Tag Archive for: TIFF

TIFF 2017—10 notable films

28 Sep
September 28, 2017

If you haven’t already, you can check out my five favourite films from this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Here are ten others that didn’t make that list but which I saw and can recommend. (Above—my photos from TIFF screenings of: Foxtrot, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, A Ciambra, Black Cop, The Square, Happy End, The Journey, Picture of Light)

Samuel Maoz’s follow-up to 2009’s much-lauded Lebanon has already picked up the Silver Lion at Venice and eight prizes including best picture at Israel’s Ophirs. Its profile has also been juiced by the right kind of controversy, but for me it felt original and genuinely stirring in its (sometimes surprisingly humorous) contemplation of grief, guilt, and, at a key moment, the occupation.

The Killing of a Sacred DeerThe Killing of a Sacred Deer
Yes, it is another darkly humorous high-concept tour-de-force by Yorgos Lanthimos (one that, like the preceding The Lobster, makes excellent use of Colin Farrell), but this one feels maybe a degree closer to familiar tropes of genre thrillers and extremes of dread and tension. It is definitely more unpleasantly physical at moments than its predecessor, and I feared it would go off the rails, but I came away admiring its consummate skill.

A CiambraA Ciambra
Taking method acting to a whole new level, American-born Italian director Jonas Carpignano paints his portrait of Roma people in Calabria by casting marginalized folks he has come to know by living in the region for the past seven years. He takes one of the most appealing secondary characters in Mediterranea (available on Netflix if you care to check out this hidden gem) and turns him into a primary protagonist here. The film feels a little diffuse and overstuffed in moments, but its unique setting held my attention—and now Italy has entered it for consideration for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Black CopBlack Cop
The debut feature from Nova Scotia’s Cory Bowles grapples with an American issue of the moment, but from a Canadian perspective, deconstructing the idea that white supremacy is limited to the other side of the border. It makes brilliant use of a series of urban Halifax locations (without identifying them specifically as such), persuasively alternating between farce, tragic drama, and fourth-wall-breaking soliloquy, framed by bursts of radio commentary presumably inspired by Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. I can only hope it will be as widely seen as it deserves to be.

The SquareThe Square
Watching The Square I felt I finally understood both why it won at Cannes, and also why it was a controversial choice. Director Ruben Östlund throws a lot of elements into this mix—I laughed heartily at nearly all of the jokes, and there basically wasn’t a bad scene, for me, judging each on their merits. And yet I don’t really know if it all adds up to much. At a minimum it is never not entertaining.

Happy EndHappy End
Partially a riposte to Michael Haneke’s own Amour, that seeks to recontextualize the earlier film rather than undo it per se, this was a foray into some dark corners of childhood and old age that mostly persuaded me. My appreciation of Haneke is rather on-again-off-again (I’m on team Caché but not so much into The White Ribbon or Funny Games) but this film clicked with me even if it didn’t blow my mind. And another fine performance from Isabelle Huppert is always welcome.

The JourneyThe Journey
Mohamed Al-Daradji did the almost unthinkable and shot a film entirely in Iraq at a moment when security there was getting drastically worse. Set on the day of Saddam Hussein’s execution in 2006, it goes inside the mind of a female suicide bomber as she prepares to detonate in a train station. The faults of the film are mostly small and it feels churlish to nit-pick a film whose very existence is a small miracle—I will say that the film is largely successful and has stayed with me in the weeks since seeing it.

The Third MurderThe Third Murder
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s departure from exquisite family-based melodrama into the world of crime and punishment is much more methodical, subtle, and deconstructive than I expected. Of the films I saw, apart from Zama, it may be the one that might most benefit from a second viewing. Layers of doubt surrounding a tricky criminal case are laid on until it can be hard to keep track of all of the possible explanations for what has transpired. A challenging film in the best sense.

