BIFF 2013 #1: The Look of Love (UK 2012)

Steve Coogan (right) with Imogen Poots and Chris Addison

Steve Coogan (right) with Imogen Poots as Debbie and Chris Addison as the magazine editor Tony Power

BIFF19logoBradford has often opened with a new British film and British cinema has been an important element of the festival. On the face of it The Look of Love looks like a good choice. Michael Winterbottom is a celebrated if controversial director, Steve Coogan has done some of his best work with Michael and the subject matter is promising. . . . On the other hand, biopics are notoriously difficult to get right. Writer Matt Greenhalgh scripted one of the best with Control and I’ve admired Michael Winterbottom’s work since I first saw Welcome to Sarajevo on a big screen in 1997. After Wonderland in 1999 I was convinced that he was the most exciting UK director around. Since then I’ve liked nearly everything he’s done and I’ve been dismayed by the failure of most of his best films to get the recognition they deserve in terms of big audiences. I think Winterbottom’s problem has been to find a new writing partner after his successful collaborations with Frank Cottrell-Boyce and his irregular link-ups with Laurence Coriat. Before the screening my main concern was how the notorious workaholic guerilla filmmaker with thirty-odd films to his name would get on with a scriptwriter who had previously worked with first-time feature directors. You can’t really get a better combination of Lancashire names than Greenhalgh-Winterbottom, so I’m sure that they got on at a personal level, but for me the film didn’t work.

Let’s take the positives first. The audience clapped at the end and several people said how much they liked it. The performances in the film were all good and the soundtrack must have cost a few bob with some nice tunes from the 1960s-1980s. After that I start to struggle. The Look of Love tells the story of Paul Raymond, the Liverpool-born ‘failed entertainer’ who became a very successful impresario in the demi-world of first nude shows in the 1950s then strip clubs and his Revuebar in Soho and eventually a softporn publishing empire. His stroke of genius (sorry, there is a pun there which was not intentional, but that’s how the ‘nudge, wink’ world works) was to put his profits into property in the West End. By the late 1990s he was one of the richest men in the UK. But money can’t buy you love – even if you do know the Beatles. Raymond’s family life was a mess, particularly in relation to his daughter who would do anything to please her father. He was seemingly a father who could not really understand the damage that he did.

In the Q & A that followed, Matt Greenhalgh answered a question about what was not in the film (e.g. Raymond’s possible dealings with criminals etc.) by saying that there were too many stories. He also said that he hadn’t done deep research in Soho. Instead, it seems that he latched onto the story of Debbie, the daughter (played by Imogen Poots). He also implied that he didn’t get to tell that story fully, because the film was really the idea of Steve Coogan who wanted to play Raymond. Here is possibly the major problem with the film. Steve Coogan, whose performances in The Trip and 24 Hour Party People I admire, is miscast as Raymond, or rather he can’t or won’t, play Raymond as a ‘character’ in this fiction. He remains Coogan, on a couple of occasions addressing the camera to say “My name is Paul Raymond”, winking at the camera on another occasion and then doing Coogan impressions of Sean Connery later Marlon Brando.

The film wants to tell the story from the 1950s to the 1990s. Raymond was born in 1925 so he was in his late 60s by the end of the film. Coogan does actually look a little like Raymond in his 60s, but he also always looks like Coogan. He’s not really helped by the film’s production design. The 1950s sequences use black and white but from then on, Soho looks more or less the same over the next forty years. You have to guess from the clothes which decade is which. For someone who was once the most audacious director around for devising a unique aesthetic approach, Winterbottom seems to have abandoned the task this time. It’s probably not helped by the absence of Marcel Zyskind whose camerawork has been the basis of that aesthetic since he acted as operator for Robbie Muller on 24 Hour Party People in 2002. (He shot two episodes of the third series of The Killing in his native Denmark in 2012 instead.)

