Sunday, August 30, 2020

A Separation (2011, Asghar Farhadi)

Quest Status: 714 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #375

I haven't seen that many Iranian films, except for a few by Abbas Kiarostami and Forugh Farrokzhad's haunting 1963 short The House is Black. So you could definitely say that I'm a neophyte when it comes to films from Iran and the Middle East in general. One thing immediately stands out about A Separation though. Winning the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars is certainly nothing to scoff at, but from my perspective, there's something more impressive about it. Despite being released less than 10 years ago, it's already moved into the top half of the 1,000 Greatest Films. For perspective, the only American film on the list from the past decade is Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, also released in 2011. The next most recent film that I've covered on this blog is 2005's Brokeback Mountain. For a film from a country with only seven other films on the TSPDT list, that's quite an amazing achievement.

With this in mind, I came into A Separation with high expectations, and I was not disappointed. As the title suggests, it deals with a couple's separation, but only as a starting point. Failing to get a divorce from a judge (who demands a proper reason), Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and his wife Simin (Leila Hatami) separate temporarily, with Simin going to her mother's until a more permanent decision can be reached. Nader is left alone with his school-age daughter and ailing father, who needs full-time care. His father suffers an accident when left alone with the pregnant housekeeper Nader hired to take care of her. After a violent outburst, he pushes the housekeeper out the door and causes her to have a miscarriage - setting into a motion a long and laborious legal process which traumatizes all involved and threatens to send Nader to jail for murder.

Despite the flawlessly executed plot turns and tense pacing, A Separation is less concerned with the outcome of these labyrinthine narrative developments than it is with the interactions between the characters. Although the housekeeper (Sareh Bayat) and her short-tempered husband (Shahab Hosseini) drive the story forward by accusing Nader of murder, the more threatening the accusations become, the more tensions build up between Nader and his family. As I became drawn into the family's drama, I was continually reminded of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Dekalog, with its gripping depictions of intimate moral dilemmas. The tensions between Nader and his family are more compelling than the legal crisis that inspires them because they put his morality up for debate. When his own wife and daughter doubt his innocence, Nader is all the more determined to prove them wrong, as well as proving to himself that he did nothing wrong.

This innate human urge to exonerate ourselves of wrongdoing is the central tenet that A Separation is built around, but this idea takes its time to emerge, developing gradually and subtly as the drama unfolds. The narrative is so tightly constructed that its complexities are easy to grasp; each moment brings a new realization and adds another layer to the situation at hand that we hadn't noticed before. Of course, without great actors, a story this complicated wouldn't come together as well as it does. As Nader, Moaadi portrays a tormented character whose sensitivity and pride are both concealed by his cool demeanor. Leila Hatami keeps the film grounded with her fiery presence and stunning beauty, portraying a strong and self-confident woman determined to weather a difficult situation in her own way. As the couple's silently suffering daughter, Sarina Farhadi conveys a broad range of emotions that makes the family's dilemma all the more heartbreaking. When the film comes to a close, the crisis that begins the film has been brought full circle - having brought the vast consequences that a family's separation can have on its members into painfully clear focus. Forget what the judge says in the film's opening sequence, in no way is it ever a "small problem."

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Thursday, August 27, 2020

The Sacrifice (1986, Andrei Tarkovsky)

