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Thursday, February 04, 2016

Spaghetti Westerns

Spaghetti Westerns: Bounty Hunters, Bullets and Blood Money
by Sachin Gandhi


The Calgary Cinematheque is pleased to present a six film spotlight on Spaghetti Westerns, a sub-genre of Westerns. Spaghetti Westerns have had a long road to recognition in the film world. The films were looked upon unfavourably when they first came out. American critics looked down upon these films and considered them fake and used the term “Spaghetti Westerns” in a negative manner to differentiate these Cinecittà Studios (Rome) productions from traditional Westerns. However, over the decades, the sub-genre has been closely studied and its filmmaking virtues have been acknowledged. The films may have been spawned from Westerns but they developed their own visual language, soundtracks, distinct characters, themes and iconography.  These unique characteristics of the sub-genre have in turn influenced diverse filmmakers over the decades. In fact, one can draw a line from Spaghetti Westerns to the cinema of John Woo, Johnnie To, Takashi Miike, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriquez. Also, Spaghetti Westerns injected new life into traditional Westerns which were falling out of fashion in the late 1950’s. As a result, Spaghetti Westerns have created a unique and influential place in cinematic history. The Calgary Cinematheque has selected films that give a taste of the sub-genre, depicting its relevant themes and symbols while showcasing some of Spaghetti Western’s famous directors/writers/actors. Even though there were as many as 500 Spaghetti Westerns made between 1964-73, the sub-genre is still mostly associated with Sergio Leone whose A Fistful of Dollars (1964) is the first Spaghetti Western. The Calgary Cinematheque has included films from two other famous Sergios’, Corbucci and Sollima, while the selections range from the lone wolf (Django) looking for revenge (Death Rides a Horse) and money (The Bounty Killer) to political films (Compañeros, A Bullet for the General). The selected films also cover the gambit of characters from bounty hunters (The Bounty Killer, The Big Gundown), a gun-carrying priest (Klaus Kinski in A Bullet for the General), corrupt general, double crossing gunmen to crazed machine gun toting characters.

Excessive violence, bullets, blood and dynamite, that were central to Spaghetti Westerns, also set them apart from traditional Westerns. In addition, the camera shots, background score, themes and symbols were distinct as well. For example, in Westerns, heroes and villains were clearly identified by the colours of their hats. Heroes wore a white hat while the villains a black hat. However, in Spaghetti Westerns, the main characters displayed no moral compass and were never afraid to kill, either for gold, revenge or political cause. As a result, these main characters were not pure heroes but anti-heroes who rode in the grey middle line away from concepts of pure goodness and honesty. These anti-heroes often donned black apparel (Django, Sabata) in the form of a black hat, poncho or vest. The Spaghetti Western characters also appeared rugged, unshaven and sunburnt, in complete contrast to the clean looking, well dressed heroes of traditional westerns. This look was in keeping with the harsh landscape the Spaghetti characters found themselves in. Their sunburnt faces perfectly illustrated the heat-packed land they traveled through and their unkempt look, with dirty clothing, represented the lack of time to clean themselves as they were either being hunted or were on the hunt. Such naturalistic looks for the characters were not a coincidence in Spaghetti Westerns but instead owe inspiration to Italian neo-realist cinema. Admittedly, Spaghetti Westerns created their own meta-world apart from Westerns or Italian life. However, elements of reality did creep in the story lines such as the aspect of a family clan (a nod towards Southern Italian families), political references (corrupt rulers/generals) or religious symbols peppered throughout the films, such as the cross, church, and priests (some of them famously turned killers).

In terms of major plots, Spaghetti Westerns can be considered to fall into three camps -- bounty hunter films, revenge tales and political stories. Sergio Leone’s films focused on the bounty hunter, in the quest for money, which was an end goal in itself. The second major plot revolved around revenge killing, to avenge a family or loved one’s murder. These revenge killings were often depicted with savage violence, an eye for an eye taken to its bloody conclusion. In the later phase of the sub-genre, political plots were incorporated in the stories resulting in films which featured a revolution and liberation of people from an oppressive ruler/general/family clan. These films were identified as Zapata Westerns and their stories took the side of the oppressed against the hierarchy, thereby resonating with the common man. This also helps explain the popularity of Spaghetti Westerns with the masses who flocked to see the films in their heyday.

The Calgary Cinematheque Spotlight has selected works which expand on these different themes and symbols of the sub-genre. Corbucci’s Django stars Franco Nero, a vital actor of the sub-genre, dressed in all black carrying that well-known coffin behind him. Django exemplified the violent world that later became commonplace in the sub-genre. Eugenio Martín’s The Bounty Killer shows a savage world where killing is normal because that is the means by which bounty hunters earn their living. Corbucci’s Compañeros is his take on the Zapata Western and impressively brings together Franco Nero with Jack Palance and Fernando Rey (known for his work in Luis Buñuel’s films and The French Connection). Clint Eastwood is a renowned association with Spaghetti Westerns but Lee Van Cleef is not far behind. Lee Van Cleef made small appearances in many Westerns (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, High Noon) but caught the eye in Leone’s For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly before he went onto carve his own name in the sub-genre. Two of Lee Van Cleef’s memorable films Death Rides a Horse and The Big Gundown are part of this Spotlight. The Big Gundown is also famously associated with director Sergio Sollima and writer Franco Solinas. Solinas made his name as a writer in Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers and Francesco Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano, two landmark films that are firmly rooted in political violence. Solinas was able to transfer this political depiction into the four Spaghetti Westerns he wrote, two of which are shown as part of the Cinematheque Spotlight. The Big Gundown is the first Spaghetti Western that Solinas worked on and he built on top of this film’s Mexican aspect by crafting a fully developed Zapata Western in A Bullet for the General, an essential film that shows how the sub-genre incorporated political elements within its framework.

