Monthly Archives: December 2008

Lemon Tree (Israel/Fra/Ger 2008)

Salma and her lawyer are mobbed by the media outside the Supreme Court.

Salma and her lawyer are mobbed by the media outside the Supreme Court.

I had mixed emotions watching this film, especially with the Israeli bombing of Gaza as a backdrop. I wondered if I would be able to handle an Israeli film in the circumstances, especially perhaps one that purported to be ‘liberal’.

There is certainly a good deal of pleasure to be had from the film. It is well acted, nicely shot (albeit on Super 16mm with some fairly iffy inserts of documentary footage, so best suited to smaller screens) and full of interesting ideas and narrative possibilities. I enjoyed almost all of the film, but felt ultimately frustrated.

(There are some SPOILERS in what follows – if you don’t like to know any aspects of the plot before seeing the film, don’t read on.)

The plot sees a Palestinian widow in her forties (Salma) symbolically living slap bang on the so-called ‘Green Line’ that separates the West Bank (nominally under the control of the Palestinian National Authority, but in practice occupied and subject to Israeli force) from Israel. The widow’s lemon grove of fifty trees lies between her house and the new home of the Israeli Defence Minister and his wife Mira (who chose the house). His secret service agents decree that the lemon grove must be uprooted as it is a threat to the minister’s security (and, by extension, the security of the State of Israel). As if to ram home the symbolism, the minister is named Israel Navon and since he is in charge of security, the possibilities of a parable are obvious. The widow not surprisingly objects to losing her grove even though the powerful men of her community suggest that her loss is nothing compared to what many others have lost and continue to lose at the hands of the Israelis.

The main problem with the film is that it appears to combine at least three different narratives which in turn draw upon at least three genres. First, it appears that we may be being offered a familiar neo-realist story about a woman fighting for her legal rights as she finds a lawyer and then follows the case through the courts. This narrative is based on all too common events and it was stories about Palestinians fighting their way through Israeli courts that prompted the original idea for the film. Mostly, the losses are houses and access to olive groves or grazing land but the ‘bittersweetness’ of the lemon helps the parable.  

However, in a supporting narrative, the widow (played by the stunning Hiam Abbas, so good in The Visitor) gradually moves towards a close and potentially sexual liaison with the young lawyer that she hires. Such a liaison inevitably brings the possibility of community disapproval and I was reminded of the classic Hollywood melodrama All That Heaven Allows (dir Douglas Sirk 1955) and its virtual remake by Rainer Werner Fassbinder as Fear Eats the Soul (Germany 1974). As in those films, the melodrama draws in the widow’s children, although they are far less concerned about their mother’s behaviour than in the Hollywood model – indeed their lack of concern/interest is the point. The melodrama also allows the filmmakers to include a number of ‘excessive’ sequences in which the general realist tone is replaced with something more expressive utilising sound effects and lighting. (The film’s title is picked up in the title song, ‘Lemon Tree’, which I remember from the Peter, Paul and Mary version in the 1960s: “Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet but the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat”. I can’t find out who sings the two main lines in the film, but you can hear them on the Israeli website.)

The third strand of the film is a form of satire on the Israeli media and political system. I found this quite difficult to follow in terms of what it was actually saying. My reading was that this was a liberal critique which nonetheless absolved the Israeli authorities of responsibility for what happened to the widow. It would be unfair to suggest that these three different strands are not connected and the main connection is via the two women, Salma and Mira (two mothers), who never speak to each other but who nonetheless exchange looks and understanding across the Green Line. This could be argued to be a classic instance of displacing the potentially national political narrative onto a ‘personal human interest story’.

Rona Lipaz-Michael plays Mira, here pensive on the 'other side' of the wire which 'protects' her from the lemon grove.

Rona Lipaz-Michael plays Mira, here pensive on the 'other side' of the wire which 'protects' her from the lemon grove.

In fact, the overall political situation is picked up in the two other narratives. The lawyer makes sure that the journey through the courts catches the attention of the international press and this in turn links to his own role in the melodrama (as a student in Russia with a small daughter still in Moscow). This also links to the general discourse about the Israeli media agencies which are pursuing the Defence Minister via his gradually disintegrating marriage. So, lots of connections – but also quite a few plot holes. For instance, Salma has two daughters according to various conversations, but we only see one – where is the other? More importantly, there is an ‘attack’ on the minister’s house which conveniently supports his case and also leads to troops invading Salma’s house. But we never hear what kind of attack or who was responsible – was it a set-up by the minister and/or the security forces? Are we supposed to work that out for ourselves?

On the plus side (at least for me) the film does not have a conventional happy ending. In this sense the director can claim to be offering a ‘realistic’ view of an impossible situation. I desperately want the widow to ‘win’, but of course the Palestinians face a no-win situation and the strongest condemnation of Israeli policy towards the occupation of Palestinian lands that the film can muster is Mira’s comment to a journalist that there are ‘no limits’ to what Israeli society will seek to do to maintain its position (or words to that effect – I can’t remember the exact line). On reflection that is quite a strong allusion to make.

I realise that there is a danger of appearing hypocritical in reviewing this film vis-a-vis our earlier discussion of Waltz With Bashir. We objected to that film’s exclusion of the voices of the Lebanese that were treated as simply ‘other’ by the Israeli soldiers. Lemon Tree offers a voice to Palestinians on at least the same level as the Israelis. It takes us into Ramallah and a 1948 refugee settlement and also shows us the difficulties Palestinians face in crossing the Green Line and getting into Jerusalem, all of which carries a sense of authenticity (even though for audiences unfamiliar with the realities of life in the occupied territories, it’s still only a partial view). Added to this, there certainly is an attempt to introduce some of the long-running issues facing Palestinians into each of the three narrative strands – the stresses of exile and migration, the spiritual bonds of land passed down through generations which are so casually broken by the ‘imperatives of Israeli military policy’, the attack on Palestinian agricultural methods and the contrast with the agricultural prowess of Israeli kibbutzim etc. I acknowledge all of this, but I think that by focusing more closely on one specific story, some of these issues might have been explored with more impact and we might have learned more about Salma (or Mira – I found her to be an interesting character who could have carried a more detailed narrative).

