Fans of NPR’s This American Life already knew that Lulu Wang had an extraordinary story. What we now know is that she is also an extraordinary filmmaker.
“No matter what they say,” the mother tells the maid, “we women are always alone.” More than any other 2018 film about unreliable men, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is a tribute to women holding their worlds together.
Jenny will do a lot of listening in the drama that follows. First, though, will come a moment when she does not listen — the only time in the film she ignores a bid for her attention, but that one time hangs over the rest of the film.
It has been jokingly suggested that all Americans are Protestants — even Catholics, atheists and Jews. There’s a meaningful insight there, although even as a joke it’s an overstatement, and insular communities like the Hasidim manage to resist American cultural identity far more than most. Menashe is different, though I wouldn’t want to suggest that he is a Protestant Hasid. It would be fair to say he’s a bit of a resister or nonconformist, if not quite a rebel.
Asked what he was trying to do in Rules, Renoir is reported to have said, “I don’t care.” With Grand Illusion, it may not be much easier to say what he’s trying to accomplish, but there is no doubt that he cares.
One comes, like these Redshirts, as a cultural sightseer to The Leopard, with its palatial grandeur, replete with lavish, painterly images of the bygone glory of the Italian aristocracy: already in their own day semi-mythological figures, as we see in a vignette in which Father Pirrone, tries to explain to the common people the mysterious ways of the nobility: “They live in a world apart, not created by God, but by themselves.”
No film in Miyazaki’s oeuvre haunts me like Spirited Away. One reason is the evocation of a seemingly impenetrable, incalculable world with rhythms and rituals that seem all the more opaque and unnerving because they are routine and transparent to those that are of that world.
Relate the plot of Bicycle Thieves in a few sentences, and a person who had never seen the film might be forever haunted by it.
Stations of the Cross is among the most insightful and devastating cross-examinations of religious fundamentalism that I have ever seen, certainly in a Catholic context. The film is not an attack on faith or religion, but an examination of how faith goes wrong.
The Dardennes’ films generally have redemptive arcs of some sort, or at least the hope of redemption — though there are no traditional happy endings, only hopeful new beginnings. Theologians ponder the mystery of evil; the Dardennes are intrigued by the mystery of goodness.
It is about self-interest and empathy, practical necessities and moral choices. It’s about the importance of work and the ruthlessness of economics based purely on self-interest and competition. I can think of no film that more persuasively or powerfully illustrates in human terms what popes from Leo XIII to Francis have been talking about for over a century regarding the dangers of pure capitalism unrestrained by moral concerns.
Nearly two decades before his Oscar-winning role as a Jew-hunting Nazi in Quentin Tarantino’s lurid WWII fantasy Inglourious Basterds, Christoph Waltz played an Auschwitz survivor whose escape is linked to the death of one of Auschwitz’s most celebrated victims, St. Maximilian Kolbe.
Two great mysteries hover over the cardinal moment in St. Maximilian Kolbe’s life, a quiet exchange of words with the deputy camp commander at Auschwitz-Birkenau heard by few and lasting probably less than a minute.
A Polish nun embarks on a trip of discovery in this gorgeous black-and-white period piece.
I can’t imagine the soul who could watch this movie without smiling.
Co-written by Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyzaki and directed by his son Goro Miyazaki (Tales From Earthsea), From Up on Poppy Hill is a gently naturalistic departure from the high-flying fantasy for which the studio is best known.
Studio Ghibli takes a break from high-flying fantasy in this naturalistic, nostalgic coming-of-age story.
Here is a film that will break your heart, fill it with hope and challenge you to say Yes to God and to your neighbor, all at once.
(Reviewed by Sarah E. Greydanus) Even at their most stunningly far-fetched, Ghibli films also have a history of celebrating the details of everyday life: cooking, cleaning, planting, studying, mending, become important and precious functions, worthy of devoted attention … Whisper of the Heart may represent the studio’s simplest gesture of this honoring of everyday life.
In a way it’s like the antithesis of a Dan Brown novel. Brown’s stories peer with feverish, lurid imagination at the inner workings of the Catholic hierarchy, discovering all manner of ridiculous subterfuge, ruthlessness and skulduggery. Moretti’s film hardly peers at all.
