News from the World
Watching world cinema always involves more than mere cinephilia. What this means is actually an occasion to receive news from places which, in more ways than one, stand remote from the centers of the industry. Moving across a distinct meridian, this Film O’Clock feature selection involves a particular journey through radically different time frames, social landscapes, cinematic traditions. From north to south, it goes like this:
The Girl and the Echo (1964) is one of Lithuanian master’s Arūnas Žebriūnas early efforts, yet it already gathers the unmistakable traits of his timely craft: fairytale-like surroundings suddenly darkened by small random acts of violence, poetic visions irrupting in the middle of the most ordinary events, and most importantly, the capacity of rendering the magic of childhood in all its hidden complexity. What makes Žebriūnas stand out among his peers, in an otherwise well represented communist tradition of movies destined to young audiences? I’d say it’s all about his always placing the camera at human height. It makes no difference that the characters we see are heartbreakingly young, and that their dramas seem of no deeper consequence – his film makes a vow to restore them in all their dignity and struggle. Never again, or so rarely, have the blessings and cruelties at play between children been shown in a more compassionate manner. When the main character, a young girl, is ridiculed by a bunch of youth of the same age, we feel all the burden of loneliness and injustice crashing down on her. It’s as if Žebriūnas reduced the world to a smaller scale model, then imbued it with the passion of a more concentrated, sharper version of our usual reality. Now of course, Žebriūnas is not an unknown figure for cinephiles: recently, one of his later, and in many aspects similar, child-focused films, The Beauty (1969) has been restored and released in French theaters. I happen to prefer The Girl and the Echo to that one though, thanks to all its brilliant landscape compositions – rocks, sand, sea merging in a dreamlike sequence, which veers closer to experimental work than anything else.
Lucian Pintilie is probably the most renowned filmmaker on the list. Here we can see his first post-communist feature, The Oak (1992), which was one of the most striking encounters with images of capitalist Romania for the Western world. The film premiered in Cannes and many spectators, including critics of the Cahiers du cinema magazine, chose to see in this dantesque allegorical narrative a privileged magnifying glass for the country’s own problems, which bore no comparison with any others. Pintilie remained true to his carnival inspirations, borrowing as much from Kusturica as he did from Fellini, then adding a final touch of social critique in the form of a crazy journey through a ravaged country. We follow Nela (Maia Morgenstern), a middle-aged woman who leaves his father dead on his bed in a filthy apartment, then goes on to find her true love in a mining post-industrial city, in the form of Mitica (Razvan Vasilescu), a hyped doctor full of resentment. At times, Pintilie’s acute visual sense made this landscape more reminiscent of Bosch, with the mining factories haunting the narrative like concrete monsters. And the overall message, beyond the over-the-top imagery of war, corruption, unbridled sex, that this story carried was clear: Romania was a ruin, a huge madhouse under the clear sky. At times simplistic in its initial portraits of post-communist social conflict, Pintilie’s filmography gained continuous momentum, becoming the most important oeuvre of the feverish transition to capitalism in Romania.
The Greek cinema of the past decades was a sort of one man show, by the name of Theo Angelopoulos, who controlled everything on stage, from beginning to end. Or so it seemed for the audiences outside Greece, who had access only to festival-labelled products. For those who want to venture of the beaten track, Day Off (1982) by Vasilis Vafeas comes as a sort of remedy: not only something parallel to Angelopoulos’ heavy metaphors and carefully crafted long takes, but a rigorous contrary alternative to his style altogether. Vafeas’ film works in a low-key manner: it’s safe to say that nothing much happens here, it’s even recommended, since that is precisely the effect that the director wants to impose on us. The main character is a man who spends his day off going from one desk to the other, from one garage to another, from one family meeting to the other. By the end of the day, considering all the great expectations with which he left home in the morning – mending a door and an exhaust pipe for his rusty car, enjoying a quiet moment with his mistress etc. –, nothing much will have come out of it. This is a film about routine, bureaucracy, stalled administration. In a fashion reminiscent of Jacques Tati, Vafeas’ protagonist doesn’t talk much – he bears with the world, while everyone sees about their business. A very actual film indeed.
From Egypt comes a beautiful melodrama about a young girl who seeks revenge for the murder of her older sister. This 1959 film, The Nightingale’s Prayer by Henry Barakat, selected in the Berlin Film Festival Competition, evolves in a harsh world of strict social norms and quick, severe, unjust punishment for those who fail to oblige with them. It is interesting that the movie does not attempt to question these norms – rather, it tries to avoid and overcome them by replacing juridical aspects with moral ones: virtue, guilt, sentimental equity. Because how else could we explain the fact that not only it is the uncle of the girl the one that kills her, following a forbidden affair with an engineer, but also that her sister is never after her relative? How do we come to accept that the guilty one on this matter is actually the engineer? The wonderful mechanics of the film make sure that we do. Yet this is not only a story in which tears, passion and cries are the appetizer, the main course and the dessert – because the most interesting part comes when the young girl realizes that it might be more difficult to establish one’s guilt than it once seemed. I especially like the scenes when love and hatred, fear and disgust all interweave closely in the very complex bond between the girl and the engineer, as if in matters of the heart nothing were decided in advance or straightforward. The ending is particularly shattering.
The last entry of the selection comes from South Africa, by way of a progressive attempt which concludes in defeat. Katrina (1969), by Jans Rautenbach, recounts the potential awakening of a national conscience which could move beyond traditional boundaries of race. In a fractured community, where white and colored people don’t mingle, mother and son try to live as well as they can, by hiding their racial origin. The truth will finally be uncovered following the arrival of a white clergyman who, not unlike Bresson’s protagonist from Diary of a Country Priest, might have reached a place where problems lie too deep to be solved by a newcomer such as he is. Yet it is precisely this stranger who will act as the grain of sand which causes the machine to break down. The film deals not only with the socio-political problem of the apartheid, but also to the effects it poses on people’s troubled consciences. As the movie unveils its quite transparent stake, it becomes all the more clear that the priest, who was initially the positive figure of this rather godforsaken place, delves into a kind of darkness similar to that which swallows the ones he despises. Can massive change happen for real in South Africa? For Jens Laudenbach, in 1969, the time was for wariness and caution.