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.
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.