Before Sunset: A recipe for the perfect sequel

When telling the continuation of a story, movies often find themselves in the awkward position of having to cover all over again past events for those that may not have seen the previous chapter, and simultaneously drive the actual story forward. The whole endeavor can be problematic: juggling too many storylines, subplots and characters tends to be the downfall of most sequels. And that’s why today I want dedicate this post to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset from 2004, the official sequel to 1995’s Before Sunrise; a movie that stands on its and expands upon the first part of the Before trilogy (in 2013 Before Midnight would be released).

Jess and Celine meet again in Paris, nine years later.

The story of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), a young American and an equally young French student, whose chance encounter in Vienna turns into a magical night of friendship, confessions, poetry and love has by now become a cult classic and a testament to how the lines between ordinary life and art can be blurred through a camera lens.
Before Sunset continues this tradition of ordinary conversations replacing the actual plot of the movie, but does so in a completely different vain than its predecessor.
Let’s start at the beginning: whereas Before Sunrise was a chance encounter, pure and simple, Before Sunset tells the story of what happens when we believe in the power of that one chance encounter. This time around, nine years later, Jesse has just published his first novel, which is based on the magical night he spent with Celine in 90s Vienna, and is on his final day of his book tour of France. Celine, on the other hand, lives in Paris and for some reason is drawn to meeting Jesse after all these years. She heard of his book tour and is determined to confront the man who decided to turn their single night into a book.

Celine shows up announced.

Before parting ways, the young lovers had promised each other they would meet again a year later in Vienna right before Christmas, but alas, this promise did not work out. And here perhaps lies the first strength of Before Sunset; Richard Linklater as well as Hawke and Delpy (all three collaborated on the screenplay) are not afraid to confront the absurdity of promises we make and the even more absurd way we go about not addressing them properly.
Celine is convinced that Jesse had forgotten all about that promise. She couldn’t make it to Vienna the following year because of her grandma’s passing. At first, Jesse shakes his head and lies about not maintaining his end of the deal. But soon enough the truth comes out and it is revealed that Jesse did indeed travel back all the way to Vienna just to end up wandering the streets of the foreign city in the foreign country all alone. Haven’t we all been at some point Jesse in this situation? And haven’t we all been Celine as well? The way we make promises and romantically go about keeping them or how we tragically avoid their realization define our relationships and the way we approach life on a daily basis. Yet, rarely do we muster up the courage to confront these promises, and show that hey, maybe it was a romantic dream after all, but it was a dream I believed in and was ready to act upon. Before Sunset begins with this confrontation and inevitably begs the question, what could have been had both Jesse and Celine been in Vienna that following year?

Jesse, now a published author, is the same ol’ romantic.

The biggest draw to Before Sunset is seeing both characters age and mature. In 1995 our protagonists were on their way out of university, whereas in 2004 one of them is a father and husband, while the other works for an NGO and fights to make the world a better place. To realistically convey the way characters change over time is a challenge that Linklater, Hawke and Delpy approach head-on. Think about it; people change, but do they really? Their habits may change, their day-to-day activities, but their values and dreams rarely do. Jesse is still a hopeless romantic. He sees life as a canvas to paint his thoughts on. His observations are the observations of a man who constantly makes a million observations regarding each passing moment. He doesn’t question things, but merely observes and tries to squeeze the good parts as if he was squeezing an orange for breakfast. His ideas belong to a different realm, separated from actual reality. As a person he continues to operate based on these fantastical ideas and when life smacks him on the head, each time he is caught by surprise.
Celine, on the other hand, is the same matter-of-fact person we met the first time around, but with more fight and spirit. Compared to Jesse whose existence clings on a specific set of principles, Celine acts to survive and makes sense of whatever comes her way. She is not attached to ideas nor people. Her relationships are limited and short-lived. Her motto remains, “Being alone is better than sitting next to a lover and feeling lonely.” Her feelings of achievement stem from concrete work she does throughout the day. Success takes the form of small, separate actions that once put together create a big, vivid puzzle one can be proud of. Unlike Jesse, who would stand and admire this puzzle as if it were a museum piece, Celine moves on to build the next one, and the one after that. The real magic here, is that these two people can get together after years of not seeing each other, and mix their differences in worldview, value systems, teachings and so on, and fill in each other’s blank spots.

Celine rarely lets her guard down.

Before Sunset does not deal with young people’s anxiety anymore. Gone are the days of worrying over exams, over potential job offers and family expectations. We are now presented with fully formed adults who have made choices in life – choices they must learn to respect. Jesse is a father in a marriage that is falling apart. His struggle is that of a man who made the conservative decision and married a woman he never loved. The cruel irony of a romantic who hangs his head low and tries to conform to society’s standards. Meanwhile, Celine’s decision-making has led her to a way of life that alienates most of the people she meets. In her own, secret way she is also a hopeless romantic like Jesse, but does a better job of disguising it. Together they find solace in each other. For a few moments, as Jesse prepares to fly back to the States, the two are able to put their real lives on the side, just like they did in Vienna, and savor Paris for what it is – the history, the art, the ideology.
As they make their way down the Seine, Jesse points out Notre Dame and tells the story of a German officer who during World War II was entrusted with blowing up the Parisian cathedral. Ultimately, the legend narrates, the man could not do it. He could not destroy such beauty. Whether this story is true or not, our protagonists do not care. They are simply grateful to be alive in that moment, with the possibility of exchanging this story while contemplating the preserved beauty of Notre Dame.

Contemplating the fragility of beauty together.

Ethan Hawke accurately described Before Sunrise as a film about what might be, while Before Sunset as a film about what could or should be. After all, the idea for the films was based on a chance encounter Richard Linklater, the director, made in Philadelphia in the 80s with a girl named Amy he never saw again after that one night. In a way, Before Sunset fulfills our hope and reinforces our dreams. It is a movie that expands upon its predecessor by believing in the possibilities that life grants us from time to time. It refuses to let the magic of Before Sunrise stop, and argues that these characters deserve each other. They are better around each other. Together, they are stronger. Together, all the worrying is put on hold. All the fears become minuscule. And why the hell not? This is cinema. Anything’s possible.

Anything’s possible.

About Elly: How mundanity turns into a nightmare

Scary season is upon us, that time of the year when people enjoy being spooked by their favorite movies. Personally, this time around I decided to revisit a film that stopped me in my tracks after first viewing it. It gave me chills despite being a regular drama about regular people.
Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly from 2009 is a film that sneaks up on you that way: a story about friends spending the weekend together out by the seaside that eventually turns into a nightmare. Its strengths as a ‘horror’ movie do not lie in the supernatural, but in the mundanity and truthfulness of the characters. It’s a film that on paper seems impossible to pull off: the entire concept and set-up revolve around the accuracy with which the filmmaker is able to capture the nuances of human nature in the face of a horrible tragedy. If that isn’t horror, folks, then I don’t know what is.

Our main protagonist – Sepideh.

The film opens with our protagonists – a group of friends from Tehran – driving through a tunnel on their way to the seaside. They scream at the top of their lungs, happy to be alive, happy to be getting away from the traffic, the noise and responsibilities of life in a big city. Cars honk at them, but they don’t pay any mind to it. They’re enjoying the moment.
Our main protagonist, Sepideh (a terrific Golshifteh Farahani, who would go on to play one of my all time favorite supporting characters in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson) is the one who has organized the weekend getaway. She also decided to bring on board a handsome friend visiting from Germany, Ahmad, and her daughter’s school teacher, Elly. The plan is to introduce them to each other and see if Elly would like to marry Ahmad who may be looking for a wife after his first divorce. Once they get to their destination, however, the unexpected happens and Elly disappears without a trace.

Moments before her disappearance, we see Elly separate herself from the group.

After my second viewing, I admired more than ever Farhadi’s patience in telling this story. The Iranian writer-director’s trademark is, after all, the careful observation of ordinary stories in day-to-day lives, most notably in A Separation which recounts in detail the intricate procedures behind a family’s break-up in modern-day Iran. Yet, About Elly is perhaps even more impressive under this aspect as the film does not tackle in depth the societal landscape which the characters populate: it tackles the characters themselves. About Elly is about the characters around Elly, and how following her disappearance, they begin to reconstruct and project notions, judgments and opinions about her and about each other.