Jeannette, the Childhood of Joan of ArcJeannette, the Childhood of Joan of Arc
It pleases that this film is a thing that exists in the world, and I generally enjoyed its lo-fi casual charm, but it’s hard to imagine how it will find a wide audience, and it’s sure to be a divider rather than a uniter. I mean, either the sight of twin medieval nuns headbanging on a beach to an “electro-metal” music score is a thing you want to see on the screen, or it isn’t.

Picture of LightPicture of Light
The only cinematic restoration that I took in at this year’s festival, this enduring classic 1994 documentary by Peter Mettler looks and sounds great on the big screen, having been restored and digitally remastered by a number of Canadian partners. The hypnotic, discursive chronicle of a mission to film the aurora borealis in Churchill, Manitoba, with its atmospheric score constructed from the recordings of 1990s musical/production wunderkind Jim O’Rourke, remains sublimely unclassifiable.


my TIFF 2017 top 5

26 Sep
September 26, 2017

At the close of my TIFF experience this year I was waylaid by a flu bug for more than a week, but in the spirit of better-late-than-never, here is the my personal top five from my 18-film binge at this year’s festival in Toronto. (I intend to follow this up soon with a list of some other notables that I enjoyed. Above: my photos from TIFF screenings of picks #5, #4, #3, and #1. Unfortunately Agnès Varda couldn’t travel to Toronto.)

Wajib5. Wajib
“Gives outsiders an insider’s view of Nazareth, and a feel for the politics, with subtlety and grace. v glad I decided to catch it,” was my hot Twitter take after this screening, and on reflection I still stand by that. This film, with its simple narrative structure of a young Palestinian man visiting home—after his successful career launch in Italy—to spend a rather tense day with his father hand-delivering invitations to his sister’s wedding, unfolds deliberately, only rarely feels repetitive, and under Annemarie Jacir’s accomplished direction, very effectively opens a window on a world we rarely see in this light.

First Reformed4. First Reformed
Paul Schrader’s return to form features strikingly inventive stylistic choices, is built around a remarkable performance by Ethan Hawke, and represents Schrader’s most serious exploration yet of the North American Dutch-immigrant Calvinist Christian Reformed Church tradition in which he was raised. It illuminates American evangelical culture from unexpected vantage points, gets serious about the environment, and, yes, revisits Taxi Driver territory—and has the nerve to end with unexpected abruptness. A remarkable, uncompromised film.

3. Call Me By Your Name
So, yeah, it turns out that all it took was a gem of a script of from the master himself, James Ivory, to unlock the full potential of the director Luca Guadagnino. Everyone is talking about Michael Stulhbarg’s remarkable speech as the scene that takes it over the top, but the film really won me over with its wonderful dialog that joyously bounces from English to French to Italian, and back again. It’s a legit criticism that the partners in the central gay romance, played by Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer, look respectively younger and older than the 17 and 24 years of age specified by the script, but the charm here is irresistible and I bought in fully.

Faces Places2. Faces Places (Visages Villages)
This deserving winner of the TIFF People’s Choice Documentary Award is a remarkable collaboration between veteran filmmaker Agnès Varda, now 89 and, as the film documents, experiencing diminished vision and mobility, and the giant-photo-wall-pasting activist artist JR. It is genuinely touching, irresistibly funny, and grounded in the weight of experience—and still somehow free. There was no other TIFF film this year that I can so confidently recommend to absolutely everyone.

Zama1. Zama
The most opaque and complex film I saw at TIFF was also unquestionably the best, for me. Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel, whose previous film, The Headless Woman, drew comparisons to Antonioni, has finally returned nine years later with a follow-up that is more in the vein of Pasolini. With its incredible sound design and elaborate reconstruction of indigenous cultures wiped out centuries ago, this stylized, sophisticated head-trip of a colonial period piece strikes me as a film I will return to again and again in years to come—but maybe not before reading the novel on which it is based, recently, belatedly made available in English translation.

Netflix Canada picks—2017 festival season tee-up edition

19 Aug
August 19, 2017

Some of the hottest directors in world cinema will be screening new work at festivals next month. Here are some defining films by key directors of the season that you can watch right now on Netflix.

