Posts Tagged foreign films

The Virgin Spring

Year of Release: 1960     Directed by Ingmar Bergman.     Starring Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg, Gunnel Lindblom, and Birgitta Pettersson.

Ingmar Bergman has a well deserved reputation as not only one of Sweden’s greatest directors, but one of the greatest directors period. He also has a reputation of being a “difficult” director whose films, especially the later ones, are artsy and bleak, characterized by dreamlike narratives and themes of existential doubt. While faith and mortality play an important role in The Virgin Spring, the film is unique among Bergman’s output, not only because it is one of his few films for which he did not write the screenplay.

The Virgin Spring is one of Bergman’s most straightforward films with a completely linear narrative taken from a 13th Century poem, no hallucinations or dream sequences, no playing with the viewer’s perception of reality, and no crisis of faith or characters plagued by doubt. The reason for the first three is that Bergman clearly wanted the film to unfold like a fable, or a minstrel’s tale, which it does hauntingly and brilliantly. The reason for the last choice is simple, Bergman set the film in 13th Century Sweden, where a strong faith was taken for granted, and using that lack of doubt as a backdrop, Bergman explores naïveté, vengeance, sorrow, and contrition.

The religious nature of all the characters also makes the tragedy and horror of the story felt much more profoundly. Bergman frames the film with the same character kneeling down and leaning forward in prayer. The first time she is invoking Odin to punish another woman with whom she is angry. The second time is out of a feeling of guilt and horror, witnessing the results of the terrible tragedy that has occurred. The villains are also slightly more complex than simple menacing thugs. They are relieved when they realize their crime will not jeopardize the celebration of the Mass; the youngest of them becomes unable to eat because he is so disturbed by what he witnessed. While the film never suggests sympathizing with the criminals (nor does it need to), when it reverses their position from antagonists to victims, it is taken for granted that the next crime will be equally brutal. To reinforce the comparison, both crimes end with a senseless death. Under Bergman’s meticulous pacing, the reversal occurs just after the halfway mark, which was when the first crime occurred and set the stage for the second.

Birgitta Pettersson perfectly captures the correct balance of mischievous, naive, and compassionate as the titular virgin Karin. As her father and lord of a large castle, Max von Sydow is fittingly stoic and authoritative. The scenes where he breaks down are shot with him facing away from the camera, as if he does not want anyone to see him broken and unsure. Even with his back to the camera, von Sydow powerfully conveys the sorrow he is suffering.

This was only second film Bergman shot with his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Sven Nykvist, the first being Sawdust and Tinsel seven years earlier. The Swedish countryside looks absolutely stunning, and the stark black and white camera work is as haunting, chilling, and poetic as the tale it tells.


Content Advisory: Depiction of rape, several murders, and shadowy nudity – nothing particularly graphic                        Not rated.

Suggested Audience: Adults

Personal Recommendation: A+

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Au Hasard Balthazar

Year of Release: 1966     Directed by Robert Bresson.       Starring Anne Wiazemsky, Walter Green, Philippe Asselin, and Nathalie Joyaut.

The Donkey by G. K. Chesterton:

“When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.”

I would not be surprised if director Robert Bresson had that poem in mind when he made Au Hasard Balthazar, because there is a remarkable similarity between Chesterton’s poem and this film. (As a disclaimer: I also started with that poem, because I feel completely incapable of writing about a film this powerful and haunting.)

After being baptized as a foal by three zealous children, throughout his lifetime Balthazar (the donkey) silently witnesses the full gamut of human behavior: compassion, brutality, neglect, justice. Regardless of how he is treated, Balthazar never changes, nor can he. He is a beast of labor for some, a beloved companion and pet for a few, and for others he is an object to abuse who will never retaliate.

