Little Miracles in Carl Theodore Dreyer’s “Ordet”

Carl Theodore Dreyer belongs in the God-tier of film directors alongside Ozu, Bresson, Tarkovsky, Bergman, and Bunuel. The Danish master only made a handful of feature films over the course of his career, and I can only imagine how each momentous release must have felt like a historic event for film enthusiast at that time. After “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928), possibly the greatest silent film ever made, he would only make one feature film per decade or two. In the 1930’s, Dreyer made “Vampyr”, and in the 1940’s, “Day of Wrath” was released, both of which are masterpieces of cinema. “Ordet” is no different. It is in simplest terms, divine.⠀

“Ordet” revolves around two rural families who are constantly in dispute over theological matters, but when death looms near for one family member, everyone’s faith is put to test. The way things unfold in Dreyer’s film is truly miraculous. The characters respond to each event with a spontaneity that is rare in cinema. I was particularly drawn towards the character arc of the grandfather, Morten Borgen played by Henrik Malberg. At first, he comes across as incredibly stubborn and opinionated, but a simple turn of events changes his stance on matters of marriage and religion almost instantly. At one point his daughter in law proclaims, “I believe a lot of little miracles happen secretly.”⠀

Throughout the film, there are many religious arguments that unfold amongst a spectrum of characters with various degrees of faith. But I think Dreyer, who wasn’t very religious himself, was more interested in the idea of inner transformation, and how anything is possible depending on the circumstance life deals you. In “Ordet”, life is made up of small moments that shape who we are and how we think. I couldn’t help but feel enveloped by greatness as I watched this message being delivered in picturesque monochrome frames worthy of being placed in a museum.⠀

Longing for One Last Hurrah in Charlie Chaplin’s “Limelight”

“Time is the great author; it always writes the perfect ending.” _Calvero

Charlie Chaplin’s semi-autobiographical film about a washed-up vaudeville performer and a suicidal ballet dancer both in desperate search for hope and meaning in life, is perhaps his most philosophical film. Chaplin weaves in themes of depression, alcoholism, and the cruelty of time in the melancholic portrayal of Calvero, the great clown who once made audiences erupt into laughter.

Calvero, a drunk has-been, finds new purpose when he stumbles upon his neighbor, a young, paralyzed ballet-dancer who has given up on life. When Calvero finds out the paralysis is caused by a psychological condition, he takes it upon himself to nurture her back to health, both physically and mentally. Yet, one can’t help but wonder, is Calvero trying to talk the ballet-dancer into giving life another chance, or is Chaplin addressing himself and his own troubling thoughts through the character of Calvero. The parallels between the art and the artist are impossible to ignore.

By the time “Limelight” was made, Chaplin’s star had fallen significantly in Hollywood. He was perceived as a comedian who had lost his touch and was even banished from America for political reasons. This is Chaplin making a statement to an unforgiving industry. Tired and withered by age, Chaplin accepts the fact that the old eventually must make way for the new. Yet, his exit would come on his own terms in a film that looks back at the past with nostalgic eyes. The gag between the two giants of silent cinema, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, is one of the most magical moments in film history. “Limelight” is much more than a late-career masterpiece from the pioneer of the movies, it’s a beautiful exercise of cinematic self-therapy.

Memories of Lives Lost in Hector Babenco’s “Carandiru”

Hector Babenco’s utterly compelling “Carandiru” is as brutal and gut-wrenching as it gets; yet, despite its ruthless depiction of life inside a Brazilian prison, it’s also surprisingly heartwarming. The film is based on the real-life experiences of Dr. Drauzio Varella who worked in the Sao Paulo prison, and got to know the prisoners on a personal level in the years leading up to the 1992 massacre that shook the world. Babenco uses a series of vignettes flashbacks to tell us the induvial backstories of how the characters got locked up. By the end of the film’s two and half-hour runtime, it feels like we have spent quality time with them, which makes the film’s final moments all the more harrowing.

Why this film isn’t discussed more often is beyond me. “Carandiru” is raw, real, and enthralling, but I was most impressed by its sensitivity. In the midst of all the chaos and violence, there is humanity and a sense of community; and even though the film is set within the confines of a prison, it does feel like the lawlessness of the prison gave them a sense of freedom. Carandiru held 8000 prisoners, even though it was designed for 3000. In order to survive the crowded environment, the prisoners had to create their own system and make the most out of the limited resources provided to them.

The film features a strong ensemble of actors, and they did a tremendous job in depicting prisoners as individuals that you will genuinely care about. I was equally captivated by the film’s striking cinematography and memorable framing. The shots of the inmates sitting at the soccer field towards the end are incredibly picturesque. If you enjoyed epic Brazilian crime dramas such as “City of God”, “Pixote”, and the “Elite Squad” films, I urge you to seek out this underappreciated film from one of Brazil’s most renowned directors. “Carandiru” is much more than a retelling of the human rights violations that occurred on the 2nd of October 1992, it’s a film that encapsulates the memories of the people that lost their lives on that fateful day.