In institutional terms the film is a co-production with familiar partners in France and Germany. Director and co-writer Eran Riklis is an Israeli who has also lived in Brazil, Canada and the US and who studied at the National Film School in the UK. His previous films have covered similar territory and include The Syrian Bride (2004) focusing on the Druze community in the Golan Heights. Riklis was interviewed in Der Spiegel when Lemon Tree was shown at the Berlin Film Festival in January 2008 and he makes a spirited and convincing case for his approach. Perhaps I haven’t emphasised enough how carefully the film avoids making the main characters into symbolic types – and how much humour there is in many of the scenes. Riklis has an absurdist eye and he recognises how ridiculous some of the situations are – ridiculous but also frightening. Having walked under the ‘goon towers’ of the Israeli occupiers on the West Bank and waited to get through checkpoints I have some idea of what it might be like, but still no real feeling for what it’s like to live with them day in and day out. The hideous ‘separation wall’ appears in the film and Riklis uses the image very well. I was eventually able to discover that the co-writer of Lemon Tree (and The Syrian Bride) an Israeli-Arab woman, Suha Arraf, who trained at the Tel Aviv Film School and who one day hopes to direct a feature. I hope she does and I look forward to seeing it.

Lemon Tree has been released in the UK by a new distributor Unanimous Pictures (which also released The Visitor). At least we are now getting the opportunity to see these Israeli films (The Syrian Bride was not released in the UK) and I’m certainly grateful. I think I need to see more, if only to get my head around how to approach such an ideological minefield. I did feel frustrated watching the film, but the more I think about it the more I recognise the skill of the filmmakers and the potential for the film to entertain audiences and perhaps get them to think. I certainly urge more people to see it and to engage with the issues.

The Israeli website for the film includes a statement by the director and further background information.

Henning Mankell and Kurt Wallander

Kenneth Branagh as Kurt Wallander in the BBC series shot in Sweden.

Kenneth Branagh as Kurt Wallander in the BBC series shot in Sweden.

It’s been interesting to monitor the coverage of BBC1’s new three-part season of television films featuring Kenneth Branagh as Inspector Kurt Wallander of the Ystad Police on the Southern coast of Sweden.

I started reading the Kurt Wallander books when the first English translations appeared in paperback four or five years ago. I was immediately hooked and read several more of Mankell’s novels, including both the Wallander series and others. Mankell is an old-fashioned Swedish socialist and all-round good guy with a commitment to his work in Mozambique where he runs a community theatre in Maputo. His police procedurals featuring Wallander carry some of the author’s concerns into a critique of Swedish society. I like this, but what’s most important is that Wallander is at once both the typical beat-up and dysfunctional ex-husband and son/father and a professional who makes honest, human mistakes, but sticks around to see the job through. The books are long and there is a lot of ‘procedure’ which perversely I enjoy as much if not more than the bursts of action. I guess I idly wondered how the books would work on film or television and now I have a chance to find out.

Wallander is a joint BBC Scotland/Yellow Bird (Zodiak Sweden) production with Branagh’s own company and the impetus seems to have come from Branagh himself. According to the BBC Press Release, Yellow Bird have already made 13 Wallander films in Sweden (I didn’t think there were that many novels and in fact several of these films are based on roughly outlined ideas by Mankell – see below).

In conjunction with this, BBC4 has screened a 1 hour documentary on Mankell and Wallander, fronted by John Harvey, one of Britain’s best crime writers who created his own similar character – Charlie Resnick, a Nottingham-based copper who featured in a noirish BBC series in the early 1990s. Here’s a link to John Harvey’s website. He’s just as remarkable a character as Mankell, with a background as an English teacher, a film lecturer, a poet and jazzman and producer of 90 novels – a pulp fiction writer and now a major crime novelist. The BBC couldn’t have found a better interviewer of Mankell. I learned things I might have guessed, but didn’t know. Mankell is enormous in Germany and the Scandinavians clearly like their crime fiction as much as the Germans and the Brits. Once on television, the crime series is as likely to develop a fan culture as much as the books. (According to the BBC4 documentary, Mankell has sold 25 million novels and in Germany outsells J.K. Rowling.)

The documentary was followed by two of the Swedish films, which I intend to compare with Branagh’s version. But first, a few preliminary remarks about the the BBC Wallander. It’s a classy production, shot in Sweden but with a UK cast. It’s lensed by Anthony Dod Mantle (hero figure on films by Danny Boyle and various Dogme projects) using a digital RED camera (source: Wikipedia which has quite a detailed entry). The series has a big budget. £7.5 million for three 90 minutes single films is way above the current average for a ‘domestic’ British feature film. Budgets in the film industry have fallen so much that most cinema films in the UK cost less than £2 million. So, the series should look good, especially if the RED camera allows more of the budget to go on effects and location dressing etc.

So far, I’ve watched 2 and a half of the three films. I’ve enjoyed them all, but then I think Mankell’s material is potentially so attractive that it would be difficult for a highly competent crew to mess up – and I don’t think they do. Overall, the films are, I think more successful than most of the British TV crime series of the last twenty years (that I’ve watched). My own benchmark would be Dalziel and Pascoe – at least in the early series. Kenneth Branagh is very good. I used to avoid Branagh when he seemed to be everywhere doing everything, but now I appreciate him a lot more. However . . . he isn’t my idea of Kurt Wallander. This is just a matter of the old literary adaptation syndrome. We all paint mental pictures of what our literary heroes look like and Branagh doesn’t look like the Swedish cop I imagined (there is no reason to think that my imagination is better than the adapters – just different). Mankell himself is full of praise for Branagh and the series – but then Mankell is intimately involved with Yellow Bird as a production company (see the comprehensive English language Swedish website for Mankell’s novels). Wallander’s younger sidekick Martinsson is played by Tom Hiddleston, who I saw a few weeks ago in a film I really disliked called Unrelated. I’m sure I’ve seen some of the other actors as well on UK TV. I find this distracting. There are other decisions about the production that derive from the adaptation. There are dummy editions of the local paper – in Swedish which seems a little strange. I’m trying to think of the conventions in earlier series. I remember the two UK TV versions of Maigret (in the 1960s with Rupert Davies and in the 1990s with Michael Gambon) and there was also a Thames series of Van der Valk with Barry Foster as a Dutch detective in the 1970s. I can’t remember whether any of these were so concerned with the authenticity of props (which do fit awkwardly with characters speaking English)

Linda Wallander (Johanna Sällström) and Stefan Lindman (Ola Rapace)

Linda Wallander (Johanna Sällström) and Stefan Lindman (Ola Rapace) in Before the Frost

The two Swedish films that were screened were from a series of 13 produced by Yellow Bird. Before the Frost (2005) was released in cinemas, as was the second film Mastermind (2006) but the rest of the series went straight to DVD/broadcast as far as I can tell. Before the Frost is an adaptation of a Mankell novel in which Wallander’s daughter Linda returns to Ystad having successfully graduated police training. The difficult relationship between father and daughter is now further complicated by having them work together on a case in which Linda herself is implicated. By contrast, Mastermind is, like the other 11 films, based on an original outline by Mankell developed into a script by a team of young writers. Variety‘s Swedish reviewer doesn’t think much of Before the Frost and is particularly critical of Krister Henriksson as Kurt Wallander, comparing him unfavourably to an earlier Swedish casting (which I haven’t seen). I can understand the objections and perhaps the actor isn’t authoritative enough – but he still seemed closer to Wallander than Branagh. The clincher for me was the performance of Johanna Sällström as Linda. Sällström was a star of Swedish TV/film/theatre before the series and I found her both convincing as Linda and a strong performer as a major character in the narrative. She managed to be at once both attractive and charismatic, but also vulnerable and ‘human’ in her emotions. The rest of the casting of the Swedish films certainly worked for me in that the characters in the police team all looked much more like ‘ordinary people’ than well-known actors. What I mean is that there were people who were overweight and balding (i.e. ‘normal’). The office manager in the police station was much more prominent in Mastermind (mainly because the plot sees the police under threat from a criminal with access to the police station).

