In Luis Buñuel’s grotesque, “Land Without Bread”, we are introduced to a small town struck by extreme poverty and disease. The camera does not shy away from exposing viewers to some of the most disturbing imagery you can think of. We see plenty of rotten animals, a dead baby, the mourning mother, and sick children with swollen tongues dying on the sidewalk. We even learn of mentally disabled dwarfs who roam the hills of the town. We are told by the narrator that they are the result of incest, which is quite common in the town of La Hurdes. Yes, the imagery captured in this anthropological expedition is quite unsettling, but nothing is more disturbing than the truth behind the making of this film.
Shortly after watching this thirty-minute documentary, I learned that none of this was real. Buñuel simply staged the film to resemble a documentary to get a point across. Today, this type of film is referred to as a pseudo-documentary, a film that takes the form of documentary, but the events it portrays are not true. Unlike a mockumentary, this type of fake fiction is not intended to be taken as satire or humor. What I found truly inexcusable was the lengths Buñuel went to in order to attain these images.
A tremendous amount of animal cruelty went into the making of this film. In fact, Buñuel flat out tortured and slaughtered several animals to deliver his message. He ordered honey to be spread over a donkey and filmed the poor animal as it got stung to death by bees. In another sequence, a goat was pushed off a rocky mountain; and in an earlier scene, a chicken is strung up from its legs as a man pulls its head off with his bare hands. Naturally, the film was banned by the Spanish government for years after its initial release. The official reason was “defamation of the good name of the Spanish people.”
I couldn’t help but wonder, why one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers would go to such extremes to manipulate his audience into believing this was all true. I suppose the only way to make it look real was to actually film the real thing. But still, why? Was it to cause an uproar and start a dialogue about the dire need for progress? It could be a case of ‘desperate times call for desperate measures’, or perhaps he simply wanted to showcase how easy it is to manipulate the audience. If that was the case then he clearly succeeded, because he surely had me fooled. “Land Without Bread” clearly crossed the line of ethical filmmaking, yet one can’t deny that it brought an awareness to how easy it is for governments to manipulate its people. It also sparks debate about social issues and filmmaking itself to this day.
“And Life Goes On” is Abbas Kiarostami’s second film in the delightful Koker trilogy. After the 1990 earthquake that took over 30,000 lives, Kiarostami goes on a search for the kid who starred in his previous film, “Where Is the Friend’s House?” The film was shot like a documentary, yet it is actually a semi-fictional work based on the actual events. Kiarostami blurs the line between fiction and reality, breaking new ground in what a filmmaker can achieve with the cinema.⠀
As the director (played by an actor) and his son embark on this journey, they bump into several survivors who share their personal accounts of what happened on the night of the earthquake. Everyone they talk to seems to have lost a brother, a sister, or a relative, and yet they go on with their days without clinging on to the past. “And Life Goes On” suggests that we shouldn’t mourn the dead too much, because the living are the ones who suffer every day. So instead of living miserably, the villagers swallow the pain and live life moment to moment in good spirits.⠀
This is an absolutely beautiful film from a filmmaker who knows how to capture the human spirit. Although the subject matter sounds quite heavy, Abbas Kiarostami’s sublime film doesn’t feel dull or depressing at any moment. It will make you smile at the beauty of humanity. In the hands of another director, a film like this would be about painful endings, but Kiarostami makes it about new beginnings. This mature work of art is full of wisdom and wit. It is the most optimistic film about coping with loss you will ever see.⠀
Martin Scorsese brings forth a gangster film we haven’t seen before. “The Irishman” is a meditation on time and death. Scorsese doesn’t glamorize a gangster’s lifestyle by showing them indulge in excess. Instead, he draws our attention to the latter part of their lives, the part we rarely see on the big screen, when their time on Earth is nearing its end. We see them look back at their legacy with regret, numbness, and shame. We feel the loneliness of their last days, hours filled with melancholic reflection and hopelessness. In a lot of ways, this film is the antithesis to “Goodfellas”, a eulogy to the gangster genre the same way “Unforgiven” was a eulogy to the western genre.
