Monday, 11 June 2018

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo) (1964)


When it comes to movie versions of religious texts a lot of the usual criteria for evaluating a movie become invalid. A religious topic, especially if it is THE religious texts that are being used cannot really be rated as a good or a bad story. If you are religious, you would rate it according to how well it matches your religious believes. If you are not religious such a story would be so far outside your version of reality that you are not in a position to rate it. 

This is how I feel about “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew” (“Il vangelo secondo Matteo”) by Pier Paolo Pasolini. I very much belong to the second group and whether this is a good rendition of the gospels I will leave to religious people. 

What I can say is that Pasolini here went, as far as I can see, for a very literal presentation of the life and death of Jesus. There are hardly any surprises, it is all taken from the text. Even the lines seem to be direct biblical quotes. Something that at times sounds very odd as those lines do not work particular well in a normal dialogue. Many scenes are set up particularly so specific lines can be spoken rather than to serve any progressive story. This means that the slavic adherence to the text makes the movie lumber along rather erratically. 

I have not watched many religious movies, but of the few I have seen those that work the best are usually those that take their own spin on the story, have a certain angle or dramatize events. Pasolini however seems content to just visualize the story and so there are absolutely no surprises or originality here.

Where this version is supposed to stand out is in Pasolini’s application of Italian neorealism to the telling of the story with his use amateur actors and natural locations. At least this is how Wikipedia describes it. I have a hard time seeing that. There is very little that seem natural here. Indeed there is a staged feel to the production that is anything but natural. Characters are not fleshed out and there is absolutely no spontaneity in the dialogue. If this is realism then something has happened since Rossellini.

Then again, if you are really into the religious text you would probably appreciate this strict adherence to the scriptures. It is a particular quality for this type of movie.

I doubt that I have to recount the story itself. It starts with the impregnation of the Virgin Maria and ends with the Resurrection of Christ. Everything in between is well known.

The film was filmed in Calabria in Italy and as I actually live in Israel right now I can see where these look like the real locations and where they decidedly do not. I suppose for the average viewer the match is good enough, but I find it a bit comical at times.

Pier Paolo Pasolini has a reputation of being an avantgarde director with many inaccessible or outright disgusting movies under his belt. My own experience with his movies is very limited, but I find odd that the director of “120 days of Sodom” should also have made this very conventional movie about the life of Jesus. I must say that I expected something else.

On an entirely different note, it is now official that my family and I are moving back to Denmark in July after six years in Israel. We are going to live in Copenhagen and the next month and a half is going to be pretty chaotic. My posting frequency will likely reach an all-time low in this period, but once established in our new apartment I hope to get back to normal speed.


Monday, 4 June 2018

Black God, White Devil (Deus e o Diablo Na Terra del Sol) (1964)

Gud og djævelen i solens land
Have you ever wondered what it would be like if Carl Th. Dreyer made a Western?

Well, “Black God, White Devil” (“Deus E O Diablo Na Terra Do Sol”) is what I imagine it would be like.

We got a very emotionally loaded movie that touches on a lot of big questions with characters that will stand still facing different directions and proclaim their existential pain with robot voices. Then they will shoot and kill a lot of people in a sun-dried land for no particular reason.

That does not sound very appetizing and it also reflects my general disappointment with the movie.

It starts out pretty good though. Manuel (Geraldo Del Rey) is a cattle herder (cowboy) in a very dry part of Northern Brazil. He is poor and lives in a shack with his wife Rosa (Yoná Magalhães) and their infant child. Things start going bad when Manuel gets screwed over by the owner of the cattle and Manuel kills him in return. This part is pretty good and very Western-like. Tough and gritty.

Rosa and Manuel escape and joins a religious group following a preacher called Sebastian (Lidio Silva). Sebastian is an asshole. He is filling his followers with lots of religious bullshit and is essentially creating a religious militant group whose only allegiance is to him. Manuel is eating it raw and becomes a faithful follower. This culminates when Sebastian commands him to kill his child as a sacrifice and that is pretty much when I mentally left the movie. The memory of that scene still makes me want to vomit.

