A Quick Survey from India to Spain:
seven – or is it eight? – languages,
Five films selected at random from the International Movies shelf at the New York Public Library are not likely to share many broad thematic or aesthetic commonalities. Or maybe they are and I’m really desperate for an interpretative glue to justify the 10 hours I just spent reading subtitles instead of playing outside with my friends. If Comparative Lit is a thing, why shouldn’t Comparative Film be one too? Or is it? It’s been a while since I left college, but either way, hell, these five movies are all mind-tickling beautiful, intellectually engaging (if someone argues Wrong Move the exception here, I’ll give) and apart from that, somehow deeply connected on an artistic level. And not a one comes from the land of the free, home of the brave.
Other than the obvious commonality of being produced in predominantly non-English speaking countries, the five films discussed here are all differently and very specifically political. Four have been resurrected for English-speaking audiences through the Criterion Collection (maybe that’s the “somehow” of that deep artistic connection), without which this treasure may have been lost, preserved in memory only, at the margins of film culture in their respective countries. The sole non-Criterion title, Ida, was received with immediate international acclaim, having received the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2015 (the first Polish film to do so).
They all take place in a transitory setting where, sometimes poignantly explicit, sometimes only symbolically so, something world historic seems to be unfolding presently or just around the bend: a still-emerging sense of nationhood and economic development in India following Partition (The Big City) or Yugoslavia after the Resistance period (Man is Not a Bird); a country scarred by the preceding years’ Civil War and subsequent historic tragedy which followed under the Franco regime (The Spirit of the Beehive); the personal desperation and shiftlessness of the German petty-bourgeoisie (Wrong Move) in-between major capitalist crises bookended by Nazi horror and the “End of History” fall of the Berlin Wall.
Each is almost novelistic in its approach to character, liminal experiences as depicted through the inner lives of one central character: Wrong Move, for example, is based directly – though loosely – on a bildungrsroman by Goethe; The Spirit of the Beehive uses Frankenstein as its primary source of imagery. They are all, perhaps needlessly to say with Wenders and Ray on the list, excellent examples of auteur filmmaking, the director expressing a strong, personal point of view to his audience directly, even in those cases where state censorship created real obstacles to production. In the case of Beehive, the intervention of state authorities forced the director to veil the film’s meaning in metaphors or oblique references, which I’ve learned has since been branded as the “Francoist aesthetic.” As Paul Julian Smith has noted:
Like many repressive regimes, Francoism attempted to use cinema to change its negative image abroad and to create the impression that freedom of expression was permitted. By producing some internationally successful “quality” films, the regime also hoped to raise the status of Spanish cinema generally, which was at that time dominated by crude, mainstream comedies. By the early seventies, these policies had led to the production and export of many experimental and even discreetly oppositional films, although, of course, no overtly leftist movies could be made. The gaping holes in the plot of The Spirit of the Beehive and the mysterious motivations of its characters are typical of this “Francoist aesthetic,” a term used to describe artistically ambitious movies of the time that made use of fantasy and allegory. These characteristics, which remain so magical to modern audiences, were used in the period as a form of indirect critique. (Smith, 2006)
Farther East and under a dictatorship of a different sort, Makavejev was no stranger to creative censorship himself, as Michael Koresky has detailed in his “Free Radical” introduction to Man is Not a Bird:
Makavejev’s first run-ins with Yugoslav authorities came in 1958, with his short film Don’t Believe in Monuments, which was banned for five years because of its allegedly too erotic content, and in 1962, with his play New Man at the Flower Market, a cutting critique of the Communist ideal of the heroic New Man, also banned. (Koresky, 2009)
Koresky goes on to explain a “decentralization and democratization” initiative on the part of the Yugoslav state in the later part of the 60s (known internally as the Novi Cinema movement), allowing for a greater freedom of expression across the arts, particularly film. What strikes me immediately in this historic detail is the parallel to developments in the Soviet Union during the same period, one which allowed such classics of literature as Master and Margarita to finally find mass publication nearly 30 years after its completion by Bulgakov. (It’s also worth noting the superficial similarities between Master and Margarita and Man is Not a Bird‘s use of hypnotism as a running thread through their respective stories, perhaps symbolic of a counter-cultural response to the bureaucratized state’s insistence on “hyper-rational” centralized planning.)
