The Salt of the Earth (France-Brazil-Italy, 2014)

Through a glass darkly

New German Cinema director made his first feature documentary, Lightning Over Water (Sweden-France-Germany, 1980), about American film director Nick Ray. Although he still makes fiction films, documentaries have been increasingly important to Wenders and this one, co-directed with Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, won ‘Un Certain Regard – Special Jury Prize’ at Cannes. His co-director is the son of the subject of the documentary, the extraordinary photographer Sebastião Salgado.

Although Wenders occasionally speaks on the voiceover, and appears in a few ‘reverse shots’ of him filming Salgado, he lets chronology structure this ‘sort of’ biopic. That works perfectly because it brings us full circle back to Brazil, which Salgado had to leave because of the fascist government in the 1960s, to see the results of the ecological project Salgado had instituted at the suggestion of his wife, Lélia. Throughout we get to see the extraordinary images that constitute the photographer’s career, often from extreme places such as the gold mines of Brazil and the genocide in Rwanda. It is after the latter that Salgado loses his will to document the evils of men and turned toward the environment; he has lived an incredible life.

What’s missing from the documentary is the cost to his family. He’d spend months, maybe years, away from his wife and children; they seemed to have stoically accepted his absence though the cost to them must have been high. I would also be fascinated to hear about Salgado’s technique in creating his incredible shots. All we get is a brief interjection about how it is important to frame shots against the background.

It’s a small quibble as that was clearly not the sort of documentary that Wenders and Salgado (jr.) wanted to make. Similarly the economics of the gold mine are barely explained and so reveals the limitations of photojournalism. If all we get is the image then we will not understand the world better. Particularly when they are as great as Salgado’s as the ‘breathtaking moment’ works against intellectual consideration of the social context. This isn’t to criticise Salgado and, as we see at the end of the film, he is trying and succeeding in ‘doing good’. The fact that his books cost an ‘arm and a leg’ further restrict his impact: a coffee table book for the bourgeoisie to show how much they care is not going to change the world.

Enough grousing, this is a brilliant film.

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The Official Story (La historia oficial , Argentina, 1985)

Officially captivating

Many ‘subversives’ disappeared during the fascist dictatorship in Argentina in the late 1970s/early 1980s. From 1977 The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo ensured the missing were not forgotten and I was surprised to learn they are (at least two years ago) still having to protestThe Official Story, apparently based on a true story, is a gripping political melodrama focusing on bourgeoise wife, Alicia (a Cannes winning performance by Norma Aleandro), who suspects that her adopted five-year old daughter may have been taken from one of the ‘disappeared’.

Aida Bortnik’s and director Luis Puenzo’s script brilliantly draws together numerous strands: Alicia is a history teacher whose class is far more clued up to the way ‘assassins’ are the ones who write history; her husband, Roberto (Héctor Alterio), has close ties to the military but whose brother and dad all but disown him as he berates them as ‘losers’. Central is the relationship between Alicia and her daughter which is suddenly thrown into doubt when an old friend, Ana, returns from exile. The scene when the friends are drunkenly reminiscing and Ana tells Alicia the truth about why she went away without saying anything is extraordinary. At first Alicia is chuckling along but the significance of what Ana is saying clearly doesn’t immediately sink in but then she realises Ana is describing how she was tortured; Aleandro’s performance in this scene is enough to justify watching the film.

Alicia’s cosy, bourgeois is punctured and she then seeks the truth in the face of her husband’s cynicism and worse. In such a male dominated society as Argentina was at the time, it’s not surprising that it required women to join together to seek justice and how brave they were (and are) to do so in the face of male oppression.

In the UK we keep hearing from politicians that we shouldn’t upset the extreme right wing or their violence will get worse. While this may be simple (in more ways than one) politicking because they want PM’s May’s mess of a deal to leave the EU to be voted through today, such appeasement is obviously dangerous. With the new president of Brazil threatening a return to the bad old days of fascist governments in Latin America (usually propped up by America), The Official Story is important in reminding us of the evil perpetrated against ‘the people’ in the region. The film won best foreign film Oscar and whilst those awards are often poor arbiters of taste I suspect they got it right in 1985, only two years after the dictatorship had fallen.

The Goalkeeper’s Anxiety of the Penalty (Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter, West Germany-Austria, 1972)

A particularly German angst

For people of my generation, when children, World War II hovered as an impalpable presence even though we were born many years after 1945. For the British it was a marker of former brilliance as the country divested itself of its empire. In Germany, it was a reminder of its shameful past or, possibly, if New German Cinema of the late ’60s/1970s is to be believed, something that was shamefully forgotten. Unfortunately in Britain some are still weirdly attracted to the war and use it as evidence we can survive outside the EU (as if surviving was a laudable benchmark) and ideas of empire remain instilled in their idea of Britishness as a high watermark of civilisation rather than shameful plunder from the rest of the world. Both the British new wave, of the early ’60s, and the German new wave held a mirror up to their country: for the British the main focus was on social class; for the West Germans it was the authoritarian nature of the recovery from war. In addition, Wim Wenders investigated how Americanised West German society had become.

