Rocco and His Brothers (1960): An Epic Family Drama

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One immediate takeaway from Luchino Visconti’s Italian epic Rocco and His Brothers is its gorgeous, swoon-worthy black & white that’s absolutely magnificent. It shares hallowed ground with films such as The Grapes of Wrath or The Godfather where the palette does yeoman’s work when it comes to informing the drama.

At its most essential level, the movie is about a poor rural family from the South journeying to Milan to make a new life for themselves. Their patriarch is dead and now his wife (Katina Paxinou) heads up north with her four boys to reconnect with the oldest brother.

Vincenzo (Spiros Focás) is courting a dark-haired beauty (Claudia Cardinale) with thoughts of marriage once he gets steady work. Their home feels gay and bright with the roving camera capturing the full expanse of their household. It’s positively overflowing with family, and we expect nothing less.

I think some contemporary critics were disappointed by its sheen which is very un-neorealist. But it does boast its own brand of truth about family and life and love and all the constellations of emotions that we grapple with every day whilst living with other people. In this way, it shares a brand of authenticity with those earlier generations of films.

Francis Ford Coppola was certainly influenced by the picture, not only based on his hiring of composer Nina Rota but also in a more general sense in courting themes about family. It makes for a compelling ensemble telling their stories in a manner that feels totally immersive and honest to who they are as human beings. And yet it’s destined for heightened tragedy akin to Rebel Without a Cause or West Side Story.

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What a raucous opening it is; it’s spectacular with the families pitted against one another and by families, I mean the mothers butting heads, while their children are left to pick up the pieces and play peacemakers. It feels all too real. Vincenzo quickly finds himself with an angry mother and a whole pack of brothers he has to find lodging for, no wife, and still no job. Everything goes to hell in a matter of moments.

Despite its sheer expanse, Rocco and his Brothers feels simultaneously well-organized and still free to follow the whims of life. Each brother gets a chapter of sorts and yet each one bleeds into the next. They’re never obvious sections and so it feels more like poetry woven throughout a story than hard and fast rules that must be adhered to.

For the time, Vincenzo lands them a temporary place to live, somewhere they can stay on until they get evicted. It’s not a promising life, but the family does receive a couple propitious bits of luck. Newly fallen snow means work shoveling snow, and the boys wake up early, downing their mom’s piping hot coffee, as they scramble out into the early dawn to bring home some bacon as it were.

Because it becomes a story of each brother exercising their worth. They are valued by the manner in which they are able to provide bread money to the family unit. Rocco (Alain Delon) bumbles his way around a dry cleaner weathering all the young ladies teasing with a good-natured stoicism. Ciro goes the sensible route, conducting his schooling so he can land a suitable job at the local Alfa Romeo factory.

Simone (Renato Salvatori) fancies the idea of joining the local boxing gym as a chance at some easy dough, and he gets the biggest break out of all of them. A trainer takes a chance on him, and he wins his first fight, despite a belligerent temper.

If these scenes are only preliminary, they provide the framework to understand our characters going forward. Simone presumedly lacks the moral prerequisites for a lengthy boxing career: a rejection of drinking, smoking, and women. Rocco is called upon to be his sparring partner and his guardian.

After his glorious showing for the home crowd, the brothers proceed to get embroiled in a street fight only to wander off with the pretty streetwalker Nadia (Annie Girardot). Simone’s behavior doesn’t bode well. Life roles onward and with few prospects, Rocco pursues his military service. It’s far from a digression. Instead, it reflects the passage of time

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Rocco is one of those enigmatic figures who watches the world and seems to see everything. Those who think he’s quiet or unfriendly, over time, come to realize he’s perceptive, carrying deep reservoirs to make the most of life and have faith in everything around him. There’s a dashing nobility to him. This becomes even more true when he returns home.

The first person he meets at a sidewalk cafe is a face from his past: Nadia. He, smartly dressed in his uniform. Conservative. She, in her sunglasses looking him over. She’s no longer with Simone — at least they drifted apart — because she was serving a prison term. In Rocco, she finds someone understanding and kind who never demeans her. She feels understood in his company. Pretty soon a subtle romance blooms between them, warm and tender.

What we haven’t taken into account is Simone. The time has changed him as well. Now he’s hardened, disgruntled, and disillusioned with his boxing career. He dedicated himself to smokes, drinks, and pool with the boys. But he’s also intent on ripping Rocco and Nadia apart. Jealousy takes hold, and it’s the stuff of melodrama. To detail it all now would be rote and a disservice.

You need to see it as he brings them down to his level with a wounded tenacity nearly as electric as anything Dean or Brando managed in East of Eden or Streetcar. Suddenly, everything that was so blissfully and right between the two lovers is besmirched. And they cannot get it back. The way the camera clings to them violently as Simone tries to advance on Nadjia feels convulsive. It’s the film’s cataclysmic event.

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In its wake, Rocco ascends in his own boxing career channeling his hatred into his rounds in the ring and shedding tears for how the harshness of the world has changed him. 

As Vincenzo settles into his own familial life, it is Ciro’s turn to respond to the fracture between his other brothers. He confronts both on his mother’s behalf, entreating Rocco, “A seed gone bad must be weeded out. After all, trees are meant to bear fruit.” However, the well-meaning boy doesn’t quite know how to apply this teaching into practice.

Rocco continues on the rise in his singular objective. Simone’s sunk into the gutter as not only a malcontent but the laughing stock of the community — his debts piling up and Nadia staying with him, partially out of malice and a promise to Rocco. It is here where the film’s editing comes front and center as the two brothers go their separate ways.

My mind is drawn to a curious interchange between mother and son as they dialogue on the self-destructive nature of the black sheep of the family:

“It’s not for us to judge him but to save him.” – Rocco

“Christ will regret the suffering he visited upon us.” – Mother

“We’re no longer under God’s grace. We’re our own enemies.”

Rocco proves himself again to be this near-otherworldly figure. He has an almost unfathomable amount of grace for others, and yet he’s prepared for penance and to take the burden and sorrow on his back. He is Christ-like and yet unable to be their savior.

It makes for a dismal denouement drained of all hope. Still, the family must pick themselves up out of the muck and the mire and make a way in life — each brother on his own path. Rocco finds his face plastered all over the news kiosks for his latest exploits. Simone has fallen into disarray. Ciro represents a certain hopefulness — what his brothers used to be, and Vincenzo is what they could have been — both settling down with families. Little Luca’s fate is yet to be decided. He’s indicative of the fight still left to be forged.

But I am left to return to my opening metaphor. Whether it’s Tom Joad or Michael Corleone, and in this case, Rocco, these are young men who made irrevocable choices in their lives from which there is no turning back.

The chasm between who they were and who they become couldn’t be more disparate and in all accounts, it has heady implications on their family unit. What they do, they do for their loved ones, and they still see everything they love crumble around them. It’s not a new concept — it’s not novel — but there’s something distinctly profound in this. Because we all experience something of the same.

My final thought is only this. It occurs to me that the Parondi brothers might all represent the seeds in the parable, falling all along the road. I’ll leave it up to you which ones will make their way through the straight and narrow and which ones will bear fruit. Because human beings are often resilient, and they are often granted second chances in life if they accept them. Perhaps they can remain under God’s grace after all or maybe it’s not for us to know.

4.5/5 Stars

Girl with a Suitcase (1961): Claudia Cardinale Shines

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It’s a slippery slope when you begin to consider the attractiveness of women in films because the conversation can get needlessly superficial. All I will say about Claudia Cardinale is that God was very good to her. But beyond her immaculate beauty, the joyous discovery of Girl with a Suitcase is unearthing a character underneath.

