Double Date

What happened to arthouse films with a meaning? With a sense of criticism and real, raw courage in telling stories no one wants to see? You see, there was a time when directors had extraordinary visions; they could look into the past, the could look into the future, they could even look inside the soul of a human being. Directors like Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman breathed cinema and lived through it with the help of their own ideas, their own little worlds. They were recognized as leaders of a new cinematic wave. Fellini was the head of neo-realism, while Bergman led the Swedish new wave. These were two giants that up to this day remain glorified as two of the best filmmakers to have ever walked the planet. So why is it, that their fellow filmmaker, Michelangelo Antonioni, didn’t get as much recognition? For one, Antonioni painted mature, depressing and honest portraits of our society, of the relationships between humans in an age of machines and robots. He explored what others weren’t capable of exploring. What others weren’t capable of understanding. Scorsese praised Antonioni’s L’Avventura as the greatest film ever made and yet I’m not here to talk about L’Avventura, but its sequel, a very key part to his “trilogy on modernity and its discontents” – La Notte (1961).

The guilty protagonists.

La Notte is one of those movies that you probably never heard of and yet you have no idea how important it was for the evolution of the present day cinema. It was a new take on alienation and fading relationships. It was a testament to our powerlessness in the face of haunting feelings and emotions, usually crushed by our surroundings and the omnipresent role of technology played in our daily lives. The performances of the great Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau and the one and only, Monica Vitti, all add up to a story about a married couple that’s oblivious to its crumbling relationship. The couple consists of Giovanni Pontano, a rookie writer and intellectual, and his wife, Lidia. Once they’re bored with their own lives, they’ll go and meet the mysterious Valentina Gherardini at a very special party.

And the mysterious force that is Valentina.

Antonioni’s films were always about something more than just what’s on screen. Sometimes even the director himself wouldn’t know what his movie was about until he entered the editing room to put the whole thing together. And yet, once you see the title card that reads “FINE” (The End), you will immediately know that you’ve witnessed something spectacular, something deep and meaningful that can only be the work of a bravado filmmaker and a master at his craft. With Antonioni it doesn’t matter if it’s his early works or his latter ones, you will feel honored to have watched a movie made by one of the greats.

A hypnotized society.

La Notte is all about spaces. It’s about crumbling spaces. Everything you see doesn’t mean a thing when love is absent. Antonioni’s camera is always moving, switching to various angles and compositions. It is like an opera, small on the outside, but once you hear it, once you see the whole thing being rehearsed and played in front of an audience your jaw will drop. That’s how Antonioni directs his movies. The actors in all of his films must keep moving. Their movements can be fast, slow, it doesn’t matter. The actors will keep moving until the climax when usually everything is still, or silent (like in Antonioni’s later Zabriskie Point, seconds before one of the loudest explosions in cinema history). In fact, Antonioni directs La Notte in a very specific fashion: he starts off from inserting the characters into a busy, vast, humongous location, in this case the city of Milan. We witness as our characters try to find themselves and resolve their problems in the city where there is not enough space for truth and self discovery. That’s when they is a transition location-wise. The characters are invited to a party in a villa situated right outside of Milan. It is a place of lust, excess and wealth. Everything that haunts us and disturbs us about the two protagonists will be exposed at this very party.

Giovanni’s vision.
Lidia’s vision.

I will not go into detail as to what exactly happens. That is not my objective. That is for you to discover. However, I want to point out a few things that stand out to me. Giovanni and his wife are presented in the beginning of the movie as two people who are driven by something. They seem to share similar views and values. They visit a sick friend at the hospital. A friend that is slowly dying of cancer. A friend that used to be madly in love with Lidia and yet she chose Giovanni over him. As soon as the couple exits the hospital room, they go different ways. Antonioni isn’t interested in pointing out their differences together. They are always separated, in order to make their personalities and the problems they carry with them stand out in the viewer’s eye. Giovanni is tormented by the sudden burst of fame he achieved after having published his first book. Meanwhile, Lidia wanders around the empty streets of Milan on a hot summer afternoon. Giovanni looks for isolation in his spacious apartment. Lidia looks for isolation in the deserted outskirts of the industrial city. Giovanni is being watched by his neighbor from a distant window. Lidia is being watched by a group of boys looking for a fight around the block. Antonioni presents his characters in contrast with a white washed wall, a car, a lamp post or even a set of fireworks exploding in the sky. He translates feelings and distorted memories into objects, landscapes, street geometry. His characters are never free, they always feel trapped in a maze created by the director on purpose. His purpose is to expose their weakness and show their true colors.