This Spotlight features something for all films fans. For seasoned film lovers, there is a chance to discover some new Spaghetti Western films and see them in rare formats, such as Death Rides a Horse in 35 mm. For newcomers, this spotlight is the perfect way to be introduced to the sub-genre and experience the origins of many contemporary films.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Best Films of 2015

In contrast to previous years, this year’s best film list consists solely of films released in this calendar year, even if that means a film got only a single screening at an international film festival. There are no older 2013, 2014 titles even if they only got local theatrical screenings this year. As always, film festivals provide the bulk of the movies in this list. Out of the top 10, only 2 films got a regular theatrical run in the city and only one of those titles was released outside of the film festival circuit. The film festival circuit continues to be a wonderful parallel distribution network. Many independent and foreign films only live on the film festival circuit. Once their festival run ends, some of these films disappear for good. Some lucky ones get life via legal digital streams. Some others don’t even appear on torrents.

The regular theatrical release cycle continues to be dominated by commercial studio films while independent local and foreign cinema struggle to get screen time. If a city does not have a Cinematheque or an Arthouse cinema, then chances are, there will be limited chances to see independent and foreign films in a cinema. The contrast between studio and foreign cinema was perfectly highlighted on Dec 18. On that day, there were 99 shows of STAR WARS in local cinemas while one of the arthouses had a single show of DHEEPAN, the Palme d’Or winner at Cannes. This is the 1% vs 99% battle in terms of contemporary cinema. A film that wins the top prize at Cannes is certainly going to be distributed but films that don’t win at Cannes or get much festival love will struggle to get even a single show, even if they are worthy films. Great cinema is still being made even though it is getting harder to see in a local theatre.

2015 saw the release of films by multiple Asian masters. 5 of those films make this top 10, while Jia Zhang-Ke misses out with his emotionally beautiful MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART. There are still many films that I need to catch up on, especially ARABIAN NIGHTS, THE PEARL BUTTON, THE TREASURE, OFFICE, THE EVENT. For all those missed titles, there are many more that I was fortunate to have seen. Here are my Top 10 films of 2015, followed by 16 honourable mentions.

1. Embrace of the Serpent (Colombia co-production, Ciro Guerra)


Modern day travel is taken for granted where people can get on a plane and be in another continent in less than a day. However, there was a time when travel was truly an unpredictable journey. Ciro Guerra’s EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT gives us that sense of adventure by taking the viewer back in time and depicting what it would have been like to be the first person to encounter a civilization. The end result is a mesmerizing soulful journey into the unknown. The film is set in two time periods both in the early 1900’s in the Amazon part of Colombia. The Amazon takes up over a third of Colombia yet very little is known about this area and even less shown on the screen. No film has been made in this region in over 30 years and in order to make this film, Guerra and his crew had to fly in all the equipment as there are no roads which connect parts of the Amazon to the rest of the country. The film took over 5 years to make so this is a personal journey for Guerra as well. Filmed in stunning black and white, EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT starts off by showing how three men become reluctant partners in a journey that proves to be a life changing experience for them. The second part of the film takes place about 40 years after the first part and features a traveler who is retracing the path charted out by an earlier character in the film. The images are hypnotic while the film raises relevant questions about the impact outsiders have on an existing civilization.

2. El Movimiento (Argentina/South Korea, Benjamín Naishtat)


“1835. Argentina. Anarchy. Plague”. These opening words set the stage for a film which dives into a world on the verge of collapse. A man emerges, promising to unify the people with “The Movement” which will save everyone from utter despair. This is the promise from a leader (Pablo Cedrón in a hypnotic performance) who will take the people out of the dark ages. Filmed in black and white with minimal lighting, EL MOVIMIENTO depicts a post apocalyptic world but in reality, the film could be set in contemporary times in any country around the world. This is because political parties use a message of fear when talking about their rival political parties and the message is always that if the people don’t elect their party, the world will end. In this regard, Naishtat’s film could easily be about a left or right wing party, a power hungry dictator or just a puppet standing in for a shadow organization. The film abstracts out enough elements to depict how all movements start out with a leader, a few ideas, alcohol, plenty of conversations and promises. EL MOVIMIENTO also shows that a filmmaker can accomplish a lot with a limited budget, smart cinematography, editing and music.

3. Right Now, Wrong Then (South Korea, Hong Sang-soo)


On the surface, it appears that Hong Sang-soo is repeatedly making the same movie as his films feature elements of love, relationships, drinks, memory and conversations. He uses abrupt zooms in lieu of abrupt cuts and in a few of his recent films, he has broken the film down into multiple parts. A lot of those elements are to be found in his newest feature but he demonstrates that he is in complete control of elements and is not making the same film. Instead, he is tweaking minor ingredients in his filmmaking recipe to demonstrate how a few events can drastically alter one’s life leading a person in a completely different path. In RIGHT NOW, WRONG THEN, he presents us with two versions of the same story. The first segment is more of a traditional Hong Sang-soo film which shows a familiar story about how a film director meets a woman on a chance encounter. A few conversations later, the alcohol flows freely which ensures the characters true emotions gush out, resulting in some awkward conversations and moments. In the second segment, the same characters are involved but the alcohol is toned down a little bit. This subtle change drastically alters the flow of events resulting in a different scenario. Both segments are vintage cinema but by presenting us with two distinct versions, Hong Sang-soo allows audience to choose which version they prefer. Both versions are rooted in reality and depict how individuals can choose to live their lives, either by being completely honest and vocal about their feelings or being quiet and reserved.

