Friday, November 11, 2022

A Bunch of Amateurs Review

In her 1995 New York Times essay ‘The Decay of Cinema’, Susan Sontag wrote, “If cinephilia is dead, then movies are dead too.” Director Kim Hopkins opens A Bunch of Amateurs with this quote, and her film is an affectionate portrait of the Bradford Movie Makers, a dozen lifelong cinephiles resolutely keeping the flame alive. Ominous signs are evident – from the creaking bodies of the club’s more senior members to the clubhouse that is crumbling around them – but when it comes to the serious business of realising their DIY short films, the BMMs’ infectious enthusiasm remains undimmed.

Sunday, October 16, 2022

The Future Tense Review

A flight from London Stansted to Dublin Airport takes around 75 minutes. It’s a routine journey that the Irish-born, London-based filmmakers Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor have taken plenty of times, but something about this one feels different. “The ever-present noises of populism and nationalism have moved to the foreground, impossible to ignore,” says Lawlor. While the motivation for this trip is to scout locations for a film, they are also exploring the possibility of a new home in Ireland. As they weigh their growing discomfort with the UK against their ambivalent feelings towards their homeland, their position in the clouds over the Irish Sea is an apt metaphor for their state of being – halfway between two islands, and not entirely sure where they belong.

Friday, October 14, 2022

The Swimmers Review

Many athletes have overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve their dreams of competing at the Olympic Games, but few can tell a story to match Yusra Mardini’s. Having fled war-torn Syria in August 2015, Yusra and her sister Sarah embarked on a dangerous smugglers’ route across the Aegean Sea in a flimsy dinghy with eighteen other refugees. When the boat’s motor failed and it began taking on water, the two sisters tethered themselves to the craft and swam towards land, hauling their fellow refugees behind them for three hours. It was an astonishing feat of endurance and survival, and the fact that Yusra then went on to swim at Rio 2016 – a stateless competitor in the newly formed Refugee Olympic Team – is the kind of happy ending that only the most shameless screenwriter would dream up.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Causeway Review

It is characteristic of Causeway’s restraint that we never see the incident that caused army engineer Lynsey (Jennifer Lawrence) to return from Afghanistan with a severe brain injury. Even when she describes the traumatic experience of being in a vehicle blown up by an IED, she talks about it dispassionately, as if she is describing something that happened to somebody else. As Lynsey must relearn some basic motor functions, we might expect the film to focus on the arduous nature of her physical recovery, but Causeway moves past her period in a rehabilitation centre (featuring a tiny gem of a supporting turn from Jayne Houdyshell) before the first quarter of the film has elapsed.

Sunday, August 07, 2022

Il Cinema Ritrovato 2022

Pier Paolo Pasolini was born on via Borgonuovo, Bologna, on March 5th, 1922. One hundred years on, his centenary is being marked by an exhibition that explores multiple facets of his work and looks at the artistic influences on his filmmaking, but the celebration doesn’t end there. As soon as I arrived in Bologna, I saw Pasolini’s face staring back at me from posters all around the city, and every bookshop I passed had an extensive display of Pasolini-related writing in prime position in its window. One night after my arrival, a new restoration of Pasolini’s La ricotta (1963) was presented on the huge screen in Piazza Maggiore, and this screening was preceded by a live concert dedicated to Pasolini’s longtime friend and collaborator Laura Betti. This performance was presented for free, for anyone in the city who wanted to experience it.

