Thursday, 21 November 2019

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 61. The Saragossa Manuscript

People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to experience the escapism of a captivating story, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.

With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.

This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces and fascinating curios that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.

The Saragossa Manuscript
Director – Wojciech Has
Country - Poland
Year - 1965
Runtime - 185 minutes

Extravagant and intricate storytelling awaits anyone who delves into Wojciech Has' decadent three-hour opus The Saragossa Manuscript. Has plunges us through surreal, macabre and sensual tales where we meet a vast array of fascinating characters such as bandits, cabalists, sultans and temptresses; many of whom are gifted in the art of recounting enchanting anecdotes. This enthralling fantasy features multiple subplots that are intertwined with a startling dexterity as each narrator encounters other characters who are fond of regaling all and sundry with their exploits, thus opening up a Russian doll like experience as we delve deeper into the unknown until the storylines begin to loop back upon one another.

A rousing rendition of Ode to Joy greets us as the atmospheric opening credits part to leave us with a view of Spanish soldiers embroiled in a battle on the outskirts of a town in ruins. One of these soldiers flees to the safety of a nearby house and chances upon an enticing manuscript that distracts his attention from the carnage outside. He is joined by an enemy soldier who is likewise hypnotised by its striking illustrations and their differences are cast aside when the second soldier begins to read aloud a story contained within that happens to be an account of his father’s life, Captain Alfonso van Worden. We are then thrust headfirst into the central storyline about Alfonso where further diversions continue to be presented in a similar manner and the narration takes us through an engaging odyssey of adventures.


Strange, ethereal noises accompany scenes in which the primary protagonist comes under affray from supernatural beings. These otherworldly tones foreshadow the mischievous nature of the spirits he encounters, as they play cruel tricks that test his integrity of character. The dreamlike visions he experiences leave us as confused as Alfonso wrestles with his blurred perception of reality, uncertain if his waking life has been distorted by powers beyond our comprehension. The spellbinding imagery of these eerie sequences evokes a similar ambience to the fantastical delights of Cocteau's classics Orphée and La Belle et la Bête; entrancing us with hypnotic visuals befitting of a dark fairy-tale.

As we enter the second half of the story, we move away from elements of fantasy and encounter rich merchants and noblemen who vie for the attention of alluring young ladies as charismatic rogues manipulate their dalliances in the pursuit of coin. The story appears to tumble further and further down into a seemingly inescapable rabbit hole, and it is bewildering but exciting to imagine how the film's loose ends will all come full circle. Repeat viewings are recommended as some characters have story arcs that begin before they are even introduced as they make brief, subtle appearances in the segments that precede their own. This doesn't hinder the enjoyment of the picture on first viewing but instead enriches the experience for those who are willing to explore the intricate labyrinth of subplots that leads us to consider the intelligent design of this philosophical puzzle.

The vast scale of this undertaking is awe-inspiring with labyrinthine levels of detail, the likes of which you may have seen in ambitious works such as the Wachowski's epic science fiction film, Cloud Atlas, or in the surreal philosophical leanings of Chilean film-maker Raoul Ruiz's mystical oeuvre. As is the case with the aforementioned works, The Saragossa Manuscript is a thought-provoking film that demands your full attention but the treasure chest of delights that are unearthed along the journey are more than worth your unwavering gaze.

In less capable hands this storytelling technique could easily leave us disoriented and confused but Has conjures up such evocative imagery and brilliantly realised characterisations and this enable the separate strands to remain distinctive and easily identifiable. One of his characters even exclaims that the key to great storytelling is in the art of suspense, and this notion is used throughout as Has often leaves us hanging in anticipation when traversing between narrators. Playful self-referential shenanigans such as this off-hand remark imbue Has' film with a wit that complements the surreal humour and shows daring as his wild ideas bring flavour to the film in an innovative and enthralling manner.


Wojiech Has adapted the source material for The Saragossa Manuscript to the big screen with a real flair for theatrics and showmanship that utilises the tremendous talents of the actors who bring his version of the story to life with great aplomb. There are not many filmmakers who could conjure up such an accessible and satisfying head trip from a lengthy 18th Century novella and this is perhaps the reason why The Saragossa Manuscript remains a cult oddity without comparison. Anyone who is open to the surreal tendencies of Film Directors such as Jodorowsky or Buñuel will find themselves at home in Has' enticing oeuvre of films, with The Saragossa Manuscript standing out as the culmination of a lifetime devoted to the cinematic art of storytelling.

