MARTIN SCORSESE'S WORLD CINEMA PROJECT,
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
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
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 décor.
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.
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” (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
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.
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
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...
It's a minor miracle that we're able to
(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
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
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
“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.
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
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
“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.
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