When I Saw You (Palestine-Jordan-UAE-Greece 2012)

Tarek (Mustafa A and his mother Gayheeda (Ruba at the refugee camp

Tarek (Mahmoud Asfa) and his mother Ghaydaa (Ruba Blal) at the refugee camp

When I Saw You is an important film. Well-made and times very beautiful, it is perhaps a film that surprises in what it achieves. Significantly, it is one of the first Palestinian films to be made almost entirely with Arab money and to receive critical acclaim and commercial distribution within the Arab world. It deals with issues of identity and the experience of expulsion from home and exile as refugees. From the perspective of contemporary audiences outside the Arab world, the story may seem slight in terms of ‘events’ even if it is rich in observations (a problem evident in Philip Kemp’s Sight and Sound review, July 2014). In some ways it is a ‘personal story’ even though the events take place in 1967 and the filmmaker Annemarie Jacir was not born until 1974. As she has said in interviews, the Naksa (the ‘set-back’) – the exodus of Palestinians forced out of the West Bank by the Israeli occupation following the Six Day War in 1967 – had a major impact on the Jacir family who were forced to leave Bethlehem. Annemarie Jacir grew up travelling between Bethlehem (where she was born) and the new family home in exile in Saudi Arabia before training as a filmmaker in the US. Having spent much of the early part of her filmmaking career in the Occupied Territories she is now barred from returning and she has settled in Jordan where When I Saw You is set and where it was shot.

The central character is 11 year-old Tarek who after a few weeks in a Jordanian refugee camp is still bewildered by events. His mother Ghaydaa is working in a makeshift garment workshop but his father has gone missing during the war and Tarek wonders how the family will be re-united. He’s taken aback to discover that many of the refugees have been in the camp since 1948 and he’s unhappy at the camp school where he doesn’t fit in. He’s determined to return to his Palestinian village and eventually simply sets off walking. Fortunately he’s found by someone who recognises him and he ends up in a secret camp of freedom fighters (fedayeen) preparing for forays into the Occupied Territories. The second half of the narrative concerns what happens in the training camp – where Tarek at first feels much more comfortable – and where his mother will eventually find him.

The fedayeen in the woods. Layth (Saleh Bakri) is on the right.

The fedayeen in the woods. Layth (Saleh Bakri) is on the right.

The time period of the film is very important. The late 1960s was a time of savage conflict but also considerable optimism. The fighters in the camp (never identified as a specific political faction) are drawn from many Arab countries. There are female fighters and the group is mainly secular, drawing on Marxist philosophies rather than religious faith. The weapons and supplies come from around the world, including Europe, China and the Soviet Union. In interviews Jacir admits that there is a romanticism in this representation but that this was true to a certain extent. She researched life in the training camps – which was widely recorded on film and in print journalism – and she does also hint at the tensions and conflicts within the group. Some of the scenes are conventional and familiar from various genre films. The guerilla fighter is a ‘rebel’ figure beloved of Hollywood and I was reminded of Westerns like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with musical interludes and dancing around the camp fires. Tarek will learn to play a few notes on the oud and to develop skills in painting propaganda posters. But Tarek is not ‘political’, he just wants to go home and we see things from his perspective. He left the refugee camp because he couldn’t understand the concept of just ‘waiting’ for his father to to find his wife and son. The fighters are not necessarily glamorous because they handle weapons. They are attractive because they have an objective and because they work together. Tarek can play a role. Perhaps the key point is that Tarek seems much more likely to accept the group leader’s instruction to be patient and disciplined than he was to listen to his teacher in the refugee camp. But he is 11 years-old. How patient can he be?

I think I’ve worked out what the title of the film might refer to but since my explanation would give away the film’s resolution, I’ll restrain from giving it here. What I will say is that I think it refers to recognition of the pain of exile. For Jacir herself being in Jordan but not being allowed to cross the Jordan river back into Palestine must be painful.

