Film Reviews

Gaav (The Cow) (1969)

Flawed but memorable Iranian village tale

Although Gaav (The Cow) was made in1969, its story of a tragedy in a small village could probably could have been set anytime in the last 5,000 years. At first, I thought the film might be a Fellini Amacord Iranian-style, a director’s nostalgic look back at a simpler time and place, remembered from his childhood. But a better comparison might be Sunset (1927, Murnau): there is a timeless, eternal quality to the proceedings. These are not any individual’s memories; instead, Gaav is a myth-like “universal” story.

Another point of reference is Sergei Paradjanov (Color of Pomegranates, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors), who used the techniques of experimental cinema to bring new life to ancient myths and folkways. Unfortunately it has to be said that the director of Gaav, Dariush Mehrjui didn’t demonstrate as much cinematic skill or imagination as Paradjanov, at least in this film. There’s glaring technical problems in the film, surely due to production and direction: the numerous night shots are often too dark to decipher; sound levels vary wildly from inaudible to deafening; awkward framing and editing makes it hard to understand the space of action; a subplot about a young couple’s courtship seems a fruitless distraction; direction and staging of groups of actors, seems at times, artificial and awkward.

Yet the director gets strong performances from his main actors, and the film progresses to a deep and affecting climax. The scenes involving Hassan and his friend Eslam form the core of the film, and are memorably odd and tragic.

Hassan has an all-consuming, absolutely pure love for his cow. It is the center of his world; even his wife seems to barely register to him. When the cow dies, Hassan cannot cope with the loss. His world crumbles, he retreats into madness. The plot revolves around the village’s attempts to care for and accommodate Hassan’s outsized love and grief. At this, it fails. As we see from the film’s opening scene, the village can be a place of casual cruelty. In the end, the village’s well-intentioned intercessions become the very cause of the final tragedy.

The most pivotal moment in the plot occurs when Hassan’s friend Eslam and three others attempt to deal with the grief-stricken Hassan, who has become dangerously disconnected from reality. In his delusion, his friends appear to him as murderous enemies. This is the true tragedy of the tale: love can exist in a form so extreme and powerful that the social order can do nothing except kill it. In this case, one’s friends and neighbors may unwittingly turn out to be one’s executioners.

Mandara (1971) 

Jissoji is a forgotten master of cinema…but, be careful…!

Mandara is the second part of director Akio Jissoji’s “Buddhist Trilogy” (The previous part of the trilogy, This Transient Life (1970) is a masterwork: highly recommended as one of the best Japanese films of the era.)

This “Buddhist Trilogy” is not about some kind of gentle, upbeat New-Age Buddhism. Rather, it considers human morality in relation to the Void, and presents a vision of life unconstrained by standard social norms. In Mandara, it seems Jissoji takes a wholly amoral stance – the perspective “beyond good and evil” familiar from de Sade or Nietzsche. The plot involves extreme sexual violence and a bizarre coercive cult (one part Charles Manson and two parts Shinto animism).

The protagonists of Mandara are leftist student radicals; it’s implied their 1968 idealism has degenerated into 1971 nihilism. From our era, it’s very difficult to understand the attitudes of this milieu. The biggest flaw of the film is that all the characters so strange and mysterious that it’s difficult to identify or empathize with them. They appear as lawless libertine weirdos, whose motivations are opaque.

In Jissoji’s previous film, the protagonist’s non-moral actions are set up in contrast against all the other character’s traditional ethical values. However, in Mandara, social norms don’t even enter the frame: it’s a world in which everyone is desperate and on edge, and explosive violence, an inevitability, is welcomed as some kind of release. The ethical questions get pushed well past the point of reckoning — how much sexual violence should the viewer have to endure witnessing? Can the viewer even begin to debate the film’s positions, if the director makes an entry point so difficult?