No, she is not playing herself, but in the figure of Aida is someone we can readily empathize with. We meet her and she’s riding in a fancy convertible with a suave young, smart-aleck named Marcello Fainardi (Corrado Pani). We watch them, and they make a handsome pair, but all the while it’s a matter of deciphering the nature of their relationship.

When he ditches her suitcase and flees back to his family mansion inhabited by his younger brother and protective aunt, it becomes all too clear. She’s been duped and he led her on, boasting about some business connection of his. It was all a ruse.

As our dramatic scenario becomes more clear, A Girl with a Suitcase suggests a premise not too far removed from Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde, both about women who seem to be victims, whether it’s of love or, more broadly, society on the whole.

Forman plays up the comedy to make his story into something, more and the same might be said of Valerio Zurlini’s earlier film. Marcello all but disappears from his movie, and it becomes framed as one of those coming-of-age stories through the eyes of a young impressionable boy. In this case, the eyes belong to Marcello’s younger brother Lorenzo (Jacques Perrin).

He vows to cover for his sibling, although he doesn’t realize the extent of it until Aida shows up on their steps, armed with her suitcase, looking for someone. Instantly he’s conflicted between his initial agreement and the pity he feels for this woman.

In one passing moment, he asks his tutor, a local priest, whether we are responsible for what our relatives do. His mathematics teacher ironically seems generally incapable when it comes to answering questions of morality. In an effort to extend the man some grace, maybe he believes a boy’s problems are never as big as they seem. It takes some perspective, and perhaps he’s right.

However, he also misinterprets the thoughts that occupy his youthful pupil’s mind. There’s an importance and a candor behind his inquiries. You can see the gears turning in his mind because he is a creature of compassion. Youth often knows no other way.

Soon he becomes Aida’s benefactor and confidante. He provides her a loan, invites her to take a bath in their mansion. What’s comforting is how there are no ulterior motives between them and so they relax and come to appreciate one another as equals and as friends.

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She in turn tells him of her unofficial fiancee. Sometimes she loves him madly. Sometimes she wants to strangle him for his ego and selfishness. She’s a singer he’s a musician, but he holds antiquated views about a woman’s place; he wants to clip her wings. She says “In art, couples don’t work,” She bemoans the men in her life. One robs me, another dumps me. Only Lorenzo extends her common decency.

I’m no musical savant but the soundtrack is a fine extension of the world with this almost tinny harpsichord quality we often associate with 18th-century drawing rooms. It’s cultured and yet set against the conversations still manages to be intimate.

She becomes more and more loquacious as he eagerly listens to everything she has to say. In the kitchen, they eat eggs and she finishes up the dishes, regaling him with her travails with a troupe of dancers. They frequented the cruddiest hotels on their circuit with nights full of conversations about hopes and dreams, careers, and future husbands. These are the most intimate of things and Lorenzo is let in. They feel a connection.

If there is anything like drama in the movie it’s generally subtle. Aida takes advantage of a big shot and dances with him at the hotel. Lorenzo watches jealous and angry with her for being so phony. Then, her boyfriend returns and it stings a bit more.

Lorenzo’s never had so many conflicted feelings welling up inside of him and so he tells Aida a white lie that might wind up hurting her. There’s a lovely moment on the steps of some museum. She is waiting in good faith. Instead, the father shows up to question her and get to the bottom of what is going on between them. Lorenzo is disconsolate. He came home drunk. Won’t study. He lies.

What can it be but something more than friendship tearing him apart? The movie does well to highlight what an ambiguous task it is to begin making sense of relational boundaries. In one sense it makes sense we do have marriage and dating to try and make sense of romance and feelings. To help us understand our emotions in a manageable context. Still, when you’re in love (and even when you get older), it is such a bewitching force.

How do we describe it? Yes, there is love between them. Is it romantic? Possibly. But there is a level of concern there proving far more genuine than we are normally used to seeing. Because youth often takes people as they are and sees the best in them when others are either dismissive or manipulative. While this is a beautiful thing, it can also lead to heartbreak. Sometimes it happens by accident.

For a good portion of the movie we almost forget about Lorenzo following Aida to the beach as she returns to her lover and then quickly finds a new one. They’re dancing in the cafe and then lounging on the beach together. She’s both obliging but not quite ready to give herself over to him. Then, Lorenzo returns and for the first time in his life, he’s prepared to make a stand to win her.

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In everything from The Leopard to The Pink Panther or even Once Upon a Time in the West, Cardinale feels more like a dressing — one element of an ensemble. She does quite well and leaves a lasting impression, but in Girl With a Suitcase, she shines all the brighter.

There’s none of the money or pretentiousness that comes with bigger productions. Granted, there’s nothing wrong with any of the aforementioned movies. I like each one of them, but here it’s different. It’s intimate and alive in its characterizations in ways those other films were never meant to be. That was not their function.

Those were always about Marcello’s story or Alain Delon’s story, Burt Lancaster’s or David Niven’s stories. This is mostly hers. By the time it’s done, we know full well she’s not just a pretty face, but a lovely personality with a beating heart.

To my knowledge, it’s the finest showcase of Claudia Cardinale’s individual talents, and she deserves to be remembered in her own right: As a supernal, full-bodied beauty, yes, but also a tender, joyous personality. She is more than a pretty face. With that beating heart come fears and desires bubbling up through her character. And she’s beautiful inside just as she is broken. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they might even be interconnected.

Lorenzo learns this truth even as he grapples with his own affections and desires. Because the ending of the movie is reasonably dismal. If you’ll pardon the liberty, I’m reminded of a phrase: Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the girl with the suitcase has no place to lay her head. In her case, it might be partially self-inflicted though not all her own doing. The society around her exacerbates her struggles.

I’m not sure if I know an Aida personally, but I can imagine her. A woman who is used or taken advantage of, who wanders or has no one who truly wants them or loves them, so they keep on looking, keep on searching, and continue getting hurt. It’s a downbeat cycle — totally futile — and yet in the youth of Lorenzo is still a resilient hope and a prevailing decency. This is what we must cling to for the future. Otherwise, there is no possible response other than despair.

4/5 Stars

Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958): A Heist Comedy of Errors

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If you need only one scene to be indicative of everything Big Deal on Madonna Street exemplifies as a caper comedy, the opening scene puts it out on a platter, ready for consumption.

A shrimpy man with a mustache waits on the street corner as a lookout while another named Cosimo (Memmo Carotenuto) busts open a window to hotwire a car. Except he totally bungles getting nabbed by the cops for his efforts. Even as the alarm goes off, he’s too much of a stiff to make a break for it. Now he’s on the inside, and he deserves it, if not for his botched crime, then at least for being a numbskull.

But he’s also an idea man looking to get out of the can as soon as possible. The job now is finding someone to be his scapegoat. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Everyone has their underlining excuses. A wife already in prison. A baby to take care of. Previous prison time. It’s difficult to scrounge someone up when all your dopey friends are two-bit crooks.

Finally, they settle on Peppe (Vittorio Gassman), a beefcake with a glass jaw. He has no prior record and with a dead-end boxing career, he could use the dough. So he goes into the police precinct, lays out his sob story, and proceeds to get handed a prison sentence of his own. Now he’s in the clink to keep Cosimo company.

He requests at least the common courtesy to know why he had to end up in prison in the first place. Cosimo tells him about a golden opportunity in the form of a heist. He’s got it all planned in his head, sans all the gory details. Regardless, it’s going to be the crime of the century, or the decade, or the year, or maybe the month…You get the idea.

When he finally gets on the outside on parole, it’s now Peppe who gathers the usual suspects together to put their plans into action. Their first mistake is probably taking their cues from a lug head, but they’re desperate and a little loopy themselves.

