But it’s not coming to Chico
Our chief film critic’s guide to a selection of important independent films that didn’t make it to local screens but are now available on VHS and DVD
Some of the best films of the year have missed local theaters altogether but are still turning up in timely fashion on local video shelves. That’s part of a continuing trend from recent years, and combined with the steady influx of current and past foreign films, the DVD option is looking more and more essential for moviegoers who want to stay in touch with the best of international cinema.
Hence, a survey of some recent cases in point:
Man Without a Past Shortly after arriving in town, a lone metalworker is brutally beaten by thieves and left for dead. When he regains consciousness, he has no memories of his past or even his name. What ensues is a dark, charmingly offbeat comedy about a man with no name improvising a new life amid poverty, homelessness, bureaucratic indifference and post-modern social breakdown. Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismaki builds a wondrous combination of trenchant social commentary and droll, deadpan humor. The title character (stoic Markku Peltola) finds romance with a lonely co-worker (Kati Outinen), revives the local Salvation Army by teaching its band to play rock ‘n’ roll, and forms surprising alliances with an unlikely bank robber, a mock-ferocious security guard who rents storage containers as apartments, his ex-wife’s new love and assorted common folk.
Spider David Cronenberg’s latest is a brilliantly gloomy and poetic portrait of madness. The psychological uncertainties and understated dramatics of the tale make it haunting, weirdly mysterious and maybe a little too slippery in its emotions to have full impact. But this beautifully staged, late-expressionist vision of soul and psyche in turmoil thrives on echoes of Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Beckett and the cinematic worlds of David Lynch, Roman Polanski and Cronenberg himself. The shrewdly evoked mental landscape of the title character (Ralph Fiennes as an adult, Bradley Hall as a child) makes this one of the remarkable films of the year. The performances of Fiennes, Hall and Miranda Richardson (in multiple roles) are outstanding.
Read My Lips When an overworked, hard-of-hearing young secretary (Emmanuelle Devos) hires an ex-convict (Vincent Cassel) as her new assistant, he turns out to be fiercely protective of her against the hostilities of chauvinistic males in the workplace. When his criminal past comes back to haunt him, she returns the favor. Writer-director Jacques Audiard has fashioned a pair of smart, lively character studies in the setting of a low-key thriller and gets exceptional performances out of both Cassel and Devos.
The Crime of Padre Amaro This year’s prestige release from Mexico is not in the same league with Amores Perros and Y Tu Mamá También, even though its title character is played by a young star (Gael García Bernal) featured in both of the earlier films. Adapted from a 19th-century Eca de Quieroz novel about a young priest falling in love with a young female parishioner, Carlos Carrera’s updated Crime is set in contemporary Mexico. Un-celibate priests remain a central part of the story, but this multi-character tale also takes in the Mexico of drug lords, corrupt officialdom in state and church, ethnic and class conflict and the liberation theology of rebel priests.
Comedy of Innocence A small boy tells his mother (Isabelle Huppert) that she’s not really his mom and leads her to the house of another woman (Jeanne Balibar), who welcomes him with open arms. In the hands of Chilean expatriate Raul Ruiz (Time Regained) and a fine French cast, this becomes the basis for an eerily tender psychological mystery. Huppert and Balibar provide excellent contrasting studies in emotional ambiguity and the precariousness of sanity. Ruiz mixes unflinching honesty and stoic compassion in contemplating the darker sides of innocence.
Friday Night A woman trying to drive across Paris from her old apartment to her new one gets stuck in a monumental traffic jam and finds herself whiling away a stalled Friday night with a ruggedly handsome fellow who hitches a ride in her slowly moving car. The latest from Claire Denis (Beau Travail) is an off-beat love story and a sidelong look at the life of the emotions in a 21st-century city. What could happen, what should happen and what does happen get partially—and intriguingly—jumbled in the course of an artful mixture of poetic documentary and near-Cubist romance.
Time Out A seemingly prosperous middle-class businessman gets laid off but keeps it a secret from his wife and almost everybody else and continues taking sham “business trips” that get him more and more entangled in the fictional “new job” and “business opportunities” he fabricates as cover. The commanding Aurelien Recoing is very good in the central role, and director Laurent Cantet (Human Resources) gives further proof that he is one of the most astute social commentators in contemporary film.
The Russian Ark This non-stop journey through Russia’s Hermitage museum is also a brilliantly stylized trip through several centuries of Russian history. Shot in digital video in a single 96-minute take, Aleksandr Sokurov’s dazzling tour de force is best viewed on a theater screen but is probably (and most likely) best comprehended via visits and re-visits on video.
Christ Stopped at Eboli Francesco Rosi’s fine film version of Carlo Levi’s classic novel is finally available in complete form. The new Facets Video DVD restores nearly 40 minutes of footage cut when the film was released here (simply as Eboli) two decades ago. Rosi evokes the story of Levi’s Fascist-era exile in beautifully understated, intensely observant style. The late Gian Maria Volonte brings those same qualities to the role of Levi and gives perhaps the best performance of his career.
The Fast Runner, a.k.a. Atanarjuat Canada’s Zacharias Kunuk takes a 16th-century Inuit story, an archetypal tale from native oral history, and makes it into an astonishingly vivid outdoor adventure. The title character is a fleet-footed young man who must survive an ongoing feud with a malicious rival from whom he has won no fewer than two wives. The Inuit director and cast and the cinematographer Norman Cohn (the one non-Inuit involved) give both documentary-style immediacy and epic splendor to this long (168 minutes) and fascinating film.
Murderous Maids The Papin sisters, two rebellious maids who murdered their employers in France in the 1930s, have been the inspiration for plays and films, including Genet’s The Maids. Jean-Pierre Denis’ film about them contemplates several kinds of violence, social and psychological included, without ever resorting to the porno-violence of tabloid sensationalism. Sylvie Testud and Julie-Marie Parmenter are excellent in the title roles, and Testud is especially effective at making her character’s frenzies and fury into something more substantial than mere unbridled scenery-chewing.
The Decalogue The Facets DVD box set of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s monumental 10-film series is enough to light up even the gloomiest of movie seasons. There’s a whole marvelous course in modern cinema in these haunting, inspired hour-long films reflecting on the Ten Commandments, and all the more so in the company of the DVD extras of interviews and audio commentary. Combine these with the box set for Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy, and you have a full Kieslowski festival and a virtual year’s worth of cinematic glories to boot.
Merci Pour le Chocolat In another of his semi-Hitchcockian autopsies on the lethally discreet charm of the bourgeoisie, Claude Chabrol tracks the secrets and half-buried mysteries in two families linked by ambition, broken marriages and artistic talent. Ultimately, the smooth blend of crime story and family melodrama converges on a deceptively placid chocolate heiress (the scathingly subtle Isabelle Huppert) going visibly, and very quietly, mad.
I’m Going Home An aging actor (veteran star Michel Piccoli) plays defiantly with the late stages of his own life and with death itself. Performed excerpts from Ionesco, Shakespeare and James Joyce provide a richly ambiguous framework for the central anecdote of the actor and his orphaned grandson putting their lives back together after a catastrophic accident. Director Manoel de Oliveira, himself a nonagenarian, treats all this with a staunchly unsentimental delicacy and with a style that seems to take in more and more even as the films themselves become simpler and simpler.