Have you seen films originating from 30 different nations? I found myself pondering this question when a challenge was posted by a fellow user on Letterboxd.com. Dubbed “March Around the World,” the challenge is exceedingly simple (or so I thought), watch one film a day, for 30 days; the crux of which is the constantly changing country of origin. This “adventure” into world cinema truly peaked my interest because, while I have seen hundreds, maybe thousands of films, I cannot, with absolute certainty, say that I have seen films from 30 different countries. Aided by their proximity to one another, the similarities and differences present in each of the films would become much more apparent. A breakneck-pace, world cinema masterclass, the challenge proved to not only expand my cultural worldview, but to introduce me to films that I may have never otherwise discovered.
Much like the monks around which it is centered, Roberto Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis thrives on its simplicity. Through shunning outside influence and gratuitous artifice, the film has maintained a genuine and monk-like sincerity that is impossible to ignore. A figurehead of Italian Neo-Realism cinema, Rossellini injects The Flowers of St. Francis with authenticity via his casting of non-actor monks from the Nocere Inferiore Monastery, and seeking writing advice from Fathers Antonio Lisandrini and Félix Morlión.
Based on Fioretti Di San Francesco and La Vita di Frate Ginepro, The Flowers of St. Francis takes its (abbreviated) parable structure from the former work focusing on small deeds and lessons taught by St. Francis to his disciples. Divided into nine parts, Rossellini’s film introduces each segment with a brief title card describing what will take place. Serving a duel purpose, the title cards not only introduce the familiar scenarios from the novel, but also act as a summery of events to come – forcing a new audience to focus on the gravity of the events themselves, rather than to follow along with an unknown narrative structure.
Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! is a film based around tension. Whether Lloyd’s “Glass” character is getting into escalating situations of mortifying chicanery, or performing death-defying stunts that would make even the most daring vaudevillian sweat, Safety Last!‘s only respite from anxiety is the proliferation of sight gags, and the knowledge that, much like the pervasive attitude of the 1920’s, everything is going to be just fine.
Much like any other silent comedy of the nineteen-teens and twenties, Safety Last! is given a minimal plot, and focuses mostly on the development of Lloyd’s character. From a brilliant opening shot that relies heavily on audience expectation, Lloyd’s film makes its intentions known, and assures us that all is not what it seems. Harold (introduced as “The Boy”) is leaving his small hometown to “make it big” in the city. Leaving his girlfriend home, he promises to send for her once he strikes it rich. Working diligently at the De Vore Department Store for a meager wage, Harold is relegated to pawning his phonograph and neglecting his rent to impress his hometown sweetheart. Afraid that Harold will get up to no good as a rich lone wolf, “The Girl” (Mildred Davis) decides to plan a surprise trip. Struggling to keep up with his facade, Harold refuses to acknowledge his lies, leading to a mounting series of ridiculous buffoonery.
Based on Junpei Gomikawa’s six-part novel of the same name, The Human Condition is director Masaki Kobayashi’s anti-war epic – profoundly capturing the spiritual heights and unspeakable depths of humanity. Split into three parts, No Greater Love, Road to Eternity, and A Soldier’s Prayer, The Human Condition runs an incredible 9 hours, 47 minutes, taking three-years to film. Endeavoring to adapt his film as closely to the books as possible, Kobayashi was said to have directed with the script in one hand and the novel in the other; often adding in overlooked sections of the book as little as one-day prior to filming. With an incredible array of mainstream Japanese actors, The Human Condition‘s exhaustive scope and sweeping narrative are presented with the gravity they command, and with the dignity to which they are entitled.
Kaji (a powerfully impressive breakout performance from Tatsuya Nakadai) is perhaps the most idealistically righteous, yet entirely human, hero in cinema (and even literary) history. Strikingly humanistic, Kaji is guided only by the love he has for his wife, Michiko (Michiyo Aratama), and his unwavering moral compass. No Greater Love finds Kaji as a young employee of a regional mining operation. Offered a labor supervisor position in China, Kaji jumps at the chance to deploy his altruistic labor plan, and to receive a draft exemption for himself. Sharing the news with his then girlfriend, Michiko, the lovers marry and “honeymoon” in the remote mining town where Kaji is to be stationed. Met with resistance from management and other labor supervisors, Kaji discovers the many hurdles of implementing any real change. While he is able to make small improvements in working conditions and production rates, Kaji is unable to deal with Japanese imperialism, or build lasting trust with his group of Chinese POW’s. Set up to fail, Kaji looses his exemption, and is drafted into the Japanese Army.