Soon they’re casing the joint and making sure they know what they’re getting into. It’s all very “scientific,” but not quite foolproof. They’ve watched one too many crime movies. The first professional they actually cross paths with is a safecracker (Toto) — a real pro — but he just gives them advice; he’s not actually prepared to take on the job for himself. He’s got his own parole to think about. And so he supplies them some of the tools of his trade and wishes them well.

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Normally heist stories are constructed in a very specific manner. There’s the planning process, then the heist, and the reversal where everything goes haywire. Big Deal is made entirely in its foundation — the best-laid plans that have no choice but to go awry — and their continued complications and digressions only make the scenario more hilarious. Rest assured, we foresee the problems before they ever come to a head. How can we not? But they proceed to get worse and worse.

The vacant apartment they were going to use as their in-road has been filled and so they look to woo one of the tenants so they can gain access. Peppe dons his most charming persona to get a foot in the door, except he goes and falls in love with a maid (Carla Gravina) he’s supposed to be romancing, getting jealous of her steady row of suitors. Then, she gets herself fired and the whole reason she was of value to them in the first place goes out the window. Peppe still loves her.

What ever happened to Cosimo, you ask? He finally gets out, intent on his cut, only to then seek vengeance on his former compatriots, going so far as to ambush Peppe in the carnival’s bumper cars. The youngster Mario (Renato Salvatori) starts his own forbidden love affair with the chaste younger sister (Claudia Cardinale) of one of their co-conspirators. Soon he loses heart and drops out. The family man, Tibero (Marcello Mastrianni), struggles to take care of his son. He also gets his arm broken nabbing a camera for recon. Worse yet, the camera’s worthless.

Their luck never gets better, nor should it. When it comes time to synchronize their watches, of course, they don’t have any. They’re either too expensive or already hocked. A lover’s quarrel heats up, and with it, the lights go on, cutting into the crew’s surreptitious activities up above on the rooftops.  Their timetable is abruptly derailed.

Big Deal on Madonna Street milks comedy from the telling observation that life is never picture perfect and even the most tightly wrought plans have a way of being unraveled or upended by the most unsubstantial wrinkle. These fellows aren’t exactly master criminals to begin with so their brand of setbacks more than fit the size and scope of the crime.

When they do finally get inside, there are leaks. Noises. Cats. Midnight snacks. Major miscalculations. They continue bumbling their way through every waking minute and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Normally heist films go horribly amiss at the most inopportune moment. In Big Deal on Madonna Street, they shoot themselves in the foot countless times, and still, they go for it anyway.

You’ve got to admire their dogged determination and this motley crew is quite likable. It comes from knowing they are criminals who never will succeed. They are armed with a prevailing obliviousness. We can laugh at them and like them, and watch them stumble off into their lives, after having made a complete mess of everything.

Part of this comes with walking with them in their lives and seeing them as commonfolk with all the foibles that come with small-town life. What a lovable pack of misfits and malcontents they are and we learn them to appreciate them for precisely these reasons. They’re unequivocally silly. If nothing else, they provided their audience with some quality entertainment. As a heist film shot as a comedy of errors, Madonna Street has never quite found its equal.

4/5 Stars

Jean-Paul Belmondo: Up To His Ears, Le Magnifique, The Professional

Because of his meteoric ascension in Breathless, patterning his insouciant hoodlum on the Hollywood image of Bogart, Jean-Paul Belmondo is easily identified with his predecessor. He was a tough guy — gladly so — and he offered up a long line of memorable performances over a stellar career.

Pierrot Le Fou (Godard) and Le Doulos (Melville) quickly spring to mind, but then you only have to look at something like Leon Morin, Priest, where he plays the eponymous clergyman, to recognize the range he was capable of.

In honor of his career, we wanted to highlight three of his later action films. They are not his most acclaimed pictures, but they are defined by his legacy so it seems fitting to acknowledge them.

Up To His Ears (1965)

Up to His Ears is cut out of the same cloth as Philippe de Broca’s prior film with Belmondo from the year before: That Man from Rio. It’s a globetrotting picture all across the orient with madcap chase sequences and quite a few attempts at Bond-like intrigue.

Overall, it bends more toward dated gags and goofy antics than out-and-out thrills, and it seems mostly content with this. When they flee an onslaught of Chinese gangsters, Belmondo and company sneak down into a pillbox, down to an underground tunnel, and on and on. There always seems to be a fortuitous out for them.

If their good fortune and the fact they aren’t completely annihilated seems farfetched, then you don’t understand the ambitions of the film. It’s all sendup. Belmondo seems to be enjoying himself, and his adventures lead to a desert island with Ursula Andress. He can’t believe his luck.

Obviously, the movie cannot quite muster the same glory as That Man from Rio, but Belmondo is still a great action hero able to play the crazy comedic moments and still move through space with vim and vigor. It ain’t Godard, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

3/5 Stars

Le Magnifique (1973)

Also known as Our Man in Acapulco, and its dashing hero, Bob Saint-Clar (Jean-Paul Belmondo) feels like an amalgamation of ’70s era Bond (Moore and Connery) with a lot of Get Smart thrown in for taste.

Philippe de Broca’s at the helm again offering up some of the most self-reflexive parodies of the hypermasculine, suave international spy genre. It pulls out all the comic book scenarios — with dastardly villains et al. — and the resolutions, seeing our hero always prevail. He must live to fight another day.

Broca himself readily contributed to this spy phenomenon during the ’60s with Belmondo to boot. However, it’s so over-the-top to the point of being offputting. Then, we realize our secret agent is being dreamed up by a hack writer, named Francois (also Belmondo) on a strict deadline!

Suddenly it breathes new life into the premise with a renewed perspective, and these long-trod pulp-bound conventions become only part of the gimmick and, hence, only part of its appeal. Not to be outdone, he’s taken the English sociology student (Jacqueline Bisset), who lives across the way and dreamt her into his story as the beautiful Tatiana. His supervillain is none other than his own pompous editor (Vittorio Caprioli).

We’ve followed his story umpteen times before. Although he writes pulp trash for a rapt audience of many, his active imagination all but compensates for a fairly nondescript private life. He’s got a bit of Walter Mitty in him. In the most fated of meet-cutes, Christine (Bisset) accidentally picks up one of his works and finds herself instantly inspired for her college thesis.

Soon she’s dropping by to blow through whole shelves of his novels. And then the idealized man dreamed up on the page, must take a stand in his own life. For what it is — plagued by many of the shortcomings of its genre and the era — I can’t help but appreciate Le Magnifique.

It mostly comes down to Belmondo’s dual role and his rapport with Bisset. Again, they’re having palpable fun taking it over the top, and like any great screen icon, Belmondo gets the girl — twice.

3.5/5 Stars

The Professional (1981)

It feels like your prototypical dated ’80s blockbuster replete with gratuitous violence, a rogue’s gallery of heavies with all the other corny ingredients mixed in together. Belmondo is an agent, undercover in an African country, prepared to assassinate their leader only to be drugged and sent to a labor camp.

He escapes and ultimately returns to France as a kind of rogue operative on the lam. His former superiors want to do away with him, but he’s always one step ahead. He’s not going to be eliminated that easily.

Although it’s not a Bond movie, there are pretty girls, and he seems to know them all intimately all while slinking around to preserve his own skin and complete his objective. Belmondo is undeniable, handling everything from fisticuffs, stunts, and seduction with his usual roguish charisma. He never takes himself too seriously. It’s as if he’s in on the joke of it all and enjoying himself in each individual moment.

The final car chase changes my whole verdict of the picture because it really does take my breath away. It’s yet another showcase for Belmondo the consummate action hero, effectively taking the film by the horns and really living and breathing the part.

