Thursday, October 15, 2020

Paulo Rocha's Change of Life

 Change of Life (1966, Portugal, Paulo Rocha)

Over the last decade, there has been a rich supply of Portuguese films coming out yet I recall a time when it difficult to view many Portuguese films legally. The films of Pedro Costa were not yet available via Second Run or Criterion and many of the current New Wave of Portuguese Cinema directors such as Miguel Gomes (Our Beloved Month of August, Tabu, Arabian Nights trilogy), Pedro Pinho (The Nothing Factory) hadn’t directed their first film. The few films that were available were either by the legendary and highly prolific Manoel de Oliveira who kept on directing until his death in 2015 aged 106 years, an early João Pedro Rodrigues title (O Fantasma, Two Drifters, The Ornithologist), a sampling of some horror films, a few family dramas and the odd romantic comedy. This is why the recent viewing of Paulo Rocha’s brilliant 1966 film Change of Life feels like such a fundamental re-calibration of cinema in general.

Rocha’s first two features The Green Years (1963) and Change of Life (1966) have gone through a restoration supervised by Pedro Costa and are widely available across North America, both virtually (via Grasshopper film) and also via select few cinemas across US. The arrival of these two films in 2020 is a monumental event, made especially more important in a year when the release of new cinematic works has been paused.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Med Hondo's Soleil Ô

 Soleil Ô (1967, Mauritania/France, Med Hondo)

I had read about Med Hondo in a few posts over the years. Yet, I hadn’t seen any of his films. So I waited. Just like I had done previously on many occasions for a film by a director whose films were meant to be seen. TIFF held a retrospective of his films in 2016 which once again brought his name to attention. Then in 2017, Dan Sullivan’s posts about Il Cinema Ritrovato presented hope:

It would only be a matter of time now. Yet, that time moved ever so slowly. Instead, almost two years later, the sad news came that Med Hondo passed away on March 2, 2019. Over the next few days, a few posts again heightened the need to see his film.

First, a republication of the 2016 TIFF retrospective with the eye-grabbing headline:

Med Hondo is the African Auteur You Need to See

Then, David Hudson’s post, which started off by referencing Dan Sullivan’s Film Comment article:

"In 2017, Bologna was set abuzz by a series of new restorations being presented at Il Cinema Ritrovato by the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project. “Right out of the gate, word spread fast about the legendary Mauritanian filmmaker Med Hondo’s rousing introductions at the screenings in his mini-retrospective,” wrote Dan Sullivan for Film Comment."

And then finally, the announcement earlier this year about Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project 3 would have Med Hondo’s Soleil Ô. 

The wait was finally over in August when the Criterion Channel streamed the film online.

I firmly echo the headline by Rooney Elmi that Med Hondo’s film is more relevant now than ever. In fact, the topics of migration and immigration covered with such urgency by Hondo’s film have became an even more burning topic over the last few decades. If emigration and treatment of Africans in France was a problem back in 1967, then the last 5 decades have made it worse. The film covers migration from Africa to France yet the topic is relevant for many other nations in Africa, Asia, South America whose citizens left (and continue to leave) for better jobs in their former colonizing country.

The following lines are among my favourite from the film and illustrate the problem facing migrants:
There were tens of them in 1946, several hundred in 1948, over 15,000 in 1964 and 300,000 in 1967.

How many are there now? how many will there be tomorrow?
Beyond a certain level, a previously harmless phenomenon became more significant for some.

“Black invasion”.
The words are loaded with dynamite.

There are more and more of them. What are they doing here?
They wanted independence, now they can stay at home.
They get money, too.
We support them. Do you realise that?
You can’t push your luck too far.

Ok, they come here to do the jobs that we don’t want to do.
But they should invent machines to do them!
It’s simple, isn’t it?
Instead, look.
Great, isn’t it?

We former, present and future colonised people have contributed greatly to the foundation of your industrial and economic capital.
Should the interest on that capital not be our right?
So, please don’t say that we’re costing you dear.

