Ida (2013, Pawel Pawlikowski)

Little Orphan Anna grew up in the church, is about to become a nun when the higher-ups say they’ve located her only living family, and send her off to meet her aunt. Aunt Wanda, a judge in town, says Anna’s real name is Ida, she is a Jew whose parents were murdered during WWII. The two set out to visit the parents’ grave, which is complicated since they haven’t got one, but fortunately run across their murderers who’ve taken the family home as their own. They take a couple bags of bones (Ida’s parents, Wanda’s son) to the family plot in a now-abandoned cemetery. Wanda tries to convince Ida to give up the nunnery, hooks her up with a cute saxophonist called Lis. Not much dialogue in the movie so we have to draw our own conclusions why Ida sleeps with the boy then sneaks away to return to the convent – but not much imagination is needed to figure why Wanda commits suicide.

4:3 b/w movie, beautifully shot though I sat close enough for the screen to look pixelly in wide shots. Plenty of head room, and a tendency to cram Ida into a lower corner of the screen, reminding me of Josh Brolin in Milk but probably for a different purpose.

The only actor I’m seeing in anything else is Joanna Kulig of Elles, gorgeous young singer of the saxophonist’s band. Pawlikowski made My Summer of Love and won awards for Last Resort with Paddy Considine.

Something I didn’t get that J. Kuehner explains: Wanda reveals “her own past as a prosecutor of ‘enemies of the people’ (historically, former anti-Nazi resistance fighters who were convicted in show trials under the Stalinist regime)”.

Diary of a Country Priest (1951, Robert Bresson)

New priest arrives hopeful at his first parish, is immediately eyed suspiciously by a powerful man having an affair with his kid’s governess. Every day will be a new disappointment for this young priest until his eventual death. A neighboring priest tells him: “A true priest is never loved. The church doesn’t care a whit whether you’re loved, my son. Be respected, obeyed. Keep order all day long, knowing full well disorder will win out tomorrow.”

Adulterous couple:

But he’s hardly respected or obeyed – people think him a meddler and a drunk, as he stumbles around dying slowly from undiagnosed stomach cancer, tormented by students and threatened by their parents. He manages to reach one woman, but she dies the next day and his meeting with her is misunderstood by others. Finally he goes off to see a doctor, and soon dies at the house of a former colleague.

The priest gets bad news:

Young terror Serafita, who does the priest a kindness towards the end:

I thought of Winter Light when the priest gives a daily mass for only one attendant – the commentary mentions it too. Surprised to hear that Bresson was agnostic.

The local count is the one having the affair (with Nicole Maurey of Day of the Triffids). The priest wants to help the count’s daughter Chantal, whom he believes to be sadly neglected, and wife, who is a shut-in mourning the death of her son. He tries to convince the family not to send Chantal away for good, and convince the countess to open up – semi-successfully too, as the governess is sent away instead after the countess’s death.

Priest vs. Chantal:

More grimly serious than Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, sharing sympathetic doomed clergy as main character with Les Anges du Peche, and more austere than either of them. Won some awards in Venice, while top prize went to Rashomon. Based on a novel by Georges Bernanos (Mouchette, Under the Sun of Satan). Lead priest Claude Laydu later played Franz Schubert in a biopic.

R. Humanick in Slant:

Bresson sees spiritual disorder as a disease, not unlike the stomach cancer we suspect is—and is ultimately confirmed to be—plaguing our titular character. Likely to fall ill at the slightest exertion, he has taken to a diet consisting entirely of stale bread soaked with wine. This leads the unnaturally suspicious townsfolk to suspect alcoholism, and in a heartbreaking revelation, we learn that the priest was in fact born to alcoholic parents (“pickled from birth,” as someone tactlessly puts it). Wine drinking is seen less as a habit to be abhorred, however, than as a routine not unlike holy communion, although Laydu’s fasting during shooting adds immeasurably to the priest’s sickly appearance and the accruing tone of his death rattle, and there remains a subtextual suggestion that our physical and spiritual limitations are naturally entwined.

