“If there were another World War, I wouldn’t even notice it.”
“Land of Silence and Darkness” concerns itself with a very specific demographic of the population, the people who suffer from the unfortunate fate of simultaneously being deaf and blind. Without these two key senses, they are cut off from the reality of the world around them. They live in their own thoughts in constant longing for contact with the outside world. In many ways, they are the loneliest human beings on this planet.
Midway through the film, Werner Herzog fixes his camera on a subject who was born into this state of being. Communicating with him is near impossible. We watch him move around, make motorboat noises with his lips; he feels his surroundings using his hands and clenching onto a radio playing music. We can only imagine what goes through his head. He experiences the world simply through smell, touch and taste. I couldn’t help but wonder what it must be like to think without ever having language instilled into your brain?
Although, the film sounds very depressing, it doesn’t feel that way. In fact, it can be very moving and uplifting at times. The documentary follows Fini Straubinger, a woman who dedicated her life to communicating with people who suffer from the same severe disabilities as hers. Seeing Straubinger assure these lost souls that they are not alone in this world is quite stirring and inspirational. This study of what it means to be human is one of the most empathetic documentaries out there.
Werner Herzog once referred to “Lessons of Darkness” as a science fiction film, and I can see why. The hellish landscapes of pitch-black oil fields interrupted by fountains of fire look like something straight out of a post-apocalyptic future where man orchestrated his own demise. Strangely enough, the subject matter is not that far off; the film documents the death of a city in a world where humanity ceases to exist.
It starts with an aerial shot of a city in Kuwait; the words that Herzog chooses to say over his footage sets up the rest of the film masterfully. “Something is looming over this city, the city that will soon be laid waste by war. Now it is still alive, biting its time; nobody has yet begun to suspect the impending doom.” What a way to start a documentary, it instantly puts you at a time and place. At first, it felt like I was looking at a city not unlike the one I live in, but after that opening statement, I realized the significance of what I was seeing. I was looking at the rare footage of city that is no more, a city that got wiped off the face of the Earth.
What follows cannot be described, it has to be seen to be believed. The visuals here pack the grandiosity of anything we’ve seen in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. The only difference is, this is real, and it’s not outer space, it’s the tip of the Persian Gulf. “Lessons of Darkness” is a symphony of light and shadow, an operatic vision filled with nightmarish visuals that look like paintings of another distant planet. This is the most well-photographed anti-war film I have ever seen; nothing else compares.
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.
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.
If I were to ever list the most well photographed films ever made, “The Tree of Wooden Clogs” would probably be right up there. The photographic images in this film are on par with the greatest paintings ever made. The cozy lighting and earthy texture within each perfectly composed shot is so vivid, rich and layered, you could almost smell the scent of soil after it rains, feel the warmth of the burning wood in the fireplace, and taste the soup being served on screen.
This is the type of atmospheric imagery that makes people pause in awe; almost every single frame in this film belongs in a museum. “The Tree of Wooden Clogs” is one of the greatest displays of visuals I’ve ever seen. But make no mistake, there’s real substance and heart beneath all this beauty.
Ermanno Olmi wrote directed and shot a work of profound humanity. The film is a product of the Italian Neorealism movement and it’s as authentic as any period piece you can think of. The attention to detail when it comes to costume design, props and set pieces is baffling. The entire cast were residents of a rundown farmhouse, so not a single professional actor was used during filming. And the director insisted they speak in the Bergamasque dialect of their ancestors. When asked about strictly using non-professionals, Olmi replied: “In a film about peasants, I choose the actors from the peasant world. I don’t use a fig to make a pear.”
“We’ve got to be nicer with the dead, because we spend more time dead than alive. Anyway, we all are born to die. What do we learn here? A bust, and sometimes not even that…lots of work, many troubles… When we’re born, we’re carrying our death in the liver, or in the stomach, or here in the heart that one day will beat no more. It can also be outside, sitting under a tree, that hasn’t grown yet, but will fall on you when you’re old.”
Roberto Gavaldón’s “Macario” takes place on the Day of the Dead in Mexico. The story revolves around Macario, a underpriveleged wood-cutter who lives his days as a poor man struggling to feed his wife and children. He often gives up his own food so his family could eat. In fact, life is so hard, that he forgot what it actually feels like to be full. Macario has been living at the edge of starvation all his life. On the eve of the Day of Dead, as people offer food for the dead, he sets his eye on a deliciously cooked turkey, and everything is about to change.
Gavaldón’s fable is widely considered to be one of the greatest achievemens in Mexican cinema. It was the first Mexican film to be nominated for an Academy Award and was even competing for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Yet, despite being so successful in 1960, the film has faded into obscurity, and is rarely seen outside of Mexico. In fact, getting your hands on a copy of this film with English subtitles is a nightmare. Last time I checked, there were two copies being sold on Amazon for over $380. The film rarely pops on eBay for sale, and even if you were lucky enough get your hands on a copy of this film at a garage sale, chances of the quality being any good are fairly slim.
We can only hope that one day, a label such as Eureka’s Masters of Cinema or the Criterion Collection restores it to its original glory so it can be seen by cinephiles all over the world. “Macario” is a treasure of Mexican cinema, and it should be celebrated by film fans all over the world. When I was finally able to see it, I was immersed in the beauty of Mexican tradition and culture. It also happens to have one of the greatest “last shot” twist endings ever committed to film.
