Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Kurasawa's "Rashomon" (1950) (6 on top 10)


  Rashomon, 1950

I originally reviewed this in 2010 fro Kurosawa's centennial. But I am rewriting some of it today, in 2014 so I'll link to this version from now on. (This film is no 6 on my top 10 greatest of all time).*

 In keeping with Wednesday's theme of God in other faiths and non-Christian cultures  I thought it would be appropriate to review one of Japan's greatest films, indeed one of the world's greatest films form Japan, by it's greatest director, Akira Kurasawa (March 23-1910-Sept 8, 1998). Kurasawa was trained in Japanese military school.That means he really learned how to fight like a Samurai with Bushido blade and Katana. He went on to become known for Samurai epics, Throne of Blood, (his version of Shakespire's Macbeth), Yojimbo, most especially The Seven Samurai that served as the prototype to Hollywood "The Magnificent Seven."  He also studied Western art and was adept in his understanding of Western painters and philosophy. He's equally known for great modern films not about samurai.  In this film he takes on the great Oceanic questions reminisent of the book of Job: why is there pain and suffering? Does God (or the powers that be) care about man's plight?

cast from IMBd page:

Toshirô Mifune... Tajômaru
Machiko Kyô... Masako Kanazawa
Masayuki Mori... Takehiro Kanazawa
Takashi Shimura... Woodcutter
Minoru Chiaki... Priest
Kichijirô Ueda... Commoner
Noriko Honma... Medium (as Fumiko Honma)
Daisuke Katô... Policeman

Rashomon, according to Wikipedia "the surprise winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and was subsequently released in Europe and North America."

Rashomon is patterned after a classical Greek tragedy, with the three narrators serving as a kind make shift chorus. The narrators are a small cast of three characters who take shelter from a driving rain storm on the front steps of a dilapidated temple. Even though it's a wooden structure this is no log cabin. The structure is massive, the pillars are made from whole trees shaved smooth and the classic Chinese architecture with red tile roof up turned on the corners looms imposing over the land scape. The scene opens with two men huddled under the over-hang looking worn out and confused. One of them keeps muttering "I don't understand." We soon learn the more distraught of the two is a wood cutter (we never know his name) the other a priest (probably Shinto). A third one approaches, a man I will call "the skeptic" (we never know his name or his occupation). He builds a fire from wood and they tare off the massive door to the temple, and asks to be let in on the problem, "what don't you understand?". The problem is a murder has been committed, the court has just been held and the bandit who did the murder taken away, but the men are stunned in disbelief.

The disbelief comes in where the witnesses  try to understand the contradictory story each participant told and the twisted motives surrounding the event. The Priest and the Woodcutter relate the story of the witnesses testimony to the skeptic. He is called the skeptic because he is not in the least baffled by the attitudes of heartless cruelty or the conflicting stories. Throughout the film he tells us everything's a lie, all people are bad, he trusts  no one, he doesn't care if the story is a lie as long as it's interesting. But will not allow the priest to say anything serious becasue he can't strand to hear sermons and he calls anything that's not cynical a sermon. First the Woodcutter tells us about finding the body of a samurai in the woods. Then the priest and woodcutter relate the stories:

The first story

bandit's tale.

This related by the two narrators but they learned it from the bandit's own words at the trail. It's actually his testimony. Kurasawa uses an interesting technique for the testimony. We never see the judges. We see the witnesses testifying looking at the camera and speaking as though they hear but we do not hear the words of the judge. In this way the audience is placed in the position of the judge. Thus Kurasawa is telling us he expects us to judge. We are to make sense of he conflicts and moral dilemmas.

The Bandit is supposed to be famous and feared, his name is Tajômaru. Played superbly by Toshirô Mifune (yojimbo) major star of the samurai flick of the era and a stable actor of Kurasawa. A samurai is leading his wife through the woods. He is walking, she rides on a horse. A man approaches and shows them a fine sword and tells them he found a whole cash of them. They leave the woman by a stream and go to look at the swords. In the woods the bandit attacks the samurai and captures him, tying him up. He then goes back for he woman and takes her in the woods telling her her husband fell ill. When they get there he rapers her. After, the woman is shamed before her husband. It doesn't make sense to us today but in that era if a woman was rapped and lived it was her fault. So the husband is angry at her and she feels guilty. She tells he bandit she can't live knowing that two men know her shame. she wants the two to fight and she will go with the winner.

The bandit is almost as put out as the husband. No one likes a turn coat. Her husband doesn't mean anything more to her than that, why should he want her either. But the two fight anyway. They fight valiantly. Their struggle is realistic, no flying 60 feet in the air, but neither of them is amazing. They are both adequate swordsmen. The Bandit declares to the court that this was the greatest fighter he had ever faced.They crossed swords 23 times and no one had ever done that more 20 with him before. He was very impressed with the guy, even though he killed him. The woman ran off he couldn't find her. He sort of makes a point of what a true man he is because he was able to rape the woman and kill the husband.

Woman's tale

 She portrays herself as weak and helpless. no fight, no rape, but husband is captured. He looks at her with hate in his eyes and shame and she can't stand it. He thinks she has been rapped but she hasn't. She nobly implores her husband to kill her, he wont do it. She faints. When she comes to, the husband is dead and she runs away.

dead man's tale

The skeptic asks how can a dead man testify. They got a spirit medium to get his testimony.

In the husband's story the woman asked the bandit to kill her husband. She can't stand him, he did lose the fight and was captured after all, so he's not a real man.  He's so upset about it he wants to die. ranting about how he suffers in great darkness, "cursed are those who sent me thos is dark hell" (Mary  Poppins it ant). The bandit cuts him loose, runs after the woman who runs away and the husband sits dazed not knowing what to think. He's totally devastated by his wife's treachery. Voice over shows him thinking "someone is cry, who?" It's him, and he doesn't know it. Samurai don't cry but he was crying. He kills himself with a knife. In this tale the husband is properly outraged by the mercenary wife, he has nothing to be ashamed of because the  wife is the evil one.

wood cutter's version

wood cutter is upset becuase he says "there was no knife" the skeptic figures out that he saw it all. He lied because he didn't want to get involved. He claimed to only find the body but he really saw everything. He tells his story. The woman is mocking both the bandit and the husband saying they both weak. She is laughing at them. the bandit was begging her to go away with him and be his wife. But she mocks the bandit for not killing the husband, and mocks the husband for not being man enough to kill the bandit and then punish her. They two men fight, their fight is pathetic.


