Happy as Lazzaro / Lazzaro felice (Italy / France / Switzerland / Germany 2018

Screening on Wednesday April 10th at 8.50 p.m. and on Thursday 11th at 6.15 p.m.

You may have already been to an earlier screening or saw the title at the Leeds International Film Festival; however, if you enjoyed it as much as I did you will surely want a second viewing.

Directed by Alice Rohrwacher, one of her earlier films was The Wonders (2014). This film has been described as magic realist. It combines naturalistic observation with a plot that includes references to myth and folk tales, social exploitation and a touch of fantasy. Lazzaro of the title is a sweet natured and apparently simple minded peasant. He is part of a village cut off from modern Italy and involved in some form of share cropping. Later in the film a migration leads members into a lumpen-proletarian existence. The film shares tone and tropes with recent migrant films. It is fascinating and at times moving. Visually Hèléne Louvart’s cinematography is both beautiful and atmospheric and the overall production is excellent. I thought this the best film I saw at the Festival. A friend commented

I greatly admired The Wonders … and this was even better. This tale of a holy fool in a setting which blurs the borders between realism and the fantastic is not, perhaps, for the literal-minded but should delight most of the rest of us.

The Second Awakening of Christa Klages /Das zweite Erwachen der Christa Klages (West Germany 1978)

6.00p.m. Tuesday March 27th

This is the fourth of the titles from the Independent Cinema Office programme celebrating the films of Margarethe von Trotta. It was her first solo film as director, following on from The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum / Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (1975), already screened at the Picture House. Christa (Tina Engel) is involved in an alternative child care centre. Its problems lead her into crime and then having to go on the run. At one point, she and her friend are found working in an agricultural collective in Portugal. This demonstrates how von Trotta’s film do not just address female relationships, which they do powerfully, but the surrounding social and political contradictions. The film references indirectly the confrontational political discourse of 1970s Germany. As always the characters are fascinating, the film is engrossing and von Trotta and her team’s command of cinematic techniques is impressive.

This is a welcome screening of an important German film when titles from that territory are rare in British exhibition. It would be good to follow up the excellent ICO programme with an example of some other aspects of von Trotta’s film work. The British film Institute have a 35mm print of Sheer Madness / Heller Wahn (1983), though it seems it is quite worn. There is also von Trotta’s career in film acting before she took up direction. She worked several times with the great German film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The British Film Institute have a 35mm print of his Gods of the Plague / Götter der Pest (1970), a drama about an ex-prisoner with Margarethe von Trotta in a leading role.

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum / Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (West Germany, 1975)

Tuesday February 26th at 6.00 p.m.

This film also caries a sub-title, ‘How violence develops and where it can lead’. This suggests one of the themes that are central to the story. Set in Germany at the time when the activities of the Red Army Faction led to increasing repressive laws and a campaign approaching hysteria in the mainstream media, this film counterposes individual liberties against powerful state and commercial institutions. The titular heroine is caught up in a web of media and state scrutiny. The tragic developments in her world taken her far from her original situation.

The film was both scripted and directed by the then partners, Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta. Both are key members of the New German Cinema of the period. The story is adapted from a novel by Heinrich Böll, himself a radical leader in the German literary world. The novel has also been adapted as a television film, a radio drama and an opera.

The novel opens with a line that Wikipedia quotes:

“The characters and action in this story are purely fictitious. Should the description of certain journalistic practices result in a resemblance to the practices of Bild-Zeitung, such resemblance is neither intentional, nor fortuitous, but unavoidable.” [Bild-Zeitung is a tabloid daily published by Axel Sprinter A.G.].

A similar but somewhat different line appears in the end credits of the film.

This suggests how closely the film criticises actual German media and institutions. Here it follows the novel after Boll himself suffered as a target by the German press. The film follows the plot of the novel in offering an increasing melodramatic story. But it also offers a sensitive portrayal of the young female victim at it’s heart, played with conviction by Angela Winkler.

Offering stories that have a basis in real life and history is a hall mark of the film work of Margarethe von Trotta. This title is one of four in a retrospective programme distributed by the Independent Cinemas Office. The Picture House has already screened the powerful biopic of Rosa Luxemburg. The other two films in the programme are her first solo feature The Second Awakening of Christa Klages / Das zweite Erwachen der Christa Klages (1978) and The German Sisters / Die bleierne Zeit (1981). The latter is a classic of the New German Cinema. Both will screen at the Picture House, The German Sisters on March 10th.

This title, now transferred to a DCP, runs for 106 minutes and includes English sub-titles.