The film’s initially warm cinematography is soon replaced by cold, steely images.

In the film, Elly disappears after being entrusted with the supervision of the families’ kids who are busy splashing about in the sea. Her disappearance is sudden, silent, perfectly anti-climatic. The only thing we know is that one of the kids almost drowned and Elly had probably tried to save him from the strong currents. Whether she really did or not, and whether she really drowned or not, the film’s characters cannot decide. That’s when Farhadi’s nuanced exploration of human nature begins: our characters feel compelled to try and make sense of Elly’s disappearance.
First, they point fingers at Elly. Because Elly, at the end of the day, was a guest. She was Sepideh’s acquaintance, nothing more than a school teacher – a kind person, yes, but a stranger nonetheless. For crying out loud, when the police arrive and ask about her details, they can’t even provide them with her full name! To them Elly is just… Elly, quiet, charming, perhaps a bit too timid. A school teacher, that’s all.

Suddenly, friends begin to question each other.

Human nature is a scary beast, argues Farhadi. Moments ago we saw friends enjoying dinner together and playing charades. At times they even kidded about Ahmad and Elly possibly becoming husband and wife. Now we see a group of individuals desperately trying to make sense of a tragedy. Their first instinct tells them that perhaps Elly was hiding something. She had motives unknown to them. Perhaps she really did leave the kids unsupervised, and returned to Tehran on foot, without taking any personal items with her.
Their initial attempts at reconstructing a scenario that fits their notions and ideas about what kind of person Elly really was are pathetic. Each attempt disintegrates within seconds: Elly’s bag, for example, seems to be missing at first only for Sepideh to admit to everyone that she hid it so that Elly would not leave. But perhaps, they ask themselves, Elly was crazy and stubborn enough to leave without the bag? Was she that way? Sepideh, Elly’s only real ‘friend’ on this occasion, doesn’t have any answers. She was just a school teacher, an acquaintance, that’s all.

Sepideh is cornered and interrogated like a suspect.

After trying to make sense of who Elly was and what she might have done instead of simply drowning in the strong currents of the sea, the characters begin to question themselves and their own role in Elly’s disappearance. Was it something we said, or did?
Fingers begin to point at each other. They carefully retrace the sequence of events of the day before the disappearance and try pinpoint the moment Elly might have felt hurt enough by a remark or anything at all to decide to leave unbeknownst to anyone. This process is, in a way, Farhadi’s vision of horror, as friends begin to disintegrate each other with accusations and lies.
Sepideh finds herself in the center of it: the accusations, led by her own husband, point to Sepideh being the architect of this nightmare scenario. She was the one who planned the getaway, who decided to take a chance and rent an abandoned villa right by the sea despite warnings of violent currents. She was the one who came up with the idea of introducing Elly to Ahmad. She was the one who forced Elly to stay against her will. She was the one.

The incident takes a toll on everybody.

In Farhadi’s cinema, the build-up to these moments is just as important as their culmination. Very often his drama resembles police procedurals, with each step being carefully planned and traced back to the preceding one. The journey is, in fact, much more insightful and telling about the nature of the characters than the final destination.
About Elly never falls into the trap of over-emphasizing the drama of the story. Characters react the way normal people would. They panic, yes, but they also think of their role in the tragedy and desperately try to wipe their hands clean, as clean as possible. In the end, only Sepideh has the faintest idea of who Elly was. And perhaps, not even she does.
Farhadi’s characters are people with back stories to which we have very little access to. About Elly is a film about anything but Elly. It’s about characters projecting their own ideas onto a person they barely knew. Farhadi skillfully finds the drama in the idea of reconstructing a person’s identity without the proper tools in the face of an unexplainable tragedy. Tragedy in the mundane is the most terrifying and this movie confirms this, raising the essential questions of how well do we know somebody? How can I trust this person? How can I love this person? Where did I go wrong? How would I react if you were Sepideh? These are all questions that come to mind when watching About Elly – a film without ghosts, jump scares and horrifying prophecies, yet a film that is still capable of scaring the viewer by posing real, hard questions. Questions we hope we may never have to answer.

Affliction: Paul Schrader and the violence we inherit

Paul Schrader, the man who’s been fighting the Hollywood system ever since he got his hands on a pen and paper and wrote Taxi Driver to chronicle his own experience as a depressed and lonely cab driver, is now entering a new phase in his life following the success of 2017’s First Reformed and the growing popularity of his latest project, The Card Counter. I want to take this opportunity to shine a light on what I consider Schrader’s best and perhaps most personal piece of work despite it being based on someone else’s material. His Oscar nominated film, Affliction (originally a novel by Russell Banks) is one of the most powerful portrayals of family-inflicted violence and trauma and another atypical addition to Schrader’s long catalogue of ‘God’s-lonely-man’ characters.

Paul Schrader (left) on set of Taxi Driver with Martin Scorsese and Robert de Niro.

The story of Wade Whitehouse and his inevitable downfall is, although perhaps not clear at first sight, another example of Schrader’s fascination with the theme of alienation. Despite the story being set in a small New Hampshire town and revolving around a tight knit community of church-going people, Affliction deals with the kind of alienation and feverish anxiety that the characters of Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) and John LeTour (Light Sleeper) experience in the metropolis that is New York City or Julian Kay (American Gigolo) in Los Angeles.
In this case, Wade Whitehouse (played by an exceptional Nick Nolte) is also a man haunted by a tragic past, a man who’s been trained to cover it up, smile and nod as the good people of Lawford file out of church service. He’s the local cop, the local crossing guard, the local handy-man, etc: in short, everybody knows who Wade Whitehouse is. His father, Glen Whitehouse (a fantastic late career turn from James Coburn who won an Academy Award for his performance), was and still is the town drunk and a mean son of a bitch. Wade, unlike his younger brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) who escaped the family’s grip and set up a new life in Boston, is chained to Lawford and to his own family blood.

Wade (Nick Nolte), Glen (James Coburn) and Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) Whitehouse.

Schrader’s trick in making this by-the-numbers set-up of a man slowly yet surely walking toward his own destruction works because he knows what he’s talking about. Having grown up in a small Calvinist community in Michigan with an up-bringing strictly focused on religious principles and family-oriented education, Schrader is able to transmit the claustrophobic feeling that our protagonist has been experiencing since the day he was born. Surrounded by town drunks and abusive fathers, Schrader conveys the seemingly simple surface-level manifestations of PTSD as Wade begins to crack with each passing minute.
In essence, Wade is a good man. That’s the whole tragedy of the film. He’s a good man who wants to make things work. He wants to make his daughter happy although he hasn’t the faintest idea about parenting. He wants to make the city a safe place and be loyal to the citizens of Lawford even though people around him treat him like dirt. Less than dirt. He wants to have a normal love life, but he keeps making the same mistakes over and over again. He wants to rid himself of his tyrant of a father, but something deep down tells him to be there for him, no matter what.

The natural state of being of Glen Whitehouse – the boozing, abusive father figure.

Whereas Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle was an unstable sociopath wanting to cleanse the earth of sinners, Wade is intent on beating himself up over someone else’s errors. Schrader, however, blurs the lines between the two characters by boxing in Wade Whitehouse into a society of close-minded people. Even in a small town like Lawford there is corruption, greed, murder and abuse. Townspeople are at each other’s throats, keeping receipts over who owes what to whom, and whose father did what and when. And Wade is no exception. He cannot seem to shake off the generational abuse and addiction that was strapped on his back when he was little kid. Early on in the film, Wade goes into a bar for a beer and has to listen to some young punk telling someone a story he overheard about Wade’s father drunkenly abusing his two sons. Wade’s suffering is common knowledge in Lawford.
And although Paul Schrader as a director has never been known for his eye for detail, Affliction is a film that feels lived-in. It feels like it was forged and chiseled in the snowbanks and pine barrens of New Hampshire. Even a secondary character like Margie Frogg (played by Sissy Spacek), Wade’s love interest and the only person whom he is not afraid of letting into his life, exists on her own, rather than serving the sole purpose of comforting Wade when he needs a good word or two. Her reality is separated from Wade’s, as the film follows everything through Wade’s hazy point of view merging past memories with present events, seeing things that might as well not be there for anybody else to see besides Wade.