We Have a Pope in 60 seconds: My “Reel Faith” video review.
The Kid with a Bike in 60 seconds: My “Reel Faith” video review.
The Secret World of Arrietty in 60 seconds: My “Reel Faith” video review.
The Secret World of Arrietty just might change the way you look at the world around you — right around you. A wide-eyed sense of discovery and revelation permeates the film, and what it reveals is … the mystery and wonder of an ordinary home.
Xavier Beauvois’ sublime Of Gods and Men is that almost unheard-of film that you do not judge—it judges you. To one degree or another it defies every attempt to put it in a box, to reduce its challenge to a political or pious ideological stance to be affirmed or critiqued.
A Town Called Panic may be the most oddball thing you see all year, if you see it, which you probably won’t, although perhaps you should. How can I explain it?
Seaplanes combine Miyazaki’s twin gravity-defying loves of water and sky, flying and floating, as well as his affinity for vintage technology — and the movie’s haphazard, kitchen-sink style suggests that the director just wanted to kick back and have fun with this one. There are aerial dogfights, star-crossed romance, gorgeous scenery, a hat tip Fleischer-style vintage animation, a rip-roaring escape sequence set in Milan, a nightclub where enemies sit at adjacent tables like Rick’s in Casablanca and the proprietress sings torch songs, and a showdown between the titular hero and an American antagonist that plays like the ultimate Humphrey Bogart / Errol Flynn smackdown that never was.
Exactly 70 years ago today, on March 5, 1940, Josef Stalin and the entire Soviet Politburo signed an order to massacre tens of thousands of Polish prisoners of war: officers, mostly reservists; doctors, academics, civil servants, clergymen of all faiths—the cream of the Polish intelligentsia.
From the Leonardo-like engineering illustrations of the opening credit sequence to the hauntingly surreal final image on the edge of space, Hayao Miyazaki’s Laputa, or Castle in the Sky as it’s been dubbed for English-speaking audiences, displays the filmmaker’s visionary brilliance as a shaper of worlds as compellingly as any film he has made.
Developed in Rome during the Nazi occupation, shot in the Eternal City shortly after the Nazi withdrawal, Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City stunned audiences the world over who saw in it an unmediated authenticity more evocative of the documentary quality of wartime newsreels than of the artificiality of earlier, more conventional WWII dramas.
A Vatican list film, Rossellini’s celebrated 1945 landmark of Italian neorealism [Open City] is a must-see film for film lovers — and of course I saw it, and reviewed it, years ago. Even at the time, though, I knew I wasn’t really experiencing the film Rossellini made.
Although Ponyo seems as disjointed and free-floating as Howl’s Moving Castle, somehow the younger milieu here makes it more acceptable. Or maybe it’s just that there’s more here to latch onto emotionally.
French director Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours opens with a glimpse into a world that has already passed away, though not all the characters realize it yet.
As the name implies, Caramel is a gooey, insubstantial confection, often sweet, occasionally cloying, sometimes sticky — in many respects about on a par with the likes of Beauty Shop. The humor is broad, characters stereotypical, the situations formulaic. Yet there’s no good–bad character divide, no requisite A‑story conflict, and few tidy resolutions.
4 Months, like previous Romanian export The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, compels us not to avert our eyes. Even though the actual events remain out of sight — apart from a single, indelible shot not unlike images seen in some types of pro-life materials — its confrontation of the unmentionable is no less devastating.
Unlike Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp, which preserved the overt Buddhist milieu of the original book, the film version of Fires on the Plain eliminates the religious, in this case Christian, dimension of its source material. While both films may be called “anti-war” or “pacifist,” The Burmese Harp has a larger humanistic perspective on the riddle of suffering and the place of human values amid inhuman circumstances that goes far beyond a simple deploring of war. Fires on the Plain doesn’t transcend the “war is hell” genre in the same way, though the aesthetic rigor of its descent into hell is about as exacting and definitive as such a thing can be.
The themes are timeless and humane, and if the film isn’t always entirely persuasive, it earns enough viewer goodwill to make up the difference. Funny, visually sumptuous, and bittersweet, Riding Alone movingly suggests that it’s better not to.