Mike Leigh’s “Naked” could very well be the director’s most brilliant exercise of his unorthodox filmmaking approach. The script was created as the cast improvised during eleven weeks of rehearsal before shooting. Instead of just making a film about chaos, Leigh applied “chaos” in the actual making of his masterpiece. This may sound like an oxymoron, but Leigh chaotic filmmaking method displays a master in complete control of his craft.
It is said Leigh made David Thewlis read Voltaire’s “Candide”, the teachings of Buddha, the holy Bible, the Qur’an, and James Gleick’s “Chaos” so he could be well versed in completely destroying anyone’s belief system. Thewlis plays an unemployed wanderer who embarks on a nocturnal odyssey across east London. In his journey, he bumps into strangers and begins to completely destroy their faith in humanity by sharing his philosophical musings on life.
The eloquently spoken dialogue flows out of Thewlis like a man on a destructive mission to vent his frustrations with the world; his central performance is one of the most fascinating and captivating acts ever captured on film. “Naked” explores themes of misogyny, addiction, depression, capitalism, evolution, chaos and anarchy. It should not be missed.
Perhaps the most controversial shot in Luis Buñuel’s “Viridiana”- The composition of the shot is an imitation of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, only it was re-enacted by homeless beggars. The Christ like figure in the middle was depicted by a street beggar who is blind. The shot implies that blindness is at the core centre of religion. The plot follows Viridiana’s awakening to reality from the illusion of faith.
When surrealist master, Luis Buñuel, screened his social satire, “Viridiana”, at the Cannes Film Festival, it shook the world. The film won the Palme d’Or, got banned in its home country, and was completely denounced by the Vatican. The Catholic Church described the film as blasphemous and excommunicated everyone who worked on it. Soon after, the Franco government ordered the immediate destruction of every copy in existence. Thankfully, not every single copy was destroyed, and “Viridiana” is just as shocking today as it was back then.
A film that triggered such a strong reaction from the powers that be must be doing something right. The first time I watched it, it blew my mind and confirmed my belief that Buñuel is the bravest most fearless film director to ever walk this planet. The film revolves around a nun, who before taking her holy vows, gets sent to visit her perverted widowed uncle. There, she does everything as the holy book taught her, yet somehow all of her choices have extremely bad repercussions; acts of goodness result in the worst human behavior imaginable. Buñuel’s destruction of religious morality is fascinating. The film is filled with taboo imagery and disturbing scenarios designed to make you question the role of organized religion in a world that doesn’t want to be saved by it.
“The great modern cities: New York, Paris, London, hide behind their magnificent building homes of misery that shelter malnourished children without hygiene, without schools, a harvest of future delinquency. The society tries to correct this evil, but the success of its effort is very limited. Only in a future where children’s and adolescent’s rights are vindicated will they be useful for society. Mexico, the great modern city is not an exception to this universal rule. That’s why this film based on facts from real life is not optimistic, and it leaves the solution to the problem to the society’s progressive forces” _The opening statement to “Los Olvidados”
Luis Buñuel directed “Los Olvidados”, aka “The Young and the Damned” or “The Forgotten Ones”, an unapologetic depiction of children living in the crime infested slums of Mexico City. Apparently, this film was the main inspiration behind “City of God”, and I can see how. It is just as brutal, if not more so. When it was released in 1950, “Los Olvidados” didn’t last more than three days in theaters due to the outrage it caused. The press, government, and upper class audiences were furious with the film. They labeled it as bad publicity for Mexico and Third World countries. “Los Olvidados” was simply being brutally honest in its portrayal of the never-ending cycle of street violence in the slums of a city.
Buñuel doesn’t shy away from exposing his audience to this cruel rotten world, we are forced to watch old men sexually abuse young girls, slum children beating up cripples for the heck of it, and kids stabbing one another for a few pesos. This is one of the bleakest films ever made about poverty and street children. It is an under-seen work of art that deserves to be mentioned amongst the greats. I hope one day Criterion restores the film to its original glory, so it could receive the respect it deserves. “The Young and the Damned” is an unflinching look at hell on earth; once seen, it will never be forgotten.
In Theo Angelopoulos’ “Landscape in the Mist”, two kids run away from their home in Athens in search for their father whom they were told lives in Germany; but beneath the surface this film is about so much more. The journey they embark on is a metaphor of life itself. We all travel through time in search of something that may not even be there.
Everything goes by so fast, the cities we visit, the strangers we meet, painful chapters and joyful occurrences- it all comes and goes in a flash. At one point, a traveller looks at the kids, smiles and utters words that ring so true for each and every one of us.
“You’re funny kids you know that? It’s as if you don’t care about time passing, yet I know that you are in a hurry to leave. It’s as if you’re going nowhere, and yet you’re going somewhere…Me? I’m a snail slithering away into nothingness. I don’t know where I’m going. Once I thought I knew.”
We’re all aware of time passing, yet we pretend that we have all the time in the world. In a way, we’re all clueless kids travelling in a chaotic odyssey through time. We think we know where we’re going, but we really don’t. We’re all searching for different things, yet ultimately we’re looking for the same things, closure, wholeness, a sense of fulfilment. Everything seems like it’s within reach yet completely unattainable.
Will we ultimately reach our destination? Or will everything we long for forever remain a landscape in the mist? Theodoros Angelopoulos creates films with images so hauntingly beautiful, they will be seared into your brain. “Landscape in the Mist” transcends the medium with poetic lyricism that is rarely matched by any work of art.