Margie is the only good thing in Wade’s life.

Throughout the entire film, Wade is haunted by a painful toothache. Nolte’s performance is tapped into this constant, dull pain that does not let up, slowly building over the course of the film. His smile turns into a grimace. He walks hunched over, broken physically as well as spiritually. For a big guy (and Nick Nolte is one hell of a big guy), Wade sports a rather timid figure. The only thing that sets him apart in a crowd of people is the ticking time bomb inside of him. The slide into darkness is inevitable as he begins to take care of his dad following his mother’s sudden passing.
Given that the film opens with Wade’s brother narrating the following passage – “This is the story of my older brother’s strange criminal behaviour and disappearance. We who loved him no longer speak of Wade. It’s as if he never existed,” – we know that what we’re about to witness is something of incredibly mournful nature. It’s as if we’re plunged into a world that is no longer there. As if someone dropped us right into a faded postcard. In a way, we feel powerless. Wade’s destiny is sealed. We know how it ends, and yet Schrader wants us to consider how generational abuse and violence take their toll on somebody who could have had potential, could have been well liked and respected. Could have been. But wasn’t. And what’s worse is that Glen Whitehouse doesn’t see any of this. Wade’s booze-soaked father doesn’t have interest in Wade’s pain. The only interest he has is in using that pain to his own advantage and turning his son away from the few people that care about him. In a town like Lawford that’s the end for anybody.

Wade’s defeat is everybody’s defeat.


The Passenger: Jack Nicholson and Michelangelo Antonioni have an identity crisis

Throughout the 70s and 80s, several Hollywood stars collaborated on projects with some of cinema’s biggest auteurs. Most notably, the likes of Robert De Niro – who, fresh off an Oscar win for Raging Bull, decided to fly out to Rome and work with Sergio Leone (who at that point hadn’t directed a movie in 13 years!) on what would be his last picture, Once Upon a Time in America – Donald Sutherland with his unpredictable turn in Fellini’s Casanova, and Oscar-nominated Elliot Gould taking center-stage in Ingmar Bergman’s The Touch showed that Hollywood was just not enough for those that dared to be personal and creative in their work. Hollywood could only go as far in terms of artistic vision.
One of the most accomplished pairings proved to be The Passenger, where the paths of iconoclast Michelangelo Antonioni and Hollywood superstar Jack Nicholson met, creating a perfect tandem of beliefs and ideas about the central question in Antonioni’s body of work: what does it mean to have an identity?

Michelangelo Antonioni and Jack Nicholson on set of The Passenger.

As part of a three-movie deal with MGM Studios that saw Antonioni direct Blowup (1966) – a critical and commercial success – Zabriskie Point (1970) – a critical and commercial failure – The Passenger was the nail in the coffin for Antonioni’s career in America. The movie was shelved following its initial release and only re-released decades later when Jack Nicholson got his hands on the movie’s rights. The Hollywood actor considered The Passenger the highlight of his career; an intimate piece of work that had been taken away from audiences and kept in the dark like a precious painting in times of war.
If there is a parable for how Hollywood operates it can be found in The Passenger, as the studio was desperate to turn things around and use Jack Nicholson’s name and star power to save this picture from sinking. What the studio failed to predict was that Antonioni would always, no matter what, go out of his way and avoid the clichés and tropes of typical studio movies. Moreover, the studio failed to predict that Jack Nicholson, the man who had just finished making Chinatown and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (and a longtime studio-system actor) would buy into Antonioni’s cinematic ideology and embrace the Italian’s way of making pictures. For Nicholson, The Passenger was the opportunity to get away from the glamour, noise and billboards of Sunset Boulevard. It was his shot at making something pure, something that did not taste of salted popcorn and soft drinks.

The moment Nicholson’s reporter gives up. He wants out.

In The Passenger, the story revolves around a war correspondent who, for some reason, cannot seem to find the war he’s looking for in Northern Africa. He has a sudden change of heart, and upon discovering the dead body of a man he had just met in a remote hotel, he decides to assume the dead man’s identity. Like a passenger, he hops on a ride, not knowing where this ride will take him.
This seemingly simple premise could have turned the movie into a run-off-the-mill thriller as Nicholson’s new identity corresponds to that of an arms dealer pursued by several enemy factions. Instead, Antonioni opts for something much deeper and closer in style to his ”alienation trilogy” of the 60s (L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse).
For Antonioni, the crux of the story is Nicholson’s crisis of identity and the decision to leave behind an entire life and replace it with a new one. How can a man simply wipe the slate clean, forget the people he’s met, the work he’s done? How can he pretend to walk in another man’s shoes without realizing the complexities that went into that man’s life?
The process of assuming the dead man’s identity is very basic in practical terms: Nicholson simply takes the photo of his passport and attaches it onto the dead man’s document. It is as simple as that, thinks our protagonist. But the truth is that one cannot possibly wish for another man’s life without taking on the other man’s burdens. Antonioni sets out to explore this dilemma.

Nicholson assumes the identity of an arms dealer.

What we find out is that Nicholson’s character is a man who has probably seen too much, but it’s also possible that he’s never fully understood the things he’s seen. As a war correspondent he’s ventured to far-away places and put his life at risk in order to interview war chiefs, presidents, generals, rebels and soldiers. The interviews he’s carried out were all meant to bring to light a community’s struggle and fight for ideals. But we soon find out that the reporter had by this point learned to distance himself too convincingly from the events he witnessed. He was a passenger there, too. He just didn’t know it. This is most evident in a scene where a man who Nicholson is interviewing, turns the camera around to face him and asks to repeat the same questions but with the camera rolling in Nicholson’s direction. Only by not hiding behind the camera will he be able to fully absorb the realities of the world he’s so busy documenting.
In a way, this scene effectively predicts today’s obsession of documenting everything around us without ever taking the time to live through these moments; these moments that we’re so determined to capture, record and store.
The movie continues to highlight Nicholson’s constant illusion of being someone else. At the start it’s an adventure as he meets the people the dead man was supposed to meet, goes to places the dead man was supposed to go to, and is free of whatever kept driving him into the ground in his previous life.
Soon he realizes that life at its core holds something we cannot get rid of: things like habits, codes of conduct, responsibility are omnipresent and will eventually find a way into anybody’s life.
At one point he says, “I’ve run out of everything; my wife — the house — an adopted child — a successful job — everything except a few bad habits I could not get rid of.”

Maria Schneider’s character becomes his companion for the journey.

The inevitable realization that we’re all somehow connected by the same problems, the same desires and obsessions in Antonioni’s world is a terrifying realization of doom. After all, Nicholson’s character wanted to escape. And yet, there is no escape for him. He cannot live a life without being part of the world.
The woman he meets in Barcelona, played by a wonderfully soulful Maria Schneider, tries to comfort him and play along like a partner in crime. Their conversations, however, constantly revolve around the inevitability of life. She is also, in a way, trying to escape, but her escape seems to be of temporary nature. She is young, bright and has the whole future ahead of her.
The two travel together across deserted parts of Spanish Almeria. At a certain point in their journey, she asks him a simple question: ”What are you running away from?” to which he replies, “Turn the other way so that your back faces the front seat.” As she does so in his open convertible, we are presented with her view of an endless row of trees and the road they’re leaving behind. It is at this point that we realize, there is no salvation for Nicholson’s character. Just the illusion of an escape.

She is also running away from something. Anything.