The Inventive Cinematography of “The Cranes Are Flying”

At the beginning of Mikhail Kalatozov’s “The Cranes Are Flying”, Veronica played by the mesmerizing Tatiana Samoilova looks at her boyfriend before he goes off to war and declares, “Give me something I’ll remember as long as I live.” This is exactly what Kalatozov gifts film viewers with this exquisite piece of bravura filmmaking, a film to remember as long as we live.

What makes “The Cranes Are Flying” so unforgettable is the visual splendor of its cinematography. The fluid camera movement is simply put, astounding. It comes as no surprise that the film was shot by legendary cinematographer, Sergey Urusevsky, whose work in “Soy Cuba” is studied in film classes all around the world to this very day.

But Kalatozov’s Palme d’Or winning film is not just another technical marvel, it’s a truly an emotional rollercoaster of a film. What’s even more impressive is that most of the suspense has nothing to do with actual battle scenes. Instead of following the heroics of a soldier at war, the film stays with Veronika as she impatiently waits for her boyfriend’s return from the battlefield. The classic ‘young couple torn apart by war’ plotline has never been more immersive or personal. This tense ride of postwar Soviet cinema is one of the most beautiful war films I have ever seen; “The Cranes Are Flying” is pure cinema.

The Exquisite Cinematography of “The Cranes Are Flying”

At the beginning of Mikhail Kalatozov’s “The Cranes Are Flying”, Veronica played by the mesmerizing Tatiana Samoilova looks at her boyfriend before he goes off to war and declares, “Give me something I’ll remember as long as I live.” This is exactly what Kalatozov gifts film viewers with this exquisite piece of bravura filmmaking, a film to remember as long as we live.

What makes “The Cranes Are Flying” so unforgettable is the visual splendor of its cinematography. The fluid camera movement is simply put, astounding. It comes as no surprise that the film was shot by legendary cinematographer, Sergey Urusevsky, whose work in “Soy Cuba” is studied in film classes all around the world to this very day.

But Kalatozov’s Palme d’Or winning film is not just another technical marvel, it’s a truly an emotional rollercoaster of a film. What’s even more impressive is that most of the suspense has nothing to do with actual battle scenes. Instead of following the heroics of a soldier at war, the film stays with Veronika as she impatiently waits for her boyfriend’s return from the battlefield. The classic ‘young couple torn apart by war’ plotline has never been more immersive or personal. This tense ride of postwar Soviet cinema is one of the most beautiful war films I have ever seen; “The Cranes Are Flying” is pure cinema.

Are we finite? – Larisa Sheptiko’s “The Ascent”

Larisa Shepitko is one of the lesser-known Soviet filmmakers, yet she’s up there with the greatest to ever do it. It is said that Shepitko started to feel her mortality after a horrible accident, and it is then that she felt an urgency to complete her most important work, “The Ascent”. The film masks itself as a war film, but it’s about so much more than that. “The Ascent” is one of the most spiritual films out there. It dabbles with complex existential questions we all ask ourselves during our brief time on Earth.

Is there more to life than our physical experience? Are we all mortal beings wandering around, or does our consciousness make us immortal? In one of the film’s most intellectually stimulating scenes, we see Anatoly Solonitsyn in the chilling role of a Nazi interrogator as he’s attempting to break the spirit of Sotnikov, played brilliantly by Boris Plotnikov. When Sotnikov refuses to give up the location of his troops claiming that there are things more important than the skin we live in, the Nazi interrogator laughs in response. “It’s all rubbish. We’re all finite. Everything ends with our death- our lives our selves, the whole world.”

Sheptiko draws many parallels between Christ and Sotnikov, and the title refers to spiritual transcendence. “The Ascent” suggests that even though our lives may be cut short at any given moment, we must live and die by our principles. After all, life holds no meaning when your choices lead to a life of suffering due to a guilty conscience. Larisa Sheptiko’s “The Ascent” has clearly influenced films like “Come and See” (which was directed by her husband), and yet it is a shame that it is not as revered by the film community. Those who discover Sheptiko’s work will be floored by how powerful her pictures are. Calling her arguably the greatest female director of her time would be an understatement, she’s one of the best directors to ever do it period, regardless of gender, time or place.

