Week two left me in awe. Such an immensity of beauty and emotion from films like Le Havre and The Music Room. Starting the week in Denmark and working through Italy, My only respites from Europe were two “trips” to Iran and India. Week two did, however, span the greatest amount of time. From Germany: Year Zero (1948) – The Great Beauty (2013), the transition was startling. Having started just three years after the end of WWII in bomb-riddled Berlin, and seeing, just three days later, the nearly-unscathed Rome of 2013(not to mention the color in which Paolo Sorrentino bathes his film) was truly jarring. Having never seen a Finnish or Iranian film (at least none that are worth recollection), week two was also quite the learning experience. While the Finnish film (Le Havre) was not based in, or involved with Finland, my exposure to Aki Kaurismäki has lead me to an entirely new realm of film discovery (more on that later). Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room offered a glimpse into the feudal/caste system of India, and Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up introduced me to the, almost comically-informal Iranian court system. Roberto Rossellini’s Germany: Year Zero opened my eyes to the historically-forgotten post-WWII German peoples, and their (one could argue, deserved) struggles.
Above all else, week two gave me hope for the future of filmmaking. In a cinematic landscape where originality is being moved to the outskirts of production, finding something truly moving (more than just emotionally moving) has become a chore. Blockbuster films have all adopted the same bland narrative structure, seemingly every Sundance darling features a similar aesthetic and comedic grounding, and independently-minded directors are being swallowed up by massive studios to make sci-fi adaptations worth hundreds-of-millions at the box office. Films like Close-Up, Le Havre, and The Great Beauty filled me with joy; giving me the belief that cinema is indeed headed in the right direction, albeit, a relatively unseen one.
Babette’s Feast (1987)
Directed by Gabriel Axel
A pensive reflection of the artist’s role in religion, Babette’s Feast is an elegantly shot and richly detailed film. When a French cook moves in with the two aging daughters of a small Danish town’s founding father (priest), she brings a vivid life to the languid and grey town. Refusing pay, Babette cooks and cleans for the sisters who were gracious enough to take her in. 14-years pass, and Babette is informed that she has won a 10,000 Franc lottery, and would like to help the sisters celebrate their father’s 100th birthday by cooking an authentic French dinner. Paying for all of the lavish supplies (a sea turtle, live quails, and cases of wine and champagne), Babette’s titular feast begins to worry the sisters and the rest of the town. Taking a vow to “turn off” their taste buds, and give their spirits to the lord, the parishioners reluctantly join the feast.
Striking a balance between warm and cold, director Gabriel Axel and his cinematographer Henning Kristiansen create a vivid period piece. Swinging from past to present, and from interior to exterior, the transitions in shot temperature create senses of mood that perfectly compliment one another. Production design by Sven Wichmann is crucial to grounding the film in the past, and is meticulous in its construction.
Le Havre (2011)
Directed by Aki Kaurismäki
Le Havre blew me away. Kaurismäki achieves a 1970’s (maybe 1950’s) aesthetic for his “modern” fairytale. Pointedly funny, and utterly deadpan, Le Havre, despite its downtrodden characters, maintains a light airiness of whimsy. Clunky dialogue and stiff acting invoke Neo Realism, yet compounded with the dry humor and colorful surroundings, feel oddly fantastic and lend a peculiar magic to the film. Creating a sense of imminent disaster, Kaurismäki gives us time to prepare for the worst, while offering elegant visual distractions via each and every meticulously-crafted shot. An intriguing blend of Jacques Tati, Jim Jarmusch, and Jean-Pierre Melville, Kaurismäki creates a style all his own, and a film that is truly one of the best that I have seen in years.