Ebba (Marianne Mörck) the office manager in the Swedish series.

Ebba (Marianne Mörck) the office manager in the Swedish series.

Kurt Wallander (Krister Henriksson) and Linda (Johanna Sällström) at the beginning of Before the Frost when Linda has just graduated from the police college.

Kurt Wallander (Krister Henriksson) and Linda (Johanna Sällström) at the beginning of Before the Frost when Linda has just graduated from the police college.

The interesting aspect of Mastermind was that it began in much the same way as other Wallander stories, but by the end had become less a procedural and much more of a thriller. I found it brutal and terrifying to watch and it seemed very well paced. It was only afterwards that I realised that the plot had several holes and that I’d been led through it much as in the Hollywood movies I tend not to watch these days. I enjoyed the nods at Hitchcock’s Rear Window and I was intrigued by the focus on the father-daughter relationship – central to the narrative here but always present to some extent when Kurt and Linda are working together. Here is a thesis for someone. The middle aged police inspector and his rebellious, disrespectful, feisty daughter/daughter surrogate are central to the Wallander and Rebus stories and also to those of the Icelandic Inspector Erlendur in Jar City and the other novels by Arnaldur Indridason.

Reception

Thanks to the wonders of i-Play, I’ve been able to re-watch the BBC2 Late Review team discussing Wallander and Richard Coles (once of The Communards and now a cleric and Radio 4 presenter) made the most interesting points. He referred to the general view that Mankell’s novels are an hommage to the ‘lost social democracy’ of the Sweden of the 1970s/80s. Thus the crimes and criminals that Wallander investigates are often corrupt politicians and business people – often influenced by American ideas – or fascists of one stripe or another. (In other novels he has explored the pro-Nazi fascists who lurk in the darker corners of Swedish life.) As Coles remarks, this casts attention on the younger generation (like Linda) who have grown up under the impact of the disintegrating consensus for social democracy and this explanation of the distance between Kurt and Linda is interesting. What he didn’t say directly, but which is a strong element of the novels, is that many of Mankell’s novels have narratives which see characters travelling abroad or arriving in Sweden as migrants – the loss of consensus is related to the globalisation of Sweden. This creates tension for the international socialist that I assume Mankell to be.

Apart from Branagh’s performance, the other issue that has interested UK critics has been the representation of the Swedish landscape via the specific lighting camerawork. It is certainly the case that the UK series with more money to spend is probably more ambitious in its attempts to present the distinctive landscapes of Southern Sweden with ‘rolling’ countryside comprising fields of grain or grassland leading down to the sea and occasional dense woodland all revealed in midsummer sunshine and long, bright evenings. (I was struck by the similarity of some shots of cars travelling through the landscape and similar scenes in Danish films such as Festen.) The Swedish series (which I watched on a lower definition image) seemed more conventional in its use of lighting and filters.

On the BBC web forum it was certainly the case that enthusiastic viewers were mainly like me in preferring the Swedish series. I hope that BBC4 are going to do more screenings of European crime TV (are there any Japanese or Latin American series they could buy in?). I did catch the Salvo Montalbano films broadcast around the same time and perhaps I’ll blog on those at some future date.

Les liens du sang (Rivals, France 2008)

Gabriel (centre) and François with their sister in Liens du sang

Gabriel (centre) and François with their sister in Les liens du sang

This is an odd film to see in UK distribution – possibly only released because of the purchase of the UK distributor Optimum by Studio Canal, the French major, in 2006. This seems to be confirmed by Optimum’s release strategy that has used only 12 prints and a low profile campaign.

I should say straightaway that I enjoyed the film and that I’m very happy to see more mainstream French product like this get a UK release. The French title of the film is perhaps more helpful in indicating the storyline. I think it translates as something like ‘Blood Ties’ and the film stars Guillaume Canet and François Cluzet as two brothers, one a flic (a cop) and the other a life-long criminal, in 1970s Lyon. The plot sees Gabriel scheduled for release from prison if he can get a job and his younger brother, François, torn between helping out and keeping his distance (and his professional integrity). It all goes wrong of course in a very traditional story. In fact, this feels to me like a conscious recreation of the 1970s polar – that curiously indefinable French genre of the crime film, a broad generic category that embraces the gangster film, the police procedural and several other forms of crime thriller. There has been something of a revival of the polar in the last few of years with The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005), 36, Quai des orfèvres (2004) and Tell No One (2006). I’ve discussed these last three films in an article that will be published in Splice magazine in early 2009. The origins of the polar are in the early days of French cinema, but the category really became established from the late 1940s and has often been related to the concept of the film noir – in terms of the French crime novels of the Série Noire and the Hollywood crime films and melodramas of 1940-55. A good example of a noir melodrama would be Quai des orfèvres (1947). Les liens du sang is definitely ‘noirish’ in its themes and narrative structure and it clearly incorporates many elements of the polar – police investigations, violent crimes, gangland killings and the police-criminal relationship are central to the story. And yet there are odd ways in which the elements are mixed.

One of the features of the traditional polar is the representation of the French-American cultural exchange. French gangsters might adopt American clothes, cars etc. and sometimes the stories themselves are taken from American pulp fiction (which the Série Noire brand often published). However, there is little of this in Les liens du sang. The only obvious reference is the Neil Young song ‘Cinnamon Girl’ that the younger brother plays on an electric guitar. Elsewhere in the film, the music is certainly American, but I would argue it is more representative of an international jazz and disco music of the period. (And, yes, Neil Young is Canadian and rock music is an international phenomenon, but the guitar playing of this particular song stood out.) Everyone smokes in the film, seemingly all the time, so perhaps the cigarette choice – Marlboro for François and Gitanes for Gabriel is significant?

