Ending the year with international cinema

And now the year 2009 is really coming to an end. Which means another year, another decade past – the first decade of a new millennium. Etc., etc. In this, my last little post of the year, I just want to touch on some of the movies I’ve been frantically watching as December wears on.

First of all, there was Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Das Leben der Anderen, which won the Oscar for best foreign film back in 2006, beating out Pan’s Labyrinth. Known in English as The Lives of Others, the film involves Wiesler, a surveillance operative for the Stasi (State Police) in 1984 East Germany, who’s assigned to watch over a potentially subversive playwright.

Das Leben der Anderen is an intelligent film about the  hazards of creating art in a totalitarian state, anchored in the eerily stoic performance of Ulrich Mühe as Wiesler, who moves from being an interrogation-happy servant of the state in the opening scene to someone visibly different in the quietly ecstatic freeze-frame that closes out the film. Through its drab decor and Orwellian anxieties, the film recreates a very recent dark chapter in German history (hell, one that ended just before I was born).

I also watched a pair of films by French-Canadian director Denys Arcand: The Decline of the American Empire (1986) and The Barbarian Invasions (2003). Watched back to back, they tell a lot about the twenty year span between them, as the flirtacious comedy of the first film leads into the sober satire of the second.

The former film follows a group of professors enjoying a weekend in the country while chatting freely about both their frequent affairs and their theories of human history. (One sequence, for example, has Pierre relating how he met Danielle: receiving a “happy ending” during a massage while discussing millenarianism.)

The proceedings have an apocalyptic, Buñuel-esque undercurrent to them; as the title suggests, they seem to be enjoying their decadence at the end of an age. Claude is HIV-positive (though this goes unmentioned in the sequel), Louise feels betrayed by her husband Rémy’s infidelity, and the film’s title derives from the idea that the widespread pursuit of personal happiness signals the downfall of an empire (e.g., Rome or 18th century France).

This harsh edge is amplified in The Barbarian Invasions, which revolves entirely around Rémy’s gradual death from cancer. Set against the decaying medical system in a post-9/11 world, the film reunites everyone from The Decline of the American Empire as they’re gathered up by Rémy’s estranged, affluent son, Sébastien. The satire remains, but tinged with an omnipresent fear of mortality, as Sébastien makes contact with one of the older character’s daughters, Nathalie, in order to acquire heroin to numb his ailing father’s pains.

Arcand certainly likes his comedy black. I still have to see his Jesus of Montreal, about a passion play performed by nonbelievers, but just judging from this duo of films (which have since been followed by Days of Darkness), he’s a filmmaker very aware of the bleak ironies inherent in the sociopolitical climate of North America.

In The Barbarian Invasions, he presents this group of friends laughing about their former lusts for life when death looms so close, pressing them face to face with some toxic truths: that these well-meaning intellectuals have been bypassed by history, with their affairs as ancient and buried as any optimism or innocence they had in 1986. It’s rare to be able to compare such different attitudes in two adjoining films, and I’m glad to have had the experience.

The last film I want to talk about this decade is a very underappreciated classic from New Zealand: Geoff Murphy’s Utu (1983). I watched it last week with very few expectations or preconceptions since, well, I’ve never seen the movie discussed anywhere. It’s a fictionalized account of a Maori uprising in 1870s New Zealand, a mere thirty years since the Treaty of Waitangi had handed the islands over to the British colonists.

Unlike so many movies about rebellions against imperialism, Utu isn’t full of speeches clearly delineating which side is right and which is evil. Instead, most of its characters are pretty confused about what’s going on. The motivator for the film’s events is Te Wheke, a Maori who’s also a lance corporal in the British army. After he sees his village razed by his overeager comrades, he has his face ceremonially scarred and begins a massive campaign of revenge. (Specifically, utu: achieving a balance with one’s enemies.)

However, the film isn’t just about Te Wheke self-righteously avenging himself on the Brits. There’s the question of whether violence can be justified – graphically illustrated when Te Wheke interrupts a minister’s sermon on how “those who take the sword will perish by the sword” to behead the minister. Te Wheke also spurs others to pledge their own vengeances, like Williamson, who becomes paranoid and obsessive after Te Wheke causes his wife’s death, and develops a one-man arsenal.

Opposing Te Wheke’s slowly growing ranks of guerillas (who also include Maori wives and children) are the British soldiers, led by the scrupulous, sexually repressed Col. Elliot, the young, New Zealand-born Matthew Scott, and the well-educated Maori Wiremu, who has a deep connection to Te Wheke. And caught between the lot of them is Kura, a beautiful Maori woman intermittently held captive by the British.

Maybe this is why I love this movie: it’s about a small war, but it doesn’t build its story out of sheer historical import so much as the smaller conflicts of its characters. It’s an intimate war, where the main players have personal grievances against each other, and where the ties of land and blood play a larger role than the colonial interests of some “fat German woman,” as Te Wheke calls Queen Victoria.

I’m glad to have seen Utu, and you can bet I’ll be soon checking out director Geoff Murphy’s postapocalyptic follow-up, The Quiet Earth. Between Murphy, Jane Campion, and Peter Jackson, I love Kiwi cinema. Now I’m off to check out Avatar, which might lead to some interesting postings of its own. Here’s to another ten years of great international cinema (notwithstanding the inevitable onslaught of subpar 3D sci-fi epics)! Happy New Year.

2 Comments

Filed under Cinema, Media, Politics

2 responses to “Ending the year with international cinema

  1. Pingback: One Hour Mark: The Piano « Pussy Goes Grrr

  2. Pingback: Science and Humanity in The Quiet Earth « Pussy Goes Grrr

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