Given the inherently less dramatic structure, The Passion of Bernadette doesn’t “tell a story” the way the original film does, but the portrait of Bernadette’s unassuming heroic sanctity and occasional tart rejoinders remains moving and worthwhile.
Tsotsi seems almost entirely severed from human values, and his seemingly total moral apathy rattles the conscience-stricken Boston. “Decency, Tsosti,” Boston harangues. “Do you know the word?”
Sophie Scholl is one of a very few films that accomplishes one of the rarest and most valuable of cinematic achievements: It makes heroic goodness not just admirable, but attractive and interesting.
Echoes of Abraham and Isaac, the Gospel parables about fathers and pairs of sons, and the Second Coming run through a stark tale of an inscrutable, harsh stranger whose unexpected reappearance in the lives of his two sons is as unexplained as his disappearance so many years earlier. Our first glimpse of the nameless father (Vladimir Garin) lying in bed overtly recalls Mantegna’s Lamentation Over the Dead Christ — yet this man is anything but Christlike in his treatment of his newfound sons.
More, it is a tale of fellowship undone not first of all by the treachery of enemies but by the frailty of human nature itself, even of the most trusted intimates. Perhaps that’s partly why classic Hollywood forayed more successfully into Sherwood Forest and Zorro’s California than Camelot.
A stark, unsettling vision of human cruelty, folly, and destructive behavior, leavened by an icon of innocent suffering, Au Hasard Balthazar may be Robert Bresson’s most poetic, haunting, personal work the culmination of the filmmaker’s style and concerns, the most "Bressonian" of films.
The Ninth Day digs beyond rote charges of ecclesiastical complicity and counter-arguments to explore various levels of resistance and protest — and their consequences.
It is an extraordinary artifact from another culture, a mythology as remarkable and as alien as the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Icelandic Eddas. For students of silent film, this is one of those indispensable landmarks you must see before you die.
The story is propelled by ordinary (though sometimes philosophically elevated) dialogue, and a mysterious character in the play, Adam, becomes a simple priest — a rather Wojtyla-like priest, actually, who takes the young people of his parish on nature hikes in the mountains.
Without context or explanation, Lukaszewicz plunges the viewer into Faustina’s world, confronting us with with an early experience from Faustina’s childhood, challenging us to take this story on its own terms. It’s a surprisingly powerful approach, as transcendent in its own way as the restraint of Bresson or Dreyer.
Born into Brothels both illustrates and exemplifies the power of art and artists to make a difference. It’s one of the most constructive and inspiring takes on the relationship of art and responsibility, of the artist and the world, that I’ve ever seen.
Seibei hardly cuts a dashing figure; even his weapon of choice, the short sword, provokes contempt rather than respect. But his duties these days call for clerical work rather than swordplay — until his best friend Iinuma (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) is threatened by a former brother-in-law, the ex-husband of Iinuma’s beautiful sister Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa), whom Seibei’s known since childhood.
Ordet means "the word," but what is the word? What is Carl Dreyer’s somber, ponderous masterpiece, adapted from the stage play by Lutheran clergyman Kaj Munk, really about?
None of these camel myths seems as curious, improbable, and magical as The Story of the Weeping Camel itself. Presented by National Geographic, the film relates the birth of a rare white camel calf among the herds of an extended family of four generations living under one roof in the wilderness, and of the camel calf’s struggle for survival after its mother, traumatized by the difficult labor, rejects it and refuses to allow it to suckle. How this family of herders deals with this small crisis is an unguessable miracle that will delight children and adults alike.
Au Revoir Les Enfants, Louis Malle’s semi-autobiographical film about life in a Catholic boarding school for boys in Nazi-occupied France, has been called an elegy of innocence lost, though in fact the youthful characters are never truly innocent, only clueless, and what they lose is not innocence but something more elusive.
Rossellini doesn’t cater to contemporary sensibilities by reinventing Francis as a mere eccentric free spirit, a medieval flower child, such as we find in Zefferelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon. Francis remains challenging to modern audiences here, his childlike spirit joined to insistence on strict religious obligation and ultimately to zeal for evangelization.