After making the film, Nicholson recalled that Antonioni saw his actors as nothing more than ”moving space.” This is most evident in Nicholson’s haunting performance. In The Passenger he’s at his most vulnerable as he plays a man who wants to blend in at all costs; a man who wants to be accepted and left alone. In other words, we watch one of the most bombastic, A-list dramatic actors turn in a performance that is both restrained and powerfully evocative.
Paired with Antonioni’s eye for architecture and landscapes, Jack’s performance fills the frame not with his usual, larger-than-life personality, but with a ghost-like desire. A desire to start from scratch. To be part of something.
The end result is essentially a quiet meditation on what it means to live a life. And despite featuring in large part themes of alienation and loneliness, I see The Passenger as a comforting film, where Nicholson’s character and Maria Schneider’s try to make sense of the world by supporting each other. It may be a lost fight, but the journey is ultimately fulfilling.
What the reporter forgets, is that a passenger must eventually know when to get off.

He wants to be accepted and left alone.


You Were Never Really Here: The Cinema of Lynne Ramsay

If there is one director who knows how to tell difficult and heartbreaking stories by simply hinting at the dramatic beats through the use of moving images, it’s Lynne Ramsay. The Scottish filmmaker spent a good portion of the 21st century telling stories of human struggle and existential angst while simultaneously filling the current cinematic landscape with beautifully memorable moments. Most known for her 2011 festival hit, We Need to Talk About Kevin, which dealt with the life of a mother whose son committed a high school massacre, Ramsay is one of the rare examples of an artist whose mantra follows closely the show, don’t tell technique. In an age where most movies are too afraid of letting the viewers figure things out by themselves, where each action or backstory is hammered home until we know each thread of the story by heart, it is refreshing to see a filmmaker who is able to work for major production companies like Amazon Studios while still maintaining a personal, uncompromising artistic vision.

Joaquin Phoenix as the brooding Joe in ‘You Were Never Really Here.’

Ramsay’s 2017 film, You Were Never Really Here perfectly encapsulates the filmmaker’s eye for detail and the tendency to subvert a viewer’s expectations, often changing the way we respond to movies that deal with the kind of themes that You Were Never Really Here deals with. On the surface, it is a straightforward story of a war veteran who, upon his return home, decides to work as a contract killer who saves underage girls from the hands of rich pedophiles. The protagonist, Joe, suffers from PTSD related to not only his experience in the military but also his childhood in an abusive household.
What Ramsay does in first order with this kind of premise is simple: she sees through it and sees how ridiculous and predictable it can turn out to be if handled the wrong way. The wrong way being a conventional action thriller that uses the protagonist’s past suffering as a valid excuse for his brutal means of expression (his preferred weapon of choice is a ball-peen hammer).
In Ramsay’s hands, You Were Never Really Here becomes a quiet meditation on trauma, survivor’s guilt and alienation in a misogynistic society.

Joe is consumed by demons from the past.

Joe, played by a never-better Joaquin Phoenix, is a character of many shades. On paper, he’s the classic anti-hero for whom we root for because he’s strong, skilled and in the end, kills with a clear purpose in mind. On screen, Joe is a shell of his former self. He’s what’s left of a once innocent teenager who may have fled home to escape its violence and found himself in even greater danger in some foreign land. That’s where his spirit was ultimately defeated. And although he has a brutal way of carrying himself in broad daylight, he still manifests the traits of a much younger, much different person. Such detailed character aspects are always present in Ramsay’s films as she spends a considerable amount of time before shooting anything, closely working with the actors to develop their backstories, their tics, their kinks and weaknesses in order for them to merge their own personalities with the character they’re playing.
For Joaquin Phoenix this was the perfect opportunity to merge his own demons from the past to Joe’s. Joe, unlike Keanu Reeve’s John Wick, doesn’t fit the bill as the handsome yet scarred hunk with a passion and skill for killing other human beings. He’s a man whose world has been turned upside down from the very beginning and now he’s tired of trying to make sense of it. He’s found his place in society and found a role that fits his abilities. Yet, deep down he’s preserved some of that innocence he once had within him. For one, he still remembers his mother’s lullabies from when he was a child and whenever he’s distressed, consumed by his worst fears and memories, he sings the alphabet song.

Details make a whole lot of difference in Lynne Ramsay’s movies.

As mentioned before, an essential aspect of Ramsay’s cinema is her eye for detail. Details surround her characters constantly (think of the blood-red cans of tomatoes behind Tilda Swinton’s character in We Need to Talk About Kevin when it dawns on her what her own son has done) and are often used to convey the heightened emotional reality these characters are living in.
In You Were Never Really Here, details provide depth to Joe’s traumatizing past without every confronting it head-on. Ramsay uses the camera to pick upon Joe’s inner outbursts of violence by focusing on a candy he slowly squashes with his fingers or the scars covering his body hinting at physical suffering from the past or blood smears on a tissue which he used to clean the hammer he used to fracture someone’s skull. These details are then expanded within Ramsay’s world. For example, as Joe waits for the subway train to arrive, the camera captures a woman standing next to him, her cheek visibly bruised beneath her left eye. It is a moment that is there only to hint at something crucial to the story, without directly addressing it. Joe doesn’t walk up to her, asking if she’s alright. There is no need for us to explore that woman’s story. Ramsay simply encourages us to consider Joe’s surroundings and enrich our viewing experience.

It is up to us to fill in the blanks.

Moreover, violence in Ramsay’s films is rarely directly addressed. Being drawn to other things and wanting to escape the oldest cinematic tropes in the book, Ramsay captures violence mostly by looking at the aftermath of it. Not only the physical aftermath, including gun-shot wounds, broken necks and fractured bones, but also the emotional one; characters left breathing heavily as the adrenaline begins to leave their body, characters breaking down into tears or on the contrary, characters not fully realizing the gravity of the things they’ve just witnessed.
In You Were Never Really Here, the (un)emotional counter-part to Joe is the young girl he sets out to rescue, Nina. Nina sees violence but doesn’t respond to it until the very end. While Joe is consumed with hurt and anguish to the point where he must let it out and either inflict the same kind of pain on others or further inflict on himself, Nina simply watches on as events unravel before her eyes. This doesn’t make her another tired cliché of the little girl who ends up being the sidekick to the movie’s protagonist. Ramsay gives Nina enough emotional depth by hinting at the things this girl may have survived whether it is episodes of sexual abuse or her family’s emotional absence when growing up.

Nina.

In the rare instances when Ramsay doesn’t have a choice and must direct a violent sequence, she re-invents the way we respond to violence on screen. In You Were Never Really Here, when Joe enters a luxurious brothel to find and rescue Nina, Ramsay uses surveillance camera footage to capture the bloody violence. This way we can’t really get the sense of action. We see fuzzy, blurry white and gray images of men struggling in empty hallways, with Joe making his way up to the third floor of the establishment. Ramsay said while presenting the film, “I don’t like the violence. It’s really about the violence in his [Joe’s] head, a psychological violence. Which is most apparent when our expectations of what violence on screen typically looks like are under-cut by Ramsay’s suffocated, distant depictions of people inflicting physical pain on each other. By making such a bold, visual decision, Ramsay aims to put us in a different frame of mind while interpreting the images we’re seeing.

The surveillance camera footage never allows us to get a proper sense of violence.

Rarely do we see such commitment and perseverance in communicating one’s vision to the world as we see with each movie directed by Lynne Ramsay. The Glasgow native often tells stories that most directors would steer clear from. The settings and the characters she chooses to work with are always shaped according to her worldview but with enough pieces missing for us to fill in the blanks ourselves. There are no wrong answers in Ramsay’s cinema. There are only stories and endless possibilities for new ones. Her keen eye for detail is infectious as we grow more and more compelled in deciphering the meaning of a certain moment or object because we’re convinced (by Ramsay herself) that there may be some unique truth even in the most mundane or banal object within the frame. When I’m watching a film by Lynne Ramsay, I feel like I’m rediscovering all over again how to watch movies. Because at the end of the day, movies are about finding personal truths that resonate for each one of us differently. In Ramsay’s cinema, those truths are everywhere.

