"Offside" - Jafar Panahi (2006)

Jafar Panahi’s Offside (2006) is set during Iran’s World-Cup qualifying match with Bahrain in 2006 and concerns the plight of several young women fans who desperately try to sneak into the stadium to watch the match. In Iran women are forbidden from attending stadia with men to watch sporting events. This sounds like the film is going to be a comedy, and, indeed, that’s the way it is advertised and perceived by many people. But in fact it is a brilliant commentary on society, particularly Iranian society, and is a worthy followup to Panahi’s masterwork, The Circle (2000). With this work, in which he regains his stride from some missteps in Crimson Gold (2003), the true measure of Panahi’s genius has come into full light. He has now taken over the reins of the neo-realist film movement begun in Italy some sixty years ago and established himself as the preeminent practitioner.

The beginning of the film shows a girl dressed as a boy, trying to get past the guards and enter the stadium. She is soon apprehended by the security personnel and directed to a pen outside the stadium walls, where other girls in similar circumstances have been collected. In a short while there are six soccer-loving young women being held in the pen. The pen is attended and guarded by three young soldiers fulfilling their national service requirements. Since two of the soldiers are from the provincial areas of Mashad and Tabriz and the girls are from the more sophisticated metropolis of Tehran, a certain amount of social game-playing soon develops between the girls and the men. Interestingly, these city girls are not only more street-wise than their captors, they also seem to know more about soccer. "Why are girls banned from soccer matches?”, one of the cheekier girls asks a guard. He answers, as if reciting from a formula, that it is to protect women from the foul language of the uncouth men. But when the Japanese team came to play Iran, the cheeky girl continues, Japanese women were allowed to attend the match; what about that? The back-and-forth argument continues for awhile in this vein, and it becomes clear that these young men don’t really know, themselves, why there should be such a ban. As in Panahi's earlier films, the soldiers enforcing the law are relatively innocent and basically human -- they are just trying to do their jobs according to the rules. It is the system, itself, that is dysfunctional. In fact in a interview subsequent to making Offside, Panahi mentioned that the religious authorities now argue that another reason for banishing woemn is to protect them from seeing the bare arms and legs of the men. What are the real reasons for these restrictions? We can all come up with our own responses, but certainly Panahi sees a social problem here that is deeper and more pernicious than simply the issue of watching a sporting event. In fact it is the same overall concern with a contemptuous view of humanity that lay behind the events of The Circle.

Offside shares some characteristics with Panahi’s previous films, The White Balloon, The Mirror, The Circle, and Crimson Gold. Again his film takes place mostly outside, sometimes on a bus, during a single day, and more or less in real time. Again his actors are non-professionals. Again women or girls are a major focus. And, again, the principal characters struggle with the general social restrictions imposed on them. And once again, Panahi’s film has been banned from being screened in Iran. The story has the appearance of a documentary, since much of it was shot at the stadium during the actual match. Using a compact digital camera for the first time, Panahi and his crew were able to blend in to the crowd surreptitiously and catch the spontaneity of the real situation. Thanks to Panahi’s skill in composing editable shots on the fly as the situation develops, the visual continuity of the film is amazingly fluid and organically believable, with all the point-of-view shots emerging naturally in the flow of images. The importance of this technical proficiency cannot be overstated. By adapting his film to the way his untrained actors operate in crowded street situations, Panahi is able to maintain his compelling narrative and, at the same time, sustain the feeling of spontaneity and authenticity.

Panahi has a refined set of aesthetic preferences that guide his filmmaking style. He prefers to have his films present a more of less real-time sequence of events in order to capture the narrative immediacy of reality. Although Offside has the appearance of having been shot in a single day, in fact, the production took 39 days to complete the filming. The craftsmanship of the camera work and editing is so seductive that we feel we are participating in a real-time, documentary event. Panahi also doesn’t like the lie that is imposed on Iranian filmmakers when they shoot women in interior settings. Filmmakers are forced to show women wearing chadors in their homes, even in the company of their immediate family members. Indeed, this is what we see in Mehrjui’s Hamoun, Leila, and Ali Santouri. But Panahi argues that this is artificial and not common practice, even among conservative families. This is one of the reasons why Panahi prefers to shoot his films on the streets.

Although the film has its humorous moments, it is useful to remember that soccer is a sport with potentially serious political overtones in Iran. The authorities in Iran, in their efforts to maintain strict controls and impose their unquestionable authority, place severe restrictions on the free assembly individuals. This prevents potentially uncontrollable congregations from arising. The concept of “flash mobs” is something new, and a phenomenon that may pose difficulties for these authorities in the future. At the present time, though, there is one type of flash mob that takes place spontaneously. When Iran wins a soccer match, the streets spontaneously overflow with people celebrating, and there is nothing that the authorities can do to stop it. It is this phenomenon at the end of the movie, after Iran has beaten Bahrain and qualified for the World Cup, that Panahi captures on film and celebrates. It is the spontaneous eruption of Iranians celebrating something of their own, their soccer team. In Offside, this celebration interrupts the police bus taking the girl "prisoners" to the Vice Squad office and leads to a more hopeful ending. Perhaps sometime in the future, with the help of the continuing efforts of people like Panahi, Iranians will be able to celebrate spontaneously other homegrown elements from their society – even their filmmakers. Certainly Panahi is now a leading voice, not only in Iranian filmmaking, but in the ongoing cultural dialogue of the world.
★★★½

"Morocco" - Josef von Sternberg (1930)

“Don’t go,” she whispers throatily into his ear as she hugs him. With that simple gesture, Marlene Dietrich, as Amy Jolly in Morocco, ascended the heights of expressive romantic longing that only she could attain. It was her first English-language film and her command of English was very limited, but as directed by Josef von Sternberg, she could already express the enigmatic mystery of womanhood like noone else. A legend was born.