Buñuel makes his case against faith, not by attacking its foolish or corrupt practitioners, but by arguing that the thing itself, even when lived almost to perfection by a near saint, is moot, even harmful. It may be the most breathtaking cinematic cross-examination of faith I have ever seen.
Kon Ichikawa’s deeply humane, spiritually resonant masterpiece The Burmese Harp is routinely but reductionistically described as “pacifist” or “anti-war,” though in fact war is merely the occasion for the story’s theme, not the theme itself. That theme is nothing less than the intractable mystery of suffering and evil, an affirmation of spiritual values, and the challenge to live humanely in evil circumstances.
In the end, though, it turns out that the House of Flying Daggers is something the film doesn’t actually care about that much. So much is this the case, in fact, that the last time we hear tell of them, the warriors called the Flying Daggers are about to get into this huge climactic battle with the enemy soldiers, whom we see advancing slowly into the bamboo forest where the Flying Daggers are hiding… at which point the story cuts to another plot thread, never to return.
For Bergman’s protagonist, an elderly doctor named Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) who significantly shares Bergman’s initials, there is bitter as well as sweet in the fields of his mind. The film is a road trip that is also a journey of self-discovery as Borg is forced to confront his own coldness of heart and need for forgiveness.
Starkly existential, boldly poetic, slow and grim, Ingmar Bergman’s great classic The Seventh Seal has haunted film aficionados, baffled and bored college students, inspired innumerable parodists, and challenged both believers and unbelievers for nearly half a century.
As yet, I have found no illumination in critical accolades and explanations. No critical account of La Strada I have read has struck me as compelling or illuminating. Pauline Kael famously wrote that the three main characters represent the flesh, the spirit, and the mind. But the same could be said for virtually any trinity of characters, from Lancelot, Arthur, and Guinevere to Kirk, Spock and McCoy to Mr. Toad, Mole, and Rat, and what light this paradigm sheds on this particular story is unclear to me. Alan Stone calls it "a parable about Italy under fascism and the possibility of Christian Salvation," but I can’t see that it has anything interesting to say about this either, or that it says it in an interesting way.
Joan of Arc, the warrior-saint who wore men’s garb and was burned at the stake, would at first glance seem to be an odd role model for a girl whose greatest aspiration was to wear the habit of a cloistered nun and who died in the convent of tuberculosis.
Though more of a Fellini skeptic than not myself, I can’t go along with the common opinion that Fellini’s early neorealist-inflected works, culminating in La Strada, are his best, and that the later, increasingly surreal cinema of the gaudy and fantastical represented by 8½ is self-indulgently trivial by comparison.
To “rip open the inconsolable secret,” to awaken the spiritual hunger for something beyond the materialistic scope of our fragmented, desacrilized modern existence, was the burden of Andrei Tarkovsky, cinematic poet laureate of the Russian soul.
A loosely structured coming-of-age story, Kiki’s Delivery Service features one of Miyazaki’s most personable protagonists, a delightful cast of supporting characters, and a rambling, episodic storyline full of charming incident and irresistible imagery.
The notion of art as a "religious experience" is sometimes bandied about too freely. Tarkovsky is one of a handful of filmmakers for whom this ideal was no cheap or desanctified metaphor, but literal truth.
Alain Cavallier’s stark, austere reflection on the mystery of the little saint of Lisieux’s romance with Jesus is a reverie rather than a meditation, built of fleeting minimalist vignettes, almost snapshots, glimpses of its subject rather than an integral portrait. There is no sense of judgment, of approval or disapproval of its subject’s life, or even, finally, of real understanding. His Thérèse is a riddle, and we must make of her what we can.
The story is pure Hong Kong melodrama, set at the dawn of the Chinese Imperial Era in the third century BC. … Yet there’s nothing even marginally conventional about Hero’s overpowering visual splendor, its effulgent riot of color and texture, its overwhelming spectacle of scale.
Critic Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader calls The Tree of the Wooden Clogs "less an advance over the standard film festival peasant epic than an unusually accomplished rendition of it," and speaks of a "Marxist sentimentalism" inherent in its subject matter and approach. This seems to me misleading. Olmi’s film may be best thought of, not as an attempted advance over the typically Marxist neorealist peasant epic, but as a redemption of it.
