Daily Archives: February 15, 2002

Afghan High Jinks

From the Chicago Reader (February 15, 2002). — J.R.


*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Mohsen Makhmalbaf

With Nelofer Pazira, Hassan Tantai, and Sadou Teymouri.

“Shall I recite the Koran for the dead?”

“We are the dead; sing for us.”


There are times in history when the aesthetic quality of a work of art appears to become secondary to the urgency and currency of the work’s subject matter. The era of Italian neorealism was arguably one of those times. Kandahar — a film in which the terrible and the wonderful, the gauche and the graceful, the beautiful and the ugly, and the smart and the not-so-smart rub shoulders — surely marks another.

In many ways the qualities of Kandahar that derive from actuality operate as art ordinarily does — so that, for instance, the bad acting serves as well as good acting would to bring us closer to the people we’re seeing. In some ways, the bad acting may even serve better, because it allows more of the actors’ personal characteristics to shine through. Yet once we become aware of this, our responses to the actuality become aestheticized. And even if we could overlook the quality of the acting altogether — no easy matter — writer-director Mohsen Makhmalbaf is too much of an artist to abandon the aesthetic parts of his sensibility.… Read more »

Word and Utopia

With Michelangelo Antonioni, Alain Resnais, and Ousman Sembene still active, one can’t call Portuguese writer-director Manoel de Oliveira the only old master we have left in cinema. But how remarkable to see someone in his mid-90s enjoying one of the richest and most productive periods of his career–five extraordinary and very different features since Inquietude in 1998. This is partly thanks to the resourceful producer Paulo Branco (who also sponsors Raul Ruiz); unfortunately, none of the five has found U.S. distribution (unlike de Oliveira’s previous releases, The Convent and Voyage to the Beginning of the World, which were less interesting but had bigger stars). The fourth and fifth (I’m Going Home, a superbly unsentimental story about an aging actor, and Oporto of My Childhood, an imaginative documentary about de Oliveira’s hometown) haven’t even made it to Chicago festivals yet. Word and Utopia (2000) offers another example of how de Oliveira has enlivened his stately style through vigorous direction of actors, mainly through Lima Duarte’s performance as Antonio Vieira, an outspoken 17th-century Jesuit priest who championed the rights of Brazilian Indians and won the support of both the pope and Queen Christina of Sweden. Drawn mainly from Vieira’s sermons and letters, which director and actor treat like libretti for the settings, the period artworks, and various dramatic scenes, and lusciously shot by Renato Berta, the film epitomizes de Oliveira’s profound embrace of history, which deepens and surpasses the wisdom of old age.… Read more »

An Actor’s Revenge

Kon Ichikawa’s 1963 masterpiece, one of the most dazzling and stylistically audacious Japanese films ever made, has to be seen to be believed–though in Japan, interestingly enough, it’s never been regarded as anything but a potboiler. The film was putatively made to celebrate the 300th film appearance of box-office idol Kazuo Hasegawa, and is in fact a remake of a 1938 film by Teinosuke Kinugasa that featured Hasegawa in the same parts. Ichikawa uses it as an unprecedented opportunity for unbridled stylistic play (the film’s use of ‘Scope and color is breathtaking), Shakespearean complication (Hasegawa plays two parts, one of them in drag), and a fascinating investigation into the relationship between theater and cinema. The hero is a Kabuki female impersonator out to avenge the death of his parents, and the plot proceeds somewhat like a film noir (with revelatory flashbacks), while adroitly mixing onstage and offstage action. To make the campy mixture even weirder, Ichikawa periodically uses contemporary jazz on the sound track. One can easily see here why Disney is one of Ichikawa’s favorite filmmakers, but perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this singular experiment is its demonstration that theater and film are more kissing cousins than distant relations–the more stage bound the film gets, the more cinematic it becomes.… Read more »