Sunday, October 18, 2020

The Gunfighter

 


THE GUNFIGHTER (King, 1950)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Oct 20,2020

Review by Christopher S. Long

Nobody ever tried so hard to get shot as Eddie.

Poor, dumb Eddie (Richard Jaeckel). Just a kid raised on the thrills of the dime-novel insta-fables of the American West, and bored with the dusty, manure-drenched reality of actually living in the American West. When the legendary gunfighter Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) saunters into the local saloon, a toothy smile cracks Eddie's face. That's the fastest gun in the West? The man who's tougher than Wyatt Earp? The killer who's gunned down fifty men just for looking at him the wrong way?

“He don't look so tough to me,” says Eddie before confidently striding up to the bar.

Rest in peace, Eddie. Nobody will remember you.

Jimmy Ringo really didn't have a choice. Honest. He gave Eddie every chance to walk away with his life and even his dignity intact, but the kid wanted to make a name for himself. And he drew first! You all saw it. Sure, but Eddie's brothers don't care who drew first, so Ringo rides off to the town of Cayenne where he is greeted with the familiar refrain: “He don't look so tough to me.” There's always another Eddie.

Director Henry King and star Gregory Peck had just bombed the hell out of the Nazis in “Twelve O'Clock High” (1949), and reteamed in “The Gunfighter” (1950) to tear down the myth of the fearless outlaw. Just 35-years-old, a weary Jimmy Ringo already buckles under the burden of a lifetime of bad decisions. He could have chosen love, but he wanted to be the best and most-feared gunfighter of them all, and so he is. Which means that every Eddie who wants to be the best gunfighter of them all needs to go right through him. Preferably with all six shots. (See also: The “Twilight Zone” episode “A Game of Pool” for a variation on the same story.)

Ringo is all but resigned to his fate, but he clings to one tendril of hope in the form of his old flame, Peggy (Helen Westcott), and their son, who doesn't even know who his father is. That's the real reason Ringo fled to Cayenne, but to get to Peggy he first has to get past town marshal Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell).

Up until this point, Peck has portrayed Ringo as grim and slouching, a lost soul with no joy, but when he sees the marshal he breaks out his movie-star smile. Mark and Ringo used to ride together, and Ringo know this is the one man he can trust in this fallen world. But the marshal also serves as a reminder of Ringo's misguided life choices. The reformed Mark has a purpose now, a community that relies on him. Mark is so at ease with his life and his home he doesn't even need to wear his guns. Ringo is a living legend, Mark is a grown man. Millard Mitchell, a reliable character actor, delivers a charming, confident performance that, at times, eclipses even Peck's leading man charisma.

The film's gunfights are few and barely glimpsed, over the instant they start, just a ringing shot and a puff of smoke left behind. King and his creative team, including cinematographer Arthur C. Miller and the redoubtable editor Barbara McLean (who receives a lot of attention on this disc's extra features), are more interested in creating a concrete sense of place that grounds the legend in reality. Mark repeatedly strides the length of the main road in Cayenne while Ringo remains trapped in the saloon, just waiting, constantly checking the clock. Boys crowd in to get a glimpse of the great outlaw, and the local Church ladies demand justice, a quick hanging perhaps. The bartender (a then still mostly unknown Karl Malden) looks forward to his saloon becoming a big tourist attraction thanks to Ringo. Peggy sees Ringo's inevitable fate even more clearly than he does.

And, of course, the next Eddie lines up for his chance to take down Jimmy Ringo. After all, he don't look so tough.

 

Video:

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. From the Criterion booklet: “This 4k digital restoration was supervised by the Twentieth Century Fox Restoration Department in 2015. A new digital transfer was created from a 35 mm duplicate negative and restored at Cineric in New York.” This 1080p transfer presents the black-and-white photography in sharp detail with a thick grain that lends it an authentic filmic look. Detail is sharp in motion as well as in static close-ups.

Audio:

The linear PCM mono audio mix is crisp with no evidence of distortion or drop offs. The film only features music (by composer Alfred Newman) at the beginning and end. Both sound effects and dialogue are treated well with this mix. Optional SDH English subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:

Criterion has included a healthy selection of supplemental features on this Blu-ray.

