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Akai satsui (1964)
In detailed fashion, the film investigates the troubled psyche of a dull, uneducated lower-class housewife in a backward northeastern, province. The woman is so stupid that she is scarcely aware of the drabness of her life with a petty, bickering husband and his whining mother, or of her own thwarted sensuality.
One night, left alone in the house, she is awakened by a wild-eyed lunatic, brandishing a knife and demanding money. The sight of her ripe young body, trembling with terror, soon changes his mind. He forgets the robbery and rapes her.
The next morning, gathering her ravished self together, the woman mumbles to herself that she really ought to commit suicide. Then she sneezes.
Finding self-destruction unexpectedly difficult, she wonders if she should tell her husband what has happened. Somehow, she has a feeling he wouldn't understand. She scarcely understands herself.
To her confused surprise, life goes on. Then the rapist returns. She resists a little less.
Before long, she is wandering through the streets in search of him. This time, she tells herself, she really must persuade him to leave her alone.
The director, Shohei Imamura, has something deeper than shock effects in mind. His theme is natural instinct versus social convention, and his approach is original. Despite the handicaps of Japanese slowness and a fantastic ending that resolves the situation so neatly that it tends to blunt the message, he has designed an arresting and provocative film.
FOR much of its inordinate length, this Japanese drama is a strange and fascinating film.
Its lurid title, "Unholy Desire," suggests violence and sensationalism. On that score, for once, the plot fully lives up to expectations. It is an authentic shocker.
Much of its interest comes from Masumi Harukawa's remarkable performance as the wife. Instead of the usual sensuous movie actress discovering amour, she is a fat, foolish, ploddingly passive creature—the last woman one would expect to awaken to violent passion. The conflict between her wildly perverse instincts and her complacent demeanor is a creative and comic conception.
Shigeru Tsuyoguchi is disconcerting as the rapist, and Akira Nishimura's weak and faithless husband, finally defeated by the unsuspected vitality of his cowlike wife, is a well-shaded characterization. The director, who attracted some attention here with his odd "The Insect Woman," sometimes errs on the side of artiness, but he reveals a distinctive talent.
Le trou (1960)
THE limited possibilities of making drama out of
THE limited possibilities of making drama out of attempted prison breaks have been worked so often and so astutely in the congenial medium of films that it is amazing to find the subject handled again with genuine tension and even some originality. Yet that is what the late Jacques Becker had done in his last French film, "The Night Watch".
Exercising the greatest economy of situation and character, which is to say that he has fetched his whole drama from five men in a Santé Prison cell, he has worked up a "big house" cliff-hanger that throbs with excitement and suspense and, at the same time, offers some stabbing insights into the anxieties and energies of imprisoned men.
His story, derived from a novel by José Giovanni entitled "Le Trou" ("The Hole"), which in turn was based upon an actual attempted escape from the famous Paris jail, is simply that of the daring, tedious labors through which his five prisoners go in hacking and sawing and digging a complicated escape route out of their common cell.
It is a standard dramatic sequence of familiar prison-escape incidents, such as the first uncertain maneuver of chopping a way through the concrete cell floor, then finding a way out of the chamber into which they unwittingly drop, and then on through the dark and twisting passages of underground corridors and sewers. All the perilous digging and exploring are done at night, with the men idling by day in their cell.
But Mr. Becker and those who worked with him have done such a studied, skillful job of documenting the details of this sequence with such brilliant photographic exactitude that the viewer is quickly pulled into the adventure and made to feel a very participant in it.
For instance, the task of hacking through the concrete floor is not a passing effort that is told with a quick few shots and a few dissolves. It is made a tremendous labor of many minutes (that seem endless hours) of hacking and scooping out debris while one of the men watches for the guards and all exhaust themselves completely before the hole is broken through.
Mr. Becker has used the technique of close-ups to great effect. Iron doors and locks picked out in the darkness by the flickering light of a cellmade candle loom large. Faces and hands laboring diligently are expressive of massive toil in the close view. So immediate is the contact of the audience with the job that one can often expect his own forehead to break out in a hot or cold sweat.
The actors, none of whom are familiar, play their roles with such simple, natural force that they become not only bold adventurers but also deeply appreciable friends. Jean Keraudy and Philippe Leroy are the intrepid leaders of the group. Raymond Meunier and Michael Constantin are the gangsters and clowns. And Mark Michel is the young fellow who has the toughest time of establishing himself with his cellmates and has to bear the brunt of an ironic plot-twist at the end. Minor roles of guards and wardens are played convincingly.
This is obviously the sort of melodrama that will never be confused with the works of the French New Wave, but it should engross those who like straight torment.
The English subtitles are good.
Spiklenci slasti (1996)
Ordinary People Acting Out Extraordinary Fantasies
To describe Jan Svankmajer's film ''Conspirators of Pleasure'' as a live-action cartoon is a little like calling James Joyce's ''Ulysses'' a salty Irish yarn. One of the world's most renowned animators, Mr. Svankmajer, a Czech, is a surrealist visionary whose movies featuring clay figures, marionettes, dolls and eerily life-infused everyday objects have the intensity of fiendishly witty nightmares.
''Conspirators of Pleasure,'' his mostly silent, third feature film, explores the secret erotic fantasies of a group of ordinary Prague residents whose paths are continually crossing. Although it has its quotient of dolls and mannequins, it features six actors whom the director manipulates like animated characters. As they go about their daily routines, they furtively accumulate a bizarre assortment of items that they use to act out elaborately kinky autoerotic rites.
Mr. Peony (Peter Meissel), a mild-mannered bachelor, asks his next-door neighbor Mrs. Loubalova (Gabriela Wilhelmova) to slaughter a chicken for him. After using the carcass as a model to construct a papier-mache rooster's head from torn-up pornographic photos, he glues on the chicken feathers and fashions bat wings out of cut-up umbrellas. Donning the rooster head, into which he has carved eye holes, and strapping on the bat wings, he metamorphoses into a ludicrous predatory bird that murders a life-size effigy of the woman next door by levitating and dropping a papier- mache rock onto her head.
Mrs. Loubalova harbors a similarly homicidal lust for Mr. Peony. In a quasi-religious ceremony conducted in a candlelit crypt, she first whips, then drowns his effigy by repeatedly dunking its head into a basin.
The solo rituals of four other obsessive fantasists are interwoven with those of Mr. Peony and Mrs. Loubalova. Mrs. Malkova (Barbora Hrzanova), the neighborhood mail deliverer, shreds the insides of a loaf of bread into round little balls that she voraciously sucks into her nose through tubes.
Mr. Kula (Jiri Labus), the newspaper vendor from whom Mr. Peony buys his girlie magazines, constructs a Rube Goldberg-like contraption attached to his television set that massages him when his favorite news announcer, Mrs. Beltinska (Anna Wetlinska), delivers the nightly news. While he ardently kisses the screen on which she appears, she achieves orgasmic bliss by having her toes sucked by two pet fish concealed under her desk in a tub. Meanwhile, her husband, the police commissioner (Pavel Novy), sneaks off to indulge in his own masochistic rite, vigorously scrubbing his body with rolling pins covered with feathers and nails.
''Conspirators of Pleasure,'' whose final credits acknowledge inspirations that include Sigmund Freud, Max Ernst, Luis Bunuel and the Marquis de Sade, is seriously funny and cheekily subversive. In having its six characters be ordinary people with extraordinary fantasies, the film portrays the erotic impulse of everyday life as a wild, chaotic, antisocial force that lends people their sense of individuality.
But Mr. Svankmajer's vision is much more than a surrealistic rendering of standard Freudian notions of repression and sublimation. Encountering one another through the day, these obsessive ritualists exchange the sly, knowing glances of conspirators in a political plot. Not only do they recognize one another as ''freaks,'' to use contemporary parlance, but their unquenchable perversity also unites them in a shared resistance to the puritanical conformism of Eastern European culture (or at least that culture before the fall of Communism).
