Begin the Beguine (1982)

A slow-moving but heartwarming tale of a Nobel Prize–winning author’s return to the country of his youth is little more than a music video for Pachelbel’s “Canon”.

Begin the BeguineSpain
3*

Director:
José Luis Garci
Screenwriters:
José Luis Garci

Angel Llorente
Director of Photography:
Manuel Rojas

Running time: 85 minutes

Original title: Volver a empezar

The first few minutes of José Luis Garci’s Begin the Beguine tell us everything we need to know without using so much as a single word. A train arrives in the Asturian city of Gijón on Spain’s northern coast. An elderly gentleman gets off the train, but before checking into his hotel, he visits a downtown movie house called the Robledo, walks along the harbour where tiny fishing boats bob on the water, and then, at a football stadium, the sight of a chalk line beneath his shoe makes him visibly nostalgic, as do the cranes in the distance, symbols of development and the passage of time. We don’t know anything about this man, but we know this is the home of his youth, where he played football and went to the cinema, and we know this film will be about him catching up with the past.

Unfortunately, the catching up is as shallow as Johann Pachelbel’s recurring “Canon” (as well as Cole Porter’s titular ditty) on the soundtrack is repetitive. But the man at the centre, who wears a smile that tells us he doesn’t take anything too seriously, because wisdom or experience or merely the years he has spent on this Earth have taught him better, keeps our attention and connects with our hearts even when our heads tell us this is too simple a tale.

The man is Antonio Miguel Albajara, a native of Gijón who left because of Franco before moving to the United States and eventually ended up settling in San Francisco and teaching at the University of California, Berkeley. We later learn that he has just received the Nobel Prize for Literature and has made this detour on his way back home from the ceremony in Stockholm. Ostensibly, the reason for the detour is not so much to see the city of his youth as it is to see the girl of his youth, Elena. What happens between them, however, is nothing more than scene after scene of reminiscing, and the emotional connection remains superficial at best. Perhaps all the more so because of a secret that is withheld.

This secret is the real reason for Albajara’s return to Gijón, and it has to do with him knowing this will be the last chance for him to see the city and the streets he wrote about in his novels, and above all to relive the romance of his youth with Elena. To protect Elena from devastating news, he keeps the secret of his imminent release from the bonds of existence to himself and chooses instead to make the reunion one of blissful ignorance, as much for Elena’s as for his own sake. This decision, understandable though it may be, is not probed in any detail and ultimately remains firmly in the background. This would have been perfectly acceptable if the foreground had been interesting on its own merits, but that is not the case.

In the foreground, our attention is often directed to Losado, the buffoonish yet well-meaning manager of the hotel where Albajara is staying. It feels like every scene with him belongs in a different film, because the overacting is at times unbearable and does damage to the sincerity and the authenticity we would like to ascribe to Albajara’s interactions.

We learn that Albajara forsook not only his girlfriend but also a promising career as one of the best midfielders the town had ever seen, not to forget his best friend, “Redhead” (Roxu), with whom he shares a beautiful, tender scene in the middle of the film. Unfortunately, none of these events is treated with the seriousness or gets the elaboration they deserve.

The camera also has some peculiar, often downright amateurish moments to indicate loss: At two points in the film, the camera dollies either up or down to reveal Albajara sitting among a vast array of empty chairs – presumably to indicate that he is alone, or that the people around him have died or that the life he once had is no more.

And yet, despite its many faults, including a failure to ask how Albajara’s memory of Elena stacks up against his experience in the present, Begin the Beguine is full of warmth and thoroughly likeable. The primary reason for this is the quiet, subdued performance of Antonio Ferrandis in the lead, playing the character as a wise old man who has made peace with the world and is now also making peace with the past before he faces an uncertain future. Another reason is a wonderful scene in which the writer speaks to King Juan Carlos I on the phone.

But Pachelbel permeates the soundtrack as much as “Lara’s Theme” overpowered Dr. Zhivago, and ultimately we cannot help but think of the film as visual accompaniment to the music, instead of the other way around. During a final encounter at the airport, “Greensleeves” pops up in the background, and even though the connection is self-evident to the point of being simplistic, it is a joy to hear something else on the audio track for a change.

Begin the Beguine is a very shallow depiction of a key moment in the last year of a man’s life, but the central premise and performance are strong enough to carry it through its relatively short running time, and the film has to be commended for refusing to use flashbacks.