Thus the stage is set for a nice little debate about good and evil. This debate reminds me somewhat of the book of job although there is no actual Job figure. But the wood cutter will do. The skeptic is convinced people are evil and there's no truth and so on. the Priest is trying to maintain his faith in man. The Woodcutter, who represents the average working man, is just trying to make sense of it all and aswage his guilt because he took the dagger after the death becasue it would valuable. The skeptic, who has a great knack for prying the truth out of the wood cutter, tells them: Rashomon was a demon of the temple where they were, who ran away becuase he was afraid of the depth of evil in men.

 At that point they hear a baby crying Then find a baby behind the Temple door left there with a charm to protect it. The skeptic tries to take the baby's clothing leaving it to die. The woodcutter is appalled and wont let him go near it. The Priest holds the infant and protects it. The skeptic argues that the parents are the evil ones for abandoning it "they had their fun why shouldn't I get something?" The woodcutter is not willing to assume such horrible motives. He insights the charm placed with the child proves they didn't want to give him up and it was hard. The two men drive the skeptic away. They almost have their own fight as the Priest is suspicious of the Woodcutter until he learns the man has six children already and wants to adopt the infant. There is a powerful moment the audience can feel, without words, when the priest realizes the woodcutter loves the child. Trust is created between the two. They decide that the child gives them hope and they leave together to take the baby to Mrs. woodcutter and its new home. The priest utters the last line of the film, "you have resorted my faith in men."

This is a powerful theodicy story. It feels like reading the book of Job or Homer's Iliad. Theodicy of course is the official theological term for the problem of evil or the problem of pain: if there is a God, or a goodness in the universe, why is there is also pain, suffering and, evil? The chorus has discussed how hard life is, the famines, the wars, the miseries that have been non stop all their lives, these guys have had hard lives. The skeptic constantly beating his drum about the failure of humanity. One realizes the skeptic is projecting his own failure and selfishness onto humanity, excusing his short comings because "everyone is like me." Of course the child represents the future, the potential, the hope that the next generation will be better. The outlook for humanity is bleak until that first ray of hope that comes at the very end of the film. The moment of trust between  the two child saving men is the first true expression of human goodness in the film. One realizes hope is the fuel of faith. Without hope, not an idle Mary Poppins hope in nothing but real hope based upon the exercise of love, there's nothing to place faith in. Faith is not a blind irrational leap into nothing. Faith is trust, as the priest placed trust in the woodcutter and it bore fruit in the development of faith. Like Saint Paul Kurpsawa strings together the those three most important aspects of spiritual life, faith, hope, and love. No one ever mentions love, but it's clearly communicated the old fashioned way, good acting.

Great art doesn't preach, great films don't have a clearly summed up moral, but it's hard not to give the impression of one in dealing with theodicy. The real challenge the director faced in making this film was to communicates insights through the material (through the talk of suffering an evil, the debate in the chorus) without giving the impression of preaching. The skeptic serves to put a damper on preachment when every time the priest says anything of serious nature he says "I don't want a sermon." Kurasawa meets this challenge like the great Master filmmaker  he was. There is still enough mystery and enough questions to be asked at the end of film that one wants to see it again and one knows the pondering is endless. Despite all this there is one important insight that comes to the viewer clearly and unmistakably, not to call it "the moral" but an important insight that is not to be missed. Cynicism and skepticism, not the valid suspicion in the face of hokum, but constant unrelenting suspicion of  everything good in humanity, can only lead to excusing one's own evil and even foster evil itself. Hope must replace cynicism or it is impossible to do good.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Ingmar Bergman's "The Virigin Spring"

no 5 on my top 10


Jungfrukällan (The Virigin Spring)
original story by Ulla Isaksson

Max von Sydow ... Töre
Birgitta Valberg ... Märeta
Gunnel Lindblom ... Ingeri
Birgitta Pettersson ... Karin
Axel Düberg ... Thin Herdsman
Tor Isedal ... Mute Herdsman
Allan Edwall ... Beggar
Ove Porath ... Boy
Axel Slangus ... Bridge Keeper
Gudrun Brost ... Frida
Oscar Ljung

The Virgin Spring won the Oscar for Best Foreign film in 1961. Bergman had just established himself as a film maker of international standing a couple of years before with his break out feature "Smiles of Summer Night," (1956) and followed it the next year with one of the finest films ever made (my true favorite) "The Seventh Seal" (1957). "The Virgin Spring" reinforced Bergman's greatness and established him for the 1960s as one of the major film makers of the time.

The film deals with theme of murder, revenge, theodicy. It's a fine commentary on the problem of pain and evil, having belief in God in a world where evil is allowed. The film is set in Medieval Sweden. It's in black and white, as were all of his early films, and thus the big sky effect of black and white is present as we see the glorious countryside of Sweden. The look of the film is totally authentic. The family lives in a rustric compound reminiscent of a fort in the old West. The Father,Töre, played by Max von Sydow ("the Exorcist," the knight in "Seventh Seal") and the mother,Märeta, played by Birgitta Valberg have one daughter, Karin, played by Birgitta Pettersson. She is blond, young, beautiful, playful, spoiled, arrogant. There's another girl involved:Ingeri. She's a foster child. Fostering was an old tradition in Sweden; the child of a friend who died, or even just kid seen on the street who was homeless, would be adopted by the family as a playmate for the natural child. Of course Karin is manipulative, spoiled, twists her parents around her little finger. The mother is indulgent the father tries to be strict but melts like butter. They fawn over the Blond Karin and give little attention to the dark haired Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom).