Quest Status: 713 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #317

Have you ever imagined that your own birthday party could give way to the apocalypse in the blink of an eye? If you don't like your family and friends, maybe so, but in a more literal sense, probably not. Nevertheless, that's the idea that Andrei Tarkovsky explored in The Sacrifice. The second film Tarkovsky made after his exile from the Soviet Union (the first being Nostalghia), The Sacrifice takes place in Sweden, with Swedish actors. The stark Scandinavian seaside setting invites comparisons to Ingmar Bergman, especially Bergman's own apocalypse film, Shame, featuring Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann in a desperate attempt to escape their isolated island home when it unexpectedly turns into a World War III battleground.
The main difference between Tarkovsky's vision of the apocalypse and Bergman's is that Tarkovsky's cast of characters, gathered together for patriarch Alexander's (Bergman regular Erland Josephson) birthday party, have nowhere to go when darkness suddenly descends upon them. The details of the apocalypse are unclear, except that there's no electricity, no hope, and no place in the world that's any safer than the luxurious home where Alexander and his family find themselves trapped and alone. In a moment of despair and desperation, atheist Alexander kneels down and prays to God, hoping against hope for a way out of the stifling darkness. But there appears to be no way out. Hope does present itself, but only briefly, in the form of a mysterious mailman who suggests to Alexander that he sleep with his servant, who also happens to be a witch, in order to restore things to their rightful order.
Make no mistake, though. Just as Solaris and Stalker are not your average sci-fi films, The Sacrifice is not a fast-paced doomsday thriller. Tarkovsky keeps the plot vague and lets the action (such as it is) unfold at a glacial pace. The film's genius is in its visuals: the first act unfolds in the muted greens and greys of dusk, the second signals a narrative shift with its sudden plunge into darkness and sepia-toned desolation, while the third act presents the characters' surrouding in blinding clarity - giving the closing section of the film a haunting finality, which is all the more fitting when you consider that The Sacrifice ended up being Tarkovksy's final testament to the world. More poetic and mystical than Bergman, The Sacrifice is an apocalyptic meditation like no other - melding life with dreams, religion with dark magic, and evoking a lost past while staring a bleak present squarely in the face.

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Saturday, August 22, 2020

Naked (1993, Mike Leigh)

Quest Status: 712 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #450

I watched Naked in the midst of a raging Saturday afternoon thunderstorm, with frequent bursts of thunder sending vibrations through the floors of my apartment building and drowning out the dialogue at certain points. This turned out to be the perfect complement for the film. It's a lightning bolt of a film for those who like their coffee black, their whiskey straight, and their emotions raw and hard to handle - which Naked certainly is. David Thewlis's Johnny, the film's main point focus, is a real force of nature, tearing through the surroundings of everyone he meets like a wrecking ball, seemingly oblivious to the destruction he causes. He's a terminal misanthrope who makes an instant impression on those around him with incessant sarcastic rants about the apocalypse and the insignificance of human life, sometimes causing them to lash out in anger but more often impressing them and drawing them in.

Women, in particular, seem drawn to Johnny's outgoing nature and sarcastic charms, despite his filthy, unwashed appearance. He is also drawn to almost every woman he meets, although after charming them he invariably abuses and abandons them, leaving them frustrated and broken. The fact that Johnny is oblivious to the pain he causes might not make him innocent, but it does distinguish his actions from the willful malevolence of the rich sadist Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell), a minor character who serves as a counterpoint if not a complete foil for Johnny. Whatever their motivations, though, none of the men in Naked treat women well, and in fact precipitate many moments that will be triggers for those who have been victims of domestic abuse or sexual violence. Neither do any of the women in the film seem to have much self-respect or confidence, including Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge) and Louise (Lesley Sharp), the two main female characters and objects of Johnny's occasional attention.

The four characters mentioned up to this point are the ones with the most screen time and presence in the film. However, Naked belongs to the great 1990s tradition of ensemble films that explore the interconnected nature of human life (see Short Cuts, Pulp Fiction, Magnolia, Henry Fool and many others), along with a uniquely sense of pre-millenial existentialism. There is no real plot as we follow Johnny on an aimless week-long ramble through the streets of London, but there are many peripheral characters who drift in and out as Johnny drifts in and out of their lives. These characters are just as richly drawn as the characters given more screen time. Each actor has their own story to tell - of loneliness, confusion, despair, boredom, hopelessness, and any other number of human emotions. Johnny is only a conduit, a lightning rod if you will, positioned by director Mike Leigh in order to provoke and draw out each character's pain and swallow it up for posterity. He's a signature Mike Leigh character: angry at the world, filled with untapped potential, too smart for his own good, and unable to cope with the way things are. As usual, Leigh doesn't suggest that Johnny or any of the other characters can really be changed over the course of the film, but in Naked, he was able to capture the inherent intensity and mystery of their everyday frustrations.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922, Fritz Lang)