At the end of the Q&A we got the inevitable (and justifiable) question about the film’s objectification of women. Of course, a film about a man who runs strip clubs and a soft porn publishing house has to show something, but the question (from a well-known film studies professor) was why was the film so complicit, so chummy in its representations of Raymond – and why were there no male genitalia to complement the numerous full frontals of dozens of actresses? It’s a fair point, but my feeling is that the film simply didn’t offer anything ‘strong’ to react against. Raymond wasn’t a hypocrite. He didn’t peddle Page 3 or attack women like the Daily Mail does now. He published ‘top shelf’ magazines and ran clubs that made money from the gullibility of men seeking excitement. The acres of flesh seemed to me just dull, but that was what much of that softporn world in the UK was like in the 1970s and 1980s. British representations of sex were at one time mostly comical. If they were sexy it was because of an element of realism – the ‘Readers’ Wives’ aesthetic if you like. It’s ironic that in one scene it’s just possible to glimpse a poster of Joe Losey’s The Servant (a poster for Billy Liar appears in another scene). There is much more eroticism in one look from Dirk Bogarde or a wriggle by Sarah Miles than in the whole of The Look of Love. Having said that, at least the women in Winterbottom’s film looked ‘real’ and not sculpted and plucked like Christmas turkeys. Anna Friel and Tamsin Egerton as Raymond’s wife Jean and his girlfriend Fiona Richmond make the most of what they are offered, but they deserved more. There is a story in here, probably more than one, but they need to be told in such a way to bring out not just the personal relationships but also something about the changes in British social life over the period. If it had more bite the film would be more entertaining and might also generate some debate.

You Are God (Jesteś Bogiem, Poland 2012)

Marcin Kowalczyk as ‘Magik’ in ‘You Are God’

I went to this screening by accident and it was only afterwards that I learned that this was the most anticipated Polish release of the year. It opened in Poland and in the UK and Ireland on 21 September and you still have the chance to see it at selected Cineworld multiplexes. The title refers (I think) to one of the songs by Hip Hop trio Paktofonika who were active between 1998 and 2000. The film is a music biopic of sorts covering the short career of the trio from Silesia in industrialised Southern Poland.

It’s always fun to watch a film with absolutely no pre-conceptions. I don’t know a great deal about Hip Hop and I had no knowledge of the band. Because of this I relied on what I knew of youth pictures and social realist dramas. In some ways the film reminded me of Flying Pigs (Poland 2010) the football-based drama shown at this year’s Bradford Film Festival.

Since I didn’t know this was a true story, I did wonder at one point if this would become a social realist drama rather than a music film. I compared it to Ken Loach or Shane Meadows, the Dardennes Brothers and other realist filmmakers. It is presented in a CinemaScope frame and there is heavy use of shallow focus, especially against the grim housing estates of Katowice. Also, the palette seems to have been reduced to greens, blues and browns to emphasise the drabness. It seemed both stylised and observational in its aesthetic approach and I was interested to learn that the director Leszek Dawid  trained at the famous Lódź film school, specialising in documentaries. He won a prize at the Gdynia Polish Film Festival for this film and prizes also went to Marcin Kowalczyk as ‘Magik’ and Dawid Ogrodnik and Tomasz Schuchardt, the two supporting actors playing ‘Focus’ and ‘Rahim’. My feeling certainly was that these three young actors – and the other performers playing friends or family  – were some of the strongest elements in the film. There are some similarities to the UK film Control (about Joy Division) and I was quite impressed by the music, even if I don’t know much about it. The weakest part of the film seemed to be the script (remember I didn’t know it was based on a true story) and I didn’t really understand why it ended as it did. I was relieved to see that the festival reviewer felt the same way.

Find out more about the true story and the coverage of the film in the Polish media on Culture.pl and the Polish Cultural Institute. The surprising feature of the Culture.pl coverage is the reference to the importance of the film in critiquing ‘degenerate Polish capitalism of the post-transformation era’ and the attack on consumerism (i.e. the band’s ‘art’ against the consumerist society). The festival review also refers to the film’s script as being claimed as a “post-1989 Man of Marble” (the famous film by Andrzej Wajda), but then finding its statements about consumerism naïve. I guess we are so used to these kinds of narratives in Anglo-American films that the anti-consumerism didn’t really register with me – it just seemed like a conventional element in a music film about ‘rebel’ musicians. Another lesson about watching films more carefully and more objectively perhaps?

Here’s the trailer with English subs (beware that the comments below give away the ending if you don’t want to know it – but if you know about the band, you’ll know the ending anyway):

Films From the South #12: Tatsumi (Singapore 2011)

Tatsumi is a rather wonderful film that was released domestically in Singapore after winning plaudits at various festivals. It’s an unusual animated film that successfully manages to combine a biography of a Japanese manga author with representations of several of his stories to produce a coherent narrative. But as director Eric Khoo remarked after its screening here in Oslo it still has to go to the Tokyo International Film Festival and that will have a bearing on how the film fares in the Japanese market. It’s due out in the UK in January 2012 via Soda and international sales are stacking up via the German agents The Match Factory.

