The Terrorizers

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(Dir. Edward Yang, Taiwan, 1986)

Missed Connections

Before he diagnosed Taiwan’s tumultuous history through the eyes of teen street gangs with A Brighter Summer Day and captured the universality of the human struggle with Yi Yi, filmmaker Edward Yang served up another thoroughly explored microcosm of a narrative with The Terrorizers – this time to dissect a rapidly urbanizing, globalizing late-twentieth century Taipei. And, while the former pair of critical darlings has solidified his position as a modern titan of cinema as well as ensured endless comparisons to his contemporary Hou Hsiao-hsien, his third feature bears more resemblance to the works of the chronicler of urban malaise himself, Wong Kar-wai, than others considered a part of the New Taiwanese Cinema movement. The Terrorizers, then, is perhaps in one sense an anomaly in Yang’s canon, and yet on the other hand, given the versatility of his craft (the atypically historical setting of A Brighter Summer Day, the more direct comedy of A Confucian Confusion, or the uncharacteristic optimism of Yi Yi), it also fits in quite nicely amidst one of the most impressive, albeit tragically brief bodies of work in film.

Employing the network narrative structure championed in the second half of the twentieth century by the likes of Robert Altman, Yang’s film serves as something like a prelude to the onslaught of (mostly) terrible films like Crash and Babel that polluted the first years of the new millennium. Intertwining webs of strangers that collide in unexpected (and oftentimes unbelievable) ways is a fine metaphor for the struggle of human connection (or disconnection in today’s social media saturated world), but on this side of the still shocking Oscar win for Paul Haggis’ insulting fable chastising racism, it’s safe to say most thoughtful filmgoers have recognized the technique has grown stale. Viewing The Terrorizers some thirty years later, then, it’s surprising how fresh it still seems.

Even before the exhausting overuse of said technique had become cliché, Yang seemed to have already offered his own twist with The Terrorizers, which weaves three or four separate narrative threads together through coincidence and most often inference. This last point is crucial in understanding why Yang and Hou remain such influential figures in film; viewer participation is a must when engaging the art of either one. Though Yang forces his characters into each other’s spheres with one precipitating act, the specifics of these accidental connections remain alarmingly oblique and ultimately incomplete. In the film’s stunning opening sequence alone, we’re left wondering who delivers the scene-setting voiceover, who’s lying dead in the middle of the street, and who’s responsible for the shootout that sets each of these strands in motion. That Yang’s film never really answers any of these questions may prove frustrating for some viewers, but for others it’s all part of the fascinating puzzle he creates.

Yang judiciously cuts between a young voyeuristic photographer who stumbles on a muse that’s not his girlfriend, the subject of his camera, a reckless teenage prostitute who hangs around the wrong crowd, the bored police officer tasked with eliminating the threat of these gangs, and a professionally stunted doctor and his novelist wife who seems to have fallen out of love with her spouse at the same time she suffers writer’s block. For the first half of the film, brief encounters hint at some interaction between the different stories, but it isn’t until the teen – imprisoned in her room by her hot-tempered mother and a sprained ankle – takes to prank calling strangers that Yang prepares the violent collision of these characters. When she randomly dials the novelist’s number and pretends to be her husband’s mistress, the young prostitute sets in motion consequences that can’t be undone. Like his later works, these fragmented stories are wound together tightly until the compression results in an explosion of violence. Unlike those later realist works, however, The Terrorizers’ bloody finale may or may not actually happen. In the director’s finest foray into cinematic postmodernism, the pair of diverging endings could be taken as alternate takes on the same event or one the realization of the novelist’s fictional account of the dissolution of her marriage. The film is ultimately stronger for refusing to grant us narrative clarity.

For clarity is rarely the objective in Yang’s films. He frequently operates in the mode of elliptical storytelling, and The Terrorizers’ opaque, disjointed narrative brilliantly serves its theme mourning the effects of burgeoning urbanization. In short, the closer we get in physical proximity, the further away we actually grow from one another. The doctor drowns in the pressure of his work and fails to see his wife slipping away. The teenage prostitute sees only opportunity for monetary gain when she scans the sea of faces that dot the city’s bustling streets. The photographer creates a photographic shrine to the girl he captures with his camera only once, but the feelings an image can conjure are but a shadow compared to the real thing.

Yang would go on to assign significant meaning to objects to astounding effect in A Brighter Summer Day (notably Xiao S’ir’s illuminating flashlight), but here he hints at the power of these symbols as well. A phone, a camera, a pistol – these seemingly random objects bring characters together, tear them apart, and alter the course of their lives permanently. The same can be said of Yang’s depiction of the city as a whole. The full effect of such global urbanization has yet to be seen, but it’s undeniable that such a monumental shift in where we live has dramatically shaped how we live. The Terrorizers presents a disturbing, yet crucial view of the consequences of missed connections in the city, but fortunately we also have Yi Yi to cap an incredible filmic career to remind us that no matter how much the city pushes, the human spirit is forever resilient.

