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DVD Review: Eclipse Series 27: Raffaello Matarazzo’s Runaway Melodramas

These films go from romantically tormented to psychologically nuts, and cover all the emotionally unstable bases in between.

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Eclipse Series 27: Raffaello Matarazzo’s Runaway Melodramas

Love and death dance an endless tango in Raffaello Matarazzo’s emotionally lavish melodramas of the late 1940s and early 1950s, pulling the tenderized heartstrings of forlorn characters in every conceivable direction. Throughout Chains, Tormento, and the fascinating diptych made up of Nobody’s Children and The White Angel, cruel acts of fate and nefariousness are the devil’s double, darkly tragic jokes usually perpetrated by a combination of bad luck and evil outside influences. In turn, each outlandish dramatic confession (usually spoken by characters from their deathbeds) represents both the lethal sword and hefty shield for lost souls battling complete emotional destruction. But in Matarazzo’s stylized game of secrets and lies, the bodies pile up fast.

Matarazzo’s four films included in the Criterion’s “Runaway Melodrama” box set are structured around relentless disappointment—an unflinching permeation of pain so piercing that every plot turn feels like another mortal twist of the knife. The personal heartbreak is amplified by the fact that each film stars Amedeo Nazzari and Yvonne Sanson, and even though the two actors play unrelated couples in the respective narratives, their casting allows Matarazzo’s overall themes of discontent to ripple through the series. It’s as if we’re watching different variations on one continuous thread of affliction. As the films progress, their images become a lost family album of emotional infallibility, where reunions and confessions spark exponential doubt and never offer full closure. These epic bouts of torment span years, decades, even lifetimes, and the extreme duration helps construct a fluctuating weather system of deep malaise that comes in only one type of precipitation: torrential downpour.

The romantic storm clouds gather almost immediately in 1949’s Chains, Matarazzo’s concise melding of neorealist aesthetics and diabolical post-war comeuppance. Rosa (Sanson) and her mechanic husband Gugiieimo (Nazzari) raise their two young children on the outskirts of town and seem to share palpable warmth. But when a thief randomly brings a stolen car to their shop for repair, a chance meeting between Rosa and old flame Emilio (Aldo Nicodemi) reinvigorates a one-sided obsession that uproots her sense of familial safety. Emilio stalks Rosa’s every move, invading her safe zones through the sly manipulation of her ignorant husband and judgmental neighbors. This sleaze ball may have once loved Rosa, but his horn-dog guise is almost entirely based on primal instinct in this fractured post-WWII landscape. Matarazzo makes a point to remind us Emilio has visited America in the past.

Like all of Matarazzo’s tortured heroines, Rosa can’t shake the constricting male albatross around her neck no matter how hard she tries. Emilio’s voyeuristic gaze grows more passionate and emboldened with each passing scene, making Rosa’s world spin off its axis one lie at a time. The past never stays hidden in Chains, but Matarazzo doesn’t limit the scope of suffering to simply Rosa or the adult world. What makes this critique of post-war trauma so stunning is how the emotional rot slowly seeps into the lives of Rosa’s innocent children, especially her kind young son, Tonino (Gianfranco Magalotti). We see the true cost of deceit through his deeply confused eyes, and the devastating trickle-down effect of parental distrust. When Tonino tries to stop Rosa from leaving their house to confront Emilio, it’s a great moment of self-sacrifice that is often a staple of Matarazzo’s heightened cinema of tears.

While Chains imagines a relatively contained universe, 1950’s Tormento expands the narrative to include increasingly elaborate narrative twists and coincidences, beginning an auteurist trend that only grows more fantastic with Matarazzo’s impending work. A seemingly simple wicked-stepmother scenario finds young Anna (Sanson) immersed in a living hell while her elderly father stands by impotent. Instead of letting his lover get continually abused, ambitious but broke businessman Carlo (Nazzari) impulsively whisks Anna away to Rome where they hope to start a new life. But in the pressure-cooker world of Matarazzo’s melodramas, a fresh start most certainly spells doom. A few stolen letters, violent outbursts, and sly acts of deception later, their entire world starts to unravel.