The extras start with an interview (2020, 23 min.) with filmmaker, writer, and archivist Gina Telaroli who champions director Henry King, often overlooked because he wasn't as much of a stylist as more celebrated auteurs. She discusses his early career as a silent film actor and his transition to directing, emphasizing his interest in story and location.

Telaroli also discusses the contributions of editor Barbara McLean, but film historian and author J.E. Smyth takes a much closer look at McLean's career (2020, 23 min.) McLean received seven Oscar nominations and was the favored editor of both producer Darryl F. Zanuck and director Henry King. McLean was so powerful at Twentieth Century Fox she could not only order re-shoots, but even direct them when needed. This is a marvelous supplement and I would love to watch a full-length documentary about McLean. The second half of this feature analyzes the editing choices in a few scenes from “The Gunfighter.”

The disc also includes two audio features. Both compile audio excerpts from interviews conducted by Thomas R. Stempel as part of the AFI Oral History Collection. From a 1970 interview (33 min.) we get to hear from Barbara McLean about her career, while a 1971 interview (36 min.) hands the microphone to director Henry King.

The slim foldout booklet features an essay by film critic K. Austin Collins.

Final Thoughts:

Revisionist Westerns began well before the 1960s. No single film is the first, but “The Gunfighter” is a vivid early example of a deceptively simple story that interrogates and undermines many of the conventions of the genre. With a sharp transfer and a solid collection of extras, this release makes a fine addition to the Western corner of the Criterion Collection.

The Hit

 


THE HIT (Frears, 1984)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Oct 20, 2020

Review by Christopher S. Long

Willie Parker (Terence Stamp) is a two-bit hood who sings like a canary to save his own skin. During his testimony, the “supergrass” (British slang for a snitch) mugs for his courtroom audience, relishing the brief moment when he actually matters. He has no idea just how much he matters until the former compatriots he's just sold out sing him off the stand with a menacing chorus of “We'll Meet Again,” an absurdist touch rendered no less absurd for the fact that it really happened to Bertie Smalls, the crook turned stool pigeon whose story loosely inspired director Stephen Frears's “The Hit” (1984).

Fast forward ten years and Parker is living the good life in rural Spain, still under witness protection. Parker's had time (he has nothing but time) to read and to think. The thief has turned philosopher, adopting a dispassionate outlook on life: “We're here. Then we're not here. We're somewhere else. Maybe.” His detachment serves him well when the day he knew was coming finally arrives (“Don't know where, don't know when”) and a group of thugs kidnap him from his home. He resists at first in an eccentrically staged fight that feels like a but of an homage to Nicolas Roeg, but once trapped on the roof he shrugs and resigns himself to his fate.

Parker is handed over to a pair of thugs, the world-weary Braddock (John Hurt) and rookie smartass Myron (an impossibly young Tim Roth in his first film role), whose assignment is to bring Parker back to Paris where his old boss will execute him. Myron snarls and preens, straining to look as cool and tough as possible, while the veteran Braddock plays it close to the vest, his tightly-drawn features revealing little, making his sudden violent eruptions even more frightening.

Braddock is a consummate professional, focused solely on the job at hand, but he becomes increasingly agitated by Parker's impenetrable serenity. This man knows he's going to die in a few days, so why the hell does he seem to be so happy about it? The implacable killer has survived many tight spots and outmuscled plenty of tough guys, but he may not be able to triumph against the most remorseless foe of all – philosophy. A hired gun can't maintain his sociopathic edge while contemplating the meaning of life.

Stephen Frears directed a feature in 1971, but honed his craft in television before returning to the big screen with “The Hit,” working from a smart script by Peter Prince. Frears displays an easy command of scale and location, contrasting numerous tense scenes in cramped cars with the wide-open beauty of the Spanish countryside. Ramshackle gas stations are filmed with the same beauty and dynamism as majestic windmills and waterfalls. The film also cuts away frequently from tight-quarters action to distant overhead analytical shots (tiny cars kicking up dust on lonely back roads) that chill the action and refresh the perspective. Prince's script, meanwhile, imbues each character with an independent vitality, including young Maggie (Laura del Sol), a gangster's fiery girlfriend who they pick up along the way. Everyone may be traveling in the same direction, but they're each on their own journey.