The film opens with Ingeri calling upon Oden to help her. She is pregnant and is treat with disdain because the child is out of wedlock. She resents the spoiled girl and even smuggles a frog into her lunch to torment her. In calling upon Oden Ingeri is doing something forbidden. Christianity has already taken root, (about thirteenth or fourteenth century). The family are Catholics and they are honored to supply candles to the church for the mass. The daughter is sent to take them. She must go by horse and it takes a whole day's journey. The dark haired girl is sent with her to keep her company. The two are angry with one another and Ingeri is feeling sick so she is left behind at a bridgekeeper's hut. Karin goes on my herself. The bridgekeeper (Axel Slangus) Worships Oden, and the Ingeri recognizes the signs of human sacrifice in his hut. She escapes his grasp just as he puts the moves on her for sexual favors. But she has to leave her horse. She escapes from him into the woods on foot, and walks to try and catch up to the other girl.

Meanwhile, Karin has ridden on a ways as is spied by three young beaggers. Two are probably early twenties and one is a small boy. They stalk her for a bit and finally come down from their vantage point in the hills and meet up with her. She is playful and likes to lure danger so she has no care about going with them off the road intot he hills to eat lunch. By this time the other gril catches up and spies them out from the same vantage point the beggars occupied earlier. As they eat the frog pops out, the one Ingeri hid in Karin's lunch. The beggars are angered and think she is making fun of them, but they were up to no good anyway. They rape Karin as Ingeri watchs from the hill top. They finally kill her with a crushing blow. The boy has no real role in the rape or the murder, but he has no choice but to go along anyway.

We then cut to the parents house. It is dark, they are sitting down to dinner. They are worried, but Karin has does before apparently, stayed out all night and found people to stay with until morning. There is also a chance she could have stayed in the church. The father isn't worried, the mother is beside her shelf, but the father calms her. Three beaggers show up at the gate. They seek shelter for the night, giving a story about how the drifted down the north, times are hard, they lost their farm, the night will be brutally cold. Tore gives them permission to sleep in the hall. Its' a viking house so they have a central "great hall" where they all eat, and individual bedrooms in little huts around the great hall united by causeways. They take the two men and their young boy in and show great compassion and understanding. They are allowed to eat with the family and the father says they can talk about work the next day. As the mother retires for the night, one of the beaggers, who more or less acts as spokesman, (Allan Edwall) tries to sell her a garment claming it had belonged to their sister. It is a blouse of exceptionally fine craftsmanship, gold in color trimed in blue.

The mother recognizes at once this the very garment she dressed her daughter in that morning, but of course the three have no idea they are in the girls very home!Birgitta Valberg accomplishes one of the most skillful acting jobs I've ever seen. At the same time she is filled with anguish and rage, but she know she dare not give away a single trace of recognition. So she just stares saying nothing as though she is considering the offer. The man prattles on with lies about his sister's life and what a fine dress it is. After a long moment, we can see the skill of the actress, both rage and cover up at once; she forces out the words "i must show it to my husband...I will give you an answer in the morning." She takes the blouse, locks them in for the night with an outside bolt, and goes into her own suit. She thrusts the dress under her husband's nose. He stares sleepily not comprehending for a moment the significance. The woman explains and bursts into tears. There is even a drop of blood on it.

In the exquisite Bergmanesqe Fashion, Tore builds he Angst as he wirely climbs from the bed, fills himself with resolve and then proceeds to prepare to act. He takes his sword, goes to outside to the great hall to make sure they are bolted in. Then he finds Ingeri sobbing under the stairs. She explains how she witnessed the murder. So Tore tells her to prepare a bath. A Bath? Of course, what else would a good Viking do before avenging his daughter's murder but take a sauna? He wrestles a tree out of the ground, a birch, and cuts off its limbs. Takes his Sauna and whips himself with the birch branches. Then he dresses and calls for the butcher knife. The girl brings him a huge knife. He goes to the great hall, and observes the three sleeping. He looks at their things and finds the rest of Karin's clothes and even a candlestick. He goes back over to them, wakes them up and begins the slaughter. The one closes to him falls almost at once. The other, the one who tried to sell the dress, fights better. He disarms the father and they fight hand to hand, but Tore chokes him to death with his bare hands. He then picks up the boy and throes him against the wall has hard as he can, in a gesture that would make any professional wrestler proud. The boy is killed immediately. The father sits staring at his hands, the mother cradles the dead boy sobbing.

The whole family and several servants lead a mournful procession back to the spot where the murder happened, led by Ingeri. There they find Karin's naked body lying in the dirt. The mother cradles her as she had the boy, the father sits of to the side staring at his hands and shouts at God, "you saw! you saw this! why didn't you stop it!??" He looks at his hands and says "what have I done!" He remorseful that he too became a murderer. Then in a totally surprising move, the jumps and declares that "I shall build a church on this site, a shrine to the Virgin!" They pick up the body to bury her and spring of water rushes up form the ground, like some miracle right out of a medieval tale. The fathers blind leap of faith in the face of adversity and doubt has brought forth a metaphor right there on the screen; the Spring is a metaphor of hope, also a personification of nature (as though weeping for the girl) and confirmation of faith.

The Virgin Spring Is a powerful film, loaded with existential angst, Bergman's trademark. It illustrates for us the power of narrative. Even tough this is not a bible story it illustrates perfectly why the Bible depends so much on narrative. It is only through narrative that we can have carthorses. By entering into the story through the story telling device we experince the anxiety the dilemma of faith and doubt and the sense of bewilderment, and we move through the emotional crisis and feel that we have gained something from taking this journey with the characters. It's one of the oldest literary devices there is. No one uses it in film more expertly than Bergman. The issues of theodicy can only make sense when seen through the drama of in context of real human lives. This is why I call my theory of the free will defense "Soeteriological drama." It's not a stage production for God's pleasure, but reflects the true drama of life as people struggle with their problems and try to comprehend good and evil pain and suffering. Berman's father was a minister, and even though he was an atheist, he had a fine sense of modern theology in the Keirkeggardian form. This film is an excellent gateway to undertake a journey of Carthorses through the problem of theodicy.

see my tribute to Bergman on the occasion of his death Greatness has left the planet, Ingmar Bermgan dies.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

"Wild Strawberries:" no 4 on my all time list, Review of Film by Ingmar Bergman

Borg with three students

I first wrote this reveiw in 2010. This summer of 2014 I'm re-viewing all my favorite films for the summer. So I saw this one last night (today is friday the 13).