The well-meaning lovebirds become permanently separated when Carlo is accused of murder and Anna reveals she’s pregnant (child-bearing always happens at the most inopportune times), a double whammy that sends both down separate whirlpools of uncertainty. When Carlo states late in the film, “I no longer have faith in anything,” Matarazzo gives his prolonged separation anxiety a religious twinge; even the most devout Catholic can’t withstand the relentless echo of loneliness. Tormento turns insidious in its second half when the aforementioned stepmother returns to the fray, forcing Anna to make a sort of “Sophie’s Choice” that is as wrenching as it is incendiary. If anything, Tormento spells the turning of the tide for Matarazzo’s obsessions with institutional religion and emotional displacement, and how the two themes work as crippling bedfellows to the common man’s pursuit of happiness.

But Tormento’s caginess only hints at the pervasive psychological fragmentation of 1952’s Nobody’s Children and the forceful narrative audacity of its brilliantly surreal sequel, 1955’s The White Angel. The former begins with a collection of laborers working in the depths of a massive quarry, a perfect metaphor for the deep emotional holes Matarazzo’s lead characters will experience. Again, there’s a naïve young couple, wealthy Count Guido Canali (Nazzari) and poor Luisa Canali (Sanson), trying and failing miserably to overcome the unbreakable social codes established by the upper crust. Like Carlo and Gugiieimo before him, Guido needs to be a self-made man instead of relying on his rich mother’s inheritance. “I prefer to make my own way,” he arrogantly says, yet even his best intentions can’t prepare for the intangible evil eroding his relationship from the inside out. Once again, the physical separation of the lovers is essential for these menacing forces at work, primarily conducted by his meddling mother and her brutal foreman, Anselmo (Folco Lulli). There are more illegitimate children, deathbed confessionals, unpredictable rainstorms, and even a fire for good measure, all leading up to an ending that rips the heart out of each noble participant yearning for a fairy-tale ending.

Despite the crippling sense of parental failure and collective unease, Nobody’s Children only sets the stage for the baffling and intoxicating wackiness of The White Angel, a hallucinatory jaunt toward redemption for these embattled characters. The narrative picks up right where the first film left off, with Luisa now entrenched in a nunnery and Guido married to a snake of a wife who’s given him a darling young daughter. After a seemingly calm opening, The White Angel spins one reversal after another, including a deadly windswept motorboat trip through a monsoon, a seductive doppelganger that introduces themes a certain Hitchcock film would make famous a few years later, and a late sudden tonal shift that includes an extended sequence inside a women’s prison. To give away any more specifics would diminish the wonderful sense of romantic anarchy The White Angel creates, kind of a brilliant deconstruction of Matarazzo’s continuous thematic obsessions with fate. Let’s just say the film provides a perfect ending to Matarazzo’s treatment of love as a circular beast that ultimately leaves no man, woman, or child unscathed.

Matarazzo’s cinema may be immersed in massive amounts of suffering, but his films also provide a sense of resiliency that is both hopeful and sturdy. The wonderfully precise characterizations and costly thematic ripples anticipate Douglas Sirk and the Coen brothers, yet Matarazzo’s films feel wholly unique in terms of narrative pacing. Ebbs and flows in a character’s life aren’t just built around cause and effect, but a godly omniscience that is predetermined, prefabricated to see how far these people are able to bend. Throughout each story, Matarazzo never stops pushing his characters forward, always toward the brink of emotional implosion. While most of these people fall by the wayside, victims of communal indifference and extreme jealousy, the one’s willing to suffer the most always gets a second chance at happiness. There might be nothing harder than starting from scratch, but when true love is at stake, the Drama of all that jazz is more than worth the trouble.

Image/Sound

The Criterion Collection has done the best they could with these rare films, clearing up most of the visual blotches and audible pops crisp for work that has never seen the light of day on DVD. Still, the master prints look pretty rough, and the black and white often turns a strange shade of grey during some night sequences. If I’m not mistaken, Nobody’s Children may even be missing a few scenes during a late-sequence climax, but it’s not hard to figure out exactly what occurred during those missing moments. Raffaello Matarazzo’s suffering is, if anything, consistently punishing.