Von Sternberg had debuted in 1925 with his first feature film, the low-budget The Salvation Hunters, and had catapulted to fame two years later with Underworld. This was followed in the next few years with a string of additional silent-movie successes: The Last Command, The Dragnet, The Docks of New York, and Thunderbolt. From the very beginning, his films were notable for their atmospheric and artistically sculpted cinematography, which established uniquely moody, expressionistic worlds in which the stories unfold. But by that time sound films were already appearing, and in 1929, von Sternberg went abroad to shoot the first German sound picture, The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel) , with his Last Command star, Emil Jannings. For this new film, he chose for his female lead, Marlene Dietrich, 29 and a veteran of twenty German films, but unknown in the United States. Upon returning to the US, he brought Dietrich with him and immediately made Morocco, with her as the star, followed the next year by Dishonored. Since Morocco was actually released to the public prior to The Blue Angel, it provided the first opportunity to see a von Sternberg sound film and introduced Dietrich to American movie audiences.

Certainly von Sternberg was one of the most romantic of all directors, and Morocco may have been his most extreme representation thereof. The story has a dreamlike, moody nature, and as is sometimes the case with films noir, requires a significant suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer in order to be appreciated. One should watch the film more as a romantic fable, or a medieval romance, than as a realistic account. Indeed, the stylised gestures of the characters, the delirious passions, and the romantic visual motifs in Morocco suggest the aesthetics of ballet, rather than those typical of the “photographic reality” of cinema.

The story is pretty simple. Amy Jolly, a French cabaret singer, has come to Moroccan port town Mogador to forget her past. Soon she is courted by both a wealthy French aristocrat, Le Bessiere (played by Adolphe Menjou), and an American member of the French Foreign Legion, Tom Brown (played by Gary Cooper). Le Bessiere is a sophisticated and chivalrous gentleman; while Brown is a rugged, lower-class hunk who boasts of his attractiveness to women. Amy is romantically (and sexually) attracted to the virile Legionnaire, but Brown clings to his independence and tries to resist the mutual attraction. Eventually Brown’s regiment is sent off on a distant patrol to the east, and Amy amorously urges him not to go. Brown first agrees, but then changes his mind and leaves. Amy, feeling abandoned, succumbs to the courtly charms of Le Bessiere and agrees to his marriage proposal. When she hears that Brown has been wounded, however, her true feelings erupt, and she breaks off her engagement and rushes off to the remote eastern town to see Brown. When she arrives, she learns that he had only faked his injury and discovers him in a bar with a local woman sitting on his lap. Brown really does love Jolly, but he is jealous of the wealthy Le Bessiere and tries to maintain his manly cool. So he leaves her in the bar, simply suggesting that she might see him off when his regiment departs the next day at dawn. The next morning she does come to see him off, and as his troop marches out of town, she succumbs to her passionate feelings of love and impulsively joins the pack of soldiers’ concubines who trail after the regiment marching off into the desert. This is an act of absolute and unconditional submission to love, a theme that runs through many of von Sternberg’s films.

There are a number of memorable moments and scenes in Morocco. Throughout, the film is graced by the fantastic cinematography of the legendary Lee Garmes. Using the nitrate film of his day that supported a greater contrast range than film stocks of today, Garmes and von Sternberg present atmospheric images of light and shade, using various image-sculpting artefacts. For interior scenes there is often light coming through Venetian blinds into a darkened room. For exterior scenes, shady streets are illuminated by streaks of light that shine through palm tree leaves or roof slats.
  • The opening scene shows the Legionnaire regiment marching into the port town of Mogador (Essaouira, today). The drumbeat sound of the marching soldiers will prove to be a leitmotif of fate for the remainder of the film. This is followed by the Moslem call to prayers and the sight of city dwellers kneeling down en masse to pray. In a short space of time, the atmospheric backdrop of the environment is beautifully presented.
  • Marlene Dietrich’s appearance on stage at the nightclub wearing a men’s tuxedo is striking. When the crowd greets her with catcalls (customary treatment given to all new performers, we are told), her smiling, silent gaze is a cool act of feminine defiance that will be emblematic of Dietrich’s persona. Later, when she is selling apples to the crowd and Brown rudely pulls her onto his lap, she calmly chides him with, “you’re pretty brave . . . with women.”
  • Le Bessiere (Menjou) is the ultimate gallant and civilized gentleman, ready to do anything for Jolly, but always discretely refraining from forcing his evident affection. Brown, by contrast, is awkward, but confident and very physical. Von Sternberg emphasised Cooper’s 6'3" frame by having him a bit too tall for the door frames in the buildings, necessitating him to duck his head on entry and entrance.
  • Fifty minutes into the film, Brown goes to Jolly’s dressing room and finds her with Le Bessiere, where he overhears Le Bessiere’s, initially unsuccessful, marriage proposal. After Le Bessiere leaves, Brown and Jolly engage in a dramatic and romantic conversation, capped off with a passionate kiss. This is their closest moment in the film, and the chemistry between Dietrich and Cooper is palpable. But the scene ends with Brown’s impulsive, seemingly capricious, decision to leave her and rejoin his regiment. There is then a long, slow atmospheric tracking shot running through the lengths of the regiment, showing all the soldiers kissing their local girl friends.
  • Abandoned by Brown, Jolly accepts Le Bessiere’s offer of marriage, and there is a memorable engagement banquet scene. During the dinner, Jolly hears the drumbeat of Brown’s returning regiment and stands up in alarm, accidentally breaking and scattering the pearl necklace she had received from Le Bessiere. She rushes out into the street to find out what happened to Brown. This symbolically signalled event was inevitable in this narrative. The passionate and alluring Dietrich (Jolly) could never be content with the civilized life offered by Le Bessiere. Again there is a lengthy back-and-forth tracking shot down the length of the regiment as Jolly desperately searches for news about Brown.
  • The ensuing piano bar scene, with its seductive piano melody in the background as Jolly discovers Brown with another woman, is also unforgettable. After his departure, her final, lone discovery of her own name carved into the wooden tabletop is memorable for others, too: I have seen the words, “Amy Jolly” carved into wooden table tops in other bars around the world.
Morocco received four Oscar nominations, including Best Director (von Sternberg), Best Actress (Dietrich), and Best Cinematography (Garmes). In the end, what we have is von Sternberg’s haunting imagery of romanticism. For him love requires unconditional surrender. If one loves truly, one must love without any promises of faithfulness, of returned love, or of anything in return. One must submit totally – a stark sentiment even more dramatically felt in its exotic setting.
★★★★

"Baran" - Majid Majidi (2001)

Majid Majidi’s fifth feature film, Baran (2001), shares some key characteristics with his previous outings, Father (1996), Children of Heaven (1997), and The Color of Paradise (1999). In all of them, a boy is trying to come to terms with the world, the story ends more or less disastrously on the physical plane, but there is an epiphany on a higher plane. Hoever, there is a uniquely new element to Baran: this is a story about romantic love. Making a story about love between a man and a woman is undoubtedly challenging in present-day Iran, but we should remember that this society has an enormous cultural store and sensitivity to human love. Much of our Western notions about romantic love derive from these sources.