Their pleasure-seeking also involves covert collaboration. For example, the bread balls that Mrs. Malkova sucks into her nostrils feed the fish that nibble on Mrs. Beltinska's toes.
The technique of the film is as sly as its characters. At first you have no idea why these people are accumulating such an odd assortment of items. As the pace quickens, the film coaxes the viewer into becoming a voyeur and tacit collaborator in these pseudo-pornographic scenarios.
Ultimately, a real crime is committed that eerily mirrors the zany erotic games that have come before. Having celebrated its characters' erotic fantasies, the movie reminds us that the line separating kinky fantasies from heinous real-life crimes can be awfully thin.
No Exit (1962)
endless self-lacerating talk
JEAN-PAUL SARTRE'S cheerless thesis that the only thing wrong with the world is the people in it is rendered acutely plausible in the film of his one-act play, "No Exit".
By the time the three doomed and bitter persons who constitute the articulate population of the playone man and two vicious women, locked in a room in hellhave finished an hour and a half of snarling and verbally ripping one another to shreds, raking the coals of their spent lives and exposing their hot and hidden shames, the reasonably normal viewer is likely to feel he's in the hot place himself and be convinced that mankind is so rotten that, at least, he should give up writing plays.
Now, this may be precisely the reaction that Mr. Sartre wished and the film's director, Ted Danielewski, labored to stimulate. If so, they may have the satisfaction of knowing that this fairly faithful film has succeeded in infecting at least one viewer with incipient misanthropy.
But they should also know that the infection is not due solely to the persuasiveness of the play. It is due in some measure to the inertia and tediousness of the film.
Where Mr. Sartre's three-person discourse runs for less than an hour on the stage (which is long enough for anybody to have to listen to three actors talk), it is padded with more talk and business so that it runs a half-hour longer on the screen. Yet it reveals nothing more about the characters than is spewed out by them on the stage.
They are still three pretentious, poisonous persons who have failed in their lives on earth and are obviously doomed to endless failure with one another in this closed and barren room. The man is a revolutionary journalist who tries to deceive himself with the illusion he died a hero, when the fact is he was shot in cowardice. One of the women is a selfish social climber who has lovelessly married an older man, murdered her an older man, murdered her a lover to suicide. And the other woman is a ferocious cynic and an acknowledged lesbian who has taken her own life in sheer frustration and vicious contempt for mankind.
Locked in this sterile chamber, they are their own torturers. And the instrument of their torture is their endless self-lacerating talk. Insofar as their slashing conversation does lead the listener on into a maze of psychological involvements and a state of intellectual suspense, there is a certain cerebral interesteven excitementin the film. It does trace an intellectual mystery to a chilly intellectual expose.
But the whole thing is so antiseptic and is directed so stagily by Mr. Danielewski that it is visually monotonous on the screen. And the acting of Viveca Lindfors, Rita Gam and Morgan Sterne is necessarily so aggressive and yet so bloodless and emotionally withdrawn that the actors could as well be lying on couches, shouting at one another from there, for all the sense of personal conflict and menace that comes from them.
Furthermore, in his screenplay, George Tabori has done a cinematically natural thing that actually dissipates a valuea very strong valuein the play. He has inserted pantomimed flashbacks of experiences the characters verbally describe, so that frequently the viewer is taken outside the barren room. While this does give a little visual movement and glints of melodrama to the film, it relieves the horrible sense of inescapable confinement that is the most shattering effect of the play.
But, at least, this proves that "No Exit" is inappropriate material for a full-length.
Russians in Space A Science-Fiction Parable on the Nature of Mankind
A nation's image of outer space reflects itself. Jules Verne's moon train was a small wagon-lit. American science-fiction movies stress the gleaming pipes and dials, a kind of hi-fi waterworks. Andrei Tarkovsky's "Solaris," gives us Russian outer space.
I say Russian rather than Soviet because this complex and sometimes very beautiful film is about humanity but hardly at all about politics.
In any case, the space station on the planet Solaris has an absent-minded neglect about it that could have come straight out of Dostoyevsky's study. There is a suspicion of rust on the pipes, and the furniture would look at home in the Omsk railroad station. One has the feeling that wrappers of half-eaten sausage are lying just out of sight and that a samovar is at work. Outer space is shabbiness, lots of tea and urgent philosophical discussions that leave no time for shaving.
Nothing that's visible matters very muchexcept for nature: shots of a pond of water weeds of a running horseand life's surface are quite unimportant. Because of it, the blockish camera work, the egg-like colors and the general visual poverty are almost irrelevant. What matters is the conversations, the problems they raise, the faces that reflect them, seen blurrily as if at the end of an all-night session.
Mr. Tarkovsky, who is known here for a truncated version of "Andrei Rublev," made "Solaris" from the novel by the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem. It is science-fiction in the formal sense of the word; in substance, it is a parable about the nature of mankind.
Set in some future time, it is about the voyage of Chris Kelvin to the space station on the planet Solaris. The Academy of Sciences has found no profit in the long studies made of the planet. Chris's mission is to talk with the three scientists at the station and to report on closing it down.
The surface of Solaris is something like a sea, a great pulsating mass. A previous scientist, Burton, has come back in severe nervous shock; he believes that it may not be a sea but a superior order of consciousness, a great brain, in fact. Chris, a haunted but practical man, a missioner of human progress, is prepared to order a final experiment: a massive infusion of radiation into the "sea."
Burton, now older, is horrified. "You must not destroy what you don't understand," he says. Chris's father, a solitary, severe man, is also appalled. "Space is too fragile for your kind," he says.
The whole long, strange trip develops the theme. Mankind, with its aggressive expansionism intellectual as well as materialdestroys more than it finds. Chris is the practical man who, by the film's end, will be converted.
He finds that the space station, that summit of technology, is a heart of darkness. All three scientists there have been shattered by encountering the mystery of the planet. Solaris is, in fact, a great consciousness. Thought is made reality there, including the deepest thoughts of its visitors.
One has killed himself, leaving behind an obscure message on videotape for Chris. As he explores the decrepit space stationalmost visibly rusted by the presence of a greater realityChris finds the other two. Sartorius, who will not accept what he can't understand, barricades himself in his laboratory surrounded by dwarfshis thoughts made substance. Snouth, more innocent and hopeful, drinks a lot, but his visitors are children.
Chris has arrived with the suicide of his wife, Hari, on his conscience. Hari begins, nevertheless, to visit him. She is not an apparition; she is a yearning that the Solarian sea has given substance and builtthe other scientists explainof neutrinos. But she becomes more and more human until, in an act of abnegation, she asks to be destroyed so Chris can return to earth.
Put in summary, the plot may seem ludicrous. "Solaris" has its problems. Its rhythm is slow, and sometimes is extinguished altogether. The narrative can be difficult to grasp. Finally, as the film draws into conclusion, the parable seems to unclothe; the sense of wonder that Mr. Tarkovsky has created yields to a certain didacticism.
All of these drawbacks must be cited provisionally. "Solaris," whose mystical, totally nonmaterialistic character has won it no other favor in the Soviet Union than the permission to exist, is on DVD in a severely truncated form. The original was reportedly four hours long; a second version, shown in Cannes and elsewhere at the time of its release, was 2 hours and 47 minutes. The version we are seeing is down to 2 hours and 12 minutes and the distributors, who received it that way, say they don't know whether Mr. Tarkovsky supervised the cuts before his death.
Obviously it is impossible to judge the pace, the rhythms and the clarity of a film that is cut nearly in half. It is like a fresco partly eaten away by rising damp.
The result must be viewed actively and with some effort. But if it is, the result is extraordinary enough to compensate. The film's great metaphorsthe faces of Donatis Banionis as Chris, Natalya Bondarchuk as Hari and Yuri Jarvet as Snouthinvolve us totally in the difficult mysteries. Like his Solarian sea, Mr. Tarkovsky has made ideas walk, breathe and move us.
Suna no onna (1964)
Adaptation of Japanese Novel Is Engrossing:Two-Character Movie
"Woman in the Dunes" proved to be a strongly allegorical, strangely engrossing film.