Extras

Michael Koreseky’s liner notes once again provide both ample historical context and excellent analysis to compliment these harrowing films.

Overall

Raffaello Matarazzo’s breakneck series of films included in Criterion’s “Runaway Melodramas” Eclipse box set go from romantically tormented to psychologically nuts, and cover all the emotionally unstable bases in between.

Cast: Amedeo Nazzari, Yvonne Sanson, Aldo Nicodemi, Gianfranco Magalotti, Rosalina Randazzo, Enrico Olivieri, Folco Lulli Director: Raffaello Matarazzo Screenwriter: Aldo De Benedetti, Nicola Manzari Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 388 min Rating: - Year: 1949 - 1955 Release Date: June 21, 2011 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Ingmar Bergman’s Shame

Criterion outfits one of Ingmar Bergman’s most severe and ambitious films with a customarily gorgeous transfer.

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Shame

Though stark and despairing, Ingmar Bergman’s films are essentially, perhaps inadvertently, celebrations of art in which erudite characters wrestle with their demons via their creative endeavors. Bergman conjures intricate worlds of sex and violence and creation, which ricochet off each other with a free association of tone that suggests the dream of a gifted and highly self-conscious god. Bergman’s films are catnip to cinephiles, critics, and theatergoers partially because they inevitably flatter such audiences, offering tortured artists of physical majesty whose struggles, to balance the varying privileged scrims of their lives, often suggest nothing less than the great existential plight of humankind.

In this light, it’s doesn’t feel coincidental that Bergman’s less acclaimed films tend to interrogate the foundation on which he’s built this reflexively flattering art, particularly a run of films he made in the 1960s, in which he chafed against his emerging status as a genius and tried to tear his art down and rebuild it from the ground up. In The Virgin Spring, religion (art) is pitifully ill-suited to prevent a series of atrocities, though it perhaps allows the remaining human characters to live with themselves. In Persona and Hour of the Wolf, Bergman attempts nothing less than to foster a cinema that eats itself alive, leaving the respective characters untethered and adrift. And in Shame, Bergman pushes his exploration of the potential futility of art, and artists, even further to the breaking point, following a bourgeoisie couple as they coarsen in the face of an unnamed and highly symbolic civil war.

Shame is a bitter brew that’s leeched of much of the pleasure that even a confrontational Bergman film like Persona can give. The filmmaker begins the narrative, however, in a characteristically evocative manner, mixing eroticism, ennui, and dread. Eva (Liv Ullman) arises from bed, her shirt open and revealing her breasts. She goes to a sink and washes herself, her bare back glistening in the shards of sunlight that are piercing through the shadows. Eva’s husband, Jan (Max von Sydow), gradually awakens, and they begin their morning routine. For many filmmakers, such a series of events would be a matter of setup, but for Bergman this sequence is a kind of ambiguous and ecstatic romantic scene. Eva is a beautiful woman, and her beauty will come to influence the couple’s ability to live in their war-torn country, but Jan has been married to her for years and isn’t struck by her as directly as others might be. (Though the film offers us a moment where Jan regards Eva by a creek, clearly swept up in his intoxication with her.) Yet their casualness together isn’t merely born of routine habitation, as it’s also sensual and nourishing, reflecting the fruits and the challenges of living with someone for some degree of time.

This sequence haunts Shame as the film moves into more violent and austere territory. In this powerfully acidic production, Bergman dramatizes the invasion of a countryside that presumably has never experienced hostile foreign occupation. And though Bergman is riffing on the Vietnam War, and on the remote safety of his own island home of Fårö, Shame’s images of a prosperous white couple reduced to a status of traveling refugees offer a timeless empathetic dare. Eva and Jan have tuned out atrocity until it came tumbling onto their doorstep, taking their music careers from them, recasting them as farmers and then as fugitives. Apart from their skin color, Eva and Jan come to resemble the sort of people that the United States and much of Europe would presently prefer to lock up or fence away.

