Patricio Guzmán’s 3-part film on the fall of legitimately elected President Allende and the rise of Pinochet’s (partly US-funded) military dictatorship is no standard documentary. The camera is never still; there are no elegantly framed interviews recounting the facts; there is no remembrance. This is filmmaking in the present tense, and Guzmán takes you right into the streets, the factories and the country, everywhere where there is tension and reaction—that is to say, where politics takes place. The stance is Marxist, and the film is explosively alive, like a more grounded Potemkin. Inertia is sinful: it’s for buildings and the bourgeoisie. Though the film could be considered a piece of propaganda, it’s too great to be dismissed as only that. It shows the beginnings of a new form of organized solidarity that feels humanly truthful. It captures the seething discontent of a whole country, a state of anger mixed with euphoria for what’s to come. (Neither conservatives nor socialists are spared.) And in the scenes of the communist rallies, Guzmán’s camera zeroes in on the tension between the individuals and the groups they’re part of. Isolated, these faces express contradictions that exist outside of any manifesto. But gradually, in Parts II and III especially, we watch as these groups develop and strengthen, fueled by the semi-religious conviction that their time is ripe, only they do not sit around and pray for the rapture. This is an amazing document on a 20th century phenomenon that’s rarely explored in fiction: the masses becoming acutely aware of their own power. It’s a tragedy with no pathos: Salvador Allende is shown to be a great man and leader, but his death is interpreted as historically inevitable, a rallying cry for a “true government of the people” that would never materialize.
Dir. Patricio Guzmán / 1979 / Chile
Lee Chang-dong’s movie about an elderly woman who takes up poetry lessons just as she begins to lose her memory and her grasp on verbs and nouns. Nobody (least of all herself) understands why she’s taken up the course. She inhabits an unintelligible world, replete with sullen, half-mute teenagers who can barely enunciate a word, let alone sort out their feelings; bodies of girls who wash up ashore for unexplained reasons and an entire system determined to shrug it all off. Mija works as a maid to be able to sustain her grandson and herself. But her professor preaches that there is potential beauty in everything, so Mija starts looking at things—starting with her kitchen’s dirty dishes and an apple—trying to see them for what they really are for the first time. (She ends up just eating the apple.) Whether her search for beauty begins as purely selfish escapism is up to the viewer to decide, and there’s a great comic desperation to her enterprise that is both pitiable and admirable. There is a magnificent scene where the old woman goes to the country to meet the mother of a girl who was raped, and she loses herself in the sensual radiance of the bright summer day. She picks up a fallen peach, sensing its “pain”; she feels it was “yearning” to be eaten. In this scene she is childlike, like a young poet for whom even pain is beautiful. She is so caught up in the purity of the moment that when the memory of the unsavory business that brought her there re-enters her mind, it nearly destroys her: beauty comes crashing down under the weight of reality. No other movie expresses the link between beauty and oblivion with this kind of devastating clarity. And there’s a shift. No longer content with just beauty, she now aims for the truth, too.
Yun Jeong-hie’s performance is a masterpiece of intuitiveness and self-discovery. Hers is the most original movie heroine of the 21st century: a poet in a world that’s done with poetry; a victim of Alzheimer’s who refuses to forget (or to even be a victim); an ignored old woman who finds empathy to be a source of infinite personal pleasure. (She might be to this century what Umberto D. was to the last.) One of the most amazing films to come out from South Korea, it has a love of life that’s almost heroic.
Dir. Lee Chang-dong / 2010 / South Korea
In 1933, right off the heels of Grand Hotel, Greta Garbo had the power to do just about anything she wanted in Hollywood. So she decided to take on the infamous Swedish queen Christina, lover of the arts and lover to her female servants. And though Robert Mamoulian’s MGM retelling isn’t historically faithful (ie. she isn’t an outright lesbian), its spirit isn’t very far off. Its peculiarities help make it one of the most exhilarating entertainments to come out of Hollywood’s Golden Era.
