Tuesday 5 December 2023

La Notte Brava (Mauro Bolognini, 1959)

La Notte Brava

Dir: Mauro Bolognini, 1959, 95 min

Playing at Close-Up Cinema on December 30, 2023

Before embarking on a career as a director, Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote the script for La Notte Brava. The resulting film, about three hoodlums during a day out in Rome involving burglary and hooking up with sex workers, is considered one of the classics of Italian post-war cinema and like other works by Pasolini, a film not devoid of controversy when it was originally released. Directed by talented and visionary, if unjustly underrated Mauro Bolognini who has often been described as "the most Proustian of Italian film directors", the attention to details and the direction of an international cast have remarkably translated Pasolini's world of outcasts, prostitutes, petty criminals, and downtrodden youngsters into a vivid and tough portrait of Italy at the end of the 1950s, especially a sketch of Rome and the raw characters driven by their primary instincts.

Wednesday 25 October 2023

Tabi’at-e Bijan [Still Life] (Sohrab Shahid Saless, 1974)

Still Life

Tabi'at-e Bijan (Still Life). 1974. Iran. Written and directed by Sohrab Shahid Saless. With Zadour Bonyadi, Mohammed Kani, Hedayatollah Navid. 93 min.

An elderly railway signalman is unable to understand the meaning of “retirement” when he is handed over his retirement letter. Still Life, the film that shook Iranian cinema to its core and won the Silver Bear at the Berlinale, is an unforgettable, masterfully paced exercise in stillness and loneliness that doesn’t shrink from depicting exploitative tendencies within contemporary Iranian society. Shahid Saless uses the inarticulacy of his protagonist as an aesthetic strategy and finds poetry in seemingly dead moments. Made only in 11 days and shot with the painterly vision of the cinematographer Houshang Baharlou, this landmark work pushed the boundaries of cinema like no other Iranian film of the 1970s. – Ehsan Khoshbakht

Tuesday 24 October 2023

Night of the Hunchback (Farrokh Ghaffari, 1964) | MoMA

Shab-e Ghouzi (Night of the Hunchback). 1964. Iran. Directed by Farrokh Ghaffari. Screenplay by Ghaffari, Jalal Moghadam. With Ghaffari, Pari Saberi, Paria Hakemi, Mohamad Ali Keshavarz.

Inspired by a tale in A Thousand and One Nights, this black comedy takes place over the course of one of those nights, as a troupe of traveling actors, the father of a bride, and a hairdresser and his assistant (played by director Farrokh Ghaffari himself) try to rid themselves of an unwelcome corpse while uptown Tehranis party to Ray Charles R&B. In a nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry, Ghaffari, also a critic and film historian, intended this film as a critique of upper-class pretensions and an ode to simple folkloric pleasures, and while the film was a commercial flop the film nonetheless gained international attention and promised a new beginning for Iranian cinema. – Ehsan Khoshbakht

Monday 16 October 2023

Dayereh-ye Mina [The Cycle] (Dariush Mehrjui, 1974)

The Cycle (Dariush Mehrjui, 1974-76)

Dariush Mehrjui and his wife were brutally murdered on October 14, 2023. MoMA screens this film on November 1.

This harrowing tale of poverty and drug addiction in the slums, in which people desperately sell their blood to survive, is based on Gholam-Hossein Sa’dei’s short story “Garbage Dump.” Banned due to objections from the Iranian Medical Association, The Cycle was shelved for three years before it was eventually shown at the Shiraz Arts Festival. The left saw the story of the poor selling contaminated blood for injection into new veins as a metaphor for the corruption of Pahlavis. For Mehrjui, however, this was more a candid investigation of a real problem, and it eventually helped inspire the formation of the Iranian Blood Transfusion Organization. The casting of the popular filmfarsi star Forouzan was controversial, but her fine performance proved the versatility of Iranian actors. – Ehsan Khoshbakht

The Cow (Dariush Mehrjui, 1969) | MoMA

The Cow (Dariush Mehrjui, 1969)

Dariush Mehrjui and his wife were brutally murdered on October 14, 2023. MoMA screens this film on October 26.

This milestone of the Iranian New Wave portrays, with heartbreaking intensity, the themes of solitude and obsession in the story of a poor villager (unforgettably played by Ezzatolah Entezami) whose only source of joy and livelihood is his cow. When the cow is mysteriously killed one night, the metamorphosis begins. Based on short stories by psychiatrist Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi, The Cow was smuggled to the Venice Film Festival in defiance of an export ban, where it was almost immediately and internationally recognized as a masterpiece. Poignantly wrapped in layers of religion and leftist politics (two major forces of the 1979 revolution), The Cow came under the spotlight more than a decade later, when Ayatollah Khomeini hailed it as an example of “good cinema,” as opposed to the many “corrupting films” of the Pahlavi era. – Ehsan Khoshbakht

Wednesday 30 August 2023

Still Life (Sohrab Shahid Saless, 1974) reviewed by John Gillet for Sight & Sound

Perhaps Berlin’s main achievement was to reveal the progress of the young Iranian director Sohrab Shahid Sales, with A Simple Event (reviewed from last year’s Tehran Festival) in the Forum and Still Life in competition. The new film continues his preoccupation with the lives of inarticulate people—in this case, an elderly railway signalman who receives news of his retirement with utter incomprehension— developed through lengthy scenes in which the characters are simply observed going about their daily chores. Without Sales’ extraordinary control, the result could be  intolerable, but for me the film’s exact placing and timing of shots, rather like a slow symphony scored pianissimo throughout, was entirely hypnotic. 