A Most Wanted Man: Capturing the Hopelessness of Espionage

When we lost Philip Seymour Hoffman, we lost a man who knew how to be human in front of a camera. A man who knew exactly how to give a complete and detailed account of the human condition. His characters never dared to fall into the trap of clichés, never felt diminished by a bad script or a mediocre finished product. Hoffman always rose to the occasion and treated each film as if it was his last shot at redemption. This is perhaps most evident in his penultimate screen appearance in Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man, a film adaptation of John le Carré’s novel about espionage in the 21st century. The film is one of the most pessimistic works to come out in recent years and captures brilliantly what I would call the hopelessness of espionage, a running theme in le Carré’s body of work. The character played by Seymour Hoffman, Günther Bachmann, a spy for the German government, is a tragic reminder of what men become when they’re at sea for too long.

Günther Bachmann and his team of German spies.

The story is simple and like with most le Carré stories it serves the plot only to emphasize the wrong-doings of the system this story is set in. For le Carré there is no such thing as countries. There’s only systems, and more often than not, they’re broken down, corrupt. And the people living in these systems aren’t as much as living as they’re functioning within the boundaries set by these systems. For le Carré, our gravest tendency is we like to get complacent. Complacency, in turn, allows these systems to thrive and grow in power. A Most Wanted Man works under that assumption. It examines the psyche of a man who is convinced he is doing something good, something right. However, he is doing these things for the benefit of a system.
The story begins with a political refugee from Chechenia named Issa Karpov illegally entering the city of Hamburg, Germany, Europe’s biggest harbor and the epicenter of terrorist cells following 9/11. Günther Bachmann’s job following the attacks is to identify and recruit as informants individuals with potential ties to Islamic terrorist organizations. Thus, the game of cat and mouse begins, as Bachmann is set on using Karpov to connect him to Chechen terrorists in order to prevent another 9/11 (the plans for those attacks were conceived in Hamburg without any sort of discovery or interference on the part of intelligence services). As a result, the whole film is fueled by this sense of paranoia, this endless need to uncover a conspiracy, to unmask the boogey-man and come out triumphantly holding the enemy’s severed head.

Bachmann is a master manipulator.

The cold, steely look given by the director, Corbijn (who started out as a photographer), and cinematographer Delhomme helps capture not only Hamburg’s modern architecture but also the tone of Bachmann’s calculated profession. It is a job that entails a cold and indifferent attitude, requiring of you to consider people as nothing but leverage, pawns to be moved around a chess board. Bachmann’s whole shtick is to use people as bait for more dangerous fish. The people he uses often do not realize the situation they’re truly in as Bachmann consoles them, hugs them, even kisses them. He gives them a reason to believe in what they do, he convinces them of things that simply do not exist. Promises them such foolish things as freedom, love, independence. Because the job demands it, because the job is everything. Is it not?
Bachmann is a master manipulator, however this ‘skill’ comes at a price, namely he walks through life without savoring it. The metallic look of the film suggests just that: here we have a man who in principle works for our safety, but this means he cannot look at something and not consider it a possible danger to society. To Bachmann, bars are places where people conspire, a man hugging a woman certainly hints at an exchange of precious information, a man walking his dog down the street is nothing but an actor playing his part, every phone call is dialed with the intent of blowing up a bomb somewhere. This one-dimensional, grim outlook on life makes of Seymour Hoffman’s character a fascinating protagonist as we ultimately don’t know what he truly believes in. In a scene where Bachmann presents his mission to his superiors and members of German security and American diplomats, the American (played by Robin Wright) asks him: “What’s the objective?”, to which Bachmann answers “To make the world a safer place.” He follows this up by giving it a shrug, shaking his head as if to say, Yeah, I know. How crazy is that?

As we learn, espionage for the most part takes place in conference rooms.

Indeed, the film works as an adaptation because at the end of the day it captures the soul and attitude of le Carré’s writing. The writing of a man disillusioned with the world he’s living in, with the job he once carried out as a young man with ambitions to do something great, something truly right. After all, le Carré’s best adaptations were in fact films that knew how to capture the author’s sense of weariness: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) starring Richard Burton as boozy secret agent Alec Leamas who can’t make any sense of what’s right and wrong in the early stages of the Cold War; The Constant Gardener (2005) with the story of a small-time British diplomat (Ralph Fiennes) coming to terms with his country’s role in Africa’s devastation; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) with its universe of endless back-stabbings between people who should be working for the same cause. What makes these film adaptations work is precisely the deep understanding of le Carré’s tired, disillusioned voice.
A Most Wanted Man wrestles back and forth between Bachmann’s professional devotion, his sense of duty, and his complete misunderstanding of basic human emotions. His spy craft turns everything into an image or a soundbite to be studied, played around, manipulated. Everything can be recorded, cut, released. As the movie progresses and one of the central characters, a refugee lawyer (Rachel McAdams) tries to help out Issa Karpov providing him with food and shelter, Bachmann sees this not as an act of humanity but as a way-in for him to intervene and use the lawyer to his advantage. The chase that compels him, that makes him get up in the middle of the night and roam the streets of Hamburg looking for informants is the only thing that prevents him from becoming insane. Bachmann is, in other words, a man destined to live out the rest of his days in a hamster wheel. This constant motion is the only thing keeping him alive.

Those who want to do good, get punished.

Over the years, I’ve grown to appreciate A Most Wanted Man. It is by no means an easy watch as it asks the viewer to leave any pre-conceived notions out by the door. Just like the characters in it, the movie operates under guidelines established by the system in charge. No explanations are given. Characters, even those like Bachmann who think they have a say in the matter, must know when to walk away when the situation demands it. For Bachmann, walking away equals defeat. Walking away is the betrayal of his own being. But it is also the name of the game. All of le Carré’s characters must know when to walk away if they want to survive. The question is, survive and do what? Survive for what? For a system? For a world where giving a man food and shelter is seen as an act of conspiracy?
Philip Seymour Hoffman may have walked away from this world, but his ability to be deeply human whenever the director said Action! will, unlike Bachmann’s profession, echo in eternity.

Hoffman’s penultimate screen appearance is one for the ages.

High Noon: Why We Need Unconventional Heroes

There are movies that make history, and then there are movies that are history. Over the last century, few movies have reflected the era they were made in as vividly as Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon did back in 1952. Upon its initial release, the seemingly simple story of a small town sheriff having to confront of a pack of bandits all on his own resonated across the US like no other film did in those years. In a decade marked by fear mongering, oppression and palpable tension, High Noon had the guts to speak out against a powerful system that worked toward the destruction of people’s livelihoods and beliefs. Today, I want to tackle the film’s artistic and cultural merit, as well as explore our undying need for heroes.

The film opens with a ballad written by composer Dimitri Tiomkin and sang by country singer Tex Ritter. The lyrics to this monumental opening say a lot about the overarching themes of the movie;

I do not know what fate awaits me
I only know I must be brave,

And I must face a man who hates me
Or lie a coward, a craven coward
Or lie a coward in my grave

Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) and his wife, Amy (Grace Kelly), on their way to a happier lifestyle.

The song, written and performed from the perspective of our protagonist, Marshall Will Kane, helps establish what’s at stake. Namely, a man’s honor and sense of duty. Like a soldier on his way to battle, Will Kane (played by a never-better Gary Cooper) is aware that whatever comes his way, he must face it. There is just no other way. The evil looming over the small town of Hadleyville in the form of a vengeful murderous ex-convict by the name of Frank Miller is no exception. It must be dealt with at all costs, whatever the consequences may be. However, that’s not entirely how it works. How life works, I mean.
After we learn of Frank Miller’s return to Hadleyville (released free despite having killed an innocent man), we are introduced to Kane himself. The Marshall is getting married. He is finally, for once in his life, doing what feels right. His plan is to set the tin star aside and quit town. Become just another regular Joe. Become simply Will Kane, without the expectations, regulations and local politics hanging over his head. And the town of Hadleyville is ready to set him free. His work contributed to a safer, friendlier environment. Hadleyville, we learn from Kane’s circle of friends, used to be wild and dangerous. He re-established order, and made sure that those that broke the law would not go unpunished. Inevitably, it’s time for them to part ways.

Frank Miller’s gang waiting for the train to arrive.