Sexmission (1984)

SexmissionPoland

4*
Director:
Juliusz Machulski
Screenwriters:
Juliusz Machulski
Jolanta Hartwig
Pavel Hajný
Director of Photography:
Jerzy Łukaszewicz

Original title: Seksmisja

Running time: 116 minutes

This Polish film from the early 1980s is at times hilarious and very often terribly kitsch but can also be rather uncomfortable given the basic plot of a chauvinist protagonist facing off against feminism run wild in 2044.

Opening in 1991 with the arrival of a doctor whose one hand is limp and covered by a glove (the Dr. Strangelove reference cannot be by accident), named Dr. Kuppelweiser, it is said that cryogenesis has developed to a point where an experiment is feasible. Two men, the overweight and bombastic Maksymilian and the slim, more bookish Albert, leave their loved ones behind in the name of science and are scheduled to return three years later.

But plans don’t always work out the way we expect them to, and they wake up in 2044 in a world without any men — a “lesbian utopia” where reproduction is accomplished through asexual parthenogenesis, and any deviations (i.e. men) from the ideal are scheduled for naturalization, through which they will become female.

Maksymilian and Albert are certainly not in the mood to have their sex changed, and Maksymilian start hatching a plan to seduce the female population en masse. His thinking, rarely questioned by the filmmaker, is that women need men and men need women. And yet, there is a revolutionary underground force of women who like to experiment with each other (a scene that exhilarates the two men) and many of the powerful women give off lesbian vibes.

But leaving director Machulski’s confused contemplation of gender equality aside for a moment, it is important to note the film as a slightly subversive record of its time. While never as overtly satirical as Stanisław Bareja’s Miś, another Polish classic from 1981, there are moments when we can see Machulski making light of the political situation in Poland in the 1980s while at the same time underlining its seriousness.

An obvious example is Maksymilian’s realisation that, by sleeping for 53 years, he missed out completely on getting his long-awaited flat from the government in 1998. While it may not seem like such a big deal, since he was frozen in 1991, the film itself was released in 1984, and many Polish viewers would have viewed the year 1998 in that context, in other words a wait of 14 years.

But another example is more opaque, as it is tied to the film’s very foundation. It provides a moment reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village when, towards the end, we discover that things on Earth are not really quite as bad as the all-female population have led themselves to believe, and in fact the major players are only pretending to safeguard lower-ranking members in order to maintain control. This power they exert in order not to lose control is actually very easily comparable to the regime of the Communist Party of the time, and the lies that are told about life outside the confines of their bubble can be equated to lies (or exaggerations) told about the West.

In these final scenes, a revelation is also made about the existence of a cross-dresser that narrowly escapes labelling as transgenderphobic. Jerzy Stuhr, who plays the slightly heavy-set Maksymilian, at one point goes on a kissing rampage in the all-female world, which causes many women to pass out. This reaction is for comical effect, but also creates the impression that women and men necessarily need each other for sexual satisfaction. And when the one woman is revealed to be a man, the psychological effect of pretending to be something you are not is not addressed at all; instead, there is a substantial assumption that things will immediately go back to normal and he will simply “be a man”.

Sexmission is more about comedy that about filmmaking. The images are often a mess, following no particular point of view or sequence, and in on particular shot the focus is racked completely out of sync with the actions it seeks to highlight. The story is lighthearted and easy to enjoy, and the young blond girl who is the principal guardian of Maksymilian and Albert in the future, Lamia Reno, is particularly effective as a strong woman whose sexuality makes her more amenable to sexual persuasion. Students of feminism will have a field day tearing the film apart, and for most 21st-century viewers the film will also provide its share of uncomfortable moments, though Machulski is not entirely indifferent to man’s negative influence on the world, as is made clear when we learn wars and venereal diseases are a thing of the past thanks to the extinction of man.

