Sunday, 2 August 2020

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 64. Il Sorpasso

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.


Il Sorpasso
Director - Dino Risi
Country - Italy
Year 1962
Runtime - 108 minutes

Il Sorpasso is a sublime Italian road movie about an unlikely friendship that blossoms between a liberal man, Bruno, and a conservative law student, Roberto, after a chance encounter in Rome. Bruno drives a stylish convertible and stops to ask Roberto for the use of his phone when he spies him taking in the scenery from his fourth floor apartment window. At first Roberto is reluctant to abandon his studies but Bruno convinces him to join him for a wild road trip involving drink, food, and alluring women, where they both learn a lot about themselves and each other.

Dino Risi's charming comedy takes you on an enchanting tour of Rome and the surrounding area as Bruno leads the charge with his charismatic personality that enables him to talk the pair out of almost any trouble they encounter on their journey. The stunning historic architecture of the city and the scenic vistas of the countryside roads act as a delightful backdrop which Risi exploits to its full potential, painting a magical picture of an enticing part of Italy. This vivid imagery ensures that Bruno's aimless adventure with Roberto is a journey that any audience would love to be a part of; if not for the wonderful company, then the beautiful views would surely be enough to convince you to go along for the ride.

Roberto is initially convinced to join Bruno for a short trip but as the day progresses Roberto's introverted and polite nature makes it increasingly difficult for him to conjure up an acceptable reason for parting from Bruno. Their road trip becomes more decadent as the day draws to an end and we are exposed to Roberto's inner monologue as he wonders how he became embroiled in such a madcap adventure. Bruno is of course the sole reason for this situation and Vittorio Gassman, who tackles the role of this mischievous rogue, brings an irresistible charm to the character, even when he is insulting those he meets. Jean-Louis Trintignant is suitably reserved in his role as Roberto; providing a fresh challenge for Bruno when he endeavours to bring him out of his shell, and embodying the performance with a genuine curiosity that unfurls as Roberto becomes more comfortable in Bruno's often overbearing presence.

Their contrasting personalities and outlooks on life lead to a number of fascinating conversations as the two traverse the roads of Italy, with Bruno honking his horn and overtaking every vehicle in sight. Il Sorpasso translates as either the passing or the overtaking and, whilst on the surface it can be inferred as a description of Bruno's dangerous driving, it is clearly a commentary on the boom in the post-war Italian economy in the fifties and sixties. Agriculture and tradition was making way for commerce and consumerism and Bruno embraces this change wholeheartedly despite the detrimental impact it has on certain aspects of his life.

Comparisons can be made to Frank Perry's The Swimmer, in which the titular, charismatic character embarks on a fun but frenzied journey home whilst struggling to maintain the facade that everything is fine underneath the surface. It is not clear if Bruno even has a home but as we learn more about him on his journey we understand his motivations and realise he is grappling with personal demons the only way he knows how - by pushing them to one side and indulging his inner child. This child-like, free-spirited nature can be interpreted as an attractive character trait by those who only have a brief dalliance with individuals living in such a manner. However, the cracks begin to show as Bruno's wild adventure drags on through the night and into the next day.

The swinging sixties appear to be in full force as the pair indulge in copious amounts of alcohol and hop from one location to the next in Bruno's aimless search for further distractions from a reality he would rather forget. As Roberto and Bruno visit bars, beaches, and restaurants, we are treated to a rocking, evocative, sixties soundtrack that enhances the playful nature of Bruno's cheeky interactions with the multitude of ladies he encounters. It is unsurprising that Roberto's quiet and shy nature receives just as much attention from the opposite sex; those deterred by Bruno's brashness find Roberto's presence appealing, even if he struggles to make any reciprocated feelings known.

It is not until the third part of the film that we are introduced to any female characters with more than a passing appearance, and the introduction of a mother and daughter - Gianna (Luciana Angiolillo) and Lilli (Catherine Spaak) - throws a dramatic curve ball into the scenario. Spaak is exceptional as the enchanting Lilli, with a suitor old enough to be considered her grandfather, which Bruno obviously points out, time and time again, as per his usual persistent yet playful mockery. Her vibrant and excitable personality belies a strong-willed teenager who is wise beyond her years and appears to be far more mature than Bruno. Bruno is clinging on to his youth but Lilli is embracing her adulthood, and this realisation comes as a tough notion to digest for our plucky protagonist.