While my Random Selection of Five International Films from the NY Public Library, Seward Park Branch does not, shamefully, include a single female director, I would argue that two are exceptional examples not merely of strong female characters – exceptional maybe because of their epoch: I wouldn’t expect Indian filmmaking in the 60s, let alone the Bollywood of today, to be the highest example of women’s liberation championed in illuminated celluloid – but of the question and resolution of women’s oppression being placed at the story’s core.
Where The Big City solidarizes with the material struggle of a working mother to overcome traditional patriarchal norms in a modernizing capitalist society still largely in the grips of feudal oppression in Calcutta (fuck, that’s a mouthful), Ida focuses more closely on the politics of identity vis a vis the life of a firebrand Communist Judge (Ida’s Aunt Wanda) and Ida’s own sexual liberation from the confines of Catholic repression. Both are powerful portraits of families interrupted by the political and moral failings of their respective societies. The story of Ida is the title character’s sudden discovery of her Jewish heritage and search for the remains of her family members’ bodies, brutally murdered by anti-Semites during the Occupation. The Big City shows the social fallout, no fault of the working mother’s own, when the lead character, in an effort to save the family from financial ruin, chooses the workplace over her “place” at the center of the household, aka domestic servitude.
We might describe beehives as a home organized by a (matriarchal) dictatorship in some sense, though the buzzing, energetic and productive aspect is all but missing from the mansion in which Erice’s The Sprit of the Beehive takes place. Here, in the stain-glassed drenched honey-colored hues of a wealthy family’s mansion, a father spends his time quietly, painstakingly working on what seems to be a poetic treatise on beekeeping. His wife, equally silent in a far-off room, writes to a presumed wartime lover. Their daughters, Isabel and Ana, are the central characters, their imaginative play, long-held gazes and sisterly rapport an expression of their inner lives: this is where all of the action and beauty of the film occurs.
The plot needs little explanation, considerings its free form of images and “gaps” eluded to above, but two themes should be noted: (1) the “primary image” of Frankenstein, which the director and producer of the film have both referenced as formative in their artistic development; (2) the “fugitive” scene. In the former, Frankenstein can be interpreted from several angles, including the innocence of youth (children must learn who the “monsters” are) or perhaps, more indirectly, the fascistic notion of the Übermensch. However we interpret this device – and many, even contradictory, meanings can be held as valid at once, all the more to evade the censors, of course – what’s important is that, like the film’s creators, Ana is driven by her encounter with Frankenstein at a village film-screening, motivating her to find a “monster” of her own to redeem spiritually. Satiating Ana’s stubborn curiosity, Isabel finally shows her sister an abandoned well house (shown above) where one such monster can be found – this brings us to (2), the unnamed “fugitive,” or in less censored terms, an anti-Franco rebel with whom Ana creates a brief, touching friendship, just before the former is gunned down in the night by a spray of army bullets.
In tone and pace, the film amounts to very melancholic and existential stuff. Many critics have interpreted The Spirit of the Beehive as a film about the traumas of the post-Civil War years, which, if Erice couldn’t say it in dialogue, did as much with light and color. Most poignantly, perhaps, is Ana’s direct encounter with Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein at the film’s end, which brings us full circle to the village film-screening at the beginning. It is in re-staging the scene in which the little girl dies (prompting Ana to ask so insistently, “Why did he kill her?”) that Erice signals that Ana finally understands what happened to her “fugitive” friend:
The intimate connection between life and death in childhood, the great theme of The Spirit of the Beehive, could not be expressed more lyrically and tragically than here. (Smith, 2006)