4. Our Little Sister (Japan, Hirokazu Kore-eda)


In his last film, LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON Hirokazu Kore-eda illustrated the two-way relationship that exists between parents and their young children. The film was shown from the perspective of a father’s bond towards his son. Therefore, it is appropriate that in OUR LITTLE SISTER, Kore-eda turns the focus on daughters in the absence of a father figure. As a result, he has now covered another vital angle of how members of a family shape each other. The film depicts relationships and interactions with honesty and without the absence of any melodrama. Since his films are often compared to Ozu, Hirokazu Kore-eda obliges us with a chimney shot that directly references the cinema of Ozu.

5. About Cinema (Brazil, Walter Carvalho)


Walter Carvalho is an accomplished cinematographer and it is not a surprise to see his film begin with a stunning image of a broken down projector located in what was once a cinema. The forgotten ruins of a cinema is clearly a symbol for film reels and 35mm projectors in a digital world. That image is also the perfect launching pad for what follows in this documentary which gets at the core of what cinema truly is. It answers this question by interviewing an accomplished list of directors ranging from Béla Tarr, Hector Babenco, Lucrecia Martel, Jia Zhang-Ke, José Padilha, Karim Aïnouz, Asghar Farhadi, Gus Van Sant, Ken Loach to Andrzej Wajda. The film also interviews Salvatore Cascio, the actor who played the famous ‘Toto’ in CINEMA PARADISO. The end result is a work that highlights the power of films and reinforces one’s love for cinema.

6. The Assassin (Taiwan co-production, Hou Hsiao-Hsien)


THE ASSASSIN shows that in the hands of an auteur a wuxia genre can be transformed into a work of breath-taking art. Hou Hsiao-Hsien references his earlier films but also dives into a political landscape with a razor sharp eye for detail.

7. The Forbidden Room (Canada, Guy Maddin/Evan Johnson)


The most creative film of 2015 oozes with life and energy from every frame. The film effortlessly transcends genres ranging from horror, comedy, mystery to avant-garde while bravely spinning stories at a relentless pace leaving the viewer out of breath. The end result is a fun carnival ride through the history of Maddin’s cinema and overall film genres. As an added bonus, there are many surprising cameos from actors who suddenly pop-up and disappear rapidly amid the cuts.

8. Cemetery of Splendour (Thailand co-production, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)


Like last year’s TIMBUKTU, CEMETERY OF SPLENDOUR features a beautifully shot soccer scene which has huge political implications. In TIMBUKTU, the boys are forbidden to play with a soccer ball, so they play in the soccer field with no ball. They move around pretending they are kicking or shooting an invisible ball. In CEMETERY OF SPLENDOUR, the boys have a soccer ball but the field they are playing in is dug up. As a result, the boys have to navigate their way around/over mountains of dirt in order to make their way to the other goal. The mountains of dirt represent the hurdles and difficulties that exist in Thai society that people have to face everyday. In the past, Apichatpong was a bit subtle with regards to the political implications in his films but here he doesn’t hold back. This is his most open political film albeit depicted in a manner which builds on the themes of his previous films by beautifully stitching together history, myth, fables, dreams, nightmares and harsh reality, which must be seen with wide open eyes.

9. Taxi (Iran, Jafar Panahi)


TAXI is the third film from renowned auteur Jafar Panahi after he was banned from making films by the Iranian Government in 2010. Like THIS IS NOT A FILM, the first film Panahi made under the ban, TAXI does not appear to be a scripted film. TAXI features Jafar Panahi driving a taxi around the streets of Tehran, picking up passengers and dropping them off at different locations. All the interactions with passengers are recorded from a camera on his dashboard, so technically, Panahi does not appear to be directing anything. However, the inclusion of smart dialogues, shift in camera angles and the presence of a few memorable passengers reveals Panahi’s brilliance. Pushed into a corner by the government, Panahi has tapped into the same creative energy as THE WHITE BALLOON and CRIMSON GOLD; films he directed before the ban. He uses a taxi as a medium to bring forth relevant discussions about society, freedom, censorship, public vs private space and even film distribution. Everything is presented with plenty of humour, some melodrama yet bathed in reality.

10. Piku (India, Shoojit Sircar)


Writer Juhi Chaturvedi and director Shoojit Sircar are successfully able to transfer the wit, sarcasm and humour associated with Bengali language cinema to Hindi cinema. The key to pulling off their script is the acting of the three main actors whose characters ensure a balance is maintained on screen. Amitabh Bachchan’s character of Bhaskor is loud and always looks to dominate every conversation in the room with his own problems, which are always the worst in the world. On the other hand, Irrfan Khan’s character of Rana exudes a calm collected demeanour and is the exact opposite of Bhaskor in the volume index. Rana quietly observes events yet manages to interject in a timely manner to diffuse anything from blowing up. Then there is Deepika Padukone’s character of Piku, the core of the film, the engine that keeps everything running. Her performance reminds of traditional Bengali actresses and she has put in one of the best acting displays seen in the last few years in Hindi language cinema.

