As snow fell over the Christmas lights in New York and revelers prepared for the holidays, the cinema in New York turned high-minded again (something about the cold makes serious movies more palatable for filmgoers). The Film Society of Lincoln Center hosted a retrospective on Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini in collaboration with the city-wide celebration of the nihilistic renaissance man, and the 2nd Annual Romanian Film Festival showed why that country's films are at the forefront of many a cienaste's mind nowadays.
Pasolini Takes Center Stage in New York
Last Wednesday evening, the Film Society of Lincoln Center kicked off its "Heretical Epiphanies: The Cinematic Pilgrimages of Pier Paolo Pasolini" with a screening of Pasolini's second film, "Mama Roma," the story of an aging, unstable prostitute's devotion to her son, and a showcase for the legendary Anna Magnani. Touching and angry in equal measures, it's a dark flip-side to the fantastical "Nights of Cabiria," and the director's most accesible film (after watching his final, most infamous film, a friend texted me to announce "Oh God, they ate SO MUCH POOP in "Salo"; I chose not to attend).
The series is Lincoln Center's part in the city-wide celebration of Pasolini currently underway, "Pasolini: Poet in Ashes," dedicated to showcasing all aspect of the filmmaker/ poet/ philosopher/ playwright, whose work delves deeply into class consciousness and a certain nihilism regarding the human condition and capacity for goodness.
"I can't think of another filmmaker from that era who seems more contemporary," said the Film Society's Richard Pena introducing the event. "One of the remarkable things about Pasolini is that his work gets younger every year, it seems to be more relevant, more vital to what's going on."
"Bertolucci [assistant director on "Mama Roma"] used to say that when you saw Pasolini making a film, it was like witnessing the birth of cinema," said Fondazione Musica's Gianni Borgna. "The way he would set up a shot, the way he would shoot it, the way he would track it was extremely personal, nobody had ever done it before. Maybe because he wasn't so much a filmmaker as he was a writer, a poet."
"Pasolini: Poet in Ashes" continues through the 18th; more information is available on their website, http://www.pasolininewyork.com .
Romania harkens back to a bleak but golden age
The recent cinematic output from Romania has been a topic of much ink recently, after the small country's production of several fine pieces of work and two masterpieces, Cristi Puiu's "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" and Christian Mungiu's Cannes '07 Palme D'Or winner "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days." It's doubly fitting that this weekend's Romanian Film Festival at the Tribeca Screening Room was subtitled "The Golden Age"; not only is it a golden age, but much of the cinema on display concerns the legacy of former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu -- ironically dubbed "the golden age" despite its totalitarianism and rampant poverty.
Mungiu's film, often reductively referred to as "the Romanian Abortion Film" and the first in a trilogy titled, "Tales from the Golden Age," is one of the most brilliant films made in any country in years, and its screening attracted a packed house for the festival's opening night. "This is one of the most amazing films I've seen in a long time," said IFC Films' Ryan Werner. "With this film, [Mungiu] takes every element of cinema and brings it to its purest form; it presents an amazing amount of conflicting ideas and thoughts, and still tells the truth without taking sides. (IFC Films will be releasing "4 Months" in the U.S.).
In 1980s Romania, contraception and abortion were both illegal, and poverty and starvation were widespread, leading desperate women to back-alley abortionists where tens of thousands of them died. In Mungiu's film, the most immediate representation of society's ills are evident, though flashes of other problems are seen everywhere (particularly in the film's most breathtaking scene, a ten-minute long single-shot in which lead actress Anamaria Marinka tries to maintain her composure amongst her boyfriend's obnoxious relatives while her friend is in uncertain shape in a hotel room). The real accomplishment of the film is how exciting it is; as Lisa Schwarzbaum said when introducing it at the New York Film Festival in October, "It feels wrong to say that a film about abortion is thrilling, but this one is." "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days," which last week won the European Film Award for Best Picture, will be released in January 25 in New York and February 2 in LA (there will also be a qualifying run of the film in LA starting Dec. 21).
Digging into "Atonement"
Monday night saw the New York premiere of the most recognizably Oscar-ish film of the season, "Atonement" (see related indieWIRE article), director Joe Wright's near-miss adaptation of Ian McEwan's 2002 novel about a pair of frustrated lovers and the attempts for redemption by the little girl whose lie separated them. On Tuesday evening, the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Kent Jones sat down with screenwriter Christopher Hampton and actor James McAvoy for an unintentionally revealing discussion of what may have gone wrong. As he proved with his charming "Pride and Prejudice" two years ago, Wright is a director up for trying any number of flashy directorial tricks in his literary adaptation, which can yield mixed dividends.
"Joe wanted us to act like the movie stars of 1935, instead of regular people" explained McAvoy, discussing the formal, stylization of the first half of the movie (which works far better than the second). "It's not 100% realistic, then, it's heightened, theatrical.... He showed us [David Lean's] "Brief Encounter" four times on a cinema screen for research."
The most brilliant touch in the film is the use of an insistently pounding typewriter in the score, which helps to add tension to the action while implying a narrator busily typing the film as it goes. "Joe's very strong on integrating everything in a production," said Hampton. "He called his composer and said 'I want you to write a Concerto for Typewriter', and they recorded it before the film was shot."
Unfortunate, then, that the film eventually falls into abstracted melodrama, most clearly evident during its evocation of the British retreat from France following the Battle of Dunkirk in World War II. Rather than framing the drama, the film tries to speed through the section by condensing all of the horrors of war in one five-minute shot.
"The shot on the beach, which is a remarkable precis of the sorrow and the pity of war, was the response to an economic constraint," explained Hampton. "Joe said, 'let's do everything, all of the nightmarish scenes, all in one shot. That way we only have to have the extras for one day." Unfortunately, this is precisely what it felt like, a technically impressive bit of camerawork that should have been a highlight, but failed to resonate emotionally because its context had never been established. The film open in theaters tomorrow (December 7th).
And coming up...
The premiere cinematic stylist of the 1950s was Max Ophuls, whose famously graceful camera movement -- through unimaginably elaborate settings, photographed in lushly revealing deep focus -- was inextricably bound to the smooth flow of his narratives. As such, his pictures are really only fully appreciated on the big screen. Enter BAM, who will be screening the master's works, including 1950's "La Ronde" and 1953's "The Earings of Madame De."
And on Friday, the IFC Center will begin a 2 week run of David Lynch's phenomenally trippy debut film, "Eraserhead," another film whose completely unique aural soundscape is best experienced in the theater.