Ida

Set in Poland in 1962, Ida is a stunning, quiet film about an orphan who grew up in a convent is about  to take her vows. Her superior tells her she should meet her one living relative, an aunt before she takes her vows. The taciturn, obedient Ida agrees. 

Aunt Wanda turns out to be a judge whose personality is diametrically opposed to Ida’s. When Ida gets to Wanda’s apartment, Wanda’s lover leaves. Atheist Wanda smokes and drinks too much. Aunt Wanda tells Ida that her parents were Jewish and both were killed by the Germans in WWII along with Wanda’s infant son. They embark on a search through rural Poland for their graves. 

This journey changes both women, but not in predictable ways. it’s greatest strength is it’s cinematography. The black and white scenes are framed simply and elegantly. The story is minimal and the tension between aunt and niece is compelling. There were a few incidents that seemed implausible, but on the whole the film is well worth a watch.

Stalker (1979)

If you give it a chance, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker mesmerizes and baffles. Made in the USSR in 1979, the Stalker takes place in a decaying, post-apocalyptic world that’s both repulsive and dripping in sludge yet hypnotic. 

Plot: In a dystopian city, two men, the Writer and the Professor, pay the Stalker to lead them into the forbidden Zone. If they can make it into the Zone into the inner sanctum, the Room the Stalker tells them their deepest desire will be fulfilled. Don’t worry the Writer is sharp enough to call the Stalker into question.

Every step of the way, they face danger. Violence? Imprisonment? It’s unspecified and you never see the who or what is the actual foe, which makes the tension all the higher. 

Thoughts:The dialog is poetic and philosophical. Throughout the story the men bicker, cheat and challenge each other. I did admire them for at least trying for more, for betterment despite being surrounded by the ugly and hopeless.

Writer (left), Stalker, Professor

Drenched, oily, dark, craggy the setting is incredible. Even in the Zone, the paradise they aimed for, the verdant fields are overgrown and look like Chernobyl 20 years after the nuclear disaster. There isn’t one inch of space that’s clean or inviting. And this atmosphere will haunt me and intrigue me.

I doubt this film could be remade by any other nationality. Every aspect is just so modern Russian. It visualizes what an oppressive, corrupt kleptocracy is: toxic, neglected, fetid, bleak.  

While the story is oblique and the characters, while sympathetic, are unlikeable, Stalker intrigued me so much that I’m sure I’ll watch it again and again. The visuals get inside your head, but not in a bad way.

Stalker is a challenging film. It often moves slowly, but the camera work of these slow scenes is tremendous. The frame of the story, particularly with Stalker’s mutant daughter who may have paranormal powers, mystifies rather than enlightens, but Tarkovsky makes it work. Few could.

Cold War (2018)

Set in the 1950s and 60s Paweł Pawlikowski’s, Cold War tells a tumultuous love story. When Wiktor tours the countryside scouting proletarian folk singers for a touring company he’s captivated by Zula, a young woman with a history. Though she’s rather sneaky in getting chosen, she becomes part of the group and becomes Wiktor’s lover. Things go fairly well till Zula tells Wiktor that she’s snitching on him to the Communist Party leaders. Wiktor must leave and Zula winds up abandoning him. 

The film follows the couple as they reunite, betray each other, marry other people, live in other countries and reunite again. Like many passionate characters their emotions are rarely even keeled. I was surprised to learn that Pawlikowski’s based the film on a calmer version of his parents’ love. 

Folk, jazz, Italian and French music enhances the film. I never thought I’d enjoy Soviet era Polish folk music, but it’s energy and fresh feel were easy to like. On top of that the young, innocent girls dancing in their full skirts entertained. Dialogue is minimal so the music fills a void. 

The use of black and white film with few grays portrayed the bleak era, where surveillance was ubiquitous and the secret police would track an exile down across Europe. 

The only quibble I had with the film was that it seemed rather odd that every now and then Wiktor would refer to Zula as the love of his life. I just don’t think people tell train conductors or people you have no lasting relationship with that sort of thing. People would say, “I’m looking for my girlfriend” or something. I was even more incredulous when Wiktor’s in bed with his French girlfriend and she asks him where he was. He replies that he’s been with the love of his life. The French woman doesn’t flinch. But it’s a minor problem in the scheme of things. For some reasons, though the two main characters are not lovable to me as people, the film does work.