But although it avoids the clear American-referencing of a Melville film, other elements of the polar are in place. Set in Lyon, there are references to the influence of criminal gangs in Italy and Spain and there is a clear sense of local culture. There is also an element of the absurd in some of the action – or perhaps it’s just me. I was reminded at times of the comic gangsters in Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste. Cluzet is a charismatic actor and his performance more or less holds the film together. Still, I found that with his moustache and hair he teetered on the edge of the absurd, almost a muskeeter trapped in a world where robbers escape by running behind a coach of brass bandsmen and police in a Renault 5 chase crooks in runabout vans. Having said that, the violent scenes are certainly brutal.

Clotilde Hesme as Corinne

Clotilde Hesme as Corinne

One of the strengths of the film is the array of female characters – all traditional roles in the polar perhaps, but here the roles are well cast and there are impressive performances. Clotilde Hesme makes a distinct impression as the woman caught between the husband in gaol and the policeman who stalks her.

Overall, I don’t think the film achieves all its creators might have aimed for – there are strange narrative ellipses and I found the final action scenes less interesting than the melodrama (but then, I nearly always do). The film is certainly worth catching when the DVD appears and it will be useful in work on the polar – used perhaps for comparisons with the 1970s films. Some commentators have referenced Life on Mars, the UK ‘retro’ TV police series, but I don’t think this is appropriate. Les liens du sang is not ‘knowing’ about 1970s mores from a 2008 perspective. It claims to be ‘loosely based’ on an autobiographical novel. Cluzet and Canet were star and writer/director of Tell No One and that must have helped in setting up this film. Perhaps they will be involved in more productions during this revival of the polar?

The Silence of Lorna (Bel/Fra/Ita/Ger 2008)

silence

Jérémie Renier and Arta Dobroshi in The Silence of Lorna

The Walloon filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne seem to be on a run of films focusing on young women in difficult social positions. They present social realist dramas set largely in the industrial zone around Liège (although industry rarely figures in the stories) with narratives seemingly taken on and worked over from the Ken Loach storybook. The films don’t have the Loachian humour and occasional bursts of melodrama, but instead offer a more intense narrative focus on an individual expressed through an austere and disciplined aesthetic.

The Silence of Lorna won the script prize at Cannes this year. I’m not sure I can see why except that the script is certainly provocative with two ‘shocking’ effronts to narrative convention and the possibility of engagement with a wide range of issues. However, the film is memorable because of its direction and central performance by relative newcomer Arta Dobroshi. She plays Lorna, a young Albanian woman who has become involved in a complex network of scams. At the beginning of the film, she has just received her Belgian ID – acquired through marriage to a junkie, Claudy. Of course, the Dardennes’ storytelling method requires the viewer to work this out over quite a lengthy sequence. But this is just the beginning of events that see Lorna passed from one man to another. The women she meets are invariably officials of the health service. Lorna is intelligent and resourceful, but can she survive working on scams in which she should not become emotionally involved?

I’m not sure if the film’s title is ironic. Lorna isn’t really ‘silent’ – indeed most of the time she speaks out. But she also has to be secretive and her speech is often directed within the small group of scammers who use her. Dobroshi is always interesting to watch and there are sequences in which you are forced to think about migration as an activity with criminal exploitation possibilities. Unfortunately, I don’t think this goes far enough for me – although I suspect that when I reflect upon the last few scenes, I may revise this view.

The Silence of Lorna is a North-West European social realist film and not a ‘crowd-pleaser’. On the way out of the cinema, somebody wondered out loud “Why would anyone go to Belgium from Albania?”. I really don’t see why Belgium is considered dull. I enjoyed the drab streets of the city as a place I recognised that in one sense seemed calm and civilised. I won’t spoil the ending but will point out that it suggests that the city and the woods outside the urban areas have some kind of symbolic value. We might argue that this industrial region that once made ‘things’ now frantically plies a trade in ‘identities’. I could relate this to those British social comedies like The Full Monty in which men who once worked in manufacturing are forced into forms of ‘performance’ instead. I’m not sure how I got from social realism to postmodernity – but perhaps that’s what films like this do?

Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette, Italy 1948)

bicyclethieves06

The UK gets a re-release of the classic neo-realist film Bicycle Thieves next week courtesy of Arrow and Park Circus. To celebrate this good news, I decided to post the detailed notes I wrote for students in 2002 (the whole thing is 4,000 words plus).

A note on titles: The Bicycle Thief is the American title. The UK title is Bicycle Thieves. The latter is more accurate (and a better translation) – see the Synopsis at the end of the Notes.

Introduction

Bicycle Thieves is a classic of global cinema, a film that every student needs to see at least once, a film that in some sense represents filmmaking at a particular time and in a particular place. It has become associated with the film movement known as Italian neo-realism and its status as a classic to some extent depends upon this association. Vittorio De Sica, the producer/director of Bicycle Thieves, has perhaps been ‘forgotten’ in later theoretical writing about neo-realism, which has tended to concentrate on the more intellectual approach of Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti in such films as Paisà (Italy, 1946) and La Terra Trema (Italy 1947).

Rossellini and Visconti became established directors during the latter part of the Fascist period, but De Sica was already a highly successful actor by the early 1930s and very much the star – “a legendary figure in his time, only to be compared to Charlie Chaplin or Orson Welles” (Sorlin 1996). He began directing by the late 1930s and produced one of the earliest films to have subsequently been associated with neo-realism, The Children Are Watching in 1943. He went on to direct Sciuscià (Shoeshine) in 1946, the first of a neo-realist trilogy about ‘everyday lives’ which continued with Bicycle Thieves and ended with Umberto D in 1951. His films were championed by the influential French critic André Bazin, who proclaimed them ‘pure cinema’. It was De Sica’s success in presenting his stories without obvious stylistic devices or signs of ‘personal expression’ that perhaps caused his fall from favour in the later ‘auteurist’ cinema of the 1960s.

However, in terms of debates about neorealism, it is important that De Sica worked closely with the writer Cesare Zavattini, who has been recognised as one of the main promoters of neo-realism and the provider of some of its ‘manifesto’ statements. The simple idea at the centre of the story of Bicycle Thieves – a man’s search for his stolen bicycle without which he cannot work – is the perfect example of Zavattini’s claim to be able to create compelling drama out of a relatively insignificant incident in a crowded city. This approach to narrative has been widely influential all over the world since the 1940s and is one of the recognisable elements in the contemporary success of Iranian Cinema, the current ‘critics’ favourite’.

These notes trace the neo-realist elements in Bicycle Thieves and also consider the context of its production and reception in Italy and across the world from the late 1940s and through the 1950s.

Cinema and society in post war Italy
The fighting in Italy during 1943 and 1944, especially after the surrender of the Italian army and the subsequent fierce resistance by German forces against the Americans, British and anti-fascist Italian partisans, had a savage impact upon the Italian economy, exacerbated by the movements of thousands of displaced people. For several years after the complete liberation of Italy, the country was plagued with unemployment, housing problems, severe poverty and the destabilising effects of a rampant black market for goods. This unrest, in both the devastated cities and the rural communities, formed the ‘real world material’ for neo-realism. (But it is important to realise that neo-realist films represented only a tiny proportion of Italian film production in the late 1940s. Pierre Sorlin suggests as few as 60-80 features out of the 1,000 films made between 1945 and 1955).

