Superficially, the six films included in Criterion’s first Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project box set don’t have much in common. The movies come from disparate cultures and eras, and run the gamut from suspense to documentary to avant-garde. What unites them is their relative obscurity. The study of cinema is often limited to Hollywood and the countries with long-thriving industries, such as the United Kingdom, Italy, France, and Japan. When Martin Scorsese launched The World Cinema Foundation in 2007, his goal was to preserve and promote films and filmmakers that aren’t as well known—the kind that have been seen over the years primarily in adventurous big-city rep houses, and in the places they were made. Now, in 2014, the World Cinema Project is on-trend with what’s been going on with film scholarship. The new movement is toward expanding and diversifying the canon, and this collection makes a strong case for including filmmakers like Ritwik Ghatak and Djibril Diop Mambéty alongside the likes of Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, and Yasujirō Ozu.
Judging from the small amount of African cinema that’s trickled into American theaters, the continent has a reputation for austerity and social realism, established by filmmakers like Senegal’s Ousmane Sembène, who commented on issues like female genital mutilation or the corruption of neocolonial governments. Yet 1973’s Touki Bouki, directed by another Senegalese filmmaker, Djibril Diop Mambéty, has a freewheeling quality that belies such a narrow definition, delving into commentary, blackout gags, montage, jagged avant-garde touches, and other flights of fancy. Mambéty entered into this debut feature—he only made two feature-length films—with only $30,000 and little formal training, which encouraged him to break every rule in the book.
Influenced by the French New Wave—Godard in particular—Touki Bouki is fittingly poised between two cultures, following a cowherd (Magaye Niang) and a student (Mareme Niang) who scheme to raise enough money to leave the port of Dakar for Paris. Mambéty’s interest in pushing this narrative along is minimal; it’s more the backbone for a more impressionistic tour of his country, from the slaughterhouses where the cowherd makes his bones to the seaside cliffs where the lovers can dream about the world beyond. There’s a dramatic push-and-pull here between their longing for transcendence and the cruel day-to-day realities of living in Dakar, with its grueling poverty and confrontation. It’s a radical hybrid vision, patched together with a mix of haphazardness and fertile imagination, and a fascinating barometer of that time and place.
In 1932, groundbreaking photographer and political progressive Paul Strand moved to post-revolution Mexico, where he rekindled his longtime interest in filmmaking, and worked with the government to launch a new kind of activist, working-class cinema. Only one film emerged from the project: Redes, completed in 1935 and screened around the world to some acclaim beginning in 1936. Working alongside Austrian director Fred Zinnemann (who went on to be a multi-Oscar-winning Hollywood A-lister with From Here To Eternity and A Man For All Seasons) and Mexican director Emilio Gómez Muriel, Strand spent months among poor fishermen on the Gulf Coast, weaving their real lives and stories into a drama about an angry young man (played by Silvio Hernández del Valle) who urges his comrades to defy the demands of a corrupt marketplace.
Redes isn’t the smoothest motion picture. Whenever the drama erupts into a fight scene, the choreography is slow and stilted. That’s mainly because Strand tended to think like a still photographer, while Zinnemann favored motion, and their approaches didn’t always cut together well. But there are multiple stunning sequences in Redes, including several stirring and poetic fishing montages, and a venture into abstract impressionism during the hero’s big rallying speech toward the end of the film. What’s most striking about Redes, though, is how unapologetically left-wing it is. The filmmakers didn’t pull any punches in their critique of capitalism. Redes suggests that the poor remain poor in part because the church conditions them from a young age to accept that they’re going to have to hand most of their money over to authority figures, and the main thrust of the film’s argument is that these bosses don’t actually create anything, which makes them thieves. Strand didn’t get to make any more films in Mexico, but he used the resources he was given well, leaving behind a personal, powerful call to action.
A River Called Titas
Ritwik Ghatak’s A River Called Titas was made in 1973, but it looks like a film from the 1940s, during the first major wave of neo-realism. The content, however, is different. A River Called Titas spans decades and jumps from character to character, and though it largely concerns the real struggles of women in impoverished Bengali fishing communities, there’s a touch of the mystical about it. Based on a roman à clef by Advaita Malla Burman, A River Called Titas begins with a song about how the waters ebb and flow. Over the next two and a half hours, Ghatak treats those cycles of nature as a matter of divine whim, reflecting the cycles of bounty and loss in villagers’ lives. (It’s far more loss than bounty.) The film has moments of broad comic relief, and the fishermen’s livelihood is threatened by a mustachioed villain who could’ve stepped out of a silent melodrama. But it all makes sense in the context of Ghatak’s intense focus on his circle of heroines, who ride the tumult of their existence, raging against their suffering and clinging to moments of joy and fellowship.
Ghatak has often been compared to his countryman Satyajit Ray, since they’re both filmmakers who steered clear of the mainstream Indian movie industry and made smaller, more literary films with a strong social conscience. But as Scorsese says in an interview on the Titas DVD and Blu-ray, Ray acknowledged how much he was beholden to classic Hollywood and European cinema, while Ghatak was an artist with no obvious influences. A River Called Titas bears the most resemblance to other idiosyncratic works of art: early American independent “regional” films (like those of Charles Burnett and Eagle Pennell) and long-running comic-strip and comic-book series like Pogo and Love And Rockets, where characters shuffle in and out of the main storyline. But it mostly follows the fascinatingly erratic aesthetic impulses of Ghatak, the sort of filmmaker who would accentuate the otherworldliness and fleetingness of a moment of happiness by running the musical score backward for a few seconds, then dropping out all the sound completely.