Giovanni’s strange encounters.
Everybody’s looking for love.

Monica Vitti, an actress who’s worked on four different Antonioni projects, adds a feeling of the supernatural with her appearance as the mysterious Valentina. She is the woman, or better yet, the creature that changes everything for the married couple. Her presence is felt as the presence of a surreal character in a material world. She is a troubled woman that looks for salvation in Giovanni’s arms. She causes trouble and at the same time backs off when it’s time for her to go. She appears from nowhere and at the end fades into black. Is she really there? Antonioni doesn’t give us a straight answer. He is more interested in exploring the change in the relationship between Giovanni and Lidia after that one magical night. Magical or nightmarish? We will never know. Antonioni’s characters usually rise from the ashes and end in flames, in order to be born again.

Valentina slowly goes away.

La Notte is no exception. It is a study of society, of modern love and our distorted understanding of memories. It is an interesting take on the reasons why people decide to live together, to love each other. Giovanni and Lidia have nothing to live for and yet they feel compelled to force themselves on one another just so they don’t have to face the scary sense of loneliness. Antonioni’s movies were meant to be that way. Powerful. Towering. Small. That is his magical trick. That’s why he’s a master. He could build an adventure with just a bunch of sticks and stones.

Is there hope?
Well, is there?


To Be a Perro

Cruelty. Today’s subject matter will be cruelty portrayed in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s debut — Amores Perros. For some this movie can be tough as hell. Who doesn’t cringe at scenes that consist of bloody dog fighting? Who doesn’t cringe expecting the worst after the movie’s opening title: Life’s a Bitch?  No dogs were harmed in the making of this picture is the first disclaimer that appears on screen. Deal with that. Iñárritu, before entering the world of Hollywood and becoming one of the only three directors to win back-to-back Oscars for best directing, did at first make his small debut in Mexico. Small but effective, and considered to be one of the best directing debuts in the history of cinema and one of the best foreign language movies ever made. Ladies and gentlemen, this movie opened up doors that no one dared to open. To blend cruelty with love and despair? Art. Amores Perros has a heart and a razor sharp machete.

The punisher and the punished.

Mexico City. A place where anything can happen. A place where you either wear a gun or make money off your dog’s death. A place where dreams are kept in a cage and all you can do is ceiling gazing. The lives of three people will collide after a horrendous car accident. There is blood involved. But no matter how deep we delve into the depths of physical pain and loneliness, Iñárritu will always observe the omnipresence of love. The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto (Biutiful, The Wolf of Wall Street), enhances the light, the grain of the picture, the bright colors that highlight the life on the filthy streets. The music goes from heavy Mexican rap to the delicate chord strumming songs composed by the great Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain, Babel) because that’s the essence of life: it is a bitch that can either bite or caress. You don’t get to choose. The characters sure don’t. Octavio, El Chivo and Valeria sure don’t. They know cruelty more than anyone.

Octavio and his love. A love worth fighting for.

Octavio, played by the up and coming Gael Garcia Bernal (Y Tu Mamá También, Motorcycle Diaries) is a young man who wants to get out of this hell hole. His older brother is a punk and a robber, and Octavio is in love with the brother’s wife, Susana. It is only a matter of time before Octavio finds out how to make money for his escape as quick as he can: dog fights. Life forces this young man to rely on the pain of his pet in order to get away from all this evil around him. He’ll take Susana and the baby with him. Plain and simple. Or maybe not. You see, Octavio’s young man’s dreams are immediately crushed by the ruthless force of life. Octavio embodies innocence, immaturity, inexperience. These are all qualities that make life difficult, that make of life an almost impossible task. Octavio will be forced to crawl into the dark world of drug dealers, gangsters and dog fighters. As the film progresses and Octavio’s story begins to go down along with all the bloody events, Iñárritu slowly unravels the boy’s helplessness. The camera starts to feel detached from the young man. It is not a comforting presence anymore. We feel dirty, involved, touched by Octavio’s struggles.

Ceiling gazing.