Rosa kills Sebastian in return and immediately became my hero, for a while at least. A hitman, sent out by the church (Mauricio do Valle as Antonio das Mortes) kills the whole bunch except for Rosa, Manuel and a blind folk singer.

On the move again, Rosa and Manuel join a bandit who is killing every landowner he can get his hands on. At this point I was getting very confused. I have no idea what was really going on in these scenes, except for the massive amount of killing. It is a very surreal phase of the movie, maybe reflecting the bewilderment Manuel and Rosa are going through. Alas, Antonio das Mortes shows up again and do some more killing.

It is possible that I might have gotten more out of the movie had I not checked out after the baby killing scene. Then again, maybe not. It was getting very existential, very surreal and we are left with nobody to hang on to and a story that is not really going anywhere but towards death. We are very far from a Hollywood happy ending, but I could live with that if this did not feel more like a fizzle than a conclusion. In the end there is nothing but death. True, but also terribly depressing.

The production level is higher than the older Brazilian movies I have seen with the exception of “Black Orpheus”, but not anything approaching what Sergio Leone did in this period. We get the heat and the callousness from the cinematography, but beyond that there is a cheapness to the movie that speaks of a very limited budget.

Not a favorite of mine. How can any movie be that murders children in the name of religion?


Saturday, 26 May 2018

I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba) (1964)

I Am Cuba
The third off-list movie of 1964 is “I Am Cuba” (“Soy Cuba”). This movie was recommended to me (thanks Bea!) particularly for the camera work and that is also the main draw of the movie.

“I am Cuba” is a propaganda movie in support of the Cuban revolution. This had taken place just a few years before and I suppose the Cuban revolutionary leadership felt a need to justify and celebrate their take over. At this time, having kicked out American interests, Cuba was isolated and had turned toward the Soviet Union for support, and this included a Russian film crew with very good credentials.

The team, led by Mikhail Kalatozov, were already famous for their filming techniques and their tracking shot, super-wide angle close ups and super sharp infrared shots were perfected on Cuba. This makes “I Am Cuba” very interesting from a technical point of view. It also lifts what would otherwise be ham-fisted propaganda into something more easily digestible.

That is of course the problem with any propaganda movie. There is a very clear intent and that intent must be perceived by even the densest and illiterate viewer. This tends to make propaganda movies very one-dimensional to the extent of oversimplifying the issues and they easily appear stupid. “I Am Cuba” tries to walk that balance. Sometimes it works, sometimes it plumbs into the propaganda traps, but even in the worst moments the cinematography saves it.

There is no over-all story, but rather four vignettes with that in common that they all relate to the revolution.

The first is about rich Americans flouting their money and corrupting the local population. Obviously, the intent is to make the Americans look like assholes and it is difficult not to be upset at the difference between the upscale tourist sites and the slums.

The second features a poor farmer who works his sugarcane plot with his children. His hard, but rewarding, labor is interrupted when the landowner shows up to tell him he sold the land to United Fruit so he can piss off. The farmer sees his livelihood stripped away in an eyeblink and in desperation sets everything to the torch.

Then, back in Havana, we follow Enrique, a student presumably, who first saves a lady in distress from brutish American navy-men, then joins a demonstration against the corrupt government only to be shot down as a martyr.

Finally a farmer family in a remote, rebel controlled area gets bombed, killing one of the children in what I consider a huge cinematic faux-pas (you do not kill children in movies!). As a result, the husband joins the revolution, marching towards a glorious victory over the evil capitalists with a lot of flag-waving.

It is a movie with no grey zones, no room for doubt, there are the good guys, the revolutionary, and the bad guys, the corrupt elite backed by America. It is a simple choice between joining the revolution or being screwed over. As a viewer suffering hardships it is an effective movie that serves its propagandistic purpose and even as a neutral viewer I sit back thinking that if I lived in such a divisive and corrupt country I would not find it hard to place my sympathies, even if I cannot approve of the means to the end.

The Danish model is a little different. In 1849 a group of civilians representing the population (male and bourgeois, admittedly) got an audience with the king and demanded constitutional monarchy and parliamentary rule to which the king answered “okay” (in 1849 wording) and on June 5th we celebrate the founding law (Grundloven) of 1849. Not a single shot fired.

