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Film study literature has done its best to praise and promote filmmaking from around the world, produced and directed by local talent. Undeveloped countries in the 20th century had a spotty filmmaking tradition, mostly due to the domination of commercial films from America, Europe and more cosmopolitan regional neighbors. Yet distinctive and vibrant films were made in South America, Asia and Africa, sometimes supported by governments. In film school we were shown sample features by the Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène and the Brazilian political firebrand Glauber Rocha. None of the film prints were in particularly good shape. As art film houses couldn't draw a crowd with obscure foreign fare, film festivals were often a dead-end for 'World Cinema'. Politics also militated against the free circulation of films. When the Los Angeles Film Exposition showed a large number of post-revolution Cuban I.C.A.I.C. films in the mid- 1970s, most had not been screened here previously.
Much more troubling is the poor state of film preservation in nations without developed film industries. For decades, much of the early film heritage of Argentina and Mexico was held in private hands, in unknown condition and mostly unavailable to the public. Conditions in Africa and Asia are worse.
Martin Scorsese started The Film Foundation in 1991, connecting with studios to promote the preservation of neglected American cinema. In 2007 he helped initiate a program called The World Cinema Project, which in six years has restored nineteen feature films from around the world. Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project gathers six notable features from five continents, spread between 1936 and 1981.
1973's Touki-Bouki is a 'young lovers on the run' picture with a unique vision. Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty's story expresses the desire of a generation to break free of the limits of reality in a former French colony where ordinary people have few or no opportunities. Less violent than Perry Henzell's Jamaican-set The Harder They Come, it's a surreal dream of freedom played out against realistic backgrounds. Mambéy has a great eye for arresting images, and gives the film pace and dramatic tension, not to mention animal imagery and a playful use of his soundtrack. Vintage French songs by Josephine Baker represent the elusive dream of Paris. Will the hero take the boat from Dakar to Paris? Should he?
The picture is in excellent condition, restored from the original negative elements. Colors are bright and accurate, and George Bracher's cinematography is a fine match for Mambéy's visual imagination.
Martin Scorsese provides brief intros for all six features. On Touki-Bouki he first reminds us that American awareness of foreign films has been limited mostly to a few name directors, often one per country. The visual essay on Mambéty's picture is by Abderrahmane Sissako, who does his best to express the director's special genius. Third World directors often go to America or France for formal film educations, but Djibril Diop Mambéty was self-taught. The remarkably accomplished Touki-Bouki was his first feature.
Released in 1936, Mexico's Redes strains the ground rules of 'World Cinema' in that its co-director Fred Zinnemann and cinematographer Paul Strand came from abroad, much as had Sergei Eisenstein with his legendary unfinished project Que viva Mexico! But we're given to understand that this film's style set the standard for visuals in the Golden Era of Mexican filmmaking that followed: beautiful scenery and proud compositions of earthy figures silhouetted against the sky. Acclaimed photographer Strand also made impressive film art in America, the experimental 1921 short Manhatta and the poetic pro-union feature Native Land from 1942. Featuring the artistic input of John Dos Passos and composer Silvestre Revueltas, Redes is a committed, if formulaic drama about the exploitation of working men. Performed almost entirely by non-actors, it is often compared to Luchino Visconti's Italian neo-realist La Terra Trema, made over a decade later.
The story concerns a fishing village doing poorly in a bad season. A local boss owns most of the boats and buys good catches at a price he determines, enjoying large profits at the markets in Vera Cruz. Fisherman Miro's child dies because the boss won't advance him money for a doctor. When the boss cuts salaries for a good day's fishing the bitter Miro leads an angry movement to set up a fisherman's cooperative. Unfortunately, a candidate for local office offers to serve as the Boss's henchman in exchange for financial assistance for his campaign. The candidate's talk of tradition and honor splits the fishermen into opposing camps. When a fight breaks out the opportunity arises to silence Miro with a gun.
The film was made by a committee. Mexican co-director Emilio Gómez Muriel worked with the actors; cameraman Paul Strand imposed the aesthetics of still photography on most of the shots. Strand favored static poses while co-director Fred Zinnemann reportedly did his best to interject action into the frame. Zinnemann would later helm such classics as High Noon and From Here to Eternity. Backed by Silvestre's impressive music score, several montage scenes are works of visual art.
Critic Kent Jones' visual essay for Redes presents a multitude of back-stories. His visual analysis of this attractive film is especially acute. Redes exists only in surviving positive prints, but Criterion's transfer raises its presentation to a high standard. Scratches and a tiny bit of film damage remain, yet most scenes are remarkably sharp and Paul Strand's images retain the look of fine art photography.
Redes won a pictorial spread in Life magazine but won little success commercially, as with much of critically acclaimed World Cinema. 1973's A River Called Titas is an epic-length tale of a lost way of life on the rivers of what is now Bangladesh. Director Ritwak Ghatak made few movies, and this one was considered too pessimistic to attract a wide audience. Yet the 2.5-hour show has enough story complications for three movies.
