Our days are filled with simple little interactions with complete strangers, a nod at someone passing by, a sympathetic look towards someone you may never see again, a shared smirk with some random bystander. These short-lived moments may signify the smallest measurable unit of human connection, but occasionally, they can trigger an avalanche of emotions.
In Steve McQueen’s “Shame”, Michael Fassbender plays a sex addict roaming around the city in search for anything that will quench his sexual desires. In this scene, his exchange with a random subway rider exemplifies such an encounter. What starts as a flirtatious glance between two strangers quickly escalates into much more.
The undercurrent of boiling sexual tension and chemistry captured by both actors in such a brief moment is nothing short of remarkable. By “reacting” to one another rather than acting towards one another, they appear completely lost in the moment. We witness a wordless ballet of glances; every glimpse, peek, and subtle move reveals so much of what they’re feeling.
Notice the girl trying to remove her wedding ring as she crosses her legs; the ring gets stuck, and there’s a slow shift in momentum. Her emotions switch from arousal to shame in mere seconds. Steve McQueen’s painful cinematic display of loneliness in the city features acting of the highest caliber.
Few films have captured the difficulty of growing up like Abbas Kiarostami’s “Where is the Friend’s House”. In this underseen Iranian masterpiece, Babek Ahmed Poor plays an eight-year-old schoolboy running around a neighbouring village in search for his classmate’s home to return a notebook. Although, very little takes place in terms of plot, Kiarostami doesn’t use the medium as a means to tell a story, but to capture the essence of childhood.
“Where is the Friend’s House” induces a kind of nostalgic trance in which you become completely absorbed in vivid sensory details. You recognize the sound of wind as it whistles outside while the kid finishes his homework before bedtime; you recall the feeling of impending doom as the teacher looms over his desk. The film feels so uniquely atmospheric due to the director’s signature documentary style of neorealist filmmaking. You get completely soaked into the experience of living at the worn-out, yet beautifully structured villages of Iran.
I can’t think of many films that looked and felt so real. The characters in this village always seem to be talking over one another. It’s like they live in a world where people talk but don’t communicate. We hear characters repeat phrases over and over again in desperate attempts to let their words pierce through side conversations. The dialogue here doesn’t feel scripted or deliberately improvised, it feels like the real thing. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Kiarostami paints a profound picture of younger and older generations, and their complete disinterest in understanding one another. This cinematic poem will bring a smile to the most reserved individual.
Yasujiro Ozu expressed grand philosophical ideas through little moments of everyday life. He is in my humble opinion, the most sensitive and disciplined director to ever hold a camera. Ozu disregarded how the rest of the world shot films and created his own cinematic language. He broke every rule there was and did it the most subtle way possible. Ozu’s films exercised the most discreet rebellion against cinematic norm.
Widely considered as the most Japanese of all film directors, his films feature no heroes or villains. We simply witness life in motion. When we arrive at a significant moment, Ozu would cut to “pillow shots” or perfectly composed shots of landscapes, street signs, or inanimate objects. The idea was to give viewers room to breathe, or provide them with the time to contemplate what they had just seen.
I think the awareness of how little of the world we’ll experience is what really drew me towards cinema. Films were like gateways to other worlds, and there’s no world I would rather visit than one directed by master Ozu. In a span of two hours, you experience a lifetime. You go through a stranger’s life journey with all its turbulences and unique epiphanies. And then it hits you, the realization that each and every one of us is living a life as vivid as complex as the other. The sublime cinema of Yasujiro Ozu transcends life on this planet.
Edward Yang’s “Yi Yi” is a delicate masterpiece about self-reflection and the little things that make life worth living. Yang orchestrated an ensemble of social scenes that literally feature “reflection shots” of his characters. At times, you can see their reflection on windows, mirrors, or polished surfaces, but beneath the surface we see much more, we see characters undergoing inner-change as they go through the unavoidable randomness of life.
In one scene, a character asks a simple question: “Every day in life is a first time. We never live the same day twice. We’re never afraid of getting up every morning. Why?” With a career spanning two decades, Yang has graced us with a thought-provoking film about the uncertainties awaiting us in the span of a lifetime. If there is one thing we know for sure, it is that the most unexpected discoveries await us in the sphere of time.
“Yi Yi” is structured in a way that resembles the cycle of life itself; it starts with a wedding and ends with a funeral. The one thing that always catches me by surprise is how the scenes unfold in a very natural way. We are not fed moments, we arrive to them the same way we reach and attain realizations in our own lives. Yang doesn’t try to convey an idea to the audience, he simply lets you observe it. Once you assess what you have seen, you start appreciating the subtlety of a master in complete control of his craft.
In a small town called Canoa, a corrupt power-hungry priest uses fear to brainwash the inhabitants’ minds. When he starts becoming insecure about his position, the priest uses paranoia to turn the townspeople into mindless lunatics who would do anything to protect an already miserable way of life. This brutal film, which is based on a true story, is a complex psychological study of group hysteria, mob mentality, and religious fanaticism.
Felipe Cazals created an absolutely terrifying piece of filmmaking. What is so disturbing about this film is that this sort of thing happens all the time, particularly in areas with poor education and a lack of proper schooling. People with authority often use religion to stir uneducated minds into bloodthirsty barbarity. “Canoa: A Shameful Memory” is unsettling for what it says about ‘thought as a virus’, and how when people are quick to pass judgment, the outcome can be utterly horrifying.
Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage” is a brutally honest study of marriage. It revolves around two human beings trying to sustain love and intimacy throughout their lives. No matter what I write, nothing will prepare you for this masterpiece. It is truly a transformative work filled with a lifetime of wisdom. “Scenes from a Marriage” has the power to change the way you approach and digest life.
Bergman purposely shot “Scenes from a Marriage” in 16mm, so it would feel like we are prying into the extremely intimate and private lives of Marianne and Johan. The way they verbalize their feelings in five hours of the most painful, intense, and truthful dialogue ever committed to celluloid is nothing short of extraordinary. At the beginning, you sense the couple are almost emotionally illiterate, yet the more they experience the ups and downs of life, the more well versed they become in expressing how they feel at any given moment.
This philosophical piece of work digs deep into the grand questions of life; it explores how we spend a lifetime searching for identity, and it dissects the complexities of human relationships. But above all, it is about communication, or the lack of communication, and how it is important to be self-aware of one’s own feelings, so we can express them to one another, and at least bring our realities closer together. The more coherent and constructive five-hour version of “Scenes from a Marriage” is the most poignant and compelling work ever made about marriage.
When Luchino Visconti’s “Death in Venice” about an aging artist lingering in a hotel in Venice finally reveals itself, it is absolutely breathtaking. I found myself mesmerised at how a film can express so much by saying so little. It possesses an honest and truthful understanding of beauty, art, and how they relate to our senses, or something beyond that. Visconti’s meditation on love, art, and death is both operatic and melancholic.
“Death in Venice” is a film about humanity’s slow transcendence into nothingness and everything. It exists in the space between life and death, between youth and old age, between ignorance and wisdom. It is only when we’re fully aware of time slipping away, that we start savouring and longing for it to stay still. I think as we grow older, and start becoming aware of our slow bodily decay, we start to appreciate the beauty of life around us, in all of its shapes and forms.
Visconti’s dreamlike film reflects everything I just discussed using nothing but the ambiguity of music set against poetic photography. The sight of Tadzio walking by the beach with sun-rays reflected on the sea surface is one of cinema’s most unforgettable moments. I have a feeling that my appreciation for “Death in Venice” will only grow as it becomes more and more relatable as time goes by. Like fine wine, this film only gets better with age.