Derek Malcolm, writing for the Guardian UK (Thursday 10 June 1999 19.36 BST )
"The film I constantly go back to, however, is Wild Strawberries (1957), which, while scarcely a bag of laughs, has a compassionate view of life that best illustrates the more optimistic side of Bergman's puzzled humanity." I agree with Malcolm, I also go back to "Wild strawberries," (Smultronstalliet) again and again. In fact at one time I saw it as tying my favorite film of all times bar none, to two films equally loved, both by Bergman, "The Seventh Seal," and this one. It is not a bag of laughs but it does have a side of humor and though its about an old man at the end of his life it has a hopeful tone that looks to the future. It's not a heavy theologically oriented film but it even has it's God-conscious side. Bergman, though an atheist, could not let go of the idea of God, it has too many cogent connections to art and thought and life.

Realesed in 1957 This was one of Bergman's earliest successes, just on the heels of his original break out film, "Smiles of a Summer Night." The film centers around an old man,
Victor Sjöström ... Dr. Isak Borg who is at the end of his life, he's a great immanent medical researcher, still admired and loved by the populace he once tended as a country doctor, about to receive an honorary degree form a major university to crown his life time achievements. He is a crotchety old man who hides guilt, anger and aggression behind a vernier of old world charm. He has a old married couple sort of relationship with his manipulative managing house keeper, who wheedles and flatters him as she dotes on his greatness and practically worships him, but treats him like a child to do what's best for him. He has a bad relationship with his son,(Gunar Björnstrand--the squire in "the Seventh Seal") Dr. Evald Borg dividing over a loan he gave his son years ago and has never been paid back, the father doesn't have the grace to forgive the debt, spouting all sorts of pious nonsense about responsibility and morality. the son is middle ages, the father is almost 80 and the debt still divides them. Victor Sjöström who plays the old man was, in his youth, one of the early stars of Swedish silent film. He helped to establish silent film in Sweden, and was said to have been handsomest man in Sweden. At the time this film was made he was very old looking.

The film is really about Berman's relationship with his parents. That's played out through the relationship of Dr. Borg with is entire family. The themes of the film are the loneliness that besets us when we close ourselves off from hurt by become cold toward others and toward human relationships in general. Not reduce Bergman to simplicity but it's kind of like John Lennon wrote "it's a fool who plays it cool by making his world a little colder" (--"Hey Jude"). The film open withe the doctor explaining who he is, we see pictures of his family including his son, Evald. His mother is still alive even though he's 78. He's talking about death and loneliness.

The old Doctor decides to drive to the University, to the alarm of his Housekeeper. But his doubter in law (Marriane Borg), played by Ingrid Thulin, just happens to be staying with him. She's left her husband but asks for a ride with him to the university, where she lived with her husband. So this film is a road trip with an old man and his daughter-in-law. An American film would pit Steve Martin and Jeniffer Lopez and they would talk about nothing and wind up destroying buildings having car chases. In this film, however, these two literally do nothing more than talk about what I'm sure appears to be "nothing" to most Americans, but actually invovles the most important things in life. The old man has had a disturbing dream, but the young woman doesn't want to hear it. She frankly tells him she doesn't like him because he hides cruelty behind his mask of old world charm, yet the two remain good matured. The film is full of dreams. Although in that conversation she tells him his son hates him because he is cold and closed off. This knowledge clearly wounds him but he retreats even deeper. The first dream was about the man walking down empty streets of a small European village (shot in old Stockholm very early in the morning so there would no one on the street). A hearse driven by horses dumps a coffin and a hand falls out of the ajar lid. The man goes near, the hand grabs him and pulls him close, the face peers out from the coffin, it's him! The man is dead and in his coffin and pulling himself toward the coffin. This dream sequence is shot in a glaring black and white that could not be done in color. It's a tribute to German silent film, loaded dream symbols and angst.

The two stop to examine a house on a lake where the old man spent many a happy summer as a child. The house is deserted and not owned by the family anymore, but the two wander about for a while looking. Sitting by himself the old man suddenly sees the house as it was and his brothers and sisters, children in old fashioned turn of the century clothes, run out of the house pursuing all manner of summer activities. He watches a scene between his cousin Sara and his brother, who we learn latter married and were still living but old in this current time 0f 1957. Dr. Borg wanders into the house and stands observing scenes of family life but the characters don't see him. We learn from this that that he was afraid to act on his feelings, he loved Sara but let her marry his brother (presumably they were third cousins) because he was stand offish. It's in this dream-like interlude with his childhood that we see the point of the title, his cousin Sara who he wants to marry is picking wild strawberries when his memory conjures up a picture of her beauty in youth. He plays in his mind a scene between her and his brother latter has such a scene with her. He is old and she is young she tells him she will marry the brother. He talks about how it hurts, we see this is the first daunting disappointment in relationship that hurt him and caused himself to close off to human relationships.

At this point they meet three young people who are hitch hiking to the University. The three are a hilarious trio, a theology student, a secular student of some kid who of course has it in for religion in the faddish way that students of the 60s hated everything established, and a girl who the two fight over the whole trip. They have a few little runs at discussing God. The Marxist student is shallow and can only think in Marxist cliches he doesn't see that the Doctor is trying to hint that God is too important and too grand a concept to dismiss outright. One of my favorite scenes in the film. he two students come to blows. They go off to fight in the woods. Their fighting looks like two beached whales trying to push off each other to get unbeached. They get back in the car, one has a black eye. The girl sits in the middle she turns to the theology student and says "so, does God exist?"

That kind of reminds me of my partcipation on message baords. Along their way after they meet the kids they almost have a wreck with a small VW bug. The married couple in the bug are friendly at first and happy to be saved and given a ride, willing to admit the almost wreck was their fault (their car winds up upside down but the Doctor's old car is fine). But the two can't stop fighting. Subtle at first then ridiculous. They wind up being put out of the car when the woman begins slapping the husband and has to be restrained by the kids because she can't stop hitting him.