The narration in verse has been set to music adapted from authentic medieval melodies, and is sung in the original old French by a chorus of minstrels playing traditional instruments, as well as by the players themselves. The players’ bright costumes and the overtly stagey sets — a grove of abstract sculpture-like trees for a forest; simple façade castles built of painted wood — were inspired by medieval paintings and illuminated manuscripts.
As he did in his prior Diary of a Country Priest, Bresson faithfully adapts his source material, but he also appends a subtitle to A Man Escaped — The Wind Blows Where it Wills, an allusion to Jesus’ discourse in John 3 about being born of water and the Spirit — and rechristens the protagonist (whose real name was André Devigny, and is played by François Leterrier) “Fontaine,” fountain. Clearly, like Diary, A Man Escaped is intended as a reflection on spiritual bondage, rebirth, and the mysteries of grace and providence, as much as about stone walls and iron bars.
Surreal, sprawling, and operatic, drawing on biblical and medieval Christian imagery as well as H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, Fritz Lang’s deeply influential pulp allegory Metropolis colonized a new realm of the imagination that has shaped subsequent science fiction from Flash Gordon to Star Wars, from "The Jetsons" to Blade Runner.
The Decalogue, Kieslowski’s extraordinary, challenging collection of ten one-hour films made for Polish television in the dying days of the Soviet Union, doesn’t answer those questions either. What it does is pose them as hauntingly and seriously as any cinematic effort in the last twenty years.
Vladimir Arseniev was an early 20th-century explorer who mapped much of the krai territory of the Russian Far East and studied its indigenous peoples. Based on his memoirs, Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala tells the story of an unusual friendship between Arseniev (Yuri Solomin) and the nomadic tribal hunter for whom the film is named (Maksim Munzuk).
A tightly wound, middle-aged carpenter named Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) works with young boys at some sort of center. His inner life, his motives and emotions, aren’t revealed to us, and he doesn’t seem preoccupied with them himself. He wears a leather back brace, and has perhaps been injured at some point; and his work itself may be a similar sort of prop against some injury of his past.
In the end, perhaps the most enduring achievement of The Gospel According to Matthew is an ironic one, given Pasolini’s Marxism: No other life-of-Christ film is so contemplative, inviting the viewer simply to meditate on the life and teaching of Jesus.
Faithfully adapting its source material, Catholic novelist Georges Bernanos’s fictional autobiography of a soul, the film profoundly contemplates the spiritual meaning of suffering and persecution, conversion and incorrigibility, and the dark night of the soul with a rigor and insight evocative of Augustine’s Confessions or Thérèse’s Story of a Soul.
What Winged Migration did for birds and Atlantis did for life under the sea, Microcosmos does for the insect world. It’s an astonishingly up-close and personal look at an infinitesimal world as alien as anything captured by the Hubble telescope or the Mars rovers — but also a world of strange fascination and unexpected beauty.
Despite numerous cinematic adaptations — including Steve Martin’s cute romantic-comedy update Roxanne — the definitive Cyrano is probably Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s boisterous, full-blooded film, with France’s greatest actor, Gérard Depardieu, making the part forever his own.
The film knows that to a young girl hopelessly in love, this race is no grandly romantic gesture, but a matter of desperate necessity. She must, must catch the wagon; he must have the dumplings. Her future happiness depends upon it; all is lost if she fails.
Once the advent of digital video freed filmmakers from the constraints of physical film, it was only a matter of time before someone made the first feature film entirely in one take, without a single edit or cut. Russian Ark, Aleksandr Sokurov’s experimental art-house meditation on Russia’s cultural heritage and current identity crisis, has the distinction of being that film.
Director Jacques Perrin and his crew of pilots and cinematographers spent four years traversing the globe, capturing unprecedented images of migratory birds in flight and on land. Shooting from hot-air balloons and ultralight aircraft, the filmmakers insinuate the camera’s eye so intimately into the midst of airborne flights of birds that one can almost count the hairlike barbs on the feathers. Other times, one is staggered by the sheer number of birds captured in a single shot, sweeping across the sky like a curtain being drawn or covering an island to the horizon and the edges of the screen.