Possession (1981)

France

3.5*
Director:
Andrzej Żuławski
Screenwriters:
Frederic Tuten
Andrzej Żuławski
Director of Photography:
Bruno Nuytten

Running time: 124 minutes

Not even Linda Blair, starring as little Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist, screamed as much as Isabelle Adjani in Polish director Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 horror film, Possession. Adjani must have set some kind of record. In almost every scene, she is behaving hysterically, yelling, crying, spinning, vomiting blood or hurting herself so that blood gushes from wounds or even her orifices. It is a truly disgusting sight, and often I couldn’t help myself but simply had to laugh at the sheer absurdity of the staging. But while Possession has its tentacles in many other pies and while the product is a bit of an incoherent mess, the actual experience of watching the film is by no means unpleasant.

Set in West Berlin, very close to the Wall, the film opens on the return of Mark, played by a dashing young Sam Neill, most likely a spy, who hasn’t seen his wife Anna and their young son Bob in quite while. But all is not as Mark remembers it. Anna seems caught unprepared for Mark’s return and very soon he realizes she has been unfaithful to him.

However, this is not a simple story of cuckolding. No, instead of making the beast with two backs, she has been humping one with two backs and many tentacles. Yes, this tale about infidelity turns into a gruesome horror when we finally lay eyes on the beast, but not before the film’s first half has solidly pushed the production in that direction by having Adjani run around her apartment, storm into the street screaming while she slobbers streams of blood, and finally give birth to a mixture of blood and milk in the subway tunnel next to the Platz der Luftbrücke U-Bahn station in the neighbourhood of Kreuzberg, where she writhes orgasmically in liquid puddles on the ground.

Adjani completely surrenders to the role, giving it her all by screaming in bouts that last many minutes at a time, her eyes big as saucers, and seemingly breaks out in cold sweat every time we see her. The performance is as chilling as Neill’s is laughable. He seems to deliver line readings robotically, his actions detached from his words and his movements wholly awkward. He knows this is a joke and he doesn’t much take the role seriously. That is a pity, because a more serious approach might have given weight to the psychological trauma one would expect his character to suffer, given his wife’s insane behaviour (at one point, she comes home and starts putting her son’s clothes in the fridge).

Before the arrival of the Thing, when Anna makes the decision to separate from Mark, there is a remarkable scene in Café Einstein when they are seated next to each other on different sides of a pillar covered by mirrors, yet we cannot see their reflections. Żuławski doesn’t emphasise the effect, but once we realise it, the effect is striking as it anticipates the supernatural direction this film is about to take.

The film mixes many different genres, from the most intimate to the most bombastic, and in all cases the camera is used effectively, often hand-held, surging down a narrow corridor or framing the character by a door frame, to make us uncomfortable. 

“Maybe all couples go through this,” says Adjani, referring to their domestic troubles and her feelings of unhappiness. That may be right, but they quickly take a turn for the rather unusual, as her desire for something different means the creation of something truly abominable.

There are many other bits and pieces to the story, including the teacher of the couple’s son, who looks exactly like Anna, and a secret agent with pink socks, who is discussed during a strange business meeting in which the camera very ominously circles all parties involved, and whose identity is revealed towards the end of the film without any consequence.

The film belongs to the blood, the tentacles and to Adjani, whose tenacity in depicting fits of hysteria is something to behold. Her presence in every scene is magnetic, as her silence in the presence of the Thing is as uncomfortable as her outbursts in any other scene. Żuławski’s film is a big mystery, as there are many aspects to the story that are never really examined, yet his staging of many of the scenes is beautifully done. In one particularly tense scene, Neill is on the phone, his wife has disappeared and we do not know how mobile the Thing is. He switches the light of the room he is in on and off, while he is framed by an open door. We expect the worst — for something to appear behind him at any moment — and Żuławski lets the scene play out as long as possible before letting it reach its end: It’s not what we expect, and serves to emphasise that we have been taken hostage by the fear he’s created already.

Possession is bizarre and most of the characters lose their mind at one point or another… if they have ever been normal at all. But Adjani is fearless and ties the film together with her big eyes, her constant screaming and her lust for something bestial. The film is a potent work of horror.

Quartet for the End of Time (1983)

Mexico

2*
Director:
Alfonso Cuarón
Screenwriter:
Alfonso Cuarón
Director of Photography:
Ariel Velázquez
Running time: 27 minutes

Original title: Cuarteto para el Fin del Tiempo

Alfonso Cuarón handles comedy much better than drama and as he would show with many of his greatest achievements, he is in total control when he has free reign to do both. But his student film, Quartet for the End of Time, about a guy who lives alone in an apartment and never speaks to anyone, provides no entertainment and left me as bored as the tortoise that serves as the only thing the main character speaks to.