Bergman prunes Shame of the overt theatricality of even his other ‘60s films so as to suggest a loss of art born of warfare, leaving the viewer to survey craggy, frazzled landscapes and the occasionally sensual, penetrating, unmistakably Bergman-esque close-up of Ullman and Sydow’s faces. And there’s little on-screen violence in Shame to give us a cathartic thrill, which might’ve turned this merciless parable into an action film. Bergman renders horror in terrifyingly fleeting and intimate slivers of imagery: of bodies lying in fields or water, of cars run off the road, of smoke billowing up in the background while military vehicles trundle across the landscape. There are also flashes of light and explosive sounds that aren’t entirely identifiable yet are clearly the product of carnage. Eva and Jan’s home, a synecdoche for this society and their imperiled relationship, is bombed and raided many times, leaving them to start over amid rubble while they castigate one another. Through it all, they compromise themselves over and over, and Jan, initially a coward, becomes a wolf. Which is to say that Bergman has staged a brutal lament of the impotency of war as it’s felt among the populace at its mercy—a bleak poem that’s nevertheless informed with the beauty of his craftsmanship.

Yet death and compromise aren’t the primary terrors animating Shame. Instead, Bergman confronts a realization of the possibility that rarefied society might be stripped of its baubles, including its art, and might have to face the superficiality of the things it loves. (In Bergman’s most obsessive and lacerating films, art is but another kind of mask.) Such terrors are real, of course, and have been faced, most infamously during the Holocaust, but Bergman’s lack of specificity here comes to suggest that war is inevitable and circular and will eventually engulf most of us, who might be currently enjoying the sojourns of Shame’s opening passage. Bergman fillets his interests in this film, forging a vision of annihilation that is, understood, itself, to be yet another bourgeoisie toy. In one scene, Eva wonders if she’s in a dream, and if such a dreamer is capable of feeling shame. The film’s existence is her unattainable answer.

Image/Sound

The image, courtesy of a new 2K transfer, boasts a greater degree of detail than prior home-video editions of Shame. Minute textures—particularly of the damage wrought against people and land by war—seem to pop out of the frame, and the ocean of the film’s climactic sequence visually resounds with a newfound sense of clarity. Blacks and whites are well-balanced, which is particularly notable in a brilliant and seemingly found image near the beginning of the film where the central couple is separated by a diagonal shadow looming over their farm, casually foreshadowing their rocky future. Plenty of grit has been scrubbed from the image but not at the expense of character. The monaural soundtrack offers a clean and immersive soundstage, allowing small notes of life to resound alongside the vast clinging and clanging of war.

Extras

In a new interview recorded for Criterion, Liv Ullmann speaks candidly, if briefly, about her personal and working relationship with Ingmar Bergman. Ullmann discusses the unity that exists between films such as Hour of the Wolf, Shame, and The Passion of Anna, and vividly recalls the personal anxiety that drove Bergman to tackle these projects. Two short archive interviews with Bergman are also included on this disc, which find him addressing issues of artistic relevance with a candor that shames the puffy sound bites of today’s media. The best supplement of this package, though, is “An Introduction to Ingmar Bergman,” a feature-length documentary that includes extensive footage of rare films and longer interviews with Bergman, as well as intimate footage of him on various sets. A terrific essay by film critic Michael Sragow serves as the disc’s liner notes, rounding out a somewhat slim package.

Overall

Criterion outfits one of Ingmar Bergman’s most severe and ambitious films with a customarily gorgeous transfer, though the supplements could use a bit more meat on the bones.

Cast: Liv Ullmann, Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Sigge Fürst, Birgitta Valberg, Hans Alfredson, Ingvar Kjellson, Frank Sundström, Ulf Johansson, Vilgot Sjöman, Barbro Hiort af Ornäs Director: Ingmar Bergman Screenwriter: Ingmar Bergman Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 103 min Rating: NR Year: 1968 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: John Huston’s Beat the Devil

Twilight Time’s gorgeous 4k transfer rescues John Huston’s cult classic from the grips of the public domain, restoring the original cut of the film that’s been unseen for decades.