Balthazar’s simplicity and ability to serve brings out the best in some and the worst in others. Why? We never find out. Why does the father place so much pride in his honor that he neglects all his other responsibilities? Why does the village bully so cruelly abuse whomever he can? Why are the town drunk and the shy girl the only ones who appreciate Balthazar? It’s all haphazard, by chance, or au hasard. There is certainly much suffering depicted in this film, and I don’t entirely blame anyone who dislikes it on those grounds, but there are also rare moments of grace and beauty. All of which is hauntingly captured by Bresson, haphazardly fading from one episode in Balthazar’s life to another, one beautiful, the next ugly, joy followed by suffering. What is the purpose of all the suffering? It’s not always clear, but regardless of his pain Balthazar remains with his monstrous cry, simplicity, and ability to serve. The only change is the way others choose to behave around him, choices that all too often seem senselessly spurred by chance.


Content Advisory: An off-screen rape, intense animal cruelty, fleeting rear nudity, and unsettling depictions of brutality and suffering throughout – all depictions fairly restrained.                            Not rated.

Suggested Audience: Teens and up

Personal Recommendation: A+


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The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les parapluies de Cherbourg)

Year of Release: 1964     Directed by Jacques Demy.  Starring Catharine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon, and Marc Michel.

At the 1964 Cannes film festival, a jury headed by the German master of noir, Fritz Lang, selected Jacques Demy’s colorful and sweetly romantic musical as the best film.  Not only do I agree with that decision, but I would easily rank this musical as one of the top five ever filmed.

Between the bright pastels that saturate nearly every scene, the accentuated camera angles, tracking shots, and occasional quick zooms, the film has distinct, yet warm and charming visuals, which possibly could have been an influence on Wes Anderson.  If he ever directed a musical, I am convinced it would be visually very similar to this.

The story is a basic musical romance: girl and guy meet and are hopelessly smitten with one another. Her mother disapproves and wants her to marry the considerate rich guy for security. The first guy is called away (drafted), and she is heartbroken and begins to consider the rich guy’s proposal despite a major caveat. However, there is a twist to the otherwise standard story in the end of the second act and the third act which causes the guy and girl to reflect on selfless love versus infatuation.

Michel Legrand’s score works perfectly with the visuals and the story. His main love theme “I Will Wait for You” occurs throughout the film. As the film opens with the ultimate bird’s eye view of French civilians hurrying through a rainstorm with their umbrellas, the love theme slowly emerges in counterpoint, and the orchestrations prominently feature a sustained vibraphone to capture the watery atmosphere. When Guy (the initial guy in the romance) returns from the army, it is again raining, and this time the love theme is played by the winds and marimba tremolos to suggest a deeper, darker rain washing over his past romance.

There are several other recurring motifs as well. Roland’s (the rich guy) desire to help Genevieve (the girl) and her mother is reflected by a simple four note phrase circling around the tonic, suggesting Roland (Marc Michel) is as sincere and considerate as he appears. There is a heavy jazz influence for the dance hall, the garage where Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) works, and the streets of Cherbourg.

The music captures the mood of nearly every scene. When Guy mentions going to see Carmen, castanets begin playing Bizet’s famous rhythm. Each phrase of an argument between Genevieve (Catharine Deneuve) and her mother (Anne Vernon) is sung at a successively higher pitch. Before a proposal, rapid string scales and harp glissandi portray the racing emotions of the characters.

And the synchronization of music and imagery is just about perfect. When a scene or discussion is interrupted, the cue abruptly stops and switches to another. During the love duet, every time the camera makes a temporal jump Guy and Genevieve maintain the same embrace in the first frame; naturally, one cue connects all of these cuts. Two important plot points occur directly after a scene in a church underscored by organ music. Both times the camera slowly pans to the character who is most excited about the development. Among other movie musicals, I think Singin’ in the Rain and Burton’s Sweeney Todd might have better synchronization of music and imagery, and that’s probably it.


Content Advisory: An out of wedlock pregnancy and a fleeting bedroom scene with a prostitute (nothing explicit).                          Not rated.