If you take the time to watch The Saragossa Manuscript then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!



For previous instalments in the series click here

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 60. A Special Day

People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to experience the escapism of a captivating story, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.

With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.

This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces and fascinating curios that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.



A Special Day (Una Giornata Particolare)
Director – Ettore Scola
Country - Italy
Year - 1977
Runtime - 110 Minutes

On May 8th, 1938, Hitler visited Rome to meet with Mussolini and strengthen the union between Germany and Italy as the rise of fascism was taking hold of many parts of Europe. This was a special day for Italy and the residents of Rome who attended a magnificent parade that served to swell the ever-burgeoning national pride in the movement. For housewife and mother of six, Antonietta (Sophia Loren), this day would prove to be an eye-opening experience - but not for the reasons we may expect.

After rousing her family from their slumber and sending them off to watch the parade, Antonietta remains at home to work on a never-ending barrage of chores whilst listening to the day's events on the radio. In a brief moment of carelessness Antonietta leaves their pet bird's cage open and it flutters out of a window into the apartment building's central courtyard. She enlists the help of a neighbour, Gabriele (Marcello Mastroianni) - who seems to be one of the only other people not at the parade - to assist in the bird’s rescue. The two down beaten strangers find solace in each other's company and spend most of this unforgettable day deliberating over their current stations in life.

Ettore Scola's politically charged drama offers a scathing social critique on the popular stance of the era it depicts through the amicable clash of two people with opposing views. Both Gabriele and Antonietta are portrayed as warm and tender individuals who share an instant connection, but this friendship is tested when discussions turn to their perspectives on the current state of their beloved Italy. Antonietta is the wife of a proud fascist and although on the surface she appears apolitical, she takes an interest in her husband's passion, creating scrap books filled with newspaper cuttings about the political movement. When Gabriele peruses one of these books we learn that he is a staunch opposer of the fascist regime, for personal reasons he is reluctant to disclose, and it transpires that this outlook is one of the reasons why Gabriele lost his job as a popular and successful radio presenter.


As their conversations meander from friendly to flirtatious interactions, and then to a revelatory expose on Italy's state of affairs, we are drawn into the fascinating lives of Antonietta and Gabriele. You can sense the longing for companionship from both characters; each have been pushed to one side due to the proliferation of a dangerous political movement and they have this in common, even if other aspects of their views are misaligned. This simple premise of revealing dialogues shared between two strangers is highly engaging due to the exceptional performances from Loren and Mastroianni. Loren imbues her lonely housewife with a worn-down sadness that makes Antonietta's desire for romance understandable. Her lustful thoughts over Gabriele appear to be unreciprocated, as Mastroianni instills his character with a mysteriousness that arouses Antonietta's senses, but not her suspicions.

The only music we hear throughout the film is that which is played over the radio. The pomp and circumstance of the fascist parade gives rise to the steady beat of marching drums and triumphant choruses as the roar of the crowd increases and drowns out the instruments. This aural backdrop to the blossoming relationship shared by our two protagonists intersects their interchanges as it comes into focus during the day's defining movements. The contrast between the ominous event, which is enrapturing Italians everywhere, and the small-scale exchanges that transfix our attention couldn't be more pronounced. This amalgamation of the two scenarios is a striking approach to storytelling that enhances the impact of the union between these two lonely souls.

Both the story and the impressive camerawork remain confined within the grounds of the apartment building, but Scola makes great use of this location; shooting the action in the stairwells, the central courtyard, and even on the roof, to prevent his picture from remaining static. His composition and framing consider the prominent architecture of the enclosed setting whilst also making the audience feel like a fly on the wall as the day's events unfold. We are invited into the lives of these fascinating characters even if it seems to be an intrusion into an intimate and personal space that we sense should be kept in privacy behind locked doors.