While visiting a neighboring village fisherman Kishore (Probir Mitra) marries Basanti (Rosi Samad) and has barely had words with her before she's kidnapped on the river. She's found alive by strangers, but has lost her memory of the crime. She doesn't know her husband's name or have a clear idea what he looks like, but she remembers the name of his village. Ten years later she sets out with his son to find him. Basanti's story is only the first chapter in a long, impassioned series of events and side stories that eventually lead to even bigger tragedies. One emotional climax is almost unbearably sad.
Ghatak's movie sways between melodrama and documentary-like recreations of a riverside culture that has mostly disappeared. Occasionally, a burst of fantasy wish fulfillment will occur, as when Basanti's son envisions his mother as an idealized, bejeweled goddess. Much of the acting is primitive, and in some scenes the post-synched dialogue makes no effort to match the actors' lips. Some of the plot turns can be unclear for a few minutes, yet the movie is always compelling. Beautiful images record an entire cultural lifestyle -- the boats, the customs, the rituals.
Ghatak's compositions are bold but his film is never merely pictorial in impact. We see fascinating moments of cultural interaction, as when the lovers on their wedding night are too shy to speak to each other. Ghatak makes good use of his soundtrack. One scene has only the sound of heavy breathing, and another, falling rain. We see several ceremonies and an impressive boat race.
The movie is pessimistic in that the potential for disaster seems built-in to the lives of these people. They depend on the river for everything, and old men worry that it will some day dry up. A landowner uses his influence to bring legal and monetary penalties against the entire village. Some villagers seem cruel in refusing to share their food with needy new arrivals like Basanti. But that's only because the possibility of starvation is always near.
A River Called Titas was restored from incomplete elements, so the film quality changes in a few scenes. An unsteady shot or two appear to be the result of a problem with the original cinematography, but most of the film is in extraordinary shape.
Visual essay host Kumar Shahani tells us that director Ritwik Ghatak was deeply critical of the political situation in Bangladesh, and used his films to express the feelings of pain and loss in his partitioned country. Ghatak worked extensively in the theater as both a director and an actor. He plays an old boatman in a number of scenes.
The Turkish Dry Summer (1964) was a big local hit for director Metin Erksan, and won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Erksan's tale could be a story from the Bible. The greedy farmer Osman (Erol Tas) has the only water spring in the valley. He decides to cut off his neighbors without a drop, against the wishes of his younger brother Hasan (producer Ulvi Dogan). Osman also covets Hasan's lovely new bride, Bahar (Hulya Kocylgit). When the other farmers take reprisals, Osman shoots one of them and then persuades his brother to go to prison in his place. Instead of helping as promised, Osman destroys Hasan's letters and begins a slow seduction of his lonely sister-in-law.
An elemental story of universal interest, Dry Summer asks whether water resources are to be owned by some or shared by all. The loathsome Osman claims that he's a fair man safeguarding his interests, but those interests include lording it over his neighbors and finding a way to possess his own brother's wife. The gullible Hasan has no idea that his older brother spies on their lovemaking, and trusts that leaving major decisions to him is the right thing to do. We watch Dry Summer aghast at Osman's black-hearted deeds, fearing that he'll not be punished for his crimes.
Metin Erksan's direction is superb. Bahar uses a mirror to signal Hasan for a romantic chase through the thick trees; the sexual attraction between them is expressed in positive, healthy terms. Erksan sketches his characters quickly. His 'sex scenes' are chaste yet supremely sensual; Bahar's flesh is as magical as Osman's water supply. Erksan makes the most of the precious substance water: hoarded in Osman's pond, running through his canals and restrained by an improvised spillway gate. In the satisfying ending Osman and his water become one and the same.
The B&W presentation is excellent. The title sequence was lost so Criterion has provided a substitute. Although the production is modest at best, Ali Ugur's cinematography is precise and resourceful. Those mirror reflections figure several times in the film, and when Bahar becomes delirious with grief, the camera spins madly. Some of the film's music is by the celebrated Manos Hatzidakis. Viewers should be forewarned that one graphic scene shows what appears to be the actual shooting of a dog.
In a new Criterion featurette Turkish director Fatih Akin praises Dry Summer and explains its historical context. He says that Turkey acted like Osman to the Syrians in the 1990, withholding water from a major river. Director Metin Erksan appears in an older interview to declare that the greatest enemy of Turkish cinema is oppressive censorship. Although it is a common custom for a surviving brother to 'inherit' his brother's widow -- to keep the land from being split up -- the censors objected to scripted scenes of Osman marrying Bahar.
Trances from 1981 confirms that this grouping of films really is Martin Scorsese's personal selection. The director's The Last Temptation of Christ credits the Moroccan musical group Nass-El Ghiwane for inspiration. Trances is a concert movie showing the band performing their rhythmic, hypnotic songs. Traditional elements are present, especially with the ancient musical instruments being played. Repetitious chants predominate. The remarkable feature of a Nass-El Ghiwane concert is the participation of the audience, which becomes so complete that individuals work themselves into real gyrating trances.