Content-wise “I am Cuba” can be a hard swallow and the killing of a child in the end was awful, but the photography alone makes this a remarkable movie and it deserves interest for this reason alone. I could see it replace a few movies in 1964.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Gertrud (1964)

This next movie on the List, Gertrud, is a Danish movie and it is not a special entry on the Danish version, but a real bona fide official List entry. I should be excited.

Well, the reason this movie is on the list is not because is absolutely awesome, but because it was made by Carl Th. Dreyer, one of those directors the List editors are nuts about. He did make both “Jeanne d’Arc” and “Ordet”, but sadly “Gertrud” is not in the same league.

The titular character Gertrud (Nina Pens Rode) is married to the successful lawyer Gustav Kanning (Bendt Rothe) around the turn of the century. Gertrud is unhappy in her marriage and wants to leave her husband. This comes as a surprise to him, just before he is to be named a member of the prime minister’s government. He, correctly, suspects there is another man in Gertrud’s life.

Gertrud wants to leave her husband because she requires 100% commitment in love. Love for her cannot be shared with love for work and as her husband cares about his work Gertrud is disappointed. She has found a young lover, a composer (Baard Owe) with whom she imagines she has found love. Except Erland, as is his name, does not take it anywhere as serious as she does and is taken aback when she declares she has left her husband for him. Needless to say this is not good enough for Gertrud.

Then Gertrud meets up with an old flame Gabriel Lidman (Ebbe Rode, Nina Pens real life husband), a famous poet, who wants to mend things and get back with her, but Gertrud is refusing. Back when they where together she had found a frustrated note from him that seemed to prove that he could not commit 100% to her, so, too bad, that train has gone. Instead Gertrud grows old alone.

There are a number of issues with this movie. The most immediate one is the style of acting (and filming for that matter). In a typical scene you would have two people talking to each other but looking away in opposite directions. The speak would be slow, cold and artificial as if they were robots. It is actually funny, at least in the beginning, because the topics and the words are very honest and intimate and so at odds with the delivery. I found myself laughing a number of times, especially in a priceless scene in the beginning where Gertrud and Gustav are having one of these cold and stilted conversation only to be broken by a doorbell and Gustav breaking the style by exclaiming “Årh for pokker, det er mamy!” (“Dammit, that’s my mother!). I was in tears.

No, as the movie wears on, this style gets very old. Gertrud is the carrier of the style, whenever she speaks she turns into a robot and being the main character, she is in almost every scene.

A second issue is the theme. I believe we are supposed to sympathize with Gertrud in her search for 100% commitment to love, but I cannot help being annoyed. Who does she think she is to monopolize the attention of her men. If it was only that they should not have other women I could well understand that, but Gertrud do not want to share her men’s passion with anything, work, hobbies anything. She demands complete attention and commitment. To me that sounds like a prison, an impossible romantic dream far removed from reality.

Add to this that Gertrud is about as unattractive as possible. Her cold demeanor, her rejective attitude and ghost like appearance, but most of all her complete lack of understanding of her men and it becomes almost comical that they should desire her so much.

Alas, despite, or maybe because, of all this I smiled and laughed a lot more than I had anticipated. When Axel Strøbye appears as Axel Nygren I am all smiles. He is (together with Ole Thestrup) my favorite Danish Actor and not even Dreyer can curb this wonderful actor.

I cannot honestly say I liked this movie. I understand what it is trying to do, but I do not sympathize with the idea. I could not care less about Gertrud, the woman, but this is also a case of art going so far in being arty that it becomes comedy. At least for a fellow Dane.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Before the Revolution (Prima della Rivoluzione) (1964)

Før revolutionen
This week I watched Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Before the Revolution” (“Prima della rivoluzione”). I finished a few days ago and have spent the intervening period watching the extensive extra material that came along with it. The curious thing is that I remember very little of what actually happened in this movie. Instead what I do recall are fragment of situations that only barely stick together. In desperation I checked on Wikipedia for a synopsis, but it only gives me three lines for the entire story and those three lines pretty much sums up what I do remember. Did I fall asleep? Not sure. Or did my mind simply drift? It is possible. Or maybe this is exactly what this movie is.