“Quartet for the End of Time” is the title of a famous composition by the twentieth-century French composer Olivier Messiaen, and indeed the main character plays a few chords from the piece’s third movement, “Abyss of the Birds”, on his clarinet. According to Messiaen: “The Abyss is Time, with all its sadness, its weariness. Birds are the opposite of time; it’s our desire for light, stars, rainbows and jubilant vocals.” Such sadness and weariness are certainly well conveyed by this particular short film, but beyond an expression of such dismal tedium, there is little else of note.

The cinematography is also a let-down. Besides the very few tracking shots, all of which reveal some bit of information, the staging is quite simple and the visuals simply lack imagination.

The very first scene shows some promise: lying in the bathtub, while a very small pet tortoise, hidden in its shell, balances on the edge, the main character reads out loud about tortoises. The protection that the shell offers to the little animal is not an uninteresting point, and its potential for meaning is hinted at by the subsequent dedication in the opening credits: Mariana and her belly. At the time, director Alfonso Cuarón (here billed as Alfonso Cuarón Orozco) was married to Mariana Elizondo, whose belly, we can surmise, was the protective shell to their child, Jonás, born in 1981. But the film does nothing to develop this idea in any shape or form.

Instead, we get a loose assortment of scenes, mostly taking place inside the apartment. Fortunately, with one or two exceptions, we are spared the prospect of listening to explanatory interior monologues, but watching the main character sit at his window (with a sticker for the “Paiste 2002” brand of cymbals) is far from exciting, nor does it substantially contribute to our impression of him as someone completely isolated – what the reasons for this isolations are, however, remain a mystery.

The apartment is clearly his shell, the space in which he feels comfortable and protected, and when he does leave the apartment – even though some of these excursions seem to be illusory – we can breathe a momentary sigh of relief. When a film takes place in one setting, our attention needs to be focused, as the Cuarón-produced Duck Season so admirably managed to accomplish.

At the time he made the film, Cuarón had little filmmaking experience and this lack of understanding the form shows very well in his failure to properly direct his main actor (we get a comically amateurish scene in which this character fries a sausage in ten seconds) and the sound effects are completely atrocious. I could easily have ignored these points, were it not for the film’s unwillingness to provide some kind of plot. Granted, we see some transformation from beginning to end, but the reasons for this transformation are never even suggested. A mass of balloons that the character releases from his window might have something to do with it, but such symbolism obscures the plot even more.

It would take Cuarón eight years, and some experience in the field of television, before he undertook another film project, the delightful Love in the Time of Hysteria, and he needed that time to mature, for this student film is an uninteresting, tiresome disgrace that doesn’t even look good.

Metropolitan (1989)

USA

3.5*
Director: Whit Stillman
Screenwriter: Whit Stillman
Director of Photography:
John Thomas

Running time: 98 minutes

Tom Townsend is not very likeable. He pretends to have very firm ideas about literature and social structures, but prefers literary criticism to actual novels, citing his displeasure at the inherent inventedness of fiction. He reminds me a lot of Jesse Eisenberg’s character in The Squid and the Whale, with fewer father issues.

Tom lives on New York’s West Side and attends Princeton, but when we meet him during the cold winter holidays, wearing a rain coat over his dinner jacket, instead of a proper overcoat, we recognise that he does not share the wealthy lifestyle of the group of friends who, on the spur of the moment, invite him to attend a deb (débutante) party with them. Usually, he would avoid these kinds of events, but since he has little else to do, and he is virtually coerced by the most vocal and self-assured of the pack, Nick, into joining them, he goes along and intrigues the others – all of them in their early twenties.

We know next to nothing about Nick, and over the course of the film we get to learn very little, except that he has convinced himself that he has a good relationship with his absent father, though we can see he is deluding himself. His lack of expressiveness and straightforward attitude about the things he believes in and those he opposes are refreshing for one timid girl, Audrey, who quickly gravitates towards him. But Nick is blind to her attention and is still hooked on Serena Slocum, a girl who apparently, according to the gossip in the group, was dating as many as twenty boys at the same time.

