The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005, Cristi Puiu)

“Are you still feeling nauseous?”
“I’m feeling melancholy.”

Right off the bat I’m regretting the decision to finally watch the 2.5-hour Romanian movie about the slow death of an old drunk due to failures in the national health care system. One of the top ten most critically acclaimed films of the decade or not, the DVD subtitles are blocky white with a light purple filling, the not-quite-static handheld camerawork is irritating, and the first 50 minutes are set inside Laz’s underlit apartment. I hope with the success of this movie, the director can afford a tripod.

It definitely gets better. Once they get to the ambulance/hospital(s), the handheld camera has some reason to exist, panning in response to characters and situations, like a dopey, late-night In The Loop. The paramedic who first picks up Laz feels responsible for him, wheels him from one condescending doctor to another, waiting in long lines for the use of scanning equipment and dealing with overcrowded emergency rooms and surly staff. Laz has a “subdural hematoma” (a brain cloud) and his condition rapidly and seriously worsens over the course of the night, until he can barely speak or control himself.

Seemed like a useful movie, but I’m not seeing the great work of art within. I preferred The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein as far as rambling 2.5-hour politically-charged budget-shot best-of-decade picks go. It made me angry towards the end, so there’s that, and I was pleased at the beginning that Laz and his neighbors are allowed some intelligence (not a given for movies about poor people). An article I can’t find right now says any Romanian would realize that all the times hospital personnel ask if Laz has any family with him, they are looking for a bribe, and the director says the movie is about the love of your fellow man.

The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (2001, John Gianvito)

1. A deep-voiced white kid Rafael is the only peacenik in his New Mexico high school, spurred on by a hippie teacher. His parents will hear nothing of it (“There was a time for national debate. It’s over”) so he leaves home.

2. Fernanda’s kids are abducted and killed on the first day of school by local racists. The cops are unhelpful jerks, and the kids aren’t found for a month. Fernanda herself is held for two months under suspicion of murder, disappears when released, goes wandering, is found by a woman with a house full of finches.

3. Ex-Marine Carlos returns from war, finds his job gone, is full of uncontrollable lusty rage.

So, a indie film over two hours long, shot on 16mm, full of 1990′s politics but released soon after September 2001. This was destined to be ignored, but accidentally destined to be extremely relevant to the decade that followed.

Freeze frames, long refreshingly unscripted-feeling dialogue scenes, and of course some scenes of trees and the whispering wind. Plus extended concert segments by Naseer Shemma, an Iraqi musician who performs his celebrated composition dedicated to civilians killed when American planes bombed a shelter.

Michael Sicinski in Cinema Scope:

Mad Songs is a political film that encompasses multiple stories, but does so following a film historical road less travelled – beginning with DW Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat and leading most recently to Fast Food Nation. The stories never intersect; instead they examine the problems of a time and place (the suburban US during the first Gulf War) almost geologically, by taking samples from discrete layers of American life.

Part of what makes Mad Songs so poignant, and at the same time incredibly strange, is the hope and earnestness with which it concludes. No film I’m aware of has given so much space to peace activists, sitting in meetings and testifying about the transformative power of nonviolent resistance. To a generation of critics and cinephiles reared on post-noir cynicism, Gianvito’s treatises surely sounded like transmissions from another planet.

Gianvito:

When I first began to conceive the project that became The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein, around 1993 I believe, it grew purely out of seething rage over the events of the 1991 Gulf War, the mainstream suppression of those events, and concern over the continuing support of lethal sanctions and military “containment” of Iraq. By the time I saw the film to completion the entire situation had only grown graver and more infuriating.

Colossal Youth (2006, Pedro Costa)

“It’s no use now. The letter will never reach Cape Verde.”

From the second scene it’s more theatrical/less documentary than In Vanda’s Room, which is a welcome change to me. Not coincidentally, I enjoyed it a hundred times more than Vanda. The Straubs would call me a stupid escapist, but I prefer having some sense of narrative and mystery over watching dudes shoot up and listening to Vanda cough for three hours.

“Bete, your mother’s gone. She doesn’t love me anymore.” Ventura’s wife has left him, after smashing up the house and wrecking all his clothes, and he wanders the neighborhood, forlorn, visiting his children and talking with friends, reminiscing and flashing-back, and worrying about the future, meeting with a realtor to select a new white apartment in the anonymous new complex. Or is any of that true? By the end we’re not sure if Ventura had any children – if the younger adults he talks with (including Vanda) are truly related or just friends and acquaintances.