The story is set mostly at a Tehran building construction site, the type whose construction methods and materials, using mainly bricks, cinder blocks, and plaster, offer a major opportunity for unskilled and semi-skilled employment. In a country with a usually high unemployment rate, the competition for unskilled construction jobs naturally leads to low pay scales. Complicating the situation in Iran since 1979 has been the influx of Afghan refugees following the disruptions due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the ensuing brutal civil war. By the year 2000, Iran was hosting 1.5 million desperately poor Afghans, many of whom had spent their entire lives in specially designated refugee camps. Note that to work legally in Iran, to buy things in stores, and just to get around generally, you need a shenasname, the Iranian identity card. Of course, these Afghan refugees didn’t have them and couldn’t easily find work. But construction contractors would hire the refugees, anyway, for even lower wages, which would save the contractors money, as long as they weren’t caught and fined by government inspectors. This was the situation at the building site in Baran: it had a number of Afghans there, working harder than the others and for substandard pay.

At the outset we see Lateef, an Iranian boy in his late teens, who is working at the construction site. It’s immediately clear that Lateef has an attitude problem and is something of a punk – the kind of kid who elsewhere might be a skateboard-riding troublemaker on view in your locale. Thanks to his father’s friendship with construction site manager, Memar, Lateef has the relatively soft job of providing tea and chow at the work breaks, and this gives him the chance to walk around the site during his serving periods, making wisecracks and playing the big shot. While others are working hard, he taunts them from his special perch and continues to stir up trouble. In his idle moments he likes to throw stones at pigeons.

One day one of the Afghans, Najaf, breaks his foot in a fall and has to be taken to the hospital. The following day his friend and fellow Afghan, Soltan, brings Najaf’s son, Rahmat, to the manager, hoping to find a job for him in Najaf’s absence. He explains that Najaf has a number of small children and no other means of support. Memar, who is tough but concerned for his workers, is skeptical when he looks at Rahmat’s slight build, but reluctantly gives his consent. Soon it is clear that Rahmat is not strong enough for the heavy work, and Memar decides to solve two problems at once. He assigns the food preparation job to Rahmat and orders the perpetual nuisance, Lateef, to start doing regular construction work.

Stung by his demotion, Lateef tries to make life miserable for Rahmat (he even smacks him in the face), but Rahmat suffers the malicious pranks stoically. However, one day Lateef makes an eye-popping discovery when he sees someone secretly combing long hair: Rahmat is actually a girl masquerading as boy! It turns out that the only one of Najaf’s children old enough to work is his daughter (whose name, we later learn, is "Baran", meaning “rain” in Farsi). Soon Lateef has entirely new and protective feelings for his vulnerable co-worker. But her precarious circumstances, Iranian (and Afghan) social restrictions, and Lateef's previous vengeance-driven mistreatment of her all stand in the way of any possible friendly approaches. All he can do is keep an eye out and come to her aid when he feels that she is threatened. Not long afterwards, though, the building inspectors discover the presence of the Afghans at the site, and they all get booted out. Lateef now doesn’t even know where the girl has gone, but his interest and desires to help are enflamed. He takes unpaid time off from work to find out where she is and to carry out successive self-sacrificing acts to help her.
  1. He manages to take out his accumulated year’s earnings from Memar and gives them to Soltan to give to Najaf. However, Soltan has his own desperate problems back in Afghanistan and disappears with all the money across the border.
  2. Using the rest of his money that he had been secretly squirrelling away, he buys crutches for Najaf. When he goes to deliver them to Najaf’s hut, he overhears from behind the door a grief-laden family conversation revealing that Najaf’s brother has just died in the Afghan civil war, leaving his brother’s family homeless. So Lateef leaves the crutches by the door and disappears before anyone sees him.
  3. With no further resources, he sells his shenasname in the black market and gives the money to Najaf, saying that it comes from Memar. He knows that Iranian custom would prevent Najaf from accepting a gift straight from his own hand.
Baran never learns of Lateef's role in any of these noble gestures.

The next day Lateef comes to help Najaf’s familly load their belongings onto a truck headed back to Afghanistan. When Baran happens to drop a basket of vegetables, he rushes to help her pick them up. As if knowing that this may be their only moment of interaction, their hands move slowly, carefully, almost touching. When finished, they exchange a momentary glance. Just that. But in this society where, in some quarters, unrelated men and women are not even expected to look each other in the eye, this is a shared moment. Baran covers her face with her burqa and walks towards the truck. When her shoe gets stuck in the mud, Lateef rushes to help her. But, again, there is no touching. The truck departs, and Lateef knows that he will never see her again. But he stares, smiling wistfully, at her last footprint in the mud, as the rain falls.

Lateef has lost all his savings and his indispensable identity card. The woman he loves has disappeared into Afghanistan and is lost forever. But he has gained something, too -- something invaluable. He is a new man and now sees the whole world differently. It is a world that was invisible to him before. And he will never look at the rainfall again in the same way.

This is a film of longing, of unfulfilled desire, and it plays without missing a beat or a note. It is very much in the tradition of Wong Kar Wai’s films, which are situated in a vastly different culture, but reflect similar, universal feelings of our highest sentiments. And like Wong Kar Wai’s films, too, there are whimsical and ironic moments that sometimes bring a smile. What sets Baran apart, however, is the exquisite artistry and subtlety of the presentation. The acting performances are uniformly good. Hossein Abedini, as Lateef, (he also had a major role in Majidi's earlier work, Father) manages the difficult journey from selfish adolescent to compassionate human being with just the right amount of exuberance. Mohammad Amir Naji, as the harried but sympathetic Memar, enlivens the proceedings with his energy and manages to embody the human soul of the construction working environment.