Whatever you think of the Atlantic Film Festival renaming itself after the part of the shark that you have to clear when you jump it, you have to like Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name as the pick for 2017’s closing gala—the Italian/American/Brazilian/French co-pro in English, Italian, and French is very much on message with the addition of “International” to the festival name. In North America, Guadagnino perhaps first came to public attention with 2009’s I Am Love, and then convinced Tilda Swinton to return for the wonderful A Bigger Splash by promising her she wouldn’t have to speak.

The newly rebranded festival in Halifax has also booked Mary Shelley, the new film from Haifaa al-Mansour, director of Wadjda, the first feature film in history to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. As fascinating as the production story may be, the film itself is a triumph of narrative skill, brilliantly balancing realism and idealism with a young protagonist you won’t soon forget.

Fans of Sean Baker’s extraordinary Tangerine were elated to hear this week’s announcement that his follow-up The Florida Project will be screening at TIFF in Toronto next month. Famous in part for being shot on three iPhones, Tangerine is in fact a beautifully shot and directed film: “An overt, outrageous comedy, it follows two transgender prostitutes on a day when one of them has a singing gig and the other is on a mission of vengeance to find her boyfriend and crush him for his various infidelities.

Ruben Östlund’s The Square was a surprise winner at Cannes earlier this year, and now it will be making its North American debut at TIFF. His gloriously biting Force Majeure is a little slice of cinematic near-perfection—let’s hope the ill-conceived American remake never actually gets made.

Finally, Hirokazu Kore-eda has a curveball lined up for TIFF audiences this year in the form of crime drama The Third Murder, but 2015’s Our Little Sister is right in Kore-eda’s sweet spot—a carefully drawn Japanese domestic drama, the sort of quietly gripping, insightful film for which you rarely if ever see a North American equivalent.


Guillermo del Toro’s “Buñuel in Mexico” TIFF Master Classes & the state of Buñuel on film & disc

16 Nov
November 16, 2016

Last week’s “Luis Buñuel in Mexico” three-night master class with Guillermo del Toro at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto was a fantastic event. Before I get to some screening takeaways, I want to say up front that I really like how TIFF is delivering on curation & access with an event like this. $62.25 members/$75 general public for six films over three evenings—with GdT himself dishing insight—was value for money (and indeed sold out very quickly).  TIFF’s director of adult learning Theresa Scandiffio did a great job of keeping things on time and on point, and no doubt did a lot of work behind the scenes to make this event happen.

When del Toro first started dropping hints about this event, I was hoping it would be part of a broader retrospective of Buñuel’s work, similar to what London’s ICA did a year ago. As it turned out, three consecutive nights as one-off event worked out really well for me, as I was able to go to Toronto for a week and take in the whole thing.

Too often—and this is one of the first points that del Toro touched on—Buñuel’s Mexican output has been dismissed as inferior to his later, better-known European films like That Obscure Object of Desire, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and Belle de Jour. Del Toro’s six-pack of mostly-underappreciated Buñuel works included four films recognized to varying degrees as artistic masterpieces (Él, Nazarín, Viridiana, Los Olvidados), as well as two (deceptively) straightforward melodramas (Susana, El Bruto), and he came prepared to defend all of them. In the 1950s, he pointed out, Mexico was the Hollywood of the Spanish-speaking world, and films made there were dominating screens in Spain and elsewhere. If drama is a torture of despair, melodrama is a torture of hope, del Toro observed, and Susana and El Bruto, while respecting formula (something del Toro defends as a form of cinematic discipline), stir in plenty of subtle Buñuelian elements, with frankly sexual moments, playfully—and often darkly—Freudian imagery, and of course the inevitable dash of foot fetishism. I came away convinced that these two films are, in the words of Philip French, “significant bricks in a major oeuvre.”