When I Saw You has beautifully composed images courtesy of French cinematographer Hélène Louvart who has also worked for Wim Wenders on Pina (Germany/UK/France 2011) and earlier for Agnès Varda on Beaches of Agnès (France 2008). The Varda documentary ties in with Jacir’s own background as a documentary camera operator on Until When (Palestine 2004). One of the press features that appeared when When I Saw You was released in the UK carries this interesting observation by Nicholas Blincoe:

Her work bears comparison to that of her contemporaries in Iran – deceptively casual, studied cinematography, realistic performances and an eagerness to push the dramatic envelope. “I like to be rooted in real people and real situations,” she says. “Yet at the same time indulge in the freedom of what cinema is about: our dreams, our ability to change or escape”. (‘Annemarie Jacir: an auteur in exile’)

Inevitably, as Jacir toured film festivals she was asked questions in which she was bracketed with other recent Arab directors who happen to be women such as Nadine Labaki (Caramel, Where Do We Go Now?) and Haifaa al-Mansour (Wadjda). She has also been asked about comparisons to the already-established Samira Makhmalbaf, who is Iranian and not an Arab. However, she clearly does admire Iranian cinema and I think Blincoe makes a good observation. Tarek is played by Mahmoud Asfa, a non-professional who Jacir found in Irbid refugee camp after a lengthy search for the right boy. She chose him because he really seemed to have the same viewpoint as Tarek. He is excellent in the role and so are the other actors who are working in film for the first time even if they are experienced performers on stage or street theatre. (The two screen actors known to local audiences, Ruba Blal and Saleh Bakri are also excellent.) With her documentary experience and research Jacir is grounded in ideas about realism but she has enough of the imagination required to approach important issues in slightly oblique ways as many Iranian filmmakers have been forced to do. She has also expressed admiration for her mentor on the Rolex ‘Mentors and Protégés’ scheme – Zhang Yimou, the Chinese master who has made his own Iranian-influenced films such as The Long Road Home (China 1999). She was mentored during 2010-11 when she was working on When I Saw You.

When I Saw You offers many pleasures including an eclectic music soundtrack and a song performed by Ruba Shamshoum, a young Palestinian singer who was cast as one of the freedom fighters. (In this interesting review on The Electronic Intifada, Sarah Irving pinpoints how cleverly the music is used and how various bits of the popular history of the time are incorporated in the script.) In Europe and North America the film may be seen as an example of ‘specialised cinema’ likely to be seen in an arthouse cinema but Annemarie Jacir and her producer partner Ossama Bawardi worked hard to get the film shown in Palestinian villages as well as commercial cinemas in Jordan. Jacir sees the film as targeting mothers and children.

Here’s a taster in the official trailer from Philistine Films:

Palestinian cinema is featured as a case study in Chapter 6 ‘Middle East Without Borders’ in the Global Film Book.

Resources:

Official website

Facebook page

Philistine Films

Winter Sleep (Kiş Uykusu, Turkey-France-Germany 2014)

The warm interior of the hotel – Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) and his sister, Necla (Demet Akbağ)

The warm interior of the hotel – Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) and his sister, Necla (Demet Akbağ)

Winter Sleep won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May, confirming the status of writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan as a leading figure in global art cinema. Since 1998 he has been winning prizes at film festivals from Tokyo to Buenos Aires and all points in between. So much has been written about his latest film that I am wary of simply repeating the same observations. If you want to read a review and an interesting interview I recommend Jonathan Romney’s review and Geoff Andrew’s interview in Sight and Sound December 2014. Romney’s review is not untypical in finding the film disappointing while still recognising it as a notable intellectual achievement. In Sight and Sound January 2015, the Cannes valuations have been reversed and the ‘poll of critics’ has placed Winter Sleep at No 7 in the list of the year’s top films. Its Cannes rival Leviathan appears at 3. These lists are pointless really but they sometimes indicate shifts in taste. My thoughts on Leviathan are posted on The Case for Global Film.

Winter Sleep‘s narrative presents a central character called ‘Aydin’ (Turkish for ‘intellectual’ according to Ceylan in the Andrew interview). Once an important stage actor, he has retired/retreated back to the mountainous region of Cappadocia in Eastern Anatolia to run the hotel he has inherited. The Hotel Othello is carved out of the rocks like many of the dwellings in this important but isolated tourist region. As well as the hotel, he has also inherited land and tenants. He lives with his sister Necla, recently divorced, and Nihal his younger wife. He delegates the business aspects of the hotel and the tenancies to his agent and spends his time writing a column for the local paper and contemplating the history of Turkish theatre which he intends to write. But as the winter draws in and the snows come he finds himself in dispute with both his wife and his sister as well as one of his tenants.

The issues at stake here in the negative aspects of some of the reviews are the length of the film at 196 minutes and its ‘interiority’ – a narrative dealing with quite a small cast of major characters who spend much of the time in conversation (and confrontation) in darkened rooms. Since Ceylan was a photographer before he became a filmmaker and since he has gained a reputation for his presentation of Turkish landscapes, there is a frustration felt by some critics with his change of approach.