The cinematography and mise en scene are also outstanding. I recall from my graduate film school days when a noted professor remarked that the truly great filmmakers, like Fellini, make films that can be understood purely on visual terms. You can understand them with the sound turned off. So it is with Majidi’s Baran, a visual tour de force. Lateef and Rahmat/Baran are almost never shown in the same shot, yet we are always kept aware and involved of their relative positions and points of view -- and always in a very natural, flowing manner. Majidi uses the various sites, particularly the building site, in atmospheric and evocative fashion. One notable example is the 97-second crane shot depicting the first appearance of Soltan and Rahmat at the construction site. As it follows them continuously up three levels of the building to where they can talk to Memar, we unobtrusively get an overall feeling for the layout and activities of the work site.

At one point in the film, Lateef meets and engages an itinerant Afghan shoe repair man, who poetically offers this rumination:

From the hot fire of being apart
Comes the flame that burns the heart.

Iran is a country where poetic meditations on life's mysteries permeate all levels and areas of society. And Majidi is its cinematic Hafez.
★★★★

"Cat People" - Val Lewton (directed by Jacques Tourneur, 1942)

Cat People was the first of a series of horror films produced by Val Lewton during the early 1940s. It was directed by Jacques Tourneur, who would next team up with Lewton to make the sublime I Walked With a Zombie (1943) and would later direct the classic film noir, Out of the Past (1947). The film was a great commercial success on its release, but only gained critical acceptance much later. The enduring qualities of the film lie in its superb black-and-white production values that were used by Tourneur and Lewton to evoke fear of something unknown lurking in the darkness. In fact, the film relies entirely on our imaginative dread of the unknown.

The film opens with a quotation from the fictitious Dr. Louis Judd, who is actually a character in this film – a psychiatrist whose later romantic interest in the main character proves to be his undoing. The same character, played by the brother of George Sanders, Tom Conway, also appears in Lewton’s later film, The Seventh Victim. For reasons that become clear as the story evolves, Cat People can then be considered a sequel to The Seventh Victim, but the two films have no other linkages beyo0nd the commonality of the Dr. Judd character. In addition, Cat People is also a prequel to the later The Curse of the Cat People (1944), although the plot connection between those two is also not very strong.

The opening scene in a city zoo shows a pretty young woman, Irena (played by Simone Simon), making sketches of the black panther in the cage before her. She meets there a young marine architect, Oliver, who is eager to strike up a romantic acquaintanceship with her, and in no time at all he manages to get himself invited back to her apartment. The dimly lit apartment is visually spooky, bedecked with numerous cat images. Oliver’s fascination with a small sculpture in the apartment, depicting a knight who has impaled a cat with his sword, leads Irena to reveal a little about the legends of her Serbian background. It seems that at one time the country was victimised by evil “cat people” who were eventually routed from the country by “King John”, the subject of the table sculpture in her apartment. But Irena says, menacingly, that some of the cat people escaped to the mountains and continued their evil ways. It will soon become clear that Irena fears that she is descendent from the cat people. Subsequent scenes showing animals (“Mother Nature”) becoming agitated in her presence suggest further that there is some disturbing element inside Irena.

Nevertheless, their relationship deepens and Oliver proposes marriage, but Irena still refuses to kiss Oliver. She is fearful that her suspected evil nature will turn her into a vicious cat, a black panther, if something arouses her passions, whether love or jealousy. Although they go ahead and marry, Irena’s inhibition prevent any physical contact with Oliver, and so the marriage remains unconsummated. Oliver recommends that Irena visit a psychiatrist (Dr. Judd), who assures her that her superstitious fears are all in her mind. Meanwhile the frustrated Oliver is spending more and more time with his office friend, Alice. Irena soon becomes mindful of this budding romance, and becomes jealous. One evening she sneaks out to see what Oliver is doing so late at the office, and observes through a nearby restaurant window a chance meeting between him and Alice. When Alice sets out to walk home alone in the dark, Irena follows her. This sets up a celebrated scene, lasting only about minute and a half, in which Alice becomes increasingly fearful of being stalked by someone out of view. The tension builds to a fever pitch, as Alice becomes terrified. Finally, what sounds like the terrifying growl of a panther (to us, anyway), turns out to be the screeching brakes of a stopping bus, which Alice boards in relief. Nothing happened, and our fears are quickly dissipated. Lewton was to repeat this kind of ominous, nighttime stalking scene with equally chilling effect in The Seventh Victim.

The streetwalking scene is followed by another celebrated scene, in which Alice goes for a lone, nighttime swim at her hotel and fears that some fearful beast is lurking in the shadows. This scene, too, is quite short, and there is nothing threatening clearly identifiable, other than suggestive shadows reflected off the rippling waters of the swimming pool. Alice screams, and when the lights come on, Irena is seen standing in the corner with a benign smile on her face. Once again, it was only a false alarm, and our fears could be interpreted as simply overwrought imagination.

The plot now quickly moves towards its conclusion. Irena, having become convinced by Dr. Judd that her fears are only delusions, resolves to consummate her marriage. But Oliver reveals to her that it is too late; he now loves Alice. Irena sinks into a dark despair, and Oliver goes off to consult with Alice. Dr. Judd, now romantically attracted to Irena, sneaks into their apartment in hopes of catching Irena alone. But when Irena comes home and he tries to seduce her, he is attacked by a shadowy beast and mauled to death. Irena then runs off to the zoo and sets the caged black panther free, but she is killed in the act.

This film has some truly outstanding cinematography, wonderful set design, skilful editing, and good acting performances by all concerned. Simone Simon is particularly attractive as the kittenish Irena who descends into the depths of feline mystery. There is something eternally fascinating about cats. Whenever I see one, I am always amazed how it can often be so cute and, at the same time, so capable of disconcertingly vicious behaviour. This is something apparently intrinsic to our eternal fascination with the mystery of cats, and the filmmakers have manage to summon up that fascination in the personage of Irena. So from these production values, alone, the film is worth seeing. But the film also suffers from serious flaws.