All of the film's knotty threads and character arcs converge in one memorable moment. When Parker's true devotion to his bespoke Zen doctrine is revealed, the irreverent punk Myron laughs derisively. It's a brilliant bit of acting, and an efficient expression of all the film's roiling tensions, all its turbulent crosscurrents swirling together in a short, sharp snort that says, “Are you fucking kidding me? Did we really come all the way just for this bullshit?”

Road movies frequently end up in the heart of nowhere. Few chart the journey it with the bleak panache of “The Hit.” 

 

Video:

The film is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. This appears to be a 1080p upgrade of the previous transfer used by Criterion when they originally released “The Hit” on DVD in 2009. The color palette is rich and naturalistic and image resolution is sharp throughout, as is customary with Criterion high-def transfers.

Audio:

The linear PCM mono sound mix isn't too dynamic, but is sharp. The raging title song by Eric Clapton and the score by Paco de Lucia are both presented strongly here. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:

Criterion's 2009 DVD release was fairly sparse on extras, and nothing has been added for this 2020 Blu-ray upgrade.

The film is accompanied by a commentary track featuring Frears, Hurt, Roth, Prince, and editor Mick Audsley.

Aside from a Trailer (3 min.), the only other extra is an episode of the British talk show “Parkinson One-to-One” (1988, 37 min.) The entire show is devoted to an interview with actor Terence Stamp. Stamp only briefly mentions “The Hit” but discusses his career ranging from his start as a cool '60s icon to his relative disappearance in the '70s and his return to Hollywood in “Superman.” This includes a fun anecdote about Marlon Brando.

The slim fold-out insert booklet features an essay by film critic Graham Fuller.

Final Thoughts:

“The Hit” was not a hit with audiences. Frears would have to wait a year for his break-out with “My Beautiful Laundrette” (1985). It is, however, a splendid gangster film that rejects any romanticizing of its lowlife protagonists. The Criterion disc is short on extras, but provides a quality high-def transfer of a very fine film.

 

Monday, September 28, 2020

Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project, No. 3

 

Lucia
                              

MARTIN SCORSESE'S WORLD CINEMA PROJECT, NO. 3

Criterion Collection, Dual Format, Release Date Sep 29, 2020 
Review by Christopher S. Long
 
If three is enough to form a pattern, we can now anticipate that Criterion will be releasing a new volume of the World Cinema Project every 3-4 years. And if the pattern continues, each volume in the set will be more than worth the wait.

The World Cinema Project, spearheaded by Martin Scorsese's The Film Foundation, states its commitment “to preserve and present marginalized and infrequently screened films from regions generally ill equipped to preserve their own cinema history.” This mission involves extensive restoration of films whose elements exist in a perilous state as well as the distribution of such films to a wider audience, both in theaters and on home video.

These Criterion sets comprise only a portion of the films promoted by The World Cinema Project. Earlier volumes spotlighted works from Senegal, Taiwan, Turkey, Kazakhstan, The Philippines, Thailand, Morocco, and several other nations. Volume Three spans four continents, six nations, and five decades – a typically eclectic selection for this ambitious series.

Humberto Solas's “Lucia” (1968) argues that there is no barrier between the political and the personal, and perhaps none between the past and the present either.

In this radical historical epic, three different women (each named Lucia) from three different revolutionary eras in Cuban history are betrayed or abandoned by the men they love. In 1895, during Cuba's War of Independence from Spain, the wealthy Lucia (Raquel Revuelta) is seduced by a suave merchant who has a hidden agenda. In 1932, the middle-class Lucia (Eslinda Nunez) falls for a poor, fiery young rebel battling the dictatorial president Gerardo Machado. In 196.. (a coy way of setting the final section 'round about the post-revolutionary present), farm worker Lucia (Adela Legra) marries a macho revolutionary whose idea of the people's revolution does not include women's liberation.

Solas employs a dazzling array of styles throughout this black-and-white film. The romance in the 1895 section explodes into glorious operatic excess, with a steamy seduction scene, staged in an abandoned palatial building, unfolding almost entirely in heated pantomime. 1932 relies heavier on contrasts, between the gritty violence of the revolution and the opulent corruption of the freedom fighters once they assume power. The final story plays out primarily in a realist tone though with brutal scenes of domestic abuse (Lucia's husband locks her up at home and screams “You will be mine!) contrasted with sly moments of humor.