While the fight was ensuing the old man and his daughter-in-law have had a very important discussion sitting in the car and he went to sleep and has the seminal dream of the film. The discussion revealed that the woman left the doctor's son because he's just like his father, cruel, demanding, cold, unfeeling. The woman is pregnant and wants the child the father categorically does not want children and refuses to continue the marriage if they have them. At a time when abortion was unthinkable in America these guys argue about that option as though they were discussing painting the din, because they are in Sweden. But the woman wants the child, she wants to have a family is going back to make one last hopeless stab and reconciling.

The dream that Dr. Borg has while asleep in the car has him ushered into the family summer house they had previously been to, but this time it was empty, dark and foreboding. The Doctor is ushered into the house by the husband who was put out of the car. In this dream, however, he's a proctor giving the old man a test as though he was again at university. Inside the family home is a long dark corridor that was not there before it leads to a very old fashioned looking lecture room in which the old man is given an examination as one might receive at University at the turn of the century. He has to look in a microscope and identify the specimen. He claims something is wrong with the microscope because all he can see looking in is his own eye. The Proctor says there's nothing wrong with it. Then he is to examine a  young woman and say what's wrong with her. He finds that the woman is dead, but she suddenly bursts into laughter. The Proctor tells him he's been found incompetent. He is then told that he has been charged with being guilty.  Grim looking students in the gallery watch and don't crack a smile despite the old man's attempts at humor. Finally he is lead to another room and when they go through the door they are outside.

  photo Wild-Strawberries-dream_400_zps27fb6bf2.jpg
 Dr. Borg's first dream sequence [1]

He stands on the edge of a glad in which his wife (now long dead) and another man play little kissy games and make love. The wife talks about how she will tell him about her day, the husband (Borg) will pretend that he's not angry and she's done wrong, but that she's to be pitied, she is sick and made a mistake. She hates him totally and utterly for this high and mighty  attitude and his refusal to become angry even though she sleeps with other men. The Proctor observes that with most men who are gazing upon an image of their long dead wives, they have a fading image of a saintly woman, but this guy remembers vividly this this scene of adultery.This is the seminal event that made him so closed off he's even alienated from relationship with himself (thus he can't recognize himself in the microscope).
 photo WildStrawberries_Bergman_zps5eb3539f.jpg
Day Dream sequence between Sara and old Dr. Borg

Despite this seeming nightmare the film ends on a hopeful note as the old man seems to have learned. As he tells Marianne "it's as though my mind is trying to tell me things I can't  face when I'm awake" The end of the film is hopeful and exudes a compassion toward the old man, human frailty in general and the young. The wind up at the University in Lund, he is seen taking the honors, and then back tot he house of his son for the night. The son and his wife are happy and seem in the process of reconciling. The son doesn't' seem to hate his father but is glad to see him. The old man tries to tell he has forgiven the debt the son wont hear of it. The three students wind up as friends cheering him on and as they say good by by singing to him as he watches them from the Balcony and waves goodby. They makes statements about how proud they are to know him. They had been popping up around corners even the ceremony for the award begins. The daughter-in-law tucks him in and there's a feeling of warmth and forgiving between them. "Wild Strawberries" is about a man facing himself, like the emblematic image of his own eye looking back at him in the microscope. He's forced to realize that he's allowed himself to be cut off from people and feelings to languish in guilt and for this reason does not forgive the debts of others. In the end he plunges into dream land where he is again in the summer house of his childhood surrounded by those he loved. In the first nostalgic sequence he could not find his parents, in this one he is reunited with them and though he's an old man  they see him this time and they do not see anything strange that he's old, he fits right in as he should. In the final scene he's a boy again, with his family in a wonderful summer at the old summer house.

  photo 220px-Bergman_Sjostrom_1957_zps7c167da8.jpg
 Bergman with Victor Sjöström

from  IMBd page:


  (Cast overview, first billed only)
Victor Sjöström... Dr. Isak Borg
Bibi Andersson... Sara
Ingrid Thulin... Marianne Borg
Gunnar Björnstrand... Dr. Evald Borg
Jullan Kindahl... Agda
Folke Sundquist... Anders
Björn Bjelfvenstam... Viktor
Naima Wifstrand... Mrs. Borg, Isak's Mother
Gunnel Broström... Mrs. Alman
Gertrud Fridh... Karin Borg, Isak's wife
Sif Ruud... Aunt Olga
Gunnar Sjöberg... Sten Alman / The Examiner
Max von Sydow... Henrik Åkerman
Åke Fridell... Karin's lover
Yngve Nordwall... Uncle Aron
See more »

[1] Darren Franich, Keith Staskiewicz  "20 Crazy Dream Sequences at the Movies," Entertainment on Jul 12, 2010

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief

no 3 in my 10 10 all time greats

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Again, as with the other films I've been discussing, this is one of the greatest movies of all time. It's been honored more than almost any other movie of the 20th century. It was deemed the greatest film of all time by 1999 poll of filmakers and critics for Sight and Sound magazine [1] Honarary academy award in 1950, just four years after it came out. If anyone cares it's no  3 on my top 10 of all time.[2] I have mentioned Itallian neo-realism and how it important it was in the post war era. Fillini was famous for pulling away from it. This is the height of neo-realism.

The introduction t the Criterion collection says of neo-relaism:

The neorealist movement began in Italy at the end of World War II as an urgent response to the political turmoil and desperate economic conditions afflicting the country. Directors such as Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, and Luchino Visconti took up cameras to focus on lower-class characters and their concerns, using nonprofessional actors, outdoor shooting, (necessarily) very small budgets, and a realist aesthetic. The best-known examples remain De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, a critical and popular phenomenon that opened the world’s eyes to this movement, and such key earlier works as Rossellini’s Open City, the first major neorealist production. Other classics of neorealism include De Sica’s Umberto D. and Visconti’s La terra trema, but the tendrils of the movement reach back to De Sica’s The Children Are Watching Us and forward to Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis, as well as to some filmmakers who did their apprenticeships in this school, Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini—and far beyond.[3]

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De Sica

Vittorio De Sica (1901-1974) Grew up in Naples, started life as an office clerk. He was poor and tried to support his family on a clerk's job, but was increasingly drawn to acting. He began acting in his teens and became matinee idol. He was a famous Italian leading man romantic type. He began directing in 1940, mostly light comedies at first. His 1944 release "The Children are Watching us" was the first hint of his depth as a serious director. [4] His "shoeshine" (1946) and the Bicycle Thief were "heartbreaking studies of poverty in postwar Italy which won special Oscars before the foreign film category was officially established."[5]  He also directed one of my favorite comedies, which is an hilarious film, late 60s, with Peter Sellers, "After The Fox." He still knew how to make comedies.