Buñuel and Hitchcock are del Toro’s two favourite filmmakers, he told us, and Él, Buñuel’s most Hitchcockian film, was one of the two biggest discoveries for me personally, of the six films. Much like Rossellini’s La Paura, it’s a case of a master filmmaker deeply absorbing the techniques of Hitchcock’s British and early American films, and then taking that narrative to a darker place than Hitchcock was ever prepared to go. But, fascinatingly, it is also immediately clear that it was enormously influential in turn on Vertigo—leaving me with the feeling much like suddenly having heard for the first time the opposite side of a phone conversation.

Nazarín was the other film that fascinated me the most. The most Pasolini-esque of Buñuel’s films (yet preceding all of Pasolini’s films) with its ironic Christ-figure at the centre of the narrative, it was the most allegorical and perhaps the most difficult of the films on offer. Its narrative direction is not always clear but its individual episodes are fascinating; I very much look forward to a re-watch, perhaps paired with his later, similar film Simon of the Desert.

The other two films were more familiar to me. I remembered the gripping social-realist aspects of the award-winning Los Olvidados—I’d forgotten about the brilliant nightmare sequence, which I doubt I will forget again. Viridiana is by far the most familiar and most cherished of these films for me, but of course it’s been available as a decent Criterion-released DVD for ten years now.

And that brings me to one of the major issues that del Toro raised on the second night of the master classes—the poor quality of some of the prints. I was glad for the opportunity to see what are likely the best-available versions of these films, but the quality of the prints and transfers was, well, a mixed bag. Del Toro says that he would be willing to put some effort behind getting them properly restored and released as high-quality Blu-rays—if I can help out some way, Señor del Toro, and/or TIFF friends, sign me up! I would love to see that happen for all six, but especially for Él and Nazarín.  In the meantime, here are your best options for home viewing. None of them are available in an English-friendly Blu-ray release.


film festival season is TIFFing my AFF

15 Sep
September 15, 2014

The best thing about the two-week marathon that ensues when you do the Toronto+Halifax film festivals back to back as I have this year is the wall-to-wall films. The worst thing aside from the sleep deprivation is the abiding feeling that you’re rather letting down the side by not promptly posting up reviews of every film on your blog.

But as that’s really not been possible, I present, in the place of 17 AWOL film reviews, a series of random festival observations from the past 10 days.

TIFF+AFF is actually a killer pairing. TIFF is really well organized, gets a lot of films that would never play in Halifax, and offers plentiful chances to see, and pose a question to, directors and stars in person. But the Atlantic festival gets a number, this year a large number, of films that are really hard tickets to get in Toronto, and presents them for less than half the price of equivalent Toronto screenings. And it does so all in one multiplex, which makes it dead easy to get from one screening to another. And tickets for the hottest international films are plentifully available, because Halifax audiences are much more interested in regional films than what’s going on elsewhere.

UK English has taken over the subtitling industry. Maybe this has been true for a while, but it seems like every foreign-language film that I have seen so far (and I believe that I’ve seen 7 that were subtitled in their entirety) has been subtitled in UK English. There has been much fancying, significant scoffing—of food, and there have been many lads. This is how I found myself watching a film (Mommy) that was made and set entirely in Canada but subtitled in an English dialect that no native or long-time Canadian would likely use. Perhaps the subtitling will be re-done in time for Canadian or US distribution but this raises an interesting question—does the UK-English-speaking audience at film festivals really significantly outnumber the North American festival audience? If so, that’s surprising to me. Maybe someone who understands the industry better than I do can weigh in with an explanation. I mean, I’m a card-carrying Anglophile so it’s no skin off my teeth. Uh, nose.

While we’re on the topic of subtitling… It is now widespread convention to subtitle even mildly accented English, in English. I am seeing more of this, this year, than I ever have before. Don’t people whose first language is not English find this just a little insulting? And are native English speakers really that thick? I’m talking about perfectly understandable English lines here, echoed as subtitles. I would really like to know more about how this has because a consensus practice.