Le Havre was particularly moving, because it reminded me of my love for film. Growing up, Wes Anderson’s films showed me that there was something beyond the Mike Meyers, Judd Apatow and Adam Sandler comedies that were overwhelmingly preferred by my peers. Le Havre made me realize that I have probably never even heard of, what will eventually become, my favorite film. For the first time in a long time, I felt optimistic about the world of film – tearing down false barriers preventing me from fully enjoying a film simply due to it not being considered “a classic” or lack of substantial critical acclaim. Watching Le Havre for the first time utterly captivated me in a way that forced me to turn off my critical eye, and just watch. The solemn humor of Kaurismäki’s film was compounded by the out-of-place setting and characters, rendering me fully consumed, and perplexed. I was so thoroughly overjoyed (and emotionally spent) that I was compelled to share my experience with anyone that would listen, and ended up re-watching it several hours later with my (soon to be) wife. Le Havre may, or may not end up being one of my favorite films, but its functioning as a reintroduction to the reasons I love film so deeply, gave me a much needed avidity to continue my search for incredible cinema, and has earned itself a special place in my heart.
Black Moon (1975)
Directed by Louis Malle
Germany: Year Zero (1948)
Directed by Roberto Rossellini
Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero is an utterly haunting film. Chiaroscuro cinematography highlights the hopeless dejection of Germany after the Second World War, and frames the people in shameful solemnity. Rossellini is careful not to evoke sympathy for the Nazis, instead allowing his audience to understand the climate of disbelief in postwar Germany. Expansive shots highlight the destruction of entire cities – once great monuments to man’s architectural prowess reduced to jagged rubble. As an American, I have a very small understanding of the fate of the Axis powers after WWII, consisting of Germany being divided into East and West, and the Cold War starting. Germany Year Zero clued me in to an extensive allied involvement in rebuilding Germany, while acting as a security force to search out and document Nazi soldiers; battalions of soldiers keeping “order” in a completely ruined state. More than allowing me to understand a group of people so thoroughly disillusioned by a sociopathic dictator, Rossellini’s film sparked my interest in what happened after the dust settled, and nations needed to be rebuilt. Filed under “boring” in high school history classes, this fact of the past has been glossed over (during my education) in favor of broad strokes and exciting events.
The Music Room (1958)
Directed by Satyajit Ray
Indian master Satyajit Ray creates a mesmerizing portrait of king Huzur Biswamghar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), as he descends into madness after the loss of his wife and son. An intense passion for music and horse riding consume his life, resulting in financial ruin. A wealthy moneylender’s son Mahim Ganguly (Gangapada Basu) builds a house on the king’s land, creating an immense tension within the region. The wealth of the businessman reflects poorly on Huzur Biswamghar Roy, prompting him to throw a continual stream of lavish parties. Plunged into debt, Roy becomes a recluse, shunning music, and his home, in favor of quiet isolation.
Although shot in black and white, Ray’s film has a rich vibrancy; each shot absolutely bursting with colorful Indian culture. Music and dance dominate the increasingly somber picture, taking on a dual role as both a means of spiritual transcendence, and as a haunting reminder of Roy’s destroyed family. Ray is without a doubt one of India’s, and the world’s, greatest filmmakers, and The Music Room finds his in top form.
Directed by Abbas Kiarostami
As Abbas Kiarostami works to gain judiciary approval to film the trial of Hossain Sabzian, the judge notes that he cannot understand why Kiarostami would want to film this case, as he has much more interesting files. And while the judge is certainly correct, as Sabzian’s case is not exceedingly interesting, Kiarostami’s attention to detail produces a massively compelling story. Posing as famous Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Hossain Sabzian gains the trust of the Ahankhah family. For reasons that are never made quite clear, the rouse continues for five days, until Sabzian is arrested. Using a mix of documentary footage, interviews, and recreations by the actual parties involved, Kiarostami reconstructs every event in minute detail. Filming an introduction followed by the courtroom proceedings (Iranian court is WEIRD – in the best possible sense), Kiarostami exactingly reconstructs events described in testimony, imbuing his documentary hybrid with an intense sense of tension and realism. An original and revelatory piece of filmmaking, Close-Up stands alone at the top – the only thing to come close is Bart Layton’s The Imposter, an equally captivating, but far more sinister hybrid documentary.
The Great Beauty (2013)
Directed by Paolo Sorrentino