Rosa Luxemburg, Germany 1986

Tuesday January 15 at 6 p.m.

This is a welcome screening of one of the fine political dramas written and directed by Margarethe von Trotta. Rosa Luxemburg was one of the outstanding revolutionaries of the early C20th. Along with Lenin and the Bolsheviks and the suffragist Sylvia Pankhurst she adhered to the central platform of Marx and Engels’ position on capitalist war. This was the outcome of years of struggle in her native Poland and in the German Social Democratic Party for ‘Revolution’ against ‘reformism’. Her political activity led to numerous spells of imprisonment and finally her murder after the failed Spartacist uprising in 1919.

[see the recent demonstration in her memory].

Red Rosa now has vanished too. (…)

She told the poor what life is about,

And so the rich have rubbed her out.

May she rest in peace. “[Bertolt Brecht].

Von Trotta’s film opens in prison in 1916 and then takes the viewer back to 1906 and a Polish prison. Cutting in time and space between different periods of Rosa’s life and political action the film presents a complex and dramatic biography. Barbara Sukowa, a long-time collaborator with von Trotta gives a compelling characterisation of this committed and steely woman. The film brings out both the importance of Rosa political activity and the rich but demanding personal life she enjoyed.

The production team includes a number of von Trotta’s regular collaborator. Visually this is a tour de force and the team also manages to capture the look and detail of the years before World War I. When the film moves to the later years of the imperialist war and the post-war failed revolution the judicious use of archive footage integrates the personal life with the seismic social events.

This is a engaging and fascinating biopic and treatment of political events that are as relevant today. Rosa’s own ‘Reform or Revolution’ is as an apt a commentary for 2008 as it was for 1900.

Margarethe von Trotta is one of the outstanding German directors of recent decades. Along with fellow women film-makers she will be part of a retrospective at the forthcoming Berlinale. The Independent Cinema Office are distributing this film [in digital versions] with three other titles: The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum / Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (1975): The Second Awakening of Christa Klages / Das zweite Erwachen der Christa Klages: The German Sisters / Die bleierne Zeit. Let us hope we are able to see these three as well.

2018 at the Hyde Park Picture House.

‘The Wild Pear Tree’

I thought this was a stronger year for new releases than 2017. Two of my favourites screened at the Leeds International Film Festival and then, subsequently, at the Picture House.

Shoplifters / Manbiki kazoku (Japan, 2018). This is a real cinematic treasure. The subject is welcome and a little subversive. The production is excellent in every aspect.

The Wild Pear Tree / Ahlat Agaci, (Turkey | Republic of Macedonia | France / Germany | Bosnia and Herzegovina | Bulgaria | Sweden, 2018. An epic film, certainly in length, but immensely rewarding if you stayed the course.

Then the new titles on general or limited release;

Jupitor’s Moon / Jupiter holdja, (Hungary / Germany / France, 2017). This was a sort of ‘magic realism’ following an illegal migrant trying to survive in an unwelcoming environment.

Sweet Country, (Australia, 2017). A fine ‘outback film’ set in the 1920s. Apart from the excellent characters and plot we had a glimpse a ‘silent film’ screening.

Isle of Dogs, (Germany / USA, 2018). Fine animation and the canine performances of the year.

Zama, (Argentina / Brazil / Spain / Dominican Republic / France / Netherlands / Mexico / Switzerland / USA / Portugal / Lebanon, 2017). I enjoyed this so much that I must find time to read the novel from which it is sourced.

Wajib (Palestine / France / Colombia / Germany / United Arab Emirates / Qatar / Norway, 2017) A master-class in how to make a fascination story out of a drive and delivery of wedding invitations.

‘Wajib’

There were two fine documentaries this year:

The Rape of Recy Taylor, (USA, 2017) Set among African-American women exploited and oppressed in the pre-civil rights era. The use of archive material was so imaginative.

Faces Places / Visages villages (France, 2017) An in idiosyncratic delight.

We also had a lot of classics. The Ida Lupino programme was welcome and mainly on 35mm. High Sierra (USA 1941) and Outrage (USA 1950)stood out.

And we had a good 35mm print of Isaac Julien’s Young Soul Rebels (Britain 1991).

The one serious omission of the year was The Young Karl Marx / Le jeune Karl Marx (France / Belgium / Germany, 2017), a really well done drama of the early years and work of Marx and Friedrich Engels, and with Jenny Marx and Mary Burns.

Friedrich, Jenny, Karl, Mary and family

Meet Me in St Louis, USA 1944.

Sunday December 16th at 5.30 p.m. Friends of the HPPH Xmas screening.