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Beat the Devil

It’s impossible to discuss Beat the Devil, John Huston’s 1953 send-up of the caper film, without addressing its tumultuous production, as that chaos very much worked its way into the fiber of the film. During the making of The African Queen, Huston spent as much of his energy hunting down an elusive elephant as he did behind the director’s chair, and two years after wrapping production on that Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart vehicle, the filmmaker jetted off to the Amalfi Coast of Italy for another strange adventure. Once there, Huston, unhappy with Beat the Devil’s screenplay, tore it up and subsequently hired a young Truman Capote to help him churn out fresh pages, which were often delivered to the actors just hours before the cameras started rolling.

Beat the Devil evinces the free-wheeling spontaneity of a film constructed on the fly. Jacques Rivette once wrote that “every film is a documentary of its own making,” which certainly applies, and then some, to Huston’s ramshackle, whimsical farce—often considered the first cult film and the birth of cinematic camp. Huston’s original intention was to make a half-serious thriller with an anti-colonialist bent, but the gentle Mediterranean breeze seems to have dissipated any hint of import in the story and self-consciousness in the actors’ uniformly relaxed performances. Like the ship that’s been docked for “one day to a fortnight” in the small Italian town of Ravello so the captain can recover from a severe hangover, no one—not the cast, not Huston, not even the plot—appears in a hurry to go anywhere.

The narrative of Beat the Devil, such as it is, involves a motley crew of liars, criminals, and scoundrels, all of whom have either grandiose visions of their futures or fantastical delusions about their present-day realities. Only Billy Dannreuther (Bogart) is somewhat connected with reality, accepting his fate as the unwitting lacky of the film’s ostensible baddie, the jovial and ever-sweaty Peterson (Robert Morley), who offers Billy the only convenient way to continue paying his hotel bill. They and the rest of the film’s motley crew of international characters are heading to Africa, supposedly to either mine for gold, diamonds, or uranium, or to grow coffee. But Huston is scarcely concerned with any of this. Beat the Devil is all about the follies that happen while its characters are busy making other plans.

Nearly all of these eccentric types lie about their intentions, while others speak of global conspiracies and massive shadow organizations. Lorre plays a supposedly Irish lackey named O’Hara, who quips at one point that many Germans in Chile have taken such a name and happily loses himself in the international crowd, which is equally fueled by post-war paranoia as it is by aperitifs. As O’Hara dodges his national identity, likely because he was a Nazi, the British Major Ross espouses a strange fondness for strong men like Hitler and Mussolini. At the same time, a married couple, Gwendolen (Jennifer Jones) and Harry Chelm (Edward Underdown), play at being part of upper-crust British society while not-so-secretly swapping partners with Billy and his beautiful Italian belle, Maria (Gina Lollobrigida).

Beat the Devil is a gleeful mess of narrative false starts and fake-outs, simmering in its own narrative ambiguity as everyone deceives everyone else as well as the audience. But a clear end game is always obscured by the pervasive aura of mistrust in the air. The plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but Beat the Devil isn’t trying to be a sensible film. For a spell, it even seems like there are invisible forces, like those at play in Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, preventing anyone from leaving town. For one, when Billy tries to head out for the day with Peterson, their car breaks down and they end up accidentally pushing it off a cliff. And once everyone finally sets sail, their ship, in a fitting metaphor for the film itself, soon breaks down. This dastardly bunch of ne’er-do-wells may have some pretty evil plans in place, but in thwarting their moves at every turn, Huston defuses their treacherous ambitions, inviting us to laugh at their increasingly disastrous blunders.

Image/Sound

After decades of being stranded in the public domain, almost any half-decent transfer of the film would be welcome. But, fortunately, Twilight Time’s transfer of the 2016 4k restoration of Beat the Devil is better than one could have hoped. The film’s gorgeous Italian vistas are rich in detail, and the actors’ often exaggerated expressions now exude a clarity certainly unseen since the film’s theatrical release. The image also has a nice balance of blacks, grays, and whites, only occasionally losing a bit of detail in the more darkly lit sequences. If anything, the transfer is too clear, occasionally making such flaws as the edge of Bogart’s wig appear unmissable. The DTS-HD audio track is consistently balanced, though dialogue is a little muddled throughout a few outdoor scenes.