Goodbye to Language 3D looked way better at the Ryerson Theatre in Toronto than it did at Cineplex Park Lane in Halifax and the only reason I can think of is that Dolby 3D is a significantly better technology than RealD. This is something that I have had no time at all to research so I have no idea if there’s a firm basis to this suspicion. If anyone else knows about the difference between these systems I would welcome your observations and links in the comments. This was the first time that I ever saw the same 3D film projected with the two different technologies in the same week, so it’s nothing I had ever thought to consider before.

Movie-going etiquette is sometimes worse at festivals than at regular commercial screenings. This is of course not true across the board but I’ve been amazed how many glowing smartphone screens have disturbed my viewing experience in the past 10 days. And tonight, for example, at a particular slow, quiet and long film (Winter Sleep) I had to deal with a compulsive foot-tapper somewhere behind me. Super distracting. I don’t remember anyone being that asinine at Guardians of the Galaxy but maybe I just couldn’t hear them.

I have come to derive some perverse enjoyment from the exit walk of shame. You know, where people bend forward and move quickly as they try to hard not to block people’s view as they give up on a screening and leave. As a general rule, the more people bail on a screening, the more I am enjoying the film. This year’s champion has been the nearly impenetrable The Color of Pomegranates, a Toronto screening from which literally dozens of attendees exited in bafflement. It was awesome.

Iraqi Odyssey (Samir): first look

08 Sep
September 8, 2014

Twelve years on from the 2002 documentary Forget Baghdad—an essential, if not widely known, film about the tragic dismantling of the Jewish community of Iraq—director Samir is back with the story of his own Iraqi family’s global diaspora.

As with Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, we have a filmmaker interrogating his own family to ferret out its history. Iraqi Odyssey is far less focused than Polley’s film, describing a rather more diffuse family narrative, but with more political weight. Samir takes a rather meandering route to illuminate the circumstances that forced his family to leave Iraq, and how his uncles, aunts, siblings and cousins came to live in such far-flung places as Auckland, Buffalo, London, Zurich, and Moscow.

Without a clear central thesis the early going of the film is rather slow, so much so that I found myself nodding off briefly at the early avalanche of family-specific anecdotes and factoids. But once the film begins to tell the story of rise and fall of Iraqi Communism, and its eventual co-optation by Ba’athism under Saddam Hussein, we begin to get into some fascinating history—including some remarkable injected archival footage of everything from street scenes to classic Egyptian Arabic cinema—that will likely be largely unknown to Western audiences.

Oddly, perhaps, the choice was made to create the film in 3D, which provides a kind of artificial space in which members of the family talk in the foreground while archival photos and film clips appear and disappear behind and beside them. The studio interviews are the only piece of the film that has actually been shot in 3D.

At one point in the film there are some brief but quite horrifying images of torture that happened under Saddam’s regime; later there is a similarly brief but shocking verbal recounting of torture. The film does not dwell on these topics but the abruptness with which they are interjected clearly caught off-guard some members of the festival audience in Toronto.

At its current running length of 162 minutes it does feel like a 90-100 minute film with all of the DVD extras thrown into the main cut. But that main spine of the film was for me a worthwhile reward for spending the time.

The Face of an Angel (Michael Winterbottom): first look

07 Sep
September 7, 2014

Instead of a theory of what really transpired in the death of Meredith Kercher, and what role if any was played in that by Amanda Knox, The Face of an Angel comes at us as a deconstruction of how the media represents such a story. But it ends up being something much different, and this viewer finds himself gnawing on tricky questions of how men represent women in life, literature, and cinema, rather than anything about the media’s relationship with its readers and audiences.

Centred on a fictional film director’s journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven, the story structure is explicitly modelled on Dante’s Divine Comedy. By moving the scene of the crime from Perugia to Siena, a connection is made with visual directness to Dante’s own time and environs. The hell sequences include decontextualized scenes of rough sex between the director (a convincingly obsessive Daniel Brühl) and a journalist (a smoothly professional Kate Beckinsale)—enough to make us wonder whether we are looking at an assault—but with no discussion after the fact between the principals. (Leaving one to wonder—you show me a man inflicting pain on a woman during sex, and we’re to understand it’s the man who’s in hell?)

