I’ve not been chasing films from 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die the last couple of months, so the number of films I’ve seen from the list hasn’t changed for a few weeks. I’m not entirely sure I want to complete the list. After all, it’s “Before You Die”, which sort of suggests that if you do watch them all, well… Anyway, instead it’s the usual odd mix, including two recent films from Russia, both found on Amazon Prime, a pseudo-documentary from the 1930s, a Hungarian drama, some anime, and, well, I’m not entirely sure how to describe the last film – except, perhaps, that I loved it so much after watching the rental than I bought my own copy…
Tsar, Pavel Lungin (2009, Russia). Lungin is the director of the excellent The Island (2006), which seems to be the only film by him that’s been released on DVD in the UK (it’s currently deleted and searching for it by title on Amazon returns nothing; fortunately, I have a copy). Tsar I found on Amazon Prime, and judging by the subtitles, it’s a Russian release. I’ve found a number of Russian films on Amazon Prime, clearly from Russian distributors, from 1947’s Cinderella (see here) through Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears and Kin-dza-dza (both of which I already own on DVD) to Air Crew (see here) to Battle for Sevastopol (see here). The thing I remember from The Island is mostly slow cinema, beautifully-framed shots of the monastery at which the film was set. Tsar seems more traditionally framed as a Russian historical film, although there are definitely hints of Tarkovsky at times. The title refers to Ivan the Terrible – the film takes place between 1566 and 1569 – and he’s not so much terrible as completely bonkers and a total psychopath. He invites his friend, the abbot of a monastery on the Solovetsky Islands, and asks him to become Metropolitan of Moscow, ie, leader of the chief diocese of the Russian Orthodox church. The abbot initially refuses, but then agrees, hoping to temper Ivan’s cruelty. But he fails. Later, Ivan strips the Metropolitan of his rank and has him imprisoned in a monastery. This is no slow cinema. Like The Island, its story explores a clash between two views of religion; but it depicts a grim and brutal world, mostly closely-framed. And with a very convincing mise en scène. On the one hand, the tsar’s madness seems to be driven by a fear the world is about to end and the Last Judgement is imminent, and that’s why he’s instituted the oprichnina – culminating in the movie in Ivan being given a guided tour of a “torture camp”, where his enemies will be strapped to various death machines while people wander about enjoying the “spectacle”. Meanwhile, the ex-Metropolitan performs a miracle and escape his chains – and heals his jailer – but even as a saint, or even an ersatz Christ, he can’t cure the tsar of his madness, or prevail against him. Films like this are definitely two-handers. Pyotr Mamonov, who plays Ivan, is especially good, and the abbot, Oleg Yankovskiy, exudes an impressive quite dignity throughout. While Tsar didn’t grab me initially as much as The Island had done, perhaps because its setting isn’t as striking, it turned out to be engrossing. Much as I like Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible Part 1 and Ivan the Terrible Part 2 (the latter more, I think, than the former), they do feel a bit pantomime in comparison to Tsar. Recommended.
Lermontov, Maksim Bespalyy (2015, Russia). I’ve watched a film about a nineteenth-century Russian author before and ended up buying a book by said author, and after watching Lermontov I had a burning desire to read his most famous novel, A Hero of Our Time. Like Tsar, this is a Russian film I found on Amazon Prime, although it’s a made-for-TV movie so I don’t think it’s ever been released on DVD. It certainly hasn’t in this country. And yet it’s a good piece of work, telling Lermontov’s story with some clever use of graphics as intros to each new chapter of his life. It is all too easy, I’ve found, for Russian historical films to treat their subjects in much the same way the BBC does, relying on a good cast and well-dressed sets. This is not, of course, limited to either British or Russian historical dramas. Lermontov sticks mostly to this but rings a few changes inasmuch as it uses Lermontov’s own writings as a motif for graphics which advance the story, and also tries to marry together the stories of his poems and novels with the events in his life. It works really well. The graphics are cleverly done, and the interplay between fact and fiction prevents the film from becoming too dry. Lermontov, by all accounts, was privileged and arrogant, and like many talents of previous centuries whose works we continue to admire he seemed to create real art more by accident than design. He was convinced of his own superiority, so it’s no real surprise he died aged twenty-seven in a duel. Worth seeing.