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

Personal Recommendation: A+

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Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno)

Year of Release: 2006     Directed by Guillermo del Toro.  Starring Ivana Baquero, Sergei Lopez, Maribel Verdu, Ariadna Gil, and Doug Jones.

“Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” – attributed to G. K. Chesterton, probably erroneously. I’ve also heard Neil Gaiman might have said something along those lines.

Regardless of who actually came up with that pithy saying on the importance of fairy tales, it is a very accurate summary of my favorite aspect of Pan’s Labyrinth, a beautifully shot fairy tale that alternates between the end of the Spanish Civil War and the labyrinth of the faun: a world of fairies, giant toads, mandrakes, and a magical underground kingdom. Young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) spends equal time in both worlds after a mysterious and not at all safe Faun (Doug Jones) gives her three tasks to complete in order to return to her underground kingdom as the princess she truly is.

As Ofelia says in the opening voice over, there is a legend that says many years ago the princess of the underground wandered away and left her kingdom.  She took on a mortal body and died, but her father knew that one day her spirit would enter the body of another girl and she would return.  When the Faun appears and tells Ofelia she is that girl, Ofelia is eager to believe him as a way of escaping the cruel dragons she must face day to day in the form of her stepfather (Sergei Lopez), the sadistic captain of the Spanish fascist army.  Ofelia has also read so many fairy tales, to the consternation of her mother (Ariadna Gil), that she naturally believes the stories are true.  After discovering a birthmark on her shoulder as proof of her royal lineage, Ofelia begins the three tasks.

Whether there really is a fantasy world, or whether the faun and the tasks are created by Ofelia’s vivid imagination as a way of coping with her sadistic step-father and very sick mother, is unclear and besides the point. The fairy tales cast the cold, brutal world that Ofelia inhabits in a new light where evil monsters are destroyed, the sick regain health, and the suffering innocent are rewarded.

Each tasks of Ofelia’s mirrors a challenge she or another protagonist is facing in the real world. Both of them must acquire an important key from a monster for their first challenge. The self-discipline that Ofelia learns from the second task is a skill which the rebel soldiers also need to learn for their second attack on the army base. Both Ofelia and the soldiers suffer similar consequences for failing to keep their desires in check.

Unfortunately, the one dimensional stock villains and heroes are not any less frustrating on repeat viewing. Admittedly fairy tales often have simple characters, and the real world humans are meant to parallel the characters and situations Ofelia encounters in the labyrinth. But compared to the detailed craftsmanship laboriously and lovingly poured into the fantasy world, its characters, and scenarios; the simplistic real world with its stereotypical good-guys and bad-guys is disappointing in comparison.

However, it is difficult to focus on that one weak aspect when the rest of the film is breathtaking, beautiful, and remarkably profound regarding the importance of fairy tales, as it tells one of the most impressive fairy tales of recent years. Del Toro also saves the most beautiful image for the end, suggesting that even in a world as dark as Ofelia’s there can still be a happily ever after of eternal bliss.


Content Advisory: Graphic and gory violence including torture, mutilation, and deadly gunplay; and some obscene language.                            MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A-

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Life is Beautiful (La Vita É Bella)

Year of Release: 1997     Directed by Roberto Benigni.           Starring Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Sergio Bustric, Giustino Durano, and Giorgio Cantarini.

If one knew nothing about Life is Beautiful, the opening thirty minutes would convince a first time viewer that the film is a romantic comedy.  The film opens with Guido (Roberto Benigni) and his friend Ferruccio (Sergio Bustric) driving through the Italian countryside, cavalierly reciting poetry, and not paying attention to the road.  When Ferruccio says, “the brakes aren’t working,” Guido assumes that that is the next line of the poem, and only realizes that their car has no breaks once they begin continually accelerating down the hillside.

