I can't help but marvel that one of the United States' most prominent unofficial film ambassadors had once broken his directorial chops working for B movie maestro Roger Corman and consumed enough cocaine in his youth to send him hurtling to an emergency room with bleeding eyes and nostrils (Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, p. 386, 1999). But such humble origins are what the myths of America are built upon.
Martin Scorsese has traveled a long distance since those chaotic, drug-induced days of yore. For the past 13 years, Scorsese spearheaded the World Cinema Project, an organization tasked with restoring both famous and relatively obscure cinematic works of art of the past. The project is labor intensive in tracking down adequate prints of the films and painstakingly restoring them to relatively pristine conditions. A small fraction of these newly preserved works are highlighted in select boxsets produced by Criterion. Some true gems have been restored such as Kim Ki-young's The Housemaid (1960), Djibril Diop Mambéty's Touki Bouki (1973), Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), and Edward Yang's Taipei Story (1985). The boxset is currently in its third iteration and also contains a few magnificent restorations.
But before discussing the collection's high points, there are ways in which the boxset has consistently been plagued with certain limitations of a New Hollywood outlook, dictated by the cultural moment when Scorsese received his film training and the waters he swam in within Tinsel Town at the time. As film historians like David E. James have repeatedly pointed out, despite how the rise of the film "brat generation" of the 1960s and 1970s might have challenged narrative form and expanded film content, they were decidedly negligent about gender both in terms of representations on the screen and employing women behind the scenes.
Granted, Scorsese has relied upon the brilliant editor Thelma Schoonmaker since his student film days, but this was more the exception to the rule. In general, the films of the iconic new generation of mostly male, Hollywood films directors of the 1960s and 1970s offered reactionary or non-existent representations of women in most of their films. Again, there are a few exceptions, like Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) and Francis Ford Coppola's The Rain People (1969), but most viewers remain largely unaware of these works, as they pale in notoriety from these directors' other films.
Despite being its third volume, Criterion's World Cinema Project still lacks one single work by a female director, an oversight I noticed when reviewing the prior volume. To make matters worse, quite a few of the films throughout the series rely on narratives that prioritize female suffering. This new boxset sadly shares similar issues in that two of its six films revolve around hackneyed plots of a love triangle where two men battle over a woman: Juan Bustillo Oro's Dos Monjes (1934) and Bahram Beyzaie's Downpour (1972).
One gets the sense that both these films were included in the boxset because Scorsese's concern with the formal aspects of film trump consideration over plot at times. It is reminiscent of an attitude typical of a bygone age of film studies when film professors would rationalize overlooking the reactionary racial politics of an adamantly racist film like The Birth of a Nation (1915) because the directorial powers of D.W. Griffith and the cinematography of Billy Blitzer trumped such "trivial" concerns. But such pedagogical stances were quickly overturned as a more diverse student body rejected such retrograde assumptions and training.
Art historian Elisa Lozano's perceptive article on Dos Monjes notes that the film's director initially didn't want anything to do with the project since he found the story so banal. The film's plot concerns two monks who, in their past life, battled over one woman until one of the men "accidentally" killed her and sent the two reeling from the trauma into the monastery. The poor guys. Oro recounts in his 1984 memoir, Vida cinematográfica, "In an attempt to redeem [the two monks's stories] from banality, they would be situated in a surreal setting that would place them in an Expressionist context." Furthermore, the film would be told from the two monks' perspectives anticipating such multiple perspective films like Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950).
The film starts off with visual pyrotechnics as a line of monks rhythmically walk within dark lit halls as a grotesque figure of Christ hangs on the wall above them like a nightmare. Chiaroscuro scenes and canted camera angles visually dominate the film. It is undoubtedly an interesting work to see how German Expressionism migrates into a Mexican context and is deployed by a skilled director. But, with that said, the film's 79-minute running time seems interminable, and I am not certain that this film can be considered a lost gem or instead an interesting anomaly in the history of Mexican cinema.