Our director-protagonist’s next would-be Beatrice is a fresh and spontaneous young university student and waitress (Cara Delevingne, brilliant casting move), and it is through a rather more platonic relationship with her that he has a hope of gaining a more central insight into this story of murder.

Winterbottom has given us a film of layered complexity that ultimately argues that the worst thing about the did-she-didn’t-she debate about Amanda Knox is that it has robbed the real-life victim, Meredith Kercher, of central status in the story. But does this side-on approach to the material risk doing the same thing in a different way? I expect that will be the most debated point as people dissect this film.

so this is film festival madness, again

25 Aug
August 25, 2014

Last year I attended TIFF for the third time, but it was the first year that I stayed in Toronto through the entirety of the festival. This left me feeling like some kind of seasoned vet. When I started to plan for this year I decided that I would be more efficient, burn fewer vacation days, and head back home on the evening of day 6.

Based on last year’s experience I reasoned that 80% of the excitement is over after the first weekend anyway, and confidently booked my air travel.

Then came the TIFF lineup announcements, along with the news, that I must have missed earlier, that a new rule was in place to keep non-premieres out of those opening days.

The result: a glut of films on Tuesday and Wednesday (Sept 9 & 10) that I really want to see. Because, yeah, previous screenings at Cannes etc may diminish TIFF’s shine on opening weekend, but they tend to rather increase my interest.  I like all that European stuff, I do.

TIFF planning calendar

Now add to the mix the added difficulty of figuring out which films are TIFF only, and which I can see at the Atlantic Film Festival after I fly back to my Halifax hometown, and my planning calendar begins to look like this. Black for Cinematheque screenings, orange for TIFF-only new films, green for films that are also at AFF. (Not shown: red for Toronto gala screenings.)

Guess I’ll be rebooking some air travel? But first, on Tuesday, to pick my 3 TIFF galas, and then on Wednesday to pick 5 other TIFF screenings…

Pasolini’s Jesuses (Pasolini retrospective 4)

18 Apr
April 18, 2014

The TIFF Pasolini retrospective is over, now; the final screening was last Saturday (Salò, April 12) and though I’m pained to have missed the last 11 screenings, I can count myself lucky for having been in Toronto for the first five. My favourite of the lot was the one that I have perhaps seen the most times—The Gospel According to Matthew (Il vangelo secondo Matteo, 1964), but I almost missed at least the first few minutes, narrowly avoiding entering the wrong screening room at the Lightbox.

The last-minute change of theatres was due to an extra screening that had been added to meet overwhelming demand for Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls—a later screening, introduced by Adam Nayman, author of It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls, had sold out well in advance. If I had accidentally ended up in the wrong theatre on this night, those first few minutes would have been confusing…

Verhoeven and Pasolini might seem an improbable director-swap, but in fact the two have at least one relevant quality in common—a long-held fascination with Jesus.  Of the two, it is in fact Verhoeven who has the greater command of Jesus historiography; although his PhD was in math and physics, he developed quite an expertise in the historical reconstruction of Jesus’ life. He was a voting fellow of the Jesus Seminar (the only one without a related graduate degree), and—according to a mutual online acquaintance who was also in the Seminar—reads Koine Greek (the original written language of the Gospels) “like a newspaper.” As you might know if you have read, for example, the excellent Grantland feature on his directing career from a couple of months ago, Verhoeven published in 2008 a scholarly biography of Jesus, and has long harboured plans to direct a historical Jesus movie—plans that so far have failed to come to fruition.

You might well ask whether such a film—the life story of Jesus narrowed down to the parts that are historically possible and probable—would be possible even to make. For his part, Pasolini felt sure that it wasn’t—at least, not for him. “If I had reconstructed the history of Christ as he really was I would not have produced a religious film because I am not a believer… I would have produced a positivist or Marxist reconstruction at the most, and thus at best a life which could have been the life of any one of the five or six thousand holy men who were preaching at that time in Palestine. But I did not want to do this, because I am not interested in deconsecrating: this is a fashion I hate, it is petit-bourgeois.”