This is the Friends’ Christmas movie though technically it is not a seasonal film The plot actually covers the summer of 1903, then autumn, winter and spring. However, the Christmas sequence is one of the most memorable in the film, indeed in all Hollywood. It is full of seasonal tropes and motifs and features the wonderful ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’. The film is a musical and one of the classics produced by the M-G-M Studio.

The plot follows the domestic and romantic developments in the household of Mr Alonzo Smith (Leon Ames) and Mrs Anna Smith (Mary Astor). Their family includes four daughters; Rose (Lucille Bremer), Esther (Judy Garland), Agnes (Joan Carroll and “Tootsie” (Margaret O’Brien). There is a single son, Lon Jr. (Henry H. Daniels, Jr.). There is also a youthful Grandpa (Harry Davenport) and a maid with a tart tongue, Katie (Marjorie Main).

The cast are excellent and one of the great pleasures of the film. Judy Garland, in her nineteenth feature, is in her youthful and vibrant mode rather than the darker and more emotional tone of her later years. Her songs are done with accomplishment, especially my favourite ‘The Trolley Song’. Margaret O’Brien, in her tenth film, is a well-practised scene stealer but always entertaining. The story does tend to sentiment but Marjorie Main’s Katie continually inserts a more caustic note. The beaux of Rose and of Esther are not quite as interesting as the girls [neither in Lon Jr.), but this is [among other things] a woman’s picture.

Much of the film is in bright sunshine and vibrant Technicolor. But autumn introduces a darker tone with some fine chiaroscuro. And winter offers both twilight scenes and plenty of snow. The director, Vincente Minnelli, is a fine craftsman and he is a master of musical genre; he would later direct The Pirate (1948) and An American in Paris (1951). Early in his career he was a production designer and Minnelli makes use of splendid mise en scène and has a preference for fine travelling shots. In this he is aided by the excellent craft personnel of M-G-M. The Art Direction is by Lemuel Ayres, Cedric Gibbons and Jack Martin Smith; the Set Decorations are by Edwin B. Willis with the costumes designed by Sharaff. They all look and meld beautifully. The cinematography is by George Folsey, who had a long and distinguished career. The Technicolor is excellent and the sequence shots are finely smooth; watch the way the camera handles the opening number, ‘Meet Me in St Louis’.

The screenplay was adapted from a series of short stories by Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoff. They have succeeded in blending these into a complete and integrated story. The songs are a medley from many sources including that of the 1904 Great Exhibition with which the film ends. Most of the score was adapted by Roger Edens but clearly also involved Arthur Freed. Freed is the guiding spirit behind the cycle of classic films from M-G-M, of which this is one of the finest.

The film was a major success on release, coming second in the annual box office. It received four nominations in the Academy Awards though it failed to win one. However, since then it has been listed among the American Film Institute’s ‘Greatest American Musicals’ and two of the musical numbers made it into the AFI’s ‘100 years … 100 songs’. It remains a perennial, classic. 113 minutes of pleasure in glorious colour, songs and unrivalled Hollywood production values. Happily the film is screening from a 35mm print so it can be enjoyed in its original format.

Shoplifters / Manbiki kazoku, Japan 2018

From Friday December 7th until Thursday December 13th

This film was the worthy winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year and of the the Asia Pacific Screen Award for Best Feature Film. It came fourth in the Audience voting at the Leeds International Film Festival; to my mind an underestimate. I rate it one of the three or four best films released this year.

The film is was written, directed and edited by Koreeda Hirokazu. His previous films include the very fine Our Little Sister / Umimachi Diary (2015) and I Wish / Kiseki (2011). Like his earlier films this fits into a cycle of titles that explore representations of the family. Koreeda has done this in a variety of genres but the films all fit into a Japanese genre known by scholars as ‘shomin-geki’, the lives of the common or ordinary people. A major influence here, acknowledged by Koreeda, are the films of Naruse Mikio, one of the masters of classical Japanese cinema. Both directors present portraits of people from the petit-bourgeois, working class and, even the lumpen-proletariat.

The title of this new film describes an activity practised by the main characters. But there is much more to the film than this. As in his other films the cast are excellent and the characterizations and the relationships between kith and kin are both fascinating and complex. The film is realist but with elements of melodrama and moments of intense emotion.

The production values are great. Both the cinematography by Kondo Ryuto and the music by Haruomi Hosono are visually and aurally impressive. The title screens from a DCP but was filmed on 35mm and several digital formats, including Arri and Canon cameras. There are particular moments of superimpositions and one very fine overhead shot that recall the recent The Third Murder / Sandome no satsujin (2017) and the earlier Our Little Sister. This film is in colour, standard widescreen and has English subtitles. It runs 121 minutes. I cannot think of a better two hours spent at the moment.