The politics of the period saw a struggle between the Italian Communist Party, the largest in Western Europe, and strong in the major cities in Central Italy, and the right-wing Christian Democrats, with their strength in the North. Despite the success of the Labour Party in the UK in 1945, American and British support went to the Christian Democrats and with the support of the Catholic church, the communists were denied political power. Politics is not openly represented in Bicycle Thieves, except when Antonio first arrives home after the loss of the bicycle. He stumbles in on a political meeting, but quickly leaves to find Baiocco. Several commentators have pointed out that there would be no story if Antonio was a member of the Communist Party, since the local branch would have either found him a new bicycle or helped him look for his own.

It is clear from several scenes that Antonio is not a Roman – he is probably an immigrant from the South or from a village in Central Italy. He seems uncomfortable in Rome and the ‘natives’ treat him like an outsider. He is an appropriate victim of ‘displacement’. (Ingrid Bergman plays a ‘displaced person’ who becomes a fisherman’s wife in Rossellini’s Stromboli (1949), another neo-realist film made at roughly the same time as Bicycle Thieves.)

Neo-realism
Mary Wood (1996) quotes a French film journal, Films et documents from 1952 and its “Ten Points of neo-realism”:

  1. the message;
  2. topical scripts inspired by concrete events – great historical and social issues tackled from the point of view of the ‘common people’;
  3. a sense of detail as a means of authentication;
  4. a sense of the masses and the ability to manipulate them in front of the camera;
  5. realism;
  6. the truth of actors, many of them non-professionals;
  7. the truth of lighting;
  8. the truth of decor and the refusal of studio;
  9. photography, reminiscent of the reportage style stressing the impression of truth;
  10. an extremely free camera, its unrestricted movements resulting from the use of post-synchronisation.

Lists like this are useful in setting out an agenda, but they shouldn’t suggest that all neo-realist films will demonstrate all the points or that all films that might be called ‘neo-realist’ will look the same. This particular list is strong on what could be termed the conventions of a certain form of cinematic realism. It is less effective in explaining the motivation of some of the filmmakers.

One of the more ‘theorised’ views of neo-realism comes from Roberto Rossellini:

There are those who still think of neo-realism as something external, as going out into the open air, as a contemplation of misery and suffering. For me it is nothing more than the artistic form of truth . . . I cannot believe in an entertainment film . . . if it is not a film which is at least partially capable of attaining the truth.

The subject of the neo-realism film is the world; not story or narrative. It contains no preconceived thesis, because ideas are born in the film from the subject. It has no affinity with the superfluous and the merely spectacular, which it refuses, but is attracted to the concrete . . . It refuses recipes and formulas . . . neo-realism poses problems for us and for itself in an attempt to make people think.
(Roberto Rossellini in Retrospective, April 1953, reprinted in Overby 1978)

Rossellini’s view is genuinely revolutionary. Instead of a scriptwriter suggesting a story, which is then constructed in cinematic time and space in such a way as to suggest the realism of the event, Rossellini proposes to literally make films out of the reality he finds. Eventually, this would lead Rossellini to making a film like Viaggio in Italia (1953) in which he made up the script as he went along.

Cesare Zavattini, who worked with De Sica on his first two ‘neo-realist’ films and briefly with Rossellini, had what at first seems a similar approach:

A woman goes into a shop to buy a pair of shoes. The shoes cost 7,000 lire. The woman tries to bargain. The scene lasts perhaps two minutes, but I must make a two-hour film. What do I do? I analyse the fact in all its constituent elements, in its ‘before’, in its ‘after’, in its contemporaneity. The fact creates its own fiction. (Quoted in Williams 1980)

Zavattini is a scriptwriter rather than a director so his aim is to present a story to the director. In the case of Bicycle Thieves, the original story idea in fact came from a novel. Zavattini read the novel and immediately wrote a ‘loose adaptation’. He then took it to De Sica who had been searching for:

. . . action which would be less apparently ‘extraordinary’, which could happen to anyone (above all to the poor), action which no newspaper wants to talk about. (De Sica 1948, reprinted in Overby 1978)

What emerges from De Sica’s explanation of the genesis of the film is that he has a clear artistic aim, just like Rossellini, but it concerns the question of how to represent:

” . . . the modern dimension given to small things, that state of mind considered ‘common’. Thanks to the camera, the cinema has the means to capture that dimension. That is how I understand realism, which cannot be, in my opinion, mere documentation. If there is absurdity in this theory, it is the absurdity of those social contradictions which society wants to ignore. It is the absurdity of incomprehension through which it is difficult for truth and good to penetrate. Thus, my film is dedicated to the suffering of the humble.” (op cit)

De Sica’s inherent ‘humanism’ – his interest in the importance of ‘small things’ to the man in the street – is the essential ingredient of Bicycle Thieves. The film does reveal ordinary lives in the face of official indifference and the audience cares about Antonio, Bruno and Maria. The film has a ‘social message’, but not one ‘tacked on’ artificially. Even so it is a film that entertains its audience with the ordinary adventures of father and son. De Sica’s methods and approach fit the time period. Later he would make films that simply set out to be entertaining.

Bicycle Thieves was in many ways a conventionally produced film costing around Lire 100 million (about £50,000, not too dissimilar to UK features of the period). De Sica read thirty or forty scripts after finishing Shoeshine before Zavattini appeared with Bicycle Thieves and he spent a long time casting the film and preparing the shoot. The print of the film currently on video release is of a high quality and a long way removed from the grainy look of Roma – citta aperta (1945), the film Rossellini made using filmstock scavenged from whatever source he could find. Although they shared an attention to seeking ‘artistic truth’, and this is what makes them both ‘neo-realists’ in this period, De Sica and Rossellini were actually very different filmmakers.

Representing social issues
Whatever manifesto statements we accept for neo-realism (e.g. Zavattini or Rossellini), the central feature of all the narratives is their engagement with the social issues of the time. Bicycle Thieves concerns unemployment and labour control. Umberto D is about a pensioner whose savings have disappeared, Shoeshine features child workers on the streets. Other films concerned themselves with rural problems.

The poverty of the Roman working-class is shown in Bicycle Thieves when Antonio and his wife pledge their bed linen and redeem his bicycle. Antonio looks through the hatch to see the bed linen being stored alongside hundreds of similar parcels. These were views of Italy that the right-wing political parties did not wish to see on Italian screens. The popular audience was interested in films about these issues up to a point – some films, like Bicycle Thieves, were good box office, even if they struggled to get a decent release in cinemas. However, it appears that by 1950 the popular audience had moved on to more escapist fare.

Perhaps the right-wing politicians were right to fear the ‘negative view’ of Italy. Certainly, a handful of neo-realist films were enthusiastically received in Paris, London and New York (much as Iranian Cinema is received now, but on a greater scale). It often took a year or two for the films to travel to the UK and Bicycle Thieves opened at the Curzon in Mayfair in 1950. Film Review described it as a ‘sad Italian comedy’ but nevertheless claimed it as one of the two outstanding European films seen in the UK that year (the other being a Jacques Tati comedy). Richard Winnington, the acerbic critic of the News Chronicle (the liberal mid-market paper), was not unusual in his praise of Bicycle Thieves in January 1950 as “a film that spoke, after so long, the fundamental language of the cinema.” He comments, like many others, on the way in which Rome is represented not as a tourist haunt with statues and famous buildings, but as a working city seething with life. For many critics and filmmakers, the experience of neo-realism, watching Italy’s social issues explored with humanity on the same screens that showed Hollywood musicals and westerns, was a revelation. Bicycle Thieves succeeded as a humanist film. The genuine interest in the characters and the brilliant direction of actors in their ‘real’ setting was what worked on audiences. The ‘open’ending of the film distinguishes it from most Hollywood product, as does the focus on such an everyday theme.

There were Hollywood films being made ‘on the street’ in the late 1940s, especially by 20th Century Fox, but mostly these were crime films or ‘social problem’ films with conventional narratives. Nothing matched the character driven account of the everyday presented in Bicycle Thieves.

The neo-realist aesthetic and Bicycle Thieves
The two main aesthetic features of the film are the location shooting and the acting performances. Both are remarkable and are linked through the difficulty of directing non-professionals in scenes requiring complex movements.

The importance of location shooting is not primarily about the ‘authenticity’ of the backdrop. Instead it is about conveying the idea of actions literally taking place ‘out there’ in the real world. Even in contemporary films shot on location, it is not unusual to get the feeling that when the action switches to a new location, the actors have started moving just a few seconds earlier – in other words, the street is just a location for the story. But in Bicycle Thieves, we get the impression that action is going on whether the camera is running or not. This is achieved through careful framing of the action so that ‘background’ activities (i.e. by people not involved in the main story) carry on regardless at the edge of the frame or move in and out of shot. The camera is selecting from life on the street, not simply imposing a story on a backdrop. Mary Wood quotes the example of the scene when Antonio is being shown how to paste up his first poster. The camera not only allows us to see Rome getting on with its business in the background, but also to follow the boys and the man they beg from, panning away from Antonio and the pasting. We hear Antonio and his trainer off screen, but watch the boys. All this helps set up the theft of the bicycle. The theft is shot from a similar angle and we are acutely aware of the dangers on the street which might affect Antonio.

The camerawork shows the main features of neo-realist shooting with more long shots than similar Hollywood films, allowing more portrayal of the characters as part of the background. Deep focus is used without the expressionist style shown in films like Citizen Kane and tracking shots with relatively long takes emphasise the continuous narrative space of the action. Bazin claims there is ‘no studio work’, but close analysis suggests that some scenes were probably shot in adapted rooms, if not in a studio – interior lighting of Antonio’s flat etc. would be difficult otherwise. (In Roma – citta aperta, Rossellini converted a building into a crude studio to shoot interiors.) Even so, there is no sense of ‘artificiality’ and exteriors and interiors blend smoothly.

All the main actors are non-professionals, Antonio being played by a factory worker. However, all the dialogue is ‘post synchronised’ (i.e. ‘dubbed’) and Antonio’s lines are spoken by a professional. Dubbing later became a standard feature of Italian cinema, proving especially useful when European co-productions brought many different language speakers together in Italian films. The big advantage for neo-realism was that the camera could be moved freely on location without the encumbrance of sound recording.

Bazin tells us that De Sica spent a long time selecting the cast and he suggests that it is De Sica’s own knowledge and experience as an actor that is evident in the excellent performances. The scenes between father and son are particularly convincing.

The meaning of the film
The best two guides to the meaning of the film are probably Bazin and Sorlin. Bazin says that it is “the only valid Communist film of the whole past decade” [i.e. the 1940s]. By this he means that the social message of the film is not explicitly stated. Instead, it simply arises out of the story – the poor will steal from the poor in order to survive. De Sica shows the differences between rich and poor in the restaurant and satirises the charity and the authoritarianism of the church and the ineffectiveness of the police in helping Antonio. The state can regulate a brothel and regulate the labour market, but it can’t reduce poverty.

The pairing of father and son is crucial. The boy is a witness to his father’s humiliation and also an inspiration – e.g. in the scene by the river when Antonio fears the boy may have drowned and thinks again about his priorities. Visually, the tall man and the small boy make more interesting protagonists than the man alone.

Sorlin (1991) is more interested in the sociological messages of the film. He points out that Antonio and his wife and son are a ‘nuclear family’ with no local relations and few friends. This supports the view that Antonio may be an immigrant. He is clearly uneasy venturing into central Rome and is unable to break down the solidarity of the community which protects the thieves. Theft is a ‘profession’ in the society, but the thieves need to prey on ‘outsiders’ like Antonio. He, by contrast is an ‘amateur’ when he tries to steal a bicycle himself. But, as Sorlin points out, Antonio is the future – men like him will create the new Italy in the 1950s. The nuclear family is ‘modern’ and so is the apartment block in Val Melaina (even though it was begun in the 1930s and similar construction took place around Rome for another ten years or more). The image of ‘new housing’ linked to ‘displacement’, ‘social engineering’ and ‘reconstruction’ is common across Europe in the post-war period and its appearance in a wide range of feature films is a sign of the impact of the neo-realist approach.

The “origins of neo-realism” and its influence on world cinema
Neo-realism has undoubtedly been one of the most influential ‘film movements’ in the history of cinema. Crucially important was the timing. All film industries post 1945 were struggling to come to terms with new circumstances. The immediate impact of neo-realism was on critics and filmmakers in Britain, America and France. Although the lasting effects of exposure to neo-realism were limited in the mainstream cinema, it was a ‘forming’ experience for filmmakers with a more ‘personal vision’ and proved an inspiration for the French and British New Waves, as well as filmmakers in Germany, Spain and Czechoslovakia. With the development of academic interest in film history and film studies generally (fostered by the ‘critics turned filmmakers’ of the French New Wave), neo-realism has come to be recognised as a major artistic movement generating a ‘re-think’ about the possibilities of cinema and taking its place alongside earlier movements such as German Expressionism and Soviet cinema, both in the 1920s.