After crashing through a solemn state procession, they manage to stop the car on a farm where Guido convinces a young girl that he is a prince, he owns all the land, and a beautiful princess will fall from the sky into his arms.  At that moment, a young woman named Dora (Nicoletta Braschi) falls from a second story window and Guido catches her.  Over the next few weeks Guido continually runs into Dora in increasingly unusual ways and pursues a whimsical romance with her.

Meanwhile Guido has moved in with his Uncle Eliseo (Giustino Durano) and begun working as a waiter in his uncle’s restaurant.  While he can remember the complex rules regarding the proper way to serve chicken, simply serving lobster as is, is too simple for him to remember.  Nonetheless, Guido’s warm buoyant personality endears him to most of the restaurant’s patrons.

At the end of the first half-hour, there is one event that clearly foreshadows the coming tragedy, and begins the shift of the film to a Holocaust survival story.  Uncle Eliseo’s horse is painted green with slurs and death threats to Jews written on top of the paint.  Before this incident, there was no way to know that Guido and his family were Jewish, which emphasizes the tragic absurdity of the anti-Semitism prevalent in the axis countries during World War II.  People whom everyone loved and who were respected members of society became the victims of racism.

Before the incident with the horse, there are a few subtle suggestion that Life is Beautiful will be a story about the Holocaust.  The opening titles establish the year as 1939, and at one point Guido impersonates a school inspector, where he is expected to lecture on the supremacy of the Italian race.  However, it is easy to forget the significance of the latter event, because is treated so humorously as Guido sings the praises of his Italian ears and Italian bellybutton, asks Dora on a date, and then runs out by the widow when the real inspector arrives.

All of the opening comedy makes the shift to the Holocaust much more poignant and tragic than it would have been had the film started with the violence of World War II.  By portraying the beauty of life as Guido, Dora, and Eliseo joyfully go about the daily routines, unaware of the looming danger, the film adds to the horror of the Holocaust by showing the beauty that it destroyed in addition to the brutality of terrorizing innocent people.

Guido’s sense of humor pervades the entire the film, even the harshest moments in the concentration camp.  He never fails to find a positive outlook and reassure his young son Joshua (Giorgio Cantarini), who was born in the intervening years, by telling him that the concentration camp is a game, and the first family to collect 1,000 points by following the orders of the German soldiers will win a real tank and go home.  A more cynical person might consider Guido’s optimism and deception living in denial, but it is the same fantasy world in which Guido has comically operated throughout the entire film, earlier claiming he was a prince and then a school inspector.  This comic fantasy world is the only way he knows to preserve his son’s calm and safety.  Therefore, he will go to any lengths and sacrifices to himself in order to preserve his son’s well-being.

If Life is Beautiful has any flaws at all, it would be that a few of the scenarios substantially stretch credibility.  A single instance of voiceover implies a recollection that would not be physically possible.  At another point, Joshua wants to leave the camp, claiming that it is not a game.  In an attempt to reassure him that there is no danger and they can leave if they want, Guido goes dangerously close to threatening his son’s safety.

However, there are many touching scenes as Guido risks his life with clownish antics to preserve his son’s safety.  For instance, after Joshua, impersonating a German boy, makes a slip and speaks to a Nazi in Italian, Guido quickly begins teaching all the German children Italian.  When a few Nazis might discover Joshua’s hiding place, Guido endangers himself to distract them.  These scenes more than make up for any small flaws.

Guido’s optimism and perpetual humor enables him to make all aspects of life beautiful, even the most brutal and unpleasant ones.  This sunny outlook is endearing and hilarious while life goes on as it should, but it also highlights the tragedy when it is threatened.  Ultimately, the most touching aspect of Guido’s personality is that it drives to him to make any sacrifice out of love for his family.  In a true allegorical fashion, when a person preserves his sense of hope while making the sacrifices that Guido makes, life truly is beautiful.


Content Advisory: Restrained depictions of concentration camp atrocities, some violence, and a few mild sexual references.                        MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

Personal Recommendation: A

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