At first, the group (designated as the “Sally Fowler Rat Pack”, or S.F.R.P.) seems completely isolated from the rest of society, an upper-class enclave that functions on its own, removed from the vast mass of people around them that populate Manhattan, and it is comical, reminiscent of Maggie Smith’s character in Gosford Park, when one girl declares that she “can’t stand snobbery or snobbish acts of any kind”, while someone outside the group is easily labelled as “riff raff”. But gradually, largely thanks to the character of Audrey, who is the most vulnerable, the group shows signs of humanity, the kind of social interaction that we can relate to, and thaws the very cold façade with which we are initially presented.

The film is mostly a kind of chamber film, consisting of dialogue-heavy scenes that involve only a handful of characters, discussing social interaction and gossiping about others. Very few laughs are to be had, and the most uproarious moment occurs when they decide to dance the cha-cha-cha. But the writing is very good and writer-director Stillman delivers many insightful gems that distill and persuasively relate social wisdom.

Metropolitan provides a nice snapshot of this segment of New York society and the decline and ultimate disintegration of the group is fascinating to watch, made all the more captivating by our realisation that it all takes place over the course of the winter holidays. “You go to a party, you meet a group of people, you think ‘These people are gonna be my friends for the rest of my life.’ Then you never see them again. Where do they go?” Asks an adult, a former Princeton man, towards the end of the film.

The film takes great care not to alienate the audience from the characters, but doesn’t do so to the detriment of the characters themselves, who remain complicated despite their failure to recognise their own faults. The actors, most of them amateur players, are very competent and deliver the lines with admirable self-assurance, though Charlie (Taylor Nichols) has some of the most cerebral lines and does not always come across as entirely convincing. Metropolitan strikes a more sombre tone than The Squid and the Whale, but its approach is perhaps more deliberately realistic and certainly worth a look.

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)

Japan / United Kingdom

4*
Director: 
Nagisa Ôshima
Screenwriters: 
Nagisa Ôshima, Paul Mayersberg
Director of Photography:
Toichiro Narushima

Running time: 118 minutes

Original title:
戦場のメリークリスマス
Transliterated title:
Senjō no merīkurisumasu

War makes friendship among men stronger,” says Lt. Colonel Lawrence to Sergeant Hara of the Imperial Japanese Army. Of course it does. But Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence examines the consequences of such intimacy between soldiers a bit more closely than most other films, with the exception of Robert Altman’s masterful Streamers, which was released the same year. This “intimacy between soldiers” obviously implies some level of attraction, and the film’s very first scene makes it clear what the two camps, namely the British and the Japanese, make of such behaviour.

This film, by the Japanese director Nagisa Ôshima, is set during the Second World War on the island of Java, while it was under Japanese control. Allied troops, mostly British soldiers, are held captive by the Japanese forces, and while the scenes under the hot sun, among the palm trees, showing British soldiers listening to a Japanese captain who follows orders rather than reason, might look familiar, any comparison with Bridge on the River Kwai would be very superficial indeed. Ôshima’s film starts with a scene that immediately puts the Japanese and British views on homosexual attraction front and centre. When it is discovered that Kanemoto, a Korean soldier. has been committing “improper” acts with a Dutch soldier, the Japanese Sergeant Hara at first decides to execute Kanemoto, lest his shameful acts be made public. But moments before the sword falls, the commanding officer, Captain Yonoi, arrives on the scene to stop the overzealous Sergeant.

Yonoi seems to be a rather complicated individual. The filmmaker introduces him as a slightly effeminate character, approaching the would-be execution in a white robe and sandals; he also seems to be wearing eyeliner, but his fellow soldiers seem not to take any notice. He delays the execution and is called up to Batavia where he participates in a military trial for a captured British soldier called Celliers, played by David Bowie. At this point, during Celliers’s appearance in court, we get the most visible indication that Yonoi is fascinated – perhaps even enchanted – by the blond Brit: he can’t take his eyes off him.

While the charges against Celliers are read out loud, the viewer’s attention is rapt by the very slow zoom in, across the courtroom, on Yonoi’s face, staring at Celliers. When he is finally given the opportunity to speak, he comes to Celliers’s defence and proposes that the Brit be taken as a prisoner of war, rather than executed.