The Oslo screening was accompanied by an exhibition of the original artwork used in the film and introduced by Eric Khoo himself.

Eric Khoo introduces his film with some of frames from the exhibition visible behind him.

Eric Khoo was once himself a comic book artist but he had not thought that he had the patience to undertake an animated production . . . until he read the autobiographical manga, The Drifting Life by Tatsumi Yoshihiro published in 2009. See this website for previews of Tatsumi’s work in new Canadian published editions. Tatsumi (born 1935) became associated in Japan with a new form of manga dealing with much more realist themes and named gekiga, a term Tatsumi is said to have originated and which was taken up by some other writers. This might be seen as similar to the development of ‘graphic novel’ as a term in North America. Khoo’s problem was that he didn’t speak Japanese and he knew he must get full co-operation from Tatsumi himself. He managed to arrange an interview via a friend at Fuji Film and managed to convince Tatsumi that any film that he made would be faithful to the Tatsumi drawing style.

To produce the film, Khoo’s company Zhao Wei films  worked with Infinite Frameworks (ifw) a company based in Singapore and the Indonesian island of Batam (only 40 miles away by fast boat) with whom Khoo had made several previous films. This local co-operation produced Tatsumi relatively quickly and inexpensively – without sacrificing any quality. They developed a very simple animation style that used Tatsumi’s original drawings as a model but also colouring some of the earlier black and white outlines. In this YouTube clip, Khoo and the animators explain how they approached the task (beware it is also an ad for Intel and Hewlett-Packard!):

Tatsumi was a young teenager in the immediate post-war period in Japan under the Allied Occupation. His first success as a manga story-teller came early and he was inspired by both competition from his brother and by meeting one of the leading manga/anime figures of the day Tezuka Osamu. But eventually Tatsumi tired of what he felt were the constrictions of manga aimed primarily at children and he developed the gekiga form in the late 1950s. Interestingly he returned to his memories of the immediate postwar period in his new work. Stories such as ‘Hell’ (the aftermath of the Hiroshima bomb) and ‘Goodbye’ (about a prostitute whose clients are American GIs) set up a tone that is also present in more contemporary (i.e. 1970s) stories about alienation from work and family in ‘Beloved Monkey’, ‘Occupied’ and ‘Just a Man’. I’m fascinated by these two periods of Japanese Cinema (and literature) so I found these stories – and the surrounding material relating to Tatsumi’s struggles to get them published – very engaging. It will be interesting to see what kinds of audience reactions the film gets on its international release. I would hope that it would receive as much attention as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, but I think that film has a much more recognisable story and theme. I would urge you to give Tatsumi a go. I’m sure that you will recognise some of the images from Japanese Cinema and then find the story of Tatsumi the artist as interesting as I do.

Vallanzasca – Gli angeli del male (Angels of Evil, Italy/France/Romania 2010)

Kim Rossi Stuart as Renato Vallanzasca in one of the prison scenes

Angels of Evil is a stylish Italian entry into the crime biopic genre which has seen a recent resurgence with the success of the two Mesrine films starring Vincent Cassell. It’s also related to another recent biopic, the mammoth take on the international revolutionary criminal Carlos. But perhaps it is best considered alongside recent fictional crime sagas such as Animal Kingdom, Un prophète and Gomorra.

The central character in Angels of Evil is Renato Vallanzasca,  a Milanese street kid born in 1950 who gravitates towards bank robberies and eventually becomes Italy’s ‘most wanted’ partly because he becomes involved with the deaths of police officers. The film begins with one of his many prison terms and then reveals his story in flashback. What is noticeable is the extent to which Vallanzasca’s no doubt partly romanticised biography so closely resembles a typical crime genre narrative. For instance, his gang includes his blood brother from the streets, Enzo, a man who may have learning difficulties but who is certainly a highly dangerous companion, and his ‘little sister’ Antonella from the same background. Renato’s parents remain supportive throughout (it seems barely credible that in one of his breakouts from prison, Renato goes to his parents’ flat).

