Archive for April, 2011

Ok, I know this blog is supposed to be about foreign films but I wanted to discuss in this reflection about the major influence that Italian Neo-Realism and French New Wave had on American Cinema in the 1960s and 1970s.

American New Wave Cinema is considered the Hollywood Renaissance. As European art films began circulating in America, American directors (Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen, and William Friedkin) recognized and appreciated the neo-realism style of Fellini and the documentary style of Godard. What was produced was an era of artistically creative films that were grounded in filming on location, working with a low budget, and centering on non-main stream issues and themes.

A brilliant example of American New Wave Cinema is The French Connection. Filmed on location in the New York streets of the Lower East Side and the borough of Brooklyn, Friedkin (the director) exhibits a storyline captured in a gritty documentary style. Based on a true story, narcotic detectives, “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) begin to unravel a smuggling heroin operation that starts in the French port city of Marseilles. The wealthy drug-lord Charnier (Fernando Rey) plans to bring his large supply of heroin across the Atlantic. As he arrives in the port of New York, “Popeye” and “Cloudy” are already aware of his arrival.

A few weeks before this, Popeye and Cloudy are at a bar when they observe Sal Boca and his wife Angie entertaining some Mafia members who are involved in narcotics. They begin to follow and observe the actions of the suspicious couple. By wire-tapping their modest luncheonette, the two detectives find out that a significant supply of heroin will soon be arriving on the streets of New York.

What follows after Charnier arrives are restless stake-outs, nail-biting car chases, and gripping on-foot tailing pursuits.

I cannot end this reflection without discussing the car chase scene.
Often hailed as one of the greatest car chase scenes in film history, viewers are taken on a riveting, intense ride along the streets of Brooklyn. After hijacking a civilian’s car, Popeye anxiously and earnestly follows the elevated train that one of Charnier’s partners has gotten on to. Swerving to miss pedestrians and recklessly accelerating the gas to catch up with the train, Popeye finally is able to trap the criminal as the train collides at a halting stop. Weakened and injured by the collision, the criminal staggers out only to be shot at point-blank by Popeye.

Here is a clip from the scene:

The French Connection reminds me of the 1969 political thriller Z. In my next reflection, I will discuss this French language film that captures a government organized scheme that is centered on assassinating a leftist political figure.

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This 1993 documentary film takes viewers on a vibrant musical odyssey following the Rom gypsies of India, Egypt, Turkey, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, France, and Spain. Viewers become visually captivated by the sensual passionate world of dance and music. Through the whimsical and emotionally expressive variations of song each Rom community weaves a story of struggle, persecution, poverty, and resilience.

Beautiful mesmerizing landscapes of desolate deserts, austere snow filled fields, and lush green pastures serve as “homes” for these wandering people. Intimately captured, the importance of family and community are poignantly revealed throughout the film. After seeing this film several times I seem to always recall and think about three powerful scenes from the film.

The first vignette portrays an older woman sitting in a snow covered field singing about her and her people’s horrific experiences while imprisoned at Auschwitz. The camera closely reveals the expressions of pain and sorrow in the woman’s tired face. As the camera intimately pans down to the woman’s hands and arms viewers get a glimpse of the demeaning permanent tattoo markings that were given by the Nazi guards.

The second vignette captures French gypsy musicians on their short journey to a small chapel. An overflowing of candles encircles this cramped sanctuary that houses a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. One by one the musicians kiss the cheek of Mary and quietly pray to her. They then begin to “serenade” to her with their rich organic music.

The third vignette shows a group of Spanish gypsies singing and dancing outside the abandoned ramshackle buildings that they have been squatting in. As Spanish police officers and brick masons assemble to brick up their homes, the Rom people are left to wander again. Standing on top of a hill looking down on the city, a Spanish gypsy woman powerfully and passionately sings of the endless persecution that they face as a people.