However, once Kane learns of Frank Miller’s return, something snaps. Something deep down tells him, despite his friends claiming otherwise, that he must stay. He must stay and fulfill his final call of duty. And it is here that one of the greatest allegories of all time starts to unfold.
The supposedly tight-knit community rapidly crumbles before our eyes. Friends turn into conspirators and Kane, desperate for help, realizes that everything he’s built and gathered over the years has amounted to nothing. All he’s got is the tin star strapped to his breast pocket. At the end of the day, that’s what separates him from the likes of Frank Miller. Miller, on the other hand, is still perceived as the man who made Hadleyville a place worth being in. A murderer? Yes. A violent and unpredictable man? Sure. But he made things happen one way or the other. He made small town life exciting. He put Hadleyville on the map, and had it not been for the Marshall, the town would probably still be there.
Before leaving, the town’s judge warns Kane of what will eventually turn out to be the crux of the story. Namely, that people are capable of welcoming with open arms even the worst oppressor of all. And after welcoming him, they are ready to support him, and watch as the oppressor continues to exercise his cruel rule. Kane at this point is still not buying it. His faith in friendship and belief in values like loyalty and duty make it impossible for him to think otherwise. In this moment of need, he is sure that the town will stand with him. He is confident that the moment the clock strikes noon, he will not be alone in his plight.

Will Kane soon learns of townspeople willing to bet on his life.

Following the film’s release, the director, Fred Zinnemann, emphasized that High Noon is not a Western. He explained that the only thing in common it has with a Western is that it takes place in the days of sheriffs and outlaws. Otherwise, the story itself was of contemporary nature, and the study of its principal themes was meant to reflect what was going within Hollywood at the time. In other words, the film reflected a community of artists rocked by the fanaticism of McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. A community of people willing to turn on each other and ruin entire livelihoods in the name of some madman’s political ideals. A community that turned its back on those unfortunate enough to be marked and labelled as enemies of the state. This was a time when actors, directors, playwrights and musicians were sent into exile because they were deemed to be traitors. Threats to society. Those that refused to comply were, similarly to Marshall Kane, turned into sacrificial lambs.
High Noon presents us with a wide range of supporting characters. There’s Deputy Harvey Pell, the Marshall’s right-hand man, whose own aspirations for the Marshall’s star prevent him from lending Kane a hand in the moment of need. There is the town’s mayor who stages a meeting at the local church in order to convince the Marshall that he is better off leaving. Avoiding unnecessary bloodshed will benefit both him and the community, and after all, Frank Miller’s not so bad.
Finally, there are the two women – Kane’s former lover, Helen Ramirez, and his wife, Amy. Both struggle to make sense of Kane’s determination to confront Miller and his gang. But Helen, through her own experience as a businesswoman, has learned of the same attitude the judge hinted at in the beginning of the film. She knows that if the townspeople are willing to turn their back on the Marshall, they will not hesitate to turn their back on others, too. All of a sudden, Hadleyville is overwhelmed by a sense of dread. The only thing one should do is get busy dying or get busy riding off.

Amy cannot comprehend Will’s stubbornness to stay behind and fight.

Before the movie’s climax, Kane pays a visit to his old friend and former Marshall, Martin Howe. Martin is old, his face cracked with age and years of hard work and disappointments. He can’t be bothered to get up from his chair and he’s certainly not picking up a gun and getting into a gunfight. Over the course of his life, he’s come to terms with the idea that there is no such thing as going out in the blaze of glory. As Kane desperately does his best to convince him otherwise, Martin tells him, “If you’re honest, you’re poor your whole life, and in the end you wind up dyin’ all alone on some dirty street. For what? For nothin’. For a tin star.
The director stages this scene by placing the camera behind Kane and locking it on Howe. As Howe makes his grave confession, Zinnemann cuts to Gary Cooper’s face: a face of sudden disappointment, a face that has just learned a brutally honest lesson. This sacrifice that he is about to make, this burden that he is about to take upon himself, what good will come of it if it means him getting killed?

Former Marshall Martin Howe can only sit and pray for Kane’s sake.

And thus, we arrive at the central point of the film. Our need for heroes. At the time, Hollywood glorified and rewarded those that collaborated with McCarthy’s Committee by pointing out potential threats to the American way of life. In those years, as Orson Welles put it, it was fashionable to “celebrate the informer” with movies like On the Waterfront becoming classics of 50s cinema. All of a sudden, heroes were deemed to be the ones who took the easy way out. Those who accepted the status quo and acted accordingly. Those who conformed with the madness of it all.
Zinnemann’s High Noon defied that. The reality is that the situation called for a different kind of hero. A hero that refused to be boxed into the industry’s standards. And with major stars like John Wayne and James Stewart actively opposing the release of the film, High Noon accomplished what it set out to do in the first place. It shone a light on the immoral complicity of the ‘townspeople’ of Hollywood by introducing a hero that went against the (then) contemporary idea of what a hero should be.
As the clock struck noon, and as the train whistle blew and echoed across town, as the good citizens of Hadleyville looked up in worry or excitement, the truth came to light. The truth was that Marshall Will Kane was on his own, committed to face the impending doom.

One of the greatest crane shots of all time emphasizes the demoralizing reality of Kane’s sacrifice.

Street of Shame: Japan’s Answer to Italian Neorealism

When Roberto Rossellini decided to direct a film about children and the Italian resistance movement in war-torn, Nazi-occupied Rome in 1945, nobody could have predicted the lasting impact on cinema and legacy of Rome Open City (1945). What Italian neorealism did was give a voice to those that did not have it. Its entire philosophy revolved around using non-professional actors in real-life locations to present the stories of men, women and children of working class background, their preoccupations, fears and desires. The atrocities of war, and the long-lasting misery that came with it provided European cinema with a deeper, more nuanced insight into the lives of people who up until then had been marginalized and prevented from appearing on the silver screen. As Italian neorealism blossomed with the likes of De Sica (Bicycle Thieves), Visconti (La Terra Trema) and Fellini (La Strada), Japan witnessed the rise of a different kind of cinema. Established directors like Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, who had been forced to make propaganda films to support the empire’s war effort were finally allowed to explore and develop their own ideas: Kurosawa was initially drawn to stories of organized crime and violence (Drunken Angel and Stray Dog), while Ozu grew to become an expert of family dynamics (Late Spring and Tokyo Story). However, the director I want to talk about today, Kenji Mizoguchi, went down a different path, at least until the final year of his life. Mizoguchi’s most known works include Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff, stories of oppressed peasants set in feudal Japan and known for their theatricality, however his swan song, namely Street of Shame released the same year of Mizoguchi’s premature death, is the one that I consider to be, in a catalog of classics, his finest achievement. And here’s why.

Kenji Mizoguchi on the set of Street of Shame.

Street of Shame is a film about prostitutes in the Red Light District of Tokyo as the country is trying to pass an anti-prostitution bill. Dreamland, the brothel which houses the women, is a place cut off from the rest of the world, a place that, if entered, offers different sets of rules that do not necessarily apply to the external world. For one, family members are not allowed inside, and clients who visit regularly are nothing but strangers when stumbled into outside the brothel’s doors. Dreamland is a place of endless debt: the women that work there are all in debt to each other and ultimately, to their pimp and manager. Their money is subject to increasing interest rates and is, in a way, what prevents them from leaving this place. The women working at Dreamland are, like in all of Mizoguchi films, real, fleshed-out characters: aging mothers still supporting their grown-up children, devoted wives working tirelessly to pay rent for their unemployed husbands, teenagers running away from home, hoping to make a name for themselves. Their evident differences in age, background and beauty are often subject to fights, acts of betrayal and feelings of hopelessness and despair in the face of a society that treats them purely based on one thing – their bodies. This society, having been driven to the ground by the devastating effects of war, now desperately trying to come back from the dead, has created and consistently reinforced a culture of misogyny, where it is okay for these women to openly admit to themselves ”I’m nothing but an object for sale.”

Everything on display is for sale.

