Friday, May 20, 2016

It's difficult to judge Miguel Gomes' Arabian Nights as separate films, especially its first entry, Volume 1, The Restless One, because it's really just the first part of a much larger whole.  Easily Gomes' largest canvas to date, the Arabian Nights trilogy is an ambitious, sprawling work that confronts the Portuguese austerity measures that resulted from the global recession, and plunged much of the country into poverty.

Gomes takes the structure of the ancient tale of Scheherazade and re-purposes it into something adventurous and new. Utilizing documentary techniques, Brechtian alienation techniques, and surreal metaphorical flourishes, Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless One weaves an immersive, humorous, and often angry portrait of a nation at a specific point in time whose corrupt leaders have lead them into poverty and ruin. Taken on its own, it often feels aimless and scattershot, but when viewed as part of a larger whole, it's spectacular - a wholly unique work of artistic activism. There's really nothing else like it.

The second volume in the trilogy, The Desolate One, stands on its own much better than The Restless One. Here, Gomes continues to explore the desolation of Portugal at the hands of government austerity measures through a series of stories as told to the king by Scheherazade, but the results are more streamlined and memorable here. The vignettes are longer, allowing them to establish themselves in deeper ways, and more focused on narrative, rather than switching back and forth between fiction and documentary. While the effect was often exhilarating in The Restless One, The Desolate One goes deeper.

In one engrossing sequence, a judge tries to get to the bottom of what seems like a simple crime, only to uncover a trail of corruption and misdeeds (some of which involve a genie and a talking cow) so wide-reaching that it causes her to break down in despair.  It is perhaps the finest sequence in the entire trilogy, exposing the complexities of the Portuguese economic crisis for which everyone and no one is to blame. The film culminates with the tale of a dog, transferred from master to master, loving each in turn as if the previous owners never existed. Here, Gomes explores the passage of time in such a poignant way, using magical realism to blend fantasy with the cold, realities facing Portugal today. This is where Arabian Nights really comes into its own - bracing, angry, hilarious, moving, and above all, highly original.

As a whole, Arabian Nights is a fascinating piece of cinema, but its third and final installment, The Enchanted One, goes off the rails in comparison to the previous two films. Here, Gomes abandons the structure of the work up until now, and introduces Scheherazade as an actual character, caught between modern day and antiquity. Her stories here focus more on documentary style, in this case relating the tale of a group of bird-catchers who spend their time catching chaffinches.

This is where The Enchanted One misses the mark - its focus on the chaffinches is strangely un-involving and unfocused (especially strange given how riveting sequences of The Desolate One were. Arabian Nights ends with a whimper rather than a bang, seemingly losing sight of its own righteous indignation at the injustices facing the people of Portugal after its economic crisis. Taken as a whole, it's a tremendous work, but it doesn't quite stick the landing in its final installment.


All three films are now available on a 3-disc Blu-Ray and DVD set from Kino Lorber.
Stéphane Brizé's The Measure of a Man sort of feels like something you might miss if you blink. It's a work of such subtle power, it's dramatic weight so imperceptible, that you almost don't realize what it's doing to you until the final shot. Much of that power is due to Vincent Lindon's beautifully understated performance as unemployed, working class family man, Thierry Taugourdeau (Vincent Lindon), who has been out of work for months and is barely scraping by on a €500 a month unemployment check.

Angry that his skills are getting him nowhere, and that unemployment continuing education classes have been useless, Thierry becomes increasingly desperate for work, eventually accepting a position as a loss prevention officer at a soulless corporate big box store. At first the job seems straightforward - catch people shoplifting, apprehend them, and hopefully settle the conflict by getting them to pay rather than calling the authorities.

But soon Thierry realizes that his job is more than just catching petty thieves pocketing phone chargers on their way out of the store, he's also being asked to keep tabs on the employees as well. Management, it seems, is looking to downsize the company, and rather than making cutbacks elsewhere, they ask loss prevention to monitor the employees and report on even the tiniest infractions. This puts Thierry in a moral dilemma - is he willing to sacrifice the jobs of others in order to preserve his own? Is he willing to put people in the very situation he just climbed out of in order to provide for his own family?

It's a disquieting question, one for which Brizé provides no answer. Brizé directs with a kind of unobtrusive, observational naturalism reminiscent of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. He allows Lindon's performance to carry the film, the moral weight of his choices forming the core of the film without ever drawing attention to themselves, until Brizé hits us with the chilling implications of his dilemma in the film's final moments. Even then, there is a certain sense of the mundane to the moment - this is just another day at the office for Thierry. This is his life now. But at what cost? He has sold his soul to the devil, and he may not even know it. In The Measure of a Man, it is the small choices that make you who you are. Just doing your job may not feel like anything wrong, but at what point will the small chips in your moral fabric finally break you? It's all written on Lindon's haunted face, but Brizé wisely leaves it to the audience to decide - he presents us with an unassuming but surprisingly sharp moral quandary, a nagging question of honor that's hard to shake.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE MEASURE OF A MAN | Directed by Stéphane Brizé' | Stars Vincent Lindon | Not Rated | In French w/English subtitles | Opens today in select cities.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

As haunting a portrait of the desperation of poverty as the cinema has ever given us, Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948) remains one of the supreme film masterpieces. A product of a devastated post-war Italy, Bicycle Thieves took a hard look at the economically downtrodden, desperate to rise above yet constantly held back by circumstances beyond their control. In this case, our subject is Antonio, a family man who has finally gotten a job after being out of work. The catch is that he must have a bicycle, and his bicycle is at the pawn shop. After selling their bedsheets to get the bike back, it gets stolen on his first day on the job, leading to a frantic search across Rome, and an impossible choice that that will take him and his son to the depths of despair.

De Sica would more blatantly pull the heartstrings in Umberto D. in 1952, but there's really nothing else that compares to the grim efficiency of what he achieves here. Sparse, melancholy, and strikingly real, Bicycle Thieves has the haggard, hangdog feel of a documentary, with a dramatic structure so subtle that its shattering climax almost comes as a blindside. Using non-professional performers and real locations, the film feels unquestionably authentic, which adds to its quietly immense power. Bicycle Thieves isn't so much an indictment of a broken system, but a cry of anguish at an uncaring world. It leaves us with such an air of hopelessness that it becomes a moral call-to-action. It may not be Brechtian in style, but there's still something distinctly Brechtian about De Sica's determination to remind us of a world outside the cinema, of the plight of those less fortunate, and the deck that seems so frustratingly stacked against them.

The new Criterion Collection Blu-Ray may just be a direct upgrade from the earlier DVD release, with no new special features, but it's still a must have for any serious cinephile. Before Citizen Kane became the new reigning champ, Bicycle Thieves was considered the greatest film ever made for many years. Even today, when other films have become more highly regarded in retrospect, Bicycle Thieves has always been one of those films that has endured to the point of immortality. Indeed, watching it again in 2016, its timeless power is even more evident. It's themes remain universal, its impact un-blunted by time. This is one disc that deserves a special place on any collector's shelf.

GRADE - ★★★★