In subsequent Lewton films, there is always a “rational” explanation of the events, and a supernatural exposition is not absolutely required. That is one of the attractive features about these productions, because they establish an atmosphere of believable realism and, at the same time, manage to maintain a sense of doubt in our minds. In Cat People a realistic interpretation of the story would suggest that Irena suffered from a mental ailment and occasionally attacked people viciously. This would not require us to believe that Irena actually turned into a real panther. But in Cat People, there are three situations that demand the supernatural interpretation, and these defeat the moody effects of the story:
  1. After Irena stalks Alice on the streets, we are shown some sheep that have been slaughtered by a beast. Pawprints leading away from the slaughter are shown to gradually turn into footprints from a lady’s shoes. The only interpretation here is that a panther transformed itself back into Irena.
  2. When Dr. Judd is attacked and killed, we actually see a panther attacking him, in one fleeting shot. Again, the only interpretation here is that Irena transformed into a real panther.
  3. At the end of the film, when Irena is shown to have died in front of the panther’s zoo cage, there is a momentary final shot of a panther wearing Irena’s coat and lying dead on the sidewalk.
These three scenes, which destroy our suspension of disbelief, were forced upon Lewton by the RKO studio over his objections. He managed to have enough artistic control in his later productions to resist this kind of pressure for cheap shock effects.

There are a few other odd things about this story.
  • Simone Simon’s character is so innocent and sweet most of the time, perhaps too sweet, that there doesn’t seem to be any ominous potential of something dark lurking inside of her. This is perhaps a weakness. We need a bit more foreshadowing of the evil that is to overtake her.
  • Cigarette smoking is almost obsessively displayed by Oliver, Alice, and several others in the film. These are supposed to be the “normal” people, but the cigarette-smoking behaviour on display suggests a fetish and its own kind of dysfunctional personality.
  • The assumption (discussed towards that latter stages of the film) that Oliver and Alice can have Dr. Judd put Irena away permanently in a mental institution reveals a certain sickness of its own about the mental health community that exists in society, even to this day. In fact the serpentine and slimy Dr. Judd is such a caricature of an intellectually dubious profession that one suspects Lewton and Tourneur were having their own private joke at the expense of psychiatry (then in its Freudian heyday).
  • There is a kind of negative, anti-feminine tone to this tale. “Normal” women are shown to be sunny, down-to-earth characters – good chums, so to speak. The mysterious, alluring aspect of femininity, even sexual desire, is seen as cat-like – dangerous, unpredictable, psychotic. This is a view that I reject.
These elements are interesting, but they prevent Cat People from being a masterpiece. The true masterpiece was soon to come, though: I Walked With a Zombie.
★★★

"Diary of a Country Priest" - Robert Bresson (1950)

With his third feature film, Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d'un Curé de Campagne, 1950), Robert Bresson’s filmmaking reached its distinctive style of cinematic expression. In some ways, in fact, this could be said to be the quintessential Bressonian film, and if there were to be only one film of his that you could see in your lifetime, this should be the one. The film is based on a celebrated novel by Georges Bernanos, which had received the Grand Prix du Roman de L'Académie Française in 1936. Bresson’s film also won a number of international awards, including the Grand Prize at the Vince Film Festival and the prestigious Prix Louis Delluc. The story recounts the experiences of a young French priest who has been assigned to his first parish, in the small, far-north French town of Ambricourt. What makes the film appealing to many people is the sincere and thoughtful way in which the deep questions about life and death are grounded here in the struggles of the youthful priest to come to terms with them. He is, after all, supposed to be a man who has the ultimate answers for his parishioners, but he, himself, is filled with his own doubts and insecurities. And to his great consternation, the priest seems to be ineffectual in all his attempts to help people and guide them towards salvation.

Because of Bresson’s spare style of cinematic expression, which draws the viewer into a reflective mode, one’s reactions to the film can vary with each viewing experience. This is almost a paradox; because at first thought, one might think that Bresson’s cinematic restrictions, which cut down complexity from the image, would have such a narrow focus that subsequent viewings would be unbearably repetitious. But in fact it’s quite the opposite: since one is engaged with the film on a more interior and reflective level, each reviewing of the film is accompanied by the viewer’s mental background and context on that occasion. And that background context can be quite variable over time and across the breadth of the viewing population. As a consequence, many people have quite different reactions to Diary of a Country Priest. Some people see it as pessimistic, for example, while others see it as optimistic.

The story is explicitly represented as a diary, and throughout the film there are close-up shots of a hand making entries in the diary. This is a constant reminder that we are essentially witnessing the dramatic reconstructions of events experienced by the priest, along with his running account of his own reactions to them. The main scenes all have fade-ins and fade-outs, which gives them a certain standalone integrity that can be characteristic of journal entries. The principal narrative revolves around the priest’s extended encounters with three different women in the village. Each encounter ends ambivalently, although a certain kind of progress has been made. When the film starts, the priest is shown cycling into the village and past the manor of the local count, behind the gate of which an older man can be seen embracing a young woman. We later learn that this is the married Count and his governess, Louise.

Soon there are a few things clear about the priest's situation in Ambricourt. The people there are frequently niggardly, petty, and sometimes malicious. This is not a devout parish that cherishes its priest. The priest, himself, is enfeebled by a serious intestinal illness. He is also quite isolated. There are a few educated people among his associates, but they all have their own characteristics that separate them from the young priest. There is the older priest of the nearby Torcy parish, but this fleshy, down-to-earth, pragmatic realist is psychologically quite apart from the earnest and idealistic young priest of Ambricourt. There is the Count, who is superficially friendly, but he wishes to keep his probably indiscreet family affairs private, and so remains aloof. There is the atheist doctor, Delbende, who has fallen behind modern medical practice and has lost his patients. He has no ideals left and counsels the young priest simply to face reality, muddle through, and do the best you can. Soon, however, Delbende's hopelessness gets the better of him, and he kills himself with his gun.

One key encounter is with a young girl in the priest’s Bible classes, Seraphita. She gives the appearance of being a sincere and enthusiastic student, and she fires up his hopes of being able to encourage a sincere Christian along a righteous path. But her sincerity turns out to be only a pose and is intended to play on the priest’s naivete. She and her friends mock the priest for being a fool.

