Thursday, February 17, 2011

It Rains on Our Love (1946)

You and Me Against the World
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

They meet by chance in a train station. Maggi (Barbro Kollberg) is a woman who wishes to go home upon learning that she is pregnant with the child of a man she does not know. David (Birger Malmsten), without a penny to his name, has just been released from prison. After spending a night together in a hotel room, they fall in love and vow to build their future together. The two end up breaking into a cottage, leading to a series of events that will test their love.

Slandered, suspected of theft and swindled, the couple insist on starting their new life together in a rural community that obviously does not want them and their scandalous relationship in its midst. Thus, the couple’s attempt to legitimise their love through the formality of marriage is hindered by moral and bureaucratic mechanisms that are at play. Their dreams of getting their own home are spoiled by their greedy landlord’s dastardly manoeuvrings.

Only Ingmar Bergman’s second film, It Rains on Our Love (1946), screening as part of the Berlinale Retrospective of the famed Swedish master, showcases a director who has the gift for both storytelling and characterisation. Humour plays a vital part in the film, providing much-needed levity in a story that mines the misfortunes of a couple trying to exist in a village that thrives in narrow-mindedness. The film plays very much like an amiable Hollywood melodrama, something that might surprise Bergman enthusiasts who have gotten used to the harsh ascetic of films like Cries and Whispers (1972) and Scenes from a Marriage (1973).

It Rains on Our Love may not have the complexity and gravity that is usually associated with Bergman. What it does have is an optimism that, at first, might seem strange and out-of-place. But in reality, it is very much a part of the human condition that Bergman has tirelessly worked to portray in his cinema.

In a filmography that includes great films like Fanny and Alexander (1982), Persona (1966) and The Seventh Seal (1957), minor works like It Rains on Our Love are easily forgotten. Thankfully, retrospectives that not only concentrate on widely-accepted masterpieces but also on lesser-known gems, give us a chance to rediscover these films, and for them to reach audiences that may welcome them with new eyes.

(First published here. Read more in the Berlinale Talent Press website)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Actors and the Alchemist

The Actors and the Alchemist
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

Beatrice Kruger, casting director for Tom Tykwer’s The International (2009) and Anton Corbijn’s The American (2010), sat among actors from countries like Belgium, Iran and Nigeria. She looked at everybody’s faces with very curious eyes. “When you are a casting director, you are fixed on a face.”

“Casting is a lot like alchemy. You not only find the right actor for the right role, but you also have to find the right actor for the right director,” she aptly defined her profession. Asked how it is working with both directors and actors, she mentioned that “most directors, I would say, have not been to an acting school. If they haven’t, they don’t know what actors are like. If they don’t know that, they don’t know how to stimulate the actor to get into the role.”

Regarding working with directors who require non-actors, she cautioned that “while it is very exciting, what people tend to forget is that there is natural talent, but it is one in a thousand. If one wants to work with non-actors, one has to be prepared to spend time, and therefore money, to find them. Someone from the street who is great fun and perfect there, can freeze the minute he or she is in front of the camera.”

She then intimated that she was very much involved with discovering young talent. “I always was. And of course, there is a big satisfaction when you discover somebody. It’s no big deal to recommend to a director or producer a famous actor. You can always do that. You don’t need a casting director.”

Whether or not her sympathies are with the actors since she was previously an actress, she answered, “Well, I feel with them. But I am on the other side of the table. My analysis is with the director, is for the picture, is for the product. I sympathise with the actors, of course, since I was also an actress before. But also with their laziness, their wrong egos.”

Asked if there is any difference between working as an actress and a casting director, she recounted her experience working in Krzyzstof Zanussi’s Black Sun (2007), where she was forced to play a minor role when the actress chosen suddenly backed out. She then imparted that “if I would’ve fucked up that part, my ego would have been broken for five minutes … but not seriously, since I had a profession as a casting director which I am very happy about. But for an actor who does nothing else, he can die. His career depends on it.”

Kruger, to most viewers, remains just a name in the credits. But to directors and hundreds of aspiring actors and actresses, she is an indispensible alchemist.

