After such a strong week two, week three began with a bit of a disadvantage. Beginning in Japan, and ending in Poland, week three crisscrossed the globe, telling an incredibly diverse group of stories along the way. A surrealist short (from the incomparable Luis Buñuel), a rockumentary, an Oscar nominee, and a chilling horror diversified my week three viewing experience, rendering it the most jarring day-to-day film campaign of my “March.” From the hammy melodrama of Misaki Kobayashi’s I Will Buy You to the psychological complexities of Jane Campion’s Sweetie, week three became an exercise in “resetting” my expectations. One of my goals for this project was to go into as many films as blindly as possible. I purposefully neglected to research any films on my list (save for the few added to alleviate the pressure of my expanding queue), challenging myself to pick up cues as to the narrative structure/cinematic style without any preconceptions or information. With the narrative subversion of I Will Buy You, and the disjointed timeline of Milcho Manchevski’s Before the Rain, week three proved to be a conjectural struggle. In order to fully appreciate these films, any prior knowledge, biases, and even my mood had to be discarded before facing the daily film. More so than any other week, my ability to discard supposition was rigorously tested. The need to quickly pick up social cues, cultural and historical context and narrative tendencies was crucial to fully understanding each of week three’s diverse range of films – strengthening my abilities to conceptualize a film’s purpose without any prior research.
I Will Buy You (1956)
Directed by Masaki Kobayashi
Money will ruin your life. Kobayashi is known for his controversial topics, and this is no exception (although, now, it has a far weaker impact). A lot of the delicately-balanced cinematography and lighting were unable to be preserved, slightly diminishing my enjoyment of the film, but leaving enough to recognize the magnitude of talent that went into the film’s production. A shining example of a “slow burn,” I Will Buy You does not get truly interesting until the second half. A series of manipulative encounters between a Japanese baseball scout, and a heavy-hitting prospect’s “pimp” go relatively unnoticed until some telling (and some that are expected) revelations are made deep into act II. An extreme example of the corruption and damage caused by money in sports, Kobayashi’s film is a scathing condemnation of the wholesale bribery slowly creeping into baseball.
Before the Rain (1994)
Directed by Milcho Manchevski
Sprawling landscapes and impactful human drama collide to bring an informative and compassionate light to the Albanian/ Macedonian conflicts of the early 1990’s (which have persisted along ethnic lines to this day). A story in three acts (Words, Faces, and Places), Before the Rain tells the story of groups of people whose lives are inexorably tied. A non-chronological narrative is never established, yet is hinted at in such a way to reveal its meticulous construction. Forced to pay attention to a myriad of intricate details, the audience remains vigilant, despite the relatively somber pacing. Flashes of action dot the individual acts, their frequency a constant source of audience turmoil, as we watch with bated breath, hearts racing. The audience is given a proxy in each situation, relatable mainly through their outsider’s perspective on the constantly-escalating situations surrounding them. Given our relative removal from the situation (Macedonia and Albania have relatively small populations, so I’ve taken the liberty of assuming that a majority of the film’s audience is of neither heritage), the audience is confronted with the frustrating ignorance of two similar peoples so vehemently divided. We are, like our proxies, strangers in a foreign land, unable to grasp the gravity of a situation that spun out of control long ago. Milcho Manchevski’s lens takes the place of documentarian/news cameras reporting a story from the inside, watching idly as a generation is ripped apart by war (as, so often, is the case). Manchevski does not seem to want us to act, nor, I’d imagine, does he think we can. Manchevski’s only goal is to incite a gradual change in society; one of the many such “activist” films trying desperately to change ways of thinking. In deconstructing the hatred, and refusing to shy away from ignorant violence, Manchevski directs his audience inward, to reflect upon their own inner hostility. Bringing light to a terrible situation can only do so much for the people it affects, but it can create societal waves to impact the world going forward.