A second encounter is with the Count’s teenage daughter, Chantal. She rejects both her father for his adultery and her mother for her passive willingness to ignore it, and she is now completely rebellious. In several encounters with the priest in the film, she reveals how self-centred and malicious she has become: she is ready to defy God and commit sin for sin’s sake. The priest fears that she is suicidal and goes to speak to the Countess about her.

This signals the third and principal encounter in the film. In most of Bresson’s films, key narrative actions, particularly the violent ones, are not shown on camera, but are merely referred to. In other cases, what may seem to be significant activities are just off screen. This is characteristic of Bresson’s elliptical style of storytelling. For example, Delbende’s suicide is only discussed, after the fact. So, too, the later death of the Countess is not shown, but only discussed. But the key thematic theological encountersbetween the priest and the Countess is played out in full before the camera.

We learn from this encounter that the Countess has long mourned the death of her young son. This tragedy has dwarfed all other indignities of this world, and she has mentally retired from any further combats. She only wants to dwell on the past and what her boy meant to her. The priest commands her to yield to God, unconditionally, and not to retain her proud feelings. But the Countess will have none of this priestly talk and reveals a subtlety of thought that far outstrips the priest’s arguments. She tells him that her fondness for her son is all that she has left. By “surrendering” everything to God, she would simply be faced with nothingness and death before her. The priest defensively remains steadfast in his commands, probably not out of confidence, but simply because he has nothing else to offer. In a striking moment, perhaps an epiphany for the Countess, she finally breaks down and yields. This is the high point of the film.

The next day the priest receives a letter from the Countess, in which she describes how his innocent pleas had enabled her to return to life. She is now at peace. In voice-over, the priest reflects on the fact that the peace and certitude that he apparently “gave” to the Countess was not something that he, himself, had. He had been an unknowing vehicle for God’s salvation.

That night the Countess dies of a heart attack, and Chantal, who had secretly witnessed through an outside window the crucial encounter between the priest and the Countess, has accused the priest of contributing to the Countess’s death. The local canon, an uncle of the Count, comes to warn the priest that there will now be an investigation. The priest asks him what the village people have against them, and he is told, “people don’t hate your simplicity, they shield themselves from it. It’s like a flame that burns them.”

The priest’s debilitating illness becomes worse, and he faints while out walking one evening. Seraphita finds him and looks after him, helping him to recover slightly. He wonders at her kindness, but she confesses that she has been telling many malicious lies about him in the village. She does not own up to being a good girl. He has now reached her somewhat, not through his teaching, but simply by revealing to herself her basic compassionate instincts.

The priest intends to go to Lille to see a doctor, and Chantal comes to see him. She, too, is somewhat fascinated with the priest’s goodness, but she is also proudly impenitent and cannot admit to any remorse. They depart with their differences unresolved. On the way to Lille, the priest gets a motorcycle ride from Chantal’s cousin, Olivier, a bold and worldly young man from the French Foreign Legion. Sitting on the back of the speeding motorcycle, the priest smiles gleefully and comes to appreciate for the first time the thrill that young people have for risk-taking. Upon arrival in Lille, they talk briefly. Olivier comments how his fellow soldiers reject both ordinary society’s petty rules, and God’s complicated sense of justice. The priest responds that the world of ordinary people lacks love, and the reflective Olivier concedes that the priest’s view is wiser than that of his fellow soldiers.

At the doctor’s office in Lille, the priest gets the crushing news that he has incurable stomach cancer (again, this verdict is only discussed after the fact -- the doctor is not shown). He reflects on his own impending death and how he still doesn’t understand the meaning of anything. He visits a former seminary classmate who is now a drug salesman. The friend, who is also extremely ill from consumption, is only interested in his life as an intellectual and neglects the selfless love of his mistress. The priest, now very weak and near death, is alarmed to see his friend, also probably to die soon, so misguided. He urges him to go to his colleague in Torcy and seek repentance.

The priest’s own death is not shown on camera, either. Instead, we learn of it through another piece of text distinct from the diary – a letter sent from the priest’s seminary friend to the priest of Torcy. In it, he reports that the priest, knowing that he was dying, asked for absolution from his friend. His friend, knowing his sinful circumstances, demurred, but the priest, in his last words said, “What does it matter? All is grace.”

That last line, with only an image of the Cross on screen, is crucial to our appreciation of the film. Throughout the film, the priest has expressed to himself, in his diary, all his doubts about religion and his awareness of how ineffectual he has been to help his parishioners. And yet, we feel that the Countess, Chantal, and Seraphita have all been marked, and for the better, by their interactions with the priest. But there are no clear-cut answers given – only the Sufic wonder that there is something beyond.

Diary of a Country Priest is graced by the performances of its three main characters. Claude Laydu, only 23 years old, plays the priest and manages to convey, mostly be means of his facial expressions, the inner turmoil of the priest. Rachel Bérendt, as the Countess, gives a nuanced performance that goes beyond the usual flat, emotionless portrayals that are usually abundant in Bresson’s films. Nicole Ladmiral, as Chantal, is particularly fascinating and seductive. With her countenance usually downcast, but with a sly smile on her face, she quietly suggests a soul that is capable of both passion and cunning. It is a great tragedy that this young artist, who portrayed the suicidal Chantal, committed suicide herself only a few years later by throwing herself in front of a Paris Metro train. Perhaps we can only say, “What does it matter? All is grace.”
★★★★

"Crimson Gold" - Jafar Panahi (2003)

Jafar Panahi, direct from the triumph of his brilliant The Circle (Dayereh, 2000) , next came up with Crimson Gold (Talaye Sorkh, 2003), which attracted considerable attention from its presentation at overseas film festivals. Although most films are ultimately collaborations on the part of many creators that should be judged collectively, in this case I see the film from two distinct perspectives. Panahi’s cinematography and mise-en-scène is extraordinarily inventive and fluid, an outstanding achievement, and by itself merits a rating of ★★★★. But Abbas Kiarostami’s screenplay is fundamentally defective and deserves a BOMB rating. So these two perspectives will be examined separately.