(First published here. Read more in the Berlinale Talent Press website)

A Woman in This World of Men

A Woman in this World of Men
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

In his scathing review of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), Roger Ebert laments that Isabella Rossellini is “degraded, slapped around, humiliated, and undressed in front of the camera.” Ebert, of course, had the image of Rossellini, her arms outstretched to reveal a naked body dirtied by stains of blood and tears, in mind.

Interestingly, in the documentary My Wild Life (2010), which preceded the discussion between critic and historian Peter Cowie and Rossellini, the esteemed model, actress and director pointed out her great affection towards Blue Velvet and how she collaborated with Lynch in making the now iconic scene one of the most evocative images of a woman in absolute resignation.

Rossellini, donning an elegant black dress and an enthusiastic smile, finally appeared after the film in front of an audience composed of fans, admirers and attendees of the Berlinale Talent Campus. Cowie began with a series of questions concentrating on Rossellini’s career in film, from acting to directing. Rossellini, in astute statements that were laced with subtle but effective humour, sensibly answered every question, revealing bits and pieces of her perceptions on acting, working with Lynch, Guy Maddin, and other filmmakers who influenced her. Replying to Cowie’s query regarding an observation that almost all of her characters are enigmatic, she said that “I am attracted to original minds,” revealing her to be a woman of very eclectic taste.

Modest in a way that is surprising given her experience and stature within the international film community, Rossellini recommended that one of the regrets she has in her life is that she only decided to accept jury positions in film festivals very recently. She explained that being in juries had been exceptionally educational for her, considering that she is required to watch several films, all with varying styles and narratives, each day. Previously prevented from accepting jury duties because she was preoccupied with raising her children, she suggested that “women have integrated into a man’s world but it is the man’s world that has to integrate into the traditional woman’s world. That is the next step.” The audience, nearly half of which were women, cheered her on.

Rossellini is hardly the degraded, slapped around, humiliated and undressed woman of Ebert’s review. In fact, she, notwithstanding all the trials in her life and the arguably questionable women she portrayed in various films, proves herself to be a bastion of female integrity in a world where man, or at the very least that male-centric perspective that has persisted through the ages, is king.

(First published here. Read more in the Berlinale Talent Press website)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Tales of the Night (2011)

Colored Shadows
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

Nightly collaborations by a boy, a girl, and a master technician give rise to tales that burst with magic in Michel Ocelot’s Tales of the Night. It is impossible even for the sternest of critics not to enjoy the film and be reminded of times when things were simpler and did not involve elaborate plotlines and super-sophisticated designs. Ocelot pits shadow puppets, whose details are reliant on the lines and curves dictated by costumes, against lush backgrounds, creating an otherworldy atmosphere in settings that are based in history. The six tales, all equally charming, explore these settings, whether it be modern Africa or medievel Europe.

As opposed to James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) and the dozens of other Hollywood productions that utilise 3D to create an illusion of depth in an otherwise flat space, Tales of the Night makes use of 3D only to further a crucial element of shadow puppetry, which is the separation of subject and background. Ocelot replicates the wonderment of the ancient craft onscreen, telling the six stories with refreshing clarity and a distinct look.

Compared to Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed, which remains the pinnacle of this underepresented style, Tales of the Night lacks the unrestrained sensuality that Reiniger, even without the conveniences provided by modern film equipment and 3D technology, has so masterfully injected in her film. Perhaps, had Ocelot resisted romanticising love in a way that is similar to nearly all of the Disney studio’s many retellings of classic fairy tales, the film could have been less saccharine and more alluring about love and romance.

Despite that, Tales of the Night remains a fine piece of work. In a festival that puts a premium on the more serious aspects of life, Ocelot has conjured up tales that value fantasy and the allure of happy endings. This way he has created a film that is remarkably universal despite the myriad of cultures from which it liberally borrows. The film celebrates the power of stories and how, in both their creation and their consumption, they unite humanity.

(First published here. Read more in the Berlinale Talent Press website)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Day is Done (2010)

A View from a Room
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

A plane passes through a passive sky that serves as background to an industrial chimney bellowing smoke that simmers in with clouds. The scene repeats four to five times, before an undrastic change in tempo, a hint of music, and then, an abrupt cut. The montage, impertinent in the way that it breaks traditional conventions in cinema by adamantly refusing to move forward, emphasises the film’s overt minimalism.

