Historical/Period Piece

Russian Ark

Russian Ark

This poster - nothing nowhere this fun happens in this movie

(Russkiy kovcheg)

2002

dir: Aleksandr Sokurov

Usually when people are ambivalent about something they say "I'm in two minds about this". In the case of this film I am in fifteen minds about it.

Reading reviews of this film from the serious chin-stroking film reviewers over the last few months, I was lead to believe that this film is one of the single greatest contributions to cinema in the last 100 years. It only recently received cinematic release here in Australia, and I was eager to see it on the big screen instead of waiting another month or so to see it on DVD.

Much has been made of both the achievement in cinema this film represents and the artistic conceptual realisation that the film maker strives for. Essentially the achievement is an entire film made without edits. It is one continuous shot, unedited and incredibly well choreographed behind the scenes, with hundreds of extras having to be doing the right thing at the right time. Apparently it took them three attempts to get it right, which must have been quite frustrating for all concerned.

The other big selling point is the fact that the entirety of the film occurs within the walls of the Hermitage Museum, in St Petersburg, a place notoriously hard to get access to, especially for something of this nature.

Rating: 

My Father's Glory & My Mother's Castle (La Gloire de mon pere, Le Chateau de ma mere)

My Father's Glory

Knickerbockers and pinafores akimbo

dir: Yves Robert

1990

These two films are really one big film, in the same way that Jean de Florette and Manon de Sources are really one long film. In common with those other flicks, these are also set in the same area of France, being Provence. More intimately, they also share the same author, being Marcel Pagnol.

In this instance, these movies are based on Pagnol’s own life in the early part of the 20th century, in Marseilles and the hills nearby. As such, since real life rarely has the dramatic consistency and neatness of well-written drama, these flicks have a very different dynamic to the masterpieces that start with Jean de Florette. They share the same lush visuals, having been filmed in the same region, but completely different stories, themes, ideas and resolutions.

In some ways, enjoyable ways, My Father’s Glory is one of the truly most bourgeois films ever committed to celluloid. It focuses on the low-key meanderings of a family from 1900 onwards, seen through the eyes of the eldest son Marcel (Julien Ciamaca). That shouldn’t be seen as a criticism, just a description of the time, the place and the family involved.

The patriarch of the family, Joseph (Phillipe Caubere) is a school teacher, and mostly a decent and humble man. He’s not much of a drinker, gambler or wifebeater, which is just lovely. His wife Augustine (Nathalie Roussell) is happy to devote herself to doting on him and their ever-expanding family. She wears frilly outfits and makes enough food to serve an army and never complains about anything, ever, the blessed saint.

Augustine has a spinster sister Rose (Therese Liotard), who won’t be a spinster for long, at least if Marcel has anything to do with it. She becomes attached to a fat bastard called Jules (Didier Pain), who irks patriarchal secular humanist Joseph because he’s a religious man. Through Uncle Jules the families get access to a house in the hilly region between Aubergne and Aix. And thus begins the main character’s love affair with the region.

As a child, Marcel is fairly happy-go-lucky, but, being a child, and a French child at that, he has concerns, hopes, fears and more fears about stuff that wouldn’t cross most of our minds. The Glory of the title comes from the son’s obsession, an understandable one, with having his dad be the big man in front of his new uncle. If anything, the son develops a pathological fixation on his father’s status in this alpha dog eat beta dog society.

The arid hills open up, for all the members of the families, a new vista on life, and as the film’s progress, they spend more and more time in the region, as if the working week is in retreat, and their real life now occurs during the holidays.

Marcel makes friends with a local hillbilly kid, Lili (Joris Molinas), who, despite the name, is a boy. Lili and Marcel bond, and Lili teaches Marcel all about the mountain life, though there are no Deliverance-type elements in the offing.

He teaches him about setting traps for birds (Lili makes his living from poaching), the locations for natural springs (which the hick locals jealously guard), and just to appreciate the place for what it is.

Seeing as they don’t have televisions yet due to their not having been invented, the various peoples need hobbies. The womenfolk are perpetually busy preparing food all the time, so they’re looked after, but the men folk need games like lawn bowls and hunting to keep themselves amused. Uncle Jules makes mention of the game available in the region, and refers almost mystically to the bartavelle: the king of partridges. Joseph and Uncle Jules are going out for some fun. To Marcel it becomes a battle for life and death.