That sounds really bad, but I liked it better than that. There was something compelling about this movie, something that did feel refreshing even as I got lost in it. Apparently it adheres to the French New Wave style for better or worse. That does make it interesting technically, but also means that it gives up on a normal narrative. As a casual viewer that can be a frustrating experience.

Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli) is a young man, maybe 18 or so years old of the upper middle class in Parma, Italy. He really wants to be a communist and relate to the proletariat, but his commitment has some difficulty getting beyond the academic level. In the beginning he has a conversation with his friend Agostino, who then dies, drowning in the river. Fabrizio takes this pretty badly. Then Fabrizio meets his aunt Gina (Adriana Asti), who is ten years older than Fabrizio, but in many ways act as if she was 5 years younger than him. The to of them engage in a stormy sexual relationship, but eventually that ends, and Gina goes back to Milano. Fabrizio gives up on his communist dreams and marry a girl of his own class.

The two main characters are of course Fabrizio and Gina and what they share is a deep confusion of who they are and what to do with their lives. I suppose that is common enough, most teenagers go through a confusion phase. The special thing here is how extreme it plays out. Fabrizio feels shackled by the expectations to him due to his family background and rebels by embracing, trying to embrace, the opposite position, the communists, though eventually he realizes he is actually fighting himself. Gina has similar issues embracing the persona she is supposed to be and shy away from personal responsibility and conventions. Both are very emotional types who are thrown completely off by their confusion and maybe it is this that draws them to each other. A sexual relationship with your 10 year older aunt/ 10 year younger nephew is about as anti-convention as it gets. It is also extremely icky and I had to double check that I had understood it right that Gina is not some remote acquaintance, but really his aunt! Wow.

The title of the movie is a bit mysterious. There is a reference to it, that people like Fabrizio always seems to live the years before the revolution. I am still not entirely sure what that means, but maybe a reference to the last years of depravity of the upper class just before, say, the French or the Russian revolutions, that he feels the push from below that this is wrong. Beyond that I do not know.

The Book makes a lot out of that Bertolucci was very young when he made this movie and I suppose that is remarkable. What that does to the movie is that it makes it feel young and fresh and that I suppose is a quality of its own.

There is a part of me who wants to dislike this movie for its lack of narrative, it incestuous scenes and opaqueness, but mysteriously I found that I actually liked it. Don’t ask me why, I am still trying to process that. Maybe it is the futile rebelliousness of youth it portraits, maybe the refreshing style. Or maybe I just want to like anything Ennio Morricone scores…


Sunday, 29 April 2018

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

The Masque of the Red Death
Old horror movies are a lot of fun. Even when they are bad, they are usually fun, though for reasons unintended.

“The Masque of the Red Death” is a lot of fun, though I am not sure how much is intended and how much is not.

The movie is based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe by the same name. It takes place in medieval Italy where a decadent and cruel prince, Prince Prospero (Vincent Price), is giving lavish parties and worshipping Satan while the countryside is plagued by a mysterious illness known as the Red Death. Already here there are links to some very famous Italian stories from the period of Black Death in the fourteenth century.

Anyway, Prospero has captured a girl, Francesca (Jane Asher), her father and her boyfriend, Gino (David Weston) and taken them to his castle to play with them. At the castle Prospero’s mistress, Juliana (Hazel Court), is jealous and decides to show her devotion by marrying herself to Satan. This includes a lovely inverted cross, burnt on her breast (oh gasp!). Meanwhile the guests are having a merry time, something that culminates in a masque ball involving a burnt great ape and a hooded figure in a red cape.

It is a silly story, it is difficult to claim anything else, and it makes little sense when you start thinking about it. Yet it is also completely bizarre and with gusto for the outrageous, especially whenever Prince Prospero is involved.

