You can be a movie lover and not be a “film buff” (I still consider myself the former, and working on the latter), but everyone in those categories know Martin Scorsese as a renowned director. His “side gig” for many years now has been devoted to saving old films. In 1990, he founded The Film Foundation, and brought together a who’s who list of celebrated directors to back him in his goal: saving and preserving classic cinema for future generations. Due to the fragility of film and improper storage, a huge amount of old film, especially movies made before 1950, were just disintegrating. Scorsese brought a lot of attention to this problem, and while it started with just classic American cinema, it grew to encompass international pictures too.
This was a start, but still, it tended to focus more on the “heavy hitters” on the international scene, meaning films out of the France, Japan, etc. Lesser-known films from unknown directors in smaller countries, many not seen outside of their own areas, were still neglected. So in 2007, Scorsese founded another organization, World Cinema Foundation (later changed to World Cinema Project). Its goal is to find these hidden gems and preserve them before they are lost forever, and in doing so, share them with a world audience. Today I’ll be looking at 5 films from the WCP, pulled from the wonderful Criterion set.
Touki Bouki (“The Journey of the Hyena in the language of Wolof) comes from the country of Senegal and director Djibril Diop Mambéty, released in 1973. It is light on story but heavy on imagery. Mory and Anta are in a relationship, and each is tired of their life in Dakar. They dream of starting a new life in Paris, but have no way to get there. They try to rob the local arena during a busy celebration, but make off with the wrong chest. Finally, Mory is able to steal from a wealthy but inattentive man, but do the couple go through with it, or find the idea of leaving home too hard to bear? That’s the entirety of the story, but so much of the film is about juxtaposition: urban vs rural, rich vs poor, native traditions vs colonialism, and seemingly much more. In the beginning, I was having one of those “What the hell am I watching?” moments; the first scene involves a bull being lead to a slaughterhouse, and it is savagely butchered on camera (a goat is later slain much the same way). What does this have to do with our characters? You’ll have to watch and see. I can’t say that it is a movie I’d watch again, but I appreciate the thoughtfulness that went into it. ★★
Redes is a 1936 film out of Mexico. It’s a short film, right at an hour, about the struggles of the working man in a fishing village. Miro is a young father who works all day but can’t make enough money to afford medicine when his kid gets sick. The child ultimately dies, which lights a fire under Miro to start fighting for better wages. All of the men in the village are fishers, but the only person getting rich is the one man who controls the purchasing; he then ships the fish off to Mexico City and triples his profits. Miro tries to get his fellows to join his cause, but it’s hard to get people to forgo all money, even pennies, when they have families to support. Funded by a progressive government, the film was initially going to be a documentary to promote better wages and conditions for the workers in Mexico, but was later switched to a work of fiction. Still, all but one of the actors were locals, and the movie still feels much like a narrative documentary. It’s a bit uneven, and the acting is obviously rough with non-professionals, but it is still a rousing story of coming together for the betterment of all. ★★½
Taking place among the poor villages along the Titas River in Bangladesh, A River Called Titas is from director Ritwik Ghatak, a contemporary of the more famous Bengali director Satyajit Ray. It is a beautifully told (and exceedingly beautifully shot, truly gorgeous) film. It begins with a girl named Basanti, who, though young, is already looking forward to marriage, as is their custom. She is pursued by two brothers, Subla and Kishore, though she likes Kishore more. Kishore is fishing near a village up the river when it is raided by another group; he helps a woman, Rajar, who fainted in fear, and as a show of gratitude, the village elder decrees she is to be his wife. They marry that night, and he goes to take her back to his village the next day. Unfortunately their boat is attacked by the raiders again, and Rajar is kidnapped. She escapes, but nearly drowns before washing up on shore near a different village. After the hurried marriage and whirlwind events, she doesn’t know her own husband’s name, only the name of his village. Pregnant with his child, she cannot return home for fear of shame, so she raises the child in her new village for 10 years, before finally setting out to find Kishore. Rajar goes to his village and in a twist of fate, meets Basanti. As it turns out, in Rajar’s absence, Kishore returned home a broken man, insane with grief over losing his new wife, and has become the village idiot. Basanti instead married Subla, who died the next day, and she’s been a widow these past 10 years. Rajar doesn’t know any of this, and is not recognized by Kishore when he sees her. All this happens in the first third or so of the film, and there is much more to the tale, as Basanti raises Rajar and Kishore’s child. More than a saga about a family, the film also becomes a story of the fading traditions and customs in the village. I enjoyed the first half (Basanti’s tale) much more than the second (court dealings and eroding values, and ultimately the disappearing of the river itself and Basanti’s way of life), so I’ll average out my rating. ★★★½
Dry Summer comes from director Metin Erksan, out of Turkey, and released in 1964. It’s more of a straightforward melodrama compared to the above pictures, about two brothers who jointly own a farm in rural Turkey. A natural spring on the property irrigates their land, and runoff also helps the farmers down the hill. Osman is the eldest brother and mostly calls the shots; he wants to build a dam to grow their farm, but little brother Hasan knows this will devastate the other villagers who need the water too. At the same time, Hasan has fallen in love with the young and beautiful Bahar. They marry, and Hasan brings her back to live with him and Osman, and immediately the elder brother casts his eye on his brother’s wife. Meanwhile, the dam is causing strife with villagers, leading them to do a night raid on the brothers’ house and blow up the dam. Osman and Hasan give chase, and Osman shoots and kills one of the invaders. However, he convinces Hasan to take the fall, arguing that the younger, more likable Hasan will get a more lenient sentence. When Hasan goes off to prison, Osman is left along with Bahar at the farm, and he can now make his move, until Hasan gets out that is. Really good flick, though a mostly amateur cast (outside of the actors for Osman and Bahar) leads to some rough acting here and there. The story is gripping and sinister in all the right spots. My only gripe is there are some moments that are a bit repetitive, and others that feel rushed. I’m convinced a good 20 minutes was edited out near the end to shorten the film, because things pick up a little too quickly at one point. But overall, a very enjoyable film. ★★★½
By all measures I should have liked Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid. Released in 1960 by a director who is now seen as a big inspiration for all the great Korean filmmakers of today, it is a bit too pulpy and over the top for my tastes. It is about a music teacher at a factory/school (where the poor send their children for education, when they can’t afford a “normal” secondary school) who is struggling to make ends meet with a wife and two young children at home, with another on the way. A good looking guy, he also is a favorite among his female students, one of whom begins taking piano lessons with him. Enduring a hard pregnancy, his wife convinces the teacher to hire a maid, and the piano student suggests a fellow classmate. Unfortunately the new maid gives off an immediate sinister vibe. She too is smitten by the teacher, and seduces him into an affair, and subsequently uses her guile and a threat of exposure to the school, where the teacher would lose his job. The final half is just a lot of back and forth between the teacher, his wife, and the maid, and it got old quick. The last act is good, but by then I had mostly checked out. Chalking this one up to just not my cup of tea. ★½