Review below IMBd cast page.

Director: Vittorio De Sica

Adapted for the screen by Cesare Zavattini
from a novel by Luigi Bartolini,

from IMBd page
Complete credited cast:
Lamberto Maggiorani ...
Enzo Staiola ...
Lianella Carell ...
Maria Ricci
Gino Saltamerenda ...
Vittorio Antonucci ...
The Thief
Giulio Chiari ...
The Beggar
Elena Altieri ...
The Charitable Lady
Carlo Jachino ...
A Beggar
Michele Sakara ...
Secretary of the Charity Organization
Emma Druetti
Fausto Guerzoni ...
Amateur Actor
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 There seems to be a law that the greatest films don't look like much on the surface. I've observed this with The Seventh Seal, which looks a bunch of high school kids filmed he senior play, and with "La Dulce Vita" which seems to be about a bunch of rich Italian lay about with nothing to say. With this film we have a story about a guy whose bicycle is stolen, he looks for it, can't find it, and life goes on. It's in black and white, it's got subtitles. As I've said before the true Cinefile thrives on this. These are not negatives for a great foreign film. This is truly a great film. It's a heart rending study of a man caught in sheer desperation; between fear of letting his family starve while he can't find work, on the one hand, and the total frustration on the other. Since the Italian is actually plural,  The Bicycle Thieves is actually about not only the guy whose bicycle was stolen but about the guy who took it. We only see him in one scene but we can easily imagine the kind of anguish and desperation went into his career as a bicycle thief as went into the decision to attempt it on the part of his victim.
As the story opens we see a huge crowd of men around the door of some kind of ware house buildign. A man comes out and starts reading names and handing out assignments for work. He called out "Antonio Ricci" (Lamberto Maggiorani) the guy doesn't answer. He's not only across the street he's down the block. Someone has to go get him. He's till thrilled to have a job at last. Obviously he's been unable to find one for a long time. He's give up  he's not even there for the assignments here he has one. One problem. He has to have a Bike. He mumbles something about how it needs fixing, the guy says Ok do you have one or not? You have to a bike for this mob. He says "Yes I have it." He goes home he's proud, he's thrilled. The Cramdon's on the Honeymooners, if you thought their apartment was sparse, it was "comfortable." These guys live in squealer. The plaster is cracking, the walls are crumbling adobe, the lights are bare, never heard of a lampshade. Furniture is really cheap and falling apart. It's all dirty, no crib for the baby. The baby stays on the  parent's bed bewteen two pillows.
His wife takes him to some lame psychic who is clearly a fraud, this shows desperate they are. They go back home and he's telling her how needs the bike. So she sells the last of her find linen that came with her dowry. This is truly the last ditch effort to make good. The next he goes out on his gotten out of hock by selling the sheets. He's assigned to put up posters. It's hard to put them up right at first. Hes' struggling to make one smooth. He's up on a ladder the bike is about 20 feet away. This guy walks by and just jumps on it and peddles like all hell is after him. He gets out in traffic immediately and loses himself in a lot of other bikes. Ricci gets a ride on a running board and thy go after it. He's being helped by two strangers, but they grab the wrong guy when they pull him over they see it's the wrong bike. So it's gone. He's just devastated. It took him so long to get that job. He dreads going home, he cant' bring himself to tell the kid by he took the bus home. When he does tell his wife he says he will get help.

Eventually things work out to a point where he and his son are looking for the bike. That takes up most of the film. It's the next day he's gone with the "help" (a friend of position in a union) they go to places where stolen bikes might be parted out. So they examining frames and parts of bike. The kid knows all about it, he has the cereal number memories. The kid, Bruno, (Enzo Staiola) is amazing. He would make a great running back in American foot ball. The runs after the father keeping up with his longer stride, always at his side. He is slipping in mud puddles and falling down in the street and the father plays along and the kid fights to keep up. He's in a hair's breath of being run over twice.

The father sees a guy on a bike that he thinks is the thief and the bike looks like his. In realty it's not. They are both miles off. The guy is obsessed. He can't follow the guy on the bike but he sees him talk to an old man. The look for him but he vanished around a corner. So combing the neighborhood they find an old man who he thinks the guy was talking to, but it may not be at all. He's convinced he is even though the old man denies knowing what he's talking about. They chase him into a church. They disrupting the service. People keeping telling them to keep still. Finally the old man loses them and they are kicked out of the chruch. The kid gets on the father's nerves and the father slaps him. He's been through rain and mud and almost ran over, but he was in there with the Dad fighting, suddenly he thinks the father doesn't care about his contribution, they are not really father and son working together he's unappreciated it. He becomes petulant and runs away. The father seeks him down by a river under the bridge. He hears people shouting that a boy is drawing. It sinks in and he become alarmed that it's Bruno. He rushes to see. It's too big this kid is a teen. So he's relived then he sees Bruno way up at the top of the stairs. They reunite. The kid has sort of firgiven him. He wants to gab him in his arms but there's a macho thing there preventing it. He just messes up the kid's hair and says let's go eat.

