of course, only fueled the pious chatter--not just in the movie, but outside of it, as well. Never mind Stromboli's decidedly pro-God finale where the brazen woman redeems herself. Anna, pregnant and afraid for her future, seeks an exit. Her flight from Antonio leads her on a walk along the volcano's treacherous perimeter. She strolls through its sulphurous belches like a woman on a foot-journey through Hell. The symbolism is unequivocal and unavoidable: she comes out the other side to discover heretofore-unknown beauty. It inspires a love for her adopted home, as well as a verbal declaration of her commitment to the divine. It's basically the ending of Gone with the Wind. I didn't find it entirely convincing. The conclusion is really the only time when Bergman grandstands, and it's all the more jarring following her emotionally fraught trek through the island's gaseous emissions; otherwise, Ingrid Bergman mostly manages the right contrast between showy modernity and capitulation to the old-fashioned ways of the island folk.

Rossellini is likewise seeking a similar contrast between this European woman, his Hollywood star, and the real-life islanders that basically are living their lives for his camera. Stromboli is a notable realization of the post-War Neorealist aesthetic Rossellini helped to invent. The desolate locale is given life by its determined citizenry, and the director smartly lets his narrative take a backseat when the particulars of their everyday existence are more interesting than the scripted events. The most riveting portion of Stromboli is the extended fishing sequence where the men haul in a massive catch. It's wet and chaotic, and at times brutal. Stromboli showcases a healthy respect for the natural order in all of its cruelties. There is a way things are done, a way the food chain keeps functioning. Antonio tries to show Anna how things work out there in the wilderness. He lets a ferret loose on a rabbit, and it horrifies her (as it may horrify you, too). She is shown as a woman who wants life's luxuries, but she doesn't want to see how they are acquired. Her aversion to seeing where food comes from is analogous to how she survived the War--by staying out of it.

Rossellini is juxtaposing the staging of cinema with the unpredictability of true life. A glamorous personality and a musical score are no match for the weather-beaten faces of the villagers or the tumult of land and sea. Anna must accept her place in the flow if she's ever going to be free, otherwise she will doomed to an eternity of struggling against it.

Director and Star

Stromboli plays Friday, July 5, at 7pm, and again on Sunday, July 7, at 3:30pm, as part of the NW Film Center's presentation of "The Solitude Trilogy." View the full schedule here.