A mobile handheld camera captures vertiginous action throughout. Viewers are hurled into a disorienting, muddy battle in 1895, and twirl along with revelers at the bacchanalia of the middle section. The dizzying camerawork and the decades-spanning scope create a heady experience, and a film with three unforgettable female leads who are both victims and survivors of Cuba's political maelstroms.

After The Curfew
 

“After The Curfew” (1954) opens on a noirish note with a closeup of a pair of feet clomping loudly along a rain-soaked road at night. Those lonely feet almost certainly belong to a doomed noir protagonist, an impression intensified when the scene turns into a chase through the darkness with soldiers pursuing Iskandar (A.N. Alcaff), an Indonesian freedom fighter just returning home after fighting to overthrow the Dutch colonizers.

Iskandar finds a temporary refuge with his faithful fiancee Norma (Netty Herawaty) and her well-connected family who promise to find him a good job. Norma brags about her hunky war hero to all her idle, privileged friends, but Iskandar is also a man of dark secrets. Is he war hero or war criminal?

Director Usmar Ismail, one of the most influential figures in Indonesian film history, was a veteran of the war himself, and he focuses the story on the difficulties Iskandar faces in reintegrating to civilian life. From his first day in his office job, it's obvious Iskandar sticks out like a sore thumb. His posture is never once at ease, and even his clothing somehow clashes with the d├ęcor.

Iskandar seeks to reconnect with his former military comrades, but finds a former superior to be corrupt, and a fellow soldier to have fallen into a shiftless life of gambling and petty crime. Unable to find comfort or direction, our protagonist may have neither time nor opportunity to blaze a trail of his own.

Alcaff is convincing and sympathetic as an alienated soldier, but once his wartime secret is revealed, it's difficult to excuse him simply because he was “following orders.” Does Ismail fully exonerate his protagonist as victim of circumstance and expect the audience to sympathize fully with him? I have no idea.

Pixote
 

A still image featuring the angelic face of child actor Fernando Ramos da Silva promises that “Pixote” (1980) will be a delightful coming-of-age story about an adorable ragamuffin. It is anything but.

Argentine-born director Hector Babenco spent months researching the corrupt Brazilian reform system for a documentary, but abandoned the project in the face of state restrictions. He reshaped his film as a feature, one imbued with a gritty, naturalistic aesthetic that yields an unsparing, bleak vision. Minors in Brazil can't be charged with crimes, but are instead funneled into brutal reformatories that function just like prisons. In “Pixote” boys are stripped and thrown en masse into holding cells, gang raped, and whisked away into the night to be executed on the side of the road. Officials don't care what happens to any of the boys, only that no scandals are leaked to the press. They have no reason to care. The boys are either orphans or from families too poor to kick up a fuss, so cover-ups are easy, especially with a complicit police force looking the other way.

Babenco cast his film with non-professional child actors from impoverished families in and around Sao Paolo. Ten-year-old Pixote is one of the youngest of the boys, and young actor Fernando Ramos da Silva delivers not just the most memorable performance in the film, but one of the greatest performances by any child actor ever.

Da Silva's pixie face is central to the film's success. Pixote runs a gamut of horrors in the reformatory. He witnesses rape and murder, and expects to be beaten or stabbed at any moment. His only moment of joy arrives when he huffs a can of glue on the floor of a shit-stained bathroom. Through it all he retains a look of innocence, though his piercing eyes take in everything. That unspoiled quality renders Pixote an authentic and sympathetic character even after he exchanges the nightmare of the reformatory for a life of crime that will turn him into a thief, a pimp, and a killer. There's not one forced moment, not a hint of precociousness or affect in his performance.

“Pixote” offers no hope for a happy ending. Neither did real life for da Silva. He would be shot and killed by police at the age of 19.

Dos Monjes

 

“Dos Monjes” (1934) has it all. Battling monks, demonic possession, medical melodrama, and even a few musical numbers. This movie is so darn cool.