Lozano suggests that Bustillo Oro's film was unjustly eclipsed by Fernando de Fuentes' work of the 1930s since the latter director had the full support of the newly elected Federal government, due to his films' progressive politics better aligning with the government's political stance. Oro's surrealism and expressionism didn't lend itself to such messaging as de Fuentes' cinematic realism did. But also de Fuentes' 1930s films are simply better than Dos Monjes in all aspects like their pacing, visuals, and storylines. So in addition to politics playing into their marginalization, Oro's films were of lower quality that must have played a determining factor as well. I am in no doubt that such a film should be preserved. But is it really the best choice for a boxset that can only present a limited amount of options?
An equally tiresome film is Downpour (1972) by Bahram Beyzaie, who helped usher in the Iranian New Wave. The plot concerns a teacher who moves to a small neighborhood for his job and falls for one of the older sisters of his pupil. She is pursued by the town hunk as well. The film culminates in a drunken brawl between the two men who ultimately become friends at the end. The female character serves as a token to draw the two men together.
Like Dos Monjes, the film is visually dynamic and intriguingly intertwines surreal moments within its realism. For example, as the lead character sits with his love interest on a park bench in a medium shot, the camera suddenly cuts back to a long shot, revealing his pupils dangling from the various trees' branches behind him, spying on them both. The symbolism suggests multiple connotations: the surveillance the teacher feels he is under by the town; his unruly emotions for the woman that the kids' manic energy embodies; and a sense that the world is made strange by his sudden attraction.
Such visually arresting moments are peppered throughout the film. Yet its 129-minute running time plods through its narrative, which could have been more succinctly presented. Unsurprisingly, Downpour was Bezai's first feature-length film he directed, so it suffers from typical issues that plague most novice filmmakers: awkward pacing and some amateur acting moments. Film critic Hamid Nancy explains in his article accompanying the collection that Bezai received no state or commercial funding, so it was largely shot on-the-fly on a shoestring budget. Bezai recalls, "Much of the film was shot without the usual notes, in a very improvised manner," which might in part explain for some of its lapses.
Similar to Dos Monjes, I am not here to question the value of Downpour as important to world cinema and worth preserving. But I do wonder if another film with a less reactionary plot or directed by a woman might have better fit a collection with limited space to present such works to a wide viewership. Dedicating a third of a boxset to two films where women serve predominantly as objects of male desire seems somewhat thoughtless and distinctly out of touch with the political realities of our time where #MeToo has called out the marginalization and abuse of women within the commercial film industry.
The other films within the collection, however, are on more solid footing in regards to more complex plots, themes, and characterizations. Soleil Ô (1970) is Med Hondo's Third Cinema film that mixes film styles like animation, surrealism, and documentary in pursuit of its anti-colonial stance.
The film begins with an animated sequence that quickly summarizes the colonial conditions of Africa. As opening credits roll, we see an African chief squatting in the foreground of the frame. Silhouettes of his tribe stand behind him as we hear a constant drip over the soundtrack along with ambient noises. As laughter rises, two faceless colonizers clad in white adorning pith helmets enter the frame before him, hugging him in their arms and then forcing him to squat. The laughter transforms into screams as a tribal beat plays underneath the imagery.
The camera swings to the tribe behind him and then cuts to a group of black men staring at the camera, arms crossed, accusingly. The viewer is placed on notice linking the colonialism we see on the screen to the colonial viewing relations occurring offscreen. The film quickly catapults its issues from the screen to the theater implicating viewers.
Soleil Ô is less strung together by plot than ideas, typical of politically-engaged cinema of that time that believed radical new forms must accompany Left content. If colonial cinema was epitomized by Hollywood narrative that hews close to realism, a counter-cinema must establish new cinematic codes altogether in its pursuit to represent marginalized lives. Soleil Ô embodies this radical stance.
One moment of the film confronts white fascination with and fetishization of black male sexuality. A white woman approaches the film's unnamed lead character played by Robert Liensol. They begin to walk through the streets of Paris as the camera documents white passerby reactions of an interracial couple. As they walk arm-and-arm, we watch white people double-take, gawk, and display outright scorn for the couple.