Greta Garbo remains the most amazing creature to ever be captured on film: what happens between her face and the camera is inexplicable alchemy. But in Queen Christina one also sees a great artist at work. She plays a utopian philosopher-queen, using her very Swedish thoughts as an escape; an imperial war commander; a lover of literature, an aesthete taking amusement in Molière and Calderón; a Romantic muse and tragic figure; a comedienne unafraid to make a fool of herself; and, most tantalizingly of all, a man (a “bachelor”, as she puts it.) In the famous tavern scenes where Christina disguises herself as a Swedish man and drinks with the boys as if she were one of them, discusses life with them and then proceeds to sleep with “another man” (a Spaniard) in the same bed, the movie is vibrantly, tangibly subversive. (It would have been impossible to make in the years that followed, when censorship became harsher.) Garbo, a physically imposing Swede, carries herself with a masculine swagger in large portions of the film, not just when in disguise: she exudes an authority that defies genre. And whenever she dissolves into a woman again, the effect is deliriously erotic: her femininity is equally in charge. (There is a great post-coital scene where she memorizes the room where she made love, taking in the physicality of every object.) But these distinctions become altogether meaningless: no one has so blurred the lines between “masculine” and “feminine” as Garbo does here, in all her androgynous greatness. She is in a state of flux, like a deity so bored with human trappings that she cannot wait to move on to the next thing. (She won’t weep much for her lover, either.) Garbo’s Christina is escaping the world and herself.
Like Garbo, the movie is many things—a historical picture, a comedy, a romance, a tragedy—and none of them. The charmingly literate screenplay is full of surprises and high spirits; so is Mamoulian’s direction, decidedly inspired. There isn’t a dull moment to be found in this winning film, both ahead of its time and very much a product of it.
Dir. Robert Mamoulian / 1933 / US
Dir. Martin Scorsese / US / 2016
SOME SPOILERS AHEAD:
For about an hour and a half, the film looks like a masterpiece and often feels like a masterpiece. The trailers made it seem like Scorsese was channeling Kurosawa, but the early images of boggy fog-shrouded Japan have a much closer kinship to the greatest Japanese film poet of all, Kenji Mizoguchi, and his masterpiece, Ugetsu. And now Scorserse, driven by a love of the source material and a fascination with the subject, uses Japan to expand his idea of Christianity. The early scenes are Scorsese’s best work in exactly 40 years. They contain at least three great movies at once, none overshadowing the other. There is the spread of Christian piety among the Japanese peasants, which is the closest thing to revolutionary fervor these people have ever known. There is the folly of the Jesuit padres, who denounce the silence of God in a land that knows no real silence of its own; that is in fact bursting with life, with Prieto’s cinematography suggesting a kind of pantheistic elemental force enveloping these strangers. And in the great, furtive sequences in the caves, the villages, and the hideouts Scorsese evokes what primitive Christianity must have looked like in the first two or three centuries after Christ, when it was still a religion of rebellion. The Jesuits understood the original power of pre-Roman Christianity and sought to rekindle it, and Silence recreates this state of ecstatic Christendom, its aura of holiness. (What could be more revolutionary in Hollywood?)
But this great expansive picture becomes stunted in the movie’s second half. The film begins to look inwardly, meaning we get too close a look at Andrew Garfield’s face, his conscience and tortured soul in a string of unimaginative claustrophobic sequences that go on for too long and often feel dead. And so the limitless possibilities of the first half are reduced to theological abstractions (platonic God vs. nature), debates on what does or doesn’t grow in Japan and the Christian take on suffering. The problem isn’t just that what is said isn’t very interesting, but that it robs the film of revelations that should and could have happened organically. The movie becomes so lucid about its ideas that it kills them. There’s little mystery left to the film when it approaches the tortured final sequences with Liam Neeson’s character and God finally decides to speak (He should’ve stayed silent; there’s too much voiceover as it is.) What the movie gains in conceptual clarity, it loses in stature. The Japanese Ugetsu didn’t just expose the link between nature and spirituality: it went further by showing that the world of the senses is haunted. The idea that the Jesuits in Silence find God by denying Him—that is, by renouncing the martyrdom at the core of Christianity—is extraordinarily powerful and suggestive, but it has only a conceptual effect. The revelation is lacking in spirit.
