Although my family and friends cannot comprehend this, I frequently lament how few films I’ve actually seen in my lifetime. Expand that to world cinema and you’ll find enormous, cavernous spaces filled with all the international movies I haven’t seen. This year I tried to at least chip away at several of those non-English-speaking treasures. I’ll explore more of these films in Part II, but for now, here’s Part I:
L’Avventura (1960) Michelangelo Antonioni
Previously discussed here
Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958) Mario Monicelli
Noir City 15, Castro Theatre, San Francisco (1:51)
Previously discussed here
Victoria (2015) Sebastian Schipper
Adopt Films DVD – interlibrary loan (2:18)
Previously discussed here
El Aura (The Aura) (2005) Fabián Bielinsky
IFC DVD – interlibrary loan (2:18)
Estaban Espinosa (Ricardo Darín, above) is a taxidermist who fantasizes about how he would commit the perfect crime. He also has a photographic memory, exceptional organizational skills and epilepsy. Strange combination? Maybe.
During a hunting trip with a man he barely knows, Espinosa accidentally kills a man who is in fact a real criminal. Rather than run away in fear for his life, Esponosa decides to act as the dead man’s confidant, helping to heist an armored car filled with profits from a local casino.
I really don’t want to tell you anything further about the film, but I hope you will seek it out. El Aura is one of those films that refuses to allow you to predict what’s going to happen next. I was mesmerized by the film and Darín’s performance. Sadly, El Aura was Argentine director Fabián Bielinsky’s second and final film; shortly after completing the film, he died of a heart attack at age 47. I have not seen his first feature Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens), but I am going to seek it out. (Update: I have seen Nueve Reinas. Keep reading!)
El Aura screened at Noir City 15 after I had to fly home, but I saw it on DVD from the library. If you live near a Noir City festival, please try to catch it. If not, I urge you to check out the DVD.
Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens) (2000) Fabián Bielinsky
Last month I was blown away by Bielinsky’s second (and unfortunately final) feature, El Aura (2005). Nueve Reinas was his first feature, a crime thriller/noir about Marcos, a seasoned con artist (Ricardo Darín, left) who decides to take a younger, less experienced con man named Juan (Gastón Pauls, right) under his wing, but only for a day. As luck would have it, a potentially profitable scheme falls into their laps: Marcos finds a former associate who needs Marcos to sell a fake set of rare stamps called “The Nine Queens” to a rich Spanish mark before he leaves the country. Just when you think you know where Nueve Reinas is going, it surprises you right up until the end. You may not buy the ending, which I can totally understand, but the journey is one you wouldn’t trade for anything.
In the introduction to the film on FilmStruck, Eddie Muller talks about the star of the film Ricardo Darín. Darín is practically an institution in Argentina, having been nominated for the Silver Condor Award (the Argentine equivalent of the Oscar) twelve times, winning the award five times. In just two films, Darín has become one of my favorite current actors. In two completely different roles, he is absolutely believable and compelling. According to Muller, Darín refuses to work in Hollywood because they offer him nothing but drug lord roles. Darín, keep doing what you’re doing, sir. I know I’ll keep watching and I’m not alone.
Chungking Express (1994) Wong Kar-Wai
The Criterion Blu-ray and DVD releases of Chungking Express have been out of print for quite some time, so unless you see it on the streaming service FilmStruck, the film might be hard to find. If you do see it, you’ll understand why the discs are out of print. Chungking Express is not what you would call a mainstream movie, but it has a kind of quirky appeal that playfully nudges right up against the type of movie mainstream audiences like, expanding expectations without causing the frustration that mainstream audiences experience from watching “art” films.
Chungking Express concentrates on two Hong Kong policemen. The first, a Taiwanese cop named He Qiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is depressed after his girlfriend May breaks up with him on April Fool’s Day. Since He Qiwu’s birthday is May 1, he decides to wait for the girlfriend May for one month before he gets on with his life. He has a ritual of buying tins of pineapple with an expiration date of May 1, one for each of the 30 days. The story also involves a mysterious woman in a blonde wig and trenchcoat.
The second character is another cop, this one unnamed; we know him only by his badge number 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai). He also has suffered a recent breakup. The owner of a local snack bar keeps telling Cop 663 that he should find another girl, perhaps Faye (Faye Wong), the new girl working for him. Faye is secretly smitten with Cop 663, but he doesn’t know it.
I defy anyone to not like this movie. It is filled with charm, comedy, and suspense. As odd as it seems, the first part of the film contains some very interesting crime/noir elements, while the second reminds you of the screwball comedies of classic Hollywood. Yet there’s so much more to the film. The people who see Chungking Express tend to see it over and over again, which probably accounts for the discs being out of print. If I ever see one for sale (at a reasonable price), I’m going to snag it. You should too.
The Secret in Their Eyes (2009) Juan José Campanella
DVD – library (2:09)
Another film that I’ll have to expound on later. I’ve been on a Ricardo Darín kick lately, this being the third film I’ve seen him in. From what I’ve heard, you should avoid the 2015 American remake of the same name and go straight to the original Argentine version.
Briefly, Darín plays Benjamín Espósito, a judiciary employee who has started his first novel, drawing as his inspiration an unsolved rape/murder case he worked on 25 years previously with Judge Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil). Again, I plan to see this wonderful film again and comment further on all its strengths. Plain and simple, this is rock-solid cinematic storytelling of a very high order, the kind of films you wish Hollywood could make more often (or at all). Again, more on this one later, but in the meantime, see it.
Bombón: El Perro (2004) Carlos Sorín
Venevision International DVD – interlibrary loan (1:37)
Out-of-work middle-aged Juan (Juan Villegas) tries to make ends meet by selling his own handmade knives and doing odd jobs here and there. When he repairs a woman’s car, she pays him by giving him a pure-breed Dogo Argentino dog called Bombón. Juan’s daughter (Mariela Diaz) refuses to let him keep the dog in her house, so Juan and Bombón drift around Patagonia until they meet Walter Donado (Walter Donado), a dog trainer who assures Juan that he’s sitting on a gold mine: this dog could not only win major dog shows, but could also be put out to stud. Needless to say, things do not go as planned.
This joint Argentine/Spanish venture is charming and although it’s primarily a feel-good comedy/drama, it works on multiple levels reflecting on middle-age, family, friendship, greed, compassion, the almost universal fascination we have with competition and much more. This one might be hard to find, but it’s worth the effort. The film doesn’t appear to be streaming anywhere right now and the DVD is expensive, so check with your local library. In Spanish with English subtitles. This film was also discussed on an episode of the excellent podcast The Magic Lantern.
La Cérémonie (1995) Claude Chabrol
Stunning story (based on a Ruth Rendell novel called Judgment in Stone) of a young woman named Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) who’s hired as a maid by a well-to-do woman named Catherine (Jacqueline Bisset). Sophie has a secret and when she meets up with the local village postmistress (Isabelle Huppert), their friendship leads to trouble. I could – and probably should – write much more on this one. Once you’ve seen it, you won’t forget it.
Fitzcarraldo (1982) Werner Herzog
DVD – library (2:37)
Fitzcarraldo is one of the boldest, foolhardiest, and most fascinating films in the history of cinema. The story (and stories) behind it are the stuff of legend. I’ll have more to say about this film in a later post, but for now, I’ll say that this was one of the films from last year’s Blind Spot series that I didn’t get around to watching until now. I wish I had seen it upon its first release 35 years ago, but I probably wouldn’t have fully appreciated it.
The insanity of the plot is as follows: Klaus Kinski plays Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (whom the Peruvian locals call Fitzcarraldo), a would-be rubber baron who has an all-consuming desire to build a world-class opera house in the Perivian Amazon. (He also wants to have the world’s most famous tenor, Enrico Caruso, to perform at its opening.) To finance this, Fitzcarraldo must exploit the the only unclaimed area of rubber trees, an area unreachable by any ship, especially the old steamship Fitzcarraldo has purchased. To avoid dangerous rapids, the 320-ton steamship must be carried over a 40° hillside to the other side of the river. This was done without special effects.
Read those last two sentences again. Yes, they actually did this.
The stories from the film are legion and the Les Blank documentary Burden of Dreams (1982), which I have not yet seen, chronicles the entire venture. Again, I will write more about this amazing film at a later date. Don’t wait 35 years to see it like I did.
Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête) (1946) Jean Cocteau
Earlier this year, you could go to your local movie theater and see a movie called Beauty and the Beast. This is not the movie I saw. Neither is the much-loved 1991 Disney animated movie or the eleven other film versions (which you can find here.) You can have them all. Give me the 1946 Jean Cocteau version, a film so magical and otherworldly that when it’s over, you have to touch the furniture and check all the mirrors just to make sure you’re in the real world. (And sadly, you are.)
Cocteau was a master of visual style. (He was also a writer, playwright, designer and artist.) We know this world is not real, but we believe that it is. It’s special effects are over 70 years old, but we believe them more than if they were CGI effects. Fairy tales contain a certain unspoken power and it’s a rare instance when filmmakers can use that power, transforming a verbal tale into one of such visual richness.
The story is familiar so I won’t go into it. Maybe you know it, maybe you don’t; it doesn’t matter. The guys on the Pure Cinema Podcast recently mentioned the film (in their Episode 12, “Peary’s Cult Movies 1”) noting that the French language adds another level of otherworldliness to the film, making it both foreign and intriguing. I was amazed. I thought Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950) was amazing (and it is), but Beauty and the Beast is on a whole other level. There’s no doubt it’s a masterpiece.
In the Mood for Love (2000) Wong Kar-wai
Wong Kar-wai’s extraordinary In the Mood for Love, like his previous film Chungking Express (1994), is a love story, but the two films are very different from one another, despite the fact that they both star Tony Leung. In the Mood for Love takes place in Hong Kong in 1962 as journalist Chow Mo-wan (Leung) rents an apartment on the same day that a shipping company secretary named Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) rents the apartment next door. They each have spouses who are absent for long stretches of time and although they speak very infrequently, Chow and Su Li-zhen encounter each other often. Something’s bound to happen between them. Or is it?
In the Mood for Love is one of the most beautiful, exquisite, atmospheric and carefully controlled films I’ve ever seen. It has appeared on many Best Films lists, including the number two spot (behind David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive) on BBC’s list of the greatest films of the 21st century.
Stay tuned for Part II…