F. Bonnaud for Criterion:

So Robert Bresson’s film is above all the story of a failure, of a man who is completely incapable of leaving an impression on the world. It is the story of defeat, of a faint trace of spirit left behind and then erased all too quickly. It is a story about someone who tries his best to throw things off balance, and whose best efforts are finally squelched by the weighty order of things.

Winter Light (1962, Ingmar Bergman)

Set in one day, almost a real-time portrait of the failings of local pastor Gunnar Bjornstrand (bad father from Through a Glass Darkly). He gives his sermon to a sparse, unattentive congregation then has a series of disspiriting meetings in his office. Gunnel Lindblom (servant girl in The Virgin Spring) wants him to speak with her husband, a depressed Max Von Sydow, never looking more sad and powerless. Local atheist teacher, friend and off-again love interest Ingrid Thulin (Sydow’s secret wife in The Magician) writes the pastor a an attack/analysis letter, delivered as a speech to-camera.

Gunnar and Ingrid:

Then Von Sydow is back (mentioned: “a spider God, a monster”, direct callback to Through a Glass Darkly). He is feeling suicidal and the pastor so completely fails to help (“I’m no good as a clergyman,” he even admits) that Sydow promptly wanders outside and shoots himself in the head. Ingrid goes with Gunnar to inform the widow, and along the way he discusses their lack of a relationship. “I don’t want you. Once and for all I have to escape this junkyard of idiotic trivialities. And I don’t love you, because I love my wife. When she died, so did I.”

Widow Gunnel:

Off to the next church service in another town, joined by the hunchbacked sexton, a thoughtful man and the best character in the movie. Each tormented by their lives’ lack of meaning, Gunnar begins the service, which is attended only by Ingrid.

Sexton Allan Edwall, later in Fanny & Alexander and The Sacrifice:

A strong contender for Most Depressing Film of All Time. Made the same year as Frantisek Vlácil’s The Devil’s Trap (“an allegory regarding science, religion and secular power”) and The World’s Greatest Sinner, in which Timothy Carey renames himself God and defies the other God to show himself. Max von Sydow would follow this up by playing Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told.

The ending, in Bergman’s words: “Irrespective of everything, you will hold your Communion. It is important to the churchgoer, but even more important to you.”

P. Cowie from the DVD extras:

When it came out, I remember certainly being very shocked that this did not look like a Bergman film. It didn’t have that spectacular technical expertise which we associated during the 50′s with Bergman. But looking back I think it was very deliberate on his part. It wasn’t a budget problem or anything like that. He just wanted something very, very wintry and very, very severe.

P. Cowie:

Film buffs who know Bergman’s earlier film Through a Glass Darkly will note the organist’s scornful dismissal of that work’s conclusion: “God is love; love is God.” Indeed, Winter Light stands as a bridge between Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence, as well as Bergman’s farewell to his own religious upbringing. Some might call it an exorcism.

Ebert:

The sexton, the little twisted man, alone has a face that is alive with wonder at the mystery of faith. He has been reading the Gospels, he says, and thinks the emphasis on Christ’s suffering on the cross is all wrong. Christ only suffered a few hours, he says, while he, Algot, has suffered more and longer, and it is not so bad. No, the real suffering of Christ came when his disciples betrayed him at Gethsemane, and when he cried out to a father who seemed to have forsaken him. He suffered because he feared no one had heard or understood his message. Christ suffered because he, too, was dismayed by the silence of God.