In the Andrew interview Ceylan discusses the length of the film and acknowledges that nobody likes long films but that he felt the need to be free to tell a story like a novelist. (He actually wrote the script jointly with his wife Ebru as has been his practice for several years.) He then observes that films like this have a long after-life on DVD allowing ‘readers’ to break off and re-engage with the narrative as they please – just like reading a novel. This strikes me as obviously true but also rather a strange viewpoint for a filmmaker of Ceylan’s unique vision. It occurs to me that an intermission would have been an excellent decision for the theatrical release (Seven Samurai had one for its 207 minute version and mainstream Indian cinema has made it an industry convention). I don’t like watching DVDs but I have to admit that it was a slog at times in the cinema and I struggled to concentrate in some of the long dialogue scenes (Romney suggests that one such scene lasts 30 minutes).

The general agreement seems to be that the film owes its narrative style/tone to Chekhov and Ceylan has spoken about his love of Chekhov in relation to earlier films. Here he makes it explicit and tells us that three Chekhov short stories were the inspiration for the script. In the end credits he also namechecks Chekhov alongside Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare and Voltaire. I’m not sure what to do with these references. I have some knowledge of all four, but not enough to usefully comment on how they influence Ceylan’s narrative. For me, the most useful ‘way in’ is to think about similar geographical/social/cultural locations. This, of course, includes Russia over the last 150 years plus perhaps Spain and definitely India. In fact the tourist hotel made me think of specific hotels which I visited in Andalusia and in West Bengal – hotels where it is easy to imagine an intellectual, aloof from the rural population, failing to achieve his personal aims, being criticised by family and friends and losing his sense of direction.

Aydin's Landrover takes him across the steppes.

Aydin’s Landrover takes him across the steppes.

Several commentators have suggested that Aydin is indeed representative of a contemporary Turkish elite intellectual class. This view is coincidentally supported by the casting of Haluk Bilginer, a leading actor known in the UK for a stint on the UK TV soap EastEnders in the 1980s. Thus Aydin speaks very good British English in his dealings with an East Asian couple staying at the hotel (Ceylan says he didn’t know about the EastEnders role.) It’s also noticeable that Aydin decides to write a newspaper column about religion which becomes a target for his sister’s criticism. Intellectuals in Turkey have a difficult relationship with Islam in a country in which secularism and the idea of an Islamic state are in constant conflict. Even so, the scope of Winter Sleep is much wider than Turkey alone. Ceylan tells us that this is a universal story and certainly Aydin’s failings and his problems are very recognisable.

Most reviews assume that Aydin is an irredeemable character, a wealthy man who bullies his wife and doesn’t know how to behave towards his tenants – or indeed towards the whole local community. He is pompous, arrogant, proud etc. One or two do point out that Aydin is also a ‘civilised’ and charming man. Ceylan deliberately doesn’t give us very much in the way of back story for any of the principal characters. How long have Aydin and the two women been living at the hotel? When did he get his inheritance? How long is it since he had any acting work? Instead of being spoon-fed this background we are forced to glean what we can from the dialogues. These long scenes require accomplished actors used to delivering lines precisely and this has affected the casting. In earlier films Ceylan cast friends and relatives and even appeared himself as part of a couple with his wife Ebru in Iklimler (Climates, 2006) – perhaps the nearest to Winter Sleep in some aspects of subject matter, if not style). In these films he made more use of ‘street language’ and improvisation. In Winter Sleep the precise language is imperative in order to construct the narrative. The casting also makes an ironic comment on the relationship between film and television, since the two leading female actors are stars of Turkish TV. Aydin’s disparaging remarks about TV soaps in a sense reveal his own failure to get roles in TV drama which is now enormously popular in Turkey.

Nihal (Melisa Sözen) and Aydin in one of many 'interior' shots that use the space in the CinemaScope frame carefully to represent the relationships between characters.

Nihal (Melisa Sözen) and Aydin in one of many ‘interior’ shots that use the space in the CinemaScope frame carefully to represent the relationships between characters.