Death comes to all, and it literally lingers in the air throughout “The Irishman”. Scorsese introduces each character with the cause of their death, a constant reminder of the violent fate awaiting those who follow this line of work. The ones who somehow survive the ordeal have it much worse, because they get to slowly suffer as they embark on a desperate search for any kind of redemption. The themes explored in this film reminded me a lot of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”, another masterful work about an outlaw drenched in shame. Yet, “The Irishman” still very much feels like a Scorsese picture, filled with his trademark religious themes and characters searching for meaning.
Throughout the film, we see Frank Sheeran’s daughter stare him down with a silent piercing gaze. In a lot of ways, she’s a God-like figure judging his unforgiveable behavior without uttering a single word. Robert De Niro delivers a subtle and nuanced performance, reminding us all why he’s one of the greatest performers alive. And Joe Pesci stands out with an impressive turn as a gangster who could kill you just by looking at you, a much more dialed down performance compared to his previous work, but one that is just as menacing. Al Pacino also chews through the scenery, but he really shines in the quieter lighthearted moments like when he’s in his pajamas or enjoying his ice cream. So much can be written about the dynamic relationships between all three fleshed out characters, a testament to Steven Zaillian’s excellent writing. I feel like I’ve written these words countless times, but here it goes, Martin Scorsese has done it again.
In Kazuo Hara’s shocking Japanese documentary, “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On”, Kenzo Okuzaki will do anything to get WWII veterans to confess to the barbaric atrocities committed in New Guinea towards the end of the war. When the conversation doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, Okuzaki resorts to violence. He punches, kicks, and wrestles old veterans to get to the bottom of things. And although the morally ambiguous tactics he uses in pursuit of truth and justice will surely make any viewer feel uncomfortable, it’s not for a lost cause.
Okuzaki knows that his bursts of aggression are nothing compared to the horrific acts of cannibalism that he witnessed in the Pacific. At one point, he looks to the camera and tells viewers that he is doing this “for the sake of mankind”, so that people would stop regarding war as heroic, and see it for what it truly is. This may be one of the most shocking documentaries ever made, but it is also one of the most important and challenging ones out there. It blurs the line between right and wrong, and puts viewers in a very uncomfortable position.
Yet when all is said and done, you realize that the unorthodox methods used are the result of years of pain and suffering. I couldn’t help but feel that this was all done for a greater good. It took the filmmakers five years to get this historically significant film made, and its influence is still felt today. Hara’s film paved the way for other confrontational documentaries like “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence”. However, what makes this work so compelling and different is that it is both an exposé and character study at the same time. This is fascinating cinema that will stay with you forever.
Kieślowski’s “Red” is the most philosophically dense film in the Three Colours trilogy. In his final entry, Kieślowski effortlessly weaves everything together- very fitting for a film about making connections. An opening scene is often a film’s first shot at conveying its main themes and ideas. Here, the camera follows a telephone wire from a living room all the way to the ocean and beyond, but suddenly the line gets disconnected. Without uttering a single word of dialogue, Kieślowski establishes that the film is also about the failure to make connections.
We witness Valentine (Irene Jacob) as she forms a new bond with a dog and his owner, an old retired judge played by Jean-Louis Trintignant. As she’s making these intimate connections, she’s also failing to connect with her controlling boyfriend in England. Things start getting interesting when we follow a parallel storyline of another judge whose life echoes that of the older judge. We quickly get the sense that a force larger than life is at play, and everything in life is linked somehow. The only things disrupting our interconnected lives are time and space.
The retired judge eavesdrops on people through the telephone. The act itself has taught him to stop judging people based on the limited facts that he knows of them. When the news of his eavesdropping breaks out, an angry neighbor throws a rock through his window. It doesn’t seem to bother the old man. In fact, he tells Valentine that if he was in the neighbor’s place, he would do the same thing. “Of course. And that goes for everyone I judged. Given their lives, I would steal, I’d kill, I’d lie. Of course, I would…all that because I wasn’t in their shoes, but mine.”
The film invites viewers to consider what others have been through before passing judgment on them. At its core, “Red” is about the need to come together and share experiences. It left me with the urge to be more understanding and compassionate towards others. However, the film’s most impressive feat is its metaphysical connection with the medium itself, the cinema, which is also about coming together and sharing experiences.
Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy, “Blue”, White”, and “Red”, named after the colors of the French flag is themed on the French Revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. The first of the three films, “Blue”, tackles the concept of liberty in the everyday life of Julie, the wife of a composer, who must cope with the sudden death of her husband and daughter. Kieslowski is not really concerned with social or political liberty, but rather personal or emotional freedom, a far more stimulating exploration of the concept of liberty.
“Blue” ditches conventional plot structures for a more spiritual and psychological journey in which the protagonist goes through the process of addressing emotional wounds. In this journey, Julie, played by Juliette Binoche in a powerhouse performance, tries as much as she can to let go of her past. Yet, the more she tries to free herself from that incident, the more she becomes a prisoner of it; the more she tries to wash away her feelings in a swimming pool, the more she gets drenched with grief. It isn’t till she faces the music, both literally and figuratively, that she begins to feel any kind of real liberation.
The use of the colour blue accompanied by the powerful original score by Zbigniew Preisner signals the sudden emotional onset of grief at key moments throughout the film. These audiovisual cues of human sensations make “Blue” one of the most cinematic motion pictures ever made; I simply cannot imagine how this film would translate into any other medium. “Blue” is the rarest of all films, a film that reveals its knowledge on humanity through melodic rhythm and artistic imagery. It should be regarded as one of the most insightful and inventive films ever made.
In Federico Fellini’s nostalgic time capsule, “Amarcord”, we are introduced to the director’s birthplace, the seaside town of Rimini, and the colorful characters that reside in it. Only it feels like Fellini is showing us how he wants to remember this town as opposed to how it actually was. We are seeing the world through the surreal lens of a director longing for the simpler times of a childhood filled with joy, warmth, imagination and creative flamboyance.
“Amarcord” may not have a storyline, but it doesn’t need one. It is about nothing and everything. Like a record you listen to on a cold winter night, or a soup that reminds you of your grandma’s fireplace, “Amarcord” is a mood piece above anything else. Filled with heart and characteristic humor, this is a world you will want to revisit over and over again.
The film is very episodic in its structure, and yet it flows from one scene to the next with vigorous energy. The vignettes are so hilariously vulgar and entertaining it exudes warmth and nostalgia. Fellini is second to none when it comes to expressing magical realism. With “Amarcord”, he aptly displays his mastery over atmosphere and style. It is a film that will make you feel rather than think.
“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.
Godfrey Reggio’s “Koyaanisqatsi” is a documentary that has been imitated countless times but never surpassed, and maybe never quite equaled either. Ron Fricke, the cinematographer of this important piece of filmmaking, went on to direct his own films like “Baraka” and “Samsara”, but for some reason they lacked the philosophical depth that a mind like Godfrey Reggio brought to the table. “Koyaanisqatsi” is more than just a series of breathtaking images stitched up together; it feels like a poetic visual essay. There’s a message behind all the beautiful imagery and it is conveyed without uttering a single word of dialogue. Our first clue is the title, a Hopi Indian word that translates to “a way of life that calls for another way of living.”
Reggio does not spoon-feed anything, the viewer is required to think for himself. It is only when you attempt to connect the dots or the relation between one shot and the other, that you start to grasp the film’s meaning. For example, we see a top view shot of a city, the grid is made of streets, building blocks, and cars moving around in fast motion. The film then cuts to a computer chip, and you get it instantly. We have enclosed ourselves in an artificial environment that has replaced the natural world as a setting. Nature has been reduced to a resource that fuels this machine we’re trapped in.
What Godfrey Reggio achieves in this film is truly miraculous. The first time I watched it, it felt like Morpheus was awakening me to the reality of the world we live in. Reggio captures the world from new angles, and it almost feels like you’re looking at things for the very first time. You start to see the world like you’ve never seen it before. You look at a supermarket and you see consumerism encapsulated within a single shot because of the way it is framed. And there’s nothing quite as powerful as hearing Philip Glass’ haunting score kick in at key moments to really punctuate a point. This exemplary work of pure cinema relies on nothing but sight and sound to deliver its powerful message. “Koyaanisqatsi” is one of the most eye-opening works of art created in the late 20th century.