Honourable mentions (in alphabetical order):

Adrien (Canada, Renée Beaulieu)

This assured debut film recalls Denis Côté's cinema mixed with some lovely shots reminiscent of the Dardenne brothers. The brave decision of Renée Beaulieu to let some of the film’s crucial events play out without any dialogues results in a remarkable payoff as the on-screen tension builds before the steam is calmly let out.

Bleak Street (Mexico/Spain, Arturo Ripstein)

In the traditional of Luis Buñuel’s Mexican films, BLEAK STREET depicts a realistic view of street life without any filters. Ripstein doesn’t hold back and plunges the viewer into a cruel and filthy world yet infuses the film with plenty of heart.

Dog Lady (Argentina, Laura Citarella/Verónica Llinás)

Finally, a female counterpoint to Lisandro Alonso’s lonely male cinema. However, Citarella and Llinás add a societal layer to their film on top of Alonso’s structure. The characters in Alonso’s films are situated in nature and his films are about individuals. Citarella and Llinás’s film follows a lonely female character but by setting their character on the fringe of society, balancing the line between urban-rural life, they create a social commentary which makes the main character universal. As a result, their film raises questions about society and poverty.

Happy Hour (Japan, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)

A beautiful mature work that focuses on four friends who depend on each other’s support in order to cope with their lives. When one of the characters confides that she is seeking a divorce, it sets in motion a sequence of events which unravels their friendships and impacts the remaining character’s family relationships. The running time of just over 5 hours will restrict this film’s distribution possibilities but that is a shame as this film achieves a level of depth that most TV shows fail to do in over 10+ hours.

In Jackson Heights (USA, Frederick Wiseman)

A remarkable film which manages to highlight the rich diverse cultural history that exists within a few blocks of this famous New York neighbourhood. The film truly shows the sense of community that exists in the neighbourhood while the patient camera captures the sparkle of life that exists in every street corner in Jackson Heights. It is clear there are thousands of stories that can be found in Jackson Heights and Wiseman lets us listen in to some remarkable stories. The film also smartly depicts moments which dive into the dollars and cents involved when comparing small businesses vs big corporations, struggles that are taking place not only around North America but around the world.

James White (USA, Josh Mond)

Shot with a raw intensity, Josh Mond’s film depicts its titular character (Christopher Abbott) who is just trying to get his life together. James is lazy and wants to enjoy his life. However, after his father passes away, he learns his mother has cancer. That thrusts a huge weight of responsibility on his shoulders, something he is not ready for. The camera doesn’t shy away from observing James in his moments of weakness while the story doesn’t try to glorify James or give his character any heroic redemption values. As a result, we are left to view the character with brutal honestly and are free to form our own views.

Mediterranea (Italy co-production, Jonas Carpignano)

The debut of this film along with DHEEPAN at Cannes could not have been more timely. Both DHEEPAN and MEDITERRANEA show the social integration problems that await a new wave of refugees and immigrants coming into Europe. While DHEEPAN goes off in a different dramatic direction, MEDITERRANEA continues following a more neorealist path in letting events unfold.

Ninth Floor (Canada, Mina Shum)

A timely documentary from a Canadian perspective. The film depicts a horrible incident of racism that took place in Sir George Williams University (Montreal) back in 1969 against a group of Caribbean students. The real strength of the film is the inclusion of archival footage which lets viewer see the full extent of racism and discrimination that once existed in Canada. The film is highly relevant today as every wave of new immigrants to Canada have likely faced similar sentiments when they first arrived.

One Floor Below (Romania co-production, Radu Muntean)

A masterful work that is another shining example of the recent Romanian New Wave which depicts human behaviour and emotions in a realistic manner.

Poet on a Business Trip (China, Ju Anqi)

Originally shot in 2002 but not edited until 2013, POET ON A BUSINESS TRIP is part documentary and part poetry. Structured around 16 poems, the film depicts travels in Xinjiang, the western-lying Uyghur province of China. The images and people seen on screen are hardly familiar sights in Chinese cinema, thereby making this a genuinely independent film that is a rarity in China.

Taklub (Phillipines, Brillante Mendoza)

Similar to what he did with SLINGSHOT and FOSTER CHILD, Mendoza embeds his actors in a real life location with non-actors thereby achieving a level of realism where the line between reality and fiction disappears. The film also raises worthy points about how aid is distributed to areas impacted by natural disasters such as typhoons and floods.

Talvar (India, Meghna Gulzar)

Last year, the Indian film COURT showed the Kafkaesque legal system in India. TALVAR takes a step back and depicts the police investigations which can result in an endless loop of court trials, thereby paving the path to events shown in the film COURT. TALVAR is based on a real life court case and Vishal Bhardwaj’s script coupled with Meghna Gulzar’s direction ensures the audience gets to witness alternate view points, Rashomon style.