Furthermore, the help you are giving to us is aimed above all at preserving your own markets and maintaining your economic privileges.

I thought of Dany Laferrière’s words from Why must a black writer write about sex? where he talked about people showing in America for the riches (and sex) that they had been sold on. Hondo instead talks about jobs but his words burn with truth:

We former, present and future colonised people have contributed greatly to the foundation of your industrial and economic capital.
Should the interest on that capital not be our right?
So, please don’t say that we’re costing you dear.
Furthermore, the help you are giving to us is aimed above all at preserving your own markets and maintaining your economic privileges.

France built its fortunes on the back of its African colonies as did England with India. Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Holland and even Italy owe a lot of their wealth and prosperity to their colonies. Yet, when people from those former colonized nations show up for low paying jobs, they are treated with contempt and looked upon with disgust, fear, distrust. And this situation has just gotten worse over the last few years.

Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Western nations colonized countries and looted them. That was the action. The reaction is the migration of people from those former colonies moving to the colonizers. Yet, the citizens of the former colonies will never come close to the riches that the colonizers took from their nations. However, you can bet that those new migrants or immigrants will be blamed for all the problems in the Western nation.

All of this makes Med Hondo’s 1967 film one of the most relevant contemporary films.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Mystery of Diego Simeone and Atlético Madrid


Francisco Seco/Associated Press
Diego Simeone. Francisco Seco/Associated Press

It felt like a miracle. Atlético Madrid had managed to avoid defeat at the Camp Nou and held Barcelona 1-1 thereby beating both Barcelona and Real Madrid to the title on the final weekend of the 2013/2014 season. Going into the final weekend of the 2013/14 season, Atlético were only 3 points ahead of both Barcelona and Real Madrid. It felt like Atlético had blown their chance to win the title because Barcelona could win the title with a home win against Atlético. Yet, somehow Diego Simeone’s Atlético denied Barca the title. It was the first time since the 2003-04 season that a team other Barcelona or Real Madrid had won the La Liga title (still the case in 2020). That 2014 title felt like the continuation of Diego Simeone’s remarkable work at Atlético.

Diego Simeone became manager of Atlético in December 2011 and immediately made his mark. He led Atlético to the UEFA Europa League and Super Cup titles in 2012 before shocking eternal rivals Real Madrid to win the Copa Del Rey in 2013 at the Santiago Bernabéu stadium of all places. Therefore, the league result against Barca at the Camp Nou felt the step in the right direction because Simeone followed a European trophy with the Spanish Cup and Spanish La Liga titles in consecutive seasons. It felt like the Champions League would be the next step. In that same 2013/2014 Champions League season, Atlético beat Barcelona in the quarter-finals and reached the final to face Real Madrid. They led Real Madrid 1-0 until the 93th minute when Real scored to take the game to extra-time. In extra-time, the wheels came off and Atlético ended up losing 4-1. It was a bitter loss. Yet, it felt like Atlético would be back.

Atlético Madrid did indeed return to the Champions League final 2 years later but again they lost to rivals Real Madrid, this time on penalties after the game ended 1-1. Throughout this time, Atlético always felt like a team in transition. They didn’t have the spending power to match both Real and Barcelona and were constantly selling their best players. Their persona was the underdog against the big clubs, an identity moulded by Simeone’s tough gritty never-give-up mentality. This little tough club persona helped them collect a list of big results in the Champions League. However, in the last few years, various off-field deals have meant that Atlético can’t be considered a small club anymore.