Aside from how incongruous it feels to a visitor from Britain for a city to widely celebrate an artist like Pasolini in this way (as a friend observed, could you imagine Liverpool doing the same for Terence Davies?), witnessing it all days before Il Cinema Ritrovato began made me instantly feel that I had arrived in a place with a deep love and respect for cinema. As you walk through the streets of Bologna, posters featuring iconic film stars are pasted up everywhere: Sophia Loren, Buster Keaton, James Dean, Anna Magnani. The implacable gaze of Peter Lorre met me every evening as I returned to my hotel, which was particularly unnerving when I had just attended a 35mm screening of Fritz Lang’s M (1931) in Piazza Maggiore.
I only dipped into the Peter Lorre strand during the festival itself. I enjoyed his increasingly unhinged turn in The Beast with Five Fingers (1946), which offers some extremely witty and inventive sequences in the second half that make up for how long it takes to get going. I also loved Lorre's delicious comic double-act with Erich von Stroheim in I Was an Adventuress (1940), although quite why the filmmakers decided the dull romantic pairing of ballet dancer Zorina and the bland Richard Greene deserved the lion’s share of screen time is beyond me. The rest of the strand contained several films I had seen before, however, and I decided instead to venture into uncharted territory, which is where I was introduced to the work of Hugo Fregonese.
I had seen one Fregonese-directed film before the festival – his tight, small-scale western Apache Drums (1951) – but as much as I enjoyed that film, it didn’t prepare me for how fascinating I would find his body of work over the course of the following week. Looking at his career – which took him from his native Argentina to the US, Spain, Italy, the UK and West Germany – it might be easy to peg Fregonese as a peripatetic gun for hire, but this programme revealed a thoughtful auteur who elevated films that could have easily been nondescript genre fare in lesser hands. In one of his introductions, curator Ehsan Khoshbakht said that he had considered titling this strand “Under the Hangman’s Noose,” which would have highlighted the strong streak of fatalism that pervades these films. In both Hardly a Criminal (1949) and One Way Street (1950) his protagonists proceed with a confident arrogance, certain that they have beaten the system and will ultimately get away clean and rich. James Mason, as a doctor who steals money from the mob in One Way Street, keeps telling himself and others that his “number’s not up,” but in Hugo Fregonese’s films, your number’s always up eventually.
The darkest of Fregonese’s pictures was undoubtedly the riveting Black Tuesday (1954), a low-budget independent production that boasts a monstrous performance from Edward G. Robinson as a callous mob boss who hatches a plot to escape from Death Row and won’t let anyone stand in his way. The film was striking for the offhand brutality with which it despatched its characters, and the deep shadows that Stanley Cortez coated the increasingly claustrophobic drama in. It’s a blunt, acerbic noir that takes on a on increasing moral complexity as the characters weighs up the value of human life.
The gravity of what it means to take a life is often at the forefront in Fregonese’s pictures – consider the impact a stray Nazi bullet has in the superb Seven Thunders (1957) – and the director’s films place their characters in a moral grey area, allowing our perception and loyalties to shift over the course of the movie. In The Raid (1954), Van Heflin leads a troupe of Confederate soldiers in an assault on a defenceless Vermont town, which they plan to loot and then burn to the ground. It's easy to view this as an outrageous war crime, but Sydney Boehm’s excellent screenplay depicts it as an act of retaliation for the destruction of Sherman’s March, and it encourages us to understand the conviction of these men, which is then shaken by the relationships that develop as they stake out their target. This is a truly extraordinary film about heroism, cowardice, redemption and the self-defeating futility of warfare, and it is filled with nuanced character details that gradually draw us into the riveting and poignant drama. The Raid appears to be mostly unknown today but I think it should be regarded as one of the great American Civil War films.
This taster of Hugo Fregonese’s films left me yearning for more, but many of his pictures are frustratingly unavailable, and I doubt I’ll ever see them looking as good as they did on these stellar 35mm prints (The Raid print was particularly ravishing). The Il Cinema Ritrovato programmers always dig up plenty of rarely screened prints from archives around the world, and in some cases they are prints that haven’t seen the light of day in decades. After premiering at Venice in 1962, Franco Rossi’s Smog (1962) completely disappeared from view thanks to the financial troubles faced by its distributor Titanus Films, which would be bankrupt within a few years. Smog is set entirely in Los Angeles, but this is an Italian movie through-and-through, with Enrico Maria Salerno playing a lawyer exploring LA during a 48-hour stopover. He doesn’t speak the language and he finds his way to a community of Italian immigrants, who offer him a different perspective on the city.