Like many great comedies, there is a tragic undercurrent to Il Sorpasso that adds depth to its humour as the senseless decadence reaches a heartstopping climax. Risi has crafted a funny and dramatic time capsule of a fascinating part of Italian society during the sixties, in a film that will linger on in your memory with the passing of time, even if the era it depicts will now be just a distant recollection for anyone who would have experienced it first hand. This is an accomplished piece of art that showcases the wit and acute cultural awareness of Risi and is a fitting testament to his exemplary contribution to the world of cinema.

If you take the time to watch Il Sorpasso 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

Saturday, 1 August 2020

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 63. Ballad of a Soldier

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.

Ballad of a Soldier
Director - Grigoriy Chukhrai
Country - Soviet Union
Year 1956
Runtime - 88 minutes

Ballad of a Soldier begins with a rousing prologue in which a lonely woman wanders through an empty village and gazes longingly across the surrounding meadows. A narrator informs us that she is waiting for the return of her nineteen year old son, Alyosha, who was drafted into the army and is one of many brave soldiers who lost their lives during the war. Thus begins the stirring story of Alyosha's life that is unknown to his mother, as we join him at the Russian front where he is under attack from German tanks. His courageous actions in battle lead to two tanks being destroyed and his sergeant rewards him by relieving Alyosha of his duty for six days. This leaves just enough time for him to return to his village so he can help his mother repair her leaking roof - an exclamation that leaves the other members of his unit in stitches.

It is during this eventful journey that Alyosha encounters a handful of strangers affected by the war in various ways. He strikes up a companionship with a wounded soldier, Vasya, and later on befriends a young lady, Shura. His compassion and kindness lead to Alyosha delaying his own plans to ensure that those he meets are taken care of and reach their destinations safely. These selfless actions inspire us with hope in the kindness of strangers yet also fill us with sadness as the knowledge that Alyosha doesn't survive his wartime experiences looms over us.

Director Grigori Chukhrai has captured the devastation and heartache of a country in turmoil through the telling of an enchanting storyline in a visually arresting manner. The camera sweeps across the action with an unnatural grace as mesmerising set pieces hold your gaze fast. A dramatic soundtrack accompanies the picture with a recurring motif that tugs on your heartstrings and heightens the emotional impact of Alyosha's fateful journey. This is the work of a masterful film-maker who has crafted a visceral and moving picture that resonates deeply as its aching poignancy grips hold of you firmly.

Alyosha is depicted as an innocent soul and Vladimir Ivashov's youthful good looks and irresistible charm made him the perfect actor for this role. He imbues his character with a kind-hearted persona that encourages almost everyone (except for a mean-spirited train guard) to succumb to Alyosha's charms.We are instantly impressed by his bravery and enamoured by his humble nature; his touching request to visit his mother in place of receiving a medal of honour impresses upon us that which he holds dearest to him. As the film progresses he continues to astound us with his selfless exploits, and this makes the emotional aspect of the film hit harder as we are so invested in his plight.

The cathartic journey our hero embarks upon offers a poignant and revealing insight into the horrors of war, without ever having to show any graphic injuries or shocking deaths. Dazzling scenes involving double exposure conjure up memories of regret as Alyosha bids a fond farewell to a dear friend. This striking technique is also used during the aftermath of a bombing run on a train, where Alyosha fights to pull injured children out of carriages engulfed in fire. Alongside these technically impressive sequences, Chukhrai employs imaginative methods of bringing his sets to life such as tracing the bubbles blown by two young boys as they glide down a stairwell into the path of his protagonists. Evocative imagery like this is present in many of the film's scenes, creating a memorable and magical viewing experience despite the bleak and upsetting scenario we are exposed to.

At its heart, Ballad of a Soldier is a patriotic call to arms, a reason for the Soviet Union to be proud of the sacrifices made by their courageous soldiers during the war. However, its universal themes of regret, the loss of innocence and the unconditional love between a mother and her son still have the power to connect with audiences of all cultural backgrounds. This is a tragic but life-affirming film; a sublime work of art that transcends its cinematic medium by reaching out to its audience and invoking spine-tingling sensations as it inches ever closer to its heartstopping climax.