I urge you to get the DVD from the library as I did so you can watch the extras. The Criterion Collection DVD includes the Cannes Film Festival panel interview, a short documentary on making the film and an interview with Pawiklowski, who wrote and directed Cold War. 

La Dolce Vita

Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita follows the decadent Odyssey of Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni). A gossip columnist, Marcello is steeped in the playboy, celebrity culture. He’s got a suicidal fiancée and a couple lovers. All are beautiful; none are happy. The film follows Marcello as he seeks out scandals to write about and outrageous parties. 

Marcello is looking for meaning, half-heartedly, but he is looking. He’s offended when people point out that he’s sold out by writing sensational stories for tabloids, but he doesn’t exert any effort to change. He’s full of excuses and charm, which serves him well enough.

Fellini offers beautiful people in beautiful scenes, but none has any sort of world view, philosophy or religion that guides them. Their lives are like one long series of college Saturday nights where kids wander about aimlessly looking for the pleasure they thought college nightlife offered. Instead they see emotional break downs, pleas for attention, and melodrama. 

Released in 1960, this film was fresh as it didn’t have the usual plot structure or protagonist who overcomes the typical obstacles. La Dolce Vita was more psychological and existential. It’s worth seeing for its artistic merit, but though I admire it, La Dolce Vita it’s not a film I’d call a favorite I want to see again and again. 

Beijing Subway

What’s it like to work or volunteer for the Beijing Subway? A friend of my friend finds out.

Kudos to this brilliant expat who worked so hard to show us this side of city life.

Wings of Desire (1987)

Wim Wenders fascinated me with his Wings of Desire. This story of and angel, who wants to become human to experience human life is light on plot and on desire. Middle aged angel, Damiel slowly moves through Berlin, observing humans with compassion. At times he and his angel friend Cassiel do console or guard a frail human, but it’s with a light touch. Sometimes they succeed, but not always.

The film’s plot line is lax and the tone mellow. There’s no Hollywood hero with a high-level desire who speeds through the story facing obstacles till he wins in the end. Here a pensive angel wonders about humanity. A female trapeze artist catches his eye. He’d like to meet her, to woo her, but he lives in a different realm and faces few personal obstacles. Aristotle would have tightened things up, for sure.

Wings of Desire.mkv_snapshot_01.28.55_[2011.11.16_22.17.18]

The film, which was produced without a script, captures all manner of emotions and small experiences. It delights with beautiful images and no over-the-top special effects. The effects are made as they would be in the 1920s with the camera used to its utmost. We’re won over with simplicity and that was a joy.

The angels could change at will and it wasn’t hard to do so. Peter Falk plays an actor whom Dameil meets now and then. It turns out Falk’s character is a former angel so he mentors Damiel a bit. Again everything’s done with a light touch and Wings of Desire is as much an homage to old Berlin as it is a story of an angel.

marion

I watched while listening to Wim Wenders’ commentary which included some discussion with Peter Falk. Wenders talks at length about how he can’t film with a script and how he prefers the uncertainty of taking an idea and creating the story day by day. I can’t imagine a studio today to allow such a thing. Also Wenders commented on sights featured in the film and how they’ve disappeared or changed. His love for Berlin was deep and lasting.

I could see people who expect the usual obstacles and the usual ending to a romance to be disappointed, but I was willing to take in the gorgeous images and see where the film would go. So few films meander as much that I felt I could indulge Wenders.

I am Waiting

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Another film in Criterion’s Nikkatsu (Studio) set is I am Waiting (1957). Directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara, I am Waiting tells the story of an ex-boxer who rescues a young woman from suicide. She couldn’t take working at a mobster’s low-end bar anymore. Her savior offers her a safe place to live and work at his restaurant. She gets happier, and calmer.