But the immediate impact in the 1950s and 1960s was on the emerging cinemas in Africa and on more socially committed filmmakers in India (e.g. Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak in Bengal) and Latin America. For twenty years or more neo-realism was an inspiration for low-budget filmmakers with some form of social agenda and it became the dominant aesthetic of the international film festival circuit.

None of this is contentious, but one aspect of the analysis relates to the idea that neo-realism was a form of ‘New Wave’ which was conceived as a backlash against what had gone on before – in this case against the Italian cinema of the 1930s. Even the excellent short account in Abrams, Bell and Udris (2001) succumbs to the generalisation of ‘the white telephone films of the 1930s’ (a phrase used to describe the escapist world of middle class melodramas). The Italian filmmakers of the late 1940s who were labelled ‘neo-realist’ were conscious of the social and political context of the period. They had changed as people and as filmmakers, and they did want to create something new. But it is important to recognise that the roots of neo-realism were laid in the 1930s and that Visconti, Rossellini and De Sica had all made films before 1945 that show the developing signs of the neo-realist approach. De Sica had also appeared in a series of films by director Mario Camerini. These presented De Sica as something of a ‘matinee idol’ in films which nevertheless satirised social mores in the middle and upper classes. In the same way, those films that are described as ‘neo-realist’ also carry on earlier traditions, particularly of melodrama and comedy. The use of music is noticeable and also the moments of comic ‘business’. The triumph of Bicycle Thieves is that they become an integral part of the story (such as the priest hitting the surprised Bruno on the head when he peers into the confessional).

If there is a major break with previous modes of Italian cinema, it is the move away from escapism and propaganda under Mussolini towards notions of presenting the ‘truth’ about contemporary society and this is why, of course, the films were attacked by the right. However, it would be wrong to see the neo-realists as ‘new filmmakers’ adopting a revolutionary approach as a conscious attempt to produce something different from their predecessors – which was the case with Godard, Truffaut et al and with the signatories of Dogme ‘95.

Neo-realism and contemporary cinema
If the striking feature of Bicycle Thieves is the simplicity of the narrative ‘concept’ – man needs bike, bike is stolen – the two relatively recent films which are most like it as neo-realist films are Raining Stones (UK 1994) and Not One Less (China 1999). In Ken Loach’s Raining Stones, a father needs money to buy his daughter a confirmation dress and thieves steal the truck he buys in order to look for work. This film would make an excellent comparison with Bicycle Thieves, in both subject matter and visual style. Loach is a confessed neo-realist admirer. In Not One Less, a more unlikely director, Zhang Yimou (best known for sumptuous melodramas) tells the story of a mountain village girl who is put in charge of the school when the teacher has to visit a dying relative. She will only be paid if the children keep attending. When one goes off to the city, she is forced to follow and attempt to bring him back  again direct parallels with the ideas of Bicycle Thieves.

An earlier Zhang Yimou film, The Story of Qiu Ju (1992) sees Gong Li, the glamorous star of earlier melodramas, playing a pregnant peasant woman whose husband is injured by a kick from the village chief. She demands justice and pursues her case through each level of bureaucracy up towards the Communist Party hierarchy. The film is an interesting ‘test’ for ideas of neo-realism, since on the one hand the camerawork suggests ‘authenticity’ but the star presence of Gong Li works against it (much as Julia Roberts amidst the social realist view of California in Erin Brockovich). Some critics also see this film and Not One Less as examples of Zhang Yimou bowing to government pressure and showing a ‘propagandist view’ of China.

Student activities
A full realisation of the brilliance of Bicycle Thieves probably depends on students attempting to tell a simple story ‘on the street’ themselves and investing it with the same drama and humanity. It isn’t simply a matter of pointing the camera at a scene.

Analytical exercises might include:

1. Imagine that an American producer had commissioned De Sica to make Bicycle Thieves for a major Hollywood studio. De Sica claims that this did in fact happen and that a sizeable budget would have been available, had he been prepared to cast Cary Grant as Antonio. What other changes do you think there might have been to the casting, the story and the way in which it was filmed?

2. De Sica appears to have decided to concentrate on the Antonio-Bruno relationship. What lies behind this decision? What does Antonio’s wife, Maria contribute to the narrative? How might the film have been different if the husband-wife relationship was at its centre?

3. What view of life in Rome in 1948 does the film offer? What do we discover about Italian society from the experiences of Antonio and Bruno?

4. De Sica claims that there is nothing ‘extraordinary’ about the actions in the film. Nevertheless the script does take Antonio and Bruno through a series of ‘adventures’ in order to make an interesting story. What can you say about the different situations that the father and son encounter and why do you think they were selected by De Sica and Zavattini? (Analyse specific situations like the scenes in the church or the restaurant.)

SPOILERS AHEAD!

If you don’t want to know the full story, be warned – it’s all in here:

Synopsis
There is mass unemployment in postwar Italy, but on the new estate of Val Melaina on the outskirts of Rome, Antonio Ricci is offered a job as a bill poster by the council labour co-ordinator. The job requires that Antonio provide a bicycle. His wife Maria pawns the family bed linen in order to get Antonio’s bicycle out of hock. On the way home, she slips into a fortune-teller’s flat to pay her some money – the woman had predicted that Antonio would get a job.

Next day Antonio sets off for work proudly, but almost immediately his bicycle is stolen while he is pasting bills. Dejected, he must walk home with his small son, Bruno, back to Val Melaina. In despair he turns to his friend Baiocco, a refuse collector and leader of the community theatre in the apartment block. Early the next morning (Sunday) Antonio and Bruno join the refuse gang in searching through the massive bicycle market where they expect the thieves to sell the bicycle. The market traders are angry that someone should suspect them of handling a stolen bicycle and Antonio has to call the police in order to check the registration number on a bicycle frame. But it isn’t his.

The refuse men go home, but Antonio and Bruno keep looking after sheltering from the rain. Antonio sees a young man with a bicycle exchanging something with an old man. Antonio thinks he recognises the youth and gives chase. Failing to catch the boy on the bicycle, Antonio and Bruno search for the old man, finally tracking him down to a local church with a soup kitchen, but the old man also gives them the slip.

Antonio and Bruno end up having a meal in a restaurant which they can’t really afford and then they visit the fortune-teller who will only tell Antonio that either he will find the bicycle quickly or not at all. Soon after leaving the fortune-teller, Antonio again sees the youth he believes is the thief and this time he catches him when the youth runs into a brothel. But they are thrown out by the madam and it is clear that this is the youth’s neighbourhood as an angry mob soon surrounds Antonio. Bruno fetches a policeman, but he can do little since Antonio has no proof other than his own assertion that this is the thief. Antonio and Bruno are effectively run out of the neighbourhood.