Pasolini was much more interested in the Christ of myth than the Jesus of history (a cliched distinction that buries some complications, I realize), and nothing gives greater proof of that than the Christ narratives and Christ figures that dominate many of his films: Franco Citti as the titular pimp in Accattone, Ettore Garofolo as the ill-fated son in Mamma Roma, Terence Stamp as an almost-otherworldly seducer in Teorema. It is almost too obvious to mention but there is also Pasolini’s infamously court-case-inducing, supposedly blasphemous short film La Ricotta, featuring Orson Welles in a brilliant comic turn as a bourgeois Jesus-film-making director. La Ricotta features not just one but two Christ-figures—the actor portraying in the film-within-the-film one of the thieves crucified with Christ, and the actor portraying Jesus. The former turns out to be the true proletarian Christ of the narrative, while the latter is implicitly false.

I sometime encounter statements that seem to marvel at the thought that this highly secular, gay, Marxist intellectual directed a movie about Jesus that leaves in most of the significant miracles and contains no dialog that doesn’t come directly from the Gospel, but this rather overlooks the fact that the Jesus of Il vangelo secondo Matteo is, by my count, the fifth in a series of at least six cinematic Christs that Pasolini deployed in his films.

What is more, the specifically Matthean Christ is there, indirectly, in his very first film, Accattone, via a looped excerpt from the finale of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion that repeats on the soundtrack. Pasolini would bring back this piece, along with the tune of a famous aria from the same oratorio, on the soundtrack of his film of Matthew’s Gospel. I recently attended an excellent performance of this Bach oratorio here in Halifax, and read along, musical number by music number, with Victor Lederer’s excellent Bach’s St. Matthew Passion: A Closer Look. I found myself once again thinking about, you guessed it, Pasolini (who, you might also guess, was such a student of Bach’s music that he wrote a study of the sonatas).

This is worth a quick explanation for those not familiar with the structure of this and other oratorios. Bach’s three-hour-long musical extravaganza mixes narrations that are pulled directly from the Biblical text—sung by various soloists who are effectively taking the roles of individual characters from the Gospel story—with other songs and hymns that effectively comment on the action not from the point of view either of the characters or any authority figures of the church, but from the point of view of a present-day pious individual. How great the suffering of Christ, the choruses tell us, attempting to articulate and incorporate or inspire our thoughts for us. What a debt we owe. How shall we then live?

In Pasolini’s Il vangelo, we have, as with Bach’s oratorio, verbatim words of the Gospel in the mouths of the characters—but the dialogue has this and nothing else. Is Pasolini inspired not just by the emotions of the oratorio, but indeed by its structure? If Pasolini is attempting to create in this way, we have the scripture, but what provides the commentary on it? In Pasolini, the commentary is purely visual. It is in the landscapes, and in the faces of the cast.

What Pasolini realized early on was that he was not going to be able to accomplish anything by attempting to reconstruct with historical verisimilitude the people and the landscapes of Jesus’ time. In the documentary Seeking Locations in Palestine (Sopralluoghi in Palestina) we see Pasolini touring the irreversibly transformed Biblical lands, realizing from the first day that he cannot shoot there. The Israeli Jews are modern and prosperous, the Arabs are an impoverished underclass, he observes—neither will do to portray Jewish peasants of two millennia past, and the landscapes of places like Nazareth are thoroughly modernized.