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Silence

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(Dir. Martin Scorsese, United States, 2016)

A Still Small Voice

“Behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind.
And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.
And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.
And after the fire a still small voice.” – 1 Kings 19:11-12

As the swelling chatter of insects and hum of nature’s white noise abruptly give way to the total absence of sound before an image even appears on the black screen, the central theme of Martin Scorsese’s latest film is made strikingly clear. Silence can be terrifying. And, when silence is the divine response to human faith, it has the potential to shake the devout to the core and test the very limits of that belief. Scorsese understands this tension well. He remains one of the few living filmmakers apparently brave enough to intelligently engage religion in his art. And, though the director’s Roman Catholicism has been a fixture of many of his films, it hasn’t featured this prominently since The Last Temptation of Christ. Like that film, the story of Silence – based on the novel by Shusaku Endo – gives Scorsese more than enough room to challenge the faith of his flawed characters.

In seventeenth century Japan, a Jesuit priest from Portugal has gone missing and is rumored to have apostatized during a time of extreme persecution of European missionaries and their Japanese converts. The film begins with Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) witnessing the torture of his fellow padres at the hands of a merciless “Inquisitor” determined to snuff out Christianity in a scene that sets the tone for this bleak epic. Scorsese then cuts to Ferreira’s two former pupils Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) who, in disbelief, resolve to travel to Japan to discover the truth about their missing mentor. Both of them believe it to be impossible that Ferreira could have denounced the faith.

With a setup that seems to the promise the suspense and intrigue of the manhunt for Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, Scorsese quickly subverts expectations when the pair arrives in Japan, and the film becomes less about the quest for Ferreira and more about the inner struggles of Rodrigues. Led by their presumably unreliable guide, the drunkard Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), the two padres stumble upon a village of secret Christians in desperate need of a priest. Though they begin to administer sacraments and offer confession, they are soon faced with the dangerous reality of living as a Christian in Japan. After the village is exposed, a few of their most devoted followers are brutally executed, sparking the two padres to split up to protect the village from further trouble. Scorsese chooses to follow Rodrigues who is betrayed by Kichijiro and delivered into the hands of the one known as the Inquisitor, the local governor Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata). The majority of the film, then, details Rodrigues’ time in captivity as this unwavering ruler seeks to break the young priest until he too gives up the faith.

Scorsese’s graciously paced film is both beautiful and brutal in its refreshingly nuanced portrayal of the Christian faith. Silence is a film of great richness – one that raises daring and complicated questions and then refuses to answer any of them. Is the Christian gospel universal? If so, are the foreign missionaries then justified in their insistence on spreading their message throughout Japan, against the wishes of the ruling authorities? Or is Japan, as one character states, a swamp where Christianity can never take root? Are the Japanese Christians true converts, followers of Jesus Christ, or mere followers of the priests they admire? Is Rodrigues arrogant in his refusal to apostatize though he frequently suggests that his followers do so that they may escape persecution? Is the Judas Iscariot-like Kichijiro past the point of redemption after his umpteenth instance of denouncing the faith? And, perhaps most crucial to Rodrigues’ progression as a character, is divine silence the same as divine indifference? Or was the naïve and haughty young priest finally able to hear the voice of God only when he went silent so as to catch that still small voice?

That Scorsese manages to wrestle with each of these questions in turn – not to mention touching the blurry line between religion and empire, the historic failure of Western missionaries to understand or learn the cultures where they preached, or confusion surrounding fundamental doctrines of Christianity that has produced divisions in the Church to this day – within the believable confines of one story is truly remarkable. The characters in Silence are equally as layered. Who are the villains here? The film’s promotional cycle would have you believe there’s no question that Scorsese’s in the corner of the missionaries, but the film is far too generous for that. The priests are beholden to the truth and care for their flock, but they are also arrogant. The governor and his men are often sadistic in their seeming disregard for human life, but then at times also appear reasonable and far more concerned with the future prosperity of Japan as a nation than the foreigners. And, to complicate matters further, the governor (and by proxy the apostate Ferreira) seems to understand the core tenants of Christianity better than the stubborn padres he opposes.