Harakiri (1962, Masaki Kobayashi)

A brilliant flashback drama full of slow-boil tension leading to an explosive action scene and devastating business-as-usual finale. Tatsuya Nakadai (star of Kill! and of the snow-lady second segment of Kwaidan) asks a local clan for permission to commit ritual suicide in their courtyard, and the stooge in charge (Rentaro Mikuni, star of the first Kwaidan segment and the chained son in Profound Desire of the Gods, seeming older here, perhaps because of his baldy-samurai hair) tells of the last guy who tried that, how he was forced to go through with the suicide rather than being given some money to go away. But Nadakai knows this already, since the last guy was his son-in-law (Akira Ishihama of some Kinoshita films) whose death led his young wife Shima Iwashita (the daughter in An Autumn Afternoon) to her own. Nadakai’s plan is to demand an apology, and when the clan attacks he takes down as many men as he can (having killed some key guys earlier, as the flashback structure very gradually reveals). Rather than admit any blame, the clan leader orders a total cover-up, saying the others died of illness. A cynical movie, but thrilling in execution (with tastefully-deployed pre-’70s shock-zooms), the movie Kobayashi made before Kwaidan.

J. Mellen for Criterion:

In the film’s condemnation of the Iyi clan, Kobayashi rejects the notion of individual submission to the group. He condemns, simultaneously, the hierarchical structures that pervaded Japanese political and social life in the 1950s and 1960s, especially the zaibatsus, the giant corporations that recapitulated feudalism.

World’s Greatest Dad (2009, Bobcat Goldthwait)

Robin Williams is an unpublished author and a disrespected high-school poetry teacher. He’s got a beautiful young girlfriend and a shitty, hateful, porn-obsessed son Kyle (Daryl Sabara, one of the Spy Kids), who dies during an autoerotic asphyxiation session staring at cellphone photos up his dad’s girlfriend’s dress – so Robin stages it as a suicide and writes a note.

Upon reading the suicide note, everyone suddenly sees the “real” Kyle:

Except friend Andrew, who sees some kinda weirdo poet:

The note becomes huge news on campus and soon everyone is acting like Kyle and his dad are heroes. Kyle’s “journal” (hastily written by Robin) is locally published, and his story inspires everyone: a closeted homosexual athlete, the goth girl considering suicide, the guidance counselor nobody talks to… everyone except Kyle’s best (only) friend, who sees through the ruse and tries to talk to Robin, who’s too busy dealing with his new celebrity.

Bobcat plays the chauffeur who takes Robin (and his self-obsessed girl) to a TV studio to discuss the inspirational journal (Tom Kenny and Jill Talley cameos), and national publishers express interest in the journal and in Robin’s novels, but he finally confesses the lie and goes home to watch Night of the Living Dead with his group of misfits: the lonely next-door neighbor and Kyle’s one friend. Amazing blend of humor and pathos, like when Robin starts crying in front of a porno-mag street vendor.

Girlfriend Alexie Gilmore and coworker Henry Simmons (of NYPD Blue)

Violence at Noon (1966, Nagisa Oshima)

“I failed to die again, and now I’m alone.”

When I have the time, I’d like to watch and enjoy more movies by Ozu and Naruse, by Kurosawa and Masumura, Shindo and Imamura. Oshima is the only one I feel I ought to study. The movies are fun to watch and enjoy like the others, but I feel like I immediately need to see them again and figure out what they are up to. This one was at least more of a story (like Empire of Passion) than a political abstraction (like Death By Hanging), but still crazy enough that I’m sure I missed a lot.

Shino:

Matsuko:

It took a while to figure this out, but here goes. Eisuke (Kei Sato, male lead in Onibaba but looking more brutal/evil here) is the “high-noon” rapist/killer terrorizing Japan. Two women are irrationally in love with him: his wife Matsuko (Oshima regular Akiko Koyama), a teacher, and a young girl named Shino. Eisuke had “rescued” Shino when she tried to die with her boyfriend Genji (Rokko Toura, “Television” in Japanese Summer: Double Suicide) who knows how long ago, and now feels free to rape her anytime. When he’s finally caught and sentenced, the two women go into the woods to die together by poison, but Shino awakens, still alive.

The High-Noon Killer:

Tragic Genji:

I guess it’s not that hard to figure out the story after all, but I was distracted by the ridiculously great/nuts camerawork and editing for at least the first half.