Even with these flaws, Silence is in another league from virtually anything that came out last year, and in a different universe than the La La Lands of this world. It’s masterful in a number of ways. (Adam Driver does fascinating work as one of the Jesuits; Issei Ogata is great once more. And Rodrigo Prieto outdoes himself as a cinematographer.) Its fervor and ambition are exciting and genuine, and these are qualities that have been nearing extinction for a while now. As for Scorsese, this is his most epic work to date. Only Taxi Driver stands taller overall.
Before City of God there was Pixote, Héctor Babenco’s stark lucid account of Brazilian youths growing up in squalor in the 70s. It chronicles the life of 10-year-old Pixote and his companions, from repression and jail time to pickpocketing in Rio to close encounters with prostitution and death. Babenco makes the audience feel the urgency of the present time the way the characters experience it: with the past being too shameful to speak of and the future non-existent, the present, for all its terror, is all that’s left. As the world crumbles all around them and the kids lose respect not just for the lives of others but for their own, the movie’s vitality risks becoming jarring if not outright cruel. But it quickly becomes apparent that the full immersion in the amoral present they share is the closest thing they’ll ever know to redemption: it’s where their camaraderie, their symbiotic relationship with each other, even their shifting sexual confusion are built. And though the movie is clearly an heir to the great neo-realist films of the 40s and 50s, it goes deeper than them. It touches on forbidden, wordless things. When Pixote meets the volatile prostitute Sueli (Marília Pêra, superb) and discovers she’s had an abortion, he is horrified. She feels judged and lashes out at him in a rage, but he’s horrified not for her but for himself—his entire orphaned existence coming into focus. The relationship that builds between the whore-mother and her adopted children is monstrously, inexplicably rich. The very protagonists can’t figure out the nature of it, so they just go through it blindly, until their roles become so confused that they devour each other. For Pixote, it’s a return to the womb from hell. In the movie’s best scene, he goes to the prostitute’s den looking for a mother’s embrace. She tentatively takes on this role. But Pixote is no child and never was. Retreat to innocence is impossible, and he is vomited out one final time. Alone, he isn’t just worthless: he’s not even alive. The film goes beyond surface moral and social indignation. This is an artist’s statement. Yet no matter how hard the implications this movie has a pulse like few others, with the natural energy of the places and the actors giving it its incomparable freshness.
Dir. Héctor Babenco / 1981 / Brazil
Baby Doll: Excuse me, Mr. Vacarro, but I wouldn’t dream of eatin’ a nut that a man had cracked in his mouth.
Silva Vacarro: You’ve got many refinements.
Baby Doll: Thank you.
Elia Kazan’s hilarious erotic farce about two men (played by Karl Malden and Eli Wallach) squabbling over cotton in Mississippi. Baby Doll (Carroll Baker), Malden’s virginal 19-year-old wife, is at the center of their fight. She hasn’t agreed to consummate the marriage, so she sleeps by herself in her crib. Wallach’s vengeance involves bringing her under his manly spell. The comedy in Tennessee Williams’ screenplay is that Baby Doll is only dubiously innocent. Baby Doll is no good at long division, but she’s great at fighting off the heat with Coca-Cola and sucking her thumb. She giggles for the entire duration of the movie, stuck in a state of perpetual flirtatiousness: the sexually charged pent-up atmosphere feels like Kazan’s version of hell. But this hell, shot in all its sunny glory by Boris Kaufman, is very inviting. The scenes between Baker and Wallach are among the funniest I’ve seen—they play like some perverse deflowering. (Their courting climaxes with a game of hide and seek.) For the two men, Baby Doll is just a test of their virility, but she’s playing a game of her own. They provide her with entertainment. Carroll Baker is amazing in the title role: radiant, wicked and unaware of the camera. This movie has a quintessentially American sense of irony: the very earth seems to be laughing at the characters, down to the extras who mercilessly (and openly) mock Malden from beginning to end. It’s a riot.
Dir. Elia Kazan / 1956 / United States