The Smalls: Forever is a Long time (Canada, Trevor Smith)

This film throws out the rule book when it comes to music documentaries and rewrites the script.  Even though the film is about one band called The Smalls, its smart editing and overall framework gets to the essence of why people fall for a certain band and why a piece of music resonates with some individuals more than others. Werner Herzog has mentioned how he loves letting the camera run a little bit longer after a scene is over in order to capture a magical moment. Such a magical moment takes place in THE SMALLS as well, where the camera stays a little bit longer at one of the band’s concerts. This magical scene depicts the trance like impact music has on people and why people pour their heart out when listening to their favourite band. The entire film is also enhanced by some beautiful contemplative shots which allow us to get a sense of the wider universe around a musical band and how ordinary objects and venues spring to life when musical notes fill the air.

The Wakhan Front (France/Belgium, Clément Cogitore)

An extraordinary film that deceives expectations. Starts off as a war film but moves into another genre with the mysterious disappearance of soldiers which points towards supernatural occurrences. There are also some lovely nods to Claire Denis’s BEAU TRAVAIL.

Under Construction (Bangladesh, Rubaiyat Hossain)

Rubaiyat Hossain smartly uses her main character as a lens to explore both female identity in Bangladesh and also her city, Dhaka, which also plays a prominent part in the film.

Viaje (Costa Rica, Paz Fábrega)

Filmed in gorgeous black and white, VIAJE is an honest, charming and mature depiction of relationships.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Euro 2016

The tradition continues of having a book + film spotlight for a major soccer tournament. The expansion of the European Championship to 24 teams certainly posed a challenge regarding the selection process for this spotlight. Having to watch 24 films for each of the 24 countries in 6 months would have been an easy proposition but having to read 24 books in 6 months would have been a stretch. Therefore, the total number of book and film selections is divided, although not in an even manner. 23 nations have either one film or book in the spotlight. That means if a nation has a film in the spotlight, there is no book representing it. The same is true for books as well which means if a country has a book in the spotlight, then that country will have no film selected. The only exception is France, the Euro 2016 hosts. France gets two books and one film in the spotlight.

There are a total of 11 films and 15 books selected with the requirement to have more books than films in the spotlight. The film selections are contemporary with only 2014-2015 titles. However, for the books, the goal was to have a match-up between some heavyweights. As a result, many well known older titles are selected. On the other hand, there are some titles from newer worthy authors thrown into the mix.

All of the films have to be viewed and all the books read by June 1, 2016.

Films:

France: Dheepan (2015, Jacques Audiard)

Belgium: The Brand New Testament (2015, Jaco Van Dormael)
Croatia: The High Sun (2015, Dalibor Matanic)
England: 45 Years (2015, Andrew Haigh)
Germany: Phoenix (2014, Christian Petzold)
Italy: Lost and Beautiful (2015, Pietro Marcello)
Romania: Aferim! (2015, Radu Jude)
Russia: The Fool (2014, Yuriy Bykov)
Slovakia: Koza (2015, Ivan Ostrochovský)
Sweden: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014, Roy Andersson)
Ukraine: Maidan (2014, Sergey Loznitsa)

Note: If Loznitsa’s The Event (2015) is available, it will be selected over his 2014 film Maidan.

Books:

France: Life A User’s Manual (Georges Perec), The Prone Gunman (Jean-Patrick Manchette)

Albania: The General of the Dead Army (Ismail Kadare)
Austria: The Man Without Qualities (Robert Musil)
Czech Republic: The Other City (Michal Ajvaz)
Hungary: Sátántangó (László Krasznahorkai)
Iceland: The Blue Fox (Sjón)
Ireland: Ulysses (James Joyce)
Northern Ireland: The International (Glenn Patterson)
Poland: The Elephant (Slawomir Mrozek)
Portugal: The Book of Disquiet (Fernando Pessoa)
Spain: Mazurka for Two Dead Men (Camilo José Cela)
Switzerland: The End of All Men (C.F. Ramuz)
Turkey: The Black Book (Orhan Pamuk)
Wales: A Book of Wales, an Anthology (selected by Meic Stephens)

Sunday, December 06, 2015

New Argentine Cinema

New Argentine Cinema: Rebirth of a Nation’s Film Industry


The Calgary Cinematheque’s focus on 21st Century Argentine Cinema highlights a diverse collection of contemporary directors associated with the New Argentine Cinema. While films of the New Argentine Cinema were not part of a unified movement like the French New Wave or Brazilian Cinema Novo, they were united by a desire to depict original creative stories that broke away from the past yet still maintained a foothold in Argentine society. Famous Argentine directors such as Adrián Caetano, Bruno Stagnaro, Pablo Trapero, Martín Rejtman, Daniel Burman, Lisandro Alonso, Lucrecia Martel, the late Fabián Bielinsky, Carlos Sorin and Matías Piñeiro all started making their movies when Argentina was either in the midst of an economic crisis or just coming out of one. Powered by fresh new ideas, their diverse films helped restore Argentina’s cinematic identity both nationally and on the global stage.

