Tuesday, April 18, 2017

1974 Winner, Amarcord


Director:  Federico Fellini

Distributed by:  Warner Bros./New World Pictures

Released:  December 1973

Country:  Italy

Going backward chronologically with our Best Foreign Films, now is when we get into the Italian and French dominance of the award.  No other country would win more than three times  from the inception of the award to 1974, while Italy won 11 and France 9 during that time period.  The director of Amarcord, the 1974 Best Foreign Film, is known as one of the great directors of all cinema, Federico Fellini, and this one is the last of his three films that won the award. 

I’ll start with this:  You don’t have to know anything about movies to know, after just a few minutes of watching this film, that Fellini is a master director.  The photography is wonderful, with scenes in school, church, the town square, and the coast, that are all marvelously shot.  You can see his influence over the art:  The scenery often reminded me of 1990’s winner Cinema Paradiso, 2013 winner The Great Beauty, and 1998’s Life is Beautiful.   Francis Ford Coppola must have also been influenced by Fellini, as one scene in the country brought a couple different The Godfather locations to my mind, though that great film was made two years earlier than Amarcord. (The fact that Nino Rota, frequent Fellini collaborator, did the score for both Amarcord and The Godfather probably had something to do with it as well.)

Titta (right) with his father and grandfather
I start with all that stuff about the scenery in part because there isn’t much of a linear plot here.  This is more like a snapshot of small town, pre-World War II north-central Italy.  Mussolini is in power and fascism has its clutches around Italy, but these small-town people have their lives to lead.  There is a vast cast of eccentric characters, but the focus is mostly on teenage boy Titta, presumably based on Fellini himself, and his family.  Titta’s dad is especially blustery and funny, looking remarkably like the guy who used to wake up early to make the Dunkin Donuts.  He always seems to be angry, either at Titta, or at his freeloading brother-in-law, or at his half-witted brother who won’t come down from a tree he’s climbed. 

There are scenes in the classroom that reminded me of stuff you may have seen in the Little Rascals, only a bit more PG-13.  At one point, while a bookish-looking kid is up at the chalkboard with the teacher struggling with a math problem, some mischievous boys construct and extend a long paper tube, one boy peeing into it from his classroom desk, sending a puddle next to the unsuspecting nerd.  The tube disposed of before she notices, the teacher looks down at the floor and then the student and yells, “What do you do?!” It's one of those immature pranks that you laugh at and wonder why you didn't think of it when you were young, and then think it's probably better that you didn't.

Looking for something?
Fellini, or rather young Titta and his friends, are obsessed with sex, and more specifically, with women’s butts and breasts.  Close-ups of women’s rears appear frequently in the film, with the boys and men gazing longingly.  There is one amusing scene when a female shop-worker encounters Titta and unleashes her breasts on him, nearly killing poor Titta and no doubt requiring Fellini to use a wide-angle lens. (A look at the movie poster will give you a clue at what I mean--that cartoon really isn't a caricature.)  In another scene, an aging but still attractive hairdresser whom all the town boys have the hots for finds herself sitting next to Titta in an otherwise empty movie theater.  As he moves his hand onto her slightly exposed thigh she snarkily asks, “Looking for something?”

Armacord as a whole can be taken as a critique of an Italy that allowed a fascist’s rise to power.  Some of the more serious scenes involve the struggle for these townspeople to deal with the choice they had with fascism—go with it or get run over by it.  It strikes me, though, that Fellini is presenting rural life much more lovingly and nostalgically than that.  Yes, the Catholic priests are tone deaf to the needs of the people; yes, the boys spend all their time thinking of girls; and yes, there are few weirdos who are part of the fabric of the place.  But it seems like this was a simpler time, and I think given how colorfully and brilliantly the movie is shot, it would be difficult to not like this small Italian town.

The Title:  A kind of made-up Italian word meaning, “I remember.”

Time to make the donuts!
The Culture:  This was a time between the great wars, in small town Italy, and Fellini presents us with the naivety of the time.  Everyone knows each other in this odd cast of characters:  the priests and teachers; the round-reared hairdresser; the odd nymphomaniac who hangs around; and the strange town character who talks to the camera from time to time. They all make up the time and place Fellini remembers.