Generically, the film is very close to Mesrine and Renato is represented as almost a Robin Hood type figure, a generally honourable character who shows up the inadequacies of the police and prison service and appeals directly to the public. I was reminded at times of the idea of the Italian ‘outlaw’ figure and Eric Hobsbawm’s ideas about ‘social bandits’. I haven’t seen Francesco Rosi’s film about the Sicilian bandit Lucky Luciano but I wonder if there are any parallels. Vallanzasca is not a rural bandit of course. But his street origins in the early 1960s do mean that he is an ‘outsider’ and one of the narrative strands in the film deals with his attempts to oust the more established crime families in Milan. I’ve seen criticisms of the film complaining that given its time span (primarily the 1970s and 1980s) it doesn’t say enough about the changing nature of organised crime in Italy. I confess that I couldn’t keep track of all of the action in the film and the various groups from different crime organisations but I did note that Renato (like all ‘old-time’ criminals in genre films) bemoans the young thugs and their mindless violence, believing that he himself was ‘honorable’. I’ve just finished reading an Italian crime fiction novel about the Calabrian criminal families and I was intrigued to see that they get a mention here alongside the Sicilians.

I thought Angels of Evil was an enjoyable (if very bloody) genre film on a par with Mesrine but lacking the intensity of Un prophète or Gomorra. The central performance by Kim Rossi Stuart is its strongest element alongside the two young women played by Valeria Soleano and the Spanish actress Paz Vega (as Antonella). The multi-lingual German actor Moritz Bleibtreu plays one of the gang members. Rossi Stuart also starred in director Michele Placido’s earlier crime film Romanzo criminale (2005) – a very similar package about a criminal gang in Rome in the 1970s which I haven’t seen. Overall I have to agree with a reviewer who suggested that the film reveals a cast and crew who most enjoyed dressing up for the 1970s/80s scenes.

Angels of Evil is that now rare beast – a widescreen ‘popular’ European genre picture that struggles to get even a limited UK release, even though it was part-produced by Fox International Italy and Canal+. Once, such films, often dubbed, received a wide release in the UK. Ironically, Italian domestic production is on something of a roll at the moment scoring multiple hits at home. Angels of Evil opened at No4 in the Italian Top 20 in January 2011 (when 4 out of the Top 5 were Italian ‘domestic features’). When it dropped out of the Top 20 after four weeks the film had taken $3.76 million. It might do quite well when it opens in France in September.

Iron Lord (Yaroslav. Tysyachu let nazad, Russia 2010)

Yaroslav (Aleksandr Ivashkevich) leads his men into another small settlement in Iron Lord.

This is the second recent pick-up of a Russian historical biopic by the UK distributor Revolver for a DVD release, following Admiral which we reviewed a few weeks ago. Both films were released in Russia by 20th Century Fox. As with Admiral, the film appears to be an ideology-driven film celebrating one of the first leaders to unite the principalities that would eventually become Russia. In some respects therefore the premise for the film recalls that of Zhang Yimou’s Hero about the king who first united China – though the actual narrative is quite different.

Historical outline

1010, the steppes of western Asia/Eastern Europe. The central character is Yaroslav (hence the Russian title of the film) son of Vladimir, ruler of what was in the early eleventh century, Rus’ or Kievan Rus’, with its capital in Kiev. Yaroslav is given the task of ruling the furthest territory controlled by his father, the wild lands of the North East around Rostov. Kievan Rus figures in Russian history as a ‘medieval polity’ that saw a concentration of power amongst the ‘Eastern Slavs’ before the invasion of their lands by the Mongols in 1230. Kiev is the capital of present-day Ukraine and Rostov is a city in modern Russia some 200 km North-East of Moscow. Rostov is a key city in Russian history and this film celebrates the founding of the city of Yaroslavl, now the major city of the region, 1,000 years ago.

Yaroslav has to find ways of gaining the trust of the local tribes (so that they will pay ‘tribute’) and fighting off marauding bandits who take prisoners to sell as slaves after being taken down the Volga River. Yaroslav has a central plan to build a fortress in the new territories. The local tribes are pagan but Yaroslav is a Christian and the fortress will also represent the solidity of Christianity. This narrative focuses specifically on a tribal group who worship a Bear god (veles) – a symbol of later Russia? The control of the area is further complicated by the actions of the Varangian (Viking) mercenaries who act as Yaroslav’s personal guards.