Facing Trauma in Raed Andoni’s “Ghost Hunting”

Raed Andoni’s “Ghost Hunting” is one of the most underrated documentaries out there, and the only reason it’s underrated is because it’s underseen. We have Second Run, the UK-based boutique label, to thank for re-releasing this beautiful work of humanitarian cinema on physical media. In the film, the Palestinian director experiments with re-enactment to allow individuals to come face to face with their traumas. The director invites Palestinians who previously got interrogated in Israeli detention centers and asks them to reconstruct their cells and re-enact their experience. The goal of the experiment allows tormented souls to heal in front of our eyes. In “Ghost Hunting”, the set is akin to a rehabilitation centre; and the director becomes the healer.

At one point, one of the actors/former prisoners asks the director why he’s making this film. “Because, what’s inside you, you beat it, or it beats you”. He’s referring to trauma of course, and how if you don’t face it, you’ll be stuck in the past. When we look at the troublesome chapters of our lives, we must always look back at that time with a new perspective; it’s the only way to grow out of the experience. At first, I thought the film would explore the torture methods used within the detention centers, but I was pleasantly surprised to see the film explore something much deeper.

Andoni seems less interested in the physical torture that people had to go through, and instead shines a light on the inner strength it took to survive the ordeal on a psychological level. Khattab, one of the former detainees, explains how the Israeli soldiers would deny him access to the toilet. The second he realized they were using the pressure of his bodily fluids against him during the interrogation, Khattab intentionally peed his pants and it felt like a trance. “Who cares about the pee? The strength is here”, Khattab says pointing to his head. Another prisoner used humor to withstand the horror. In many ways, “Ghost Hunting” is about psychological resilience and inner transformation, the transformation of suffering into strength, and trauma into rebirth.

Man’s Hunger for Power in “Witchhammer”

Throughout the history of motion pictures, the witch trials of the 17th century have often been portrayed as an allegory of life under totalitarian rule. Films like Benjamin Christensen’s “Häxan”, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Day of Wrath”, and Ken Russell’s “The Devils” used these horrific tales to criticize the political climate of their time. “Häxan” likened the torturous methods of the 17th century with that of the police. “Days of Wrath” drew parallels between the witch burning and the persecution of Jews during Nazi Germany. “The Devils” was a clear commentary on religious institutions. Otakar Vávra’s powerful magnum opus, “The Witchhammer” is a metaphor for the political trials during Communist rule.

In “Witchhammer”, the use of fear to attain confessions resembled the Stalinist methods of the communist regime in the 1950’s. The film was subsequently prohibited from screening, and only appeared on television decades later in 1989. But what makes “Witchhammer” stand the test of time is its incredibly detailed portrayal of the methods used within the process itself. Vávra based everything on actual texts of court records that took place in Velké Losiny⠀ and Šumperk from 1678 to 1695. Blackmailing, torture, and psychological manipulation was used to turn friends into foes, and the weak into prey. At one point, priest Lautner utters in frustration, “Your Grace, the Devil’s work lies in the brutality towards the superstitious and the uneducated.”

The film shows how the trials were orchestrated in a way so that once the process started, it was impossible to stop. Vávra also puts women at the forefront of his film. The 17th century was the worst time for any woman to be alive. They were thought of as sinful creatures, and Vávra makes a point to highlight how the Church exploited and oppressed them in the most heinous ways. Women were accused of being disciples of the Devil, when in fact men were the real corrupted souls unleashing hell on Earth. The film argues that the witch trials were never really about implementing the teachings of Christ or exposing witchcraft, but rather to feed man’s darkest desires – greed, lust and the hunger for absolute power.

Film Analysis: “Do the Right Thing”

On May 25, 2020, a video surfaced on the internet of George Floyd being choked to death by cops during an arrest in Minneapolis. His death caused global outrage, with chants of “I can’t breathe” heard from demonstrators everywhere. When I first watched the distressing footage, it filled me with anger, and frustration. It was sadly all too familiar. 

Anyone who has seen Spike Lee’s magnum opus, “Do the Right Thing”, will recall the similarities of this incident to the fate of Radio Raheem. In fact, shortly after the Floyd footage spread online, Lee himself released a short film called “3 Brothers,” in which he intercut scenes from his film with that of the arrests of George Floyd and Eric Garner. 

History is clearly repeating itself, and it appears little has changed when it comes to widespread police brutality. But if there’s one noticeable difference, it’s that today, everyone walks around with smartphones. With instant access to live streaming and video recording, the whole world is watching. The ripple effects are no longer constrained to riots in a single neighborhood; it has spread across the globe. 

After revisiting “Do the Right Thing,” I found that there’s a lot we can learn from the film today, particularly in how we analyze and dissect these horrific incidents. Usually all we see is the incident itself, but the real problem runs much deeper than that. The event itself is merely the aftermath of a much bigger and more problematic issue. Over 30 years later, Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” remains more relevant than ever. 