Instead, Pasolini chose to work by analogy. For locations, he chose Italian locales that would feel archaic and visually communicate the essence of the Biblical locations. For Bethlehem, for example he used the caverns of a village between Lucania and Puglia. He worked similarly with the casting. His cast members, including all the Jewish characters, are often unmistakeably Italian, but he cast them based on how effectively they could portray members of their characters’ economic classes. Those choices were themselves based on many layers of Christian tradition—Pasolini said in an interview: “About half of them were of humble origin; others, like Matthew, did have a more intellectual background, so I chose an intellectual for him.” Ferruccio Nuzzo was the intellectual in question; Pasolini also cast a young Giorgio Agamben in the role of Jesus’ disciple Philip.

None of this seems very intuitive in the post-Gladiator age of CGI reconstruction of ancient locales, and I have to say that I really didn’t understand Pasolini’s approach at all when I first saw his film. It was the first Pasolini film I’d seen, and I had no sweet clue why ancient Israel was being represented by the people and locations of rural Italy—it seem rather awkward to me, quite frankly. But coming back to this film, in 2014, in the form of a fresh 35mm print beautifully projected at the TIFF Lightbox, I felt I was not just viewing a pristine image, but seeing much more clearly the aesthetic strategies driving the film.

Medea (Pasolini retrospective 3)

14 Mar
March 14, 2014

Call me crazy but I think I’m starting to get what Pasolini is on about with this film. I’m not sure how many in the audience at last night’s nearly-full screening, the third in TIFF’s complete Pasolini retrospective, would agree with me… especially the woman two seats away from me who spent considerable time texting on her iPhone.

However I think Pasolini’s adaptation/palimpsest of the Medea myth, after thoroughly baffling me on first viewing, is starting to make some sense to me thanks to a fantastic book I picked up at the Lightbox gift shop—Pier Paolo Pasolini: My Cinema. It’s a coffee-table-appropriate book stuffed with incredible archival photos, and with text derived from Pasolini himself—interviews, articles, letters. For each of his films there are multiple such quoted passages. It’s as close as one could come to having Pasolini himself write the exhibition catalogue for this retrospective.

In one of the Medea passages—an interview from 1970—Pasolini says “I abandoned the Greek myth and started reading essays on the history of religions, ethnology, anthropology, with the result that little by little, my imagination began to move in that direction, basically leaving Euripides behind, though I did keep a few of his ideas…”

And later… “Medea… is based on the history of religions, on Frazer, Lévi-Strauss, Levi-Brüle [sic]. Reading their books gave me the idea to conceive the world of Medea as a symbolic fragment, an oneiric-visionary image of the Third World.”

OK. I can’t be sure of all the specific ideas from these scholars that Pasolini was wrestling with in the construction of this script, but I was able to draw one clear conclusion that really illuminated the first 45 minutes of the film for me—that section of the film that is not really based at all on the Euripides play. What Pasolini is doing, it seems to me, is to try to liberate the narrative with its climactic filicide from its typical rational frame—its strange place nestled in the foundation of the canon of Western literature. He wants us to see Medea’s murder of her children in the context of a more primitive world where human sacrifice was an accepted social practice with its own protocols. And he wants to dramatize the conflict between the primitive/child/myth world and the civilized/adult/reason world or Weltanschauung. If you like, he wants to blow up the bridge from the present/Western world to Greek myth and make us approach the strangeness of Medea’s murderous act from an entirely different direction.

This is why the film begins, it seems to me, with the gruesome sacrifice of a young boy. What Pasolini has inserted is a kind of call for which Euripides’ climax later supplies the response. Seen from this perspective, everything up to the theft of the golden fleece in the film no longer seems like an arbitrary, confusing preface. Pasolini’s cooked-from-scratch first act is nothing less than an attempt to set an entirely different frame of reference than that which is usually brought to contemporary readings of Greek tragedy.

Some of the scenes in the film have minimal or no dialogue (Pasolini refusing to provide standard psychological/motivational explanations for the narrative events), while others feature dense philosophical discussions and pronouncements that are not easy to absorb on the fly. So the film is really not possible to fully absorb in one viewing it seems to me. Pasolini said that Medea is “perhaps the most intellectualized part” of his oeuvre. For the first time—on third viewing—I am glad that I have stuck with this one.