After Celliers arrives at the camp and Yonoi discovers that he used to serve with Lawrence, he questions the latter about him in a very innocent way that nonetheless reveals his interest to us and to Lawrence, who is very bemused by the captain’s almost childlike fascination and the fact that he doesn’t know how to interpret his own feelings. While Celliers notices Yonoi’s eyes on him and takes advantage of the special treatment he consequently receives from the Japanese commander, he is not interested in Yonoi, except as a means of redeeming himself. The viewer is made aware of the need for redemption during two significant incidents that occur as flashbacks – the first takes place years earlier when Celliers protects his younger brother by being beaten up in his place, and the second occurs years later when Celliers does not protect his brother when he is bullied at school.

Celliers’s eventual attempt at redemption demonstrates great cunning on the parts of both Celliers and the director, for it clearly links a number of different events into a solid final moment of courage. Celliers realises that, if violence is not an effective tactic of resistance, the opposite might just be worth trying out, and in the process he not only stands up against his oppressors, but he frees himself from the shackles of the past. The scene is short, simple, and stripped to its bare essentials, yet surprisingly complex, given the resolution of two issues effected in a single leap.

Yonoi shows great promise for dramatic intrigue in the first half, which moves along rapidly once the captain lays his eyes on Celliers in court, and it is very interesting to read the looks of the other Japanese soldiers, who fear that their captain has been bewitched by an evil spirit – the only explanation for the sudden change in his behaviour. However, the second half does not deliver on the promise of the first half, but rather shifts the focus to the title character, John Lawrence, who serves as mediator between the Japanese and British language and culture, and Sergeant Hara, whose initial eagerness to kill changes over time and reveals a more human character than we might have expected.

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence takes on an interesting subject, but while David Bowie’s character, Jack Celliers, is carefully drawn, I did not find the same kind of depth in either John Lawrence or Hara, though this does not mute their likeability in any way. Nagisa Ôshima focuses on the human dramas of four men, and while the two groupings do not provoke the same level of emotion, the characters are all very firmly established and carry the film squarely (and firmly) on their shoulders.

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

USA
4*

Director:
Rob Epstein
Screenwriters:
Rob Epstein
Carter Wilson
Judith Coburn
Director of Photography: 
Frances Reid

Running time: 91 minutes

This film, which won the Best Documentary Oscar, has always been considered the No. 1 document that condenses the life of Harvey Milk and reminds viewers around the world of his importance in the gay rights struggle. In 2008, Milk, Gus van Sant’s fictional account of Milk’s life, with Sean Penn as the gay rights icon, heavily relied on information gleaned from this documentary by Rob Epstein, who would go on to direct an outstanding documentary on gay representation in the cinema, The Celluloid Closet.

Watching The Times of Harvey Milk, it is very clear that Dustin Lance Black, who wrote the screenplay for Van Sant’s film, was inspired not only by the content of the documentary but also by its structure; the two films have exactly the same book-ends – a tape recording of Milk’s will in case of assassination, the announcement by Dianne Feinstein that Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone had been assassinated, and Milk’s famous “Hope” speech. I was a little disappointed by Black’s stencilled duplication of these parts in his screenplay for Milk instead of integrating them into the fictional quilt in some other way.

In touching interviews with many of the people in Harvey Milk’s life – though, unfortunately, many of the important ones, such as Cleve Jones, Dianne Feinstein and Scott Smith, are not included – we get a sense of Milk’s achievements and his perseverance against great resistance, especially during the debacle of Proposition 6, in his first year in office, which would have allowed the Department of Education to fire teachers who self-identified as homosexual. Here, I learned about Sally Gearhart, a gay rights activist with an intimidating intelligence, who debated Jon Briggs in a very factual manner during their televised debates, and I believe her collaboration with Milk helped to defeat the proposed anti-gay initiative. Her words on the role of fear in the campaign explains the central issue very succinctly and are still relevant to anti-gay movements today.

The film provides a lot of detail about the political co-operation between Milk and Moscone, and we can easily understand how it came to be that Harvey Milk was given the opportunity to be elected city supervisor (redistricting provided the city with a much more representative combination of politicians than had ever previously been the case).

However, the film focuses too much on the role of Dan White, who had served on the board with Milk and, after certain disagreements between him, Milk and Moscone, killed the two men. The film spends its final 20 minutes going over perceived discrimination in the trial, the jury selection and the verdict. Of course, one has to keep in mind that the film was made five years after the death of Milk and shortly before White’s release from prison (he would commit suicide a year later, in 1985). But all the talk of White, his conservative values and the lenient sentence that he was given after killing two men in a very obviously premeditated act of violence should not have taken up so much time in this documentary.