Based on Austrian Peter Handke’s novel of the same name, he also contributed dialogue to the script, the ‘angst’ (sometimes translated as ‘fear’) is an existential one derived from French philosophers, particularly Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre. Indeed the protagonist’s motiveless murder early in the film, of a cinema cashier (film’s another recurring theme in Wenders’ work), is a direct reference to Camus’ L’Étranger (The Outsider published in 1942). He, Bloch the goalkeeper who gets sent off at the start of the film, sort of goes on the run to a small village but the genre elements only linger in the background as the lassitude of everyday life is examined. If that sounds boring it isn’t, partly because of the brilliant cinematography (by regular collaborator Robby Müller) which looks exceptional in this restored print. Wenders had never cleared the rights to the American popular music played in the film and apparently it was unavailable for three decades though I’m pretty sure it played in a double bill with Hammett (US, 1980) in the ’80s.

Famously in Wender’s King’s of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit, West Germany, 1976) a character states the ‘Americans have colonised our (Germany’s) unconsciousness’ and references to America proliferate in Goalie’s. The metaphoric meaning of the film’s title is revealed at the end but as to whether you find Bloch’s disconnect to his world a convincing metaphor of West Germany’s disconnect to itself is up to you. However, it is certainly a film that is worth viewing and I’m hoping there will be more Wenders I haven’t seen in the forthcoming MUBI season.

Taste of Cherry (Ta’m e guilass , Iran-France, 1997)

Let me out!

The Favourite continues to be a favourite with critics and audiences (in the UK at least) and I thought it was terrible. The winner of Cannes film festival’s Palme d’Or should be a guarantor of quality but (for me) Abbas Kiarostami’s joint winner is an unfunny joke of a movie (The Guardian’s Bradshaw places it as his second best winner).

The film’s narrative, a man (Homayoun Ershadi) is on the verge of suicide, is certainly not funny and he trails around the outskirts of Tehran looking for someone to bury him. The rather interminable driving around asking strangers to help him doesn’t bother me and some of the performances are excellent; particularly the young soldier played by, like most of the cast, an amateur. Apparently when the car’s passengers are being filmed the driver was Kiarostami himself and much of the film is improvised.

A treatise on the meaning of life is fair game for an arthouse film and I’m not necessarily expecting any particularly profound answer but when you find yourself wishing the protagonist would hurry up and do himself in something has gone seriously awry. Possibly my critical faculties have gone wonky; due to illness I’ve already seen 24 films this year including the five-hour plus Happy Hour. However, I’m not alone in thinking this film is a betrayal of the contract between filmmaker and audience – which I believe should be one of ‘good faith’. The ‘betrayal’ here is that Kiarostami seems to me to be trying to conjure a film out of nothing and even though he fails to do so he still takes it to Cannes. His appearance at the festival was in doubt until the last moment because the Iranian authorities were suspicious of his motives and he arrived to a standing ovation. Of course it is right to celebrate filmmakers working in oppressive circumstances but give him a Palme d’Or!?

I may be overstating the case as I was intrigued throughout most of the film but, as is often the case for arthouse cinema, the ‘payoff’ at the ending is key to giving focus to what we’ve seen (and sometimes endured). Here Kiarostami gives us his film crew calling a wrap. I remember as a kid being told not to end stories with ‘it was only a dream’ and for him to tell his audiences ‘it was only a film’…

I’m not anti-Kiarostami, I thought The Wind Will Carry Us (Bad ma ra khahad bord, Iran-France, 1999) was great, but save me from Taste of Cherry. Spoiler: I’ll save you, that is the ‘profound statement’: ‘life is worth living because of the taste of cherry’.

The Little Match Girl (La vendedora de fósforos, Argentina, 2017)

Casting light?

This is the first film I’ve seen by writer-director Alejo Moguillansky, an Argentinean independent, whose trademark, according to Hollywood Reporter is:

perhaps the playfulness with which he works up personal, social and political concerns into pleasurably offbeat and always distinctive items that balance subtle characterization, strong storylines and plenty of sociopolitical reflection.

As is my wont I watched the film cold (I had no idea what it was about) and was certainly confused by the opening that seemed to be a documentary about the staging of Helmut Lachenmann’s opera Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern based on Hans Christian Anderson’s story. However, the voiceover by María Villar states she’s playing Marie so there’s an immediate disconnect between the form of documentary and the soundtrack. Lachenmann plays himself, as does pianist and octogenarian Margarita Fernández.

The opera’s director Walter (played by actor Walter Jakob) is clueless on how to stage the avant garde masterwork. He shares a daughter with Marie, who is taking lessons from Fernández but is forced to take the youngster along who’s entertained watching Robert Bresson’s 1966 film, Au Hasard Baltahazar; I guess it’s the donkey that keeps the girl gripped.