Based on a novel by Kobo Abé called "Woman in the Dunes" (also the title of the picture), it is a long, leaden, grueling account of the arguing and quarreling and lovemaking of a man and a woman trapped in a shack at the bottom af a sand pit amid some remote and desolate dunes. Despite its drabness and some tedium, it grips and agitates the mind.
It begins with the man, an entomologist collecting beetles on the dunes, being directed to the shack by anonymous people from whom he has sought shelter for the night. They lower him into the sand pit with a crude block-and-fall, and there he finds the shabby woman who willingly provides him with bed and board.
But when he is ready to leave the next morning, he finds he cannot get out without having a rope lowered to him by the people above. And they are either absent or are scornful and unwilling to help.
Then the woman tells him that they are eternally caught or, at least, must remain there at the will of the people above, who send them water and food. She explains, too, that she is resigned to existence under these circumstances. "Last year," she says, "a storm swallowed up my husband and child."
Further, she shows him the necessity of working hard every day to shovel out the sand that has fallen into the shack during the night.
Of course, the man is indignant. He rages and refuses to help. But slowly he makes his adjustment to this frustrating fate. As the picture progresses, he, too, becomes used to the pit, and at the end he does not want to leave it when he has a chance.
This is the barest outline of the plot of this more than two-hour film, which is crowded with harsh and subtle details of the personal relations of the two. But it is in the projection of these details, which have strong emotional and psychological significances, that the director, Hiroshi Teshigahara, has packed a bewitching poetry and power.
In describing, for instance, the manner in which the man becomes seduced by the physical presence of the woman, he works such subtle pictorial change that the bare body of the drab widow has a warm and attractive glow; and the physical act is suggested with such closeups of faces and limbs that a strong emanation of passion surges from the screen.
He also draws from his performers, Eiji Okada as the man (he played the lover in "Hiroshima, Mon Amour") and Kyoko Kishida as the woman, some sharp and devastating glints of anger sadness, compassion, gratefulness and despair. In a starkly atmospheric setting and with an eerie musical score, this drama develops an engulfing sense of spiritual discouragement and decay.
Obviously, it is intended to symbolize the absorption of man and the alienation of his spirit by all the demands and oppressions of his environment. The soul of the individual is clearly challenged in this existentialist realm, and it is reduced to resignation and surrender. Not a happy but a hypnotic film.
"Woman in the Dunes" took the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes festival at the time of its release.
Lo straniero (1967)
Visconti's 'The' Stranger'
"THE STRANGER," with Marcello Mastroianni,is a faithful pictorial representation of the Albert Camus noveland that's what causes the trouble.
The events of the story are depicted with scrupulous adherence to the facts. But Camus told a story that hinged on "interior" matters, not so much what happened, but what it meant to the laconic young Frenchman in Algiers who killed an Arab and was sentenced to be executed for his crime.
Mr. Mastroianni is a perfect representation of what one might imagine the hero to be handsome and not so much withdrawn from society as disengaged from it. Anna Karina plays Maria, the beautiful girl with whom he has an affair, in an earthy style that adheres to the manuscript with equal fidelity.
As produced by Dino De Laurentiis and directed by Luchino Visconti, the scenes are striking illustrations for the novel. The segments showing the young man attending his mother's funeral at an old-age home are especially well done. The soundtrack, in French, with typographical-error-laden English sub-titles, stays close to the words of Camus, with the star even reading some of the passages behind the film image because they cannot be acted.
But right there lies the big "but." The point of the story, or at least one of its points, is that man's fortune is decided by chance. This hangs over every line, the thought that one can do little to change things.
Even the senseless shooting of the Arab took place at an accidental, surrealistic moment, prompted by the oppressively hot sun. The death sentence results from the piecing together of incidental mishaps. There is here an undercurrent of Eastern fatalisminsh' Allah, God's willand French ie m'en fou-tisme, the hell with it all.
Camus has expressed this brilliantly in literary form. But translated into film here, the thoughts lose their dramatic impact, because they deal with intangibles that are not portrayable in traditional cinema terms. Because of this, "The Stranger" becomes stodgy and colorless, even in color.
Because "The Stranger" deserves so much more, it is all the more disheartening to see an effort so painstakingly loyal wash out as a mere story line.
Shinjuku dorobô nikki (1969)
Except for "Boy," the work of Nagiso Osima (born 1932) is scarcely known around the West though the film histories place him among the most important younger Japanese directors, regularly comparing him to Jean-Luc Godard, his near contemporary and an obvious influence on his style. I should say that Oshima is certainly influenced by Godardespecially in medium-distance shots. In long shots he is more often influenced by Michelangelo Antonioni. But in close-ups and in almost everything else he seems firmly and not too appealingly himself.
The burglar (Tadanori Yokoo), who, under duress, admits that his name is Birdey Hilltop, steals books good booksfrom a Tokyo bookstore. A girl (Rie Yokoyama), who says she's a clerk, catches him and turns him in to the boss. The boss doesn't care about the thefts and doesn't really believe the girl works for him, but he takes an interest in the young people anyway and attempts to straighten out their sex lives.
That is what the movie is all aboutstraightening out their sex livesthough incidentally it touches on a great many other things as well. For example, just as Birdey and his girl finally do straighten out their sex lives (she simulates hara kari using a little of her own blood, which happens to be the key to Birdey's heart) all hell breaks loose with a student riot in the Shinjuku section of Tokyo. That's how the movie ends.
But before it ends, Birdey and his girl have been through a variety of bizarre experiences that range from visits to an analyst (who analyzes transference of sexual roles and wants them to undress), to imitation rape (which turns out to be real when some onlookers get their signals crossed), to participation in a dramatic happening produced in a style that seems to combine traditional noh with guerrilla theater.
Some of the experiences are funny, as when the would-be lovers go to a pleasure house where attendants on the roof manufacture a rain shower timed just to the moment of passionate surrender. More often, the experiences are very dull, with an air of having been produced only for purposes of demonstration. Like the more recent Godard, Oshima's is a highly didactic cinema. But unlike any Godard, it seems impreciseand possibly less concerned with the quality of its thoughts than the momentary effectiveness of its images. The result is a high-powered sterility in the midst of much energetic busyness.
"Diary of a Shinjuku Burglar" has been photographed mostly in black and white, occasionally in color, and always with the sort of modish disjointedness that makes of the shock cut what the terrible zoom lens is to a different and less intellectual practice in movie making. I shouldn't want to dismiss Oshima on so little evidence, but I don't see that he has brought very much to this film beyond a skillful eye, a close familiarity with his betters and a lot of not very interesting ambitions.
Gorod Zero (1988)
From Russia, Kafka in Wonderland
Sitting in a nearly empty hotel dining room, a baffled engineer named Aleksei watches the waiter wheel a dessert cart to his table. "I didn't order dessert," Aleksei says, but this one was custom-made: a cake that stares back at him in the precise size, shape and color of his own head, right down to the lucid, light-blue eyes. Refusing a slice of his own nose, he ignores the waiter's warning that "the chef will kill himself." Bad choice. Even as he heads for the door, Aleksei hears a shot and turns to see the insulted pastry maker keel over right in front of the happily playing band.
This is just the start of the absurd intrigue in "City Zero," a deliciously cheerful satire about the legacy of Stalin, personal identity and the political importance of rock-and-roll.
Though its plot is Kafkaesque, its setting seems closer to Lewis Carroll's Wonderland than to Moscow. Karen Shakhnazarov, the director and co-writer, establishes a tone that is eerie without being sinister, and goes on to invent a story that is comic and fluent yet full of dangerous turns.
Arriving in a small town for a simple business meeting, Aleksei gets off the train from Moscow in beautiful, misty predawn light and total isolation. When he shows up for his meeting, he finds a secretary inexplicably naked at her typewriter, behavior no one else finds strange. He and the film get off to a shaky start here, but the satire is never again so sophomoric, the tone never again so jokey and wrong.