Father and son reach a football ground and Antonio casts his eyes over the racks of bicycles left by the spectators. He tries to send Bruno home and then attempts to steal a bicycle himself. But he is caught. The owner, perhaps recognising how desperate Antonio is, does not press charges and Antonio and Bruno, who has witnessed his father’s humiliation, walk off into the dusk. FINE

References
Nathan Abrams, Ian Bell and Jan Udris (2001) Studying Film, London: Arnold
André Bazin (1971) What is Cinema? (Vol 2), Berkeley and London: University of California Press
Vittorio De Sica (1948) ‘Why Ladri di Biciclette?’ in La fiera letteraria, February, reprinted in David Overby (1978)
James Hay (1987) Popular Film Culture in Fascist Italy: The Passing of the Rex, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press
David Overby (ed) (1978) Springtime in Italy: A Reader on Neo-realism, London: Talisman
Pierre Sorlin (1991) European Cinemas, European Societies 1939-1990, London: Routledge
Pierre Sorlin (1996) Italian National Cinema, 1896-1996, London: Routledge
Roy Stafford (2000) ‘There’s life in neo-realism yet’ in in the picture 40, Autumn
Christopher Williams (ed) (1980) Realism and the Cinema, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul/BFI
Mary Wood (1996) ‘Bicycle Thieves – a neorealist film?’ in itp Film Reader 1, Keighley: itp

All text in these notes © 2002 Roy Stafford/itp publications unless otherwise indicated.

Blindness (Canada/Brazil/Japan 2008)

The group of 'typical' characters on the 'outside' in Blindness

The group of 'typical' characters on the 'outside' in Blindness

Blindness is a good example of a certain kind of ‘global cinema’. It’s fascinating as a production project and intriguing as a narrative concept, but although technically highly competent, I fear that it doesn’t work.

The film is based on a novel by José Saramago, an octogenarian Portugese Nobel prizewinner in 1998. I’m ashamed that I know so little about this writer and that I haven’t read the novel. I did get the impression, however, that the novel is a form of speculative fiction which involves a detailed consideration of the human condition under stress. Film adaptations of books like this are very difficult to pull off and sometimes it is the low budget exploitation pic take on the central idea which works best. In this case, the successful Brazilian director of two high profile ‘international specialised films’, Fernando Meirelles, has the task of bringing the novel’s ideas to the screen. The question is, what kind of film will it be?

The novel (i.e. what I understand from some basic research) provides both the central storyline and the nameless characters. In an unnamed city/country a man is struck down by a ‘white’ blindness which is somehow passed on to everyone he meets, except the wife of the ophthalmologist he goes to see. All of these people (including the wife with sight) are quarantined in conditions which rapidly get worse. Eventually the whole community is ‘infected’.

I was surprised that Saramago provided the whole storyline – I’d assumed that he was mainly concerned with the ‘inside’ story during quarantine. It seems to me that the film splits into an ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ section (which provides the beginning and end of the story. (It’s something of an ‘open ending’.)

The inside story is clearly metaphorical/allegorical. The characters are symbolic in representing common character types and presumably aspects of humanity who over the central part of the story struggle to survive and maintain their sense of themselves as moral beings. Once outside, the characters are portrayed in more ‘realist’ representations of street scenes. There are two problems with this. First, the ‘nameless characters’ include the film’s stars (for American and European audiences) Julianne Moore , Mark Ruffalo, Danny Glover, Alice Braga and Gael García Bernal. The problem with stars is, of course, that we immediately bring expectations about the roles that they will play. It is more difficult to think of them as nameless, allegorical everypersons – unless the aesthetic of the film makes clear that this is the scenario it wishes to construct. As soon as a whiff of narrative-driven genre entertainment is apparent, the presence of stars becomes a problem. For what it’s worth, I thought Gael García Bernal’s cameo was terrific, but all the others seemed less well-used. It didn’t help that there was some pretty clunky dialogue. The ‘minor’ characters had little to do so that often the film seemed marooned between serious contemplation of moral decisions and action/thriller/horror sequences. I wasn’t sure what to think about the two Japanese actors who were there presumably as part of the co-production deal, but who in the narrative contributed little as characters.

The second major issue concerns the shooting locations. ‘Outside’ appears to be an amalgam of Sao Paulo, Montevideo and Toronto – rendered in a palette skewed towards blue/grey/white. This works OK as the the nameless city (where C&A, a brand long gone in the UK, still appears on the high street) but it seems like a completely different world in the quarantine quarters (which, if I read the credits properly, appears to be a disused prison in Guelph, Ontario). This interior fits the allegorical nature of the story well and I was reminded of Sam Fuller films like Shock Corridor (1963). Fuller tended to use B movie actors, distinctive cinematography and editing on a low budget. The result was stunning and its effect was delivered through a consistent, committed style. The same just isn’t there in Blindness, which I think would have been better either as ‘all allegory’ or else genre SF thriller. If not Fuller, perhaps Cronenberg?

I don’t want to imply that the film is badly made or that those involved were not committed, just that, for me, it didn’t work. Nor am I against the global co-production idea. It worked well on Children of Men, directed by the Mexican, Alfonso Cuarón. Ironically, that was also based on an SF novel – by the arguably more ‘popular’ novelist P. D. James. Although roundly criticised, Children of Men worked for me because it was treated as a genre film. I think Meirelles would have been better off with less money and a more genre-focused or more arthouse script.

International Critics’ Top 10 for 2008

Sight & Sound, January 2008 carries an article in which 50 critics around the world picked a Top 5 for 2008. Sight & Sound‘s team then worked out a ranking of 150 films to create an overall Top 10:

1. Hunger (UK)

2. There Will Be Blood

3. WALL•E

4. Gomorra (Italy)

=5. A Christmas Tale (France)

=5. The Class (France)

7. Of Time and the City (UK)

8. Happy-Go-Lucky (UK)

=9. The Headless Woman (Arg/Sp/Fra/It)

=9 Let the Right One In (Sweden)

Amazingly, I’ve seen the six films in the list that have been released in the UK. (I haven’t checked the other four yet, but I don’t think they’ve been released here.) Of those six, I can certainly see why five of them would figure in many lists. I didn’t really enjoy the Mike Leigh and I’m not a fan generally. Poppy was a truly irritating character, although overall the film was well made and there were pluses. 

I don’t do ‘best of’ lists as such, especially because I don’t see all the films. But I’m happy to list the films that have made the most impact on me and that I enjoyed watching the most. 

My top 5 (i.e. of the films I’ve seen this year) would be:

1. Couscous (France)

2. Auf der anderen Seite (Edge of Heaven) (Germany/Turkey)

3. Caramel (France/Lebanon)

4. El orfanato (France/Spain)

5. Faat Kiné (Senegal 2000)

So, what does everyone else think?