Rating: 

Leopard, The (Il Gattopardo)

The Leopard

When I voted for the Leopards Eating the Faces of the
Aristocracy, I never dreamed that I, a member of the
Aristocracy, would ever end up having my face eaten!

dir: Luchino Visconti

1963

The Leopard, based on the novel of the same name by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa, is a beautiful, languid film that slavishly follows the source material so as to not miss a single scintillating second of Sicilian magic. Only a Marxist director who was an aristocrat himself could so painstakingly reconstruct such a story about the decline of the aristocracy in Italy after the Risorgimento of the 1860s. So a classic story about the death of a way of life, of an entire people, becomes a classic film in the hands of the right director.

The acclaimed Italian director made plenty of other films, some as good and some worse (The Damned comes to mind), but few are as magnificent as The Leopard. The title itself comes from the coat of arms of the Prince Fabrizio di Salina’s prestigious and illustrious family. In the film he is played by Burt Lancaster, that most Italian of movie stars.

Oh, wait a second, he’s not Italian. How can he play a Sicilian aristocrat in that case? With great difficulty, perhaps?

Well, Burt Lancaster was of that generation of actors, like Kirk Douglas, like Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Anthony Quinn, Charlton Heston: guys that could play anything and usually did, and made it look easy. This isn’t even the only film he’s played an old Italian in. He played an even older one in Bertolucci’s epic shemozzle 1900 (Novecento). I can’t comment on whether he’s a great actor or not, but I can say he physically embodies the role of the Prince in a way that perfectly matches the character from the book and which greatly aids the film’s credibility.

Sure, he doesn’t get to deliver the actual dialogue (in the Criterion Collection version, it is an Italian dub, with everyone speaking in their native tongue and being dubbed afterwards, which is not unusual since all dialogue used to be dubbed in post-production all the time), but the way he carries himself and behaves beautifully matches the story and the character. He walks, speaks and expresses himself with the crushing weight of history on his shoulders, of his noble ancestors lamenting his lack of effort at preserving their power in a changing world.

He is the perfect patriarchal patrician: benevolent to his family, to the people who still act like his subjects, to the people arriving who intend to replace him. Deeply thoughtful, opposed to the superstitiousness and backwardness of ‘his’ people, he loves the lands his family ruled with a fierce love. He understands that there are forces of change at play that he cannot stop, but neither does he want to make it easy for them.

Though he has a large family of his own, the apple of his eye is his nephew Tancredi, played by that sexy motherfucker Alain Delon, who doesn’t let the fact that he’s French stand in the way of playing the rakish Sicilian character. Tancredi, as you might predict, embodies the new era: he’s broke, but he’s adventurous, and he’s excited about the changes coming, and seeks to be a part of it.

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47 Ronin, The

47 Ronin

This poster is not from the 1962 version of 47 Ronin.
So you may ask yourself, why is it here, then?
And the answer is

dir: Hiroshi Inagaki

1962

Now here’s a blast from the past. For reasons I’m not going to bother to explain, I’ve taken it upon myself to review an ancient Japanese samurai film for my amusement and to a chorus of yawns from the rest of the world. I do love Japanese films, that’s true, but I’m not sure if that’s adequate justification for writing about a film that is over forty years old.

Surely it matters not. Clearly the makers of this flick, The 47 Ronin, didn’t think that the Seven Samurai in Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece were enough. Clearly they thought there needed to be plenty more samurai to make a really good flick. After all, just like with sex, cooking or explosives, if something doesn’t work, just add more ingredients.

Actually, that’s got nothing to do with it. The 47 Samurai is one of the fundamental Japanese cultural tales regarding its history and feudal system of vassalage, and the complex and rigid societal / class system known as bushido, which translates to ‘way of the samurai’. Fascinated as I am with Japanese history and culture, this well-made but a bit tiresome epic film is a perfect example of everything that was most insane about this crazy country. And also, most importantly, it says something about why everyone seems to be dead at the end of so many Japanese films.

Lord Asano (Yuzo Kayama) is a young and prideful man. His stance against bribery and corruption brings him into conflict with the greedy and lustful Lord Kira (Chusha Ichikawa), who provokes Asano until he cants stands no more, in the words of Popeye. Asano lashes out at Kira, drawing a sword in a place where it is forbidden (the Shogun’s building), and lightly wounds him. I felt like screaming “Finish Him!” at the screen.

Due to Kira’s superior rank, and Asano’s drawing of a weapon, the samurai code clearly dictates what must happen next. Asano is not arrested and executed; he is invited to commit seppukuh, where he would be expected to stab himself in the guts and have a second, or kaishaku, usually a friend, cut off his head.

Asano does as is required of him. The samurai live by and die by the code. Often without seeming hesitation. Sometimes they seem absurdly eager to off themselves. It really comes across as surreal to non-Japanese outsiders. It has to.

But Asano’s suicide doesn’t fix things. The law dictates that his lands be seized, and that his loyal samurai retainers become masterless, becoming ronin.

Rating: 

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