Given the depth achieved in this surprisingly balanced cinematic exploration of morality and faith, it’s a wonder Silence was not better received. A box office dud and inexplicably ignored during awards season, Scorsese’s long-gestating passion project was apparently too ambiguous for the American Christian market and too unapologetically religious for the liberal critic circles. I suspect that the film was either too quickly derided or dismissed altogether because it’s been sadly misunderstood. Of course, this is not to say I somehow “get” something that others much smarter than me don’t. But, I believe it to be a work deserving of much richer discourse and contemplation given the sheer number of significant questions raised that Scorsese brilliantly refrains from trying to answer. And, to those uncomfortable with a mainstream Hollywood production chronicling the historical spread of Christianity I say this: Scorsese’s decision to depict Christians as the victims here does not somehow implicitly absolve the entire religion of its own spotty history of violence and forced conversions. Instead, he sees what many in today’s mass pop culture are either unable or unwilling to admit: Christians are people too – with fears, flaws, and great stories to tell.

It would be a mistake to acknowledge the thematic achievements of the filmmaker’s greatest film in years without pointing to his superior skills at the craft, which he’s mastered over the past few decades. Though Silence is a far cry from Hugo or The Wolf of Wall Street, to name his two most recent acclaimed features, there are still enough Scorsese tics to separate this historical epic from the more traditional offerings in that genre. There are his unexpected camera movements and angles, a borderline cartoonish caricature to counter the story’s grim content, and more than a few visual pleasures courtesy of Rodrigo Prieto’s breathtakingly gorgeous cinematography. Too, the big name Western actors likely meant to draw apathetic American viewers to the theater were fine, as expected, but it’s the Japanese cast that truly shines. Scorsese has a knack for unearthing scene-stealing performances from his supporting actors (especially in the post-De Niro-as-leading-man era), and Silence is no exception. Asano Tadanobu as the governor’s eerily calm and collected interpreter and Kubozuka Yosuke as the padre’s untrustworthy and religiously confused guide Kichijiro are both fantastic, but the film ultimately belongs to Issey Ogata. As the Inquisitor Inoue Masashige, Ogata compellingly oscillates between extremes during the course of a single scene giving his hot-tempered philosopher with an undeniable sadistic streak remarkable breadth as a villain.

It’s particularly fascinating to watch when Scorsese’s visual artistry meets the film’s weighty themes. This is no more evident than the recurring image of El Greco’s portrait of Christ that Garfield’s Rodrigues repeatedly sees in his daydreams and even at one point in his reflection in a bubbling stream. The portrait’s final appearance occurs during a pivotal sequence near film’s end when a cruder image of the Christ begins audibly engaging the conflicted priest as he’s faced with denouncing his faith to save the faithful. This conversation with the savior of the world represents a hauntingly bold moment in modern cinema. Scorsese seems to assert that it’s only when the proud Rodrigues, consumed with his own piety, silences himself is he able to hear the voice of his God. So, is the film’s title a reference to an almighty God’s absence or, worse, indifference to his creation’s suffering? Or does it speak to the posture or place where humankind can finally hear the divine, who has been suffering alongside his creation the whole time? Scorsese’s Silence fittingly does not answer. But, I suspect as this great work’s impact deepens with time, we may still be asking these questions for years to come.

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Black Girl

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(Dir. Ousmane Sembène, France/Senegal, 1966)

Out of Africa

At one point during director Ousmane Sembène’s debut feature Black Girl, his protagonist muses that to her France is nothing more than the kitchen, living room, bathroom, and bedroom of the flat that enslaves her. The young woman from Senegal lives and works as a maid for a white bourgeois family, and she never sees more of the European country she’s always dreamed of visiting than the rooms she shuffles in and out of day after day. This beachside flat on the French Riviera is her private prison. Has there been a more unglamorous depiction of a nation so often romanticized in all of cinema? On the heels of a national movement that shaped the entire medium for generations to come (one decidedly marked by white filmmakers telling white stories of white characters and concerns), Sembène’s France is boldly filtered through the lens of a black foreigner.

It goes without saying that any French film released in the mid- to late-Sixties will welcome comparisons to the so-called New Wave, but aside from a shared social conscience in a contemporary setting, Sembène’s film represents a work with a distinctly African voice. (This is not to say, of course, that Sembène would shy away from his influences – the French title La Noire de… is an unmistakable reference to Max Ophüls’ best-known film.) And, it also marks the beginning of an exciting, decades-spanning career that helped jumpstart modern African cinema. It should come as no surprise, then, that a mid-twentieth century film hopping from Africa to Europe and then back again would be explicitly concerned with the aftereffects of colonialism on a ravaged continent.