While the score isn’t prototypical Ennio Morricone, it gained a new life and legacy in The Professional. He receives what might be termed the briefest of homages as the film’s main leitmotif comes to life between crosscut closeups of its hero and villain a la Leone. It’s like a mini showdown transposed to the world of French secret agents.

There is so much of Bourne here beyond the car chase, and it comes down to the inexplicable predicament of the protagonist. He is thrown into a world that is not right-side-up, and his only choice is holding fast to what he knows. He’s smart and cunning, making a real go of it.

But sometimes the world in all its order and pragmatism doesn’t make a shred of sense. At least, to the very last minute, Belmondo looks cool doing his job. In a movie like this, surely that’s all that matters. Adieu, Jean-Paul. Thank you for what you gave us.

3.5/5 Stars

Ikiru (1952): Loving and Living

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“This man bears a cross called cancer. He’s Christ.”

Ikiru is instantly a tale of dramatic irony as we see x-ray footage and an omniscient narrator tells us matter-of-factly the signs of cancer are already obvious. Our protagonist’s work life hits hard as he’s a public affairs section chief — dangerously close to my own title — thoroughly buried in the bureaucracy of Japan.

The great tragedy is how he’s never actually lived. He’s killing time, stamping documents with his inkan (official seal). I know it well because I sat at a desk in Japan watching others doing much the same. There were fewer teetering paper mountaintops around me, but the sentiment holds true. All his will and passion evaporated over the past 20 years. How this happened is made quite clear. We are once again privy to the dizzying circular bureaucracy that I’ve been subjected to in my own lifetime, from college campuses and also living abroad in Japan.

Even as he portrays a man of such a sorry constitution, there’s something instantly endearing about Takashi Shimura. In fact, he has been a friend of mine for quite some time. Aside from Toshiro Mifune and Setsuko Hara, he might be one of Japanese cinema’s most instantly recognizable icons. There’s a glint in his eyes of warmth that so quickly can turn to melancholy. It serves him well in Ikiru as do his distinguished features and graying hair. The dejectedness up his posture, the glumness in his being, verges on camp but it never loses its purpose.

The greatest revelation is the composition of the film itself in the hands of Akira Kurosawa and his editor Koichi Iwashita. I never recalled the editing of the picture, cutting and shifting between time periods. The delight in his son Mitsuo’s athletic prowess only for it to be crushed seconds later on the basepaths. Then, there was the boy’s appendix operation, an event he was not able to stay around for. It paints the relationship with his son, drifting through time, as the world spins around him, and Kurosawa follows the motion to find the heart of his picture.

As Watanabe sinks lower, taking an unprecedented leave from work, leaving all the underlings to surmise the reason, he meets a lowly fiction writer in a bar. The man’s occupation gives him a bit of license to wax philosophical, and he’s more forthcoming, more whimsical than we’re accustomed to coming across, especially in Japanese culture. He tries to empower the dying man to live it up.

After all,  greed is a virtue, especially greed in enjoying life, and so they take to the night scene with reckless abandon blowing Watanabe’s savings in the process. For a night he tries on the life of a profligate and a drunkard with middling results. There are light-up pinball machines, rowdy smoke-filled beer halls, and lively streets overrun by women of the night. They proceed to make their way to every conceivable bar imaginable. As the montage and music roll on and on, I couldn’t help but recall The Best Years of our Lives.

It was a celebration under very different circumstances. A soldier comes back from V-J Day ready to live it up. But much like Watanabe-san, Al (Fredric March) is looking to put off the inevitable for a bit longer. It’s a lot easier to face this heightened reality than the morning after. It’s a diversion tactic.

In one space the two merrymakers totter up the stairs as couples dance cheek to cheek. Their destination seems to be the lively piano bar jumping with tons of western-infused honky-tonk rhythm and blues. But Watanabe-san subsequently brings the mood to a standstill as the house stops to watch him sing a melody born out of the melancholy of the past — reminding us life is brief.

To this point, he feels pitiful almost laughable, laid prostrate by his very drunkenness, and gallivanting around the streets to the sidewalk symphony of honking taxi cabs and the distinct notes of “Bibbity Bobbity Boo.”

The morning after is what we expect. Not only a hangover but real-life sets in and the baggage that comes with it. He realizes his son and daughter-in-law are completely absent. Not only absent; they are indignant about his behavior. Because of course, they don’t understand. He hasn’t told them anything.

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Instead, he gravitates toward the youth of his garrulous young colleague (Miki Odagiri) bursting with untapped spunkiness. The key is how she makes up for his lack of both humor and energy. She somehow uplifts him with her very spirit — teaches him what it means to really live — what it is to have giggle fits. From the outside looking in, without his context, it looks like a sordid romance or some odd preoccupation. It’s more innocent than that.

He recounts how when he was a little kid, he was drowning in a pond; everything was going black as he writhed and thrashed around in the deep void around him. He felt the very same sensation when he found out about his illness — all alone in the world — his son as distant as his mother and father were when he was in the water. Full stop.

Ikiru and the act of living life are split into two distinct segments. Much of it is expounded upon after the inevitable happens and Watanabe-san has passed away. It’s one of the most abrupt deaths in film history. But that was never the point. Death was inevitable. What mattered is how he used the time before. How he lived it out. This tangles with the existential questions of life itself with all its subjectivities.

It sounds callous to say Kurosawa uses the motif, but what unfolds, in narrative terms, is like Rashomon meeting an abridged Citizen Kane. It’s artful and extraordinary taking the recollections of all the observers in his life to try and make sense of this man’s final hours.

The extended scene that follows almost plays out like a parable for me; it makes the dichotomy so apparent even as it expresses so much about these human beings. His fellow bureaucrats shed no tears at his wake. They have no gifts or kind words for him. And yet a host of working-class women, women who only knew him for a very few hours, anoint his burial with tears and burn incense for him.

The rich and well-to-do have no humility, no need, no appreciation because they’ve allowed themselves to be insulated — they believe they’ve brought every good thing on themselves. Revelation falls to those who are less fortunate, who have spent their whole lives impoverished and low. They can appreciate how a simple action by a simple man can be ripe with the kind of profound meaning these men sitting around idly by will never comprehend (much less believe).

It’s admittedly out of left-field, but one of the songs I was taken with last year was COIN’s infectious pop record “Cemetary.” Its most gutting line goes, ” Never made time for the family but he is the richest man in the cemetery.” The words terrify me to death, and they inform how I think about Ikiru — its purpose — the meaning of Mr. Watanabe-san’s final act of unswerving resolve.

It’s a warning and a cry, a pronunciation and a prayer for all those who are willing to pay it heed. What is life but to be lived out? There are only a finite amount of hours and days between “In the beginning” and “The end.” There’s no hitch on a hearse. All we can take away from this life is that which is given away. Ikiru must only be understood out of this profound paradox.

Because these men — these acquaintances sit on their duffs partaking of his family’s hospitality — trying as they might, to make sense of the mystery of his transformation. How could this be? What would cause a man to be so radically different even cavalier with both his time and his resources? They quibble about it incessantly as Watanabe-san’s actions making fools of the wise.

It’s really very simple. He says it himself even as he’s half doubled-over with pain, his voice on its last rasping legs, constantly being humiliated. “I can’t afford to hate people. I haven’t got that kind of time.” What if that was our mentality? When I look around me, who is my neighbor? It is anyone and everyone. Not just my friends but those ones who ridicule me — those ones who are hard to live with. What if spent less of my time criticizing and hating and more time loving and living. After all, aren’t they one and the same?