Buy from Amazon:
Oshima’s Outlaw Sixties (Eclipse DVD)

Mélo (1986, Alain Resnais)

Set in 1926. The same cast as Love Unto Death – again putting Sabine Azema together with Pierre Arditi. This time they are happily married until Andre Dussolier comes around to visit, in a half-hour dinner-conversation opening scene. Sabine beins a passionate affair with Andre, her husband’s old classmate at music school, now an accomplished violinist. Unlike Love Unto Death (which I think I prefer), the only music we hear is played by the characters.

A red curtain declares the start of act 2. Pierre is sick, has been sick for a couple weeks, and cousin Fanny Ardant calls a doctor one day while Sabine is away. This is trouble because he starts asking questions, like what are the drops that Sabine has been giving her husband ever since shortly before he became ill. On top of Pierre’s illness, his wife is becoming hostile, disappearing for long periods of time.

Red curtain, act 3. Sabine killed herself three years earlier and her cousin Fanny has married Pierre, and knows about her cousin’s affair with the violinist. She tries to keep the secret from Pierre but he suspects, visits Andre and challenges him. Andre holds his own, never admits the affair, and Pierre drops it. Movie seems to end on a hopeful, reconcilatory note as they play music together.

A small-scale, controlled film, with theatrical staging (just a few locations) but thoughtful camera work. The girl cheating while her man is performing his music reminds me of To Be Or Not To Be (or Unfaithfully Yours). Sabine and Pierre won Cesar awards, but Resnais lost to Alain Cavalier and Therese.

I was going to choose something to quote from J. Rosenbaum’s 1988 article on the film, reprinted in Placing Movies, but it’s such a long and thoughtful piece, I don’t feel like chopping bits out of it.

Buy from Amazon:
Alain Resnais: A Decade in Film

City of Pirates (1984, Raoul Ruiz)

Easily my favorite Ruiz feature to date. At first it seems to have cranked up the surrealistic randomness of The Golden Boat, but with the constant visual interest of the short Le Film a Venir – which would be enough of a recommendation for me. But it just gets deeper and more fascinating as it goes on, while retaining enough of a plot and character structure to keep from becoming pure, confusing symbolism. Even if it turns out to be a huge allegory that I completely misunderstood, it’s still highly enjoyable on its own, full of meaning and ideas. Before I go seeking out others’ interpretations, a simple story rundown:

Stills from the remarkable first ten minutes:

The film’s subtitle looks like Latin, “Rusticatio Civitatis Piratarum,” translated as Pirates’ Exile. Set in “Overseas Territories, one week before the end of the war.”

Isodore (Anne Alvaro of Wajda’s Danton) lives with her parents in exile, who have a missing son (“he would be nine”). They see signs, abandon the house, are visited by cops who make reference to the Isle of Pirates. The girl finds an orphan boy (Melvil Poupaud, who became a Ruiz regular, most recently as the rescued colonel Lacroze in Mysteries of Lisbon) hiding at their new house.

Isidore considers drowning in the surf (her father: “Finally!” then when she falls for a mustache man and decides against suicide, “Ah! How I hate her!”). Pierre, the little boy, is discovered to have killed his whole family, now kills Isidore’s parents, then castrates the mustache man who shoots himself. All of this is done in a low-key way, with nobody getting too upset. Ruiz characters are never shaken when their families are killed.

Off to the Isle of Pirates, where her 10-year-old fiancee Pierre (aka Malo) abandons Isidore and she’s held prisoner by a guy named Toby (Hugues Quester, Binoche’s dead husband in Blue, also in Rohmer’s Tale of Springtime) with multiple personalities. “The defeat of Spain is inevitable… and with that, the feast of blood begins.” Isidore begins to doubt her identity, kills Toby with a knife (everyone is killed with a knife).

She’s visited in jail by her mother (not dead?) and the two cops from earlier. “Know this: this wonderful child who delivered you to the Isle of Pirates is our prophet, Don Sebastian. He’s known around the world. In England, he’s called Peter Pan … He reappears every ten years. He kills with joy his entire family. He shows us how to die. But, much more importantly, he shows us how to kill.”