Quest Status: 711 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #632

Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler is a startlingly thrilling portrait of what some have described as "film's first supervillain." One only needs to look at the opening scene in which the titular Dr. Mabuse is introduced to realize that "supervillain" is none too strong a term - nor does it come with any of the comic book buffoonery that the term might conjure up. In the film's opening sequence, Dr. Mabuse is in the midst of a convoluted plan to manipulate the international stock exchange by stealing a confidential state trade contract en route to its diplomatic recipient when he notices one of his underlings twitching frantically under the influence of a cocaine high. Fuming, he tells the wired lacky that if he catches him doing cocaine one more time he'll throw him "out on the street like a dog."


As it turns out, Dr. Mabuse's stock exchange operation is only a prologue establishing his knack for orchestrating flawless criminal operations at any level of society with the utmost precision, not the film's main story. But Mabuse's complete lack of sympathy or capacity for normal human feeling is on full display right from the start, as is the film's cynical and undiluted take on it's era's seediest behaviors. Dr. Mabuse might be the quintessential Weimar Republic film: sprawling, modern, and filled with just about every kind of debauchery imaginable. It's hard to imagine a film this unrelentingly lurid being made in Hollywood any time before the 1970s.


But more important is the enduring entertainment value that Dr. Mabuse still retains almost 100 years later. Even those who have never seen a silent film before, or those who balk at the over four-hour running time, will be amazed by the expert pacing, technical mastery and non-stop suspense on display here. A labyrinthine murder mystery with an elusive master criminal at its center, Dr. Mabuse is often reminiscent of Louis Feuillade's Fantomas serial in its storytelling style, while drawing the viewer in just as powerfully as modern serial thrillers like Breaking Bad. Feuillade's work was groundbreaking and compelling in its own right, and Fritz Lang might well have been familiar with it, but Lang made strides in the thriller genre that even Feuillade couldn't have anticipated. Soon to make some of his most famous films, including the epic fantasy Die Niebelungen and the sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis, Dr. Mabuse shows Fritz Lang already at the top of his game and miles ahead of just about any other director working at the time, anywhere in the world.

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Sunday, August 9, 2020

The Last Laugh (1924, F.W. Murnau)

Quest Status: 710 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #179

For someone who is used to watching silent films, there is something instantly stands out during the opening scenes of The Last Laugh. The characters move around, bustling and worrying in the rain. Sometimes they talk to each other, and even look agitated. Their mouths move, but no intertitles appear on the screen to tell us what they are saying. And another amazing thing happens: when the characters move, the camera moves with them too! Just having the camera follow the characters would have been a groundbreaking move in 1924 by itself, but to tell the story without intertitles (except for a few sly bits of text thrown in for exposition) was a bold, revolutionary experiment. The result is that many scenes have a documentary feel, even as the narrative, that of a broken-down hotel doorman stripped of his uniform and demoted to washroom duty, is painted in broad, melodramatic strokes.
On the other hand, The Last Laugh features spectacular special effects that really put the viewer inside the main character's head - particularly during a drunken sequence that conveys the sensation of intoxication better than any other film I've seen. Of course, the film's most important special effect is Emil Jannings in the role of the pompous old doorman who meets suddenly meets an entirely undignified downfall. It seems that Jannings was born to play pathetic old men, and this might be his most triumphant attempt (see Josef Von Sternberg's The Blue Angel for one of Jannings' great sound era performances). In any case, it's a shame that The Last Laugh isn't at least as well known as Murnau's other films Nosferatu and Sunrise. It's at least as good as those two films - a short but powerful punch to the gut that contains the best of its era's cutting edge technology along with unflinching melodrama that cuts to the core of society's cruelty and cynicism.