5/5 Stars

Pale Flower (1964): A Stylish Japanese Noir

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The images aren’t unfamiliar to those acquainted with Japan’s metropolis. A voice surmises over images of the bustling train station. “Back in Tokyo. 3 years. It makes my head spin. Why are so many people crammed into cage-like boxes?”

I couldn’t agree more with our narrator. The sentiments aren’t lost on me from my time living abroad and riding those very same trains with some of those same people. However, he goes further still.

They are strange animals, their faces lifeless — even dead. Later on, he equates step-fathers with pigs and young lovers in a darkened movie theater are much the same. His is quite the high view of humanity. If all of this feels detached and unequivocally unfeeling, then you’ve caught on to the despondency at the core of Pale Flower.

We realize we are in the presence of some sort of present-day philosopher. Of course, Muraki ((Ryō Ikebe) just happens to be a member of one of the local Yakuza gangs. This is his turf. Someone has died since then — someone he killed — but otherwise, nothing has changed. It’s the same place he left during his stint in prison. He returns to the gambling dens to seek out the former crowd.

What’s immediately apparent about Pale Flower, at least from a visual perspective, is the texture of the images. They are pristine and drop-dead gorgeous if generally detached. They come off as silky smooth as their protagonist, who sits down with the other gamblers just like old times catching the eye of a lucky young woman (Mariko Kaga) with quite a winning streak.

Already, it gives off the smoky, self-assured vibes of an old Paul Newman or Steve McQueen movie — something like The Hustler or the Cincinnati Kid — films that had atmosphere and residual cool in spades.

It starts with our hero Muraki. If he’s a little of Newman, he might be a bit of Robert Mitchum too with a cigarette perched between his lips. Or he’s casually walking the streets in his shades like a mature Alain Delon. In a word, it’s the kind of confidence you don’t teach. It feels like it’s been inbred.

As a filmmaker, Masahiro Shinoda displays a few of the same characteristics. Some of his shot selections are awesome feats quickly garnering appreciation. I would be remiss not to mention an overhead shot of all the players gathered around the gambling table, a bold portrait of visual symmetry. It requires a resolute confidence in what your frames have to offer on their own merit.

Recently, I watched Seijun Suzuki’s Youth of The Beast, and it showcases a very different kind of artistry. He willfully blows through all the rules with a blatant disregard and bombastic energy verging on the absurd. This is his calling card throughout his most well-received offerings like Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill.

Shinoda’s film takes an entirely different approach, sliding casually through conventions without ever losing their sense of cool. Both give us defining portraits of yakuza cinema, but there’s a seriousness even a solemnity present that carries through, down to the black & white imagery. Suzuki would rarely be caught dead with such dourness. Here it works.

It’s also totally reinforced and enhanced by its use of sound, whether clocks, flowing water, clacking tiles, whatever it may be — there’s something about the cadence adding a pace and an innate rhythm to the beats of the story. They’re not always fast, but there is a purposeful confidence in them as they move from one to another. And sometimes, there’s silence — just street noise or feet clopping — other times the bold screeches and scrapes of the score.

If we’ve skimped on plot, it’s because Pale Flower doesn’t necessarily need much to remain effective. Aside from gambling houses, Muraki can be found at the racetrack or paying a visit to his old boss — an unassuming, aging man who takes frequent trips to the dentist.

Coming back, the faithful mobster has come to realize some things have changed in his absence. The two-sided gang war serving as the bulwark of the underworld now has a third party from Osaka complicating the works as they gain ground.

He’s also got a girl waiting for him — a girl who loves him — even as a sensible salaryman asks for her hand in marriage, and Muraki gets distracted by so many things. There’s his work and then other women. For one, Saeko the doe-eyed baby-faced beauty leaves quite an impression wherever she goes. Maybe that’s what happens in an entirely paternalistic society. Regardless, Muraki takes particular interest in her.

She, for one, is young and totally bored with life, riding the highs of gambling, although they can never get quite high enough. One is reminded of the compulsive steadily rising addiction and gambler’s fallacy at the center of Jacques Demy’s Bay of Angels.

Still, Saeko needs something else. She’s insatiable. When she can’t gamble anymore, she lets herself get carried away racing down the highways — drunk on adrenaline — and when that still doesn’t satisfy, she needs something more to get off on. She and Muraki in some ways are alike. Up to a point.

He scoffs at the ghostly-faced gangster Yoh. He’s a sleazy dope addict, who always sits in the corner like a gaunt specter. His brand of small-time criminal is a far cry from what Muraki knows. Saeko is drawn to him because he is a concrete gateway to drugs, her latest hobby.

Then, one day Muraki’s ambushed by a young punk at a bowling alley, and he proceeds to beat him to a pulp as other thugs drag him off to the tranquil melody of “Mona Lisa” playing the loudspeakers. It means very little to him even as he considers the cause of the pitiful retribution.

He opens up to the girl. I killed a man I had no reason to kill. It was just a business matter; his number came up. He felt the same exhilaration in the act of violence. It made him feel alive. Now he plays cards because what else is there to do? It’s as defeatist as it is depressing.

At the same time, Muraki’s not the most charismatic figure. He’s not about to be a PR man or make amends for past grievances. It’s not his style even as he’s called on to fill in for the boss in their latest business proposition.

However, this is not all that unnerves him. There’s an eery confrontation in a back alleyway showcasing the apogee of the film’s style. He has nightmares about Saeko, feeling more protective of her than ever. Worst yet, their cohort Tamaki is knifed.

The boss calls out his men. Someone needs to avenge the death of their own and everyone’s hesitant to take on the job. It falls on the shoulders of the one man who is a traditionalist — unswerving in his devotion to duty, honor, and all those unflinching codes.

Very rarely does it feel like the plot is imposing its will on the movie. Much of what Shinoda is doing is not only an exhibition in style but totally invested in creating a tactile world. This allows the pervasive worldview and the characters to dictate what we spend our time seeing and doing.

Gambling, driving fast cars, smoking, and throwing around a bit of shop talk in bars and backrooms. There’s not much to it on paper, but you have to witness it to really appreciate what’s being accomplished.

Even in the lingering moments, we begin to realize we’ve very rarely seen Muraki do anything. Instead, it’s his reputation that proceeds him, including his three-year jail sentence. And yet to watch him in his natural habitat, there is a certain dignity and undoubtedly a kind of code dictating his life. He feels beholden to something.

His final actions are as dutiful as they are fated. He knows what he is going to do, and the scene gives way to what feels like a choreographed dance, playing to the music as only a Yakuza film could pull it off. It’s gut-busting and shocking as a solemn final coda to the film. In some perverse way, it’s his final passionate offering to Saeko. And there is obviously a consequence.

He pays for his crime with another stretch. While he’s on the inside he hears the news. Saeko is dead. His pale flower gone. Muraki’s nightmare proves more prophetic than he’d ever wish to acknowledge. And why should it matter now? It doesn’t. It makes no difference who she was. Life cannot be redeemed by a few all-encompassing words. Not “Rosebud” nor “Pale Flower.”

After all, life is, in the words of the characters, “pointless.” For those folks lifeless on the train. For the young women deadened by drugs. For the gangsters beholden to a code and a lifestyle that feels so senseless. It’s noir sentiments laid bare in the heart of Japan.

4/5 Stars

Youth of The Beast (1963): Directed by Seijun Suzuki

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A crowd gathers outside the Yamato Hotel. Inside two lovers are slain, the cops milling about the crime scene: The man and the woman. The note. It all points to a double suicide (Shinju) and with it a conventional police procedural.

It very well could have been if not for one man: the film’s director Seijun Suzuki. He’s not known to the same degree as some of the hallowed masters of Japanese cinema, but he’s certainly an incomparable creator.

