Developed in Rome during the Nazi occupation, shot in the Eternal City shortly after the Nazi withdrawal, Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City stunned audiences the world over who saw in it an unmediated authenticity more evocative of the documentary quality of wartime newsreels than of the artificiality of earlier, more conventional WWII dramas.
Two very different approaches to religion and sport are at the heart of Chariots of Fire, a period piece that explores timeless themes of temporal ambitions and higher purposes, of commitment and sacrifice, of ability and spirit.
Au Revoir Les Enfants, Louis Malle’s semi-autobiographical film about life in a Catholic boarding school for boys in Nazi-occupied France, has been called an elegy of innocence lost, though in fact the youthful characters are never truly innocent, only clueless, and what they lose is not innocence but something more elusive.
A defining landmark of Italian neorealism and a haunting fable of want and desperation, Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di Biciclette, traditionally known as The Bicycle Thief in the US but released in the UK with the more accurate title translation of Bicycle Thieves, tells a story of such simplicity and power that one could sum up the key events in a single sentence — as in fact many reviews of the film do, though this one will not — and someone who had never seen the film might read the sentence and remember the premise forever.
Kon Ichikawa’s deeply humane, spiritually resonant masterpiece The Burmese Harp is routinely but reductionistically described as “pacifist” or “anti-war,” though in fact war is merely the occasion for the story’s theme, not the theme itself. That theme is nothing less than the intractable mystery of suffering and evil, an affirmation of spiritual values, and the challenge to live humanely in evil circumstances.
For Bergman’s protagonist, an elderly doctor named Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) who significantly shares Bergman’s initials, there is bitter as well as sweet in the fields of his mind. The film is a road trip that is also a journey of self-discovery as Borg is forced to confront his own coldness of heart and need for forgiveness.
Starkly existential, boldly poetic, slow and grim, Ingmar Bergman’s great classic The Seventh Seal has haunted film aficionados, baffled and bored college students, inspired innumerable parodists, and challenged both believers and unbelievers for nearly half a century.
From the armbands to the ghettos, from forced labor to extermination camps and beyond, Schindler’s List covers the successive historical stages of the Final Solution more comprehensively than any other popular film had at the time, or has since. That, in part, is its great achievement — and, for many of its critics, its enduring stigma.
Critic Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader calls The Tree of the Wooden Clogs "less an advance over the standard film festival peasant epic than an unusually accomplished rendition of it," and speaks of a "Marxist sentimentalism" inherent in its subject matter and approach. This seems to me misleading. Olmi’s film may be best thought of, not as an attempted advance over the typically Marxist neorealist peasant epic, but as a redemption of it.
Intolerance is a grandiose composite epic, interweaving four separate morality plays from different eras and settings, from 20th-century America (the "Modern Story") to Old Testament times (the "Babylonian Story"). Rounding out the four are a brief survey of the life and death of Christ (the "Galilean Story" [sic; most of it is set in Judea, not Galilee]) and events from the 16th-century persecution and massacre of Huguenot Protestants under the Medicis, including the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (the "French Story").
Overshadowing even Ben Kingsley’s astonishing, transcendent performance in his first major screen role is a larger, more formidable presence: that of Mohandas K. Gandhi himself.
The Decalogue, Kieslowski’s extraordinary, challenging collection of ten one-hour films made for Polish television in the dying days of the Soviet Union, doesn’t answer those questions either. What it does is pose them as hauntingly and seriously as any cinematic effort in the last twenty years.
Vladimir Arseniev was an early 20th-century explorer who mapped much of the krai territory of the Russian Far East and studied its indigenous peoples. Based on his memoirs, Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala tells the story of an unusual friendship between Arseniev (Yuri Solomin) and the nomadic tribal hunter for whom the film is named (Maksim Munzuk).
“A Going My Way with substance” is how Elia Kazan’s classic, controversial On the Waterfront was recently described in a lecture at Boston College.
“No one is born to be a failure. No one is poor who has friends.” These platitudes, plastered across the packaging of home-video editions of Frank Capra’s evergreen Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life, exemplify the film’s popular but misleading image as sentimental, schmaltzy “Capra-corn.” Yet the film itself is leavened by darker themes and more rigorous morals about self-sacrifice, disappointment, and the fragility of happiness and the American dream.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.