Directed by Juan Bustillo Oro, “Dos Monjes” is one of the earliest Mexican sound films (the first being released in 1932), and showcases many of the most luminous qualities of movies from that transitional period. The actors still perform in grand pantomime gestures and sound isn't just used functionally to replicate reality but as a moody, expressive element. The film opens with a line of monks shuffling through a ritual, one of them methodically clanging a bell. Later, music will boom through the previously unnoticed pipe organ, filling the monastery and entrancing every brother.

Bustillo Oro employs a flashback structure, the complexity of which only gradually becomes apparent. When Friar Javier (Carlos Villatoro) strikes Friar Juan (Victor Urruchua) with a giant crucifix (I told you this movie was cool), a senior priest demands an explanation. This leads to a tale of doomed Gothic romance featuring a consumptive musician, his treacherous friend, and the woman (Magda Haller) they both desire.

But is the friend really treacherous? It depends on your point of view, which is also the point of the story, from a script significantly rewritten by Bustillo Oro to add convolutions. After Javier has told his tale of woe, Juan recounts the same story, but we now view it from a different perspective, seeing shared exchanges of glances that we didn't notice before, learning new pieces of information that change our perception of the seemingly straightforward tragic events. As an added flourish, in each version, the person telling the story is dressed in white, the other in black. If you're already shouting “Rashomon!” you're not the only one, but let's not overstate the comparison.

The film is heavily influenced by German expressionism, evident in the set design (the giant off-kilter window in young Javier's parlor) and the many canted angles and decentered compositions shot by the great cinematographer Agustin Jimenez. Jimenez would go on to work with Bunuel and other great directors, but “Dos Monjes” was his first feature and shows him already in his prime. There's a moment where Juan just materializes out of the darkness to literally come between Javier and his lady love... this movie so damn cool.

Soleil O

 

In the most astonishing sequence in Med Hondo's “Soleil O” (1970), a black African man and a white French woman hold hands and walk together along the Champs-Elysees in Paris. Actual white passersby, unaware a film was being shot, turn and stare in shock and disgust. One young woman mimes a gag reflex, while an old woman keeps a wary eye on the couple as she walks slowly away. The film adds the sounds of barnyard animals clucking and screeching as the onlookers gawk at the “taboo” spectacle.

Hondo was born in Morocco and raised in Mauritania before moving to Paris in the '50s. He described “Soleil O” as his attempt to work through and perhaps get past the discrimination he faced in his return to the “fatherland.” In the film, the Visitor (Robert Liensol), a composite stand-in for many immigrants, arrives in Paris with a small suitcase adorned with stickers from various African nations (Mauritania, Ghana, Guinea) and a beaming smile as he greets his new home in voice-over: “Sweet France, I am coming home.” The resistance he meets while trying to secure a job as an accountant make it clear to him he will not be welcomed “home” with open arms.

“Soleil O” is formally audacious film that opens with an animated sequence that compresses decades of colonial impression into a few minutes (“We had our own civilization, we forged iron.”), then shifts from staged interviews (characters frequently look directly into the camera throughout the film) to heated political debates to musical performances. White Parisians tremble in fear of the “black invasion” from their former French colonies in Africa. But even the ostensibly friendly whites are warped by prejudice. One young woman takes the Visitor to bed, then sighs in disappointment later because, well, she had heard certain stories.

The Visitor is ultimately driven to madness, howling like Lear (or Delroy Lindo in “Da 5 Bloods”) in the wilderness. His screams, however, may not be a sign of defeat, but a promise of a revolution to come. The film's final resolute message: TO BE CONTINUED...

Downpour

 

It's a minor miracle that we're able to see “Downpour” (1972) at all. After the Iranian revolution of 1979, all prints of “Downpour,” along with many other films, were seized by state authorities and likely destroyed. Director Bahram Beyzaie secured a single positive print with the English subtitles already burned in, now the only known source to exist. Threatened movies like this are just what the World Cinema Project was created to assist with.