Valeria, on the other hand, is a super model who gets involved with a married man. The two start living together and everything seems possible. Everything seems achievable. Love gives life a shape and form, doesn’t it? Valeria embodies beauty and success. Her whole career has consisted of posing in front of a camera and walking down the stage and accepting beauty awards. That’s all there is to her. But life’s cruel actions will mess this up. Valeria will be victim of the terrible car accident. Valeria won’t be the woman she once was. Her dog, Richie, will jump into a hole in the floor in order to find a lost toy, but he won’t come back. Richie will whimper and scratch against the wooden ceiling that is the floor. Daniel, Valeria’s boyfriend, will go crazy trying to free the dog and get him out to make his girlfriend happy. Richie is a symbol of humanity. Iñárritu won’t let him out until Daniel and Valeria have gone through the painful part of their relationship. It’s a test. And humanity doesn’t give up. It’s always there. Fighting off rats and surviving in the dark. It’s only a matter of time until humanity crawls out, breathing, alive.

The model – Valeria.

And then there is El Chivo, one of the most impressive characters ever put on screen, played to perfection by Emilio Echevarria. This is a man who has seen it all. He embodies the fading past, the painful weight of memory. El Chivo is a man of experience, once a guerilla fighter, now a paid assassin. He lives the live of a homeless man, surrounded by dogs, his only friends. Whatever happened to him in the past it’s for you to discover. He is father time and his presence feels almost holy and spiritual in some twisted way. He will take care of a dying dog and help the poor beast recover. He will square off and try to make peace between two business men, brothers, at war with each other. He is a force that is mostly felt rather than seen. When he walks down the street he is invisible to the people passing by. And yet, his actions count. Not only to strangers but his long lost family as well. He can take any physical shape or form. He can sport a Marxist beard or walk clean shaven dressed in a smart suit, but he will always be felt. He will always have a say. He will confront life and at the same time he will be life’s servant. That is all i can say about El Chivo. The rest is yours.

Trying to fix the past is not easy.

Amores Perros is certainly similar to the later Brazilian film City of God. Both are ruthless depictions of life on the street. However, City of God, as brilliant as it is, works much better as a documentary. It serves cold facts and chews on a plot that has not much to offer in terms of analyzing the bigger picture. It is as bloody as Amores Perros but it does not work as well as the latter does. Iñárritu paints with blood and emotions. For him life is a bitch because we are not powerful enough. We will never be. We want to be but that is highly unlikely to happen. The three intersecting stories of Octavio, Valeria and El Chivo offer the viewer the essence of life. Love, anger, revenge and the bitter taste of past mistakes make of life a cruel bitch. A bitch that will always prevail. Only El Chivo will walk this earth forever.

The omnipresent guardian.

The Unexpected

Think of cinema. The cinema we know nowadays, the cinema that has always prevailed in theaters, the cinema that makes the most money in the film industry is American cinema. Now, what would you say if I told you that in my opinion, South Korean cinema is equally good if not better in quality than the American one? Think about it. Is an industry that produces hundreds of movies per year really better than one that chooses wisely and spends its money responsibly? South Korean cinema has blessed us with movies like the following thrillers such as Oldboy, The Man from Nowhere, I Saw the Devil but also incredible war stories told from the Korean point of view; Taegukgi, The Front Line and 71: Into Fire. As you can see most subject matters are dark at first sight but as you begin to watch the movies I just listed you’ll notice there is more to it. There is family, brotherly love, sacrifice, humor, friendship, betrayal, anger, happiness. I like to think of it as the cinema of the unexpected. It can  make you cry and it make you laugh, but one thing is for sure: once it hits you, it’ll never leave you. And the prime example of this is the cop thriller, Memories of Murder from 2003, a story of obsession with beauty and innocence wrapped in a slimy, disturbing world of violence.

The opening shot. Innocence. Instinct.

The movie at first glance is your typical detective story of two detectives assigned to a double murder investigation in a South Korean province in 1986. It is in fact, a true story. Brace yourselves. It is the story of the first serial killer in the history of South Korea, who on every rainy night murders an innocent woman dressed in red, whistling an unpopular love song. He murders his victims with the use of their clothes; strangling them with their underwear, their bras, etc. The deaths are violent, cruel, brutal and meaningless. And yet, Bong Joon-ho, the director (also known for 2014’s Snowpiercer), manages to make it a beautiful experience, during which the viewer learns of the humanity hidden behind the killings and the people involved in the investigation. The two detectives,  Park (played by an outstanding and always reliable Song Kang-Ho) and Cho, are two very different men. Different values, different methods. Cho is an acclaimed detective from Seoul. He is a big shot in Park’s eyes, but doesn’t act like one. As the investigation progresses the two begin to behave similarly. Their actions become blunt and irresponsible, their methods of interrogation become ruthless, their goal starts fading.