What becomes apparent when watching Street of Shame for the first time is how modern it feels. It never attempts to be anything other a study of oppressed women. Whereas Kurosawa and Ozu were busy making movies steeped in genre (Kurosawa with film noir, and Ozu with classical melodrama), Mizoguchi directed Street of Shame similarly to Rossellini with Rome Open City; the line separating these two films and the reality they present is razor thin. Mizoguchi’s Japan is busy rebuilding itself and its reputation. And reputation goes a long way. Reputation is what leads the son of one of the prostitutes to push her away after years of sacrifice and care. Reputation is also what drives the husband of one prostitute to try and hang himself. The oppression and abuse these women have endured over the years is constantly being swept under the rug in the name of a man’s reputation. Mizoguchi’s watchful eye sees this cruel irony, and lets it patiently unravel. He makes the male characters in Street of Shame stand in for Japan’s patriarchal society: the suffering these women undergo for them is taken for granted, and to them it is never a matter of lack of choice. In their minds, this is the profession these women wanted all along. Thankfully, Mizoguchi unmasks the hidden mechanisms that enable this cruel, endless cycle of oppression. When the father of one of the younger prostitutes, Mickey, announces he’s there to disown her after her shameful conduct, it is revealed that he is one of the brothel’s most frequent customers, known for his preference of younger flesh.

Victims of a power-hungry system.

The cruel twists and revelations in the film are often served as vignettes. There is no real plot to be found, only a sad string of sequences that put the life of each woman on display. One of the more devastating instances occurs when Yasumi, one of the older prostitutes, tries to escape Dreamland in search of happiness in the form of marriage. Gathered outside, some of her friends and colleagues wave at her speeding car with evident envy. Yet, soon enough, Yasumi returns with tears in her eyes. Her marriage was as much of a trap as prostitution, because a woman is not supposed to have dreams and passions; a woman like Yasumi is to serve. At least at Dreamland she gets to charge for the service she provides. It is this realization, of a sealed destiny within the confines of the brothel, that makes Mizoguchi’s film feel timeless. This cast of characters, so vibrantly unique in their own right, are shoved into a corner and told outright: You don’t matter. Whatever change the country is undergoing, they are not part of it.

Mizoguchi’s scarce use of long shots is quite haunting.

The reason movies like Street of Shame are so important is that their vision goes beyond the screen. In fact, Mizoguchi’s final film acted as a further motivator to pass Japan’s anti-prostitution bill in 1957, the year following the film’s release. The Japanese government considered Street of Shame a catalyst in the matter, and as a consequence introduced laws meant to protect sex workers from trafficking, punish third parties involved in the trade and rehabilitate women who chose to evade prostitution by setting up guidance homes in all regions of the country. In such instances, the power of cinema is undeniable, and it seems only fitting for a director of Mizoguchi’s skill and influence to leave this world by inspiring an entire society to strive toward progress. Neorealism, after all, was meant to do just that. Directors like Rossellini and De Sica wanted to inspire audiences to consider the movies they were watching as stark observations of everyday life. All of a sudden, the people they chose to ignore on the street were the same people they paid to watch on the screen.

”You’re bound to lose your virginity, you might as well charge them for it.”

Sound of Metal: Readjusting to Life

The name of the game for the past year or so has been Adapt. As a society we’ve struggled with and still to this day we continue to learn the correct way of functioning amidst a global pandemic. Our habits have undergone drastic changes due to measures implemented to stop the spread of the virus. School is attended online, gyms are closed, restaurants are open only for take-out delivery, and so on. Today, we consider ourselves lucky if we’ve managed to go out for a walk without stumbling into anyone. We actually look forward to walking our dog, or leaving the house for a doctor’s appointment. In a way, we have collectively responded and readjusted to a new reality, where social distancing, masks and hand sanitizers have become our best friends. Why do I mention this?
Because today I want to talk about one of my favorite movies from last year; a movie that is, in fact, about responding to an emergency and the difficulty in readjusting yourself to a new way of life. That movie is Sound of Metal by Darius Marder.

Ruben’s life takes a dramatic turn when he loses his hearing.

The tragic story of a heavy-metal drummer (Riz Ahmed) losing his hearing is one of extreme subtlety and unflinching character considering how high the stakes are for our protagonist. Ruben, played by Ahmed in a virtuoso performance, is in many ways similar to a lot of us. He’s proud, determined and sometimes plain dumb. When the sound in his ears pops for the first time, replaced by a consistent dull buzz, he prefers to lie to himself than face the consequences. The idea that this buzz will eventually fade away is one that he holds onto in the movie’s opening minutes. After all, life’s been good to him: despite his heroin addiction that he’s managed to overcome along with his girlfriend, Lou, he’s got it made: he gets to have his own band, play the drums and tour the country on his own terms, in his own RV. He gets to wake up early every morning, prepare a healthy breakfast, listen to 50s music, and dance with the love of his life. Nobody and nothing, it seems, can take this away from him.
Marder, the film’s director, skillfully captures the details of this perfect life by highlighting the omni-present sounds in Ruben’s everyday routine: the rhythmic grinding of the smoothie mixer, the crackling of eggs in a frying pan, the soothing and soft background noise produced by Ruben’s record player. By emphasizing the richness of such tiny details, Marder offers us a glimpse into our protagonist’s post-rehab world. These tiny details, whether we like it or not, are what make Ruben’s life so special, so damn precious.

At the dinner table, Ruben is confronted with a new reality of people communicating in ASL.

And yet, at the same time, these details are also the most tragic aspect of the overwhelming loss that Ruben experiences once he full realizes the gravity of the situation. Denial is no longer an option. The world around him has become one continuous, indistinct buzz.
Sound of Metal, however, refuses to capitalize on and settle for misery. Instead of letting Ruben free-fall back into drug addiction and deep depression, something that most movies about human tragedy love to do, it pushes him down a path that is meant to lead him back to life. With the introduction of Joe, the head of a Deaf community in Missouri, the film once again establishes the running theme of life instead of misery. Joe (played by a heartbreaking Paul Raci), a recovering Deaf Vietnam vet and eventually Ruben’s counselor, stands for life. His fragile, worn out features and tired eyes emanate a sense of calm in the face of tragedy. Pointing to his forehead he says, ”We’re looking for a solution to this…”, and with both fingers signaling his ears, he adds, ”…not this.”
The community to which Ruben is invited to is a community of people affected by the same pain who, through collective effort, have learned to re-create a new reality for themselves.

Joe – Ruben’s counselor in the Deaf community.

Ruben, like a lot of us, is determined to change everything around him and persevere. The loss of hearing, he quickly concludes, cannot stop him, his dreams, his passions, his life with Lou. Those things must go on. The show won’t stop. The thought of implants crosses his mind.
Again, like a lot of us, he wants the quick fix. Like an addict, he impatiently awaits for the moment of relief. This obstacle that prevents him from getting back to his old reality is, at first glance, a simple technicality that can be bypassed with the help of something as routinely as surgery.
Joe notices Ruben’s restlessness, and with the stern yet worried look of a loving father, he gives him a task to complete each morning: he is to get up early, walk upstairs to the house’s loft, and simply… sit. Sit still and absorb the silence that persistently envelops him and his mind. And whatever prevents him from sitting still, he is to write down in a notepad.
At first, this may seem to Ruben, and us – the viewers – a little preposterous. But soon, this seemingly preposterous activity reveals what Sound of Metal is all about: finding that moment of utter stillness, accepting silence, is the hardest thing one can do. It is also the most honest one, because accepting silence, like Joe did years and years ago, having returned from the war and replaced loved ones with alcohol, is sometimes the only cure to the lies we tell ourselves in order to survive.

In the presence of children, everything is possible.

What Sound of Metal captures brilliantly is our tendency to twist and turn, shove and push when things go sour; our innate tendency in not realizing that the answer is sometimes right in front of us for the taking. Marder, the director, places us alongside Ruben deep into the heart of a tight-knit community bound by what we might consider a handicap, but what they consider a second chance at life. The world this community operates in features concerts, school trips, dinner parties and work opportunities, just like the world outside of it. And I think it’s safe to say that most of the time we are just like Ruben: we think that change takes place around us, when in fact, what he soon learns from Joe, the most beautiful thing in the world is to sit still in silence, because then you’ll know: you’ve done everything you could. You’ve learned your lesson. You’re alive.

