Category Archives: Happy 50th

Devi (The Goddess) (1960)

HAPPY 50th 1960-2010

Director: Satyajit Ray

Screenplay: Satyajit Ray

Met with controversy upon release in its native country of India, Satyajit Ray’s spellbinding Devi squarely lays the blame on superstitious religious belief for the dissolution of a family. As the film opens in late-19th-century Bengal, Umaprasad (Soumitra Chatterjee), a young student, is departing his teenage bride Doyamoyee (Sharmila Tagore) to return to his university studies in Calcutta. While Uma is away, Doya remains on a large property living with Uma’s father, brother, sister-in-law, and kid nephew. The widowed father Kalikinkar (Chhabi Biswas) is a devoutly religious man, and seems a bit unstable, but is blithely fond of Doya (calling her “mother” as a term of affection).

One night Kalikinkar encounters a vision in his dreams that convinces him his daughter-in-law Doya is the reincarnation of the Hindu goddess Kali. Shaken, the old man informs Doya of her divine status and positions her at an altar at the steps of his house, where the townspeople may come to worship her. Many are skeptical of Kalikinkar’s ravings, including Doya herself (note her scrunched toes in the image above) and her concerned sister-in-law, who keeps a watchful eye on Doya’s imposed conversion to goddess; meanwhile, the staunch rationalist Uma is stunned and angry with his father when he finds his wife objectified as a deity upon returning from Calcutta. These skeptics are challenged, however, when Doya’s “divine” presence appears to revive a peasant’s lifeless son from the dead, before everyone’s eyes. Even Doya begins to believe in her divinity, though she cannot quite say if she feels any differently inside when questioned by her husband (“Don’t you feel that you are human? Aren’t you my wife?”). It takes a tragedy within the family to expose the fallacy of Doya’s “healing” powers, and by this time many of the relationships between the central characters are irreparably damaged.

Satyajit Ray is an acclaimed master of realist filmmaking, his best loved films being perhaps the Apu Trilogy (1955-9), which took inspiration from Italian neorealism to chronicle the life of a young man growing up in South East India. A departure of sorts from the director’s realist roots, Devi proves Ray is equally adept at insinuating an atmosphere of the supernatural on film. Though we are eventually persuaded to dismiss Doya’s divinity, Ray earlier succeeds in clouding our judgment of the situation by inviting us to behold Kalikinkar’s arresting vision of Doya as the three-eyed mother goddess Kali, and by subsequently refusing to explain the apparent resurrection of the young peasant boy. There is also a spine-tingling scene set on a deserted beach – and scored with swirling, ominous music by Ali Akbar Khan – where a wide-eyed Doya, transfixed by the image of a broken down altar stuck in the sand, intuits the potentially harmful consequences of rejecting her divine calling. Here and elsewhere, Ray expressively blurs the boundary between piety and madness, confusing even the objective viewer.

This isn’t only a tale of superstitious versus rational belief, however; Ray is also concerned with mining the fraught territory of the generation gap in India, where the traditions upheld by the aged Kalikinkar clash with the modern-minded (in truth, increasingly Westernized) values embodied in his son Uma. Not surprisingly, the one who suffers most in this conflict is Doya, who essentially becomes an object of dispute between Uma and Kalikinkar, with each in his own way claiming rights to her. Critic Richard von Busack contends that “[Doya] is literally a battleground between the old and the new India”; fully cognizant of this fact, Ray locates the ineluctable tragedy of the story in the frazzled countenance of the young girl. Doya’s final, ghostly retreat from the household becomes the film’s truest vision of the uncanny: an image fit to haunt both traditional and modern India.

-Cam

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L’avventura (The Adventure) (1960)

HAPPY 50th 1960-2010

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni

Screenplay: Michelangelo Antonioni, Elio Bartolini, Tonino Guerra

In May of 1960, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 143 minute L’avventura was booed at the Cannes Film Festival.  Despite this less than stellar reception to his film, Antonioni went on to have the last laugh: L’avventura took home the festival’s Jury Prize and is today regarded by many as a cinematic masterpiece.  That’s certainly not to say that the film is everyone’s cup of tea, but with a little patience on the part of the viewer, L’avventura can indeed cast a very magical spell.

As far as narrative structure is concerned, L’avventura was unconventional at the time of its release and even today it defies established and pre-conceived notions of exactly what narrative can and should do.  Lea Massari is Anna, a wealthy, selfish and somewhat contemptible woman involved in a relationship with the similarly attributed Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti).  Together with Anna’s friend Claudia (Monica Vitti), the trio set off on a Mediterranean boat trip with another group of friends.  During an early afternoon stop at a particularly rocky island, Anna disappears.  A police search follows, but Anna seems to have vanished without a trace.  Though she initially resists, Claudia soon joins Sandro on a search for Anna and along the way, the two find themselves drawn to one another, ultimately giving in to their desires and falling in love.  That may sound simple enough, but the film is really so much more than its deceptively basic plot hints at.