Instead, Aleksei is confronted with the twin cake and before long by investigators who wonder about his connection to Nikolayev, the dead chef he had never seen before. Why, for instance, did the chef have a photograph of Aleksei, which was inscribed "To my dear father," and signed "Makhmud"?
Aleksei's calm, baffled demeanor in the face of what seems like a town-wide conspiracy sets the film's effective, deadpan tone. He tries to leave, only to be told at the lonely train station that all the tickets to Moscow are sold. He takes a taxi to the next town in search of another train station, and instead finds a museum whose main attractions are a Trojan sarcophagus and a rock-and-roll tribute to the first couple in town who dared dance to "Rock Around the Clock." The dancing hero, then a 27-year-old secret police lieutenant, was Nikolayev.
Soon the stranger in town is lured into its ongoing political feud, between those who live in the Stalinist past and those who are desperate to catch up with the present. "The rehabilitation of rock-and-roll is of great political significance," the mayor tells Aleksei. Just pretend you're Makhmud, suggests the friendly president of the writers' association, so the compliant newcomer helps inaugurate the Nikolayev rock-and-roll club, standing on a stage between large photographs of his beloved dead father and of Elvis. This does him no good with the public prosecutor, who believes that Nikolayev was murdered and that rock-and-roll is an American devil that will ruin the country.
Mr. Shakhnazarov is a vibrant film maker who keeps introducing new and more troubling characters without letting the film's comic energy slow down. The lithe young woman who danced so infamously with Nikolayev 30 years before (seen in a vivid flashback) shows up at Aleksei's hotel room with her grown son and a tape player. Now sad, heavy and drab, she touchingly wants to dance with Aleksei, who, she says, is so much like Nikolayev he has "kept our ideals alive."
Gradually, Aleksei is robbed of his freedom and his identity. Yet even as he struggles to reclaim them he remains a figure of fun, less a symbol of his country than a hapless hero who has fallen down a rabbit hole.
In fact, the political allegory of "City Zero" is never as heavy as its Kafkaesque hero and its rock-and-roll feud make it sound. The film works perfectly well as a fast, funny tale of mistaken identity. But it has a resonance beyond its quick wit, for the style shrewdly mirrors the subject. The tone says, "It's only rock-and-roll," but "City Zone" gleefully depicts the innocuous mask political tyranny can wear.
La vie est un roman (1983)
'Life Is a Bed of Roses
ALAIN RESNAIS'S film ''Life Is a Bed of Roses'' is nothing if not elliptical.
''Life Is a Bed of Roses,'' which was written by the distinguished screenwriter Jean Gruault, can indeed be humorous. But it's liable to prompt at least as much head-scratching as laughter. Mr. Resnais and Mr. Gruault, who also collaborated so much more successfully on ''Mon Oncle D'Amerique,'' have made a far more precious and facetious film this time, one whose purposes are often far from apparent. In fact, their methods have become indirect to the point of near-perfect obliqueness.
''Life Is a Bed of Roses'' exists on three levels, each of a deliberate - and at times quite delightful - eccentricity. First of all, there is a World War I scenario, if ''scenario'' can properly describe the screenplay's bizarrely theatrical style. The wealthy Michel Forbek (played by the opera singer Ruggero Raimondi) announces plans to build what he calls ''The Temple of Happiness,'' a fanciful palace that is never completed.
Enough of this cheerfully weird structure is erected, however, for Forbek to stage an experiment therein. A group of his friends is isolated in the palace, dressed in flesh-colored silk robes and delicately coaxed back into an infantile innocence, or at least that is Forbek's intention. Cries of ''Love! Happiness!'' accompany the experiment, since most of the film's characters have the habit of bursting into saccharine song.
At what seems to be the present time, a different congregation assembles on the same spot. The castle has now become an educational institution, with a staff that praises the place as ''typical of early 20th-century symbolist architecture.'' A dashing architect (Vittorio Gassman) has another opinion. ''Is that thing edible?'' he asks. ''It's not architecture, it's pastry.'' Attending a weekend conference is a very naive creature who happens to be named Miss Rousseau (Sabine Azema), and who sweetly sings ''The man I'll fall in love with is not a bar of soap.'' (This is not the complete nonsequitur it sounds like.) Also on hand is Nora Winkle (Geraldine Chaplin), an American who appears dressed for combat and who makes a wager that she can orchestrate a love affair between two of the other participants. Nora, we are told, has ''dared to masquerade as a man and work in minus-81-degree weather to write the revolutionary report 'The Sexual Fantasies of James Bay Workmen.' '' Hers is by no means the most peculiar research represented here, since Robert Dufresne (Pierre Arditi) uses toys and frantic mocking gestures in his work with children. ''You have perfectly conveyed the substance of your work,'' remarks Robert's superior approvingly after a lunatic 10-second demonstration.
Also woven through ''Life Is a Bed of Roses'' is a medieval pageant, pitting a king against a heroic young warrior in a fanciful landscape.
Although ''Life Is a Bed of Roses'' has a deliberately distancing, non-realistic style, and although its uniquely skewed logic effectively prevents the audience from trying to regard it rationally, the film winds up more purely confounding than can have been intended. Arch little asides, like the abundant choral flourishes, cannot help but feel pointless without a clear sense of what they are departures from .
The film's ''variations on the theme of dominance,'' as Mr. Resnais described them, seem incompletely expressed. Despite the film's handsome look and its fine cast (Fanny Ardant also appears as a key figure in the World War I experiment), it's more memorable for various isolated witticisms and images than it is as a coherent whole. And its flightier touches can be deadly.
About the title, Mr. Resnais explained that ''Life Is a Novel'' is its French equivalent. French parents, he said, often tell their children that ''life is not a novel,'' in the same way that American parents declare ''life is not a bed of roses.'' For anyone wondering how pointlessly knotty the film itself can become, that's a fair indication.
Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (1972)
a splendid and haunting work
In 1560, not quite 20 years after the death of Francisco Pizarro, who had conquered Peru for Spain, an elaborately provisioned party of conquistadores set out from Quito to find the land of El Dorado. It was a fearful journey first to cross the Andes but even worse on the other side. Those who didn't starve, drown or die of fever in the Amazon jungles were in constant danger of being killed by Indians.
When it became apparent the entire expedition could not go on, a small task force was commissioned to continue down the Amazon for a week. In command were Pedro de Ursua and his aide, Lope de Aguirre, sometimes referred to in history books as Aguirre the Madman or Aguirre the Traitor. They never returned.
Exactly what happened afterward is unclear but it seems that Aguirre murdered Ursua, declared the little band's independence from Spain and crowned a man named Fernando de Guzman, the ranking nobleman among them, "Emperor of El Dorado." He eventually murdered Guzman and was himself murdered by his own men when they at last reached South America's northeast coast.
This story, one of the more bizarre and bloody footnotes to the history of the Spanish conquests, is the basis for Werner Herzog's absolutely stunning 1972 German film, "Aguirre, the Wrath of God". The movie was shot by Mr. Herzog ("The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser," "The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner," "Even Dwarfs Started Small") on locations of breathtaking beauty (and, I must assume, of horrendous difficulty) in South America, but it's no ordinary, run-of-the-rapids adventure.
"Aguirre, the Wrath of God" is simultaneously a historical film (to the extent that it follows events as they are known) and a meditation upon history. Aguirre is truly mad, but as played by Klaus Kinski, whose crooked walk and undiluted evil recall Laurence Olivier's Richard III, he is the essential civilized man, a fellow who, in Mr. Herzog's vision of things, must be lunatic.
There's an eerie moment in the middle of the film when the Emperor, sitting in rags under an improvised shade on the makeshift raft that is carrying the party down the Amazon, picks at his fish dinner (the other men are starving) and thinks with satisfaction that his "empire" is now six times as large as Spain's. No matter that he too may never eat again, nor that his empire is jungle swamp, the sense of power is so intoxicating that it overwhelms all other considerations.
It's as if Mr. Herzog were saying that civilization, our assumption that we have conquered nature or even come to some accommodation with it, is as ridiculous as the Emperor's pleasure.