And, make no mistake; Black Girl offers no subtle social critique. Its purpose is plain and its indictment pointedly scathing – but necessarily so. In simplest terms, Sembène’s film is about racism. And, there’s no dancing around a topic like post-colonial racism, especially when the hateful and harmful behavior on display here is this overt. The young Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) – at first determined and joyful – is completely drained of her humanity when she bravely leaves Senegal for France at the invitation of her unnamed white employers. Monsieur (Robert Fontaine) and Madame (Anne-Marie Jelinek) are cruel and uncaring in their treatment of the poor woman in their service. They frequently deny her requests to see the France outside the walls of their home, allow her no voice of her own (even when writing a letter to her own mother), and subject her to shocking acts of racism. In the film’s most egregious sequence, one of the couple’s dinner guests jumps up from the table to plant a kiss on Diouana’s cheek after claiming he had never kissed a black girl before. Later, Madame dismisses the man’s uninvited and degrading gesture as a lighthearted joke. Obviously, no one’s laughing.

And, while Diouana’s skin color is reason enough for her employers to treat her like a lower class human, she also serves as the embodiment of their condescending attitude toward Africa as a whole. The couple openly discusses how unsafe and uncivilized the continent has become in the aftermath of European reign with no regard for how these opinions might affect the young Senegalese woman living in their home. “We’re not in Africa!” Madame exclaims in one scene when she chides Diouana for sleeping in. The implication, of course, is that in Africa one might indulge in laziness or applaud a poor work ethic, but in Europe there’s no place for this type of carelessness. The couple’s total lack of cultural understanding that would clue them in to different perceptions of time (among other cultural signifiers) doesn’t, however, stop them from mindlessly consuming African culture. “Exotic” and “authentic” paintings and artifacts adorn the couple’s home in Senegal, and a tribal mask Diouana gifts them before joining them in France becomes one of the film’s major recurring images.

The mask, which later hangs on the white walls of the French flat, serves as the only remaining connection between Diouana and the home she left behind. It’s an artifact with no real meaning to these white folks, but when Diouana threatens to reclaim her heritage by snatching it off the wall, Madame aggressively stakes her own claim to an object that was never hers to begin with. Sembène creates a powerful visual metaphor in the image of the two women engaged in a war over control of the mask. Can Africa reclaim its land from white European dominance even in an era of supposed post-colonialism? Sembène’s film offers two answers. On the one hand, Black Girl tells the devastating story of one African woman crushed under the forces that oppress her. Tormented by the inhumane treatment she endures, Diouana slips into depression and tragically never sees her home again. Only in death can she escape.

And yet, the film’s finale suggests that Sembène has hope for the future of his people. Racked by guilt or fear, Diouana’s employer travels to Dakar to return the mask to the young woman’s mother and to offer her the wages her daughter never received. He throws money at a problem in the only way his privilege knows how. But, the pain of losing a loved one – just like the scars of colonialism that mar the face of Africa – cannot be easily alleviated by reparations. And, when Diouana’s mother dismisses her daughter’s callous employer, a local boy slips the returned mask over his face and follows the man out of the village. Increasingly paranoid over this living specter of an Africa he never understood, the man sprints past the throngs of locals until he reaches his car. The boy behind the mask ousts the white man and ensures that he’ll never return. Africa will be responsible for its own future, Sembène boldly asserts. Thus, Black Girl ends with a glimmer of hope. Diouana may fall victim to the oppression inflicted upon her and other Africans, but for her people the future may still be bright.

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Aquarius

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(Dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho, Brazil, 2016)

House of Memories

The sophomore feature of rising critic-turned-filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho – and first of his that I’ve seen – is perhaps the defining film of the current transitional season between a globally destabilizing 2016 and a worryingly uncertain 2017. For this American (that is, a citizen of the United States) approaching Aquarius in the aftermath of a brutal election cycle, it’s difficult not to view the film as a particularly profound statement on political and societal upheaval in our divided nation. But, what’s perhaps even more astounding, then, is that Aquarius is a Brazilian film, resolutely concerned with the politics and culture of Brazil. It’s certainly a testament to the richness of Filho’s work that the implications are thus this far-reaching.

Filho’s protagonist, the indomitable Clara (portrayed with incredible depth and fierce command by the wonderful Sonia Braga), is an aging leftist intellectual and former music critic who refuses to sell her apartment to an aggressive development company keen on demolishing the historic structure to make way for a high rise of luxury condominiums. In this fight, the stubborn Clara stands alone. All of her neighbors caved underneath the developers’ lucrative offers, and in the retro blue beachside complex known as the Aquarius only she remains. On its most basic level, the film showcases an ugly battle of wills as Clara resists not only the company’s persistent offers, but eventually its increasingly disruptive threats as well. The units around her are soon boarded up and used for loud parties, while the halls and common areas are either smeared with excrement or crowded with construction crews. Even her grown children succumb to the pressure of a move they consider inevitable. If Clara is a symbol of a fading radicalism, then the corporation’s smug, U.S.-educated representative Diego (Humberto Carrão) is the juggernaut of neoliberal capitalism incarnate.