Despite the fact that very little seems to happen, this is in fact a rich text. It isn’t the case that Aydin has no friends. He seems genuinely to care for a neighbour who is recently widowed (and who doesn’t see his daughter now living in London) and it with this man that he will get very drunk perhaps as a symbol of hitting rock bottom before he can start to put his life back together. And it isn’t the case that he is the only one not ‘in touch’ with the community. He bullies his wife and criticises her attempts to act as a fundraiser in the community and clearly he is in the wrong – but she also is pretty clueless about what she is doing. Ceylan isn’t didactic. He doesn’t tell us what to think. Instead he layers sub-plots that show Aydin’s interactions with local traditions and customs. One of these concerns the wild horses of the region which he (or a hired designer) have used as illustrations on the hotel website. When a guest asks if he has a horse he determines to acquire one. This decision develops into an interesting little story about tradition and modernity (and the sensibility of Western audiences). Some of these layered sub-plots or separate narrative ‘threads’ also involve philosophical dilemmas such as the action proposed by Aydin’s sister when she gives him feedback on his newspaper column. We realise that Aydin doesn’t really know whether the best strategy re his tenants is to leave everything to his agent or to intervene personally. The central plotline provides the scenario in which a ‘legal’ but uncaring action by debt-collectors brings Aydin face-to-face with an aggrieved tenant. Nuri and Ebru Ceylan construct the whole narrative so that it springs from a simple incident concerning the tenant’s young son.

Why is it ‘Winter Sleep’? The obvious allusion is to hibernation or to the ‘shutting down’ implied by the metaphor of the seasons for the ‘ages of man’. But rather than gradually hibernating, Aydin is more active than we might expect – worried that he isn’t doing the right thing or that more is expected of him. These kinds of references to seasons and climate often seem to be contradictory. Stories set in boiling summers when you might expect torpor to set in sometimes produce violent action brought on by impatience in the heat. Perhaps the key here is Aydin’s resolve at the end of the narrative to take a cold hard look at himself and change his behaviour – but typically Ceylan leaves open the possibility that Aydin might talk to his wife Nihal rather than just ‘get on’ with his own affairs.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan is the subject of a case study in The Global Film Book, focusing on his film Uzak (Distant 2002). The case study appears in Chapter 6, Middle East Without Borders. Elsewhere on this blog and The Case for Global Film, there are short postings on Iklimler (see above) and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.

New Wave UK trailer:

Introducing Nomura Yoshitaro

Nomura shooting The Castle of Sand (1974)

Nomura shooting The Castle of Sand (1974) (to the right behind the camera)

Bradford International Film Festival (BIFF) has organised a short retrospective of the work of the Japanese director Nomura Yoshitaro, put together by Festival Director Tom Vincent with the co-operation of Nomura’s studio Shochiku. Five films have played in Bradford and they will also go to the ICA in London for screenings between 18 April and 23 April. Before the first screening Alexander Jacoby, author of A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors: From the Silent Era to the Present Day, gave us some ideas about how to place Nomura as a Japanese director.

Nomura Yoshitaro (1919-2005) is barely known in the West, although some of his films were released in the US by Shochiku. In Japan however he was greatly admired and Alex told us that in the Kinema Jumpo ratings (from the most authoritative Japanese cinema journal) Nomura’s films were often placed higher than those of Kurosawa and other directors well-known to Western fans of Japanese cinema. Why didn’t this success lead to exports? Alex suggested two possible reasons. First, Nomura was unfortunate in that he did not become fully established as a ‘name’ director until the late 1950s/early 1960s. The Japanese ‘masters’ – Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ichikawa, Naruse and Ozu began to see their films exported via film festivals and art house releases from the early 1950s and therefore Nomura missed the boat. By the early 1960s the Japanese New Wave headed by Oshima Nagisa was starting to make noises and Nomura was then too ‘old-fashioned’.

Second, Nomura was seen primarily as a ‘genre director’. He made films in many different genres but the films on show in Bradford are all based on stories by the very successful writer Matsumoto Seicho and mix crime fiction and melodrama. Alex suggested that actually Nomura was a director with ‘personal vision’ and that perhaps he worked in the same way as Howard Hawks. I’m not sure whether Hawks is the director I’d pick out but within any studio system there are bound to be directors capable of producing a genre film with the something extra that makes them recognisable as ‘personal’.

Nomura intended his films to be for the popular market but as soon as he was able to get more substantial budgets (his early films were low-budget programme-fillers in the early 1950s) he prepared carefully for his productions, especially in organising location shooting for Matsumoto’s stories which often featured scenes in different parts of Japan (and frequent train trips). Chaiki Omori from Shochiku’s international department helped to introduce the films and she emphasised that as far as possible Nomura tried to create the precise conditions for each locations described in the story. He would turn off the air-conditioning and make his actors really sweat if the story demanded it, he would shoot at noon if the script said it was noon etc.