Two men from two different worlds. One goal.

Heavy stuff, huh? Well, you’ll find humor in it, because life, as hard as it can be, is sarcastic, goofy and funny. Bong Joon-ho keeps getting back to an important element of the story: the gag of a character being literally kicked off the screen. Whenever there is a suspect for interrogation, he gets kicked off by a policeman wearing army boots. The irony is that the policemen later on has his leg amputated, but that’s as far as I’ll go into the story. Park, the more physical detective, likes to beat on his suspects. But he also knows when someone is guilty. Maybe not by looking at record sheets, or at evidence, but by looking straight into the suspect’s soul. Meanwhile, Cho is reasonable. He likes to think. But does it pay off? That’s the question the viewer should pose himself. Does sitting in the back, watching, studying, help at all? Sometimes you shouldn’t hold back. Eventually no one in the movie does.

One of the most chilling scenes in the movie. It’s raining.


The shots are steady. The only time the camera tracks a character from behind and does it all in one long take is when the environment is too big for us to discover on our own. Bong Joon-ho captures the countryside landscapes adding great warmth to the image. However, the images begin to look colder once the two detectives begin to get closer to the possible murderer. That is what we usually say, right? Cold hard facts.

An example of cold cinematography.

The whole film is a dark poem, kind of like last year’s Sicario, where men fight men without knowing why. Without knowing what is good and what is bad. Without realizing that they are monsters on their own. Because essentially, Memories of Murder is about good men covered by the skin of a monster. They try to get out of it. Break free. Catch the real monster who keeps killing innocent women. Everything is unexpected. Everything comes and goes and you have to be there to catch it in time. But even if you break free, you’ll be caught in a maze of terror. And the murderer? The real monster? He’ll be out there. Waiting. Hiding. Watching.

No caption.



Isn’t it odd that one of the best films about loneliness, alienation and family in the USA is directed by a German? Wim Wenders, director of such acclaimed works like The American Friend, Wings of Desire, Buena Vista Social Club directs a perfectly balanced noir-ish road family drama, that takes place all the way from Los Angeles to South Texas in 1984. I’m talking about the unforgettable heart breaker that is Paris, Texas.


Ry Cooder’s slow guitar notes echo in the Texas desert. We don’t know where we are. The music gets repetitive, hypnotizing. The camera pans across the wasteland, all the way down to cut in close on the face of a man who looks lost. A man dressed in dirty clothes, covered in dust. He has sun burns on his face. He is dressed in a suit and is finishing off the last drop of water he had on him. This is Travis. A man who is wandering in the desert, hoping for forgiveness. Looking for hope.

This is Travis, played by an excellent Harry Dean Stanton.

Right from the start we get a sense of what Wenders wants us to look for: spaces. We go from the open desert to the luxurious modern suburbs of LA, back to the desert and then again, to a large city,Houston, where everyone is squeezed between walls and buildings, where everyone’s feelings are stripped and thrown into the same pit. It almost feels like Travis and his son, Hunter, whom he hasn’t seen for four years, are the only two people able to talk, communicate in this brutal, technological America. But when the lights go out and Wenders can capture the empty roads, the neon road signs, costumers having a peaceful meal in a diner, that’s when America comes alive.

America can go from this…
… to this.

A dark past looms over Travis and his lost family. His wife is gone. Travis walked away and never turned back for four years. Hunter, his son, was left at the age of three in front of Travis’ brother’s door. Travis’ brother and his wife adopted Hunter. Treated him like their own son, but deep down, knowing that someday this masquerade must come to an end. Travis’ brother, Walt, gets a call from a German doctor in South Texas telling him that Travis was found and is now in an unresponsive state of mind. And that’s how the story comes back together. Travis at the sight of his son feels the need to find the boy’s real mother. At what cost? He will reconnect with the boy. They will bond. They will come together, but then again all good things must come to an end.

Father and son walkie-talkie conversations.