Though it won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1964, Dry Summer, by Turkish director Metin Erksan, was nearly lost to history, a fate that seems unthinkable for a melodrama so strikingly vibrant and lusty. From the beginning, Erksan’s film is pitched to a tone of bellowing intensity and rich sensuality, rife with disputes between brothers, and between a greedy landowner and the poor farmers who live down the valley. At its center is Kocabas Osman (Erol Tas), a boorish lout who decides to dam up the water supply on his property and not let a drop flow to anyone else until his crops are irrigated. His handsome, gentler brother Hasan (Ulvi Dogan) disagrees with Osman, but being the youngest, he has to go along with it and accept a series of devastating consequences. Between them is Hasan’s beautiful new wife Bahar (Hülya Koçyigit), who has left her domineering mother for life under another tyrant.
Dry Summer escalates quickly as the conflict over the dam and the love triangle entangle and grow in intensity, and Erksan finds an electric energy that reflects both Osman’s impulsiveness and Bahar’s stunning beauty. There’s a Biblical simplicity to the melodrama that keeps the tension running high, and Erksan encourages an atmosphere of earthy desires, playing up each flash of leg and lascivious grin. He works in themes on the limits of social dictates that tie the newlyweds to a disastrous course, and the types of justice pursued officially and unofficially, but Dry Summer is foremost a sensual experience, and it practically burns through the screen.
If there’s one movie that’s most responsible for the existence of the World Cinema Project, it’s probably Ahmed El Maânouni’s 1981 music documentary Trances, which Martin Scorsese first saw on USA Network’s oddball late-night series Night Flight while he was editing The King Of Comedy. Scorsese became fascinated with how Maânouni combined footage of a concert by the Moroccan folk band Nass El Ghiwane with interviews, archival material, and vignettes of daily life in Casablanca. And he became fascinated by Nass El Ghiwane’s music, which uses a mix of Western, Middle Eastern, and North African instruments and styles to induce a kind of spiritual and political fervor in listeners. The music inspired the soundtrack for The Last Temptation Of Christ, and the film continues to exemplify a lot of what Scorsese aims for in his own work: intricate rhythms, an evocation of community, and a feeling of transcendence. Restoring Trances was the first project for the World Cinema Project, back when it was still the World Cinema Foundation.
Trances is a concert film first and foremost, which means some appreciation for Nass El Ghiwane’s droning, spiraling jams is essential to enjoying the movie. But even cinephiles who are unlikely to purchase a bunch of Nass El Ghiwane songs after watching Trances should be able to appreciate how Maânouni shoots the performances, with an emphasis on the band’s beatific faces and the fans’ twirling abandon. Maânouni fills the spaces between the songs with folktales, slices of life, and scenes of social unrest. The music is fit into a larger milieu, explaining—without over-explaining—how this group of shaggy-haired, middle-aged men are part of a long tradition of musicians and activists who are of the people, and sing their songs.
Revisiting Kim Ki-young’s 1960 horror curiosity The Housemaid means witnessing the birth of the new Korean cinema, with its high style, wicked perversion, and anything-goes sense of possibility. It’s wonderfully bananas, an assault on feminine roles and bourgeois propriety that’s drawn comparison to Luis Buñuel for its cheerful willingness to shock audiences with the unexpected. Kim Jin-kyu stars as a music teacher who’s just moved into a new two-story house with his pregnant wife and two children, but needs a housekeeper to whip it into shape. For that task, he hires a mysterious, erratic, and ultimately diabolical young woman (Lee Eun-shim) who ensnares him in sexual blackmail and threatens his family’s lives if they don’t comply with her demands.
Even the most florid of contemporary Korean filmmakers, like the gothic Park Chan-wook (Oldboy), usually build their movies to a fever pitch, but Kim starts The Housemaid there and keeps turning up the gas. With this sexy mischief-maker constantly in the house, often with rat poison at the ready, the breakdown of this seemingly normal family happens so fast that it’s like oxygen dropping in the air cabin, leaving everyone struggling for breath. There’s a pet squirrel, threatened infanticide, and a breaking of the fourth wall that winks cheekily at the audience. As if the jetsetting diversity of the World Cinema Project box weren’t enough already, The Housemaid ends it on a note of hair-raising fun.
The Criterion set contains six DVDs and three Blu-rays, with the latter containing two films each. Each film has a brief Scorsese introduction (roughly two minutes per) and each is supplemented by some sort of short featurette: a Kent Jones visual essay on Redes, and documentaries on the rest, featuring interviews with the surviving filmmakers and additional comments by the likes of Fatih Akin, Abderrahmane Sissako, and Bong Joon-ho. The most useful extra in the box, though—as is often the case with Criterion—is the booklet, which contains lengthy essays from top-shelf critics like Adrian Martin and Bilge Ebiri, who put the films in the contexts of their respective cultures and cinema in general.