A Special Day offers an invaluable insight into the lives of two people affected by the rise of fascism and acts as a revealing time capsule of the cultural zeitgeist of 1930s Italy in the build-up to World War Two. Its stirring drama plays out in a manner so as not to distance those who are uninterested in the politics of the era, as the story can be taken at face value for the hopeful romantic interlude it recounts between Gabriele and Antonietta. However, those wishing to delve into the societal subtext of this suggestive screenplay will surely revel in its intricate deconstruction of the outlandish attitudes that were shared by the populace at large during this period in history. The prevalence of this prejudiced viewpoint is a notion that is explored by Gabriele as he attempts to challenge Antonietta's perspective during the fateful day of Hitler's visit, which is fitting both historically and thematically as a backdrop for their enchanting and enlightening discourse. A Special Day is a mesmerising tale of liberation and, conversely, repression, that remains a landmark Italian film for reasons both of cultural importance and for fanning dreams of escapism borne from chance encounters that have a profound impact on the lives of those involved.

If you take the time to watch A Special Day then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!



For previous instalments in the series click here

Friday, 25 October 2019

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 59. Je T'attendrai

People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to experience the escapism of a captivating story, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.

With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.

This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces and fascinating curios that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.

Je T'attendrai
Director - Léonide Moguy
Country - France
Year - 1939
Runtime - 85 minutes

With the outbreak of World War One, many families and lovers were separated when men deemed fit for active duty were drafted into the French army to protect the country from the approaching German army. This situation tested the loyalties of soldiers torn between the love for their country and their devotion towards those closest to them, with some (brave or foolish?) men even risking the death penalty by fleeing from their duties in pursuit of being reunited with their loved ones. Je T'attendrai or The Deserter is a stirring French drama that explores this very notion when a soldier seizes the chance to visit the woman he intends to marry, for one last time before heading towards the front, after a faulty train track delays the transportation of his unit.

This poignant tale by Director Léonide Moguy was released in 1939, prior to the start of World War Two, and was subsequently pulled from circulation when its content was viewed as defamatory towards the war efforts. As a result, this beautifully shot romance was consigned to obscurity, where it sadly remained until none other than Quentin Tarantino pushed for its restoration when discovering Moguy's filmography during his research for Inglourious Basterds. Moguy utilises the war as a thrilling backdrop to his emotionally charged romance and provides a rare, hopeful outlook to his storyline that unfolds largely in real time - an inventive approach considering the era in which the film was made. His considered framing creates an enchanting and evocative view of the distressing situations encountered by the film's key players. The striking imagery is one of Je T'attendrai's most accomplished elements and the memorable shots enhance an already enthralling storyline.

Private Paul Marchand (Jean-Pierre Aumont) is the lovelorn soldier who convinces his commanding officer to allow him to visit Marie (Corinne Luchaire), the alluring lady from his hometown who has captured his heart. Aumont is perfectly cast in this role, embodying the characteristics of an innocent young soldier who is fearful that he may never return from the war. Marchand seizes the opportunity to allay his concerns about a future together with Marie only to find that the distance between the two lovers - and the interference of Marchand's proud parents - has taken its toll on their relationship. Luchaire's dazzling performance as Marie encapsulates the pain and grief of a lonely woman, uncertain if the future holds any prospects for her and the man she was once smitten with. Their natural chemistry lights up the screen, delivering an emotional hook that encourages the audience to desire a rekindling of their union.

We become fearful not only for the fate of this relationship but for Marchand's life as he risks being court martialled if he fails to make it back to his squadron before the train departs. These anxieties weigh heavy on our protagonist as he wrestles with his feelings and faces almost impossible decisions in the pursuit of his own happiness. A rousing score heightens the tension and invokes a sense of urgency as Marchand's limited time with Marie comes close to expiring. Heated scenes in the storeroom of a bar which Marie now works in leave us with bated breath as the bar owner's manipulative hold over Marie is challenged by Marchand, causing a devastating blow to the couple's chance of working through their differences.

Reluctant reconciliations result in a flurry of activity in the film's intense finale as the main characters scramble to retain their hold on that which is dearest to them. Like the ever-ticking clock in High Noon, we are conscious of the short window of opportunity presented to Marchand and this ploy brings a generous dose of suspense to an otherwise relatively simplistic storyline. There is beauty in Je T'attendrai's simplicity though; it's an elegantly told and engaging story with universal appeal. The care and attention paid to the cinematography and the heartfelt acting elevate the screenplay to the realm of an overlooked French classic that deserves to be bestowed with far more acclaim and appreciation than it currently garners. 