The production value it is very B in terms of acting and script. Some of the lines, especially Gino’s and Francesca’s, are toe-cringingly bad, beyond cliché and camp and deep into corny. Many, if not all, the scenes are staged as for a theater rather than a movie and there are details, such as Gino’s hairstyle, that scream of poor decisions.

Then on the other hand everything that relates to the bad guys tell of a much higher production value. The castle sets, the colored rooms, the evil ceremonies and particularly Vincent Price’s Prospero. It is such and odd clash. Was this made intentionally poor or were they serious and just decided to pour all their attention on the bad guys? This is supposed to be a cult movie and I can see why it would have a following. The camp value is pretty high.

The Death character is totally borrowed from Bergman. Here it plays cards rather than chess, but that is only a detail. In every other way this character just changed sets. But the other way is also true. I can see a lot of Rocky Horror Picture show in this movie to the extend that I suspect the producers of that movie used “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Black Cat” as their template.

I would not call this a good or a great movie by any standard. In fact I am surprised it is on the List, but it is a fun and bizarre movie to watch and certainly, with my taste for awkward movies, this one hits a lot of buttons. I have not watched any other movies by Corman so I cannot say if this one is representative, but apparently the List editors seem to think this is Corman’s moment of glory so I wonder just how campy his other movies are. Could be I should look into that.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Tini Zabutykh Predkiv) (1964)

Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors
Among many other pleasures, one of the great things about following the List is that I get to see things I probably would never have experienced otherwise. “Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors” is such a movie. I honestly do not think I would have searched out an old Russian (or Ukrainian) movie about folklore in the Carpathian Mountains, but because of the List I now have that truly unique experience under the belt.

This is not an easy movie to describe.

Because of the way it is filmed, and the story told it is a rather confusing film. Hand held camera was not invented by the Dogme concept or the found footage genre, but was happily employed by the producers of this particular movie. Combine that with a minimum of dialogue, which is generally replaced by songs and horns and general crowd noises, and I am not always certain of what is actually happening. Luckily, the story is so simple that the over-all picture is pretty clear.

We are with the Hutul people in the Carpathian Mountains sometime in an undefined past. The boy, Ivan (Ivan Mykolaichuk) lives in a tough and wild environment that takes both brother and father from him. He meets a girl, Marichka (Larisa Kadochnikova) from a rival family and they grow up loving each other. When Ivan comes of age he leaves his village to take up work in another village while back home Maricka falls into a river and dies. Ivan grieves for a long time and even when he takes on a new wife he cannot forget Marichka. His new wife, Palagna (Tatyana Bestayeva) turns to sorcery and finds another man as lover. Of course, this all ends poorly.

There are two big draws here, the primary one being the very detailed depiction of the Hutul people. We see it all, festive and slaving to make a living, summer and winter, music, songs, folklore, religion, anything. There is a large part here that serves as a very efficient documentary on a people I had never heard of before. It is not a cold, descriptive presentation, but one that is filled with all the magic and energy that is key to their lives. That makes for very interesting viewing.

The second draw is the unique cinematography. While I am just as sick of hand held filming as anybody else, there is something magic about the choices made here. The soundscape for one, replacing much of the dialogue, the jarring and jagged first-hand viewpoint is another. Something about it feels like an old silent movie trying to tell a story without title-cards. Which, curiously, is another ingredient of the movie.

I don’t think the style of filming would work on any story, but this one is so basic that it is possible and there is so much to look at. It is tempting to think that this would then be a naturalistic film using realism as a tool, but I would say it is in fact the opposite. This does not feel like reality, but a filmed fairy tale, which I am of the impression that it actually is. It is heavily stylized combined with the sense of being there.

It is an odd movie to come out of the Soviet Union in the mid-sixties. It describes and endorses the uniqueness of a cultural minority under a system that had been working very hard to eradicate non-conform cultures. Also there are no socialist themes here. No oppressed working class, no submission to the common good. How on Earth was this allowed to be made?

The story did not do that much for me and the characters were not sufficiently fleshed out. Sometimes I even got confused on who was who. How many big moustaches can you have in a movie? But that is not why you should see this movie. It is for the unique experience and the wonderful view into the Hutul culture that this movie deserves a viewing.