From the film's opening sequence, when we see the conquistadores, their women (including Ursua's wife being carried in an elegant litter) and their Indian porters making their way down an Andean slope, looking like the inhabitants of an ant palace, to the concluding shots of Aguirre on his raft in the company of hundreds of tiny marmosets, Mr. Herzog views all the proceedings with fixed detachment. He remains cool. He takes no sides. He may even be slightly amused. Mainly he is a poet who constantly surprises us with unexpected juxtapositions.
The film is incredibly rich and lush looking. It is tactile. One can feel the colors of the jungle and see the heat. The conquistadores endure terrible trials, whirlpools, Indian attacks, rebellion within their own ranks, yet the mood of the film is almost languid. Ursua's faithful, loving wife, played by a classic beauty named Helene Rojo, throws no tantrums when her husband is executed. She watches and waits, and when the opportunity arises, she walks off to her own death in the jungle as if going to a tea.
Contrasting with this peculiar languor is the radiant madness of Aguirre, who hypnotizes his soldiers into following his wildest instructions, who sneers at men who seek riches when power and fame are all that matter, who aspires to be nothing less than the wrath of God and who, at the end, is planning to create a new dynasty by marrying his dead daughter. He's mad but he's a survivor.
This is a splendid and haunting work.
Faibles femmes (1959)
a minor ignominy of a French film
THREE of France's more attractive and unbash-young female stars are put to a minor ignominy in the French film, "Women Are Weak" ("Faibles Femmes"), an intended comedy in color. They are made tochase madly and shamelessly after a character, played by Alain Delon, who is supposed to be thoroughly fascinating, but, for our francs, is not.
This young man, whom some genius press agents of the time had helpfully tagged "the French James Dean," has long, silky hair, high cheekbones and a loose-jointed, soigné air. In close-ups (of which there are many), he smiles come-hitherly and generally is condescending towards the lovelies, who simply flip for him. He rides a motorcycle and affects the hauteur of a "cat." Under Michel Boisrond's intense direction, he is intensely the focus of the show.
But the point is too labored and obvious. The impression soon sets in that this is primarily an effort to promote a new glamour boy. And the fact that the rest of the picture, the story and dialogue, lacks subtlety and witis, indeed, downright foolish in its pretense of male attractivenessfinishes it.
There are other annoying aspects. It is apparent that producer Paul Graetz and M. Boisrond, the director, have endeavored to pump some cheap eroticism into it. There is a swimming-pool scene, full of young folk as near nudist as the law allows, which contains some rather seamy shenanigans between the hero and a newly married girl. And there is another scene in which the hero is pounced upon by the three dames and given such a rough-housing as might worry the circumspect.
Fortunately, the girls are fetching. Mylene Demonget is perhaps the most wholesome-looking and impressive. She is the beautiful blonde who was last seen here in "Witches of Salem." She's got the reach and everything on M. Delon. Pascale Petit is what her name saysa skinny little thing with a gamin air. She plays the girl, newly married, who still is a moth for her former flame. Jacqueline Sassard is the spiritual one, a plainly precocious convent girl who is led into mischief and expulsion by the hero's ineffable charm.
Obviously, all three of these young ladies are stronger than M. Delon. It is tiresome to see them wasting their strength on the likes of this film.
There are English subtitles, but they are no brighter than the script.
Un giorno in pretura (1954)
feeble collection of theatrical trivia
IF you want to see Sophia Loren as she was in her prime, when she was playing small roles in Italian movies but had an I'll-make-it look in her eyes, you might want to see one vignette in the four-episode Italian film, "A Day in Court".
It is a vignette in which Miss Loren plays a pocket-picking prostitute who carelessly lifts the wallet of a pleasant young priest in a bus. This leads to her pursuit, recriminations, a hassle between her procurer and the priest and a show-down session in the courtroom, which is the hub of the four episodes.
That's the extent of this small segment, and all Miss Loren has to do is pretend to some slight dramatic posturing and show off her nicely tailored form. But she does it about as nicely as a bit player might be expected to do, and the historic significance of the vignette is slightly enhanced by the presence of a youthful, smooth-faced Walter Chiari in the role of the priest.
But this very slim historic interest is the only recommendation to this film, which is a feeble collection of theatrical trivia, as it surely was when made in 1953 by Steno, a director distinguished mainly by his name. The various episodes, all flat and foolish, center in the court, presided over in serio-comic fashion by Peppino de Filippo as a municipal judge. Alberto Sordi, Tania Weber and Silvana Pampanini show up in other episodes, but you may be sure the film was not released in its time to capitalize on their attractiveness. You guess why that is.
Il cappotto (1952)
More than a hint of Charlie Chaplin in some of his memorable old roles wherein he conveyed a poignant notion of the ludicrous troubles of the little man is given by Renato Rascel in the Italian film, "The Overcoat".
This wistful picture treats a grim and saddening theme, even though it is done in a superior serio-comic style. It's a wonder the moths haven't got it. And that it doesn't deserve.
For this interesting Italian transposition of Gogol's semifarcical tale of the little man who was briefly elevated to a sense of importance by the possession of a new overcoat is, in many respects, an exciting and impressive piece of cinematic art, directed by Alberto Lattuada with uncompromising insight and skill.
How much of the film's insinuation derives from the sharp, sarcastic script of a corps of Italian screen-writers, how much from Rascel's apparent skill and how much from Lattuada's shrewd direction is a matter of minor concern. The fact that it is a brilliant picture, in its own special frame, is enough.
To be sure, the dramatic situation is both simple and of dubious appeal. A little clerk, tired of being pushed and badgered, puts his savings in a new overcoat. In it, he feels triumphant. He can walk down the street like a lord. He is confident with beautiful women, whom he previously yearned for from afar. Then his overcoat is stolen. Inevitably, he goes mad and dies. Briefly, his spirit haunts the people who had been cruel and haughty to him.
That is the situation. But the peculiar attractiveness of the film is in the sharpness with which it satirizes politicians and, indeed, society, and in the incisive humor of Rascel's Chaplinesque pantomime. There are scenes of magnificent humor, such as one in which the piteous little clerk reads back, with eloquence and gestures, some garbled dictation he has taken from his boss. Or the scene in which a grotesque tailor, played by Giulio Cali, fits him for the new overcoat. There also are scenes of scorching pathos and painful mockery. The sum total of them, as in a Chaplin picture, makes a haunting commentary.
Though artfully played and directed and well-furnished with English subtitles, the picture does have some limitations, so far as a wide American audience is concerned. It dwells at great length on the behavior of Italian bureaucrats, which is a little flossy for American fancy, and it is solemnly dreary toward the end. Plainly, it falls somewhere vaguely between "City Lights" and Murnau's "The Last Laugh." It is a picture more than well worth seeing. But be sure you are in the mood.
La lupa (1953)
preoccupations of the neo-realist
Among the intense preoccupations of the neo-realist boys in Italy are the animalistic aspects of the elemental urge. How lust can dehumanize people and drive them to rash and violent deeds is a subject of fierce fascination with the washline-and-undershirt school. Such is the sordid contemplation that is ravenously pursued in the Italian film, "La Lupa" ("The She Wolf").
Here, in a raw village setting that is powdered with the dust of the hot south and peopled with the blunt and earthy peasants that are legion in these fierce Italian films, Alberto Lattuada has projected a passionate and turbulent tale of a strange woman's utter ruination because of her hunger for men.
His heroine is a dark and brawny slattern who skulks about the town, drawing dirty remarks from the females and brazen suggestions from the males. In her attitude, it is evident that she holds her neighbors in contempt and maintains herself and her pretty daughter through the attraction she has for the local boss.
So it goes until there comes along a soldier, who, while willing to take her lustful love, finds himself so beguiled by the daugh-ter that he marries the girl and settles down. This is repulsive to mama, who bides her time until a baby is born, then she moves in and once again seduces her now somewhat restless son-in-law. Obviously, this upsets the daughter, and things are in a most disordered state, when mama finally surrenders to the porcine tobacco tycoon. Out of this comes vengeance and violence among the workers in the boss' factory, and the show ends with mama being burned up in a fire in the factory.
