A quick update from my summer holiday. Cinema is a gift. Cinema can expand borders of any kind and can easily destroy any obstacles on the way. It makes you think and it challenges the hell out of you. It can do that. You just have to look in the right places. I’ve began my Jean-Luc Godard watch. During these couple of weeks I plan to revisit all of his works. For now, I leave you with a few notes.
Breathless (1960) – Godard’s debut is like the title suggests, a breathtaking experience. It is a film, that like so many other works from the French author, explores the relationship between two human beings who are not suited for one another. They love each other and at the same time they feel disgusted by the other’s presence. The camera creeps in whenever there is a real connection between the two lovers (played by the beautiful Jean Seberg and the young, dynamic Jean-Paul Belmondo) and fades out once the connection is cut in half. The two lovers, immersed in the loveless city of Paris, are the typical example of New Wave protagonists: insecure, scared and ambitious. They have dreams, but Godard doesn’t let them fly for too long.
Vivre sa vie (1962) – Godard searches for answers in the world of prostitution. We follow a young woman who wants to become an actress despite being poor and alone. It is presented in twelve episodic tales that portray the life of a Parisian woman (the iconic Anna Karina) and her slow descent into prostitution. This film studies spaces. Godard begins to shape his style that will later on consist of one question: what is real? The camera is always there to limit our view. We want answers but we have to work in order to get them. We have to get dirty, just like the young woman.
Contempt (1963) – probably my favorite Godard and his most hated one by the public. It is his most mature work, and one that feels strongly inspired by the works of Antonioni, another master at telling stories that deal with everything and nothing at the same time. For Godard relationships are just a mere excuse to be with someone else. Lovers exist because the world says so. Not because we want to. Contempt is a story of two people who learn to hate each other. It is also a film dedicated to cinema. It is a film dedicated to music and culture. Brigitte Bardot, the beautiful star of the 60s, plays the wife of a playwright. The two drift apart from each other and their relationship becomes a Greek tragedy. Godard would go on and continue the use of his long shots, filmed in Technicolor, in order to highlight the hopelessness we are born into. For Godard, everything is about cinema. Love can wait.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
Today’s topic: the world of The Revenant. When I think about it, I come to the conclusion that cinema is divided into two categories: movies and films. Movies can be manipulated, changed, edited, cut and re-shot. Films, on the other hand, are made out of stone; once they’re done, they’re done, they’re rock solid and they stay forever. Nothing can change them, nothing can touch them. They are confessions, tales of truth, parables that will guide future generations in hopefully the right direction. The Revenant is a film. You look at it and you are fully aware that you’re not reading a comic book, you’re not playing a video game, you are watching a film. Why is that? What makes it so colossal and epic? Its immense, cruel, beautiful world.
Man vs Nature has been the topic of many directors’ filmographies such as Werner Herzog’s (Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre the Wrath of God), Andrei Tarkovsky’s (Andrei Rublev), and Akira Kurosawa’s (Dersu Uzala). Their works were epic in form yet intimate in scope. Their protagonists fought fear, greed and most of all they tried to prevail against nature. Same thing goes for The Revenant? Not quite. Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the master behind such revolutionary works like Amores Perros, Babel and Birdman, has crafted an epic tale of survival based on the true story of frontiersman Hugh Glass who in 1823, in the Rocky Mountains territory, was brutally attacked by a Grizzly bear and left for dead by his companions. This stubborn son of a bitch battled his way through waterfalls, frozen lakes, forests and mountains, crawling for 300 miles in order to find and kill the men who betrayed him. As many viewers noted, in most cases sounding rather disappointed, the film has a very simple plot. Sometimes, we tend to forget that our world is not that complicated. We’re not masters of the universe. We’re just tiny creatures who happen to live in a big world. Everything we do is rather simple; what we call ambition is usually nothing but instinct. We set ourselves a goal, and slowly, slowly we go for it. The Revenant is about that.
The setting: Rocky Mountains (although shot in Alberta, Canada, and Argentina), near the Missouri River, Indian Territory, 1823. The protagonists: fur trappers working for a fur trading company, Arikara tribesmen, Pawnee tribesmen, French renegades… and nature. We’re presented with a very primitive world; a world where everything comes at a price, be it a scalp or a buffalo skin. Every man works for himself. No one sees the bigger picture. Everything is driven by hatred, anger, and yes, revenge. Why shouldn’t it be so simple? All of this still applies to this day and age. We haven’t made such incredible progress; wars are still fought over who has more money, more oil, more power. Kidnappings still happen in the name of ransom and revenge. Corruption still exists because of our primitive instincts. So why complain? The world of Hugh Glass at least doesn’t have skyscrapers, tanks, war missiles and drug cartels. It’s a world where you can still smell the morning grass, where you can hear the wolves howl, where you can walk through the wildest of all places and not be disturbed by poachers and tourists. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Tree of Life, Gravity, Birdman) make this world seem closer to us. The viewer can almost touch it. And that’s the beauty of it.
Hugh Glass was abandoned, buried alive, his personal items stolen and his favorite rifle taken. That is what the book (by Michael Punke) recounts and what the true story says, but Iñárritu found it to be missing something. He said; yes, sure, he probably did it to get back his rifle and fight for his honor, but I want to add something to it. That’s how Hugh Glass becomes a father. A father of a Pawnee boy, his half-breed son, named Hawk. Because fatherly love is also a basic human instinct. A mother and a father are willing to sacrifice themselves, to walk through hellfire, to fight the devil if that’s what it takes to save their child. Hugh Glass’ son is killed by a man called Fitzgerald (played by a superb Tom Hardy who creates one of the most human and vulnerable villains of all time). And that’s when Glass loses everything he had, everything he lived for. Everything he ever wanted. It’s a wake-up call that whispers into his ear “keep breathing, crawl out of your grave and fight”. That’s what he does. His heart painted black with hatred and thirst for revenge pushes him to face the brutality of nature, the mercilessness of a world where man has no say over who gets to live and who gets to die.
The world of Glass is simple, yes but it’s also emotional. There is love, friendship, sacrifice. The flashbacks that recall his Pawnee wife, a better life, a peaceful tepee, times when everything seemed so magical, tell us that there is more to this character than what we see. In these dream sequences we see Glass contemplate the unexpected. He studies the beautiful, majestic nature. Nature that makes it possible for him to breathe and walk, love, desire. He understands that in nature, there is no enemy, only an ally, a mother that watches over him at all times. Perhaps we don’t see a God, but we sense that out there, in the blue sky, there is something that makes the rain so wet, that makes the snow so cold, that makes the rays of sunlight so warm. There is a force that rules this brutal jungle of animals, this world that we find so savage and inhuman. This world that we try to tame. Why tame it if we can respect it? Why cut off a branch when we can water it? Why trap a butterfly when we can watch it fly in our garden? Why kill a forest when we can admire its magnificence? The Revenant, with its beautiful use of natural lighting and on-location production, is a reminder that everything we have we owe it to something much bigger than money. Much larger than our own ambitions. Something invisible that we can only feel once we submerge ourselves like Hugh Glass. Once we start to crawl in the dirt. Only then.
Only then we will find that ‘something’ we’ve all been looking for.