Thomas Imbach’s Day is Done, shot mostly from his Zurich apartment, forcibly transports its audience within a place of restricted span and scope, limiting its visuals to the sometimes banal but mostly hypnotic images that are ironically conjured from the filmmaker’s singular point of view. It is convenient to describe the film as simply a collage of everyday sights from the sleepy part of the filmmaker’s hometown. However, it seems that the film persists as a subtle, arguably to the point of frustrating, account of time and change.

The film partakes of a similar approach to Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964), without of course the celebrity of the famous New York City landmark, by inviting the viewer to gaze more than to watch in order to comprehend the minute details that signal the passage of time and the movement of change.

The film’s soundtrack, composed mainly of recorded messages from Imbach’s answering machine collected through time and various songs that accompany the images by either wit or circumstance, provides an inward view of the apartment as opposed to the outward view provided by the imagery. Almost like an autobiography, the soundtrack facilitates the images by detailing the stories that happen in Imbach’s life – like the birth of his son, him growing up, the blossoming of his career, the deterioration of his relationship with his son’s mother. Not unlike his Zurich neighbourhood, Imbach’s life takes the form of a document of time and change while in a seeming standstill.

Day is Done is hardly the type of film that rewards its viewers instantly. Like the planes that breeze through that distinct Zurich sky, the film is an object of mysterious charm whose pleasures are derived from the deliberate discovery of the profound from what is ostensibly a visual and aural barrage of the mundane.

(First published here. Read more in the Berlinale Talent Press website)

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Evolution of a Filipino Film Lover

Lav Diaz's Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family)

Evolution of a Filipino Film Lover
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

I’m sure it did not happen deliberately, like a well-hatched plan from an expertly crafted heist film. And unlike dear Alexis Tioseco’s important pronouncements about film criticism, that it be fueled not by anything else but love, my almost accidental foray into film writing was borne out of frustration and a tinge of subtle rebellion.

Bullied by my traditional parents who thought anything relating to film can hardly be a career, I jumped from my graduation with an almost useless degree in psychology to law, where I spent most of my time reading about other people’s woes dehumanised into pieces of statutory provisions and their repercussions, and the rest of my time watching movies, and recording my reactions to them in a blog, mostly for my fragile memory’s sake than anything else. What I considered as mechanical routine turned into the most delicate of loves when I experienced suffering for film. See, in the Philippines, film has always been synonymous with enjoyment and escapism. Shying from the most pressing of real national concerns, commercial films delight in tackling the fleeting-like teenage romances or kitschy fantasies.

However, Lav Diaz’s Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004), seen in my university’s film theater with the director running to and from his post-production house to deliver the DVDs and effectively turning the 10 hour-and-so running time of the film into a half-day event, woke me up. The physical pain of resisting sleep, hunger, and thirst, compounded by the emotional and spiritual pain of what Diaz had so eloquently communicated in his film affected me like no other film. It opened me to a family of Filipino filmmakers who are working outside the capitalist instructions of the businessmen governing the mainstream. It allowed me to transcend the selfish beginnings of simply writing about films for my requirements, and to start doing it for those who are open to see films beyond their more popular reasons of existence.

I opt to persist, notwithstanding the understandably love-hate relationship I have with the filmmakers whose products I love and adore so dearly that I cannot simply treat them with forgiving dishonesty, notwithstanding that writing is never lucrative and never materially rewarding, notwithstanding that most of my countrymen are more interested in the private affairs of actors and actresses than the merits of their work, notwithstanding the fact that the government has remained paranoid with its outdated censorship laws and film support programs, notwithstanding the fact that masterpieces have disappeared because of neglect and lack of information. I opt to persist - not notwithstanding, but because of what I enumerated above.

My participation in the Berlinale Talent Press is for me a validation that there is a lot more that needs to be done, to be written about, with regards the thing I love the most. I am simply humbled to have this experience as part of my continuing evolution as a Filipino film lover whose utmost goal is to propagate this seemingly insignificant love for a seemingly insignificant art form to as many countrymen as I possibly can.

(First published here. Read more in the Berlinale Talent Press website)