But, there is a lot to admire in this film, and I’m glad I endured past the first scene of sexual assault. Mandara is a serious arthouse film, not some brainless “pink film” shot for cheap thrills and a quick payday. It contains real philosophical (and even theological) content. It’s best to understand Mandara through lens of the political moment of 1971: in the aftermath of 1968’s global student uprisings, radicals and progressives became pessimistic and bitter, and were willing to entertain the idea of burning down the system, since it seemed impossible to change it. The violent destruction of an insane world is a common theme of cinema of the era, as in Godard’s Weekend (1967), Claude Faraldo’s Themroc (1973), Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). The darkness and dissatisfaction at the core of Mandara is not simple nihilism and despair. Personally, I am no advocate of amorality, but Jissoji deserves admiration for his dedication to his extreme and complex vision.

Mandara is a challenging film to understand or enjoy…and yet, any aficionado of cinema should see it, because visually it’s quite amazing. Nearly every shot overwhelms with the beauty of its composition. There’s an edgy psychedelic quality to all the proceedings. Interiors are shot at odd angles in saturated colors, exaggerating a scene’s mood (as in Antonioni’s films), and exteriors scenes make nature look full of visionary significance. It’s a pity Mandara would alienate most viewers, with its unappealing characters, brutal misogyny, and extreme “beyond good and evil” ethics…because it’s extraordinary to look at.

So…here’s a film for deep cinephiles, old-school leftist radicals, fans of sexual violence, decadent Shinto acolytes, or just extreme weirdos like me. Everyone else should probably proceed with caution.

The Night of Counting the Years (1969)

Ancient Egypt + experimental cinema = MASTERWORK

I am lucky to have fallen down whatever internet rabbit hole that led me to discover the 1969 Egyptian film The Night of Counting the Years. It is a masterwork: a modern art-house film imbued with the power and mystery of Ancient Egypt.

The story unfolds in the 1800s. An isolated Egyptian mountain clan sustains itself by exploiting Egypt’s ancient heritage. When there is a shift in power, the protagonist is presented with a moral dilemma: continue the old ways, which are unethical, or find some new, as yet unknown path forward? In the end, nothing is clear: there is no uncontestable good or evil in anyone’s actions.

The film has a powerful mood of portentous mystery that’s sustained from the first frame to the last. The film moves slowly, and in doing so, gains a profound, immersive depth. The characters speak slowly, poetically, with every word of great significance. Some of the acting is unforgettably strong, including the roles of villager Wanis, the archaeologist, and some of the clan elders. The score, of dark distant droning Egyptian music and surreal wind and atmospheric sounds, adds to the foreboding atmosphere. The cinematography is astonishing, especially the bizarre and stunningly beautiful prolonged final sequence.

The film may ultimately be taken to be a philosophical inquiry into how we can or should relate to the traumas of past. If the existing relation is harmful, how to find a new way? And how to be sure the new ways will be an improvement?

I’m saddened to learn that the director/writer Chadi Abdel Salam completed only one film during his life. But with The Night of Counting the Years, he created an incredible synthesis of the mysterious power of the heritage of Ancient Egypt with the power of experimental cinema. It’s a magnificent accomplishment.

Le genou de Claire (1970)

In praise of the pleasures of a comfortable bourgeois life

There’s a lot to enjoy in Claire’s Knee: the relaxed easy pace, the charming characters, the warm and insightful conversations, the stunning scenery of the French Alps.

Unfortunately I can’t find any way to identify or empathize with a world that is so comfortable, so boring, so unambiguous, and ultimately, so superficial. None of the characters seem to work; no-one ever seems anxious or troubled; nothing particularly bad or good happens, or seems likely to ever happen. It’s a film of low-level emotions, and low stakes — for the characters, and for the viewers.

In this bland world, the only question of importance becomes: will the main character, a man of 35 or older, seduce one of the two teenage beauties? No particularly momentous moral calculus is involved, and ultimately the stakes were so low that I could not bring myself to care. The character is good man, or he’s a lecher, or he’s neither…but I feel Rohmer did not give me any reason why any of this might matter.