If you have never seen a film by Naruse Mikio the BFI do have a 35mm print of his 1964 title Yearning / Midareru. This not only has a fine narrative but is graced by the presence of the great Japanese star Takamine Hideko. To see this would be a treat and an interesting comparison with the work of Koreeda.

1945, Hungary 2017

Tuesday December 4th at 6.20 p.m.

This new title has a very limited release in Britain so this is a rare opportunity to see a very fine film. It is set on August 12th 1945, commencing precisely at 11 a.m.  as a train arrives at the railway station in an unnamed Hungarian village. The location seems to be south of Budapest not far from the Danube river.

The train deposits two figures dressed in black and accompanied by two large boxes. Over the next 85 minutes we watch as their boxes are carted into the village. We also watch the responses of the inhabitants, and occasionally Soviet soldiers, part of the liberating armies in Europe. What gradually emerges is a secret guilt over events that occurred under the Nazi occupation.

The film is happy to only gradually reveal the nature of the events and the rather differing responses of the inhabitants. Unlike in some westerns with similar plots the two visiting protagonists do little and, apart from one scene, do not address the villagers. The resulting slow pace and series of ambiguities contribute to the drama and tension developed in this film.

Beautifully shot in black and white with a minimal but effective accompaniment this production offers excellent characterisations from the cast and a convincing representation of place and period.

This will be a fine screening and possibly the only opportunity to see the film in its proper theatrical form. [A longer review is here].

Wajib (Palestine, France, Germany, UAE 2017)

Tuesday November 20th at 6.30 p.m.

This is the second title in the Leeds Palestinian Film Festival following on from the very fine Reports on Sarah and Saleem in the Leeds International Film Festival. It testifies to the variety of Palestinian film that whilst the latter film was in part a thriller this is essentially a road movie. The journeys involve delivering invitations for a forthcoming Palestinian wedding in Nazareth [the meaning of the Palestinian title is ‘duty’]. This event is both an important traditional occasion in Palestinian culture and a regular feature in Palestinian films; notably in the pioneer feature A Wedding in Galilee (Urs al-jalil, 1987).

This new film is written and directed by Annemarie Jacir. She has written and directed a number of films; the earlier When I saw You / Lamma shoftak (2014) was set in 1967 amongst Palestinian refugees in Jordan. This was a splendid drama that I saw at a screening organised by Reel Solutions in Bradford. Her new release has already won awards including being selected as ‘Best Picture’, ‘Best Screenplay’ and ‘Best Actor’ by the Arab Critics assembled in Cannes this year.

The film works partly as a family drama and partly as a ‘bitter-sweet comedy’. The treatment of the political situation is handled with subtlety. It was shot in colour and is in Arabic with English sub-titles. It has received very good reviews; you can check out one here.

Daughters of the Dust, (USA 1991) – Leeds Film Festival Screening

Tuesday November 12th at 1230 p.m. and Wednesday November 14th at 3. 15 p.m. at the Hyde Park Picture House.

 

The film is screening the ‘Time Frames’ series. It was directed by an Afro-American woman, Julie Dash. It is a seminal film for both the Afro-American and the USA Independent cinemas. The basic story-line follows the migration from a Georgia island by women from an isolated and creole speaking community, once enslaved on plantations, in the early 1900s. However, the film has an unconventional use of time and space and an unusual narrative voice. This enables Julie Dash and her team to provide a film that is full of vivid imagery, metaphors and symbolism. It also dramatises the clashes within Afro-American cultures between tradition and the modern.

The film is full of poetic mages whilst the dialogue is in a form of Creole. The cinematography by Arthur Jafa is particularly fine, offering sumptuous images to accompany the characters and story. It won the Cinematography Award at the Sundance Festival and the film has since been included in the Library of Congress National Film Register

The film was partly funded by PBS American Playhouse after being turned down by major studios. Unfortunately none of Dash’s subsequent productions have received proper distribution. It remains her only well-known title despite a considerable output for cinema and television.

The film could be challenging; apart from an unconventional narrative it eschews sub-titles for the Creole [mostly understandable]. But it is a rich and compelling work. The film was originally shot on 35mm in colour and standard wide screen. It has now been restored and is distributed in a digital format. Hopefully this will do justice to the original. For two decades after its initial release it was not seen at all in Britain, so this is a welcome return. The film runs 112 minutes.