Lee’s filmography is composed of mostly independent films that address crucial contemporary issues such as racism, economic exploitation, police brutality, and multiculturalism. Despite the extensive political and social commentaries found in his work, Lee manages to both engage and appeal to popular audiences. Of all his work, “Do the Right Thing” is the most exemplary presentation of his seamless intertwining between unmistakable visual style and political philosophy.

“Do the Right Thing” revolves around a single hot summer day in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Although the neighborhood is predominantly Black, Lee quickly introduces the viewer to the diverse populace inhabiting the area. Lee does this through episodic slice-of-life moments within the neighborhood. We meet the Puerto Ricans, the Koreans operating the local supermarket, the Italian Americans running Sal’s Pizzeria, and the white cops roaming around the streets on patrol. 

At first, these so called introductory occurrences to the inner city ethnic groups seem random and unrelated to the bigger picture. It isn’t until after the climax that we learn the significance of the small interactions we witness in the film’s first half. “Do the Right Thing” takes place during a heat wave, and this heat stands for the racial tension within the neighborhood. With so many ethnic groups intermingling, inner-city life feels like an everyday struggle to maintain order; a clash of cultures is inevitable. The climatic incident occurs the moment that characters Buggin’ Out, Smiley, and Radio Raheem march into the pizzeria with a blaring boombox. 

The three protesting neighbors demand Sal include African Americans on the pizzeria’s wall of fame. A verbal exchange quickly escalates into a physical one. Soon after, the cops get involved, a Black man is strangled to death, and a riot breaks loose. The tension finally reaches its breaking point, and the pizzeria bursts in flames. The ramification of the film’s title arises the minute we try to figure out what exactly could have been done to avoid how this all unfolded. 

Instinctively, the viewer’s first reaction is to break down the fight preceding the riot itself. But where did it all go wrong? At what precise moment did things go too far? Is it the moment the three characters disturbed the peaceful easygoing Sal with an imposing demand? Or perhaps it’s when they turned up the volume on the boombox? Is it the second Sal spurts out the “n-word”? Or the instant a verbal exchange turned physical? 

The moment we narrow down the film’s answers to a 30-minute window, we unconsciously overlook the significance of the film’s subtly composed build-up. Throughout the majority of the film, Lee merely documents everyday life in a Black neighborhood in neorealist fashion. When connecting the dots between the climax and the seemingly random episodes that prelude it, everything comes full circle. To pinpoint the answer, we have to look beyond the actual incident.

Lee presents perfectly likable characters, yet most of them are presented as sympathetically racist. The core of the problem is hidden within the problematic way ethnic groups perceive themselves and one another: it’s the way the three corner men judge the Koreans for stealing their jobs; it’s the gaze of patrolling police officers ever fixed on the Black community; it’s the Puerto Ricans group fending off Black bystanders; it’s the African Americans bullying the only white man living on their street. The problem is in how they all perceive one another. 

The clash at the end of “Do the Right Thing” is merely a window of opportunity for all of these characters to exercise and act on their views of “the other.” Lee presents the problem long before the actual boiling point, and in doing so we get the sense that racism is deeply rooted within society, and that the Black community is always at the receiving end of America’s systematic inequality. 

For history to stop repeating itself, punishment for those who commit these atrocities is not enough, because the punishment only addresses the incident itself. As much as Lee was asking viewers to look at the environment that led to the death of Radio Raheem, we should look beyond the 8 minutes and 46 seconds of recorded footage, and ask ourselves “How did we get here?”

Exposing the Ugly Truth in “Z”

Costa-Garvas opens his polarizing political masterpiece with an arresting statement that sets the tone for the rest of the film: “any resemblance to real events, to persons living or dead, is not accidental. It is DELIBERATE.” Right from the outset, you find yourself hooked and drawn into one of the most thrilling explorations of political corruption ever put on film. The influence of “Z” is still apparent today; everything from the documentary-like neorealist approach adopted in many films that followed, to the urgency and explosiveness of “Do the Right Thing” and the investigative structure of “JFK” and “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within”. With “Z”, Costa-Garvas single handedly established the modern political film.

The plot revolves around the planned killing of a left-wing politician during a demonstration. Even before his death gets announced, the government and army try to cover it all up in order to protect the image of their nation. Despite their clumsy efforts, the truth finds a way out under the curiosity of an investigative journalist who was there when it happened. This fast-paced, hard-hitting thriller is an exercise in courageous filmmaking. Costa-Garvas’ “Z” film exposes ugly truths and throttles forward with the efficiency of a sharpshooter.

It is such a shame that a film that holds up with so much relevancy is not not as widely discussed today as it was back when it was first released. “Z” should be essential viewing to every governmental official in every country around the world. This type of revolting cinema has the power to expose entire regimes and put governmental policies in place. The film’s true intentions are very clear. It calls for immediate change; it calls for a revolution.