Pixote (1981)

Brazil
4*

Director:
Hector Babenco
Screenwriters:
Hector Babenco
Jorge Durán
Director of Photography:
Rodolfo Sanches

Running time: 128 minutes

Original title: Pixote: A Lei do Mais Fraco

Pixote is gritty and tough and wholly credible as a faithful representation of the lives of street children in São Paulo. Whereas the title unfortunately focuses on one specific character, the film itself is interested in the larger group of individuals of which the young João Henrique, nicknamed “Pixote” (pronounced “pee-shaw-che”), forms an important part. It is a well-known fact that the boy who played the title character and whose living standards were comparable to those of his character in the film was shot and killed by police in August 1987.

The film’s extradiegetic opening is remarkably simple but entirely appropriate and manages to highlight the urgency of the plight of São Paulo’s street children: Director Hector Babenco, with one of the city’s favelas very visible in the background, speaks directly to the viewers and informs us that stories such as that of the film we are about to watch still happen every day. He even points to a small house where Fernando Ramos Da Silva, the actor who plays Pixote, lives with his family.

Pixote follows the lives of a group of young boys who, having committed crimes, can’t be sent to prison but are locked up in a reform school instead. At 10 years of age, Pixote is the youngest, and during his first night in the dormitory, a few bunks from him, a boy is raped by an oversexed teenager.

The image of Pixote sniffing glue is powerful, and we recognise this character’s desperation in a single shot. When circumstances around him become even worse (at times, the school may be confused for a prison, and a very corrupt prison at that), he decides to free himself from this restrictive environment.

But, as a relative of Pixote had warned him, life outside the school can be even worse than life on the inside. Even though there are a few wonderfully dynamic scenes in which we see the young boys snatch purses and mug unsuspecting seniors of their wallets, their eventual involvement in the world of drug dealing, which they know nothing about, is tense and leads to very bad things.

Pixote is not really the main character, and a title that made it clear that the focus is on the group rather than the individual would have been truer to the spirit of the film. The cinematography is excellent, and the acting is flawless. However, the story does not have the tight focus it could have had if the centres of interest has been more clearly defined. At one point, the film digresses into a musical number that only relates to a single character, who never really features again. However, the themes that the film does raise, including issues of poverty, sexuality and power, are all handled admirably, and it is clear to see why this socially conscious film caused such a sensation when it was first released.

Isle of Flowers (1989)

isle-of-flowersBrazil
4.5*

Director:
Jorge Furtado
Screenwriter:
Jorge Furtado
Directors of Photography:
Roberto Henkin, Sergio Amon

Running time: 13 minutes

Original title: Ilha das flores

This short film appears to be a documentary, but it doesn’t really matter whether the characters are real individuals or not. The very loose storyline follows the journey of a tomato and examines the implications of human intervention while trying to capture exactly what it is that makes us human. The conclusions are rather pessimistic.

Isle of Flowers is set, if such a simple term may be used here, at a tomato plantation in Porto Alegre, where a worker named Suzuki (the recurring, matter-of-fact narrator informs us that he is Japanese) picks the vegetables. These tomatoes will be sold to a supermarket, where Mrs Anete, a perfume saleswoman, will buy them. When she prepares the tomato soup, she deems one of the tomatoes unsuitable and throws it in the garbage. One of Porto Alegre’s garbage dumps is situated on an island called the Isle of Flowers, where pigs and humans vie for a chance to retrieve items from the garbage in order to feed themselves.

The film’s importance lies not in its ability to trace the very banal journey of a tomato from the plantation to the garbage dump, but in its evocative presentation of human desperation at the heart of consumerism. Isle of Flowers uses the red vegetable as a red herring: The film, via many detours, finally deals with the poor of Porto Alegre who have to scavenge for food; they find themselves, in the scheme of things, situated even lower on the socioeconomic ladder than pigs. Everything has a price and can be exchanged for money, as the film clearly indicates, and since a pig can be bought for food, it is worth more than the poor scavengers, who cannot.