Claire’s Knee is a hymn of praise to French charm, bourgeois comforts, and inconsequential easy pleasures. If that’s your thing, enjoy yourself with this film. Me, I’ll be over there in the corner, watching films by directors that ask harder questions.

Himiko (1974)

The distant past, seen through a Modernist lens

There’s exists a particular subgenre of historical films: ones that aim to bring to life ancient times — but not by a simple “authentic” recreation of the past: instead, the director uses experimental/modernist cinematic techniques to bring traditional folklore and beliefs firmly into relation with the present. Examples include Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965, Paradjanov), Marketa Lazerova (1967, Vlacil), The Night of Counting the Years (1969, Chadi Abdel Salam). Like these, Himoko powerfully reanimates dormant cultural world-views, and is particularly successful at connecting them to our era

Himoko retells an ancient Japanese legend of a shaman-queen. The story is timeless and “universal”, yet the world of Himoko is a particular Shinto animist world, in which gods of the sun and the land directly control people’s lives. The viewer is pulled into the past, by the beautiful unspoiled forest and mountain landscapes, the peoples’ costumes and rituals, and most powerfully by the intensity of the performances — especially Shima Iwashita’s portrayal of Himoko, in which she conveys the fervid absolute conviction of shamanistic belief and practice.

But the viewer is also pushed into the present. The director Shinoda does not try to fool the viewer with an “authentic” past: the indoor scenes are staged in a space resembling a theatrical set or art gallery, with clearly unnatural (but beautifully dramatic) lighting — perhaps a nod to Brechtian theater techniques. A troupe of five Butoh dancers perform stunning, horrifying, evocative dance-rituals throughout, acting sometimes as a Greek chorus outside the story-space, at other times directly involved in the action. And the film’s coda breaks the fourth wall, making it plain that Shinoda’s interest lies not in the distant past, but in the way that ancient things still live within the present.

Gishiki (The Ceremony, 1971)

Darkness, trauma, misfortune

A boy experiences traumas during WWII (which, thankfully, we are not shown), and the subsequent 25 years of his life are a continuation of those traumas. Director Nagisa Oshima skillfully depicts Japan’s post-war economic development and cultural shifts, and the ways the repressed secrets of the past live on within the present.

Gishiki is by no means an enjoyable film: the main character experiences nothing but losses, misfortunes, and humiliations. But this is a painful truth of life: anyone who lives long enough accumulates losses and failures, and for some, perhaps everything else is overtaken by them. In the end, the main character is left alone with nothing except his lost dreams and his endlessly repeating traumas. A very sad film, but one I am glad to have seen.

Tess (1979)

Tess is undeniably a beautiful film: director Roman Polanski and his cinematographers created a luxurious concoction for the viewer to lose themselves in. As historical fiction films go, it’s top-shelf. Polanski knew how to make the gorgeous French landscape help tell the story, and knew how to get Natassia Kinski to deliver her career-best performance. Polanski is in complete control of the pacing and mood of this film, and the effect is one of timelessness: we’re so firmly placed into the 1890s that the viewer simply forgets that the production date is 1979 or any other time in the past 50 years.  

Tess follows the strategy of so many of Lars von Trier’s films (Dogville, Dancer in the Dark, Antichrist): the director introduces us to an adorable protagonist and makes us love them — then forces us to endure watching them undergo the most horrible mistreatment and sufferings. The novel, and the film, could be interpreted as a feminist statement: the character Tess is a victim of a system that has no appropriate or fair place for her. But Polanski’s Tess seems less interested in statements of principle, and more in these particular characters and the particulars of their world.

And now for the bad news: the uncut version of Tess is quite an ordeal to sit through. If the viewer is in love with the story (or in love with 17-year-old Natassia Kinski, as Polanski may have been), then you’d be delighted to spend only (!) 3 hours in the world of Tess. But if you’re like me, and found this extremely conventional film to be uncomplicated and escapist…then the delights of Tess may feel like eating the entire box of fancy chocolates in one sitting.