The relationship between father  and son is priceless. The kid is a real trooper, willing to go anywhere the Dad goes, snapping at his heals, falling down, almost being ran over, always staying faithfully underfoot. He's like a little adult, he even has the details of he bike memorized. Out of thousands of bikes in Rome that all look alike he can pick theirs out of a crowd. The father is too distracted, he's in total agony. De Sica is said to have filmed the human soul in action. The performances are perfect. It's also a beautiful film. Even though it's in black and white the sights and sounds of Rome are overwhelming. In spite of it all they go on and face each day in spite of the desperation. True to the nature of neo-realism we are watching the human spirit face the human condition.

watch the entire film on YOUTUBE
 [1] Ebert, Roger (March 19, 1999). "The Bicycle Thief / Bicycle Thieves (1949) review". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on July 20, 2010. Retrieved July 20, 2010.
 [2] Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman)
La Dulce Vita (Federico Fellini)
The Bicycle Thief (Vittorio De Sica)
Wild Strawberries (Bergman)
The Virgin Spring (Bergman)

Rashomon, (Akira Kurosawa)
The Seven Samurai, (Akira Kurosawa)
La Strada (Federico Fellini)
Dr. Strangelove, (Stanly Kubrick)
Ordet (Carl Drayer)
 [3] The Criterion Collection. "Themes: Italian Neo-Realism." on line resource: 

[5] Ibid.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Review, film review. La Dulce Vita by Federico Fellini

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La Dulce Vita (The good life), Federico Fellini (1960).   I am about the ten millionth person to review this film. I have nothing original to say about it, it's all coming from the commentary on the DVD plus what I've learned about Cinema over the years, but nevertheless I take great pleasure in discussing it. This is one of the greatest films ever made. It's clearly up there with Bergman's the Seventh Seal. It's going to be in the top ten of any critic worth his celluloid. It's number 2 in my top 10.* At first glance this might appear to be a banal look at a group of shallow play boy and play girl fashion model types form the late 50's who lived in Italy and had no thoughts in their heads. So what? I like to review great art films that have something to say about God, such as  Wild Strawberries, but what does this pack of refugees from the Italian version of "the Nanny" have to do with God? A lot actually, there's much more going on there than meets the eye. First we have to fix the film in relation to cenematic history.

It's the break out film for two of the biggest stars of the 60s, Anita Ekberg, and Marcello Mastroianni. Ekberg is probably best known for her scene in Trevi fountain from La Dulce Vita. The film itself is located in Italian neorealism which is very important thing to know. But even more important is the fact that it was seen as a step away from neorealism. Neorealism was very important to Italian intellectuals becuase it represented their social critique, their come back after the war, their triumph over fascism and their independence form Western Capitalism.Yet Fellini was moving away from it. His previous film La Strada   (The road 1954) began his departure. Though this film fits within its contours it's not about workers, it's not about the people it's about strange alienated isolated people who are above the level of the common man, it's about the leaches who live off of the wealth of the system and produce nothing and help no one. It's not that Fellini is easy on these parasites. He's hard on them but his critique is not social, it's not Marxist, it's spiritual. That's why the film has a lot to say about God. Fellini was a believer but he was not a Christian. He spoke of himself as a Christian in a veg way, but he was not a friend of the Catholic chruch. He did not fail to criticize the Catholic chruch and his views were veg and undefined. Yet he knew that modern humanity has a spiritual plight that is at the root of the human condition, that's what the film is about, more specifically the way that plight is coming to affect  modern society, what we can expect from the 1960s. Even though that is horribly out of date one can look back and see Fellini got it right and that same plight still besets us today. The names have changed now it's not Anita Ekberg (or her character "Slyvia") but The Cardassians or whomever,  but it's still there.

This sense of a modern spiritual crisis is nowhere in the film better born out than the opening scene were a great statue of Jesus is ferried by helicopter across the city of Rome right by the ancinet coliseum. It looks like a giant version of the plastic statue on the dash board. It is seen by a group of bikini clad women sun bathing on the roof. As it's flown by the coliseum one thinks "there's the old place where they gave them bread and circuses and kept them entertained, kept them off the streets, watching Chrsitians die; now here's the victorious Christian symbol, now reduced to another level of bread and circuses. The women talk to the copter men and refuse to give their pone numbers. The spiritual dimension is reduced to a commodity. That's where we first meet Marcello Mastroianni's character, Marcello Rubini. He's among the Paparazzi. This film is where the term "Paparazzi" originated. It's named after one the characters, Poparazzo (). He's not a major character but he's always doing everything he can to get pictures. In one scene he takes advantage of a woman's grief over her husband's suicide. In another he's arranging the boyd of a sleeping American movie star who is waiting in a little convertible all night for Sylvia to come back from her romp in the fountain with Marcello. He and the other photographers are playing around with this sleeping guy who wakes up and beats up Marcello for keeping Sylvia out.

The little circle of fashion plate vips in the film are unmotivated, trapped in their fame and fotrune which has given them a form of indolence. Marcello has ambitions, although veg ones, but he will never act on them. He longs for a woman, Maddalena () but he can't bring himself to really close the deal. A good example is the romp in the fountain  with Sylvia. The fountain (Trevi) is ancient, the water if flowing into a little pool. It's a hot summer night, the most beautiful woman in the world is calling him into the water with her. Flowing water has always been a symbol of potency and sexual life. As soon as they start to kiss, the water is shut off. They leave and wade out, as always he's just cut off before he gets to the point and always resigns to it and goes with the flow. The opening scene is the big Jesus and the next scene after that is a night club, an exotic rarefied atmosphere where dancers from Thailand illustrate a sexually provocative version of some nature dance. Christianity is reduced to a consumer product or decoration and this foreign religion is brought in but turned into an aphrodisiac. Nothing is sacred. Everything is a product. Everything is to be sold to the consumer for pleasure.

Macello picks up Maddalena from that night club and takers to a place where they pick up a prostitute, they drive around with her. Apparently just driving in a fancy car (big plush American car) is a thrill for her. They wind up at her apartment. Oddly enough they have sex with each other in her room and she sits out  in the living room. Good Filliniesque touch, the apartment is flooded and she has walk on board bridges all over the place. In the cold harsh light of dawn the prostitute is out side discussing with her pimp what she get out of them. Maddalena makes a sort of arrangement with her for future occasions. The lower class people who scramble for a living who have imitative to discuss money, while the jet setters just sort slink away.