The story is based on a real incident and concerns a pizza delivery man, Hossain Emadeddin, who finds himself delivering pizza to swank customers in the upper-class north end of Tehran. After a few of these encounters, Hossain attempts an armed robbery of a ritzy jewelry store. But the attempt fails immediately, and Hossain kills the shop owner and them himself. The film begins with the botched robbery and suicide, and the rest of the film depicts an extended flashback of events that lead up to the fatal ending. Since we know immediately where the events subsequently shown are heading, we watch much of the film looking for clues concerning what were the causes that led to this tragedy.

We don’t really know much about the character Hossain, but it is notable that the non-professional actor who plays this role is also named Hossain Emadeddin, is also a real-life pizza delivery man, and is said to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia. As the film progresses, though, we learn that the character Hossain is about 43 years old, fought in the Iran-Iraq war, and, perhaps as a result of that experience, must take cortisone medication, which slows him down to a lethargic crawl and has caused him to undergo massive weight gain. The Hossain we see in the film, an overweight slug, is apparently not the man that he had once been. The flashback sequences that make up the film cover a few lengthy encounters, almost completely in real time, that are apparently supposed to provide us with the crucial events that led Hossain to his destruction.
  1. Initially, Hossain’s buddy delivery man and intendant brother-in-law, Ali, shows Hossain a purse that he “found”, which contains a ring and a purchase receipt for a necklace costing about $75,000. They are so astounded by the price tag that they ride up to the elegant uptown jewelry store where the necklace was purchased in order to find out what the ring is worth. Upon arrival, though, the two scruffily dressed characters are denied admission to the posh interior, and Hossain seethes with indignation.
  2. Hossain then delivers some pizzas to a wealthy person who turns out to be a former war comrade. It is painfully evident to both of them how comparatively inferior Hossain’s current circumstances are, and the customer awkwardly offers Hossain a big tip.
  3. Hossain delivers pizzas to another north Tehran building where a dance party is in the process of being raided by the Iranian morality police. Clearly, you’re not allowed to have that kind of fun in modern day Iran. The rude and abusive manner in which the police manhandle everyone they see present a grim picture of a malignant social order. (In fact, we later see the same kind of oppressive police action applied even in Hossain's humble neighborhood.) In this instance of the party, Hossain is held in custody at the site during the all-night police raid. While he is waiting, he chats with a teenage policeman and finally offers everyone, police and those arrested alike, to share his now undeliverable pizzas.
  4. Hossain, his fiancé, and Ali go back to the uptown jewelry store, this time with Hossain dressed in a Europan suit, which enables them to gain admission to the store. Hossain tries to play the role of the big spender, but actually anything costing more than a few hundred dollars is out of his price range. The sales people eventually suggest that the customers look for something downtown, and again Hossain quietly fumes with rage as they depart.
  5. Hossain delivers pizza to a lavish uptown penthouse and gets invited inside by the agitated young resident who has just been dumped by his new girlfriend. The self-absorbed host, a recently returned expatriate from the US, confides to Hossain his alienation from the society he has rejoined, which he says is now unrecognizable and crazy. When the host gets interrupted by a phone call from the girl, Hossain wanders around the huge penthouse and surveys the luxury.
The final scene shows the very beginning of the botched jewelry store holdup, with the identical interior camera setup that was seen at the start of the film.

The problem with all this is that the five main scenes that come before the attempted heist do not lead anywhere, and they do not provide a basis on which to justify the culmination. There is no denouement, just some random slice-of-life scenes involving a poor, unfortunate man wandering around Tehran, followed by a violent and suicidal finale. True, we see a materially poor man observing people with wealth, but this kind of thing happens all the time -- there needs to be more motivation for the ultimate violence. Critics have praised the film for showing the wide gulf between rich and poor in Iran, which presumably provides the motivation, but this is a false reading. In fact, it is more instructive to compare Crimson Gold with Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Warum Läuft Herr R. Amok? (Why Does Mr. R. Run Amok?, 1970). In that German film a somewhat harassed and nagged householder drifts quietly through his unsatisfactory married life, until he finally bludgeons his wife to death with a candlestick holder at the end of the movie. In Fassbinder’s film, in contrast to Crimson Gold, there is a slow, admittedly boring, narrative build-up to the final violence. But there is indeed a progression. That progression does more or less help us understand what has happened to Herr R. Unfortunately, this is not the case with Crimson Gold. Yes, male pride and "face" are overemphasized in many cultures, but the events depicted in Crimson Gold are not sufficiently emasculating for most viewers to empathise with the final actions. Yes, Hossain is an unfortunate character, but he is too opaque. Western critics apparently project into his psyche their own demands and programs for social justice and human dignity.

But now let’s consider the positive side. We have seen outstanding handheld and moving vehicle camera work in Panahi’s earlier The Mirror and The Circle, but here he outdoes himself. In Crimson Gold, the long, fluid camera movements, always maintaining appropriate pictorial compositions and with very few cuts, make each scene come alive with dynamism and intimacy. There is one long conversation between Hossain and his fiancé while riding on his motorcycle that is exquisitely done. The long opening shot from inside the jewelry store seems to echo the camera work of Hou Hsiao-hsien. This is not like the static camera shots of Kiarostami, but instead features carefully orchestrated actions coming into and out of the frame during the course of the shot. All the while, the camera is engaged in a barely perceptible zoom-in movement.

In fact, each of the five slice-of-life scenes are so well laid-out, performed, and filmed, that they are interesting in their own right and provide their own justification for seeing the film. They each provide a little interaction in modern-day Tehran that holds the viewer’s interest as it plays out. But those scenes don’t collectively add up to anything. In fact, I might have accepted those five scenes on their own, if they had just been presented for what they are, or as individual observations of a dysfunctional society. One could possibly infer that the various scenes show an Iranian society whose various inequities may somehow lead eventually to an explosion. But in Crimson Gold, they are encapsulated as flashbacks to explain a murder-suicide. That’s what doesn’t work.