The problems with making the distinction between an ‘auteur’ and a ‘genre director’ are immediately apparent when comparing Kurosawa Akira’s adaptation of an Evan Hunter crime novel in High and Low (1963) with Nomura’s policier/melodrama Stakeout (1958). All the critical praise for the former should be matched by that for the latter (my review to follow). There are differences between Kurosawa’s approach with its attention to historical/social details and references to other filmmaking and literary cultures and Nomura’s more directly Japanese focus but both directors are interested in the characters as much if not more than in the genre narrative. I think that Nomura’s films could have worked overseas and the Bradford season offers a useful opportunity to test out this theory.

Trial on the Road (Proverka na dorogakh, USSR 1971/1985)

The distant figure of Lazarev in German battledress stops a a motorcycle and sidecar in an ambush.

The distant figure of Lazarev in German battledress stops a motorcycle and sidecar in an ambush.

The Leeds International Film Festival excelled itself with this tribute to director Aleksai German who died earlier this year aged 74. I didn’t do any research before the screening and I was completely blown away by some of the scenes as well as intrigued by the overall ideological discourse of this anti-war film set during the bitter fighting in the Western Soviet Empire in the winter of 1942/3. It was only after the screening that I realised that I did know about German (or Gherman/Guerman to distinguish the hard ‘G’). I’m fairly sure that I saw My Friend Ivan Lapshin in 1987 but I remember little about it except that I liked it very much. (The film is now regarded as one of the greatest Russian films.)

German was viewed with suspicion by the Soviet censors and it wasn’t until perestroĭka under Gorbachev that his films began to be seen in Russia or in the West. Trial on the Road was completed in 1971 but not released until 1985 (the date on the 35mm film print screened at the Hyde Park Cinema). The film is based on a story by German’s father Yuri, a legendary writer who wrote films for the director Grigori Kozintsev and acted as a war correspondent during 1940-5. He also wrote short stories and novels, one of which, Operation Happy New Year, became the basis of Trials on the Road. When the younger German began to show an interest in cinema he worked first under his father’s old colleague Kozintsev in the late 1950s. Find out much more about Aleksai German’s films from this interesting blog.

Trial on the Road (there are other English translations such as Checkpoint etc.) is a film about The Great Patriotic War and therefore in the 1970s expected to show the heroism of the Red Army. There is heroism in the film, but it’s complicated and there is realism and humanism to the fore. The ‘Eastern Front’ was the major theatre of the Second World War in Europe (or ‘Eurasia’). Many of the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states opted to or were forced to fight for the Nazis or the Red Army as they were occupied by one then the other. Others simply became refugees. Many must have changed sides to stay alive. It wasn’t clear to me where exactly this film was set but there are references to Estonia and to the railway line to Pskov – a town in Western Russia close to the borders with Estonia and Latvia.

Lazarev is a former Red Army soldier who defected to the Germans but now wants to change sides again and fight for the partisans behind the German lines. He surrenders to a group of partisans who might just be expected to shoot him as a traitor. (And this has been argued as one of the reasons that the film was not released under Brezhnev – it was seen as counter to the conduct of the war.) Instead the militia leader (or ‘Senior Citizen Lieutenant’ as the subtitles put it) Lokotkov decides that Lazarev could be useful in an audacious plan to steal a food train. Lokotkov also demonstrates a basic humanity. The ‘trial’ of the title refers to the various struggles within the partisan group over Lazarev and the plans for the train. Lazarev proves himself in an attack which captures a German military car. In doing so one of the other partisans is killed and the Red Army Major attached to the partisans tries to blame Lazarev for the death. But Lokotkov (the leading character in the film) gets his way and the plans are brought to fruition. The actor playing Lazarev, Vladimir Zamansky, is said to have been cast because he was not a celebrated actor or a recognisable face. He struck me as an enigmatic but attractive figure, often silent but with a face that could light up – the only flaw in the casting for me was the notion that he had been a taxi driver before the war (I probably have the wrong view of taxi drivers). The main point is that although he does perform ‘heroically’ in redeeming his earlier conduct in going over to the enemy, he can’t be the official ‘hero’ required by the censorship authorities under Brezhnev.

Realism and humanism in war: Lokotkov the wise and thoughtful partisan leader stands up from bathing his feet to argue against the Red Army officer.

Realism and humanism in war: Lokotkov the wise and thoughtful partisan leader stands up from bathing his feet to argue against the Red Army officer.

This is warfare of the most brutal kind carried out in an almost post-apocalyptic wasteland of snow-covered plains, ramshackle villages and sparse woods. German shot the film in black and white with three different cinematographers used for his complex tracking shots across the terrain. Two of the set piece scenes are among the best I’ve ever seen. In one German soldiers appear as wraiths out of the fog overwhelming a Russian lookout. I know that’s been done before but the handling of the scene is terrific. I won’t spoil the second example which was just stunning. The ending of the film celebrates the advance of the Red Army into Germany, but again the director avoids the triumphal and the super-heroism decreed by Soviet socialist realism. Instead he hones in on comradeship and a meeting of the principals from the food train hijack.