A Russian poster featuring one of the romance interests, Svetlana Chuikina as Raida

Genre

In Hollywood terms, this might be a ‘sword and archery’ type of film or a medieval epic – the time period is similar to that of Robin Hood and the Crusades. The presentation of Yaroslav is not unlike that of the Russell Crowe character in Gladiator, especially with the (rather confusing) references to his family. However, the strategies adopted by Yaroslav are also similar to those of a ‘liberal’ commander of the US Cavalry attempting to establish order in ‘Indian Country’, i.e. an imperial mission. Intellect’s Directory of World Cinema: Russia (ed Birgit Beumers, 2011) suggests that the ‘historical film’ has always been a major genre in Russian Cinema in both Soviet and pre- and post-Soviet periods. A second key genre is the action film which the Directory terms the ‘Red Western’ – an allusion to the way in which popular Russian films have borrowed aspects of Hollywood genres extensively since the 1920s. Iron Lord can be seen as an attempt to use these two genre repertoires as the basis for a conventional biopic about an important historical Russian figure.

Commentary

A handsomely mounted film in CinemaScope, this would make a visual spectacle of the plains and forests on a big cinema screen. The visual quality is diminished on a TV screen. There is certainly plenty of action with up to four sets of combatants at different times fighting with swords, arrows, a variety of ingenious booby traps and even a bear or two – but these are all relatively small-scale skirmishes. I was most interested in the historical references and the construction of Yaroslav as an almost saint-like figure. There is a smidgeon of romance and one or two comic characters for light relief but on the whole the film is a relatively straightforward. The performances are fine and the combat scenes are well-handled. The weakness for me is in the script which I found confusing. Without recourse to Wikipedia and other sources I would have struggled to understand who the characters were and why they were acting in the ways they did – I’m still not sure that I fully understood the narrative. (The subtitles are OK but some Russian intertitles are not translated.)

Re-branding the film Iron Lord strikes me as misleading. Yaroslav is almost the opposite – he is ‘wise’ not brutal in this narrative and he spends much of the time in captivity or negotiation. Of course, few people outside Russia will know who Yaroslav was so the Russian title probably wouldn’t work either. The film was released in Russia on 550 prints and also has had a release in Ukraine and Germany. It lasted only one week in the Russian Top Ten so presumably audiences are too engaged with Hollywood product to lap up this kind of patriotic film. Revolver announce that the film is “from the same studio that brought you Black Death“. I’m not sure what this means – I couldn’t find any link between the two films. On the other hand, there has been a recent cycle of UK/Nordic/German films of this type (the most recent being Ironclad, 2011).

I couldn’t find much about any of the cast and crew. Most seem either to have come from TV or to be new to the industry according to IMDb. What I did find, however, was that a Soviet era version of the story was adapted as a 156 mins film in 1983. I’d like to see that for comparison. I wonder what happened to all those popular genre films made by Soviet era studios?

DVD Release

Revolver release the DVD on August 1 via the usual retailers. There is a website at http://ironlord.co.uk complete with a clip from the film. Or see it on YouTube at:

Admiral (Russia 2008)

Admiral Kolchak receives tribute from White Russian forces and proclaims himself 'Supreme Ruler'

Picked up by Metrodome for a UK DVD release, Admiral is an interesting example of the new Russian popular cinema that is now emerging in one of the fastest growing cinema markets in the world. This month Screen International has a feature in which analysts predict that the Russian box office will grow to as many as 300 million admissions by 2015 (from 165 million in 2010). If this happens it will see Russia as the fourth biggest market behind India, US and China. However, most of this growth is due to Hollywood blockbusters and local films still struggle to compete. Admiral has been the second most successful Russian film of recent years (taking $33.7 million in Russia) and it involves some of the same cast and crew as the other two most popular films The Irony of Fate 2 and Day Watch. The other important institutional factor to note is that the film is actually a 2 hour cut from a 10 hour TV mini-series. That’s an extreme form of compression by anyone’s standards.

Outline (spoilers – but this is a biopic!)