I suppose “Downpour” can be described as a romantic comedy, though perhaps dramedy is more accurate. Or maybe trying to pigeonhole this unique film is a bad idea in the first place. Mr. Hekmati (Parviz Fannizadeh) is a bookish teacher who arrives at a new school and town where the locals aren't terribly receptive to the outsider. The boys openly mock him in class, prompting him to expel one of the more troublesome ones. The student's gorgeous adult sister Atefeh (Parvaneh Massoumi) confronts Hekmati about it, and their private confrontation unleashes a wildfire of gossip. Rumors of a budding romance between the two practically create the romance itself, leading to numerous complications.

Beyzaie filmed on a shoestring budget, sometimes restricted to shooting single takes because of limited film stock, and rewriting the script as he went along to adapt to contingencies. One result is that he appears to be having a lot of fun with his characters. To counter a local tough guy also vying for Atefeh's affections, the wimpy Hekmati decides to get buff, leading to a “Rocky”-style workout montage which culminates with the instructor gripping a tiny weight with a band held in his teeth, presumably to strengthen his chin muscles.

“Downpour” made Beyzaie one of the major players in the burgeoning Iranian New Wave. Shot before the revolution, it also features many spectacles that fans of Iranian filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, or Mohsen Makhmalbaf will find unfamiliar, such as drunken knife fights or Iranian women in skirts. 


 

Video:
All films are presented in their original aspect ratios. “Pixote” is in color, the other five in black-and-white.

The World Cinema Project emphasizes films in dire need of preservation, so each of the movies has its own issues, with some needing more extensive restoration than others. Films like “Lucia” and “Dos Monjes” were restored using multiple source prints of varying quality. The magnetic tracks for “Soleil O” were missing sound from some reels, so another source needed to be used.

In a few shots in “Lucia” the black-and-white photography is blown out or out of focus, obscuring detail in the images. This was due to advanced vinegar syndrome which actually warped the negative.

“After The Curfew” exhibits the most consistent damage, due to mold and vinegar syndrome. This mostly shows as a distorted vertical line through the middle of the frame in several scenes – it couldn't be removed through restoration without degrading the original image. At one point in this set, this is described as the first Indonesian film to be restored. I don't know if that's true, but the final product is impressive even with this damage evident.

“Pixote” also suffered from mold damage, perhaps mildly surprising considering how recent the film is, but there's not much damage apparent in this high-def transfer and the color photography looks rich and naturalistic.

“Dos Monjes” looks quite robust for an early sound film. “Soleil O” has no obvious drawbacks either.

As mentioned above, only one source print for “Downpour” exists and it has a few scratches and tears and the black-and-white contrast isn't so sharp, but it's fine and we're lucky to be seeing it at all.

Audio:

All films are presented with LPCM Mono mixes, and in general, the audio quality on all films can be described as fairly flat, more or less reflecting the source.

All films except “Downpour” offer optional subtitles. As mentioned above, “Downpour” only has one known source, one with English subtitles burned into the print. These white subtitles aren't always easy to read. In addition, some lines of dialogue don't get subtitled at all, and other subtitles are slightly out of synch with the dialogue. You can get by just fine though.

Extras:

This Criterion set includes three separate keep cases that are tucked into a large cardboard case alongside the insert booklet.

Each keep case contains three discs, one Blu-ray and two DVDs. Each Blu-ray includes two films and the supplemental features. Each DVD stores just one film and its extras. I have only reviewed the Blu-rays here. The first keepcase includes “Lucia” and “After The Curfew.” The second has “Pixote” and “Dos Monjes.” The third: “Soleil O” and “Downpour.”

Each film is accompanied by a short (usually 3-minute) introduction by Martin Scorsese who provides a little background about the film as well as the World Cinema Project's role in restoring and distributing the film.

Each film also gets a single additional supplemental feature. For “Lucia” we get the feature “Humberto And Lucia” (2020, 33 min.) which is adapted by Carlos Barba Salva from his 2014 documentary about director Humberto Solas. It features interviews with the director and each of the actresses who played Lucias as well as others. Solas talks a bit about how the complex screenplay was shaped throughout development.

“After The Curfew” offers an informative interview (2020, 19 min.) with journalist and film scholar J.B. Kristanto who talks about the lack of writing about Indonesian film history and his own work in trying to address that need. He also speaks about Ismail's career and his relationship to the wave of directors in the '50s who wanted to refocus Indonesian cinema on contemporary social issues.