Extras

The audio commentary with film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman is, in the spirit of Beat the Devil, a bit scattershot. The trio covers an array of topics, from the film’s divisive reputation to the various differences between this newly restored cut and the public domain version that most people have seen before now. They are only too happy to tell us that Peter Sellers dubbed many of the Italian actors’ voices, and that a young Stephen Sondheim worked as the clapboard boy. But as light-hearted and conversational as much of the commentary is, Dobbs, Kirgo, and Redman approach Beat the Devil not merely as a great cult film, but as a great John Huston film. A short featurette, “Alexander Cockburn: Beat the Devil,” finds the son of Claud Cockburn, author of the novel upon which the film was based, throwing much shade at Truman Capote for taking credit for dialogue taken straight from the source material. An essay by Julie Kirgo, which offers additional context to the film’s bizarre production history, rounds out the package.

Overall

Twilight Time’s gorgeous 4k transfer rescues John Huston’s cult classic from the grips of the public domain, restoring the original cut of the film that’s been unseen for decades.

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, Robert Morley, Peter Lorre, Edward Underdown, Ivor Barnard, Marco Tulli, Bernard Lee, Mario Perrone Director: John Huston Screenwriter: Truman Capote, John Huston Distributor: Twilight Time Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 1953 Release Date: January 22, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames

A once-in-a-generation cinematic poet leaves us with a hypnotic, quietly enchanting farewell testament, but Criterion doesn’t fully rise to the occasion in properly honoring it.

3.5

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24 Frames

Abbas Kiarostami’s final, posthumously released film, 24 Frames, is predicated on an absurd, almost comically Sisyphean paradox. Over the course of 24 single-shot vignettes, ordinary patterns of life are painstakingly reconstructed by the filmmaker and his team of VFX artists to the point that the end result resembles a passive, authorless recording—but, of course, not quite. Kiarostami became known for pulling this trick—that is, mingling artifice with reality in near-imperceptible ways—throughout his career, but he never saw the endeavor through to such a comprehensive extreme as he does here, where life forms, precipitation, shifting light patterns, and environmental soundscapes have been conceived and executed from the ground up and made to evolve within the frame seemingly of their own volition.

The basis for the film, specified in an opening title card, is Kiarostami’s photography work. Looking over his stills archive, the filmmaker was apparently overcome with a desire to witness more than what his images could offer, and thus set about resurrecting, with some mixture of memory and projection, the “scenes” leading up to and succeeding the click of the shutter—an undertaking that deflates Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous idea of “the decisive moment.” If one “decides” on immortalizing a single instant with photography, Kiarostami seems to posit, then one has robbed a moment of its life and complexity, qualities that can only be revived through cinema. It’s no accident that whenever a death occurs in 24 Frames, the vignette comes to an end; movement and progress are the organizing principles here.

Those unfamiliar with Kiarostami’s photography won’t be surprised, given a general knowledge of his films, by the subject matter and compositional style of 24 Frames. What’s starkly different here is the emphasis on wintry settings, many of which are recaptured in a monochrome chiaroscuro that makes them seem especially cold and bleak. In the film’s Eadweard Muybridge-evoking second vignette, a black horse runs against the current of a snowstorm while the field of view, fixed from behind a car window, follows in lockstep, finally settling on an image of the horse meeting a companion to frolic joyfully in the blizzard. Despite Kiarostami’s trademark use of an obscuring car window that’s lowered at one point—here by an unseen passenger to allow for a clearer view of the landscape—you might mistake the shot for a transmission from the grim universe of Béla Tarr, so far removed is it from the warm sunshine and pleasant breezes that often weave through Kiarostami’s output.

Unlike Tarr’s films, however, 24 Frames is far from a doggedly materialist work. From the film’s introductory vignette, a playful animated manipulation of Bruegel’s The Hunters in the Snow that inserts billowing chimney smoke and soaring crows to the original 1565 painting’s placid snapshot of winter, artifice is established as a technical principle. In blending photographic plates and visual effects components, the composite images very nearly achieve convincing photorealism, but certain elements, like the muscular movement of squirrels, deer, and cows, or the quasi-impressionistic renderings of snow mounds and fog drifts, uncannily disrupt the illusion.