The Admiral of the title is Aleksandr Kolchak (1874-1920), an important historical figure in Russian history. Kolchak was first a polar explorer and then a hero of both the Russian-Japanese War of 1904-5 and the First World War naval engagements between the Imperial Navies of Russia and Germany in 1916. It is with these engagements that the film’s narrative begins. During celebrations of a naval victory, Kolchak meets and falls in love with the beautiful young wife of his friend and deputy. – much to the dismay of both his friend and his own wife. Following the Tsar’s abdication, Kolchak managed to retain his authority (largely through being sent to America to help the US Navy). He is able to return to the Russian Far East where he seizes control of the White Forces in the Civil War against the newly formed Red Army. Throughout this period his new love Anna attempts to be with him while his wife and son are in exile in Paris. The film narrative is book-ended by a scene set in the Mosfilm Studios during Sergei Bondarchuk’s production of War and Peace in 1964. Anna, who survived the Civil War but was then imprisoned, is now able to appear in public – but is a role in a ‘patriotic film’, even as an extra, appropriate?

Commentary

An expensive production ($20 million according to Wikipedia) Admiral certainly looks the part – although it suffers like most modern ‘spectacular films’ from the problems of CGI battle scenes. Visually, it works best as a costume drama. The major problem is clearly the compression of the narrative which inevitably means that the story leaps about through time and space. I confess that apart from the two leads, I found it difficult to track certain characters through the narrative. Partly this was because of the strange experience of watching naval officers transmuted into army officers. If you don’t know the history of the Russian Civil War, I recommend at least an outline scan of events before watching the film. (The film does not purport to be an exact historical reconstruction.) It’s difficult to work out the extent to which the balance between the war combat/military planning narrative and the romance has been affected by the compression. I suspect that purchasers of the DVD expecting an epic combat film will be disappointed by the way in which the romance comes to the fore. The romance fails for me because Elizaveta Boyarskaya who plays Anna is certainly beautiful but appears to have little else in her performance that represents the passion the character feels for Kolchak. Konstantin Habensky who plays the Admiral is perhaps the most popular contemporary Russian actor and is believable as the central character, although he looks a little young. The obvious films that audiences in the West will use for comparison are Dr Zhivago (1965) and War and Peace (King Vidor 1956). Ms Boyarskaya doesn’t stand much chance up against Julie Christie or Audrey Hepburn.

For me the most interesting aspect of the film is its ideological work. It’s always an odd experience watching a film in which you find yourself being asked to follow the exploits of the enemy when your own side is not being shown. Not that this is impossible since I’ve never really had a problem with supporting Sergeant Steiner and his men in Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron even if they are part of the Wehrmacht fighting the Red Army. But that’s because they are professional soldiers simply trying to survive and ignore the Nazi officer who they distrust. In the case of Admiral, however, we are asked to support a man who became what some commentators have termed a proto-fascist dictator as ‘Supreme Chief of Russian Forces’. His own ideology seems to be church and ‘homeland’, expressed in patrician and aristocratic terms. The film makes no attempt to humanise the Bolsheviks and they are represented as little more than thugs in most cases – apart from some of the guards in the final sequence. I did quite like the ways in which the guards struggled to find different ways to address the Admiral in the new language of the revolution. ‘Mr Kolchak’ was the last one I think (according to the subtitles).

It’s a shame that the film doesn’t give us the whole story as Kolchak’s early life is intriguing. A character with more shades to his personal character might be more interesting. As it is this seems like a crude attempt to valorise a Putin-like figure. Channel One was a major funder of the film and I think this TV channel is still majority owned by the Russian state. Possibly the TV mini-series has more nuances and contradictions but if you want a corrective to this view of the Civil War I recommend Miklós Jancsó‘s The Red and the White (Hungary 1968). One last point – the image at the head of this post shows the British and American flags. There is, I think, little knowledge in the UK of the part played by Churchill in particular in sending British forces and encouraging other allies to support the Whites in 1918-9 and to try to strangle the Russian Soviets at birth.

A Russian trailer (with English subs):

BIFF 2011 #19: Goya (East Germany/Russia/Bulgaria/Yugoslavia/Poland 1971)

In one of the film's funniest sequences, Goya shuffles the line-up of the Spanish Royal Family for a famous (and satirical) painting.