This political subtext bubbled to the surface explosively when the cast and crew of Aquarius staged a protest at the film’s Cannes premiere in May 2016. Placards that likened the imminent dismissal of then-President Dilma Rousseff and eventual rise of Michel Temer to a coup d’état plunged the film’s national release into controversy. Critics of Filho’s own leftist leanings condemned the film and even called for boycotts, but others took solace in Clara’s bold defiance. Before long Aquarius – though never once explicitly referencing the specifics of Brazil’s political crisis – became an emblem of a nation in turmoil. In the same year that the Western world endured Brexit and the rise of Trump, the thematic posture at the center of Filho’s film inevitably crossed international boundaries. In the U.S. liberal elitism came under fire throughout 2016, and Trump’s eventual defeat of Clinton (for many, the embodiment of that very elitism) seemed to signal the end of that ideology’s cultural reign.

One could argue Clara is cut from that same cloth. She emerged from a mid-twentieth century right-wing regime on top. In her sixties she’s well off, well respected, and in some ways blind to the privilege that status provides – such as when she casually dismisses a former maid in conversation for stealing jewelry from her family or when she fails to see how her decision to stay in her apartment affects her own children. Filho’s film is remarkably generous to this flawed individual who persists in her resistance till the very end. Those in Clara’s position may represent a dying breed, but there’s deep satisfaction in her refusal to compromise her convictions and that she’s strong enough to bring her opponents down with her.

It’s difficult to view Aquarius divorced from the political climate in which it was written and released, and it’s possible Filho intended its reception to so astutely reflect its time. As with all politically or culturally relevant works of art, however, it may very well threaten the film’s lasting impact. For now, it certainly stands as one of the year’s finest. Strip away the controversy it’s generated, and Aquarius is also a beautiful treatise on the power of memories. One of the film’s recurring images reminded me of Olivier Assayas’ equally affecting masterpiece Summer Hours. In that film Assayas’s camera lingered on heirlooms and paintings that served as capsules of a family’s legacy – a fragile legacy forced to weather generational changes as a matriarch’s progeny decide to transport these artifacts from their ancestral home to a museum, a decision imbued with implication but one Assayas refuses to judge.

Likewise, Filho’s camera frequently returns to a small wooden cabinet in Clara’s living room that has been in the family for generations. In the film’s 1980-set prologue, a startlingly intimate flashback ties this inherently insignificant piece of furniture to a character’s past. And, Filho’s insistence on revisiting this object as his camera delicately floats around Clara’s home as the action carries on off-screen reveals the deep connection between things or places and the memories associated with them. At one point Clara defends her home to the callous Diego by simply asserting, “It exists.” She draws his attention to his shoulder leaning against the solid wood of the doorframe. In one sense she’s referring to the Aquarius itself – in all its vintage glory – but she may also be defending the legacy the apartment complex preserves. And yet, the film’s wholly unexpected finale complicates this bittersweet visual metaphor. The cabinet and the apartment as vessels of memories are both durable and strong – the memory of Clara’s Aunt Lucia has shaped the very woman she’s become – but they are also incredibly vulnerable to those bent on demolishing the past to make way for the future. Clara’s final act of defiance is then all the more powerful. Her memories exist, even if the Aquarius won’t for much longer. And, no one ambitious developer can erase those.

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An Autumn Afternoon

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(Dir. Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1962)

The Tradition of Change

Director Yasujiro Ozu may not be as well known in the West as Akira Kurosawa – easily the most recognizable name in classic Japanese filmmaking – but his role in not only shaping the cinema of his own nation but also the history of the entire medium cannot be overstated. Those at least somewhat familiar with international cinema have probably heard of Ozu’s Tokyo Story as it rightfully and frequently appears on “greatest films ever” lists and possibly his earlier masterpiece Late Spring as well. But, from a career that produced over fifty films over the course of nearly fifty years that influenced countless filmmakers as distinct as Abbas Kiarostami, Jim Jarmusch, Claire Denis, and Wes Anderson, one might expect greatness outside just two signature films. And, if a curious cinephile were to probe much further into the director’s mighty canon, he or she would quickly stumble upon An Autumn Afternoon.

Next to Tokyo Story and Late Spring, Ozu’s final film serves as another obvious highlight in a career of so many. It features many of the director’s characteristics – floor-level camera angles, meticulously staged framing, familial and generational concerns set against the backdrop of a post-WWII Japan – and even reworks the central father-daughter relationship of Late Spring for its primary concern. An Autumn Afternoon, then, serves as a fitting swansong for one of the medium’s greatest masters. If viewers ever level a complaint against Ozu, it’s that his films are far too similar in theme and execution to possibly offer anything new with each subsequent release. To put it mildly, I find this reading of his work unfortunately dismissive. His films may not provide the thrills of Kurosawa’s samurai epics, but it’s undeniable that there’s meaningful art and great thematic depth in the director’s similarly constructed works.