Wenders’ and Robby Muller’s  (cinematographer) color palette consists of two strong and easily visible colors: red and green. Red connects both Travis and his son, but also Jane, the boy’s mother and Travis’ wife. Their scenes together come to life once we notice that the red color ties them all together. Green, on the other hand, looms over whenever there is trouble, whenever there is a point of no return in the story. In the night, everything is green lit. Everything is quiet. Wenders’ camera movements are slow, delicate. It announces its presence but it does so rather calmly. It gives a sense of safety and immunity, even when we see things we’re not supposed to see or hear like Travis’ long confession about his past, or Jane’s breakdown once Travis finds her in a club.

Could this be her? (notice the red)
Or maybe not? (notice the green)

The secret lies in the perfectly balanced atmosphere of heartbreak and suspense. Wenders is a brave director who took many risks while making this movie. How could a foreign director capture the essence of America in the 80s? How could he honestly portray the bread and butter of a country that is so distant from his own? Well, for one Sam Shepard’s tight screenplay that does not use words when they aren’t needed. And then of course, Wenders’ objectivity. There are no sides in this movie.

Eventually it all comes together.

Everything is told with the eye of a born storyteller, a man who is one of the many symbols of European cinema. Paris, Texas hits all the right notes and then some. It offers the viewer a sense of belonging, a sense of family and freedom. It touches upon many difficult subjects without ramming them down our throats. As a film, it has become a landmark filmmaking achievement. A work of art that was born and made in the American desert with the use of European hands.

And it goes from green…
… to pulsating red.

The Boy and the Man

I suddenly feel compelled to ignore any other movie I’ve watched lately and do a little write-up on a movie that at first failed to have an impact on me, emotionally. Two days after my first viewing of it, I feel like this movie has become a part of me, a part of my knowledge, a part of my beliefs, a part of my existence. It is a movie that does not throw itself at a viewer, it does not force any tears or rage, it does not drag the viewer into its lurid world, it just is. I am talking about the fantastic Hungarian Oscar winner for best foreign film of 2015, Son of Saul.

Welcome to Saul’s world.

It took a lot of time for me to dive into Saul of Saul, the film directed by Hungarian director  László Nemes, starring first time actor Géza Röhrig. For those who don’t know what the film is about, it’s the story of a Hungarian prisoner working as a member of the Sonderkommando unit in Auschwitz concentration camp, who tries to give proper burial to the body of who he believes is his little boy, his lost son. Yes, this is another Holocaust movie. Yes, it shows mass murder in the world’s biggest concentration camp. Yes, you all think you have seen it before. Don’t worry. You haven’t. This is no Schindler’s List, no Boy in the Striped Pajamas, no Pianist. This is a claustrophobic, harrowing experience shot in 40mm lens that focuses on one character, and one character only. This character’s name is Saul. He is no saint. His job is to push Jewish families, gypsies, homosexuals and the disabled into the gas chambers. His job is to drag the lifeless bodies out of the gas chambers. His job is to burn the bodies. His job is to burn all the evidence: clothes, documents, hair. His job is to make it look like it never happened. His job is to die after a few months of bloody hard work.

A man lost in a world where every man is a bad man.

This movie does not spare any punches. It keeps you glued to the main character, Saul. Everything else is out of focus because of the very limited range a 40mm lens can offer. You hear sounds. You heard people screaming in pain. Children laughing. You hear gunshots. You hear bodies being dumped into mass graves. The camera stays with Saul and follows him anywhere he goes. Saul, in fact, may seem like a heartless man. Lacking any character depth, any real grit, emotion. He looks like a walking dead person. That’s because he is. If you think about it, after witnessing all the horrors portrayed in this movie, how can someone call it a life when your daily routine consists of burning innocent people? In Schindler’s List Spielberg presented us with characters that cared about each other, in Life is Beautiful Benigni played a loving father that looked after his family. These were characters that even during the hardest of times were always there for each other. In Son of Saul the rule is each man for himself. There is no unity, no brotherhood. If you help someone, you die. That’s why we only see what Saul does. The director wants the camera to be his only companion, his only true friend that stays quiet throughout the whole movie. We observe. We keep silent. We witness Saul trying to find a reason to survive. We witness Saul do all kinds of sacrifices in order to save the dead body of a boy that may not even be his son. We witness Saul trying to save himself from all this madness.

It is an excruciating but beautiful thing to witness. This movie is a lot to take.

and we wait…
for something…