“We, soldiers of the great battle of the world: we swear to die and to kill in order to introduce the army of corpses for the greater glory of our country, our cemetery. We swear to be reincarnated and to have the honor of dying again for the greater glory of our fathers, of the country of worms. We promise to pursue our struggle for the triumph of Death in order to perpetuate our glory in no other things.”

Isidore is back on the island talking to Toby, referring to Sebastian as their son. Sebastian, looking feral with a knife in his mouth, kills them both. Ends with Isidore and her mother looking at the Isle through their window, the ghosts of her father and Sebastian lurking around. “Everything begins again,” one of the women repeating “We are here… we are here.”

P. Hammond wrote an article for Rouge, hammers out a bunch of the film’s references, influences and allusions.

Surprise, invention, paradox are Ruiz’s touchstones. He believes in affirmation through irony, the clarity of enigma, deferred resolution, outlandish change of mood. He moves forward by staying in the same place. The tales his characters tell echo each other in certain details, enough to suggest an occult order behind discrete events.

What binds Ruiz’s lost souls to each other’s desire is an Oedipal, narcissistic quest for identity.

D. Cairns writing about a different film:

Keats spoke of “negative capability,” the power to enjoy things without understanding them, to relish mystery without requiring a solution, and to appreciate art without being able to fit it into a rational box. Although, there’s always a frustration with movies where one is shut out of the linguistic side, since you know you’re not getting the full experience. It’s like pan-and-scan, only with words.

I’ve found the cover image for one of his Poetics of Cinema books.

Germany Year Zero (1948, Roberto Rossellini)

The end of the War Trilogy, and the one I’d seen once before in a mega-depressing Italian Neorealism night programmed by TCM, which included Ossessione and Umberto D.

No Fellini involvement this time, just R.R. in a foreign land with unknown actors. Being an Italian, foreign pictures were no problem – doesn’t matter what anybody is saying because they’ll be dubbed later. A fairly active and mobile camera for 1948, with plenty of exteriors of course, by D.P. Robert Juillard, who’d later shoot René Clément’s Forbidden Games. Big noisy music by brother Renzo.

Little Edmund is being pulled in all directions. He lives with his family, who board with a cranky other family. The elders complain that Edmund is made to go out and work for them, but they barely lift a finger to help – father is ill, brother is a nazi soldier in hiding, and sister dances with men at night for cigarettes. Edmund even picks up tasks for the landlords, who then bitch and moan if he doesn’t do them right. He’s not extremely street smart (Hitler Youth underprepared him for ruinous defeat), is taken advantage of wherever he goes. He falls in with a nazi (and very likely pedophile, extremely creepy, touchy dude who loves hanging out with boys) ex-schoolteacher who plants the idea in Edmund’s mind to poison his father and lessen the burden around the house. But doing this only makes Ed feel worse, and he throws himself off a building.

Rosenbaum:

“This movie, filmed in Berlin in the summer of 1947,” [Rossellini] declared …, is “an objective and faithful portrait,” not “an accusation or even a defense of the German people.” Yet objectivity was clearly (and thankfully) the last thing Rossellini had in mind. Even the doom-ridden modernist score by his brother Renzo participates in the sense of unfolding disbelief and horror by suggesting some of the mood of science fiction. And the directive later in the preface to care about these Germans rather than call for any further retribution is actually more consistent with Rossellini’s aims than any “objective assessment” could be. This was a brave and principled stance for him to take at the time, and it still places Germany Year Zero well in advance of most films about war made even today.

That ending (Rossellini says the ending was the only part of this film that interested him) is so powerful that although it’s one of the all-time most depressing movie finales, I could watch it over and over. Ed allows himself to be more of a kid here, playing games that get increasingly war-like and suicidal – he pretends that a bit of metal is a gun, and his first instinct is to shoot himself with it. The final pan up to the ruined city skyline (one of many majestic shots of bombed-out Berlin) reminds me of that final skyline shot as the kids walk away from the murdered priest at the end of Rome Open City.

Buy from Amazon:
Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy DVD