Director Ahmed El Maanouni gives us plenty of interview material with the band members. Nass-El Ghiwane began in 1969. Its member-musicians are more like traveling troubadours than performing celebrities. They perform in ordinary street clothes. Huge audiences dance in place, wave their shirts and come on stage if allowed. More than one band member says that music isn't 'something he does', but instead part of his essential personality.
Also included are documentary scenes of Moroccan neighborhoods, and a few staged moments. Known as "the Rolling Stones of North Africa", the band's lyrics are a combination of non-militant calls for freedom and lamentations for lost family traditions.
Martin Scorsese's intro explains how he discovered Trances while watching the TV show Night Flight during all-night editing sessions on The King of Comedy. The lengthy featurette includes input from Scorsese, director Ahmed El Maanouni, producer Izza Génini and Nass-El Ghiwane musician Omar Sayed.
The Housemaid (1960) is a suspense thriller by Kim Ki-young, a once-forgotten director now championed by a new generation of Korean filmmakers. Made under heavy censorship rules, it is nevertheless a scathingly subversive critique of 'family values' among the emerging middle class. As if Luis Buñuel had moved to Seoul, director Kim's film is a series of socially uncomfortable, volatile confrontations. A blood-dripping main title tips us off that this tale of "Father Knows Best" will go in dark directions.
The audacious film easily bests American thrillers about families disrupted by a sexual intruder. The husband (Kim Jin-kyu) is a handsome music teacher in a girls' factory school, who proudly moves his wife (Ju Jeung-nyeo) and two children into a larger house. Following school rules, he reports a student who slips him a mash note, and she's suspended. The girl's best friend becomes the husband's private piano pupil, and helps him find a maid to work in the new house. It's not long before the scheming housemaid (Lee Eun-shim) discovers a way to sexually compromise the husband. She wants to take the wife's place, and exploits the fact that her employers will do almost anything to avoid a scandal. The situation gets so bad that murder seems the next step -- and all know that there's a bottle of rat poison in the kitchen.
The Housemaid's amorous intruder reminds us of Buñuel's Susana, a caustic satire about a sexy female convict who invades a 'proper' Mexican hacienda. A close look reveals that director Kim's happy Korean family is anything but. The outwardly decent husband only thinks that he can resist the temptations of the factory girls he teaches. The mother has another baby on the way, and overworks herself to better justify the television she covets. The children are not idealized. The daughter is a polio victim, and her selfish little brother swipes candy while openly making fun of her crutches. In keeping with the Korean culture of tough love, the parents do not object; the father declares that the steep stairs in the new house will force the daughter to exercise more.
The mercenary, two-faced housemaid initiates a series of petty blackmail threats that escalate into a war of nerves. When she becomes pregnant all notions of normality break down: the servant's new orders include sleeping rights with the husband. Things go over the edge when a demand that the housemaid abort her unborn child leads to outright murder attempts. She becomes a monster, haunting the house by pounding on the keys of the husband's piano.
With its lurid tailspin into despair and doom, The Housemaid is like a Douglas Sirk domestic drama gone mad. It defies prevailing entertainment norms that exalt family values as a shining ideal, and even a trick ending can't dissipate its power. Korean audiences must have felt that the uncompromising film revealed truths about middle class values, as it was very popular -- Kim Ki-young remade it twice at ten-year intervals.
The World Cinema Project had a difficult time rescuing The Housemaid. It was considered lost for years because two reels of its negative could not be located. An export print was found in the 1990s, albeit marred by intrusive English subtitles. For two nine-minute sections, the film quality drops considerably. The digital patch job used to eliminate the burned-in subs is a little distracting as well.
The expertly directed movie is a masterpiece worth seeing in any condition. The plaster patterns in the walls of the new house soon begin to resemble spider webs, or the 'cat's cradle' string game played by the children in the first scene. The director punctuates the seduction of the husband with a blast of lighting striking a tree. The family's perfect home soon becomes a house of horrors. I can see a lot of attractive housemaids losing their jobs, back in Seoul of 1960.
In the featurette for The Housemaid director Bong Joon-Ho ( The Host) expresses his enthusiasm for Kim Ki-young in no uncertain terms, noting the film's taut camera moves and superb direction of actors. Bong also provides a cultural analysis of the characterizations, especially the portrait of the 'perfect' Korean wife -- who also joins the murderous scheming as soon as her comfortable social status is threatened.
Criterion's Blu-ray + DVD of Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project is a good cross-section of worthy international films not likely to be revived through normal commercial channels. Martin Scorsese's selection covers a wide range of appeal. All of the restorations were performed at the Cineteca di Bologna. Most of the HD transfers yield excellent results, with flaws occurring only when original elements were missing or damaged. The English subtitles are up to Criterion's high standards. We hope that more World Cinema Project collections are on the way.
As with all new Criterion releases, the disc set is a Dual-Format Edition with identical contents. Three Blu-rays share two features each, while each title also gets its own DVD disc. A 64-page booklet contains essays on the Project's aims as well as scholarly pieces on each of the pictures by Richard Porton, Charles Ramírez Berg, Adrian Martin, Bilge Ebiri, Sally Shafto and Kyung Hyun Kim.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.