The biggest treat for me and many others in this year’s festival was a rare chance to see one of the epic productions from Eastern Europe that competed with Hollywood’s international productions in the 1960s and 1970s. We were told that this was probably the first time that the film had been shown in the UK and that the print was probably one prepared for a screening in Paris at its time of release. The fact that it was a 70mm print in good condition was arguably the main attraction for festivalgoers on the Widescreen Weekend. There was only one slight problem. This print had German dialogue and French subtitles. My French and German are both too poor to deal with complex dialogue so I did miss some aspects of the plot – I’ve had to research the life of Francisco Goya in order to try to sort out some scenes. Though I felt slightly frustrated, this didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the film. I hear German slightly better than French, but I found myself blotting out the dialogue and reading the subtitles. I think that this shows how ‘institutionalised’ one can be in reading subtitles. I also noted that because I was reading a language I only dimly remember learning, I often couldn’t decipher the whole subtitle line before it had disappeared. This at least means that I can now appreciate the difficulty slow readers have with subtitles. The film did actually include some dubbing since two language versions (German and Russian) were produced and actors came from several countries.

Goya is a biopic of the Spanish painter (1746-1828) who straddled the final years of the tradition of the old masters and the birth of modern fine art. The full German title of the film is Goya – oder Der arge Weg der Erkenntnis, which translates as Goya – or the Hard Way to Enlightenment. This full title gives a clue to what marks this film out from the several other Goya biopics (a Spanish film appeared in the same year and the most recent film to feature Goya was Milos Forman’s Goya’s Ghost (2006)). Goya as envisioned in Eastern Europe was a figure who had created for himself a position of some importance as a ‘court painter’ to Spain’s ancien régime. But he was also a man of sexual appetite, a believer in the rights of his Spanish compatriots and a supremely talented artist eager to try new ideas and develop new techniques. It was inevitable that he would struggle in a situation in which ‘enlightenment’, embodied in the French philosophes of the late 18th century, would come to Spain, first peacefully but eventually via war and occupation. In the meantime, Goya and other liberal figures faced not only the protocols of court but also the terrible power of the ‘Spanish Inquisition’. Being labelled a heretic could lead to flogging, imprisonment and then exile – even for those who ‘abjured’.

Goya was one of ten films made at the great DEFA studio in Berlin in a 70mm format. The sheer scale and cost of the film required resources from across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Yugoslavia stood in for Spain but a genuine Spanish musical group contributed to the score. The original cut was some 164 mins (with an interval) but this print was 134 mins and we watched it straight through. This is described as the ‘director’s cut’ in the DVD promotional material but there was discussion around this screening as to what actually prompted the decision to cut the film. The popular theory was that because the film was quite complicated in terms of narrative, the cuts were made because there was a danger of audience alienation. This is interesting because in my experience cutting often makes a narrative more, not less, opaque.

The film was introduced by Wolfram Hanneman (see his introduction here) who told us we would find the film ‘difficult’ even without the language issues. I didn’t really take this on board at the time, but when I researched Goya’s life afterwards I realised that the film was non-linear in its presentation of events. Since the juxtaposition of scenes still made sense in terms of revealing Goya’s ‘path to enlightenment’, this didn’t bother me too much. I don’t really have any strong feelings about 70mm (the main interest for much of the audience) and I can’t really comment on the quality of the print, except that it seemed in pretty good nick. The production was indeed epic and there was plenty of visual feasting unencumbered by language difficulties. The remarkable set pieces around the procedures of the Spanish Inquisition work very well and, as Keith remarked afterwards, this is a biopic of an artist that really does seem to say something about creativity and the artistic process. DEFA employed a small army of illustrators and artists to copy Goya’s paintings at different stages of development.

Goya (Donatas Banionis) with The Duchess of Alba (the Yugoslav actress, Olivera Katarina)

The other major interest in the film is Konrad Wolf as director and Donatas Banionis as Goya. The Lithuanian actor Banionis is the cosmonaut in Solaris and I thought he was terrific as Goya (he also played Beethoven in another DEFA biopic). Wolf (1925-1982) is controversial as a German Jew who fled with his communist family to Moscow in the 1930s and was educated and trained in the Soviet Union before returning to Berlin to work at DEFA. Despite his high status within DEFA there must have been some concern that Wolf was pro-Soviet, although others thought that he had liberal tendencies. I found it difficult to discern any authorial thumbprints on the Goya story that might hint at ideological sub-texts. The film was an adaptation of a novel by Lion Feuchtwanger and Wolf shared screenplay credit with the Bulgarian Angel Vargenshtain. This isn’t my field but perhaps someone would like to comment on Wolf’s political views?

A Region 1 DVD of the film with a slightly cropped image is available on Amazon and I’m told some of the extras are interesting. It’ll have to go on my long list of movies to acquire so that I can re-watch it with English subs.