This is a must see. I discovered that a free download at reasonable quality is on the Internet Archive website (with links to an English subtitle file. None of German’s films is easily available on DVD outside Russia yet his high status as a filmmaker is not in doubt. If anyone else is brave enough to screen this in a cinema near you, drop everything and go.

Look at Me (Comme une image, France-Italy 2004)

Ettiene (Jean-Pierre Bacri) and his daughter Lolita (Marilou Berry)

Etienne (Jean-Pierre Bacri) and his daughter Lolita (Marilou Berry)

I’m looking again at some French ‘comedy’ films as part of work on Cherchez Hortense. In Comme une image, the partnership of Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri offers the same milieu as Cherchez Hortense with Bacri himself as a very different leading character.

Comme une image refers to Lolita, a self-conscious young woman, who is attempting to become a (classical singer). She feels herself to be overweight and unattractive and suffers low esteem because her father Étienne (Bacri), a successful publisher and writer, doesn’t give her much encouragement. (The title could also refer, in a different way, to the father who has a very high opinion of himself – and somehow persuades several others to look ‘up’ to him.) Lolita’s singing teacher Sylvia (Jaoui) is more understanding and through her partner Pierre, also a writer, she meets the publisher. Lolita has a boyfriend who turns out to be interested in her only as a means of getting an introduction to her father. Meanwhile she accidentally meets Sébastien, a young North African-French trainee journalist who she in turn treats badly, though he seems to genuinely care for her. Finally, Karine is Etienne’s new, young and pretty wife, with whom he has a small daughter, step-sister to Lolita. Karine also struggles to maintain her esteem in the face of Etienne’s sarcasm and cruel wit.

‘Comme une image’ is also the title of the novel written by Pierre who becomes drawn into Etienne’s circle. The narrative actually follows the creative projects of Lolita (to sing in a group performance), Pierre (to promote his current title and to start the next) and Etienne (to get over his writer’s block). The strains between the characters culminate in the singing concert at a country church and an after-show party hosted by Eitienne in his nearby country house. The brilliance of the film, directed by Jaoui and co-written by her and Bacri, is in its humanist/realist approach to dialogue and settings. Its conventional staging directs our attention to the swift interchange of lines that seem believable rather than scripted for effect. Bacri is extremely effective as Eitienne who sometimes seems genuinely surprised that others find him cold, cruel, unfeeling etc. and indeed he often speaks and acts in ways that most of us would probably want to emulate at certain times, but are too polite to actually carry through. But if Etienne is at times insufferable, even the most sympathetic character, Sylvia, is capable of anger towards someone else – hurting their feelings (even though she is arguably justified in venting her anger). Most of the characters are simply too weak to risk Etienne’s displeasure – feeling that his patronage will benefit them.

Agnes Jaoui on set (from the blog at http://jaouibacri.blogspot.co.uk/

Agnès Jaoui on set (from the blog at http://jaouibacri.blogspot.co.uk/

I’ve seen Woody Allen mentioned as a reference point for the Jaoui/Bacri films and I can see some resemblances but overall I find the differences more striking. Comme une image is intelligent and serious, yet somehow also light and entertaining. It never strikes me (as Allen’s films sometimes do) as ‘smart’, ‘knowing’ etc. with the expectation of a possible gag or self-conscious aside. (But this may be because I’ve given up on Woody Allen films for many years now.) When I first saw this film on its cinema release I don’t think I was aware of Jaoui’s background which is in part Tunisian-Jewish (the North African Jewish connection is also evident in the backgrounds of Claude Lelouch and Joann Sfar). I don’t recognise any connection to the New York Jewish humour of Woody Allen (I’m sure somebody can correct me on that) but in Comme une image, there is a nicely judged pair of scenes in which Sebastién’s North African heritage is commented on and sensitively ‘dealt with’ as an issue.

Comme une image is a ‘comedy’ because it has a happy ending for two of the main characters. Some of the dialogue is witty but mainly the humour comes from the human frailties displayed by all the characters. I’ve seen the film described as social satire, but I think that usually satire is sharper and more exaggerated. This has an effective satire effect but it is more subtle. I think that the film is a triumph for Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri. He is a very good actor and writer but she manages to sing and to direct as well. Formidable!