His final film is no exception. Throughout An Autumn Afternoon, Ozu’s camera captures a rapidly changing Japan in painterly fashion as it marvels at the hallmarks of modernity – boisterous baseball stadiums, red-striped smoke stacks, sleek high rises, bright neon signs. It’s remarkable how much beauty Ozu can glean from the ugliness of industrialization. Its gorgeous, geometric compositions comprised almost entirely of static shots are like onscreen moving portraits. Too, the film wonderfully underscores the collision of East and West in a postwar Japan as businessmen in suits and ties sit cross-legged on the floor to eat, or as women alternate between kimonos and pencil skirts depending on the occasion, or as family members and friends, old and young, must grapple with shifting norms as the rest of the world threatens to leave behind those beholden to tradition.

It is from within this tension that Ozu unearths his story. Aging widower Shuhei Hirayama is a successful war veteran who has three adult children, two of which still live under his roof. As his loving daughter Michiko approaches her mid-twenties, he begins facing unexpected pressure from friends and colleagues to quickly marry her off before it’s too late. Though neither father nor daughter has any desire to rush the young woman into marriage – a decision likely to forever alter their close bond – the power of tradition compels this family’s patriarch to pursue the matter further. While Late Spring heart-achingly explored the same conundrum from the perspective of the daughter, An Autumn Afternoon primarily focuses on Shuhei and his own internal struggle as a parent.

The situation becomes more complicated when Shuhei and his old school pals run into a former teacher of theirs who reveals that he mistakenly never encouraged his own daughter to marry. Now, with his respectable teaching days behind him, the man lives a lonely life running a modest noodle shop with his forlorn middle-aged daughter. Meanwhile, Michiko’s older brother Koichi encounters his own struggles in marriage as he and his wife Akiko don’t see eye to eye on many things. Together, these simple stories paint a compelling and affecting portrait of the generational changes all families must face. Too, the film offers several weighty themes for its viewers to mull over despite its bouncing, carnivalesque music score. The film causes us to contemplate how the rise of modernity has also intensified materialism. It encourages us to witness the shadow of a great war that still looms over a nation with unknown lasting effects. And, it challenges us to determine for ourselves what of tradition is worth clinging to and what is acceptable to let go of with the passing of time.

Yasujiro Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon is not likely a film for everyone. It moves along at a gentle, careful pace and leaves most of the story’s major events off-screen. But, in doing so, it most certainly offers a welcome alternative to standard Hollywood fare for those looking for something a little different. It’s a film that refreshingly favors inference over exposition. For instance, in its final act when Michiko prepares for her wedding, Ozu chooses not to show us the ceremony or celebration and instead cuts to a series of shots of the family’s empty house. Though Michiko’s marriage is likely to bring her and her family a lot of future happiness, Ozu forces us to meditate on all of the other emotions that also come with such a major life change. This, then, is the appeal of the wondrously subtle, wholly unique filmmaking of one of cinema’s greatest directors.

[This evaluation was originally written for film site Reel World Theology.]

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Playtime

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(Dir. Jacques Tati, France, 1967)

The Modern Age

Long before the onslaught of films chastising us for The Way We Live Now – including themes such as technophobia, interpersonal miscommunication, and the daunting rise of urbanity – that has marked the better part of the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, director Jacques Tati developed a rather clever and innovative take on encroaching modernity with his opus Playtime back in 1967. Famous for continuing the exploits of his beloved character M. Hulot and for nearly bankrupting its studio by constructing the entirety of its enormous Parisian sets, Tati’s film stands at the intersection of traditionalism and rapid societal “progress” that the director argues has drastically altered the way we live now.

Instead of getting bogged down with the weight of such paramount implications, Tati cushions his critique with the humor of physical comedy and the sheer ridiculousness of the film’s set-up. The filmmaker eschews any semblance of a plot or character study in favor of simple vignettes that follow a large cast of characters – though none intentionally well defined – as they move about the homogenous constructs of this alien-looking Paris. At the center is Tati himself as the bewildered M. Hulot who acts as our guide on this tour of utter confusion.

Through expertly choreographed sequences, Tati takes his audience from the international airport to a monolithic office building downtown hosting an expo to an apartment complex and finally to an unfinished nightclub. Chaos reigns in the interactions of these clueless characters – M. Hulot chasing the elusive M. Giffard through a labyrinth of cubicles, a disgruntled tour guide herds a group of chatty American tourists around like sheep through the various set pieces, the inept staff at a restaurant scurries around the establishment as its brand new architecture crumbles all around them – and yet it’s only the illusion of chaos. Tati is the master of staging with no step out of place and every tumble coordinated perfectly and intentionally.