If you take the time to watch Ballad of a Soldier 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, 28 April 2020

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 62. Interrogation

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.

Interrogation
Director – Ryszard Bugajski
Country - Poland
Year - 1989
Runtime - 118 minutes

Films that make powerful political statements about the ruling authorities of the countries where they are made can fall foul of censorship or even be banned outright. Interrogation is one such provocative picture that became a political prisoner in its native Poland and was banned for its bold stance against the communist party and their extreme methods of probing those suspected of working against the state. Although this bleak and potent tale of a woman caught up in the horrific communist prison system was completed in 1982, it was not made widely available until 1989 following the dissolution of the communist party in Poland. Its harrowing subject matter paints a deeply disturbing view of a country in political turmoil after WW2 and it comes as no surprise that the graphic and troubling content caused such a stir with the authorities.


Krystyna Janda takes on the lead role of Tonia, a cabaret performer who is kidnapped and imprisoned by two charming men who take her out drinking after she argues with her husband during a show. Tonia’s confusion at being imprisoned turns to frustration and then total disillusionment as the severity of the situation sinks in. Janda’s dedicated performance is a phenomenal piece of acting that showcases the devastating effects caused by the years of abuse and suffering Tonia endures at the hands of her captors. Both the violent methods of torture and the psychological games that are thrust upon Tonia weigh heavy on her soul and Janda evokes her character’s distress with an unsettling realism as the never-ending torment shatters her spirit.


The two officers responsible for dishing out the barrage of cruel mind games are depicted as insensitive and abhorrent men. They offer Tonia brief moments of respite and kindness only to then withdraw back into their interrogation methods; providing her with a glimmer of hope only to subsequently snatch it away from her grasp. Through this interrogation we learn of the tenuous reason behind Tonia’s incarceration and this highlights how almost anyone living in Poland during the era represented could have been considered a suspect of conspiring against the state if the powers that be deemed them so. This is depicted by the scores of women in a similar predicament to Tonia who crack under the mental strain and confess to made up crimes in the hope of easing the abuse from their captors.

This depressing and horrific journey through a hellish prison system is a visceral and challenging experience for any viewer. Constant screams and moans litter the background along with disturbing pleas for help and cries of pain that crush your tolerance for the relentless brutality and humiliating punishments that are shown on screen. These political prisoners are accused of crimes against the state, but the guards are punishing them with crimes against humanity; using debasing methods of torture that should have been confined to the bowels of history a long time ago. The never-ending barrage of misery is a tough notion to digest and is likely to leave you as exhausted and drained as those suffering at the hands of the evil oppressors who drive this twisted regime.


By exposing the atrocious conditions and the inhumane treatment people were subject to during this troubled time in Poland’s history, Director Ryszard Bugajski, took an incredibly bold risk to deliver his damning indictment of the Stalinist Pro-Soviet regime and their extreme interrogation methods. His heart stopping film slams the actions of those involved so hard you can imagine there would have been a public outcry had this been released when the communist party were still in power. The chilling statement his film makes becomes even more disturbing when the devastating denouement shows the psychological damage has also taken its toll on the officers in charge of the interrogation. The extremity of the situation tears apart the lives of people on either side of the fence in what amounts to a tragic waste of human life.


It is difficult to sway the sweeping anger that stirs inside when watching Interrogation. The overwhelming sense of injustice and disbelief at the abject inhumanity rouses up like the unstoppable wave of panic and fear that grips Tonia and leaves her in an almost catatonic state. Few films are capable of drumming up such fierce reactions in the viewer but Bugajski pushes and provokes us relentlessly in his visceral demonstration of suffering that is intended to act as a stark warning on the abuse of power. Those who endure the entire ordeal will emerge scarred and broken, reeling from the savage impact of this remarkable film. Its raw power is a testament to Bugajski’s talent as a Director and the phenomenal display of acting prowess he coaxed from his leading lady is the performance of a lifetime. Take heed if watching this film; its crushing misery will remain with you forever, but this is one of the reasons why Interrogation is such an important landmark in the fascinating landscape of Polish cinema.


If you take the time to watch Interrogation 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

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