Here’s an American trailer (note that the film was a Cannes Prizewinner for the Script):

The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza, Italy-France 2013)

Galatea Ranzi and Toni Servillo © DCM Filmverleih

Galatea Ranzi and Toni Servillo © DCM Filmverleih

During the first half of this film (that I knew had been a Cannes success earlier this year) I did wonder what I was going to get out of it – apart from a terrific soundtrack, production design and camerawork. At the end I was genuinely surprised that 140 minutes had passed. As I began to read about it I realised that I had taken in much more than I had been conscious of at the time. This is certainly highly intelligent and literate cinema focusing on a world I’ve never experienced, though as I’m roughly the same age as the central character I can understand his reactions to events whether they are dramatic, mundane or surreal. I’m still not sure whether I ‘enjoyed’ the film, but I was certainly engrossed by it.

This is the fifth film written and directed by the Neapolitan Paulo Sorrentino since 2001’s One Man Up. The two most successful and best known in the UK are The Consequences of Love (2004) and Il Divo (2008). The central character Jep Gambardella is played by Sorrentino regular Toni Servillo. Jep is a flâneur, a journalist who once wrote an acclaimed novel as a young man but who is now at 65 primarily a socialite who knows all the leading figures of Rome’s high society. As many commentators have suggested, The Great Beauty appears at first glance to draw on Fellini’s La dolce vita from 1960, especially given its mixture of parties and social events attended by the glitterati and religious leaders of Rome and located in beautiful gardens, palaces etc (as well as Jep’s own apartment by the Coliseum). But in the earlier film Marcello Mastroianni is a journalist in his thirties and Rome is a rejuvenated city enjoying the economic boom in post-war Italy. By contrast, Jep is 65 and his Rome appears defeated (if still beautiful, at least in its classical buildings). The Great Beauty is a film about death and regret – but it does end on a note that is both melancholy and potentially positive.

The Great Beauty is so stylish with its impeccable CinemaScope compositions and crane shots and its almost operatic use of music and staging that its layered narrative and snappy dialogue are easily lost in an aesthetic swoon. There is a distinct sense of loss and waste – quite literally in the characters who disappear. The film is so stuffed with literary references that without a great deal of background it isn’t possible to read the narrative fully. The film begins with what I think are the opening lines of Journey to the End of Night (1932) by Céline – a novel I don’t know and had to look up. Jep constantly refers to Flaubert and the concept of nothingness. As far as I can work out this nothingness is a condition both of his own life and of Rome itself. I recommend the article by Pasquale Iannone in Sight & Sound, October 2013 as helpful in trying to make sense of the film. Like Iannone, I was struck by several scenes which seemed indebted to Buñuel. Iannone refers to the animals in surreal settings but I also thought of the haute bourgeoisie ‘trapped’ in social situations at dinner, at parties etc. In the press notes Sorrentino discusses his collaboration with screenwriter Umberto Contarello and how he views Rome still as a superior kind of tourist attraction, even though he has made it his home. This idea is enunciated in Jep’s voiceover. Rome is indeed a city ‘eternal’ in its attractions and mysteries, seductive yet ’empty’. Sorrentino tells us that the film is in effect a paean to classical Italian cinema, its directors, stars and films. I don’t think I know that cinema well enough to comment but I did think, during the latter stages of the film, about an Italian director who was actually born in Rome (unlike Sorrentino or Fellini and Pasolini, both discussed by Sorrentino). Oddly, Roberto Rossellini’s Era notte a Roma (Italy 1960), although a completely different kind of film, does share some ingredients including the fading aristocracy and the power plays of the church.

I can appreciate that The Great Beauty would probably repay a second or even a third viewing. It also features a soundtrack that deserves further attention. The film seems to be doing reasonable business in the UK (nearly £500,000 after ten days). Perhaps the stir at Cannes in May has helped. Given the splendour of its sound and images I suspect that the Blu-ray may do well.

Metro Manila (Philippines/UK 2013)

(From left) Andy Willis, Sean Ellis, jake, Robin Foster

(From left) Andy Willis, Sean Ellis, Jake Macapagal, Robin Foster

Cinema 2 in Cornerhouse Manchester was the intimate venue for a preview of Metro Manila with support from BAFTA North. The screening attracted an enthusiastic audience including members of the local Filipino community and afterwards Andy Willis, Reader in Film Studies at Salford University, hosted a Q&A with writer-director Sean Ellis, lead actor Jake Macapagal and music composer Robin Foster.