Suzuki is one of the most visually inventive wizards of the shoestring budget crafting a kind of stylized dynamism one doesn’t soon forget. They’re high on color, octane, and idiosyncratic flourishes. There’s nobody quite like him and given his talents, it’s quite the compliment. He could make a shoebox interesting. Instead, he has something genuinely engaging for us to be involved with.

It becomes increasingly apparent the shady business deals and operations around town are run by capitalistic scuzzballs, although we’re not just supplanting the American mafia. Though the film is rampant with gun culture, it’s not quite a House of Bamboo type of racket either, where the outsiders are at the top of the food chain, be it crooked G.I.s or other expatriates. It’s very much a homegrown kind of vice, and it makes sense given Japan’s deeply entrenched traditions of the Yakuza.

What Suzuki offers this already well-established culture and genre is a punchy, vibrant sense of cool searing everything it touches like dry ice with fireworks set ablaze in the streets simultaneously. You can’t help but look. The colors burst with the jazzy frenzy of it all, easily holding court with the French New Wave.

Equally important is a central protagonist, and the director partnered with one of his best in Joe Shishido, who was fashioned into a bit of a cult hero thanks to the yakuza flicks of Suzuki and others. There’s something oddly iconic about his distinctly chipmunk-cheeked profile.

Even as someone who was previously aware of his facial augmentations, his look is at times perturbing, pulling him out of the realm of reality and making him into a bit of a comic book action figure. And he fits the mold well as a cocksure yakuza enforcer.

He steps on people’s hands, throws men about, walks into bars like he owns the place with girls flocking around him. At the end of it all, he earns himself a salary at gunpoint. It’s quite the introduction.

What sets him apart is not simply self-assured, enigmatic cool, but the fact he always seems to be one step ahead. If he’s not quite indestructible, then he usually winds up in control of all the situations he gets himself into. It’s an impressive skill, especially in such a volatile, ever-changing environment.

His reputation more than impresses one of the local bosses, Nomoto, a head honcho with a penchant for stroking cats, throwing knives, and engaging in other dubious extracurriculars. He checks the new man out and he passes with flying colors gaining a faithful ally in the jovial heavy Minami. Jo’s the kind of insurance you want on your team. It’s a bit like stacking the deck.

However, the film makes full use of a Yojimbo-like gimmick with other token genre tropes tossed in for good measure, including the age-old archetype, the fact that everything and everyone is not as they appear. While he’s ingratiating himself with one side — raking in money by calling in their debts — he falls in with the Sanko gang too.

He meets the man in what can only be the back of a movie house — the black and white movie reels playing during their heated confrontations and tenuous partnership. Because he’s already garnered more than a reputation for his recent exploits and acts of tough-guy bravado. What the odd backdrop suggests is a particular eye for novel setups enriching the actions and the related landscape of characters.

At its best, the sets of Youth of the Beast feel totally disposable allowing characters to decimate them in any number of ways. In tandem, they also devise a plethora of ingenious forms to torture their enemies, from whips to razor blades, implemented in all manner of painful ways, on tongues and fingers. Jo torches one of his target’s hair in the process of extortion for goodness sakes! An image like that is literally emblazoned on your mind’s eye.

Likewise, it represents the call girl world without the consequences of When a Woman Ascends The Stairs; it’s more modern and pizzazzy — commoditized to be easy and delectable — specifically for men. One of the picture’s most startling images follows a female junkie crawling out of her skin only to tumble down the stairs for a fix. Moments earlier she rips the stuffing out of a chair from sheer agony.

Jo is ambushed in the shower by one of the bosses’ mistresses; she, in turn, is looking for “The Sixth Mistress.” It trumps The Third Man by three. If it’s not apparent already, all this is blended into a frenetic stream-of-consciousness plotline never waiting for the audience to comprehend everything before it goes careening somewhere else.

But rather than feeling uncentered or discombobulated, it comes off as all being a part of the wild ride courtesy of Suzuki himself. Suzuki’s never intent on holding the viewer’s hand. He rarely bothers explaining himself, putting all his energies into the outlandishness, which gives way to corkscrew twists and turns as we go barreling through the story with reckless abandon.

There are probably one or two things you don’t see coming and a few you will. Others might defy logic. All the better. His cavalier nature, even his disaffection, makes for more electric entertainment.

More than exemplifying a cohesive piece of storytelling from front to back, Youth of The Beast is made by specific moments — the sequences that feel like singular expressions — standing on their own. There’s something somewhat intoxicating about the trip. Both aesthetically and how visceral the movie dares to go, especially given its roots in the 1960s. The mise en scene — the peculiar flourishes of the art are the heart and soul of the story. Not the other way around.

There is a climax, yes, but the particulars feel inconsequential when it comes to drawing up the sides. All we need is a raucous mob war complete with drive-bys and guns galore with Jo thrown into the action. He does battle with an assailant while suspended by his feet from the chandelier. It sounds hilarious and yet it’s harrowing. What’s more, I’ve never seen anything quite like that confrontation before. It’s different.

The movie never courts any kind of sentimentality, and the way Suzuki blows through his material has a freewheeling vigor and the iconoclastic glee of filmmakers as diverse as Sam Fuller and Luis Bunuel even as he deconstructs the yakuza genre.

There’s something thrilling about watching someone where you don’t quite know what they’re going to do next. With such a small amount of capital, it only goes to show the caliber of the director. Where the continual limitations under any given scenario still make it feel like the skies the limit. He was so good in fact, his studio turned right around and fired him only a couple years later. Suzuki was, as we say far too often, ahead of his time. In his case, it’s true.

4/5 Stars

The Aimless Bullet (1961) in Post-War Korea

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The film sets a precedent when a group of men is tossed out of a bar. They lack the funds to pay their tab and they’re wasted, singing the old war songs they used to know in the military. One refrain goes like this, “We march over the bodies of dead soldiers.”

One of their company is a crippled former commander who bemoans the fact he’s a has-been — a broken bowl of a human being — resigned to a life on crutches. It’s a telling annunciation of the South Korean experience after the war.

It positions itself as an important film on par with The Best Years of Our Lives, The Bicycle Thief, The Third Man, or Floating Clouds. Because it shows a Korea racked with post-war degradation, depression, and economic disparity comparable to the manner these other films provided a lens to their respective cultures.

This is vitally important. Especially for those of us from the western world. It’s difficult to understand the Korean War’s total effects because we were not altogether present to see them out. The U.S. often has the privilege of leaving the battlefields of other countries behind. Even with monetary aid, it’s usually others who are forced to pick up the pieces.

Let’s face it. You can only glean so much about the wartime circumstances from MASH episodes shot in Malibu Creek State Park 20 years after the fact. Rigid historical accuracy was never the crux of those stories anyway.

Once we’ve sorted out our setting, the story is really about two brothers. The older one is Cheolho, and he’s ended up as an accountant of all things. It doesn’t seem like a bad job, but it’s also not terribly lucrative working away on an abacus all day.

After the daily grind, he lives in a glorified shack with his wife, who’s nearly catatonic, a babbling mother with PTSD, a sister struggling to get work, and a little girl always coveting pretty things she can never have. His own private pain is the toothache he’s been living with because he doesn’t have the money to get it checked. It plagues him ceaselessly.

But there’s also his little brother. Yeongho is the handsome one drifting along, trying to find himself a living so he can come through on all the grand promises he makes to his niece. It never seems to pan out.

However, there are a couple of high points in an otherwise dreary and oppressive reality. For one, he rekindles an old flame with a nurse (Hye-ran Mun) he knew during the war. It’s nothing too passionate at first, but sweet and affectionate — the kind of romance that people go to the movies to watch. And it feels like a much-appreciated digression from the rest of the film as Yeongho gets back with the alluring Seolhui, who has a smile to light up the screen.