Tati uses this supreme control to accentuate his overall theme. In constructing this sleek, yet sterile version of Paris completely from scratch, he ensures the fulfillment of his creative vision. Space is used effectively and carefully throughout; there are no close-ups in the entire film, and the enormous frame (filmed on 70mm) is full of characters and goings-on throughout. There is so much happening in any given frame of Playtime that it most certainly demands repeat viewings to take it all in. Tati perfects the art of misdirection by allowing multiple interactions to transpire onscreen at all times and relying on overlapping and oftentimes barely unintelligible dialogue to explain his characters’ actions. All of this adds to the idea that the modern world often makes no room for subtlety or quiet contemplation.

Throughout Tati posits technological innovation and the hurried pace of urbanity as an obstruction to natural human communication. This he captures hilariously with exaggerated sound effects (the squishy chairs, echoing footsteps, the buzz of neon lights) and a comical skepticism toward the progress of convenience (a broom affixed with headlights receives “oo’s” and “ah’s” from onlookers, constantly malfunctioning intercoms and other devices, the unintentional inconvenience of streamlined transportation). In one effective scene, Tati’s camera remains outside a modern-looking apartment complex positioning his audience as onlookers. We see the interiors of two identical units through the enormous glass windows, and both sets of inhabitants have switched on their TV sets. The camera is angled in such a way that either side appears to be reacting to their neighbors rather than what happens on the screen. It’s a bitingly clever take on how technology has infiltrated and significantly altered the once-sacred space of the home.

In all of this, Tati avoids outright cynicism by suggesting an alternative instead of wallowing in the inevitability of an increasingly manufactured world. If M. Hulot fumbles around never quite making sense of this confounding new age, Tati gives a glimmer of hope in Barbara (Barbara Dennek) the young American tourist. She already stands out amongst her group as the youngest by quite a bit, but she also makes no apologies in following her own impulses even if that requires deviating from the norm – she often wanders from the group, attempts to photograph the mundane, wears an eye-catching emerald dress amidst a sea of contemporary blacks and grays. Nonconformity, Tati argues, may be the only thing that can inject life into this lifeless urban environment. He suggests as much near film’s end when the patrons of the nightclub begin to let go of their societal inhibitions and embrace imperfection as the tenets of modernity crumble – the restaurant’s architecture proves its infrastructure cannot support the façade of its alluring style.

Lest anyone lose hope and accept the world of Playtime as the new norm, Tati slyly reminds us throughout that vestiges of the old world remain within arm’s reach. Despite the presence of these new, technologically advanced buildings standing erect in a perfectly shaped grid, iconic monuments of Paris’ history are reflected in the sleek glass windows in several different shots. The past is not lost, and the more individuals resist conformity like M. Hulot or Barbara, the more colorful and delightfully messy our future will be. Playtime may have been released at the advent of mid-twentieth century advancement, but it’s perhaps more relevant now than ever. In the post-techno age of social media and information saturation, we’re now more connected than ever, but face similar threats of homogeny as we become increasingly dependent on personal devices. Of course, Tati was likely no extreme Luddite, and thus Playtime shouldn’t be read as a complete disavowal of technology or progress. Likewise, if he were still alive today, I don’t think he’d decry the use of mobile phones or Facebook, but the hilarious breakdown at the nightclub and the guests’ accept thereof suggests it doesn’t hurt to let our guard down every once in a while either.

[This evaluation was originally written for film site Reel World Theology.]

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Andrei Rublev

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(Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, Soviet Union, 1966)

Adding to the Beauty

What do we think about when we engage art? When we gaze at a painting, do we appreciate it for its beauty – the images we see and perceive – or for the craftsmanship it took to create it? Depending on a person’s tastes and tolerance for any given art form, it’s probably a combination of both. Film as art is no different. For the masses movies are generally appraised based upon the stories they tell, the themes conveyed, and the performances delivered by its actors. For those with a deeper interest in film these aspects are still important, but there is also typically an added layer of evaluation that weighs the achievements of those behind the camera – the how and the why a sequence is captured at a particular angle, for example – and the stories that chronicle the making of – a director or writer’s inspiration for the film, the themes he or she wishes to convey, or the greater context in which the film is conceived. Looking at film through this perspective, then, is why we remember the works of great directors like Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, and Yasujiro Ozu and consider them true artists.

