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Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Il Posto

 Il Posto (1961, Italy, Ermanno Olmi)

The great Italian director Ermanno Olmi, who sadly passed away in 2018, is more famously associated with his 1978 Palme d’Or winning The Tree of Wooden Clogs. However, it is his 1961 Il Posto (which won the Italian critics’ award at Venice Film Festival) that is a personal favourite. The film won my 2014 Movie World Cup beating out Robert Bresson’s L’Argent 5-3. I recently revisited the film to see how it holds up.

Il Posto brilliantly depicts the journey of young Domenico (Sandro Panseri) entering the workforce with precise detail starting with the stress associated with writing an exam to nervous anticipation of a job interview to the fate that awaits when one gets the job; the dreaded office desk where a person can spend decades sitting in one spot. 

A promotion means a person moves up just one spot to a desk nearer to the front.

As Il Posto shows, this front desk has more light while the desk at the back of the room is partially dark. Using such a simple technique of depicting rows of desks lit differently, Olmi is able to highlight the hierarchy and seniority that exists in offices. Of course, a variation in other companies is that a promotion signifies moving to a better cubicle or an office with a window. 

Olmi also manages to incorporate plenty of tiny details that highlight workplace rituals and customs while portraying differences in big city life vs a smaller town. Domenico lives in Meda, a small town, on the outskirts of Milan. Time has no meaning in Meda while the pace of life slower with horse-carts still visible. However, the pace of life in Milan is faster and life is dictated by the clock. Domenico quickly learns this as he has to wake up early to catch the train to get to his job interview in Milan.

In the office, the clock dictates everything. If one is late to office, then a late slip has to be signed by the big boss.
As soon as the clock indicates lunch time, everyone rushes out to grab a bite to eat before they have to return back.
And then there is the waiting for the clock to indicate the end of the work day.
Il Posto also lovingly incorporates elements of romance and the excitement, hesitation, jealously, waiting and expectation that comes with meeting someone. Olmi’s beautiful film was made back in 1961 but it will always be contemporary as long humans have to find a job or have to seek out a companion.
I absolutely loved watching this film again and appreciated many of the details I missed seven years ago. Of course, all these details were always in the film. This line from Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory applies to my heightened appreciation:

“The film is the same….It’s your eyes that have changed.”


Tuesday, March 30, 2021

A Machine to Live In

 A Machine to Live In (2020, USA, Yoni Goldstein/Meredith Zielke)


A city is made by its people, within the bounds of the possibilities that it can offer them: it has a distinctive identity that makes it much more than an agglomeration of buildings. Climate, topography and architecture are part of what creates that distinctiveness, as are its origins. Cities based on trade have qualities different from those that were called into being my manufacturing. Some cities were built by autocrats, others have been shaped by religion. Some cities have their origins in military strategy or statecraft. — The Language of Cities, Deyan Sudjic

All cities have their own unique identity even though a city may have many common elements with other cities. When people use words such as “City of Love”, “City of Dreams” or “City that never sleeps” to describe a city, it isn’t just one aspect that causes a city to get such a label. Instead, it is the overall essence of a city and the feeling it generates that cause people to label a city. Sometimes, the description of a city is amplified by paintings, literature, films, music or political/social acts that cause people to associate a city in a certain way.

What to make of Brasilia, the capital city of Brazil?

 

When I first saw pictures of Brasilia years ago, my first thought was the city wasn’t real. It didn’t look like it was constructed by humans but instead felt like an extraterrestrial city. It turns out I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Yoni Goldstein and Meredith Zielke’s A Machine to Live In looks at Brasilia from various angles and tries to capture some of the realities, myths and cultish beliefs about the city.

A Machine to Live In isn’t a pure documentary but feels like a docu-fiction hybrid, especially since the film defies genres due to its multiple tones and cinematic references. In some moments, the film takes on a serious tone in highlighting discussions of aliens and Brasilia’s architecture. And then a few moments later, the entire tone feels similar to that of Todd Haynes’ Safe in highlighting the frauds who have their own agenda in perpetuating certain beliefs.

The film has many quotes from Oscar Niemayer, one of the chief architects of Brasilia, and the brilliant writer Clarice Lispector which lends gravitas to proceedings while the hypnotic music coupled with stellar images produces a trance like impact.

The end result is a film that aligns more with a dreamy vision of Brasilia even though the camera is looking at the real city itself and features some of the residents who toil away in the city.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Notturno

Notturno (2020, Italy/France/Germany, Gianfranco Rosi)


Gianfranco Rosi’s Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea) depicted the arrival of refugees to the Italian island of Lampedusa. So it made sense that his follow-up film would go further and examine where the refugees are coming from. Rosi could have gone to Africa but instead he traveled to the Middle East for Notturno.

As the opening credits inform us, Notturno was “shot over the past three years along the borders of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria, and Lebanon.”

That is the only bit of geographical guidance the film gives. After that opening, we are plunged into various unnamed locations providing glimpses of tragedy, ruins, heartbreak and people deploying creative means of survival.

A mother mourning her son. Collapsed buildings, broken roads.


Women forced to fight. Soldiers defending borders while waiting. Endless waiting.
 

The collapsed buildings and empty streets mean displaced people forced to live in refugee camps.

We also see some of those terrorists/criminals responsible for the fighting in prison.

It becomes apparent from watching events unfold that even if all the fighting ended tomorrow, it would take decades before people can get back to any form of normality. In one of the most heartbreaking depictions, we see children recalling images of destruction, violence and losing loved ones. This shows the multi-generational impact of violence where a new generation is born without a home and knowing only war. Memories of this war will be passed down to their offspring. A chain of events that will take a lot of work to break.

The violence continues while the Western World turns a blind eye, even though the Western World is responsible for the mess in the first place.

At the start of the film, the following words appear:

“After the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the end of the First World War, the colonial powers sketched out new borders for the Middle East.

Over the following decades, greed and ambition for power gave rise to military coups, corrupt regimes, authoritarian leaders and foreign interference.

Tyranny, invasions and terrorism fed off each other in a vicious circle, to the detriment of the civilian populations.”


On first glance, these are accurate words that describe the situation in an objective manner. No taking of sides, no casting blame on colonial powers or the Western nations.

These politically correct words signal the film’s intent. The purpose of Notturno isn’t to place blame but instead to illustrate a state of things. The words “the detriment of the civilian populations” emphasize that the film will cover how citizens have been impacted by the power games that are still playing out in the Middle East. And that is what the film does. It shows suffering of everyday people and how their lives are still impacted.

A play in the film has words and images which provide some historical context on how events unfolded in Iraq. However, those brief dialogues and archival footage don't even scratch the surface.

Who is playing the power games in the Middle East? Answering this question is not the purpose of this film. For that, one has to dig deep in the words “foreign interference”.

These two words don’t even come close to describing the situation that continues to unfold in the Middle East because they don’t describe how decades of political assassinations and foreign supply of arms and money have destabilized the Middle East.

“Over the following decades, greed and ambition for power gave rise to military coups, corrupt regimes, authoritarian leaders and foreign interference.”

Will audience in Western nations understand who is referred in “greed and ambition for power”? The Western nations are still implicated by these words along with Middle Eastern dictators, governments and terrorist organizations.

Rosi shot the film himself and Notturno is packed with stunning images that pose relevant questions. There is beauty to be found amid the ruins and a world constantly aflame and echoing with sounds of gunfire. One haunting segment shows how the burning oil wells light up the night sky allowing a local to go duck hunting. As the world burns around him, he quietly goes about his way.