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. 

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