An experimental soundtrack of clucking chickens and mooing cows predominates over the sequence, suggesting multiple associations such as the clacking of gossiping tongues of those observing them as well as animalistic associations with black male sexuality that both fuel the white woman's pursuit of sleeping with the lead character as well as the reactions towards the couple. Aboubakar Sanogo insightfully observes in an essay included in the boxset, "This is an extremely powerful moment of cinema, in which a staged scene creates live, nonfictional reactions, and a highly inspired cameraman catches race itself, as it were, bursting out of the frame."
It is also worth noting that the restoration of Soleil Ô is a part of a wider effort of the World Cinema Project teaming up with UNESCO to establish the African Film Heritage Project. The goal is to preserve 50 African films "of historical, cultural and artistic significance," according to its website, Unesco.org.
Usmar Ismail's After the Curfew (1954) chronicles the post-traumatic stress a freedom fighter suffers after helping liberate Indonesia from the Netherlands while subsequently witnessing his country's ideals being sold off piecemeal. Shot in a realistic style, the film's protagonist, Iskandar (A.N. Alcaff), drifts in an alternative world from that of his fiancé, Norma (Netty Herawaty), who relentlessly plans their wedding, and his guerrilla buddies who pursue lucrative careers as businessmen.
This misalignment between worlds is encapsulated as Norma attempts to have Iskandar dance during their wedding reception. The crowd dances in synch ebulliently as Norma leads Iskandar, who walks like a zombie, expressionless. One feels for Norma, who wants to resume a normal relationship with her fiancé. She is not so much cruel as clueless. But she suspects deeper troubles lurking beneath Iskandar's exterior and always manages to derail the conversation into lighter subject matter. Not surprisingly, Norma occupies little space with Iskandar throughout the film, thus once again revealing the two occupying different realities.
Iskandar, like many war vets, is ill-suited to civilian life and abandoned to his own devices. Once serving as "the heavy" of his guerrilla outfit, he resorts to his brute tactics once again after the war as he decides to kill an old comrade who has sold his ideals and friendships for a new career as a businessman. Adrian Jonathan Pasaribu of Cinema Poetica rightfully notes in his essay regarding the film, Iskandar relies on a "soldier's logic of survival" by employing lethal rather than legal means to remedy the situation. After the Curfew is a stunningly shot black-and-white film that plunges us into the trauma and disarray guerilla fighting had upon Iskandar's pysche.
Pixote (1980) is a brilliant neorealist-inspired film shot on the streets of Sao Paolo employing mainly non-actors in its cast. Directed by Hector Babenco, the film gained him international recognition and led him to eventually direct such Hollywood fare like Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985). Unlike other neorealist films that chronicle slum life among kids such as Victor Gaviria's excellent Rodrigo D: No Futuro (1990), Pixote provides a complex understanding of queer sexuality among boys that is deeply sympathetic and at times overwhelmingly moving.
Although the film doesn't shy away from showing sexual abuse like rape during its beginning sequences occurring at a boys' reformatory, the film nonetheless explores the developing relationship between two boys, Dito (Gilberto Moura) and Lilica (Jorge Juliā). Dito doesn't self-identify as gay but nonetheless is attracted to Lilica. The latter boy has feminine features and often wears makeup, a skirt, and a pink top. The other boys never comment on his dress, simply accepting this is who Lilica is, a remarkable moment of understanding and companionship between a group of boys who have been seen stealing and killing throughout the film.
A particularly moving moment occurs as three of the boys sit on rocks overlooking a beach on a bright summer's day. They fantasize about what their futures hold after an anticipated drug deal that they are about to conduct. They share sandwiches as they conjure potential new trajectories for their lives. Pixote (Fernando Ramos de Silva), the film's preteen lead, states, "When I get my share, no fucker's gonna mess with me." Another boy imagines purchasing a gun and seeking revenge on all those who wronged him in the past "like that fucking cop who beat me up in the police station." He mock fires a gun, standing high above beachgoers who swim carefree behind him in idyllic waters far from the mental space and reality the boys occupy.
Lilica chimes in after a long pause, "I turn 18 next month. Things will be tougher for me from now on. If I get caught, it'll be jail and beatings forever." Pixote comments how, by 18, he will change and join the band of a friend of his. Lilica continues, "I've got no way out. They'll always find a reason to come after me. What more can a fag like me expect?" The camera closes in on him as his emotions run raw. Lilica begins to sing in a soft, plaintive voice as Pixote wraps his arms around him, hugging him as the sound of waves plays in the background.
Despite their poverty and their suffering, this band of boys has temporarily created a sanctuary for someone like Lilica. The film flips assumptions on its head by revealing a deeper sensitivity among hoodlums than the world as a whole holds for them and other marginalized members of society. Despite their circumstances, the boys humanity remains regardless of the cruelty and anguish we watch them deal out to others throughout the film. Pixote refuses to sentimentalize the boys while at the same time not denying their humanity.
Humberto Solás' Lucía (1968) is the most ambitious and rewarding of all the films. In his video introduction to the film, Scorsese compares it to Luchino Visconti's The Leopard (1962) and Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900 (1976), given its vast historical scope as the film shuttles through three different time periods: 1895, 1932, and an unspecified present-day moment of the 1960s. Film Society of Lincoln Center curator Dennis Lim writes in his liner notes to the film, "Lucía is nothing less than an attempt to dramatize the forces of history as they play out in relationships between women and men, and between the individual and the collective."
Each sequence represents a distinct style: 1895 is a melodramatic period piece, 1932 shot in a realist style; and the 1960-era takes a semi-experimental, comedic stance with music periodically interjecting between the narrative to comment on its characters. The three sequences also addresses different classes of Cuban women, featuring a character named Lucía in each: the first focuses on the aristocracy; the second on the bourgeoisie; and the third on peasants.
The gender relations of each sequence serve as barometers to the degree of political emancipation that women experience at each historical moment. The 1895 sequence concerns Lucía (Raquel Revuelta) being courted by Rafael (Eduardo Moure) who uses her to locate where her rebel brother is located as the war of independence rages against Spain on the island. Although beautifully shot in a stylized manner where emotions remain as tightly bound as the corsets the women wear, Lucía represents a hopelessly naïve character who misses all the warning signs throughout the story, like Felipe constantly peppering her with questions about their distant coffee plantation that he suspects is a rebel stronghold and discovering that Felipe is married. Desperate to not be alone and cast aside as an old maid, Lucía clings to Felipe until his ultimate betrayal of leading Spanish troops to the rebel camp that Lucía revealed earlier to him in the film.
Belatedly, however, Lucía finally takes up agency for herself as she marches half demented through the streets in search of Felipe. Unlike much of the steady camera work that dominates this sequence, the camera now swings wildly around in handheld fashion, suggesting both the turbulence of the historical moment and Lucía's mind. Chanting and African percussion dominates this historical episode as she frantically searches. She spots her prey in the distance as she rapidly walks up to him, pulls a knife out of another man's belt, and stabs him to death as the streets erupt in rebellion against the other colonial gentry.
It's as if Lucía's action served as a catalyst to release all the other pent up hostility against the colonial oppressor. Symbolically, this makes sense since if the aristocracy like Lucía, the very beneficiaries of Spanish colonialism, are rising up against Spanish rule, then clearly the time has become ripe for overwhelming rebellion.
The 1932 sequence has Lucía (Eslinda Núñez) abandoning her middle class upbringing to join Aldo (Ramón Brito), a working class revolutionary against the Machado dictatorship. As the rebels come to power, we witness ideals being sacrificed to the brute realities of everyday governing. This comes to a head as Lucía and Aldo have a drunken night with a couple they consider close friends who also were a part of the uprising. As the drinks flow, hypocrisy and resentments buoy to the surface. The camerawork blurs, placing viewers within their drunken mind frame. Aldo salutes fallen comrades as his friend suggests that he "stop with that sad stuff." As tensions escalate between the couples, they all finally admit the revolution has been "all a pile of shit." Revolutionary fervor leads to a post-revolutionary hangover where ideals and friendship get cast among the broken bottles and spilled drinks that litter the cantina's floor where they drink.
The contemporary sequence is the most engaging of all not only because we have the most fully developed Lucía (Adela Legrá) of all three, who is from a mixed-race background, but also because of the vibrant experimental style where song constantly interrupts storyline to comment upon the characters' actions. Legrá's uncontainable performance as a woman struggling to free herself from her husband's ironlike, sexist grip also makes for captivating viewing. The sequence delicately balances having viewers identify with Lucía's dual resistance against American imperialism and her husband's misogyny while also framing her struggles with Tomás as farcical and representative of dysfunctional gender relations of a passing generation.
The film's plot strikes the tone of a comedy of manners between revolutionaries. Lucía and her husband, Tomás (Adolfo Llauradó), helped support the Cuban Revolution. Yet trouble arises as the Cuban literacy campaign takes root and they have to allow a male teacher to board with them in order assist Lucía becoming literate. Tomás' possessive jealousy explodes as we watch him try to ridiculously shield Lucía from the world earlier in the episode by taking such absurd measures as barricading her into their house by sealing its front door with two-by-fours.
Tomás' stupidity is repeatedly commented upon by an unnamed singer who periodically interjects over the soundtrack. For example, despite Tomás' protests against the literacy teacher staying at his home, we quickly watch a montage sequence of the teacher living with them and teaching Lucía. Lucía and the teacher sit close together, laughing and learning, as Tomás sullenly observes them from across the table, slouched, miserable, and full of self-pity.
A catchy Cuban folk ballad enters as Joseíto Fernandez sings, "Education is the most nutritious bread / for every human being. That's why this time / all his strategies have failed. And though he flirts and jokes around / and exploits his assistants." We watch footage of Tomás in fields directing workers while Lucía and the teacher flirt and learn at home. The song continues, "Back at home / the visitor has achieved his goal."
As Tomás' pettiness and reactionary stance towards Lucía grows, the songs become even more critical, such as later commenting: "He's fallen prey / to his own foolish obsession / which is the product of that jealousy / that comes from a limited imagination." These musical sequences suddenly place viewers at a distance from the couple, revealing the absurdity of their gender dynamics—both Tomás' misogyny and Lucía's misbegotten belief that they should be together. Needless to say, Lucía finally leaves Tomás after the teacher's urging and inevitable declaration of love.
Legrá's animated performance electrifies the episode as her emotions dramatically pivot between boundless good spirit and rage against her husband's misogyny. This energy fully manifests itself near the end of the film as Tomás confronts Lucía at her new job at a salt flat. As he approaches, she stares him down until finally telling him to get lost. Tomás ignores her pleas, finally forcing Lucía to simply run away from him. Sixties' pop music plays as we watch a long shot of Lucía outrunning Tomás, her hat flying away as she out-sprints him. Eventually her female workers hold his arms back to contain him. Lucía tells him that she never wants to see him again as she cries in rage, "Go away or I might kill you."
Although one would perhaps consider this a good place for the film to end, Lucía continues, suggesting that both characters are stuck in their old, outmoded ways. Despite her better judgment, Lucía decides to return to Tomás, falsely believing that she cannot live without him. But as soon as she confesses this to him, Tomás reverts to his reactionary ways, demanding she no longer work. He yells, "I love you, Lucía, but you have to obey me, damn it."
This absurd dance between abuse and love continues as the film's final sequence cuts a young girl distantly observing the couple fight. She appears out of nowhere as she witnesses Lucía running away from Tomás yet again. The final shot shows her laughing as pop music plays across the soundtrack. She looks at the camera, laughing, a comment of the younger generation upon the older generation's stupidity, follies, and ideological hang ups. She turns around and leaves them, a couple from a bygone age, tossed into the scrapheap of history as the younger generation wisely turns to reject their elders' stupidity.
Not only is Lucía the most engaging film in this boxset, but it also provides some relief by featuring a story centering upon women, even if written and directed by men. It combines all the best elements of the collection: engaging acting, an ambitious storyline, an experimental style, humor and tragedy, and a political through line that weaves itself within individual lives and collective endeavors.
Indeed, Lucía represents the best of the hidden treasures that the World Cinema Project has repeatedly uncovered. One can only hope that the next installment might actually include some women behind the camera, too, in order to expand the terrain of what is considered truly worth preserving and introducing to a wider public.