Life doesn’t sound the same anymore.

I will not go into more details, as I do not wish to spoil such a magnificently crafted drama. I do, however, want to emphasize the level of maturity the film displays when dealing with such vast themes as regret, addiction and moving on. A lot of things go unsaid, but Marder knows when to linger with the camera a bit longer than usual in order to capture the dramatic beats of the story. Riz Ahmed’s eyes, so big and bright, communicate Ruben’s sense of being lost at sea, while Paul Raci’s emanate a fragile sense of calm and understanding.
And then there is Lou (the wonderful Olivia Cooke), Ruben’s band leader, girlfriend and life-safer. As Ruben puts it, she is his ”fucking heart.” Lou is a character so universal yet so intimate and well-crafted that there is no way this movie exists without her. She represents everything that was good and felt right in Ruben’s life – she is the one who stood by him in moments of crisis and the one who spurs him to commit to Joe’s community. She is the beginning and end to Ruben’s story. She is also, ultimately, a tragic reminder that you cannot, no matter how hard you try, step into the same water twice.

You’re my fucking heart, Lou.

The Godfather: An Essential Christmas Movie

With Christmas coming up, we all tend to go back to the movies that we love and find comfort in. Whether it is Home Alone, It’s a Wonderful Life, Love Actually or When Harry Met Sally, one thing is certain: the holiday season is a time when we especially want to feel comfortable with the world around us. Each one of us has their own safety blanket. Each one of us has, some way or another, their own favorite teddy bear.
Before sitting down to write this entry, I kept thinking to myself, what is the one movie that I consider an essential Christmas movie? What is the one movie that makes me feel warm inside? And although, sure, it sounds like a pretty odd choice, all things considered, my answer is: Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather.

The greatness of Coppola’s groundbreaking epic released in 1972, that went on to become one of the biggest and most successful sagas in cinema history, has been known for quite some time now. It’s regarded as one of of the main cornerstones of modern cinema, with critics still raving about it and directors still trying to imitate it almost 50 years after its release. Its head-on depiction of violence, its fierce attitude and the rule-breaking process behind it is what, among many other things, has turned Puzo’s book into a generational cinematic feast.
Thus, in order to mix things up and keep the holiday spirit alive and well, today I want to look at how most of the qualities we associate with Christmas movies manifest themselves in The Godfather.

The magical opening to The Godfather – the wedding ceremony.

It all comes down to family. At the end of the day, Christmas movies are more often than not about avoiding loneliness, and finding meaning and solace in being around other people. There is often pressure involved, as characters struggle to reunite with their friends and relatives, sometimes even refusing to sit at the same table, or in the case of Home Alone, initially wanting nothing but a good time away from a bunch of stressed out, screaming, preoccupied adults and teenagers.
In The Godfather, like in any other Coppola movie, the dominating theme is that of family. Family that can assume both the form of a vicious octopus whose tentacles find their away around your throat and ultimately choke you to death, and that of a protective, loving unit that shields its members from the dangers of the outside world. Unlike its far more cynical sequels, The Godfather treats family like a fleeting dream rather than a twisted nightmare.
Similarly to It’s a Wonderful Life, where the protagonist fully realizes the importance of his own existence and his family’s only when confronted by the prospect of death, Coppola’s first gangster film works toward the realization that the only thing that can alleviate our passing is family. When Tom Hagen, out busy Christmas-shopping in the city, is shoved into a car and held at gun-point by Sollozzo and his men, it is the comforting thought of Hagen’s family eventually protecting him from his kidnappers, that makes him appreciate the idea of not ending up alone on a snowy, Christmas night somewhere on the outskirts of Brooklyn with a bullet in his head.

Don Corleone picking up some fruit and vegetables.

In particular, it is the scene involving the assassination attempt on Don Corleone that makes me think most about the power that the concept of family holds over the film’s characters. Coppola directs the scene very quietly, almost with an intimate cruelty as the impending doom of what eventually will follow this incident (Michael becoming a murderer and running away to Sicily, the war of the Five Families, the Corleones momentarily reaffirming their strength only to see it all crumble…) hangs over us like the sword of Damocles.
With its simple set-up; Don Corleone, old and fragile, picking up some oranges from the local shop, accompanied by his son, Fredo; the scene builds up a remarkable contrast between the intimate action of a very powerful man doing something as basic and routinely as buying fruit and the loud, increasingly faster sound of the assassins’ approaching footsteps. And once the roar of the guns being fired right into Don Corleone’s back, echoing across the street ends, we are left with something even more intimate: the moment when the son realizes he wasn’t able to save his father, reaching out in shame, head in his hands crying, ”Papa, Papa!”
It is the culmination of violence resulting in a moment of emotional fragility that reminds me of James Stewart’s protagonist in It’s a Wonderful Life helplessly watching on as the town grieves his disappearance, wishing he could have done something to prevent all this unnecessary pain.

The shame of a son who failed to protect his own father.

And like in any proper Christmas movie, love and romance are also prominent themes in The Godfather. Whereas in Love Actually and The Holiday, the conclusion that love is something you just can’t run away from is pretty straightforward in its presentation, The Godfather uses a similar conclusion but to different effect. ”Cherish it while you have it” or ”Don’t hesitate. Just go for it!” is often the underlining message in most Christmas movies.
In The Godfather this same message is put forth along with the painful consequences. There is an impending OR… that gives the movie that tension that we feel once Kay and Michael are having dinner, half-knowing that their lives are about to change forever. ”Cherish it while you have it OR you’ll end up becoming strangers to each other for the rest of your lives.” The two of them sit across from each other, barely touching their food, exchanging glances, running way from each other without knowing it. The energy the scene possesses lies in our feeling of unease that stems from our protagonists’ uncertain fate. Far from the mindless, teenager-like naivety and happiness that Kay and Michael displayed in the opening wedding sequence, here they closely resemble a much older couple, doomed from the get-go, slowly growing used to the unspoken truths that separate them.
Once Michael returns from two years of exile in Sicily, the thought of the doomed relationship turns into reality. And despite their efforts to disguise pain as duty, regret as responsibility and lies as truth, Michael and Kay’s bond was gone the night they decided not look each other in the eyes from across the table. It is, in other words, the tragic outcome of the What if question that so many Christmas movies like to pose, but are too afraid to answer.

”When will I see you again?” ”I don’t know.”

Coppola’s Godfather explores themes of family and love in a way that, ultimately, it feels more violent to let somebody down or close a door in someone’s face, than to merely strangle somebody or drive them out of town and shoot them in the back of the head.
The explicitly violent sequences that shocked audiences at the time, including Luca Brasi being put to sleep with the fishes or Sonny getting riddled with machine-gun fire, pale in comparison to the emotionally violent outbursts of Don Corleone breaking down in tears, muttering over Sonny’s corpse, ”Look how they massacred my boy,or Michael harshly telling Fredo, ”Don’t ever take sides against the family.” What makes these out-spoken confessions so powerful is the sense of community and family history that these carefully constructed sentences emanate so brilliantly. When Tessio is being sent for and accepts his long-sealed fate without blinking an eye, it hurts because we saw him be part of the family. We saw him eat Clemenza’s meatballs, exchange jokes with Sonny and Tom, and it is the betrayal on both sides that ultimately undercuts the theme of family that had been so convincingly sold to us – the audience.
And while The Godfather has been called out numerously for excessively romanticizing the Cosa Nostra, it is the emotionally violent way it separates itself from its underlining themes that makes it such an honest, heartbreaking portrayal of our society. With its fable-like quality, powerful imagery and masterful storytelling The Godfather sooths our senses, luring us into a world of ancient traditions and well-established values that resonate across all living rooms and TV sets. Like all great Christmas movies, it places a mirror in front of us, and asks – What would you do? What matters to you?

As much as they wish to hide it, nothing will ever be the same again for father and son.