Control and the desire for control play heavily amongst the characters of L’avventura, particularly within Anna and Sandro.  The emptiness of their material wealth seems to have accelerated their subconscious belief that lasting physical control over their lives and environments is impossible, and that the only manner by which any sort of control can be experienced is to strike out at beauty whenever such an opportunity presents itself.  This is evidenced early on during the boating trip when the friends all go swimming and Anna creates a mass exodus back to the boat after she pretends to spot a shark swimming nearby.  She revels in the pleasure of ruining the day of swimming, just as some time later in the film, Sandro purposely knocks a bottle of ink on to a young artists sketchpad, ruining the work in progress.

Throughout all this, it would seem inevitable that the world Antonioni creates is grim and void of any sort of  beauty.  Yet somehow, Antonioni manages to completely turn such a notion on its head and by creating characters who live by such nihilistic means, the beauty and richness of life and its surroundings are enhanced rather than diminished.  Make no mistake about it, L’avventura is a gorgeous film from beginning to end; brimming with symbolism, rich in metaphor and depth and powerfully evoking the fragility and magnificence of all that is fleeting about life.

-Mike

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Filed under European Cinema, France, Happy 50th, Italy, Mike, Team Wipe

Happy 50th: 1960-2010

Happy 50th is a new category here at Wipe where we will be reviewing the films that have the distinction of turning 50-years-old this year.  Not all the films reviewed will be award winners, but they most definitely will all be classics in their own special ways.  By doing this we hope to introduce these films to a new generation of cinephiles, or to simply remind you of a film that you’ve always loved and need to revisit.  Whatever your reason for reading Happy 50th may be, we hope that you enjoy this distinct look at these works that have survived the test of time and that you might be inspired to also dig deep into the dusty cinematic vaults to find your next bit of viewing pleasure.

Happy film watching,

-Wipe

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Pote tin Kyriaki (Never on Sunday) (1960)

HAPPY 50th 1960-2010

Director: Jules Dassin

Screenplay: Jules Dassin

Five years after his career defining Du rififi chez les hommes, writer/director/actor Jules Dassin returned with Pote tin Kyriaki, a film which earned Melina Mercouri a best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival and composer Manos Hatzidakis an Oscar for best original song.

Pote tin Kyriaki centers around Iliya, the most popular and sought after prostitute in all of the fishing village of Piraeus, Greece.  Iliya is something of a hedonist with three main rules that she lives by: 1. She makes no prices 2. She’ll only have sex with clients whom she likes and 3.  Each Sunday she has all her special friends over for a party.

Mercouri handles Iliya with just the right amounts of grace and toughness that the character demands, rounding Iliya into more than just a fun loving prostitute.  But it’s Iliya’s morally corrupt lifestyle that attracts the attention of American philosopher Homer Thrace (Jules Dassin), who’s in Greece searching for something more than what he’s read in books on the fall of ancient Greece.  He wants to know exactly what lead such a highly refined society to collapse.  Deciding that Iliya embodies the transition of ancient Greece from beauty to moral corruption and decline, he makes it his goal to “purify” Iliya through books, music and art.

While Pote tin Kyriaki‘s greatest delights come from watching Mercouri’s confidence as she holds an almost emasculating sway over the men that follow her around, the biggest disappointment of the film is its inability to properly organize the themes and conflicts that it focuses on. Dassin’s Homer comes off as a pretentious, irritating and condescending American college boy – intentional no doubt, but the character’s failure to come to any sort of real understanding about life feels like a betrayal of everything that the film was building toward.  The same can be said for Iliya, whose decisions and transformations are fickle at best.

Certainly there’s nothing wrong with a film having simple conclusions and messages, however, when a film is mired in existential and philosophical questions, only to offer up a weak resolve delivered through a single line of dialogue, well…I can’t help but feel more than a little cheated.  After all, the relationship between Homer and Iliya is strong and there certainly is an onscreen chemistry between the pair (Mercouri and Dassin went on to marry in 1966), but the film would have been better off taking on only what it could handle in terms of the internal struggles of its characters, rather than scratching the surface of numerous interesting questions only to later abandon them.

Love and morality are powerful themes to explore in any film and for that very reason, they deserve more than a semi-superficial dabbling.  A far better example of these themes in action would undoubtedly be Federico Fellini’s excellent Le notti di Cabiria. However, for all its shortcomings, Pote tin Kyriaki does cast a spell on its viewer, providing a sweet and humorous look at the enjoyment of life through the eyes of an entertaining character as immortalized by an even more entertaining actress.

-mike

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Filed under European Cinema, Greece, Happy 50th, Hollywood Cinema, Mike