Even so, Panahi's talents are evident and bear watching in future releases.
★★½

"Heart of Glass" - Werner Herzog (1976)

Werner Herzog is one of the most daring and original figures in the world of film, always willing to take risks and explore the extremal regions of both human experience and film expression. Not all of his wagers would turn a profit, though; but even when they didn’t, there was usually something interesting on offer. In Heart of Glass (Herz aus Glas, 1976), which gained some notoriety from Herzog’s reported use of hypnotism on his actors, we see one of those ventures in which Herzog was not entirely successful. Although made only six years after shooting the primitive Fata Morgana, Herzog was now in the full flower of his skills, and he had already made the brilliant Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), Land of Silence and Darkness (1971), Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1974), and The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser (1974).

The film is based on The Hour of Death, a novel by Herbert Achtenbusch, which, itself, was based on Bavarian folklore. The story concerns an 18th century Bavarian village whose glass blowing factory is in crisis. The foreman of the factory has just died two weeks earlier, and he took with him to his grave the crucial secret of how to make the factory’s famous “ruby glass”. Without this secret, the remaining people in the village are in panic concerning how to survive, and they rapidly sink into chaos and madness. The action in the film, such as it is, revolves around two main characters: Hüttenbesitzer (which apparently means “owner of the huts”), who is the wealthy town master and owner of the factory, and Hias, who is a rustic cowherd from the hills. Hüttenbesitzer frantically tries one harebrained and destructive measure after another in a deranged attempt to recover the glassblowing secret. Hias, who is gifted with the power of prophecy, acts as something of Greek chorus, uttering mysterious oracular pronouncements to noone in particular about impending doom. So the sequencing of the plot alternates between a seemingly random series of set pieces depicting the progressively more absurd activities by the townspeople and the apocalyptic prophecies of Hias.

The problem with Heart of Glass is that it seems to be more conceptual and schematic than a really meaningful narrative. The fault for this is at least partially due to Herzog’s experiment with hypnotism. It has been reported that in order to choose his cast from a group of mostly non-professionals. Herzog first had them hypnotised and then showed them (or should I say, subjected them to) his film Fata Morgana. Apparently those who reacted in the most extravagant ways were selected. Then, during each day of the actual shooting, all the actors, except Josef Bierbichler in the role of Hias, were hypnotised by Herzog’s on-the-set psychiatrist. Herzog said, “I wanted this air of the floating, fluid movements, the rigidity of a culture caught in decline and superstition, the atmosphere of prophecy.” Yes, but what you see on the film is a group of people in a collective stupor who appear to be sleepwalking. There is very little interaction among the characters, who each seem to be mesmerised and off in their own little worlds. This process, rather than serving the narrative, defeats it. For us to understand and appreciate a narrative, we need to see or sense the physical and social context, along with the individual motivations of the characters as they interact within that context. In Heart of Glass, the mental contexts and motivations of the characters are absent. The characters do no not have meaningful interactions. All we can see is that they are all “mad”. That kind of thing doesn’t wear well.

Fortunately, there are a couple of things that alleviate these soporific goings-on. The character of Hias is drawn from an allegedly real Bavarian prophet, Johann Mühlhiasl, who lived from 1753 to 1805. He is probably unknown to English-speaking audiences, but may be more familiar to the German-speaking community. His prophecies and visions are characteristically vague and symbol-laden, so that they are open to a variety of interpretations. But they have been interpreted to suggest that he predicted the two world wars, extreme environmental destruction and climate change, the poor revolting and overthrowing the rule of the rich, and military threats from the air. As far as I can tell, many of Mühlhiasl’s prophecies are quoted more or less precisely in the film. So if they seem to be the ravings of a lunatic, they at least carry an air of authenticity.

The cinematography is lush and evocative, with breathtaking panoramas of mountainous landscapes, evoking the German Romantics, along with sepia-tinted interiors of the glass factory workings, evoking the 16h century Flemish paintings of Peter Bruegel. The glass factory scenes are particularly interesting, because they suggest to us some of the unique handcraft skills that have been gradually lost since the coming of the Industrial Revolution.

The overall perspective of Heart of Glass reflects Herzog’s grim vision of hopelessness. Man’s efforts to understand the universe and build a humane civilisation are doomed to failure in the face of his own depravity and the incomprehensibly vastness of great Nature. The universe is infinite and brutal, unmindful and unaffected by our puny efforts to find truth and beauty. Our so-called civilisation has tried to tame nature, but it is based on reductionist mechanism and increasingly drives us further away from any chance of harmony within it. Thus the title character in Aguirre, The Wrath of God was overcome with dreams of greatness, while his demented actions were only destructive of those around him. Here in Heart of Glass, too, Hüttenbesitzer, in the final stages of madness, murders his faithful maid, Ludmilla, in order to see if her blood can be used to recreate the ruby glass.

At the end of the film, Hias recites a further parable about people who lived on two small islands at the end of the earth. These primitive people still believe that the earth is flat and that there are monsters at the edges. Some bold visionaries among them eventually are overcome with curiosity about what is actually out there at the edges, and they set out in a small, pitifully inadequate boat to see what’s there. Seagulls follow the boat as it maneuvers out to sea, and Hias closes the film by saying, “it may have seemed like a sign of hope that the birds followed them out on into the vastness of the sea.” But, of course, it’s not a sign of hope; it’s merely some random action of brute nature that is misunderstood by the adventurers, who are full of hubris and misguided hope.

It’s interesting to reflect on some affinities between Herzog and Robert Bresson, a filmmaker whose “spirituality” would not seem to be comparable to Herzog’s nihilism. Both Herzog and Bresson used non-professional actors. Both directors covered some violent events, but they take place off camera. For example in Heart of Glass, the death of the two peasants, the murder of Ludmilla, and the burning of the factory are covered, but the actual violent acts are not shown. The guarded optimism about humankind that Bresson presented in some of his early films, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, Diary of a Country Priest, and A Man Escaped, turns more pessimistic his later works. Both men, it seems, wished for a kinder world that they regrettably could not find. Bresson, however, seems to have occasionally felt that even in their defeat, humans can achieve a kind of grace – not so, with Herzog.

But Herzog’s personal journey is like the journey of those island people at the end of Heart of Glass. His films, both documentary and dramatic, represent an extended, fascinating personal narrative to travel to the “edge of the earth” and find out what it means for human existence.
★★