The script for Metro Manila was written by Sean Ellis and Frank E. Flowers in English and then translated into Tagalog more or less as it was shot. The story was developed from an incident witnessed by Ellis during his first visit to Manila. The cast was recruited locally, led by Jake Macapagal, a local theatre actor. Sean Ellis, who has a background first as a photographer and then as an award-winning shorts director (this is his third feature), shot the film himself. Its first appearance was at Sundance in January 2013 where it won the Audience Award. Since then it has played in France and Belgium. It opens in the UK on September 20th and then has a wide release in the Philippines in October. Sean Ellis suggested that his film “slides from world cinema into a genre thriller”. I was troubled by this statement as ‘world cinema’ still seems like a spurious term – more on this below.

The story is universal and Ellis agreed with an audience comment that it could have been set anywhere. The treatment however places it firmly in Manila. Oscar and Mai and their two small children are forced to leave rural Philippines when the price they receive for the rice they have grown drops dramatically. They travel to the capital in the hope of finding work and they are ripped off like every ‘country’ couple who don’t have friends or family to help them. Mai is forced to take a job in a sleazy bar and Oscar eventually finds employment as a security guard when a recruiter realises that this applicant has served time on military service. Everything seems to be going well at this point – but perhaps too well? Against his will, Oscar finds himself in a dangerous situation with little room for manoeuvre. The final third of the film leads us into familiar crime thriller territory, but there is a further plot twist which returns attention to the social question about rural poverty and the terrors of the big city.

I should say straightaway that the film, as a production, is a remarkable achievement. Language was clearly a key issue. Ellis doesn’t speak Tagalog and the kind of language used in commercial Filipino film and television did not seem appropriate (it’s a conventional language used for popular film and television melodramas). Jake Macapagal explained that the cast tried to use the street language of Manila as seemed appropriate in translating the script. I found this fascinating as Ellis explained that the film was edited for the subtitling – in other words, shots would be chosen with start and end points in the edit, not for the flow of the scene, but because of the time needed to screen the subtitles. Of course, for a predominantly English audience the film looked fine. The Filipino audience members said that they could follow both dialogue and titles. The camerawork, performance and music all worked well and the story is gripping all the way through. My only hesitancy was over the narrative resolution (which I won’t spoil). I find the concept of ‘world cinema’ to ‘crime thriller’ problematic. It’s ‘world cinema’ I don’t like and what it implies (a film intended to be seen mainly in international festivals and art cinemas). I would prefer the film to have a consistent style and it was the case that as the thriller narrative developed we lost some of the sense of ‘experiencing’ the city that came over so strongly in the opening scenes.

Oscar (in the background) works as back-up for

Oscar (in the background) works as back-up for Ong (John Arcilla)

The response to Metro Manila so far has, not surprisingly, made comparisons with the other two titles involving young British directors making independent features outside the UK in challenging locations. Gareth Evans’ Indonesian-set The Raid (2011) and Gareth Edwards’ Mexico-set Monsters (2010) are both more clearly identifiable as genre pictures. I haven’t seen The Raid but the reports I have read suggest that it is possibly more ‘rooted’ in Indonesian popular culture than Monsters with its American couple in Mexico. It’s sad that Rebelle (War Witch, Canada 2011) another film by a Western/’Northern’ filmmaker, this time set in Africa, hasn’t been released in the UK. Watching it in the same Cornerhouse screen last year as part of the ‘French Connection’ season, it struck me as completely successful and arguably melding what Ellis refers to as ‘world cinema’ and the thriller. I guess the central question about Metro Manila is whether the thriller elements interfere in any way with the sense of authenticity that the realist street approach achieves in the first third of the film.

I confess to relatively little knowledge of Filipino culture and I wish I knew more. In particular, I wish I knew more about the ‘creolisation’ of local culture following Spanish colonialism and then American economic colonialism. In the opening scenes of Metro Manila (see the trailer below) the rice paddies farmed by Oscar and Mia are located in a landscape that reminded me of scenes from Latin-American films – an effect reinforced by the gaudily decorated truck that took them to Manila. In the Q&A we learned that the ‘street version’ of Tagalog includes both Spanish and English words and the film includes several important references to Catholicism that I’d like to know more about in its Filipino setting.

I’ve suggested a couple of possible reservations about the film but I want to recommend the film strongly. I plan to watch it again soon and I’ll be paying more attention to the camerawork and to the narrative structure – I realised during the final sequences that the structure is quite complex with a voiceover and flashbacks that I didn’t fully work out.

Thanks to Rachel Hayward, Andy Willis and his guests and all the Cornerhouse staff who put on this excellent session.

Here’s the French trailer (there isn’t any dialogue in it) which represents the film well: