World cinema is on our mind in this month’s What We’re Watching column, our critics writing on German, Russian, and Belgian cinema. We also share our thoughts on a Hal Ashby music biopic as well as the Academy Award-nominated The Favourite. Read below:
The Earthquake in Chile (1975)
I have been reading a fair amount of Heinrich von Kleist‘s novellas in the past few weeks, and the story of his that has thus far left the greatest impression on me has been The Earthquake in Chile, a dramatization of the devastating 1647 Santiago earthquake in Chile that centers around two lovers condemned to a tragic fate but are ostensibly — and only ostensibly — saved by the events of the earthquake.
The German short story told the tale of Jeronimo and Josephe, two lovers who are sentenced to imprisonment and death for their societally perceived sins (namely, their relationship and Josephe having gave birth to Jeronimo’s child after having been sent to a convent) but are freed by the cataclysmic destruction of the earthquake. In the tumultuous aftermath of the event, the two search for one another and miraculously reunite, along with their infant son who Josephe managed to rescue amidst chaos, with a rekindled sense of hope. With plans of escaping Chile to Spain to start anew, the two are given a second chance at life away from the condemnation and torment of the city folk in Santiago who had made a spectacle out of their story, eagerly awaiting the public execution of Josephe. While traveling out of the city, the lovers encounter and befriend a man named Don Fernando who along with his injured wife and infant son are also surviving in the aftermath of the earthquake — after conversing and exchanging stories, the man offers the reunited family to join his own, to which they oblige. For a period of time and for the first time in a long time, Jeronimo and Josephe discover a sense of community and warmth, finding humanity in the most unlikely of places, but while all appears bright on the horizon, the group soon hears news of a service being held at the lone surviving church of Santiago, and out of naivety, despite an awareness of the potential danger, they attend the service.
What happens next, the ending of the story, should be plain to see; it becomes fairly obvious by this point in the story that Kleist’s setup is building towards a bleak payoff — especially given the context of Kleist as an author who often deals with tragic subject matter, a writer obsessed with existentialist themes such as the uncontrollable and incomprehensible forces of the universe. What happens next is the blame of the earthquake being directed towards the sins of Josephe and Geronimo, and as the two are recognized at the service, they, along with seemingly their infant child, are — despite Fernando’s attempts to fight back — savagely beaten and murdered in brutal fashion by a mob of townsfolk at the commands of a religious leader, all of which is described in shockingly vivid detail. Sure there are themes of the decadence of religious institutions and whatnot, but what I was so viscerally taken aback by was the manner in which Kleist juxtaposed scenes of human compassion and empathy with moments of indescribable horror, for better or worse. Naturally, I was interested to discover that there was a film adaptation of this story by a fairly overlooked German filmmaker named Helma Sanders-Brahms — in fact, the film itself is rather unknown (though I suppose Kleist has never been the most fashionable author to adapt). And while, structurally-speaking, Sanders-Brahm’s film is a fairly identical translation of Kleist’s text to film, there are a few key tweaks that make the obscurity of this film all the more disappointing: rather than hone in on Kleist’s obsession with the unpredictability of life, Sanders-Brahm’s takes a class-analytical approach to the narrative and places the events of the story in a socio-political context, offering tangible explanations for Kleist’s inexplicable events, furthermore, the film’s rendition of Fernando is less of a divine hero as opposed to a calculating business man, doing what he must to survive. It is a very interesting adaptation and a unique reinterpretation of Kleist’s novella, not to mention that the performances are quite good all-around and the actual earthquake depicted in film is reasonably well done in a creative manner (knowing that this is a film purposed for television). If any of the above sounded interesting, then consider checking it out because it is worth seeing. – Timan Zheng
Bound for Glory (1976)
Music biopics seem to be a point of discussion this summer owing to Elvis, so it seemed an opportune time to watch Hal Ashby‘s Best Picture-nominated Bound for Glory. It is not a strictly accurate depiction of Woody Guthrie‘s life or career beginnings, but Ashby and star David Carradine go for mood and feeling over literal factual retelling. A staunch socialist in real life, the film is as much a biopic of its subject as it is a call-to-action for the audience, showing abject poverty and suffering under the thumb of big business in an unflinching fashion. Guthrie himself lives in a basically abandoned town that is filled with dust, hops a train to California, and finds there not only an entry fee for the state, but Hoovervilles and cruel bosses. It is music that is an escape, a gateway to speak to the people and to have one’s voice be heard. Bound for Glory can be a powerful experience, especially thanks to Carradine’s performance – Ashby relayed a story about the film’s production that, at one point, the shoot had to be halted for hours as some migrant workers marched by the set and Carradine left with them, which has to be a sign of how perfect his casting was as Guthrie.
Bound for Glory is not only powerful narratively and thematically, but also visually. DP Haskell Wexler is one of the all-time greats and his work on this film was exemplary. For 150 minutes, it is arguably the most beautiful film ever made. Utilizing steadicam for shots in motion, Bound for Glory stands as one of the first to do so and also stands as a testament to its power in capturing the underlying beauty of the world that Woody traverses. His shot composition, lighting (the silhouettes as Woody rides the train are glorious), and of color (from the browns of his dusty town to the haunting purple-black of the Hoovervilles), are second to none. Bound for Glory stands as one of the best music biopics of all-time and though its runtime can be a tad daunting at first, Ashby makes every minute count in delivering a wonderful viewing experience. – Kevin Jones
Extreme Prejudice (1987)
Director Walter Hill gets to make his version of Sam Peckinpah‘s The Wild Bunch in Extreme Prejudice, a hypermasculine western starring Nick Nolte and Powers Boothe as old friends on opposite sides of the law. It is a rather familiar setup and it is ripe for Hill to layer on not only a heavy dose of testosterone – also courtesy of writer John Milius – but also plenty of genre play and parody. It is a fantastic mishmash of western tropes (not only The Wild Bunch, but also references to High Noon, for example) as Nolte’s Jack Banteen, a small town Sheriff who winds up in the midst of a classic 80s actioner with a 60s plot and 50s western setting where some rogue group of military men try to take down Boothe’s Cash Bailey, a drug lord, in the name of personal gain. Some of the best actors of the 80s are right in their element – not only Nolte and Boothe, but also a great Michael Ironside as the military team leader and Rip Torn as a killer mentor/sidekick for Nolte – while Hill’s control of these various elements makes Extreme Prejudice into a thrilling, action-packed spectacle. Pulling vicariously from his influences and spinning it into a western with a vibe all its own, Hill delivered one of his best films in Extreme Prejudice. – Kevin Jones
Prisoner of the Mountains (1996)
I have always been fascinated by the countries of the Caucasus region; that rugged mountainous terrain lodged in between and which acts as a natural barrier for Western Asia and Eastern Europe — with all of its harsh conditions, distinct cultural amalgamations, extensive history of conflict, and relative obscurity in the eyes of Westerns — constitutes one of the most compelling regions on the surface of the Earth. More specifically, I take a unique interest in the North Caucasus subregion, an area recognized in its entirety as part of Russia, consisting of countries such as Chechnya and Dagestan, among others (each of which are designated as a “republic” of the Russian Federation). It is an expanse, to those removed from its vicinity, perhaps best known for the disproportionate amount of the world’s greatest combat sports athletes that emerge from its land (this, oddly, appears to be the extent of its cultural displays, as well as offering of notable figures, for the international stage) but if not that, perhaps the brutal wars with mainland Russia that have historically plagued the subregion, most notably in Chechnya. This fairly obscure part of the world is often mythologized for its reputation of having endured generations of conflict and struggle, which in turn shaped its tough-as-nails people, where the children wrestle bear cubs and punch rocks for fun, and entertainment routinely consists of grown men beating each other to a pulp. Art from the region is sparse, nearly nonexistent from what research can gauge, so let it be no surprise that these countries carry little semblance of a national cinema; any and all cultural exposure to foreigners comes in the form of the few existing documentaries of life in the land, but even those are typically more focused on the political controversies of the countries and are usually from outsider perspectives.
Interestingly, there appears to have only ever been twelve films in the history of cinema that were filmed on location in the North Caucasus subregion — the majority of which are unremarkable and forgotten throwaway Russian films, usually from a bygone era, as well as some deep-cuts from recognizable filmmakers of that region. The most notable of these films seems to be Sergei Bodrov‘s Academy Award Nominee, Prisoner of the Mountains, a loose adaptation of Leo Tolstoy‘s semi-autobiographical The Prisoner of the Caucasus, a short story that tells the tale of two soldiers who are kidnapped by Circassians (an ethnic group native to the North Caucasus) and held for ransom in a Circassian village, the struggle of the two to escape their captors and their efforts to survive. Bodrov recontextualizes this story and transposes Tolstoy’s narrative, which was set in and based on the author’s lived experience serving in the 19th century Caucasus War (a conflict between the expansionist Tsars of the Russian Empire and the many ethnic groups of the Caucasus region), to a contemporary setting in Chechnya, implied to take place during the, then, ongoing First Chechen War. The plot is similar to Tolstoy’s narrative, only in Tolstoy’s version, the Circassians kidnappers are generally shown to be one-dimensional brutes whose motives are purely monetary, whereas the Chechen father in Bodrov’s film, who organizes an ambush on a Russia military unit and murders all but two, intends to exchange his captives for his own son who is being detained by the Russian military. Largely, any alterations made to the story are made to make its appeal more universal and the changes help it serve as a sort of anti-war film for the ongoing Chechen War; Bodrov felt that Tolstoy’s novel was too pro-Russian and went out of his way to paint sympathy for the Chechens. And on closer introspection, The Prisoner of the Mountains is a somewhat ordinary film in that many of its narrative beats are easily discernible by the viewer ahead of time and yet, despite this, there is still something about the passion and conviction of Bodrov’s storytelling that makes the film a pleasurable and worthwhile experience regardless. Perhaps it is the presence of Sergei Bodrov Jr, the director’s son and the closest Russia has come to producing a James Dean figure, or just the novelty of the filming location, set in Chechnya but shot in the mountains of Dagestan due to the war. For someone fascinated by the subregion, the film’s many grace notes that display the rarely seen intricacies of Chechen culture and the wide spanning shots of the landscape and villages were enough to keep me captivated throughout. – Timan Zheng
Deux Jours, Une Nuit (2014)
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne‘s Oscar-nominated 2014 masterpiece Deux Jours, Une Nuit revolves around Sandra (Marion Cotillard), a factory worker, whose factory is going through financial difficulties, and as such, the factory workers must choose between their yearly bonus and Sandra getting fired. As a result, Sandra tries to convince her co-workers to give up their bonuses and we witness a critique of capitalism as a question between friendship and money.
I will never not be fascinated by the acting of Marion Cotillard and teaming up with the Dardennes seems to have yielded an amazing result. With a runtime that’s barely over ninety minutes, the film feels compact and to the point, which works great for the premise, as it is a topic that could have easily dragged. Therefore, I think Deux Jours, Une Nuit is worth revisiting especially now, as the middle class is struggling much more than a few years ago while corporations report record profits. This work of Dardennes is especially worth checking out, as they manage to get their point across without being partisan or going on a mission on behalf of an ideology, because they simply focus on the issue, and that’s all there is. – Alper Kavak
The Favourite (2018)
The 2018 film by Yorgos Lanthimos starring Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman and Emma Stone was, in many ways, one of the best full-length films released that year, and that’s because it checked practically every box it should have. The cast was amazing – as one would not expect less from Weisz, Colman or Stone – all the quirkiness in directing that we have come to expect from Lanthimos was spot on, and the writing of Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara complementing Lanthimos’ style definitely exceeded expectations. On top of that, the 18th century England fitted well with the love triangle and the race for Queen Anne’s affection by her two ‘servants’. Granted, some previous films from Lanthimos had stronger endings, but overall, The Favourite is a wonderful showcase proving how far the renowned director has come. – Alper Kavak