Rossi’s film was shot entirely on location and the way he uses the city’s architecture is brilliantly imaginative and evocative, with some of Ted McCord’s cinematography recalling Antonioni’s La Notte (1961), which was released the previous year. Smog is an alternately amusing and melancholy reflection on identity and assimilation, and it’s a fascinating time-capsule portrait of LA in the early ‘60s, with the protagonist traversing different social strata – from a bowling alley and housewives learning Italian to a dinner with one of the city’s richest families – with the Chet Baker score adding to its unique flavour. This screening also offered one of the most unusual projectionist screw-ups I’ve ever experienced, with one reel ending and a completely different movie beginning to play on screen. Thankfully, it didn't hurt my enjoyment of this fascinating oddity.

I saw the reel that abruptly interrupted Smog in its proper context the following day, when I caught Arby Ovanessian’s Cheshmeh (1972) on 35mm. This screening was another real rarity, in fact the print we saw is the only one that exists, having been thankfully archived by Henri Langlois at the Cinémathèque Française shortly after the film first screened in France. Ovanessian mentioned this fact in his introduction, and he also talked about the importance of establishing a specifically Iranian tempo in his first feature at a time when most Iranian cinema was following the rhythm of the commercial cinema from America, France or Russia. He and his inexperienced crew followed this intention to create an enigmatic, poetic, dreamlike picture that slowly and steadily cast me under its spell. With its deliberate movement and gestures, repetitive rhythms and cryptic conversations, the film it most reminded me of was Last Year at Marienbad (1961), while the luminous cinematography by Ne’mat Haghighi put me in mind of Subrata Mitra's work. The film is full of beautiful frames and bold cuts. It's mysterious and often elusive, but I found the experience of watching it to be completely hypnotic and following the resurrection of Chess of the Wind at this festival in 2020, it's another reminder of how ripe for rediscovery this era in Iranian cinema is.
Could this era in Finnish television be similarly littered with gems? I doubt much made for the small screen in Finland in the ‘70s could match Mikko Niskanen’s Eight Deadly Shots (1972), which doesn’t really feel like television at all. Although it is presented in four episodes, the credits just feel like they’ve been inserted at arbitrary points near the 80-minute mark, and it’s easy to imagine this story unfolding seamlessly without interruption. Eights Deadly Shots was subsequently edited into a 145-minute movie by Niskanen’s contemporary Jörn Donner, but in Bologna we were treated to a single presentation of the full 316-minute version, and I think you need this time for the story’s slow accumulation of incident to have the desired impact. Although it was based on a real-life incident, Mikko Niskanen makes it clear in his opening statement that he has poured much first-hand experience into this story with the line "Booze was the root of all evil in our family," and in taking the lead role of Pasi, the alcoholic farmer Niskanen who shot four policemen in a drunken rage, Niskanen is so authentic he appears to be living the experience rather than acting it.

That sense of authenticity is integral to Eight Deadly Shots. Niskanen immerses us into the everyday reality of this family and community, allowing scenes to run for as long as they need to, which gives his narrative the messy, wayward rhythm of real life. In the early stages the film struck me as shapeless and a little confounding, but it gradually sharpens as we get a sense of the various social and psychological pressures that shaped this man’s actions, as well as the corrosive impact his drinking and moonshining had on his health, livelihood and family. As a director, Niskanen has an incredible eye for quotidian details and firm grasp of tone. As an actor, he is simply astonishing – particularly in the wrenching closing scenes – and he is matched by Tarja-Tuulikki Tarsala as Pasi's long-suffering wife, who is increasingly furious and fearful as her husband's drinking worsens. Eight Deadly Shots reminded me of Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman (1975) in the way the repetition of mundane details gets more riveting with every passing second, and as we get to know these characters more intimately, the awful foregone conclusion grows even more unbearable. The late Peter von Bagh, a former artistic director of Il Cinema Ritrovato, spent many years promoting Niskanen’s work and pushing for a 35mm restoration of his magnum opus. As well as being the rep cinema event of the year, this screening was a glorious fulfilment of his legacy.