Simon of the Desert (1965)
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Buñuel can make a mockery out of anything. With Simon of the Desert Buñuel takes a crack (one of his many) at religion. Simon has been standing atop a pillar in the desert for 6 years, 6 months, and 6 days in order to get closer to god, standing penitently before him as an egregious sinner. Although we never come to fully understand Simon’s sins, he is, without a doubt, the most pious person in the film. Surrounded by greed, lust, and doubt, Simon remains rigid in his stance on God’s wishes and his holy teachings. A bible verse at the ready for seemingly every situation, Simon has (literally) risen above his peers – a beacon of solemn repentance and holiness.
Getting to know Simon on a more personal level, we find that he is merely a man, able to do extraordinary things. Forgetting his prayers mid-sentence, grumbling with hunger when his impatience pulls him from his meditative state, and near-constant temptation (from the Devil herself), all show that Simon is just an extremely resolute human being. Hoping only to hear from God, and get some confirmation of his works, Simon is left in complete silence – apart from several, astounding, miracles attributed to his name.
Buñuel’s “silence of God” is much the opposite of a director like Ingmar Bergman. Rather than play within the confines of the real world, Buñuel makes his own rules, creating a vibrant world where miracles are expected. One of the greatest aspects of Simon of the Desert is the reaction Simon’s flock has to the wonders he achieves. His incredible fasting and standing for 6 years aside, within the first few minutes, Simon is able to give a man his hands back. A feat that would stun crowds in a magic show, Simon’s followers seem to expect this level of sensation – unfazed by a man somehow growing his hands back. Making a mockery out of constantly needing a stronger basis for faith, Buñuel shows that even this level of holy intervention will never be an adequate substitute for God’s physical presence. Moreover, Buñuel goes a step beyond the consistent need for proof, by satirizing the mundanity of a world in which miracles are commonplace. In a world where Biblically-equivalent phenomenon are habitually frequent, the wonder quickly fades to boredom and apathy. More than unconvinced by Simon’s ability to exorcize the devil or cure a man’s illness, many in his crowd seem utterly bored with his abilities; their presence in the congregation a mere ritual in which they must partake.
As a filmmaker, Buñuel loves to make himself laugh, and with Simon of the Desert his laughter is present in every scene. An entirely absurd voyage into faith and spirituality, Buñuel’s film is a mesmerizing conglomeration of surrealism, black humor, and satire.
Directed by Ahmed El Maanouni
The Vanishing (1988)
Directed by George Sluizer
Country: The Netherlands/ Nederland
Original View to a Queue review (love that rhyme)
Directed by Jane Campion
Country: Australia (New Zealand)
Well this is what I get for trusting Criterion at their word. While I am somewhat ashamed that I didn’t realize that this was, indeed, an Australian movie until the characters wound up in the outback, there were plenty of signs along the way. Based on auteur theory alone, I suppose this Qualifies as a New Zealand (New Zealandese? Zealandish?Zealandian?) film, solely because director Jane Campion is a native. Looks like I will have to go for 31 this March…
Sweetie was almost as funny as it was insane. The most dysfunctional family in Australia is faced with countless instances of mental illness, yet all refuse treatment in favor of familial remedy. While the words “mental illness” are never uttered (there is one instance where the semi-normal, Kay (Karen Colston) tells her sister, Sweetie/Dawn (Geneviève Lemon) she’ll end up in a home), this group of social outcasts is, without a doubt, seriously troubled. Coddled by her doting father as a child, Sweetie grew up as a fairy princess. Not only did this affect her younger sister, Kay (serious emotional disorder/obsessive tendencies), it held Sweetie in a perpetual state of prepubescent wonder, and left her with a fondness for tantrums that accompany spoiled children under 12.
A dynamic lens and a so-awkward-it-hurts humor consume Campion’s Sweetie, a quickly unraveling narrative telling a story that is anything but sweet.
Directed by Andrzej Wajda
Wajda is an incredibly talented director. Focusing on a group of doomed men at the end of the Warsaw uprising, Kanal is an utterly desolate and terrifyingly claustrophobic film. A group of Polish freedom fighters are driven underground like rats in the face of an oppressively-mighty German army. Once in the sewers beneath Warsaw, the company slowly dissolves into smaller factions, each descending into madness in the labyrinthine tunnels.