“Pixote” offers two features. One is the short 2-minute introduction appended to the film for its American release, featuring the director Hector Babenco explaining to audiences how the Brazilian reform system works. We also get a 2016 interview (22 min.) with Babenco, just a few months before his death. He talks about his work as an extra in Spaghetti Western films by Sergio Corbucci before discussing the production of “Pixote.” He has a lot to say about the challenges of working with a large number of child actors.

For “Dos Monjes” Criterion has included an excellent interview (2020, 19 min.) with film scholar Charles Ramirez Berg. He provides a brief history of Mexican cinema's transition from silent to sound film, which happened roughly 3-4 years later than in the U.S., then talks about the role of this film in setting the standard for much Mexican Gothic horror that would follow.

“Soleil O” features an interview (2018, 21 min.) with Med Hondo, who died in early 2019. Hondo describes his film as therapy for all he'd been through, then also talks quite engagingly about how he fell in love with film in the first place (it started with an Errol Flynn movie) and his early work as an actor in television.

“Downpour” is accompanied by an interview (2020, 30 min.) with director Bahram Beyzaie, the only living director with a film in this set. He discusses his desire to create something different than the stale Iranian commercial cinema of the '60s, as well as his challenges in shooting on a limited budget and later in dealing with censorship in Iran.

The square-bound insert booklet features an introductory essay about film restoration by archivist Cecilia Cenciarelli. The booklet then includes individual essays about each of the films by an array of critics and scholars.

Final Thoughts:

Three volumes so far for the World Cinema Project sets from Criterion, and all three are winners. I suppose we'll get the next one in 2023 or 2024. I wonder how high sea levels will have risen by then. In any case, I'm sure it will be great. 

Monday, September 14, 2020

Christ Stopped At Eboli


CHRIST STOPPED AT EBOLI (Rosi, 1979)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Sep 22, 2020
Review by Christopher S. Long

In 1935, painter, writer, and political activist Carlo Levi was sentenced by Mussolini's Fascist authorities to internal exile (confino) in an impoverished rural town in the Lucania region of southern Italy where local officials monitored his movements and communications on a daily basis. Levi was eventually set free, and in 1945 he published “Christ Stopped At Eboli,” a best-selling memoir about his time among the peasants of the south. In 1979, director Francesco Rosi adapted the book for the screen.

The nearly 20-minute opening sequence eases viewers into this strange new land along with the protagonist. Levi (Gian Maria Volonte) arrives at the train station, picks up a stray dog, and rides a rambling, rickety bus into the town of Gagliano, with the police close at his side. He rests his head against the window and watches wide pastures roll by where shepherds guide their flocks. A feisty old woman on the bus clutches two live chickens. Levi is a long way from his home in Turin, debating politics and aesthetics with his fellow intellectuals.

This long, meticulously detailed trip functions like a decompression chamber, allowing viewers to acclimate gradually along with Levi to this new environment. On his first night in town, a rattled, weary Levi pulls his blankets over his face so he can hide in the cocoon. In the ensuing days he will be shocked to witness boys pelting a priest with rocks and by the desperate poverty as well as the prevalence of malaria among the populace. Soon, however, he forges a connection with his prison-town and grows to love the stoic peasants and to admire their timeless ability to endure hardship.

The peasants embrace him too, especially once he serves as the town doctor, selflessly administering to all, at least when his jailers permit it. Levi's primary goal in publishing his memoir wasn't to recount his plight as a political prisoner, but rather to inform readers about this very different Italy, practically a foreign nation that has been ignored and abandoned by the developed north.

Local officials do nothing to make the peasants feel like they matter. The aforementioned priest (Francois Simon) dismisses his flock as “a town filled with animals, not Christians” but nobody takes the drunken clergyman seriously anyway; they know he was only assigned (sentenced) to their parish as punishment for past transgressions. The fascist-but-friendly mayor (Paolo Bonacelli) fancies himself an intellectual peer of Levi's, but can't fathom why the painter always wants to talk about the locals: “Why go on about the peasants? Forget about them.”

This explains the enigmatic title of both the memoir and film, inspired by an anecdote Levi overheard during his confinement. It refers to the impression some in the south have that the grace of the Church (also often the State in Italy) never spread past the town of Eboli, leaving much of Italy's “boot” out in the cold with no hope of salvation in this world, or perhaps even the next.