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Saturday, August 8, 2020

Dekalog (1988, Krzysztof Kieslowski)

Quest Status: 709 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #181   

A set of ten short feature films, each dealing with complex moral themes and shot by a different cinematographer, Krzysztof Kieslowski's Dekalog almost seems too broad in scope to be considered a single film. Each film deals with a spiritual dilemma based on one of the Ten Commandments. However, Kieslowski's foremost stroke of genius is not making this explicit or ascribing individual commandments to each respective episodes. It's up to the viewer to contemplate the situation in each episode and make their own conclusions about how it relates to the Ten Commandments and their own understanding of morality. This is definitely not a preachy religious film - in fact there are very few direct mentions of God - although those with an interest in religion will probably find much to enjoy here, as will fans of well-made psychological dramas.

The first episode begins with a feeling of freezing stillness. A homeless man sits next to the smoldering embers of a dying fire and stares at the river, a woman gazes at images of children playing on a TV in a shop window, a boy sees a dead dog lying motionless in the snow. In this episode, the duality of warmth and cold expresses the mystery of life and death, the bond between love ones and the icy nothingness of their absence. The second, which depicts a medical life and death dilemma, evokes the mood of a biting cold day in the dead of winter - stark and painfully clear. The third conjures the calm after a light Christmas Eve snow, in which the absence of people and the empty streets bathed in neon reflections from Christmas Tree lights creates the impression of a seedy nighttime world into which no decent person would dare to venture. Whereas these first three episodes and many others, create a stark visual world of desolation and loneliness in subtly different ways, the fifth episode (later expanded into a feature film, A Short Film About Killing) takes off in a completely different direction, with the cinematographer SÅ‚awomir Idziak using an array of camera filters to distort the colors into a sickening array of yellow, green and grey hues that evoke a dark world of corruption and violence.

As the series progresses, the individual situations presented in each episode begin to assume a powerful cumulative effect. A young woman learns that the man who raised her is not her father, and is alarmed to discover that she is romantically attracted to him. A bitter young man kills a misanthropic taxi driver and is sentenced to death - provoking the viewer to feel sympathy for both characters while also questioning the efficacy of the death penalty. A socially awkward boy spies on a sexually liberated artist in the apartment across from him until a series of chance encounters bring the two closer together in unexpected and disturbing ways. A young woman abducts her own daughter from her overly protective mother. A Holocaust survivor meets the Christian woman who almost adopted her during the war, but backed out for religious reasons. An impotent man discovers that his attractive wife is cheating on him with a young physics student, driving him to the brink of madness and suicide. And finally, the death of a father brings together two estranged brothers who become dangerously obsessed with their late father's massive stamp collection. The series begins with an innocent mistake that leads to death, and ends with a tragicomic bungling of life, encompassing an incredible breadth of tone and variety of experience over the course of the ten hours.

Each film may have a different cinematographer and deal with a different moral dilemma, but the ten episodes have much more in common than initially meets the eye. Kieslowski pairs each story down to its barest dramatic elements: a moral dilemma which mainly concerns two people, whom it invariably affects in different ways. All other characters in the film are peripheral, although since most of the main characters are all residents of the same building, characters from previous episodes have occasional cameos in later ones - reminding us that the lives of the other peripheral characters might be just as rich and rife with dilemma as the story currently at hand. This is Kieslowski's master stroke, which makes it possible to see Dekalog as a single film rather than a mere TV series. Over the course of the ten episodes, he creates a world which feels real and lived in, despite the small scope of its individual stories. Together, they form a multi-layered tapestry of human experience and emotional crisis which transcends the individual characters contained within. Dekalog could take place anywhere in the world, at any time in history. The endless depths of humanity's attempts to connect to and relate to the people around them are timeless, as is Kieslowski's riveting testament to the human condition.

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