Jan Troell’s version of the failed balloon expedition to the North Pole at the end of the 19th century. It begins, chillingly, with real photographs of the cracked skeletons. As in The Emigrants and The New Land, Troell’s brand of epic filmmaking is shockingly intimate and often disturbing. He focuses on the three Swedish men who undertook the expedition; their romantic ideas of personal glory, nationalism and transcendence. Psychologically, we watch as the bond between the three men both deepens and deteriorates: it’s a phenomenal study of masculinity (Max von Sydow and Sverre Anker Ousdal are both tremendous in it). But in Troell’s films there is none of the usual separation between man and nature—the horror outside could just as well be the horror within and viceversa—and this movie is also a singular vision of strange, forlorn Arctic terrors. This is the North Pole of our nightmares. The shapelessness and abstraction of the images—giant vanishing suns; blinding shimmering surfaces; random blood stains on the ice—suggest an encroaching, otherworldly winter. The threat of endless pitch-black darkness gives the movie a real sense of uneasiness and a metaphysical dread. We keep hoping that somehow humanity will not be extinguished, but our rational mind tells us we’re in inhuman territory. This masterful film has a slow beginning and it’s only near the end that you realize the magnitude of its achievement: how this epic on discovery, exploration and the search for new horizons is really an epic of self-discovery. The tragedy of the explorers isn’t that they failed in their quest (which was foolish to begin with): the tragedy is how they’re able to locate the limits and the breadth of their humanity only in the face of extinction. This movie is the full vivid picture of isolation—of the void as mirror for the dying, deluded Romantic man. (The film was restored by Svenska Filminstitutet in 2017).
Forty years after seminal classics like The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, John Huston made his masterpiece: this faithful (in the best sense of the word) adaptation of James Joyce’s iconic short story. The movie has the simplicity of a master who has nothing left to prove. Set in Dublin in 1904, it’s about a small gathering of friends and family during one bitter winter night. But inside there is great warmth. The setting is specific (there is talk of conservatism and Irish nationalism; emerging socialist rallies, etc.) but the feel is timeless: this could just as easily have taken place in some remote hut in the Middle Ages. The people gathered conjure the lost pleasures of hospitality and tradition. In Huston’s interpretation, they are not fakes—they’re not the petulant frauds of Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeouisie, unable to leave their table. Their enjoyment, their love of interaction and conversation, is genuine. But just when nostalgia seems to close in on us, something remarkable happens. You begin to see the human cost behind this ancient ritual, behind the idea of contentment and home. These people, with their broken dreams and hopes, their recollections, their laughter, their songs, with all their merriment: these are the dead. This world—this homely prison—is all they know. Anjelica Huston is superb as the beautiful middle-aged woman who still clings to the memory of young love, which is more real to her than the present, more real than anything. Her longing threatens to undo her. Life has eluded her, as it has each and every one of them… and most will go into their graves without even this realization. There is a sense that the burgeoning world outside is no longer compatible with the warmth of the hearth. A movie of great compassion, it has equal affection for the young and the old, for the rebellious and the traditional, for the women who wither away in the name of servitude, for the monks who consume themselves in prayer. For the living and the dead… if there is such a distinction. This film is an old master’s passionate plea for vitality.
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