Today the Rom people are still facing persecution. Just last year Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s conservative president, expelled thousands of the Roma people living in France. They were forced to emigrate from France to Romania and Bulgaria. I find this very troubling and sad that these people still face discrimination and harassment.

Tony Gatlif, who is of Rom descent, filmed this powerful evocative film. He has made several other wonderful films that have centered on the lives of the Roma people. Some of these include: Mondo, The Crazy Stranger, and Transylvania.

If you don’t happen to see Latcho Drom try checking out the soundtrack. It is amazing!

Here is a clip from the film:

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One of the reasons why foreign films are truly enlightening and engrossing is because they serve as visual guides into different cultures of the world. As an adolescent, growing up in a small city in the Midwest, I did not have that face to face contact with many people of different cultures of the world. In order to satisfy my growing fascination with different cultures I would obsessively page through old National Geographic magazines and travel books. Although these pictures and articles were fascinating, I felt like something was missing. I realized what I wanted was to see these pictures come to life. I knew that the only way that I could experience this type of phenomenon was to view it on the silver screen.

Growing up in a household where you’re introduced to remarkable films like The Godfather and On the Waterfront at an early age you learn to appreciate and value quality cinema. As my peers were seeing the latest blockbuster horror films, I was scouring the local libraries for old Hollywood films like All About Eve and City Lights. This was around the time I finally noticed a section where few people seldom frequented in the audio visual department. The foreign film section was like a secret world teeming with cultures, experiences, and histories waiting to be viewed. Like a child in a candy store, I began to grab two or three films at a time gazing at them in wonderment. Although it has been ages since that first time of discovering the world of foreign cinema, I still experience that same jolt of excitement and wonder when I venture into a foreign film section.

I have found that there is a two dimensional aspect with foreign films. They are compelling because they reveal a different culture but at the same time they are comforting because they often express universal human experiences. People of all different cultures have in some way experienced some form of human suffering, achievement, blessing, etc. Viewers can appreciate and recognize through films that people of all different societies and cultures are unique but also individually and collectively share like experiences and emotions.

STAY TUNED – For next time, I will be discussing the film Latcho Drom. This documentary film captures the rich culture and history of the Romani gypsies.

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Ju Dou is a powerful, sensual tale about forbidden love. After the suppressive Chinese Cultural Revolution ended, several Chinese film makers in the 1980s and 1990s began to explore and portray taboo subjects.

Set during the early twentieth century in the countryside of mainland China, audience members are invited to share the secret bond that is held passionately between two doomed lovers. Ju Dou is a woman sold into marriage to an old, malicious dye mill owner. Tian-qing is the mill owner’s docile hard-working nephew. While Tian-qing is away on business for his uncle, Ju Dou arrives to the mill only to be beaten and verbally abused by her impotent husband. With fresh wounds on her face, Ju Dou embarrassingly looks away when she meets Tian-qing.

Tian-qing instantly becomes enamored with Ju Dou and is frustrated and furious when he hears Ju Dou’s screams in the night. Her demanding aging husband is adamant about getting his wife pregnant so that the family lineage will carry on. Too proud to admit that it is his own fault for not being able to reproduce, Ju Dou is humiliated each night by brunt force lashings carried out by her husband.

One day while the tyrant is away on business, Tian-qing and Ju Dou are left alone at the mill. Ju Dou recognizes that this is the perfect opportunity to seek refuge. Clinging to Tian-qing’s body, she cries for protection and love. Both living lonely existences, they embrace each other and find mutual love. Ju Dou becomes pregnant with Tian-qing’s child. Both parents are elated but because of Tian-qing’s traditional beliefs in respect for ancestral elders, they have to pretend that it is Ju Dou’s husband’s child.

Eight months later Ju Dou gives birth to a son. This makes her husband very pleased and happy. However, a serious stroke leaves him paralyzed from the waist down. Because of his immobility, Ju Dou and Tian-qing are able to secretly spend each night together. Unfortunately these blissful moments do not last long. Ju Dou’s husband recognizes what is going on and in an act of rage; he tries to kill the child.