The collective process of filmmaking in New Argentine Cinema did not happen overnight but took almost two decades as Argentine cinema had to rebuild itself after local cinema had lost its voice and the film industry almost ground to a complete halt in the late 1980’s-early 1990’s. Between 1976-83, Argentine cinema was restricted to a limited number of film productions per year under the rule of the military dictatorship. Once the dictatorship ended in 1983, the Argentine film industry was finally able to make works that examined the impacts of the dictatorship or the ‘Dirty War’, a term which described the subversive tactics used by the military to torture, assassinate or kidnap opposing political voices. The most famous of these films about the dictatorship, Luis Puenzo’s The Official Story (1985), won an Academy Award in 1986. Film production showed signs of recovery in the mid 1980’s but production hit a snag after the Argentine Currency crisis of 1989, an event that resulted in film production falling to numbers lower than even under the dictatorship years. However, a series of events in the early 1990’s ensured the seeds for a future awakening of cinema had been planted. Demetrios Matheou outlines three of these key events in The Faber Book of New South American Cinema. First, the establishment of the Universidad del Cine paved the way for future generations of film directors and many of the nation’s current top directors, such as Lisandro Alonso, Bruno Stagnaro, Pablo Trapero, Matías Piñeiro, graduated from there. Second, the creation of the 1994 New Cinema Law helped open up a new source of revenue for the newly created Instituto Nacional de Cine y Artes Audiovisuales (INCAA) ensuring independent films could be made. Third, the sponsorship in 1995 of a short-film competition, Historias Breves, resulted in many young directors getting a chance to make their short films and also establish connections with other like-minded filmmakers. It was at this short film competition that Daniel Burman, Lucrecia Martel, Adrián Caetano and Bruno Stagnaro met each other and started sharing ideas. Film production started to increase in the late 1990‘s although most of the films were Hollywood-inspired productions. However, just as the 1990‘s were about to end, a New Argentine cinema started to take flight, starting with Adrián Caetano and Bruno Stagnaro’s Pizza, birra, faso (Pizza, Beer and Cigarettes,1998) and Pablo Trapero’s Mundo Grúa (Crane World) in 1999. These young directors came with a unique perspective and their cinema broke away from the conventional mould that existed previously. Pizza, Beer and Cigarettes and Crane World were shot in extended takes and depicted characters and events in a vérité manner that bordered on documentary. These two films had roots in Italian neo-realist cinema and incorporated Argentina’s social and economic realities. The economic crisis of 1998-02 impacted Argentine society drastically and these films embraced the harsh reality and stitched it within their framework to depict youth and workers struggling to make ends meet. Adrián Caetano continued this examination with his 2001 film Bolivia which examined the simmering anger regarding unemployment and the distrust towards foreigners coming into the country. Caetano, Stagnaro and Trapero showed that their films didn’t exist in a bubble but were fully immersed in contemporary society. Once these directors took an alternate path, others followed and examined Argentine society with their own unique visions.

It has been just over two decades since the establishment of the New Cinema Law and INCAA. The impact of these efforts have helped ensure that Argentine Cinema is no longer isolated from the world. In addition, the film themes have also evolved from purely Argentine stories to works that contain universal themes. For the last 15 years, many of the New Argentine Cinema works have screened at numerous international film festivals around the globe. Calgary has shown works of Daniel Burman and Carlos Sorin as part of either the Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF) or Calgary Latin Wave. However, their films were screened in isolation with no unifying thread to link the works with each other. There existed a need to finally shine the spotlight on New Argentine Cinema and present a collection of works from some of the more established names who are inspiring a new generation of directors around the world. In this regard, the Calgary Cinematheque’s four-film series offers a chance to closely look at some of these established directors. All the films selected were made in the 21st Century as Argentina was emerging from their economic crisis. The four films, Jauja (Lisandro Alonso), The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel), Bombón: El Perro (Carlos Sorin) and Viola (Matías Piñeiro), are by directors associated with different regions of Argentina. These directors themes and styles range from a vérité style to a cinema inspired by theatre and literature. Lisandro Alonso’s stunning visual style arises from his decision to set almost all films outside cities, away from the everyday noise and traffic of city life. Alonso’s films take place in nature, such as a farm (La Libertad), a forest/river (Los Muertos), snowy mountains/sea (Liverpool) and a desert (Jauja), allowing his camera the freedom to explore the natural surroundings thereby creating a beautiful visual language. The only feature film he depicted in a city, Fantasma, takes place entirely inside the Teatro San Martin, a Buenos Aires theatre, where the city is only visible via the giant glass windows in the lobby. Prior to Jauja, his films contained lonely male characters who made their way through nature, either going about their daily lives or trying to repair their past. However, Jauja is an exciting departure for Alonso as it highlights what a talented auteur can accomplish with a larger cast and a major star (Viggo Mortensen). On the other hand, Lucrecia Martel’s films are packed with multiple characters and are entirely city-based. In her case, the films take place in Salta, a city located in the North West region of Argentina where she was born. In her films, the settings are large houses and the stories depict class divisions in society with a witty combination of satire and drama. No one is spared in Martel’s films as she ensures the attentive camera captures all relevant details. Carlos Sorin is identified with Patagonia, located in the southern part of Argentina, a region where he has filmed four of his features, starting with Intimate Stories, Bombón: El Perro, The Window and his last feature Gone Fishing. Each film contains a beautiful layer of emotions while following fully developed characters on journeys across the picturesque Patagonian landscapes. Buenos Aires forms the backdrop for Matías Piñeiro’s films but one doesn’t really notice the presence of the city in his work. The characters may live in a city but the city does not impose on their lives. Instead, their lives revolve around art and theatre. In this regard, Piñeiro has skillfully created a world within a world in his films which are richly influenced by theatre and literature, something which sets him apart from the other contemporary Argentine directors. In his recent films, the influence of Shakespeare can be felt such as in Rosalind (Shakespeare’s As You Like It), Viola (The Twelfth Night) and his recent The Princess of France (Love Labour’s Lost). Yet, his films are not direct adaptations but show how text from Shakespeare’s plays can serve as creative inspirations.