Monday 28 August 2023

Sven Klangs kvintett (Stellan Olsson, 1976)

Playing at Close-Up Cinema in London on September 24, 2023. – EK

Voted by Swedish film critics as one of the "25 greatest Swedish films ever", Stellan Olsson's tender drama is based on a play by Henric Holmberg and Ninne Olsson, about the failed transformation of a dance band, formed by a group of young friends, into a proper jazz band in southern Sweden of the late 1950s. Excited by the discovery of a new musical language, they discuss Charlie Parker, and one of them, the saxophonist Lars Nilsson, goes as far as imitating his idol not only in his saxophone sound but also in his wild lifestyle. Shot in stunning black-and-white, many traces of the tableau-like compositions that Swedish cinema through figures like Roy Andersson became known for are already established here. So is the cracking humour. This gem of Swedish films is ripe for rediscovery.

Thursday 20 July 2023

Tranquility in the Presence of Others (Nasser Taghvai, 1969)

Tranquility in the Presence of Others

Nasser Taghvai, 1969, 84 min, Persian with English subtitles

Often seen as one of the indispensable films of the Iranian New Wave, Tranquility in the Presence of Others [Aramsh Dar Hozor-e Digaran] is a poignant and brisk cinematic adaptation of a story by leftist (and later exiled and banned) writer Gholam-Hossein Saedi, attacking the indecisiveness and empty rhetoric of Iranian intellectuals, as well as dissecting the patriarchal core of Iranian society. Banned after a single screening at the Shiraz Arts Festival of 1969 – a ban which was not removed until 1973 – it tells the story of a retired army general who travels to Tehran with his newlywed wife to visit his daughters, only to observe their unhappiness and casual affairs. As his mental condition deteriorates, the film’s tone shifts from sardonic to tragic. Tranquility in the Presence of Others delves into the anxieties of a country that is seemingly marching forward but retains a troubled, melancholic relationship with the past. The gender and social conflicts of Saedi's story are brilliantly translated into a bleak vision of Iranian society and the confusion of the middle classes.  – Ehsan Khoshbakht

Wednesday 12 July 2023

Il Cinema Ritrovato 2023: Favourites & Discoveries

The 37th edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato concluded last week but its memories live on. 

In Silk Stockings (Rouben Mamoulian, 1957), a quintet of melancholic expats freshly returned from a seductive Paris to a drab shared apartment in Moscow start reminiscing about the joys of the high life in the French capital. Soon it turns into a competition in remembering. Getting too intense where disillusioned Marxist-Leninists accuse each other of stealing one another's memories, Ninotchka (Cyd Charisse), fervently dedicated to the equal distribution of all kinds of wealth, steps in and declares: "Comrades, there are enough memories for all of us." Judging from the range and diversity of this year's picks by festival attendees, it seems that we should not be too worried about running out of memories until next June.

Statistics tell me "120,000 spectators" have viewed "470 films [in] seven cinemas," a 12% increase in attendance compared to previous year. Feelings tell me billions of memories have been made.

Nearly 120 participants from 39 countries have picked their "favourite film" at the festival, as well as their "major discovery" this year. Some have accompanied their choices with additional notes. It's a delight to read.

See their picks below.

* * *

Monday 5 June 2023

Peter Cowie on Gharibeh va Meh (1974)

"Two years in the making, it is a vast, symbolist drama, set in some remote historical period (hazy even to Iranians), and bursting at the seams with action and bloodcurdling confrontations. Why a young man arrives in a boat to disturb the ritual of a small village, why he is pursued by a band of ominous, black-clad strangers, and why he takes once more to the sea, seems unimportant, for Beizai’s [sic] dazzling technique, clearly influenced by Kurosawa, sweeps all before it. No other Middle Eastern cinema could sustain such an ambitious and visually exciting production."  Peter Cowie / Sight & Sound, April 1975

Wednesday 31 May 2023

Rouben Mamoulian, Lost and Found (André S. Labarthe, 2016)

Rouben Mamoulian, Lost and Found

Free admission screening of the film at Il Cinema Ritrovato, on June 23, 14.30, Sala Scorsese.

When it comes to filmed interviews, Mamoulian is one of the well-documented giants of classical Hollywood. His eloquence and wisdom can be heard in interviews shot for documentaries about his friends (George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey, shown at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2021) or horror cinema (The Horror of It All by Gene Feldman and Suzette Winter, 1983). There are films exclusively about him such as Patrick Cazals's Rouben Mamoulian, l’âge d’or de Broadway et Hollywood (2007) which also features brief clips of interviews that Iranian director of Armenian origins, Arby Ovanessian (a guest of Il Cinema Ritrovato 2022) conducted with Mamoulian. Television networks, too, since the revival of his films in the 1960s, have interviewed him as in BBC's Film Extra (1973). However, this French television interview, by one of the fathering figures of television documentaries on cinema, André S. Labarthe, was lost for decades until retrieved and made into the Rouben Mamoulian, Lost and Found. This is the most detailed career interview Mamoulian ever gave on film.