As the child begins to grow up he becomes confused on who his father is. This problem eventually ruins the family.

I will not say anymore because I hope this summary has made you want to see the film and see what happens in the end. Trust me it is worth watching. Just remember to have a box of tissues nearby.

The cinematography in this film is visually stunning. The vibrant colors in the dye mill parallel the pulsating attraction found between Ju Dou and Tian-qing. The complex twisting plot engages viewers into a world competing with traditional practices.

Other Yimou Zhang films worth checking out are: Red Sorghum and The Story of Qiu Ju. The brilliant actress, Gong Li, also stars in these two films.

Below is the trailer of the film:

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Last night I tried signing up for the A-Z challenge but I think I am too late. I commend all of you who started on time and challenge yourself everyday to write a new post. I think it would be a little overwhelming for me to write a film review/reflection everyday. For some relfections I like to view the film again so I can have a fresh memory and point of view for the film in which I am writing about.

I am wondering, have any of you watched a foreign film before? If so, what was it and did you like it? If not, why? Do you think there is a difference between American films and Foreign films? What films in general are your personal favorites and why?

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This famous, highly acclaimed, Italian Neo-Realist film touches on the subjects of alienation, desperation, and post-war depression. Filmed in Rome in 1948, Vittorio de Sica reveals a world of war-torn, poverty stricken Italy. Viewers are introduced to Antonio Ricci, who like most men in Italy after World War II, is in a desperate search for work. Hired as a government worker who pastes film posters all around the war ravaged buildings of Rome, Antonio is told that he needs to have a bicycle if he wants the job. Anxiously in need of a bicycle, Antonio’s wife sells their bedroom sheets for money to purchase a bike for Antonio’s job. While first day on the job, Antonio’s bicycle is stolen from him by a young adolescent. In a frantic search through the streets of Rome, Antonio and his young son search for the thief and the bicycle. After no luck, Antonio is ready to give up all hope. In a last desperate effort, Antonio visits a fortune-teller (who he previously mocked when his wife went in search for answers when Antonio was unemployed) in order to find hopeful answers. As he walks outside from where the fortune-teller lives he sees the thief. As he embraces him and starts accusing the young man of stealing his bicycle, his son meanwhile fetches a policeman. The young man starts having a seizure and the officer tells Antonio that there is not enough evidence to convict the young man. Feeling dejected, Antonio leaves. In hopeless despair, Antonio sits on a curb where several bicycles are parked. Feeling overwhelmed, uncertain, and distressed Antonio steals a bicycle outside an apartment. A crowd of men see him take the bicycle. They catch Antonio and ridicule him mercilessly. Sadly Antonio’s young son witnesses all of this. As Antonio’s son becomes immensely upset at what is happening to his father, the owner of the bicycle sees the son’s pain and does not press any charges against Antonio.

Italian Neo-Realism is one of the most compelling and poignant genres of cinema. Relying on the real life situations faced by Italians after the Second World War, Neo-Realist directors conveyed the often experienced feelings of alienation, desperation, loneliness, and hopelessness. The desolate, austere, scarred buildings of Rome metaphorically symbolize the somber lives of its Roman inhabitants. It makes one wonder how a simple, widely accessible, fairly affordable mode of transportation like a bicycle can serve as a basis for survival.

Other Vittorio de Sica films that are worth checking out are: Shoeshine, Miracle in Milan, Umberto D, and Two Women