Thanks to the skills of director Patrice Leconte, L’Homme du train (Man on the Train) would have made an excellent silent film, except that we would have missed the enchanting tones of Jean Rochefort’s retired poetry teacher, Monsieur Manesquier. Manesquier talks like a schoolboy who has yet to leave behind his school days — his rich words and phrases touch on his dreams and wishes, and are charmingly tinged with sexual innuendo and self-deprecation. Rochefort’s characterization is perfectly complemented by Johnny Hallyday’s stoic career criminal, Milan, who responds to questions with either silence or sapient, terse words.
Though diminished by decades of pop-horror incarnations, the vampire remains uniquely evocative of both dread and fascination, horror and seductiveness. Monsters from werewolves to Freddy Krueger may frighten, but neither victims nor audience are drawn to them. By contrast, the vampire suggests the horror of evil working on our disordered passions.
A haunting, harrowing war movie, an emotionally devastating character study, and an extraordinarily restrained example of animé or Japanese animation, Grave of the Fireflies is a unique and unforgettable masterpiece.
From nonagenarian writer-director Manoel de Oliveira, who’s been making movies for over seven decades, comes a sad, thoughtful character study of an aging French actor named Gilbert Valence (Michel Piccoli). On stage, in productions of Ionesco’s Exit the King and Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Valence gives impressive readings of the dramatic death-speeches of aged protagonists; but his own words in a key moment of frailty and finality, though equally haunting, are much more prosaic and anticlimactic.
Miramax execs would like you to think of Iron Monkey as this year’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It might be more accurate, though, to call it this year’s The Legend of Drunken Master.
Loosely structured into thematic "chapters" such as "light," "rhythm," and "grace," accompanied by an ecclectic Eric Serra score, Atlantis is a documentary Fantasia, a poetic marriage of image and music (though the score, apart from an aria from Bellini’s La Sonnambula, lacks the pedigree of Disney’s masterpiece). Marred only by a brief opening voiceover, which muses pretentiously about man’s evolutionary origins in the ocean, Besson’s otherwise wordless film lets the beauty of the undersea world speak for itself.
Like the similarly acclaimed Moulin Rouge!, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie is a whimsical, hyperactive, self-aware, lavishly overdesigned fantasy-romance, set in a retro, fairy-tale Paris, about a tender young idealist who falls in love with a sex-industry employee but there the similarities end.
The story is said to be set in 19th-century China, but its roots are older, reaching for a mythic age of larger-than-life heroes and superhuman derring-do. Heroes with paranormal abilities were also a theme of the recent Unbreakable; but Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has what was lacking in Unbreakable: a sense of wonder, of exhilaration, of mystery and beauty and hope.
This is one feel-good film that earns its goodwill honestly — not glossing over the harder realities and transgressions that afflict family life, but instead making the case that, however exasperating and even dysfunctional one’s family may happen to be, family remains very close to the center of things. Not just "family" in the abstract, either, or as an ideal, but the reality of family as we actually experience it.
Monsieur Vincent, director Maurice Cloche’s beautifully crafted, award-winning biopic of St. Vincent de Paul, celebrates the saint’s single-minded devotion to the poor without romanticizing the objects of his devotion and recipients of his charity.
Contriving to hide the boy from camp officials (who soon put the other children to death), Guido tells Giosue that the concentration camp is actually an elaborate role-playing game in which the "players" are competing for points in the hopes of winning a real battle tank. From then on, Guido will take any risk, court any danger, to maintain his son’s illusion that none of it is real.
In the end, Babette’s Feast is a quiet celebration of the divine grace that meets us at every turn, and even redeems our ways not taken, our sacrifices and losses. Whatever we think has been given up or lost, God gives back in greater abundance, one way or another. It may not be till heaven that we truly become all that he intends; but his grace is here and now, whatever our circumstances, and with him all things are possible.
Highlighting the powerlessness and peril of women under a system that requires them, if accused of infidelity, to prove their innocence or die, but will not punish their husbands unless their guilt is proved, the film’s spotlight exposes a barbaric injustice while for the most part leaving the surrounding social and cultural context in darkness.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.