Volonte played his share of volatile characters and was also known as a firebrand off-screen, but his Carlo Levi is a tousle-haired, sad-eyed observer, humble and genuinely curious about the people of Gagliano. He learns how a resourceful butcher inflates a dead goat to salvage every body part and tries to hide a smile when his fiery housekeeper Giulia (Irene Pappas) spins the elaborate web of superstitions that dictate her behavior - you can't throw trash out at night because you'll toss it right in the face of the angel who guards the door!

Giulia is one of many strong-willed woman in Gagliano. Many mothers raise their children alone because they have been abandoned by husbands and lovers who have fled to America seeking the opportunities southern Italy doesn't offer. The Great Depression has forced some of those men to return, leading to one of the film's most rousing scenes when a group of inebriated men sing of the glories of New York City (it would have been our capital if we had one!) as well as their homeland, but Rosi cannily defuses the celebration by cutting abruptly from their joyous rendition of “Viva L'Italia” to a fascist rally in the town square. The shadow of Fascism has not stopped at Eboli.

Rosi originally shot his adaptation as a four-part television miniseries, running 220 minutes in the cut included on this disc. Aside from Levi's tentative emergence as the town doctor, there's little central tension driving the narrative. “Christ Stopped At Eboli” is more a film of quiet impressions and almost random encounters that slowly accrete to form an empathetic, kaleidoscopic portrait of a neglected people. The film refrains from passing overt judgments on any of the characters, not even the drunken priest or the indifferent mayor. Carlo Levi, a simple prisoner in Gagliano just like everyone else, merely watches respectfully, helps when he can, and commits every detail to memory so he can share their story.


Video:
As mentioned above, Rosi shot “Christ Stopped At Eboli” as a four-part miniseries running about 55 minutes per installment. It was also released in a much-shorter theatrical cut. Criterion has only included the miniseries, which plays as a single film from the menu, though each part has its own opening and end credits.

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. From Criterion: “This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution... from the 35 mm original camera negative.” Colors are naturalistic, heavy on earth tones, and the image resolution is sharp throughout.

Audio:
The linear PCM audio mix is flat but crisp with no noticeable distortion. Optional English subtitles support the Italian audio.

Extras:
Criterion has gathered several shorter supplemental features for this Blu-ray release.

In a new interview (2020, 27 min.), translator, interpreter, and writer Michael F. Moore discusses his work on the subtitles for this release, which required dealing with multiple Italian dialects. He also talks a bit about Francesco Rosi, who honed his craft as an assistant to Luchino Visconti on neo-realist films like “La terra trema” (1948).

The disc also includes an excerpt (24 min.) from the July 5, 1978 episode of the French TV series “Cine regards.” This piece, directed by Bouramy Tioulong, combines interviews with Rosi, Volonte, and director Elio Petri with some on-set footage from “Christ Stopped At Eboli.”

“Bad Earth” is a segment (27 min.) of the Aug 9, 1974 episode of the French talk show “Italiques” in which Rosi and Levi discuss a variety of subjects ranging from Levi's exile to the general state of post-war art. Rosi proudly refers to Levi as one of his major artistic influences.

We also get an interview (2014, 13 min.) with Rosi in which the director remembers actor Gian Maria Volonte. Though Volonte was rumored to be difficult to work with at times, Rosi has nothing but glowing words for his frequent star, who died in 1994. According to Rosi, Volonte didn't want to live in a hotel like a typical actor but wanted to spend time with peasant households to immerse himself in the character and the location. This was Rosi's last on-camera interview – the director died in 2015.

A Trailer for the film's re-release by Rialto rounds out the supplements.

The slim fold-out booklet includes a comprehensive essay by writer and film professor Alexander Stille.

Final Thoughts:
The film's considerable length and loosely-structure narrative require patience from the viewer, but that attention will be rewarded by a film that immerses audience in a specific time and place that feels authentically rendered. Rialto restored “Christ Stopped At Eboli” at its full running-length for theatrical release last year, and Criterion has done a splendid job providing a Blu-ray with a strong high-def transfer and a solid array of supplemental features.