But even her life is far from idyllic. She manages to get by living in a humble apartment way up high and spends her nights unnerved by her next-door neighbor — an unsettled teen boy smitten with unrequited love — who bursts into her room after hours. Peace is nowhere to be found.

Even in one distinctly self-reflexive moment showcasing the nature of movies, our protagonist makes a go at being a movie actor for a brief stint. He finds himself called upon to play a soldier, not unlike his reality in real life. However, the mention of his real wounds — a pair of bullet scars in his side — literally cut to his core wound as a character.

It absolutely scalds him to be forced to dwell on them in any manner. He’s not about to take part in a film trying to capitalize on his hurt, and he stomps out in a rage. Thus, he still has no job, and he’s still disaffected.

What’s so compelling about Aimless Bullet comes with its brand of Korean neorealism because within my own limited grasp of world cinema, it’s something I’ve never been fortunate enough to witness outside of documentary. But the images, matched with the story, tell us so much about the society — what it was still going through — and honestly, how these types of issues feel universal wherever they take place.

While the metaphors are different, the implications are very much the same between Floating Clouds and Aimless Bullets, and they draw on a similar dynamic. Ironically, whether they’re considered enemies or allies, on the ground level, the world feels very much the same.

People are poor, and they can’t get work. Women scrounge for anything they can get and that means picking up American servicemen who are looking for a one-night stand and a good time. There’s nothing more to it than a business transaction.

Meanwhile, the individual and also their related communities are impacted in the most adverse ways possible. One of the characters bemoans the fact people have become burdens for one another these days.

There’s yet another heartwrenching scene on the streetcar. Two strangers are looking down below, grinning at a Korean woman who is romancing an American G.I. Cheolho cuts between them having experienced something much the same with his sister.

Whether or not he heard them entirely, he’s experienced his share of familial shame, and the moments are instantly linked in our minds. In the very same moment, there’s this conflicting duel going on between some bouncy American tune and a more somber Korean song providing another piece of complementary audio commentary. It’s a devastating reminder of what we have observed with this cultural clash.

Ultimately, the brothers have it out because they are prone to two different philosophies — two different ways of life — and yet neither one seems satisfied. Cheolho questions why they have to forget about their conscience and morality to be rich. Because that’s how the contemporary world around them seems to function.

However, Yeongho decides to take matters into his own hands. He gets one of his old war buddies to keep the engine running for him, an acquaintance Miri can vouch for his alibi, and then he proceeds to slip under the shutters of the local bank as it closes. His intentions are made clear enough even as a procession of Christian passerby sing “Nearer My God to Thee” in a highly ironic touch.

How we get from here to our other protagonist eventually bleeding out is anybody’s guess. I won’t pretend to understand everything. However, it underlines the bitter, persistent adversity that proves the bedrock of this story. One brother on the outside wandering like a zombie and the other wounded to his core.

When the film purportedly got banned in some form because of its finale, this feels like a slight misnomer; it got banned because the entire third act is weighed down by tragedy upon tragedy in relentless, pulverizing succession. Don’t expect any relief.

4/5 Stars

The Housemaid (1960) and a Living Hell

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The opening credits are more self-assured and breezy than I was expecting as the brass sounds off against a pair of kids playing cat’s cradle in the family living. Even with the rain outside, it somehow feels like a fitting depiction of postwar modernity in the 1960s. Films like Ohayo and When a Woman Ascends The Stairs capture a similar cross-section of life.

But this is simply the initial feel — the artistic flourishes being implemented. The most obvious element is the opening conceit between a husband and wife. He reads in the newspaper how a man had an affair with his maid. His wife scoffs at the news. Disgusted that such filth would desecrate the home she’s worked so hard to cultivate. Instantly we have the inkling of tension.

By day Dong-sik Kim is a music teacher. It feels like an all-girls dormitory, although it is actually a factory. He’s fairly straight-laced in his work, but it doesn’t stop the girls from having crushes on him. One in particular. It’s another seed of drama the film sows early on. Because if we learn nothing else, The Housemaid‘s forte is draining the reservoirs of theatricality for all they are worth.

If it’s not already apparent, the film has unabashed tinges of melodrama end to end. I know next to nothing about modern K dramas — apart from their reputation — but could they perchance have roots in films like these? Because we have brazen jumps in narrative and scenes where the story changes almost instantaneously from a sudden tragedy or a paradigmatic shift of some sort.

Of course, the vivacious Cho can’t have the composer, but she does something else instead. She starts getting lessons from him and then another idea comes into her head. You see, the family needs a new maid. It’s almost nonchalant how she offers her roommate the position because she knows the girl will be accepted almost without question. Here the film really begins as a kind of domestic thriller.

It’s all because of this peculiar girl who offers none of the warmth or instant charisma of Cho. She looks rather forlorn and dowdy, hardly the domestic type nor personable. Yet sure enough, she’s enlisted as the newest occupant of the Kim’s impressive two-story abode.

Much like some of Hitchcock’s great achievements (ie. Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, and Pyscho) or even Bong’s recent success Parasite (paying a great homage to the Housemaid), the domestic space becomes such a lethal vessel for dramatic tension.

If used effectively, there’s an inherent claustrophobia, constriction, and isolation such spaces can bring out. And the directors are able to make it a character unto itself, ripe with all sorts of thematic ideas and visual cues to act as an extension of their story.

Instead of a luminescent glass of milk, it is rat poison stuck away in a cupboard proving a deadly fulcrum within the movie. Packed in that tiny canister of household goods is so much threat and menace.

Director Kim ki-young augments his already contentious dynamics through sheer visual motifs. The stairwells become the most prominent piece of the home — a symbol of wealth — certainly but also social mobility and the seesawing power struggle.

Meanwhile, the sliding doors keep the space tight and confined such that you begin to expect the conflict and then feel it in turn. What’s being developed before us is a kind of cinematic language to go with the raging plonking on the piano taken up by several characters, all disposed to releasing their emotions on the keys. The music alone packs enough rage to pump up the blood pressure.

It succeeds in lending a continual fire to this overwhelming even crippling intensity. It reaches the point of being taxing. We are privy to the duplicity of illicit love that feels like two sides of the same coin. Cho’s puppy-like love for the teacher is forbidden but still youthful and a touch of naive.

However, the other is pernicious in a totally destructive manner as is made plainly evident. One day the wife must go off, leaving her husband with the maid in the house. What’s been alluded to the entire movie finally comes into being. She throws herself at him and he does very little to resist. In the heat of the moment, he’s not about to put up a fight. It’s the repercussions that will come to destroy him and cripple his family.

One must acknowledge all of their indiscretions would come to nothing if not for the fact his new “mistress” is now pregnant with his son even as his wife is about to have his child as well. It plays as a salacious piece of scandal and the maid can willfully wave it around as her bargaining chip — a mode in which to blackmail them.

Because she’s running scared even as she jealousy hangs onto the man who wants nothing more than to cast her off. Now he feels shackled by her. In some harrowing way, the film makes it apparent he is all but powerless to stop her as she ruthlessly scraps for herself. It’s the urban nightmare: held hostage in their own middle-class lifestyle with their kids, their TV, and new home, and it all means next to nothing. It becomes this futile trap they’re perpetually stuck in.

The commentary is so closely tied to the persistent intrigue and there’s the key — how this pursuit of upward mobility, of social status in a vertical society, winds up being their very downfall. They are strangled and then undone by the very tokens of wealth they have craved their entire lives. First, it begins with wifely ambitions and then the unseated desires of her husband compounding the situation.