Those who take pleasure in perusing the forgotten annals of a country renowned for its incredible contribution to the cinematic landscape will undoubtedly rejoice in experiencing such an impassioned labour of love from Léonide Moguy. Its snapshot of an era in history prior to the devastation of World War Two offers a fascinating insight into the cruel follies of World War One and the ensuing regret that consumed enlisted soldiers as they headed out to the front, unaware if they will ever return. The breath-taking artistry of the images presented by Moguy serve to create a highly memorable encounter that is likely to linger on your thoughts long after the heart-palpitating climax has passed. This is one deserter that you will be reluctant to let out of your sight for too long as its striking imagery draws you back in to revisit its bewitching grandeur time and time again.

If you take the time to watch Je T'attendrai then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!

For previous instalments in the series click here

Friday, 27 September 2019

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 58. Love is Strange

People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to experience the escapism of a captivating story, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.

With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.

This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces and fascinating curios that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.

Love is Strange
Director - Ira Sachs
Country - USA
Year 2014
Runtime - 94 minutes

Love Is Strange is a subtle meditation on love, life, and loss, channeling Leo McCarey's Make Way For Tomorrow but updating the classic tale to feature an aging gay couple who live in New York. John Lithgow plays Ben, a world-weary painter who marries his long time partner George (Alfred Molina), a music teacher at a catholic school, who subsequently loses his job when the bishop discovers he is married to a man. Forced to vacate and sell the lavish apartment they have lived in for over thirty years, the couple fall back on their supportive friends and family whilst searching for a new home. Ben takes up residence with his nephew, Elliot (Darren Burrows), and wife Kate (Marisa Tomei), where he has to share the bunk beds in their son's room, whereas George takes the sofa at their friend's flat; two gay policemen known affectionately as 'the police women' who are constantly throwing late night parties. Separated from each other and living in different parts of the city, Ben and George struggle to adjust to their new surroundings and this strain takes a toll on their relationship and their health.

Ira Sach's sublime film exudes a warmth that is befitting of its charming characters. You cannot resist becoming embroiled in the trials and tribulations of Ben and George, the charismatic couple who possess a kind and supportive nature that is positively heartwarming. Lithgow and Molina are entirely believable as the separated lovers and bring Sach's creation to life in a way that has you firmly invested in their relationship.

A subdued classical soundtrack acts as a beautiful accompaniment to this touching story, with the delicate piano complimenting the gentle personas of Ben and George. This soundscape crosses over into the story more than once due to George's affinity for music, in scenes where he plays piano to his friends and teaches his pupils. George is deeply hurt by the decision the school's board takes to relieve him of his position, and the jaded views of those acting upon this is the catalyst for many of his (and Ben's) future woes.

Like Ben living at his nephew's apartment, we feel like a fly on the wall watching the unfolding
storyline as Sachs chooses to exhibit the mundane as much as he focuses on that which is significant, giving us a true understanding of the day to day sadness inflicted on the couple by this upsetting turn of events. Ben is exposed to the inner turmoil affecting his nephew's family, namely the testing relationship between rebellious teen Joey (Charlie Tahan) and his parents, and he inadvertently worsens the situation by using Joey's best (and only) friend as a model for his painting when the boys should be studying. Joey struggles to adapt to sharing his room with his dad's gay uncle, which is understandably one of the last things that a teenager would want imposed upon their private space. Tahan showcases this frustration exceptionally well; Joey clearly doesn't want to upset Ben but you can sense the unhappiness lurking underneath the surface.

Love Is Strange is a poignant and affecting character study; a small-scale drama exploring important themes that will resonate with people from all walks of life. Sachs carefully exposes his character's weaknesses in a graceful and respectable manner as Ben and George come to realise the world is moving along without them. The heartache and pain this causes is inherent throughout, although, like Ben and George, it is often pushed to one side in favour of the stories of other minor but fascinating characters in the film.

Sometimes films can provoke an immediate reaction in the viewer and others leave the audience in contemplation, reflecting on that which they have seen for a number of days. Love Is Strange lies firmly in the latter camp; whilst its stirring journey does elicit an emotional response from the viewer, it is a film that lingers on the mind long afterwards. Its measured approach to storytelling and gentle pace allow time for the viewer to consider its important message, and it may even inspire you to reach out to an older friend or relative you haven't seen in a while. We can learn a lot from those who have come before us and Sach's elegant film takes a beautiful viewpoint on this; highlighting the invaluable contribution older generations make towards a modern society that sadly may not always have the time for them.

If you take the time to watch Love is Strange then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!



For previous instalments in the series click here