I would add to that list Andrei Tarkovsky who may not be as well known as the four listed above, but has certainly been just as influential (especially on the work of my favorite living filmmaker, Terrence Malick). He was an artist in the vein of Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman who openly and honestly wrestled with religion and had a penchant for long takes, sparse storytelling, and contemplative pacing. He’s probably best known today for his two sci-fi masterpieces Solaris and Stalker or his autobiographical filmic poem Mirror, but it’s one of his earliest films that remains his most enduring. Andrei Rublev is a medieval epic that chronicles the life of one of Russia’s most famous religious iconographers and the tumultuous nation in which he lived. And yet, Tarkovsky’s film is less strict biographical account of the real Andrei Rublev than it is a meditation on Russian society filtered through the pain of the past, the influence of Christianity on a nation’s history, and the struggle inherent in artistic pursuits.

This last point is perhaps what elevates Andrei Rublev above simply adhering to the tradition of cinematic epics (though it does succeed in this area as well – its set pieces, costumes, sweeping cinematography, and choreographed battle sequences are some of the grandest and most accomplished in all film history). From its opening, unrelated prologue featuring an ambitious inventor who takes to the sky in a primitive hot air balloon, Tarkovsky establishes his film as one highlighting the fruit of creative minds. And, as the elated inventor first marvels at the desolate countryside below only to plummet disastrously to the ground as his own invention fails him, Tarkovsky also suggests that choosing to create comes at a great cost.

The rest of Andrei Rublev, in its sprawling narrative comprised of semi-related vignettes, follows a handful of other creators who each approach their art and handle their setbacks differently. Andrei (Anatoly Solonitsyn) is one of three wandering monks who serve as iconographers as they traverse the Russian landscape in search of cathedrals to paint. While Andrei is renowned for his superior skills and seeks to portray the good in humankind, his friend Danil (Nikolai Grinko) is more pragmatic in his approach and their companion Kirill (Ivan Lapikov) desires recognition for his work and even abandons the faith consumed with jealousy of Andrei’s talents. Then, there is the old painter Theophanes the Greek (Nikolai Sergeyev) who holds a rather cynical view of humankind and as such sees his work as a burden. Foma (Mikhail Kononov) and Andrei’s other protégés are skilled, yet stubborn, impatient, or indifferent with their brushes. And finally, Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev), a young boy who crosses paths with Andrei at a crucial juncture in the monk’s life, serves as the most significant fellow creator he encounters on his travels. Andrei has given up on his own art feeling uninspired and seeking atonement for a sin he committed by taking a vow of silence when he meets the son of a respected bell-maker who died in the plague.

Young Boriska only enters the film in its final third, but the story of how he risks shame, punishment, and even execution for the chance to create is easily the beating heart of Tarkovsky’s work. When messengers from the royal prince come searching for the boy’s father to cast a bell for a new cathedral, he boldly offers to oversee the project himself. Boriska is often overconfident and harsh as he orders the workers around though they are much older and far more experienced than him. But, as the project nears completion, the boy’s head begins to fill with doubt. What if it breaks easily? What if it doesn’t ring? All the while, the silent Andrei watches on skeptically alongside the other villagers. But, when the bell does ring the crowd erupts into cheers of delight as Boriska collapses to the ground in relief. Inspired by the boy’s ambition and commitment to his craft, the monk runs to his side, breaks his silence, and vows to continue painting, his redemption now complete.

Choosing to create can come at a great cost indeed. There is risk – risk of failure, that the creation might be misused or abused, that the creation might betray its creator. Throughout the film, Andrei suffers great loss as he pursues his passion to paint – friendships that cave under the weight of envy, apprentices that storm off after disagreements, and even the loss of some of his works as a cruel invading force sets fire to a cathedral that he and his guild spent months painting. But, in the end Tarkovsky reveals that the struggle and the pain are more than worth it. After nearly three and a half hours of stark black-and-white imagery, the director brilliantly and jarringly cuts to an epilogue of sorts as the camera pans over a number of the iconographer’s real frescos in eye-popping color. It’s a sequence full of emotion as we are given a glimpse into what Andrei’s efforts have yielded. And, what a beautiful glimpse it is!

It’s safe to assume the Andrei of Tarkovsky’s film creates because he too was created by one who took great risk in breathing his creation into being. Somewhat surprisingly, then, the tale of a monk who lived hundreds of years ago in medieval Russia serves as a charge to each and every one of us to dare to create, to push through the pain in pursuing art to add to the beauty. And, that is precisely what Tarkovsky has done with Andrei Rublev, a tremendously gorgeous and affecting film. And, not only does it boast powerful themes and performances from its actors and a host of masterful filmmaking flourishes, it also provides a unique depiction of the very creative process that produces the art we appreciate. For that, it will always be remembered for the classic it is.

[This evaluation was originally written for film site Reel World Theology.]

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