The earlier works of New Argentine Cinema started off by holding up a mirror towards Argentine society and giving voices to people and stories that were previously suppressed. Newer works still have roots in Argentine society but are looking outwards toward the world and presenting stories that are universal. As a result, people from different parts of the world can relate to these Argentine films. For example, Lisandro Alonso’s films are undeniably associated with Argentine landscapes but the depiction of closure and redemption sought by his characters are universal traits. Similarly, Martel’s films examine class divisions in society but the behaviour and actions of her characters can take place in any country where there is a significant financial divide between people. Emotions play a big part in Carlos Sorin’s films which is why his films can evoke powerful reactions around the world. In Bombón: El Perro, Sorin depicts a tender relationship between a man and his dog and as a result, the film perfectly illustrates why a dog is such a worthy companion to humans. On the other hand, Piñeiro’s films captures the world of art and theatre. As a result, Piñeiro’s films could easily be set in any city where art and theatre flourish. The four films selected by the Cinematheque give a glimpse into Argentine society as well as highlight the unique filmmaking style of New Argentine Cinema. The initial films of New Argentine Cinema started with inspiration from neo-realist Italian cinema with stories born out of Argentina’s economy crisis. Now, newer Argentine films have developed their own film language and are in turn referenced in global film festivals. Any film set in Patagonia will be forever linked to Carlos Sorin while any film which features contemplative shots of lonely men walking in nature will be compared to the cinema of Lisandro Alonso. The Argentine works selected by the Calgary Cinematheque offers a unique chance to understand some of Argentina’s past while offering a glimpse into both contemporary and future cinematic trends.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Best Films of 2014

10 months into 2015, I finally have a better handle on the films of 2014. Therefore, a correction is due for the previously published ‘Best films of 2014’ list which featured a good number of 2013 films. The following list is exclusively 2014 films and is a reworking of the previous ‘Best of 2014’ list.

1. Timbuktu (Mauritania/France, Abderrahmane Sissako)


At its core, TIMBUKTU is about how people from a different nation or culture try to impose their ways onto another culture. At first, this description illustrates problems currently plaguing parts of Asia and Africa. However, this problem is not new and has existed for centuries when ancient cultures clashed and one culture tried to impose their way onto others. Sissako has infused his film with plenty of dark satire which results in a few comical scenarios, yet the implications are nothing to laugh at. For example, in one scene, the militants want the local women to cover every part of their body, including wearing gloves on their hands. Yet, as one fish seller points out, she cannot handle the fish if she is wearing gloves. Her protests draw attention to the absurdity of the situation yet similar situations happen everyday where people are killed for not listening to the absurd demands of their invaders. Another such absurd moment happens when the militants forbid the local boys from playing soccer. This results in one of the most beautiful scenes in the film where the kids play soccer without a ball. The kids move around pretending they are passing an invisible ball or taking a shot at goal. This scene is one of the most powerful political protests ever filmed in cinema.

TIMBUKTU shows that victims of violence don’t get any justice. Therefore, this causes individuals to take the law into their hands, an aspect which ensures a perpetual circle of violence as each violent act is countered with an equal forceful response. In order to emphasize this point, Sissako purposefully has an an air of inevitability around the film. If there was a film where one wished for a happen ending, this was it. Yet, Sissako purposely rejects us that happiness because in real life there are no happy endings.

2. The Tribe (Ukraine/Netherlands, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky)


TIMBUKTU has one powerful silent scene featuring a non-existent soccer ball but THE TRIBE is a silent film that is powerful from start to finish. It takes a few moments for the viewer to get adjusted to the world of characters who communicate with sign language. There are no subtitles or musical cues to aid the viewer, an aspect that adds to the film’s strength. However, once the viewer is drawn into the silent world, the film doesn’t let go. Shocking scenes happen without notice resulting in a work of pure cinema that is intense, relentless and gut-wrenching.

3. Jauja (Argentina co-production, Lisandro Alonso)


In his previous films, Lisandro Alonso has shown characters in a farm, forest, snowy mountain regions and a river. Therefore, it is appropriate he sets JAUJA in a hot desert thereby covering all aspects of nature in his films. The lonely man aspect from his previous films is present but Alonso also adds a lovely element of family relationships that gives the film a strong emotional backbone. This family element also allows Alonso to play with the aspect of time. In films such as LOS MUERTOS, LIVERPOOL, Alonso’s male characters go on a journey in order to make amends for their past. However, in JAUJA, Alonso skillfully blends past, present and future in a beautiful unexpected manner.

4. The Fool (Russia, Yuriy Bykov)


Yuriy Bykov cleverly uses a building’s collapse to explore larger moral and ethical issues around society. The closed door meetings between city officials show how corruption can take root in a society and impact citizens in their day to day existence. Even though the film is set in Russia, its topic is applicable to any city and shows how easy it is for those in power to cross the morality line.