Vanda is doing alright, on methadone and married to a very supportive man, with a young daughter, although her mother is dead and her sister Zita kills herself halfway through the film, so everything’s not rosy. In an eleven-minute shot she talks about giving birth and learning to turn her life around (and she doesn’t cough anymore), with references to suicide-by-gas since Costa loves to reference his earlier works. Ventura himself sports a white-bandaged head in the second half, seeming to parallel Isaach De Bankolé in Casa de Lava.

Speaking of which, Ventura recites a letter featured in Casa de Lava many times throughout the movie, uses it as a personal mantra and tries to get his friend Lento to memorize it. Lento, it turns out, is probably dead, making me wonder just how much of the story is only in Ventura’s head. This unreliable story and character made me so much more interested and invested in the movie than I was in Vanda, or even Ossos. Similar camera work to those, although the camera does move in this one, more of Costa’s strict rules disappearing.

My birds liked the movie too, or at least they noticed it. The pet birds (finches?), heard but not seen in Vanda’s house, drove them nuts.

The original title was Juventude Em Marcha (“Youth on the March”, a revolutionary slogan and once the title of a 1950′s televangelist program), and the English title is Colossal Youth (once the title of a Young Marble Giants album). Funny, all the “youth” since there’s barely any youth in the movie (Vanda’s daughter). You could count the housing development – it’s “colossal” and new – but that’s not what the original title would be referencing. I listened to the Y.M.G. album for clues but I wasn’t smart enough to draw any connections, except that the title similarity was probably intentional. If Costa enjoys early Wire, he surely likes this too.

Ventura in Vanda’s room:

T. Gallagher:

Costa’s lines are sometimes flat, delivered in short bursts, and often elliptical and inscrutable, like the dialogue in Antonioni’s English-language movies – another challenge to the spectator. Yet, nonetheless, we can feel a Straub-like sensuality of people infusing the space around them deeply, overwhelming it with their vibes, even when they are merely visiting somewhere. Indeed, in Colossal Youth, even when Ventura leaves a shot, he is still there, somehow.

Ventura lives partly in fantasy, which Costa makes real: past and present co-exist, the dead live, Lento dies twice, walls have creatures on them, things don’t connect. Ventura’s wife, he says, “had Clothide’s face but it wasn’t her”. Nor, in Colossal Youth, do doors always connect, for neither the Housing Agent nor Ventura. “I’ve been having this nightmare for more than thirty years”, says Ventura. “Anxiety tormented me night after night. I used to get [the door] wrong all the time. I’d come back drunk from work and collapse into a strange bed. All doors looked the same back then.”

Costa: “One can imagine that Ventura is a double character. On one hand, we see him looking at young people, and on the other there is someone who isn’t he, who lives in the past, who could be a brother or someone else, his double. Ventura’s companion who plays cards, Lento, is Ventura when young. The same, with a bit of past, a bit of future.”

Watching the ghosts in the walls:

I can’t find Mark Peranson’s long interview with Costa regarding Colossal Youth anywhere in my pile of Cinema Scope issues, but in an earlier article he calls it a “Rivettian narrative, with possible unmotivated flashbacks, probable ghosts, and drawn-out scenes that appear improvised (some may be, but considering that Costa rehearsed and re-rehearsed, then shot a total of 320 hours over 15 months, with each scene having as many as 30 takes, I expect that the words were carefully chosen). … Ventura’s haunted mien is that of the living dead; the zombies are walking again.”

Also watched two related shorts, although I couldn’t psych myself into watching the third.

Tarrafal
Faster editing than the last three features, but it tricks you since the first half of the movie is all one shot (interrupted once by a title card). Jose talks with his mom about returning to Cape Verde for a long time, then he runs into Ventura. Ventura takes over the movie, conversing with dead friend Alfredo. Movie ends with an official notice saying Jose is to be deported, pinned to a wooden post with a knife.

The Rabbit Hunters
Ventura and Alfredo each wake up on the streets in the new housing projects, which are already covered with graffiti. They go about having some of the same conversations as in Tarrafal (it’s re-edited from some of the same footage), running into Jose and again ending on the deportation notice. Guess it was overkill to watch both of these the same day.

Jose in Tarrafal:

Ventura and Alfredo in The Rabbit Hunters:

Alfredo in both: