My first exposure to “foreign films” came as an adolescent during the VHS era. After I had already acquainted myself with many of the staples of the classic Hollywood cinema, a friend introduced me to a book that featured essays on the “top 100 movies of all time” as voted on by international critics in the 1982 Sight and Sound/British Film Institute poll. Sure, I knew Citizen Kane, Singin’ in the Rain, and Vertigo, all in the top 10, but what were all of these other titles that I had never even heard about before (The Rules of the Game, Seven Samurai, 8 1/2, Battleship Potemkin, etc.)? I made it my goal to see every single film on the list and I was delighted to find that my local Blockbuster Video store had many of them in their previously daunting-looking “Foreign” section. Looking back on that time now, I think that my budding cinephilia must have been an extension of my curiosity about other countries and other ways of life: what better way to learn about the world — to “visit” places I couldn’t yet travel to — than to watch movies that were representative of the specific cultures that produced them? I mention this because, while poring over the contents of the Criterion Collection’s splendid and ambitious new DVD/Blu-ray box set entitled “Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 1,” I was reminded me of why I fell in love with cinema in the first place.
In 2007 Martin Scorsese, a cinephile-filmmaker who has long been a champion of film preservation/restoration, founded the World Cinema Project whose mission statement is “to foster cooperation among filmmakers world-wide and to identify, preserve and restore endangered films representing diverse cultural heritage.” Among the 20 movies that the WCP has restored so far, six have been bundled together in the new Criterion set. As Scorsese himself notes in an interview included among the supplements, it used to be common for American movie lovers to equate entire countries with a single filmmaker (or sometimes two or three): India was Satyajit Ray, Sweden was Ingmar Bergman, Japan was Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi (and later Yasujiro Ozu), etc. In the 1990s, the advent of DVDs and the internet combined to make it easier for American cinephiles, especially those not living in urban areas, to educate themselves more thoroughly on film history from an international perspective. In this age of increasing globalization, the WCP has deliberately cast its net wide by focusing on Africa, Asia and the Middle-East, often restoring movies from “third world” countries that lack the money and resources to carry out the restorations themselves. The six films in Criterion’s set are Fred Zinnemann and Emilio Gomez Muriel’s Redes (Mexico, 1936), Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (S. Korea, 1960), Metin Erksan’s Dry Summer (Turkey, 1964), Ritwik Ghatak’s A River Called Titas (India, 1971), Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki (Senegal, 1971) and Ahmed El Maanouni’s Trances (Morocco, 1981). The rest of this post will be devoted to capsule reviews of these titles.
Redes, released in 1936, is a passionate cinematic plea for social justice that was commissioned by the most progressive government that Mexico has ever known. It is also a film with an unusual number of “auteurs” — it was shot by the well-known American photographer Paul Strand who also co-wrote the script with many other hands; it was co-directed by the Mexican Emilio Gomez Muriel and the Austrian-born Fred Zinnemann (who had made just one movie previously in Germany, the terrific People on Sunday, but would go on to mainstream Hollywood glory with High Noon and From Here to Eternity); and the original score, destined to become one of the most famous in Mexican film history, was composed by Silvestre Revueltas. With so many chefs in the kitchen, it’s small wonder that none of them were pleased with the final product but the end result remains both fascinating and vital: what started off as a documentary about a community of poor fishermen ended up as a fictional narrative about the importance of working-class solidarity in the face of capitalist oppression. Redes, which translates as “Nets” in English, is probably of most interest today, however, for the masterful fishing montage that serves as its centerpiece, proving this is essentially the missing link between Flaherty’s Man of Aran and Visconti’s La Terra Trema. The World Cinema Project’s restoration of Redes is the least impressive in the box set in terms of image quality (it looks a little soft), though this shouldn’t be surprising given that it’s also the oldest of the films included. This is probably the best Redes will ever look, so we should all be grateful that we can see it at all.
The absolute highlight of the entire World Cinema Project box set for me is The Housemaid, Kim Ki-young’s mindblowing 1960 hybrid of domestic horror and lurid melodrama. Made during a brief window of opportunity when S. Korea was between military dictators, Kim’s provocative and singularly nutty film tells the twisted tale of a piano teacher and aspiring bourgeoisie whose brief affair with his young maid threatens to tear his family apart. Shot in gorgeous high-contrast black and white, The Housemaid exploits its chief location of the family’s home to maximum effect, with each character seemingly trapped in his or her own box-like room, and the distance between them highlighted by fluid tracking shots. The way the story touches on fears about the disintegration of the family unit makes the subject matter universal but fans of contemporary S. Korean cinema will especially recognize its kinky and transgressive aspects as hugely influential on the likes of Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook, Kim Ki-duk, et al. And this is to say nothing of how the twist ending will knock you into next week. The Housemaid looks immaculate in the World Cinema Project’s restoration, which was based on the original camera negative, except for two reels of much lower quality that had to be taken from another source.
Turkish cinema prior to the current generation (Fatih Akin, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, etc.) is virtually unknown in the West; it was therefore particularly surprising for me to learn that this erotic Turkish melodrama from writer/director Metin Erksan won the prestigious Golden Bear at the 1964 Berlin International Film Festival. Erol Tas, a legendary actor famous for playing bad guys, is Osman, a greedy farmer who dams the spring on his property and thus prevents the irrigation of his neigbhors’ crops. Political conflict and murder ensue, and when Osman’s good-hearted brother, Hasan (Ulvi Dogan), agrees to take the wrap because he will face a lesser prison sentence, Osman then conspires to seduce the brother’s wife. The erotic imagery, occasionally symbolic and occasionally more explicit (including the unforgettable image of Osman sucking milk directly from a cow’s udder while gazing lasciviously at his sister-in-law) would be eyebrow-raising in a Hollywood film from 1964 and is therefore shocking to see coming out of a movie from that era in the Middle East. As the critic Peter Labuza has wryly noted, the water-rights scandal plot would make this the ideal second-half of a double bill with Chinatown. Criterion’s superb-looking transfer is based on the World Cinema Project’s photochemical restoration, which involved both the original camera negative and an interpositive print provided by the the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation.
In A River Called Titas, the great Bengali director Ritwik Ghatak adapted a popular novel by Advaita Malo Barman for a powerful neorealist study of one of the poorest regions in India. This art film’s unusual and complex story proceeds in fits and starts, following a diverse group of characters including a woman who is kidnapped by pirates the day after her wedding, her husband who goes mad as a result, and the child she is forced to raise alone. After becoming assimilated into a desolate fishing village whose inhabitants are at war with the local capitalist landowners, the mother dies and the son is raised by an “auntie” who coincidentally also lost her husband immediately after marrying. What makes this epic movie so memorable is Ghatak’s poetic feeling for landscapes and the ordinary villagers whose lives play out against its cyclical, natural rhythms. Satyajit Ray once said that Ritwik Ghatak’s films could have been made even if Hollywood never existed. There is certainly nothing in American cinema that feels anything remotely like A River Called Titas. The black and white cinematography here is deliberately much grayer and lower-contrast than the crisp images seen in, say, The Housemaid but, aside from some minor damage inherent to the source material, this transfer is excellent.
A wonderfully colorful, vibrant, angry and occasionally surreal picaresque-adventure movie (think of an African Pierrot le Fou), Touki Bouki was only the second of three features in the career of Senegalese master filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. The story concerns the relationship between a female college student, her motorcycle-riding boyfriend and their various schemes to make some easy money and escape to the mythical paradise of Paris, France. Like Senegal’s other legendary director Ousmane Sembene, Mambéty loads this up with complex social criticism (in which neither Senegalese nor European characters are spared his harsh eye) but, unlike Sembene’s more classical approach to narrative, this is a wild, experimental journey for both characters and viewer alike. The World Cinema Project’s new restoration and 2K transfer of Touki Bouki‘s original 35mm film elements is the most impressive of all the films included in this set: Mambety’s use of bright primary colors, the kind one tends to only see on movies shot in the Sixties and early Seventies, really pops on Blu-ray. The eclectic soundtrack, featuring everything from local music to Josephine Baker, is likewise a delight.
Trances, a wonderful music doc that originally premiered at Cannes in 1981, was the first film chosen to receive the restoration treatment from the World Cinema Project and, given Martin Scorsese’s own proclivity for using popular music in narratives and documentaries alike, it’s easy to why. Director Ahmed El Maanouni’s portrait of the supergroup Nass-El Ghiwane (sometimes referred to as The Rolling Stones or The Beatles of Morocco) combines electrifying concert footage with scenes of the band rehearsing, interviews with the band’s individual members, and archival documentary footage of Morocco through the decades to help illuminate the specific social issues addressed by the band’s songs. But, like all great music docs, the primary virtues here are visceral: the best scenes involve the band’s highly interactive live shows where audience members dance onstage among the musicians while in a trance-like frenzy. Trances was shot on 16mm color film stock and, as with some of the 16mm movies included in the Eric Rohmer box set released last November, its marriage with the Blu-ray format results in images that are frequently stunning. The grainier texture of 16mm in high-definition can look like a beautiful water-color painting (in contrast to the oil painting of 35mm). Like all of the releases in the World Cinema Project No. 1 box, Trances is essential cinema.
Although I didn’t pick up the World Cinema Project No. 1 until after the new year (and thus didn’t include it in my list of my favorite home video releases of 2013), this is easily one of my favorite Blu-ray sets of recent years. I plan on screening all six films as the backbone of a future “Global Cinema” class, and I eagerly await the release of the World Cinema Project. No. 2.