However, there would be no picture without the self-seeking, crazed intentions of the maid. In her own right, she rivals Ellen Harland (Gene Tierney’s character) in Leave Her to Heaven. She’s so possessive, obsessive in her love, it threatens to tear up every relationship in its wake. There is no peace while she’s alive and her unwavering envy only sows chaos before jumping off the deep end entirely.

Because she haunts them — staring at the children through the sliding glass doors, rain pouring down, even as she harries their dejected father to the point of helplessness.

I mentioned the blackmail — the threat of being social pariahs — as being a kind of force holding them where they are. In this manner, one cannot help but think at Luis Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel where some unnamed force keeps a group of aristocrats trapped in a room.

In the Housemaid the narrative devolves into its own form of living hell. You have to see it in order to understand how insidious it really feels. Because this prison (or noose) is not of a supernatural variety — it is very much implemented by the social structure on hand. And ultimately, no stabilizing cop-out ending can neutralize the frankness behind the nightmare.

One only needs to recall the wife’s desperate assertion to her husband. “My corpse may be silent, but my will won’t be!” In the end, Kim ki-young delivers a shocking portrait boldly mechanizing the multifaceted underpinnings of melodrama as all things romance, thriller, and satire. To this day, it remains an unflinching touchstone of Korean cinema at a time when the world was rapidly changing and still coming to terms with its gains.

4/5 Stars

Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud (1995): The Opposite of Loneliness

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Claude Sautet’s Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud positions itself as a certain type of film. There are no thrills about it. We come to notice the normal rhythms of shot-reverse-shot along the 180-degree line. This comes because the movie is so invested in conversation. Unlike his earlier Max and The Junkmen, there is no crime or bank robbery to spice up the narrative. It relies solely on the presence of its two titular stars.

You could go two ways with this. Either you find Emmanuelle Beart’s face deeply enigmatic or it’s empty, all but emotionless as she goes through the paces of life. Because it’s true her performance is defined by her expressions or lack thereof. Her pursed lips, unflinching doe-eyes, the self-assured posture.

Likewise, you could say it’s either crisp or bland in both content and manner. Each verdict is subjective, even preferential, and thus I am open to giving Beart and the picture the benefit of the doubt.

Opposite her is Michel Serrault playing a distinguished, older gentleman who has seen more of life yet bears his own share of hangups. The common denominator is not just loneliness in a foreign land like a Lost in Translation; I think it goes beyond that to a want of day-to-day companionship, even as a form of convenience for both parties.

Because one has to admit although we’ve seen these types of movies play out, it’s still an unlikely friendship, platonic though it maybe. They receive a reintroduction at a cafe through a mutual friend. We know they come from two different stations in life. He with his divorced wife and grown kids. She with a failing marriage to a couch potato of a husband.

Fortuitously, Sautet’s “drama” does not stoop to illicit levels in order to be novel. This would waste the premise. Instead, it readily courts digressions that more than suit the amicable characters and the subdued world they’ve been born out of.

Monsieur Arnaud offers to sign her a blank check, no strings attached, and he genuinely means it. She agrees to help him with his memoirs. Perhaps she’s partially repaying a debt yet there’s also a desire to be altruistic. She sees a bit of a need and also deeply admires what he represents. Computers scare him; “They have memory without memories” as he says.

Nelly comes to know the judge-turned-businessman through the dictations of his autobiography. Moment by moment, he waxes poetic or reminiscences about his wife. He notes how “one day he became a monster” and they divorced; he must have been in an acute stage of his normal misogyny at that time. It’s terrifying to note the utter banality of the admission.

Meanwhile, behind them, his vast study full of volumes and texts is deconstructed after he gives the okay. It’s as if he’s cleaning up his life; all those material possessions he has don’t serve much of a purpose anymore.

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These are our main players, but around them are a plethora of supporting characters, in fact, more than one might expect in a story like this. We meet Monsieur’s daughter on one occasion and get acclimated to the family life of their mutual acquaintance Jacqueline, who proved instrumental in introducing them. Nelly meets someone — Arnaud’s publisher — who very confidently asks her out to dinner, and she accepts. Her own spouse is seeing another woman, and they all seem very amicable about the arrangement.

Certainly, Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud fails to cater to Hollywood expectations, and, therefore, it succeeds by capably taking on its own alternative outcomes. Because even I don’t feel privy to their lives. At first, it seems there’s no chemistry or at least nothing that endears them. The mundane building blocks that make up their interactions are precisely that. It’s relatively easy to lose interest and still, somehow it grabs hold of me just enough to leave an impression.

I’m not an adequate judge to discern whether this is solely a blatant generalization, but many of the most remembered actresses and actors on the European landscape in the last 25 years seem to play as the antithesis of the Hollywood elite. Yes, they share beauty and charisma, but they approach characters and acting in a different manner altogether.

It’s not full of hyper-action, histrionics, or emotional outpourings all the better for telegraphing a performance. Their work becomes focused instead around muted, toned-down reactionary micro-actions where aloof and often subtler approaches to scenes take precedence.

There is one individual scene in Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud where they do blow their tops in what feels highly uncharacteristic of both of them. It appears to be a turning point in their relationship. The beginning of the end, if you will. As she gets up from the computer and rushes out of the room toward the door, she turns back briefly. Her face is almost sheepish. He looks on rather glumly (wishing he could revoke the words that came out of his mouth, no doubt) as she says she can’t come the following day. “The day after?” she asks tentatively. He nods as she exits.

It’s so minimal, but to me, it articulates the essence of this film. We get this nugget of drama and normally we are told this is what we are building towards; this is what we are meant to be drawn to when, in reality, it’s the final act of mitigation that feels the most human. Because we are not usually hot and cold people. Our emotions are a continually fluctuating gradient of everything we think and say and express on a given day. The scene’s simplicity captures this rather well.

I had also briefly forgotten what Sautet’s earlier film was blessed with. The house party near the end reminds us. His earlier picture had color and joy. Although it can get overshadowed by all that is dour and melancholic, these moments prove integral. Music, and dancing, instances where people feel alive even for a minute. It gives them a momentary lightness of being to counteract any negativity. This only makes relationships more complex.

Nelly’s boyfriend is not content in maintaining the status quo like she is; he wants to move in together. The other option is the door and since she’s not ready for further commitment, she exits the restaurant dejectedly with one last furtive glance. Of course, she goes to Monsieur Arnaud, and he offers up his empty home. It’s slightly uncomfortable in the subsequent interlude as he watches her sleep peaceably. We edge into cringe-worthy territory…

Yet again we are reminded how much he cares about others opening up to him. He wants to be wanted by others so far that he’ll give them checks and bend over backward, even being “blackmailed” by an eccentric former work associate. Is it a sense of chivalry left over from earlier generations? Perhaps. It’s also a symptom of late-onset loneliness.

The perfect capstone is a visit from his wife; her partner has recently died and now they are both alone. Although they are not completely patched up as a couple, they do agree on a spur of the moment excursion to see the world and the grandkids, gravitating toward each other under the circumstances. Again, it’s not romance, but it exemplifies how people need other people. Regardless, it catches not only Nelly but the audience off guard with the inherent abruptness of it all.

Those seeking out some obvious closure between our title characters will not find it because it proves to be a felicitous anti-Hollywood ending. Not because it’s a total downer but for the very fact there is no illusion of finality. The undetermined states of life are slightly unwonted and yet at the very same time, it fits Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud to a tee. I have only had a brief acquaintance with Claude Sautet to date. However, from the little I know of him, it seems like a fine picture for him to end his career on. It’s not for everyone but then again, what movie ever really is?

3.5/5 Stars