The Isle of Flowers, moving as it does from one train of thought to the next, is comical in its apparent digressions but ruthless in its depiction of the lives of human beings. When mentioning Jews, all we see are images of the Holocaust. A human being is defined, for example, as an entity with a highly developed brain and opposable thumbs. These traits are accompanied onscreen by an image of a mushroom cloud (a consequence of the workings of the brain) and the forbidden apple, picked by the opposable thumbs.

My only qualm with the film is its definition of the family as a unit that consists of a father, a mother and two children. While traditionally true, this convention is purely arbitrary and wholly simplistic. But this flaw does nothing to detract from the film’s enlightening and thoroughly entertaining perspective on the impact of exchange.

El Norte (1983)

USA/UK
4.5*

Director: 
Gregory Nava
Screenwriters: 
Gregory Nava
Anna Thomas
Director of Photography: 
James Glennon

Running time: 139 minutes

At the house of a Guatemalan plantation owner, a dirt-poor worker betrays his friends for a wad of bills. These friends, meeting up at an abandoned hacienda, an old manor on the plantation that has all but crumbled to the ground, are taken out by a special force of men with machine guns. One of these men who are killed is Arturo Xuncax, but before he leaves for his last meeting, he has a very meaningful conversation with his son, Enrique – a conversation that makes it impossible not to empathise with him and the other plantation workers. Arturo says to Enrique:

It’s the same everywhere. For the rich, the peasant is just a pair of arms. That’s all they think we are, arms for work. They treat their animals better than they do us. For many years, we’ve been trying to make the rich understand that poor people have hearts and souls… that they feel. We are human, all of us.

Shortly after this scene, Enrique and his sister Rosa leave their small town of San Pedro, go across the border the border into Mexico and head north (El Norte means “The North” and refers to their end destination: the United States of America). Of course, the journey isn’t going to be easy, especially for these two youngsters who have almost impossible fantasies of the country up north. In a very well-chosen sequence in which the chaos of Mexico is juxtaposed with the green lawns, the sprinklers and the cars of suburban USA.

The film proceeds much faster than expected, which allows every scene to count. The editing is quick at times, although the director makes the very interesting decision to shoot many scenes in which a character delivers many lines of dialogue in a single take. This shows the director has a mind for connecting images into a comprehensible whole that enables the audience to grasp the physical nature of the story, while slowing down the action on a human level to make us understand their words and their feelings.

Interestingly enough, the part of the film that evokes the most danger is the second half, which takes place in the USA. There is tension built into the premise that the main characters are working illegally, and while Immigration Services haven’t been successful in discovering them, the mere presence of these government officials, in very quick scenes that remind us of their function in society, plays on our fear that Enrique and Rosa will somehow be found out or reported.

No, the USA is not as easy as the brother and sister from Guatemala had expected; one scene that is clear in this regard takes places during Rosa’s first day cleaning a big house. The lady is nice, but when she explains how the functions of the washing machine should be used, she completely disregards the fact that she is speaking to someone for whom electricity is a foreign concept and whose English is less than rudimentary.

What is remarkable about the film is that it doesn’t paint its characters as victims of an unjust American context but shows how difficult life can be for a foreigner even when most things seem to be going smoothly. There are cultural, linguistic and historical chasms to overcome, and if these are not bridged before a green card is in the mail, there could be serious consequences.

The film is staged with amazing clarity, and while the situation is simple, and some of the events are predictable, the execution of the story delivers a very engaging experience. The only point at which the film falters is during the border crossing from Mexico to the USA. After what the characters have been told, we expect a sewer scene such as the famous one from The Shawshank Redemption. What we get, in comparison, is almost light enough to be laughable, and that is why the difficulties that they do face on this journey cannot be taken very seriously; and yet, their reaction is to be frightened to the point of being paralysed. This scene, stretched beyond its limits, is the only bad chord in an otherwise brilliant piece of work.

El Norte is an excellent film, its journey aspect similar to the one in Michael Winterbottom’s In This World; both films demonstrate the difficulty of international movement, especially when you look or speak in a certain way. As director Gregory Nava’s debut film, which he co-wrote with producer Anna Thomas, the film is consistently entertaining with wonderful characters who want to realise their fantasies. Though it was made 30 years ago, its central assessment of the life of a foreigner from south of the border still seems entirely credible and heartbreaking, and it should serve as a wake-up call to all those anti-immigrant rabblerousers.