5. She Comes Back on Thursday (Brazil, André Novais Oliveira)


André Novais Oliveira makes his feature film debut in a remarkable manner by blending documentary with fiction. He acts in the film along with his parents and brother and all four use their real names in the film. However, the four of them are not playing themselves but instead are acting within the framework of fiction. Still, SHE COMES BACK ON THURSDAY is constructed like a documentary, giving attention to tiny details about life and relationships. The close bond between the family members results in scenes which flow effortlessly allowing audience an intimate look at the characters. The everyday sounds that are allowed to flow in the frames recalls Kleber Mendonça Filho’s NEIGHBORING SOUNDS but André Novais Oliveira has crafted his own unique path by opting to show a different side of Brazil from other Brazilian films. The setting of the film in the suburbs of Belo Horizonte showcases a Brazil that is not seen in cinema along with characters that don’t make an appearance in Brazilian films. Finally, the selection of the lovely music makes SHE COMES BACK ON THURSDAY a beautiful poetic film about life, love, death and everything in between.

6. August Winds (Brazil, Gabriel Mascaro)


Brazilian director Gabriel Mascaro known for some groundbreaking documentaries (HIGH-RISE, DEFIANT BRASILIA) is able to transfer his attentive eye for detail into AUGUST WINDS, his feature film debut. The film blurs the line between documentary and fiction by using non-actors and being set in the North Eastern part of Brazil during the month of August when the trade winds are at their peak. Mascaro is also the film’s cinematographer and his eye-popping visuals along with distinct sounds helps create a strong atmosphere for the film which is a meditative look at life and death.

7. Fig Fruit and the Wasps (India, M.S Prakash Babu)


Gowri (Bhavani Prakash), a documentary filmmaker, travels with her cameraman Vittal (Ranjit Bhaskaran) to a remote village in search of a musical teacher for her project which requires her to study how music is shaped by different locations. She believes that there is a reason why musical instruments are shaped differently in each region and that difference in turn influences the evolution of music and rhythm. However, as they reach the village, the musician is nowhere to be found. The two are forced to wait for his return. As the two continue waiting, things don’t go as per their plan as the village offers an unusual challenge for the duo, even though they have traveled to many similar villages in the past. FIG FRUIT AND THE WASPS marks the stunning debut of MS Prakash Babu who draws on his painting background to create a vibrant picture of events, while carefully letting the sounds and rhythms of Chitradurga (South India) filter into the screen. The end result is an impressive debut that recalls the filmmaking sensibilities of Satyajit Ray, Ozu and Robert Bresson.

8. The Second Game (Romania, Corneliu Porumboiu)


THE SECOND GAME uses a simple premise of a dialogue between father-son watching a soccer game to highlight how politics can shape local soccer derbies. Of course, the dialogue is not between two ordinary people. Corneliu Porumboiu is discussing the 1988 fixture of the Romanian derby between Dinamo and Steaua Bucharest with his father Adrian, who was the referee for that game. Therefore, Adrian has plenty of insight regarding how the political aspect of Romanian society played a part in the derby. This film is also a rare historical account of a time when Romanian soccer players such Hagi, Dumitrescu, Petrescu and Lăcătuș played behind the Iron Curtain. The world only found out the full strength and technical ability of these players during the 1990 and 1994 Soccer World Cups. This film shows us a bit of their past. 

On a lighter note, in the film, Corneliu Porumboiu asks his father "Don't you think it [derby] looks like one of my films? It's long, and nothing happens”. The words are a direct poke towards critics of many foreign films and soccer games who don’t understand why every minute is not jam packed with action. Many Soccer games and works of Contemporary Contemplative Cinema gain their power by letting events unfold slowly and as a result, the patient viewer will be rewarded with a moment of blistering beauty.

9. From What is Before (Philippines, Lav Diaz)


After the short film NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY (only 4 hour running time), it is a pleasure to see Lav Diaz return to this long form cinema with the 5.5 hour FROM WHAT IS BEFORE. Diaz mixes politics and history with elements of murder and fear in a seamless manner. As a result, the film illustrates how fear is one of the most powerful currencies of a dictatorship, regardless of the nation which the dictatorship rules.

10. Two Days, One Night (Belgium/France/Italy, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)


Even by the high standard of the Dardenne brothers, TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT is a staggering achievement. The film depicts moral and ethical questions that are always present when money is involved. And in Marion Cotillard, the brothers have found a perfect face to convey the range of emotions from desperation to despair and even a touch of hope.

Honorable mentions:

Top Five (USA, Chris Rock)

This is Chris Rock’s BIRDMAN mixed with a bit of Richard Linklater. The end result is one of the most pleasurable films of 2014!

Court (India, Chaitanya Tamhane)

This is fiction yet it could easily be a documentary as everything shown about the Kafkaesque court system in India is true. One of the most creative Indian films made in the last few years!

Maidan (Ukraine/Netherlands, Sergei Loznitsa)

In the past, Loznitsa made some remarkable documentaries which used old footage to depict life in the Soviet Union. Therefore, it is exciting to see him bring that patient documentary eye to contemporary events. This results in a film that highlights the power of a crowd in creating change.

Clouds of Sils Maria (France/Germany/Switzerland, Olivier Assayas)

Oliver Assayas depicts the cut-throat film world where people will go to any lengths in order to get ahead. The film is a different beast from David Cronenberg’s MAP OF THE STARS which takes dark satire to melodramatic heights. On the other hand, Assayas firmly keeps one foot in reality in depicting his characters.

Eat Your Bones (2014, France, Jean-Charles Hue)

A work of astounding beauty and violence that is a brilliant cross between the cinema of Bruno Dumont, Harmony Korine and Claire Denis, enhanced with a layer of noir.