This nice guy dreams of joining his brother in Brazil, where the brother has bought a farm. Time passes and there’s no word from the brother. About the time the nice guy, whom we learn was a prize-fighter reveals that he wants to escape his guilt for killing a man in a fist fight. The club owner any lackeys find a girl at the restaurant. This mobster figures the girl owes him two years worth of work performing in his club. Despite her disgust, she agrees to return to protect the nice guy. 

Then the guy starts retracing his brother’s footsteps and discovers the brother never got on the ship to Brazil. The nice guy deducts if there’s a connection between his brother’s disappearance and the mobsters. 

I enjoyed the plot in performances particularly those of the lead man and woman. The film never got sappy or simpleminded it’s portrayal of this couple. I wouldn’t call this a thriller, it was definitely noir with plenty of dark, inky shadows.

The story was absorbing and my heart went out to all the beautiful losers, nice guy, the girl he rescued and the doctor cum mentor, who drank too much.

 

Andrei Rublev

At 3 hours 25 minutes long, Andrei Tarkovsky’s (The Passion of) Andrei Rublev is a challenging movie with a narrative structure that’s as far from a Hollywood film as can be. I don’t think I’d say I liked the film, but I will say it impressed me and challenged me. I found it powerful and challenging.

Divided into eight parts, Andrei Rublev sheds light, rather than chronicles as biopics usually do, on the foremost Medieval Russian icon painter. First we see a prologue when a 15th century Russian peasant struggles to fly in a hot air balloon. He’s a true explorer, a risk taker, a visionary. Yet his experiment takes strength and sweat to get off the ground. A mob of peasants curses this endeavor and tries to thwart it by fighting with the ballooner’s assistants who’re steadying the ropes holding the balloon and then trying to blind an assistant by assaulting him with a firebrand into “his mug.” (Thankfully, that took place off camera.)

Yet where was Rublev? Not in the prologue. In fact there are long sequences when we don’t see the painter/monk much or even at all. Tarkovsky preferred poetry and themes to plot points and explication. That’s what makes him interesting and also hard to follow. I’m used to directors who spell things out so at the beginning I was especially unmoored.

Rublev lived in a tough time. His times had Tatar and Slavic marauders were a threat. Poverty and famine were too. On top of this, the pensive Rublev was plagued with big theological questions and the question of pure art. Nothing was easy. His fellow monks and disciples/apprentices questioned him and rebelled. His mentor challenged his motives and ideas. The Tsar would have your head if the commission wasn’t done. Nothing was easy.

The film is a marathon and I admit I watched this 3 hour 25 minute film in chunks over a course of days. It drained me, but that was okay as the masterful cinematography and this look at a time in history was fresh for me. While Andrei Rublev doesn’t purport to be a biography or historical film, since much of the story is fiction, it did rid me of any stereotypes. For example there’s a peasant girl who is rescued by Rublev, but when she meets the marauding Tatars and one of them want to take her to be wife #7 or 8, this simple Russian girl is willing to up and leave with the tribe that teases her. Rublev tries to save her, but she won’t have it. No, she wants to go off with the Tatars who treat her like a toy. Huh. You just wouldn’t see that in most films.

The film ends with a sequence of scenes where a boy*, whose homeland is a wasteland and whose family — parents, sister, uncles, aunts, etc — have died from the plague, convinces the monks that his father passed on the secret to bell making. He can cast the church bell the Grand Prince wants. It’s a testament to filmmaking that I found the mission of casting a bell so fascinating. It helped that the mission was a life or death endeavor. The prince made it clear that if the bell didn’t ring, the boy would be beheaded.

*The boy in this sequence was played by the same actor who starred in Ivan’s Childhood.

If you’re up for a big challenge, do watch Andrei Rublev. Know that you’re in for a beautiful film, but it’s long and somewhat confusing. If you aren’t, well this week I’m taking it easy with an old W.C. Fields film and that might be the way you’d like to go.

By the way,

  • You can find a detailed description of the plot on Wikipedia;
  • I found the commentary after I saw the film and wished I had watched with that turned on;
  • The film, as you might imagine, was banned in Russia for a number of years. It was shown in France and had to be shown outside the Cannes Competition at 4am.