Man of Aran, Robert J Flaherty (1934, Ireland). The Aran Islands are off the west coast of Ireland, just outside Galway Bay. Man of Aran purports to document the life of those who live on the islands. Although made in the 1930s, the life it depicts actually ended some fifty years earlier – leading many to dub the film “ethnofiction”, much like the documentaries of Jean Rouch. Which sort of makes you wonder about the point of it all. There is, for example, a moment in The Epic of Everest (see here) in which a long-distance tracking shot follows George Mallory’s second attempt on the peak of Everest. And from which he never returned. His body was not found until decades later. There’s a similar mechanism at work in Herbert Ponting’s The Great White Silence (see here), although both are actual eyewitness film chronicles (although the latter makes use of model shots to show Scott’s mission to the South Pole). My point being, I suppose, that the films of Ponting and Noel were actual footage of the historical event they depicted… while Rouch had a tendency to stage the events he wanted to depict, as did Flaherty in this film, and so were labelled “ethnofiction”, you can on the one hand acknowledge the truths they want to document while at the same time wondering just how true those “truths” are… The problem with ethnofiction, in other words, is how reliable is the narrator? Is the film-make “faking” something he knows to be true? Or otherwise. Because making a point by emphasising one aspect of something is still faking it. Did the Aran Islanders really catch sharks as depicted? By the time the film was made, almost certainly not. It’s a slippery slope and I’ve no idea how you judge it. I’m a huge fan of the work of Aleksandr Sokurov, who melds fiction and fact in his films in a way which makes any distinction between the two meaningless. Francofonia is a straight-up mix between the two, but Confession pretends to be the diary of a real person who repeatedly quotes a work of fiction. It’s one reason why I love early documentaries, which are so explicitly fact, and the films of Sokurov which are so clearly extensions of fact… but I find it hard to deal with films which are distortions of fact from early decades…
Love, Károly Makk (1971, Hungary). I have a lot of time for Second Run. They’ve released some excellent films from around the world, including some by a favourite director of mine, who also happens to be Hungarian, Miklós Jancsó. I’ve not seen as many Hungarian films, despite Jancsó – eighteen, compared to fifty-six Polish films, for example – so I’m not as well informed on the country’s cinema, although I suspect Jancsó is less typical of it than Makk, likewise Béla Tarr… although did, perversely remind me of films by Polish directors and even one or two by Czech directors (especially Ucho, see here). In Love, a woman’s husband has been arrested as a political prisoner. Afraid this will adversely affect his ill mother, the wife pretends he has been sent to New York for work, and so make up letters from him which she reads to her mother in law. At various points in the story, the film uses flashbacks to explain what is being referenced in the letters. It’s mostly a two-hander, with the wife and mother in law, and the former is especially good. It comes across as very much a film of its time, but not in the sense it’s capturing a particular zeitgeist or period of fashion, but more as a snapshot of a regime and its impact on those on which the regime was imposed. The only revolution in the UK’s history that wasn’t ruthlessly put down was the Industrial Revolution, which tends to suggest “revolution” is the wrong word to describe it. (The English Civil War was hardly a revolution, given Oliver Cromwell was born into the aristocracy.) On the other hand, neither has the UK been occupied as Hungary was by the USSR. It makes for a disconnect, but it also makes it doubly important that such films are made available to a British audience. We take our freedoms for granted because we cannot recognise when they are being curtailed. To be fair, tanks have appeared on the streets of British cities, and decades later it’s as if it never happened… But films like Love are important because they remind us that totalitarianism is a thing and has a personal cost and that we’re only a heartbeat away from it. I would sooner popular cinema depicted the perils of fascism instead of normalising it; I would sooner Hollywood spent more time depicting the perils of our current political climate instead of convincing everyone the world was a violent place in which might was right. We’ve known now for a couple of decades that US geopolitical dominance has been bad for planet Earth, but I maintain US cultural dominance, for just under a century, has probably been more damaging. Two hundred years from now, historians will probably look back at the twentieth-century as a noble social experiment, born in two world wars, which the US managed to comprehensively fuck up, while still managing to put twelve men on the Moon….
Princess Arete, Sunao Katabuchi (2001, Japan). If you were to wonder if a friend had lent me this particular film, you’d be right. It’s not my usual fare, any any means – and while I have enjoyed many anime films, the cartoon-ish nature of the art in this movie, as displayed on the Blu-ray cover, would normally put me off. Except, of course, the actual film looks nothing like that and much more like something made by Studio Ghibli. Well, perhaps a more simplified style than that of Studio Ghibli. Some of the backgrounds appear more painted, and indeed more detailed than the characters. It’s an effective technique, and one used in my favourite Ghibli film… But this film is not by them and it’s unfair to keep on mentioning them. Story-wise, Princess Arete presents itself as fairy tale that follows the typical template – a European one, that is, not Japanese. There’s a princess whose father keeps her hidden in the castle until a suitable suitor is found for her, but who sneaks out at night for adventure. But then a suit he can’t refuse, a wizard natch, comes along and takes the princess away. And it turns out the wizard is immortal but a prophecy says a princess called Arete will kill him. As Arete tries to escape her new prison, so she discovers more about her suitor and, of course, unwittingly sets in motion the chain of events which kill him and so render the prophecy true. Princess Arete, however, rings a few changes on the template. The title character has far more agency than is usual, and it is her direct actions which bring about the resolution. There’s also a Japanese slant -story-wise and visually – to some of the events in the last act of the film. The version I watched had only French language, or Japanese language with English subtitles, versions – and while the latter is more, well, correct as it’s a Japanese film, it apes European fairy tales and fantasies so well you expect it to be in English. I have zero problem with watching films in their original language with English subtitles, even when English dubs are available (like for many giallo films), I actually prefer it in fact, but with Princess Arete there’s a slight disconnect between what you see and what you hear. Even so, a good anime and worth seeing. Nice soundtrack too.
Shirley: Visions of Reality, Gustav Deutsch (2013, Austria). What this film is, is easy to describe. But what this has resulted in, is difficult to get a handle on. Simply put, Deutsch as taken thirteen of Edward Hopper’s paintings – but not, sadly, ‘Night Hawks’ – and from them stitched together a narrative about a woman called Shirley, from the early 1930s through to the late 1960s (although she does not appear to actually age during the 30 years). As a piece of art, it works amazingly well. Stephanie Cumming in the title role does little more than play a life model, but her voiceover provides all the drama that is necessary. The mise in scène artfully copies Hopper’s paintings: sometimes only momentarily, in other scenes for several minutes at a time. It looks gorgeous, despite the artificial simplicity of the set dressing. I rented this film and loved it so much I bought myself a Blu-ray copy (actually, it’s a dual format edition). It was worth it. I suspect the film will make my top five for the year. Highly recommended.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 931