This wild tale of lust and retribution has been freely adapted from an old story by Giovanni Verga about the hot-blooded folks of Sicily. And Signor Lattuada has staged it in stark realistic style so that heat seems to rise from the stone streets and sweat pops from human pores. In the frequent encounters among the actors, clothing becomes undone and flesh is revealed in much abundance. So is blood and tears.
But the impact of this sort of drama invariably depends upon the essential and elusive credibility of the rugged performers in their roles. And it is in this critical area that "La Lupa" eventually falls down. Kerima, the big and swarthy actress who made her movie debut in "Outcast of the Islands", stalks through the role of the "she wolf" with her jaw set and eyes aflame, but the depth and extent of her passion is measured mostly by the amount of flesh she shows. Hers is a labeled characterization. You have to take her for what it says she is.
As the soldier who starts the family ruckus, Ettore Manni is a sturdy, handsome boy, with hair on his chest and bulging bicepsthings that the neo-realists love. But he, too, delivers a performance in a two-dimensional frame. And as the pure and innocent daughter, May Britt musters such a virginal air and a look of such absolute sweetness that she doesn't seem logical or real. However, Mario Passante is not only real but quite corrupt and wickedly unwholesome as the fat tobacco-factory boss.
In all this sordid demonstration, nothing novel or instructive is revealed. It is just a matter of showing a scandalous woman in a terrible rut. And that is done by Signor Lattuada, roundly, with few holds barred.
La mandragola (1965)
Machiavelli's cynical lampoon
THE passage of time has vitiated "Mandragola," Machiavelli's cynical lampoon of 16th-century Florentine morality and the fabulous fertility attributes of the mandrake root. As presented in the Italian period comedy, the satire and the legend, which is as ancient as the Book of Genesis and credulous human beings, are relayed with the approximate subtlety of jokes at a bachelor dinner. The critical thrusts at a dissolute, often irresponsible society that made "Mandragola" a classic of Italian literature are all too rare in this energetic, if obvious and broadly played farce.
Since Machiavelli, like Chaucer and Boccaccio before him, appreciated the historic, universal appeal of the boudoir and cuckoldry as well as love, he cannot be faulted for using these indestructible elements to set up his gibes and laughs. But Alberto Lattuada, the director known for such fine films as "The Overcoat" and "Mafioso," who collaborated on the script of "Mandragola," appears to have forgotten that Renassiance plotting can become dated.
His screenplay, though convoluted, telegraphs its punches. We are introduced to the handsome, aristocratic Philippe Leroy, who hurries to Florence from France to check on the fabled beauty of Rosanna Schiaffino, the very proper wife of the doltish, rich notary, Romolo Valli. Our hero is smitten and vows to conquer his virtuous quarry. His Peeping Tom view of her bathing hardly cools his ardor.
Her husband, on the other hand, is determined to father an heir and has resorted to all sorts of medieval nostrums to bring on this happy state, to no avail. So it is not entirely unexpected that he falls for a scheme concocted by his con man associate, Jean Claude Brialy, in collusion with our suitor, a money-hungry friar (Toto), and other plotters.
Their idea is to have Mr. Leroy, posing as a famed French physician, prescribe mandrake root and a lover, who under the legendary rules is supposed to die after the mating. Naturally, our disguised hero is the lover, a role he is destined to play at length when Miss Schiaffino discovers he is an honest romantic who amorously exposes his intrigue and devotion during their intimacy.
Glimpses of the cutting satire of the Machiavellian original are to be seen in these bedroom exchanges, and in such scenes as the placing of hot stones on the harried heroine's midriff, hot baths and similar tortures designed to foster fecundity, epitomizing the medical quackery of the day. Also in evidence are his acid comments on an avaricious clergy as personalized by the unctuous friar, who is ready to condone sin for a quick ducat, and a seeming contempt for life when a man is killed as an almost casual incident in the plot to nab a "lover." One gets his comic opinion of paying Peeping Toms, including Mr. Leroy, who crash into the private bathing area they are surreptitiously scanning. But they shouldn't be criticized too much since the brunette Miss Schiaffino, although no Eleonora Duse, is, nevertheless, a voyeur's vision. Mr. Leroy, who is no Hamlet, is sincere and handsome enough to turn even her logical head, especially when her husband is adequately played as a gross simpleton by Mr. Valli, and Mr. Brialy, Toto and Nilla Pizzi, as her anxious mother, make properly athletic, if uninspired conspirators.
Mr. Lattuada's direction is brisk but his spoof, which is only mildly sexy rather than strikingly satirical, merely shows its age, without bringing the story alive.
La matriarca (1968)
TRUE LOVE conquers all
TRUE LOVE conquers all. At least it did in "The Libertine". Meanwhile, a restless young widow skips in and out of various sexual encounters, real and imagined, before meeting her match in a steady, plain-spoken radiologist.
The singularly sex-minded Italian film is not nearly as clever, sophisticated and amusing as it archly pretends. For all the worldly trimmingsslick color photography, careful interspersions of nudity and a general tone of coy blandness the picture is no wiser than the Farmer's Almanac. And not nearly so honest.
The idea of a neglected wife suddenly flitting around strenuously until she sees the light is certainly an old one. And it takes a little while to see through the slickly ornate facade of this exercise, very friskily directed by Pasquale Festa-Campanile and with the pert Catherine Spaak as the experimental heroine.
Rummaging through various sexual data in a luxurious, hideaway apartment kept by her late husband, she airily proceeds to make up for neglect and lost time with an assortment of partners. One is her husband's best friend. Another is a dentist. Add a tennis player. Add a grinning plumber, and a nameless sadist who cuffs her around.
The final chapter, Miss Spaak's lengthy stalking of the somber radiologist, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, has a flip geniality and some genuine brightness. The two performers carry it off with easy charm. If the rest of the picture had this, the sexual preoccupation might have been less monotonous and obvious. There might even have been a real point.
The Mad Monk RASPUTIN
RASPUTIN did not die easily.
As his assassins stood by impatiently, Rasputin, the Czarina Alexandra's favorite holy man and one of the most hated figures of pre-revolutionary Russia, stuffed himself with cyanide-laced cakes and washed them down with a sweet wine that had been similarly spiked. His only comment was that the wine was rather poor.
The conspirators then shot him repeatedly. He stumbled and fell, but didn't give up his ghost. The murderers bludgeoned him and, at last, when he had lost consciousness, they dropped the body into the frozen Neva River. Later, an autopsy revealed that Rasputin's lungs were full of water. He'd simply drowned. That was in December 1916 in St. Petersburg.
Rasputin still isn't dead as far as movie makers are concerned. He has been played by Conrad Veidt (1930), Lionel Barrymore (1932), Harry Baur (1938), Edmond Purdom (1960), Christopher Lee (1966), Gert Frobe (1968) and, most recently, by Tom Baker in the 1971 spectacle ''Nicholas and Alexandra.'' Here he is the subject of a curious Russian film, ''Rasputin''.
I use the word ''new'' loosely. ''Rasputin'' (originally titled ''Agoniya'') was made many years ago but was withheld from release in the Soviet Union, when it was cleared in what some perceived as a liberalization under by Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the new Soviet leader. It is easy to understand why the Russians might have had uneasy thoughts about the film, directed by Elem Klimov and with Alexei Petrenko in the title role.
In spite of a prologue of newsreel clips accompanied by voice-over narration, which tries to put the story of the ''mad monk'' into proper context, this film might make one believe that the Grigori Rasputin was the major cause of the 1917 revolution, rather than a symptom of the corruption that made revolution inevitable. Except for the newsreel footage, and a sequence showing Rasputin visiting his peasant family in Siberia, the movie is almost exclusively concerned with showing us low-life among the aristocratic St. Petersburg swells and their hangers-on, including Rasputin.