‘Playful’ is the watchword; Lachenmann, who admits Ennio Morricone is his favourite composer, is clearly a ‘good sport’ as the piss is taken out of his music throughout. Of course the problem with playful, unless the film is a comedy, is that it can get in the way of actually saying something. The dread hand of postmodernism can reduce a text to facetiousness and although I think The Little Match Girl manages to avoid this (the committed performances gift the it some heft) I can’t help feeling there’s a better film struggling to get out. Lachenmann’s anti-capitalist opera, being played in a state opera house during a strike, deserves more than being an ironic backdrop to the bourgeois shenanigans of the couple; a running joke is that Walter keeps ringing Marie for suggestions of how to stage the opera.

The film, however, is entertaining, the music (whether Beethoven, Schubert, Morricone or Lachenmann) is great so it is worth seeing. MUBI.

Happy Hour (Happî awâ, Japan, 2015)

Happy hours?

I’ve been laid low with a virus for a week and that seemed to be a perfect time to watch a five hour-plus film. Streamed on MUBI, I watched it in two parts and can seriously recommend it if you have five hours to spare. Director, and co-writer, Hamaguchi Ryûsuke takes his time laying out the lives and… well, not ‘loves’ because the four thirtysomething friends are all faced with stupid men.

Some reviews have compared it to television narrative which, despite watching it in two ‘episodes’, it resolutely is not. If it had been made as an episodic narrative for television the whole structure would have been changed as each episode would need to be internally coherent and finish with a cliffhanger of sorts. Without having five arbitrary endings Hamaguchi is free to let scenes run for as long as necessary; and some are very long: one, for example, a sort of New Age workshop about communication, lasts about an hour. It becomes clear that communication is a key theme, alongside friendship, of the film. Apparently the film was released in France in three parts over three weeks. ‘Vive la France’ for distributing it as there would be virtually no audience in the UK for such a long film.

Unsurprisingly the film is resolutely Japanese. The British are often ‘famed’ for their reserve but we cannot compete with the Japanese. Their ingrained politeness means voices are rarely raised even when anger is at melting point; I imagine the screen would explode in equivalent scenes in telenovelas. Although this doesn’t facilitate over-the-top melodrama, the measured discussion, because it allows frankness (there’s little danger of being belted when telling someone a ‘home truth’) the issues between people can be laid bare. For example, Akari (Tanaka Sachie), the boldest of the friends, states she can’t stand being lied to and this causes ruptures between the four. In Britain, such feelings are probably more likely to fester unsaid.

Apparently the film was developed in workshops in Kobe, and the improvisatory quality shows through giving many of the scenes a vital immediacy. Astonishingly it is the first film of all the principals; they are superb. Only occasionally did I feel a drop in quality; on a couple of occasions bright light from windows in the background makes the foreground murky. Mostly, however, the direction is exemplary.

There is plenty of humour in the film; an overbearing live-in mother-in-law suddenly changes sides and thumps her son who is cowardly delegating a sensitive task to his wife. It is only rarely boring; I found the book reading irksome (indeed some of the audience appeared to be asleep). Overall it was well worth the effort of sitting in front of a television for hours. Hamaguchi’s representation of characters (and therefore people) as being not being as simple as we assume is engaging even if most of the blokes in the film need a rocket up their arses; some of them are self aware enough to know this. The failure to communicate properly in what would be ‘middle years’ (if it lasted) of a relationship, the deadening caused by routine, is superbly portrayed. MUBI.

And Breathe Normally (Andið eðlilega, Iceland-Sweden-Belguim, 2018)

Lost in translation

Ísold Uggadóttir’s first feature, which she also scripted, won the Best World Cinema Competition at the Sundance Film Festival and highlights the importance of the screenplay in filmmaking. And Breathe Normally‘s script just doesn’t quite hold together as narrative difficulties are often elided by moving on quickly to the next scene. However, this is a minor criticism as the film is a highly involving story about a refugee (Babetida Sadjo) from Guinea-Bissau (due to her sexuality) marooned in Iceland as her passport is fake.

It’s also about Lára (Kristín Þóra Haraldsdóttir), a single mum who also happens to be gay, who’s struggling in poverty and her path crosses Adja’s (the refugee) when she takes a job as a border guard. What struck me is the way Uggadóttir, whose direction is excellent, manages to suggest that social class is the key element rather than race, sexuality or gender. Despite idiots like Tory James Cleverly dismissing I, Daniel Blake because it’s fiction, only the wilfully blind are unaware that inequality in many societies has reached unsustainable levels (inequality is never right but was sustained by the welfare state, ease of credit and expanding economies). What unites the disadvantaged is usually social class; this is not to say ‘identity politics’ are not important, but that Marx’s call for class consciousness to fight exploitation is as valid as ever.

There are few institutions in the film as it is a social realist ‘slice of life’. We see border security at work and some of the workings of the deportation process; we are also shown, briefly, Lára’s son’s school. However it is clear that she is almost as trapped by society as Adja; ‘almost’ because for Lára there is some hope, ironically, in the border guard job: by saving herself and her son she has to oppress others.

Uggadóttir shot the film in Reykjanesbær, a town that houses the international airport in Iceland. It is shown to be ugly and she explains that the film avoids the tourist clichés used to represent the country. It is a bleak film (I won’t give away whether the ending offers hope) that gives a convincing glimpse into the lives of refugees (and the poor) who are often demonised whilst they are invariably the victims. Netflix.