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I thought I would take up the A to Z challenge. I am a little behind but I will try to catch up. For the letter “A” I chose the 1987 French film, Au Revoir Les Enfants. Set in the rural countryside of Northern France during the Second World War, viewers are introduced to young school boys living and studying in a Catholic boarding school. The school year is about to begin and Julien, the main protagonist of the film, is still a young boy who is not yet ready to leave his mother’s side. As this intelligent sensitive boy settles in for another school year away from his mother, he takes solace in his secret habits of reading in bed with a flashlight while all of the other boys are asleep. One day a new student arrives and is appointed to be Julien’s roommate. Jean is a quite, self-conscious, intelligent boy. At first Julien expresses a strong animosity (that is rooted in jealousy because of Jean’s intelligence and piano talent) towards his new roommate. One night Julien awakens and discovers Jean praying in Hebrew. Although Julien does not say anything he searches Jean’s locker the next day and discovers that Jean’s real last name is not Bonnet but Kippelstein. The two boys eventually form a strong bond and become friends after a day of playing “capture the flag.” As Julien and Jean become close friends, Julien discovers that there are two more Jewish boys who are being sheltered and protected from the Nazis by the Catholic priests. This discovery is kept secret by Julien but sadly this secret will be disclosed to the dangerous powers of the Third Reich.

Based on true accounts, this film expresses imperative ideas and concepts about humanity. It provokes one to think about morals and responsibilities in conjunction with the relationships that we share with our brothers and sisters of the world. As a young boy, Julien confronted these life challenging responsibilities during a time of oppression, danger, and unrest. This thought-provoking and inspiring film is tremendously powerful. Malle’s use of close-ups (especially of Jean) are evocative and emotionally wrenching. Jean’s facial expressions reveals innocence, sensitivity, fear, and uncertainty. Jean’s face symbolizes the thousands of faces of Jewish children during the Second World War.

Another Louis Malle film that is worth checking out is: My Dinner with Andre

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In this reflection I wanted to take the opportunity to discuss one of my favorite films. Produced in 1973, The Spirit of the Beehive beautifully captures the imaginative mystical experiences of childhood. Set during the 1940s in a rural and remote Spanish village, viewers are introduced to the inquisitive restless child, Ana. As all the children and elder villagers gather around in the town hall to watch the disturbing horror film Frankenstein, the camera pans and reveals the expressions of wonderment in the faces of the children. Ana does not look away or close her eyes as some of the other children do. Instead this little girl in complete wonderment is determined to understand who Frankenstein is. Her older sister tells her that he is a spirit and that she has been able to talk with him because they know each other. The two sisters embark on a journey to an old abandoned farmhouse where supposedly the “spirit” of Frankenstein resides. Alone, Ana returns several times in order to get a glimpse or an encounter with this spirit. Although she does not find what she is looking for, she does come upon a young man who sought refuge in the farmhouse. Wearing a ragged coat and tattered shoes, Ana brings him her father’s coat and shoes. That night the man is shot and killed by the local authorities and her father’s possessions are returned to him. In bewilderment, Ana’s father who had no idea the items were missing, visits the farmhouse where the drifter was murdered. In astonishment and fear that her father may find out that she was the one that gave the items to the young man, she runs away from him. As the family searches for Ana, this curious sensitive little girl plunges into an imaginative world where reality and fantasy becomes obscured. As she travels further away from the village Ana enters into a dense forest. This is where she finally encounters the spirit of Frankenstein. For a brief moment viewers see this interaction, but like a mystical dream or vision, the scene ends too quickly for us to grasp. Ana is found the next morning and is taken back to the village. The doctor assures Ana’s mother that she is going to be fine. He explains to her that the child has suffered from a traumatic shock. In the final scene we see Ana awake from a deep sleep. In restless determination, she walks to her bedroom window and quietly calls out to her “friend.” In response, she hears a distant train whistle.

 This film is hauntingly beautiful. The scenes of the expansive desolate countryside of Castile are breathtaking while the music is whimsical and evocative. These two features and Ana’s childlike wonderment leave a lingering sense of spiritualness. One of the reasons why I enjoy this film so much is because it provokes one to recollect one’s own childhood experiences and memories. Childhood is a wonderful time of innocence and wonder. Please feel free to comment on any films that have provoked the act of recollecting your personal memories and experiences of childhood. A guilty pleasure of mine would probably be The Goonies! Also, does The Spirit of the Beehive sound like a film that you would like to see or is it a film that you would probably never want to view?

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