In this, ''Rasputin'' is comparatively adventurous, even risky, for a Russian film. It also gives us an almost sympathetic picture of Czar Nicholas, presented as a befuddled, weak but essentially decent man, dependent on his superstitious wife. She, in turn, is seen as being bewitched by Rasputin, whom she believes to be her conduit to God, as well as the only person capable of treating her hemophiliac son.
''Rasputin'' is less a coherently dramatized history than a series of sometimes vivid tableaux vivants. At the center is the remarkable figure of Mr. Petrenko's Rasputin, a huge, heedless, messy, out-of-control zealot, given to epic debauches, severe depressions and mystical revelations. He's a man who finds himself with more power than he knows what to do with and with no real plans to put into effect. He's an opportunist who may well believe in his own powers.
Never, however, does the film make any effort to analyze him or to suggest that, given the temper of the times, the emergence of such a man was a foregone conclusion. At times, this ''Rasputin'' suggests nothing much more than a horror film, a somewhat politicized ''Exorcist.''
Mr. Klimov, the director, employs a sort of impressionistic cinema style, cutting back and forth between color footage and monochrome, between fictional scenes and newsreels and, in one of the film's most successful sequences (near the end), between a series of still photographs, some from the archives and some shot for the film.
It is not always easy to follow the story, even if one has boned up on the accepted facts before seeing the film, but Mr. Klimov keeps the focus fairly narrow and short. With the exception of Rasputin, the historical figures are scarcely characterized, though Anatoly Romashin looks right as Czar Nicholas. Velta Linne, who plays the Czarina, looks more like a worried Russian peasant woman than the German princess who never felt at home in Mother Russia.
Though it's a footnote to history, the life and death of Rasputin retains its fascination. Mr. Klimov does particular justice to the murder plot that ended Rasputin's life. As he stages it, to the sounds of ''Dixie'' on an old-fashioned Victrola, the assassination turns into a macabre slapstick comedy, one in which the victim keeps coming back to life to scare the wits out of the faint-hearted, desperate, high-born perpetrators.
Idi i smotri (1985)
Unreal Realism COME AND SEE
THE terrible central event of ''Come and See,'' which takes up about a quarter of the 2-hour, 22-minute Soviet movie, is the burning of a Byelorussian village by German invaders in 1943. A line on the screen tells us that hundreds of villages in the Soviet republic east of Poland were destroyed, their people annihilated. The history is harrowing and the presentation is graphic; you feel it through your body as villagers are packed into a barn to be incinerated.
Powerful material, powerfully rendered by the director and co-writer Elem Klimov, yet the scene goes on for so long with such heavy-handed intrusions that you are left with a feeling of being worked on - which means the effects have stopped working. So it is with the movie as a whole, which won a grand prize at the 1985 Moscow international film festival.
In episodes that shift, sometimes subtly, sometimes startlingly, from down-in-the-mud realism to a dreamlike state, a boy named Florya endures the German invasion. His family is slaughtered; a friend, a beautiful young woman who wants only love and babies, is raped; he joins the partisans, is captured and nearly killed. He is our witness to the savagery of the Nazi onslaught against the peoples of Eastern Europe. But it becomes evident early on that young Florya, played by a grimacing Aleksei Kravchenko, serves Mr. Klimov mainly as a body through which he can display his directorial powers.
The inherent conflict between the director and the character with whom the audience is expected to identify becomes most troubling in a climactic scene that is poundingly effective taken by itself but makes no sense at all from Florya's point of view. We are asked to believe he has a vision of Hitler's career, running backward in time, from the German invasion to Adolf as babe in arms. You don't have to be unduly literal minded to realize as the newsreels are driving in reverse that this is not the vision of a peasant lad who hasn't been to the movies much. It's a movie maker's tour de force.
After years of running into troubles with his country's film authorities, Mr. Klimov was elected president of the Soviet Film Makers Union, a beneficiary of Mikhail S. Gorbachev's experiment in glasnost, or openness. Possibly the unorthodox style of ''Come and See'' would bother some cultural commissar, but there is little in its content to offend the authorized Soviet view of World War II. The partisans are comradely; the Germans are pulp villains, sadistic, cowardly, fanatic. ''Inferior races spread the microbe of Communism,'' declares one whose particular mission is to kill Russian infants. Not only does an SS officer drag a woman by her hair on the way to her fate worse than death but he also pauses to light a cigarette. Mr. Klimov can't leave bad enough alone.
The ending is a dose of instant inspirationalism. The camera makes its way through the forest to the accompaniment of a choir that soars and soars until we get a glimpse of the heavens, not the most original moment in the movie. Yet scene for scene, Mr. Klimov proves a master of a sort of unreal realism that seeks to get at events terrible beyond comprehension. He shows what he can do particularly after Florya has been deafened by bombs and we seem to be inside the boy's head, with the sounds of the outside world overwhelmed by his panting breaths; everything turns distant and ominous. Ominous enough without Mr. Klimov's intrusions, at the expense of his own unquestionable talent.
The War Game (1966)
a graphic, horrifying portrayal
The War Game is a British film that gives a graphic, horrifying portrayal of what would happen to the civilian population of Great Britain if the country were hit by nuclear bombs.
"The War Game" is a 47-minute film that was originally made for the British Broadcasting Corporation and then withheld from showing on the air because it was considered too grisly and gruesome for indiscriminate projection into homes.
Its fearful and forceful nature was reported in papers from all over London by reporters in the 60's, and its availability now on DVD is but a token of the talk and controversy its subsequent showing over the years in a few British theaters has caused.
The film was made by a young man, Peter Watkins, in hand-held-camera style and at a pace that endow its grim, on-the-spot enactments with the seeming truth of a documentary film. It gives us a minute-by-minute rundown of cumulating horrors in an area of Kent from the time the first off-course Soviet bomb explodes in the region until the better part of the landscape and population are laid waste.
While the horrors it shows, such as firestorms, the melting of children's eyes and the mercy shooting by police of rows of victims who are too badly burned to be helped, are based upon actual experiences in Hiroshima and in German cities in World War II, the monstrous piling up of these horrors in one picture seems a calculated showing of the worst.
And the fact that no immediate way to avoid this is suggested to the audience by the film makes it, for most, a sheer frustrating excitement of morbidity and dread.
Mr. Watkins was quoted in the media in the 60's as saying that he hoped that it would agitate people to demand the elimination of nuclear bombs. But one might guess it would serve that purpose only if shown in connection with some concrete and widespread campaign, as even today, we are confronted by nuclear annihilation. Otherwise it is no more than a powerful, isolated horror film of the past.
Wholly Communion (1966)
a repetitious bore
"Wholly Communion," a 32-minute report on a recital by a gang of modern poets, mostly beatniks, in Albert Hall in London in 1965 is a useless narration. It is colorful and droll for about 10 minutes. Then it is a repetitious bore.
In Summer 1965, the Hall was filled to overflowing for the historic gathering of world voices which celebrated the renaissance of performance poetry and international times.
WHOLLY COMMUNION marks Whitehead's first breakthrough: a document of the historic convention at the Royal Albert Hall of English and American Beat poets. Starring Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and more. "The Albert Hall poetry reading memorialized in Peter Whitehead's Wholly Communion brought the stars of US Beat poetry together with their English peers. As a reading it was chaotic - but as a cultural event it was incomparable. It was the climax of beatnik dreams, and the launch of the hippies. Seven thousand people arrived, a vast "alternative" constituency few could have imagined. The Albert Hall, booked for 450 pounds, had never seen anything like it. From it came the confidence to found the first "underground institutions", The Indica Gallery, The International Times and much more.
MESSAGES of misery and creeping despairs
MESSAGES of misery and foreboding were flashed by in this great picture that was shown to me, and suddenly the air of geniality that was wafted into my surrounding was chilled.
This feature was "Hunger," a Norwegian-Danish-Swedish film that depicts the miseries of a penniless would-be writer in Christiana, Norway, toward the end of the last century.
It might be classed as fascinating but definitely a painful tours de forc, the first reason because of its smashing simulation of catastrophic reality, and the second because of the tormented and poignant performance Per Oscarsson gives in the principal role.