Tuesday 30 May 2023

Cherike-ye Tara [The Ballad of Tara] (Bahram Beyzaie, 1979)

The Ballad of Tara

Bahram Beyzaie's seamless blend of myth, symbolism, folklore and classical Persian literature in The Ballad of Tara is unparalleled in its complexity. Yet, apart from Downpour (1972), which was restored and revived a decade ago, the director with the most consistent body of work in the Iranian cinema of the 1970s is also, unjustly, one of the most invisible masters of the Iranian New Wave. Here, as well as directing, he has also produced, written, set-, costume-designed and edited a mesmerising tale that fuses the ceremonial legends of the past with contemporary life. Tara, a strong-willed widow encounters the fleeting ghost of an ancient warrior in the forest next to her village. The ghost's appearances become more frequent and finally he talks to her, claiming a sword that she has found among her father's effects. Without the sword, the dead warrior can't rest. But when the sword is restored to him, it's his love for Tara that prevents him from returning to the land of the dead.

Monday 22 May 2023

Rouben Mamoulian: A Touch of Desire

Silk Stockings | publicity still

Rouben Mamoulian: A Touch of Desire (1926-1957)

Retrospective at Il Cinema Ritrovato, June 24-July 2, 2023

Known for his ability to encode his vision in light, movement, and later in colour, the Tbilisi-born Armenian Rouben Mamoulian had one of the most consistent bodies of work in American cinema. Rightly celebrated for his invaluable contribution to Hollywood's transition to sound, he both unchained the camera and used dialogue like a work of musical accompaniment. His mobile camera was envied and imitated, and his style is instantly recognisable for its sophistication, humour and erotic undertone. Mamoulian was equally efficient in more sombre types of cinema, serving as a pioneering figure in both gangster and horror genres. This career retrospective showcases Mamoulian's work from his only silent film, to the early sound period, to his final musical, in colour and CinemaScope. Aside from a new digital restoration of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, everything else will be screened in 35mm.

Friday 21 April 2023

Cry of Midnight (Samuel Khachikian, 1961)

Playing in Berlin (Sinema Transtopia) on May 11, 2023.

In 1961, the Iranian-Armenian Samuel Khachikian, a figure of enormous talent known for his strong female characters and the use of crime cinema motifs, the latter giving him the title of “Iranian Hitchcock”, was at the peak of his success. That year, both titles topping the Iranian box office were his. Indeed, other directors imitated his style and he became the first "name above the title" of Iranian cinema. Cry of Midnight [Faryade Nime Shab], internationally also known as Midnight Terror, was an unofficial remake of Charles Vidor's 1948 film, Gilda. It portrays one of the essential femme fatales of Iranian cinema, Parvin Ghaffari, appearing alongside the popular star Fardin as a young man who becomes entangled with a criminal gang but eventually finds his way back to the innocent girl that he's in love with. – EK

Thursday 20 April 2023

25 Fireman's Street (István Szabó, 1973)

25 Fireman's Street

István Szabó, 1973 | 98 mins

UK premiere of the new restoration at Close-Up Cinema (London) on May 28, 2023

István Szabó's agile camera is an uninvited guest peeking into the private and collective memories of the residents of an apartment building in Budapest that is due to be demolished the next day. In a Cocteauesque quest into the inner life of a house (which also bears trace of early surrealists in its splendid and puzzling juxtapositions) some 50 years is remembered overnight. The breath-taking long takes that have the fluidity of a dream reconstruct the recent history of nation through bricks, windows, walls and wooden panels. Like Jacques Tati's PlayTime, architecture is both the starting point and what frames every movement – it's a living organ. But here the building reflects people's desires and traumas more than similar voyeuristic investigations of architecture and film as it even bears the subtitle of a "Dream About a House".

Thursday 5 January 2023

Si j'avais 4 dromadaires (Chris Marker, 1966)

Playing at Closeup Cinema in London on January 29, 2023. There'll be some surprise shorts screened before Marker's film. – EK

Marker's underseen masterpiece, Si j'avais 4 dromadaires [If I Had Four Camels], with its originality and sole reliance on still photographs stands next to his best known work, La Jetée (1962). The photographs incorporated into the film were taken between 1956 and 1966 in many different countries (Greece, Russia, Iran, Cuba, China, France, Japan) as Marker was working for the Petite Planète travel guides or taking snap shots of his favourite people.  Here, he offers his own travel guide to a changing word, a "Marker Planet" narrated by a mysterious, world-weary traveller who speaks like a poet and thinks like a philosopher. The narration evolves into three voices with contrasting opinions about the role of photography in constructing collective cultural memory. With an endless sense of irony and the quiet investigating of photographic image, this is one of the great works of the 60s. – Ehsan Khoshbakht