Atlético have slowly made the transition from being a mostly selling club to becoming a buying club. In the summer of 2018, Atlético spent more than double on buying players compared to selling (approximately $177 million spent compared to $71 million made from sales). They spent a lot of money in the summer of 2019 as well including a lot on João Félix. Of course, a lot of money for those 2019 purchases was fuelled by the mega transfer sale of Antoine Griezmann to Barcelona. Still, they couldn’t be considered an underdog anymore. However, they haven’t come close to winning the La Liga title since 2014. They did manage to win the Europe League title in 2018 but no other major titles have arrived. Somehow, this lack of titles hasn’t appeared to diminish the allure of Diego Simeone. He is still regarded as a major manager and glowing articles about his ‘cholismo’ approach can still be found. His cult status hasn’t been tarnished but it is hard to see what his team offers in footballing terms. Simeone’s teams don’t play attacking or attractive football and in the last few years, his Atlético have mostly ground out 1-0 wins in La Liga, often scoring from set-pieces. This approach hasn’t brought titles and appears to have cemented his Atlético Madrid team as the third-best team in Spain. This is a far cry from the 2013/2014 season when his team were on the verge of a historic La Liga - Champions League double. To make matters worse, a closer look at his team’s results against Barcelona and Real Madrid in the league paint a very stark picture.

Under Simeone, Atlético have 0 wins, 11 defeats and 6 draws against Barca in La Liga. They did knock out Barca twice in the Champions League and won the league title at Barca’s stadium but no wins agianst Barca in the league. Against Real Madrid, Atlético are slightly better with 4 wins, 6 defeats and 7 draws in the league. Unfortunately, there are those 2 Champions League final defeats against Real. In all these years, his Atlético teams have undergone a drastic transformation but the poor results against the big 2 are the only constant along with lack of serious league title contention.

The 2019/20 season appeared to be heading towards another disappointment until Atlético turned back the clock and registered a shock win over the defending Champions League winners Liverpool at Anfield. The 3-2 win at Anfield was yet another typical Simeone performance: defend, defend and get a goal on the break. But after that Anfield game on March 11, global soccer came to a pause due to the Pandemic. When the Champions League finally resumed in August 2020, it was a single match tournament as opposed to the previous two-leg knock-out affair. If there was a team that appeared to be a favourite in a single leg Champions League run, it was Atlético Madrid. Yet, again they fell short. Inexplicably, Atlético lost 2-1 to RB Leipzig, a team that is even more inconsistent than Atlético.

The short 2020 off-season produced some drama in terms of player moves with Luis Suárez arriving in a shock move from rivals Barca while Thomas Partey moving in the last hours of the transfer day circus to Arsenal. In the 2020/21 season’s first game, it appeared that maybe, Atlético might be a team to watch because they trashed Granada 6-1 with Diego Costa, Angel Correa, João Félix, Marcos Llorente getting on the score-sheet before Suárez made an instant impact with 2 late goals. It looked to be a different Atlético team who actually attacked. However, normality was gradually resumed in the next 2 games which Atlético drew 0-0 against Huesca and Villarreal. It was just like the old days.

European soccer is becoming terribly predictable nowadays. In the German League, it is Bayern Munich who always take the title, no matter how the season goes. Bayern have won the title for the last 8 years and it doesn’t appear that anyone else can stop them. In Italy, Juventus look likely to win the league title like they have won for the past 9 seasons. In France, PSG will win the title. In Spain, either Real Madrid or Barcelona will win the title. And like every year, Diego Simeone’s Atlético will finish third. The German, Italian, French league titles can be explained. The ways of Barcelona and Real Madrid can be explained. But I can’t find a rational explanation for why Atlético Madrid continue to falter. They have had major players in all the right positions over the years but there is an invisible barrier preventing them from winning those major titles. The team only appear to turn up for some of the big games but in the regular league games in Spain, Atlético appears to be dull and unmotivated. Is this down to Diego Simeone’s approach of underdog vs big clubs which only appears to work sometimes in the Champions league? When Atlético are the favourites against a smaller club, his team fail to turn up. Is Simeone’s approach finally fading in a changing world, similar to what is happening with José Mourinho? It is hard to pin down exactly what is going on at Atlético Madrid. On paper, they should be winning a lot more games than they are. Diego Simeone looks as intense and stressed on the sidelines like he did 6 years ago. But something isn’t working and the mystery of Atlético Madrid’s results continues.