"Hunger," based on the novel by Knut Hamsun, is a pictorial study in a thin dramatic form of the Old-World romantic eccentricities,, hallucinations and creeping despairs of a young author dying of starvation, which he is too proud and foolish to reveal.
It is brilliantly played by Mr. Oscarsson, who stretches so tightly the nerves and the muscular movements of this fellow that he communicates a racking, haunting sense of a misguided, hopeless romantic methodically choking himself. For this performance, he was given the best acting award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Gunnel Lindblom is shadowy but touching in the pathetically sketchy role of a genteel young woman who is also starving and joins the writer in one pitiful grab at love. Henning Carlsen's direction is appropriately mordant and gaunt.
Fando y Lis (1968)
Fando and Lis literal & unimaginative
"EVERY cinematographic trick was avoided. The actors, enduring a veritable 'Via Crucis,' were stripped naked, tortured and beaten. Artificial blood was never used." So conclude the clues for critics attractively printed and furnished by Panic Productions to accompany Alexandro Jodorowsky's film version of Fernando Arrabal's play, "Fando and Lis".
It's a good thing movies are for one time only, because "Fando and Lis" subjects its heroes to vampirism at several levels of refinement. It also has Fando murder Lis (no retakes on that one), and at her funeral it exposes her body to be devoured in bite-sized portions by her mourners.
But such is the anesthetic effect of Jodorowsky's direction (and perhaps of Arrabal's dramaturgy) that each new outrage invites a yawn; each torture, beating and nonartificial blood letting, an acknowledgment of shocking intention and little more.
He is impotent and she is paralytic, and together, through trash heap and desert, they search for an unattainable city called Tar. Along the way (which, of course, leads back to where they started) they have many meaningful experiences and encounter numerous exemplary grotesque characters.
Repeatedly Fando is misled into strange adventures, and repeatedly he returns to serve and humiliate Lis. Occasionally they remember their childhoods in flashback, and near the end Fando's dying mother reappears and his dead father jumps out of the grave to claim him.
Such figures of the imagination, particularly the imaginations of Hieronymus Bosch, Gustave Dore, and above all, Federico Fellini give a comfortable familiarity, a strong sense of having seen it all before, to the innovative excesses of "Fando and Lis." And Jodorowsky, in everything from his selection of freaks to his choice of camera angles, admits his indebtedness.
It is as if the grotesque of the later Fellini, mostly drained of their (nonartificial) blood, has wandered zombie-like onto a landscape created by a marriage of low budget with literary sources, to take part yet again in the most approved rituals of academic absurdist tradition.
Deprived of responsibility to objective reality, "Fando and Lis" tends to exploit accounts of subjective reality, most obviously, a simplistic Freudian system of guilt and repression. In spite of its fantastic premises, it seems almost wholly conventional in the interpretation it asks for its images. And like most overt film fantasy, the end product is flat, literal, unimaginative.
Neither Sergio Klainer as Fando nor Diana Mariscal as Lis are acceptable actors (whether they could be if they had the chance is another question), and Miss Mariscal's Giulietta Masina make-up (another tribute to Fellini) works to reduce her part from performance to mere representation. For all its invocations of theater of cruelty, "Fando and Lis" hardly ever scares up anything stronger than unpleasant whimsey.
Au bonheur des dames (1943)
Emile Zola - Shop-Girls of Paris
Emile Zola, as the Warner Brothers graphically demonstrated some years back, was a handy man with a lance, splintering quite a few in just causes. And the French film makers, not unaware of the scope of the novelist's jousts, have taken another, albeit one of his less notable indictments, "Au Bonheur des Dames," and have fashioned it into an interesting, often satiric although sometimes shallow delineation of the ills that beset the nineteenth-century Paris working girl and small business men.
For, "Shop-Girls of Paris," the adaptation of "Au Bonheur des Dames," speaks an honest, angry piece but occasionally employs the obvious, heavy-handed approach of slick dramas to make its points.
The shopgirls of M. Mouret's department store, who not only work but also live and eat there, are entirely at the mercy of the young, grasping and forceful owner, as is Baudu, the aged, irascible proprietor of Le Vieil Elbeuf, the tiny, moribund emporium next door. Mouret, a visionary who sees himself as the boss of the world's largest store, is not averse to cutting prices, surreptitiously buying up his old competitor's shop, introducing white sales and the return of purchases to make good his planned, merchandising colossus. He is not averse also to a sly, pseudo-romantic liaison with his rich neighbor, Mme Desforges, and indiscriminate dismissals among his staff, to attain his ends. It is only when Baudu's niece, who has gone to work in the new largest business of its kind, scathingly denounces the boss and his practices, that Mouret, who has fallen in love with his spirited clerk, institutes sweeping reforms.
Michel Simon, bearded and craggy-faced, as the embittered Baudu, who has never been able to accumulate enough of a dowry for his daughter and clerk to marry on, gives a convincing portrayal except for moments of rage, when typical Gallic shouting and arm waving supplant true histrionics. Blanchette Brunoy is an appealing and beautiful figure as his niece, while Albert Prejean is expert as the suave store owner with an eye for the ladies and business.
Jean Tissier, as his oily and hard lieutenant, and Suzy Prim, as the designing dame who has a way of combining sharp realty practices with romantic flings contributes deft, humorous portrayals in heading the large, supporting cast.
Onibaba' at Toho
SELF-PRESERVATION and sex in a primitive society made desperate and bestial by war are the raw materials out of which Kaneto Shindo has conjured up "Onibaba" ("The Demon"), which arrived at the Toho Cinema from Japan in the 1960's. But the talented writer-director, who earned his laurels with "The Island," that superb, wordless documentary feature, relies mainly on raw qualities that are neither new nor especially inventive to achieve his stark, occasionally shocking effects. Although his artistic integrity remains untarnished, his driven rustic principals are exotic, sometimes grotesque figures out of medieval Japan, to whom a Westerner finds it hard to relate.
Mr. Shindo sets a suspenseful, properly somber mood as his small cast moves through man-high reeds of the marshy countryside near Kyoto ravaged by unending civil wars of the 16th century. His focus is on a grim woman and her glum young daughter-in-law whose livelihood depends on the samurai and soldiers they kill and deposit in a dry well, and whose accoutrements they sell to a fence. This dark existence is interrupted when a deserter turns up with the cheerless news that the woman's son has been killed. His basic drives are, of course, for food, and lust for the now widowed daughter-in-law, a desire to which she soon responds with animal fervor.
Harassed by the thought that she cannot continue her murderous chores without her daughter-in-law's help as well as by a mounting passion for the deserterthe older woman uses a demon's mask taken from a disfigured samurai she has slain, to scare her daughter-in-law away from her nocturnal trysts. Since he is being both mysterious and tragic, Mr. Shindo's climax to his Gothic tale is a witches' blend of terror and death. It is not unfair to reveal that when the older woman meets a violent end, she is unmasked to show a face horribly mutilated, for ironic and strangely symbolic reasons, by that mask.
Mr. Shindo's symbolism, which undoubtedly is more of a treat to the Oriental than the Occidental eye and ear, may be oblique, but his approach to amour is direct. Not the man to indulge in excessive dialogue, he has his laconic principals' actions speak louder than any words, adequately translated by English subtitles. The lusty bouts between the robust and comely daughter-in-law, Jitsuko Yoshimura (she was seen previously as the teen-ager in the Japanese "The Insect Woman") and the ill-fated deserter, played in rough, gruff obvious style by Kei Sato, are as frank and torrid as any exposed in the recent past. As the mother-in-law, Nobuko Otawa, who also was starred in "The Island," makes an oddly appealing and tragically lone figure competing for and with men in a world of famine, immorality and destruction.
The director's brooding tale is abetted by Hiyomi Kuroda's cloudy, low-key photography and Hikaru Kuroda's properly weird background musical score. But despite Mr. Shindo's obvious striving for elemental, timeless drama, it is simply sex that is the most impressive of the hungers depicted here.