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The structure of the film is made up of a series of vignettes which adhere to a formula that is never varied. The action starts at night, when the burned-out hipster's days begin.The night seems packed with promise. It's a sexual adventure, it's a new life, it's a sense of thrilled packed new exploration. It always screws up. They are always then shown in the cold harsh light of dawn. For Fellini Dawn always brings this sense of clean clarity; now I see how we screwed up. Now I see I need change, but I wont change. Another aspect that reinforces this structure is the recurrence of wasteland. Most of the film takes place in new parts of Rome which lie on the outskirts and used to be either country or bombed out areas. They are also full of new apartment complexes that eitehr just went up or are going up. The only old stuff he shows, the things that make Rome seem like Rome are old dilapidated falling apart stuff (except the fountain). The other exception to that is the Vita Aventino. Fellini had a bad feeling about that place. He saw it as the headquarters or the center of the problem with modern humanity. It's the ultimate dumping ground for shallow people. Macello is always being called to "chow Marcello" as walks down that street where he obviously spends a great deal of time. These are clearly superficial relationships. This is the Italian version of "let's do lunch, have your people call my people."

After the fountain scene, the morning after, (in the harsh light of dawn he got his ass kicked by the American movie star) he is sitting around on the street and there's a horse on a table. Why? It has nothing to do with anything. It's just a Felliniesque moment as there are many in his films where he goes a bit nuts in the back ground for no reason. Marcello goes into the cathedral across the way to visit his friend Steiner (). Steiner is an intellectual, philosopher and a modern. He has religion behind and he's not going back to it. Yet he mourns its passing. He knows something is missing because this is no longer a major force. He desperately wants to find that lost element again. Yet he's not going back to religion to find it. He mourns it none the less. When Marcello goes to meet him he is hanging out in a chruch and playing religious music on the organ. Latter Marcello attends a  Salon at Steiner's house. The guests are second rate intellectuals. They are more posers than real thinkers. They quote excessively from various writers and never really say anything. Marcello voices his veg ambitions and desires for clarity and understanding. They can only quote half applicable maxims and move on with their shallow pretense. The hilarious Felliniesque** moment in the scene is where it comes out that Steiner has recorded sounds of ordinary life such as rain. they are dying to hear. They all make out likes it's an innovative creative thing. The point is they are not even experiencing the real, they are experiencing a virtual reality because it's the sounds of ordinary things. They are making over ordinary life that they don't live as though its' a major breakthrough but its' not even real.

Another aspect of the modern world and it's loss of faith, and faith commoditized for the masses. Marcello, who is a reporter, goes out to cover a story about these two children who are supposed to have seen the virgin Mary. They go to the spot where they saw her, where supposedly a tree grew up spontaneously, there's a crowd and a camera set up and tv hook up, the press, the paparazzi the reporters. The children go on this ridiculous charade of pretending to see the Virgin "she's over here," they all run over there, "now she's over there." they keep the crowd running around whopping and hollering and seeking to be in the very spot, until they erupt int o a riot. they tear the tree to shreds to get holy relics of it. Almost as if God's response to the absurdity, it begins to rain. The tv lights break, and the power goes out. Again, ancient things getting in the way of modern. the modern thing here is the shallow mindless nature of religious frenzy diverged from theology is left as the product for the masses. The event is over because the press can't cover it (as though God is gonna leave the scene since he can't be on tv) and they all leave. The one touching moment is when Marcello's live in girl friend who has already tried to kill her self in the film prays sincerely "let Marcello love me like I love him." Then she sees that's not in the cards. He doesn't love her she is just more of a habit than a real relationship. She realized she must accept that.

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There's so much in this film I have not even scratched he surface. There's a motif of the past getting in the way of the modern, in subtle ways. One example is the sheep blocking the road in the middle of modern Rome as the entourage escorts Anita Ekberg back from t he air port where she has been met by the press, as major celebrity, the newest "blond bombshell" fashion model/actress. The mourning of the past is reflected in a scene where the revelers stay at an old castle belonging to the family of one of them. It's abandoned and no longer lived in as they roam around exploring it they reveal various sides to their nature, yet at the same time finding connections to the past. I am not following the plot point for point there is much more here.

The final enigmatic scene as been written about and speculated upon. No one is quite sure  what it means. After a night of debauchery and wild party, Marcello, Maddalena and others stand on the beach watching a strange sea creature that has been discovered. They think it's a living specimen of a fish thought to have been extinct for thousands of years. Now it's dying on the beach in front of the home where the night before the raveled, Marcello riding around the room on Maddalena's back. Now they watch the end of this line that has survived a couple of millions of years. Here's the theme of the mourning for the dying of the past. The idea that we are missing something. We didn't know it was still there but now it's dying out. It reminds me of the line form Philosopher Karl Jaspers that the modern age is bringing to an end things that are extremely ancient. Our  way of life is putting an end to them. But also reflected in the puzzled awe the "mourners" reveal a sense of suspicion, is this a forshadowing of the demise or their own lives, or their way of life? Will our modern world last as long as this? Will some alien race watch our decedents die on a future beach? Or will we be annihilated by nuclear war next year? These are not statements they make, they are reflections the viewer thinks of watching their faces.

IMBd page:


Cast overview, first billed only:
Marcello Mastroianni ...
Anita Ekberg ...
Anouk Aimée ...
Maddalena (as Anouk Aimee)
Yvonne Furneaux ...
Magali Noël ...
Fanny (as Magali Noel)
Alain Cuny ...
Annibale Ninchi ...
Il padre di Marcello
Walter Santesso ...
Lex Barker ...
Robert - marito di Sylvia
Jacques Sernas ...
Il divo
Nadia Gray ...
Valeria Ciangottini ...
Riccardo Garrone ...
Ida Galli ...
Debuttante dell'anno
Audrey McDonald ...
Jane (as Audey McDonald)

*Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman)
La Dulce Vita (Federico Fellini)
The Bicycle Thief (Vittorio De Sica)
Wild Strawberries (Bergman)
The Virgin Spring (Bergman)

Rashomon, (Akira Kurosawa)
The Seven Samurai, (Akira Kurosawa)
La Strada (Federico Fellini)
Dr. Strangelove, (Stanly Kubrick)
Ordet (Carl Drayer)

**Felliniesque has become a standard word in film criticism. It refers to the funcky stuff onkly Fellini can do, his sense of magical realism like the horse just standing on the table for no reason.