Agenda danger:  Fellini, a non-practicing Catholic himself, seems to be critical of the Church, of Catholic education, and of the way the Church viewed sex.  But I found this presentation to be mostly an accounting of how it was then, and not a condemnation of the time he grew up in.  Titta’s father, a comic figure overall, stands up to the fascists admirably, as few must have in the time.

Best Picture that year:  The Godfather, Part II

Rating:  I must say I was a little confused by this once I finished it:  What was the story?  What did it mean?  But it was a film that was enjoyable to watch from start to finish, and it stuck with me a little after I was done, which I believe to be the mark of a great film. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

1975 Winner, Dersu Uzala

Dersu Uzala

Director:  Akira Kurosawa

Distributed by:  Mosfilm

Released:  July 1975

Country:  Soviet Union

Akira Kurosawa is Japan’s most famous director, and this film, Dersu Uzala, was produced by a Soviet film studio.  Filming was done on location in the Russian Far East wilderness, and many scenes depict the terrifyingly harsh winter weather of that area.  And yet . . . this movie is, essentially, a Western. 

The Western’s most common theme, found in just about every film of that genre, is that of the conflict between opposites: Civilization and Wilderness.  This film is the story of a tribesman of the Nanai people, an ethnic group almost Korean and almost Turk, living in the eastern-most recesses of Russia.  He is Dersu Uzala, played wonderfully by Maxim Munzuk.  He is Wilderness personified, a man who can look at tracks and know how close the animal is and can make a shelter of grass in an hour that can protect a man from a blizzard.  And he is living in an age when his way of life is going away fast.

Captain Arseviev and Dersu Uzala
Backing up a bit:  The film starts with a Russian expedition exploring and surveying the remote area.  Captain Arseniev and his men come upon the odd-looking Dersu, who agrees to help them in their job.  Dersu has lost his entire family to smallpox and is living a life of a loner, but he is likable and intelligent.  He and Arseviev quickly become friends and quickly the rest of the group come to respect him.

Arseviev and Dersu’s paths will cross on a few occasions over the years, with Dersu saving the Russian captain’s life on more than one occasion.  In one of the film’s more exciting sequences, the two men have strayed too far from the group when a great bluster of weather hits them.  Dersu senses the storm somewhat ahead of time, and knows they will not make it if he does not act quickly.  Though the situation seems hopeless, Dersu’s instincts and knowledge of the terrain are what allow them to cheat Death.

Now that's a knife!
But Dersu is a superstitious man, a big part of the package of this complex personality.  His interactions with a tiger, and the fact that he is aging and with poor eyesight, will lead him to decide to hang up his cleats and retire as a wayfaring loner.  Much like Crocodile Dundee did in 1986 when he moved from the Outback of Australia to New York City, Dersu Uzala, having thrived most of his life on his home court, the Wilderness, will now move to perhaps his most difficult challenge, taking on Civilization.

Kurosawa was greatly influenced by, and in turn, was a great influence to, the American Western film.  The Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961) were remade into Westerns The Magnificant Seven (1960 and 2016) and A Fistful of Dollars (1967).  In his Japanese films, Kurosawa is a master of using climate as a key element of his movie-making—you will be hard pressed to find one of his films that does not have intense rain or wind scene, shaping the mood and often affecting the characters’ actions.  Dersu Uzala has those scenes, but more.  It is a movie about a man living in and being part of his Wilderness. Dersu is a short, stocky, Asiatic-looking old man living in eastern Russia, but he epitomizes the Cowboy as much as anyone in a John Ford movie.

The real Dersu Uzala
The Title:  Дерсу Узала, based on a 1923 non-fiction book about this very real man.  Believe it or not, there were two movies with this title, the other one made by the Soviets in 1961.

The Culture:  Kurosawa considered making this movie early in his career, before he became an internationally famous director with 1950’s Rashomon.  He tabled his idea because he knew that this was a film that had to be made on location.  Kurosawa captures the cruel climate of this part of Russia in a number of masterfully shot scenes.  But he also presents the Wilderness, represented by the tribal uncivilized people of this area, with much respect and dignity.  Dersu, a man of wisdom but great superstition, is presented with admiration and even awe.

Agenda danger:  An admiration of Man’s rugged individualism pervades the film, without some preachy side message about how Man is ruining his environment, which is what we would undoubtedly see if this movie were remade today.

Best Picture that year:  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Rating:  A wonderful film.  This is not even in the top five Kurosawa movies (I would put it at about 9), but if you’ve enjoyed any of his films, one reason to watch is to see his work away from Japan.  I enjoyed the relationship between Dersu and Arseniev, and the last part of the movie, set in a calm town atmosphere, is as gripping as the two men’s grappling with nature.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

1976 Winner, Black and White and in Color

Black and White and in Color

Director:  Jean-Jacques Annaud

Distributed by:  Allied Artists

Released:  September 1976

Country:  Ivory Coast

If you think back to your world history class in high school or college, the idea of World War One will conjure up thoughts of entangling alliances, trench warfare, the first aircraft fighting and submarines.  WWI, which the U.S. entered 100 years ago this week, was the “War to End All Wars,” resulting in 9 million military and 7 million civilian deaths, one of the bloodiest wars in world history.  When the powder keg that was the Balkans exploded in 1914, the war sucked in Austria-Hungary and Germany on one side, and France, Great Britain, and eventually, the United States on the other.

Colonialism was still sort of hip and happening in the early 20th century, so naturally this left the territories owned by the main players of WWI to get sucked in as well.  One of those parts of the world, in West-Central Africa, is the setting for Black and White and in Color, the dark comedy that won the Best Foreign Film in 1977.

The film opens mildly enough, with a tiny village “run” by the French receiving a visit from their friend from a nearby German-run village.  The French and the Germans peacefully co-exist, bound together by the concept of bringing “civilization” to the Africans who live in those villages.  As a satire, the movie pokes fun at the superiority the colonists display in bringing culture and religion to the black folks who really seem more amused by it all than anything else.  There is one comical scene when the French awkwardly introduce the villagers to a bicycle, something they had never seen before.  The scene reminded me of the basketball scene in Airplane, when Ted shows the Africans what a basketball is and the villagers take to it with jumpers and slam dunks. 
Jean Carnet as Sergeant Bosselet

Into this lazy isolation of the French colony, a package arrives.  Mail is slow in the recesses of Africa, and this correspondence was sent months and months ago.  The French learn that World War I has started and that they were now the sworn enemies of their German neighbors.  “I would have thought it would be with England,” of them of them cracks.  The French must plot their next move.  They plan a minor attack, to be watched by the French few ladies living with them while picnicking (not unlike the First Battle of Bull Run in the American Civil War).  They get the Africans organized with some marching in place drills and go on the offensive.  They’re not even sure the Germans are aware of the war.  When the skirmish starts, they find out quickly that not only are they aware, but they have a machine gun.  The fun part’s over.
Getting ready for the Battle of Bull Run, 1861

Black and White and in Color is an anti-war satire in the spirit of Mike Nichols’ Catch-22 or Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, both from 1970.  It casts a bit of a wider net than those movies do, commenting on the French, colonialism, war, and race-relations.  It’s also less funny than those films are.  But that’s not a bad thing, necessarily—there’s no subtlety in the “zaniness” of Yossarian or Hawkeye and Trapper, which I suppose have put those films into near-classic status but have also made me annoyed enough to change the channel if they ever show up on my TV (in the case of M*A*S*H, I emphasize I mean the movie and not the TV show, which was great in the early years before it got too preachy). 

Jean Carmet, who plays a French sergeant satisfied with doing as little as possible, did make me laugh just by standing there a couple of times, sporting a pipe, an open shirt, and a cartoonish tall helmet.  The movie is amusing, with enough substance to invest in the story without taking the whole thing too seriously.

You can watch this one on YouTube here.

The zany madcaps of M*A*S*H
The Title:  Originally titled La Victoire en chantant, or Victory by Singing.

The Culture:  A look at the views of the French colonies in Africa in the early 1900’s, and a reminder of the paternalism of imposing European culture upon Africa.

Agenda danger:  Preachiness is a pet peeve of mine, and anti-war movies are often the biggest offenders.  But this film has enough humor to soften the blows, and enough gravity to not dismiss the message altogether.  I normally don’t find much funny in racial humor, but late in the film I laughed as one African, watching the French celebrate/lament the end of the war, sums up the stupidity of the colonists, shaking his head:  “White people . . . really!”

Best Picture that year:  Rocky

Rating:  I found there to be a good mix of absurdity and realism, and while I never really latched onto any of the characters, the story was unique enough to keep me interested.  A worthwhile 90-minute film.