Kiarostami wields this omnipotence lightly, creating compositional harmony and intimations of narrative order one moment and cultivating spontaneity the next. Some of the film’s most indelible episodes follow rhyming patterns: In one, a quietly grazing deer darts for the shelter of a grove of trees when a gun fires off in the near distance, and in another a sudden thunderclap stirs a pair of lions from a mating session, with both scenes framed by makeshift proscenium arches (a canopy of trees in the first, a rock wall with a hole cut out in the second) to draw the eye to their respective animal subjects.

Such organizing strategies, however, aren’t always offered. Sometimes there’s no notable narrative event to speak of, as in the extended studies of a few pigeons traipsing around a dead bush or a crow perched on a window frame seen from a shaded interior. Other times, Kiarostami, ever the master of the casually layered, multi-tiered composition, creates so many points of possible interest that it’s easy to linger on a development in one corner of the frame at the expense of another—a means of gentle overstimulation that works in one vignette to amplify the shock of a cat stealthily sneaking from the deep background of the shot to the foreground and pouncing on a bird.

24 Frames is a delight on these sensory levels alone, and depending on one’s patience for contemplating glimpses of natural and almost exclusively non-human goings-on, the overall effect is near-transcendent. But there’s also another feeling shading the experience, a steadily creeping poignancy that relates to the extra-textual knowledge of Kiarostami’s passing and the way in which the film’s ultra-simple structure—title cards announce each frame chronologically in between vignettes—acts as an expiring clock on the master’s career. If Kiarostami is, as suggested by Jean-Luc Godard, the end of cinema to D.W. Griffith’s beginning, then there’s a sobering poetry in the film’s use of the medium’s paradigmatic frame rate for its title and underlying construction. And especially gut-punching is the film’s concluding vignette, which bears witness to the last slow-motion stutters of an After Effects display rendering out an old movie’s soaring final kiss, all while the female editor dozes off at the workstation. That it’s unclear whether or not she’s manipulated the clip in some way provides the scene’s subtle tension, in addition to crystallizing the essence of Kiarostami’s art. Fittingly, “The End” arrives on her screen before we have a chance to determine the answer.

Image/Sound

24 Frames’s bewitching textural ambiguity—its thorough muddying of the indexical and the digitally manifested—makes the film something of a challenge when it comes to evaluating its presentation on home video. You can never be sure which elements in the frame were intended to feel artificial as opposed to which should look (or are) photoreal. For example, certain effects that might have been indications of a wonky transfer if witnessed on the Blu-ray of a traditionally shot film here become critical to the experience of the film, such as the way an animal moves, or the slightly overblown sheen of a wintry sky. That said, the image is sharp, vivid, and dynamic in its range of light and shadow, and looks much like how this writer remembers it looking upon the film’s initial release. Perhaps more impressive is the soundtrack, which should be turned up as loud as possible so as to best appreciate an immersive level of detail that’s integral to the rhythms and meaning of the film.

Extras

If Criterion’s rather bland, uninspired packaging (at least by their standards) for 24 Frames seems to indicate a rush job, that suspicion is strengthened by the paltry offering of extras, which feels like a disservice to a monumental artist’s swan song. It’s forgivable that all that’s provided in the way of behind-the-scenes documentation is 13 minutes of off-the-cuff, not-always-illuminating low-res footage shot by Kiarostami collaborator Salma Monshizadeh, as it’s likely all that was available. (To the short documentary’s credit, there’s some fascinating video of Kiarostami at the After Effects workstation manipulating a Jean-François Millet painting that didn’t find its way into the finished film.) But the two newly shot video pieces—one an interview with Abbas’s son, Ahmad Kiarostami, who finished the film after his father’s death, and the other a conversation between critic Godfrey Cheshire and Iranian scholar Jamsheed Akrami—mostly drop the ball on providing rich analysis, as the subjects lean toward platitudes about the film’s “meditative” qualities and its self-evident fusion of Kiarostami’s artistic practices. Akrami at one point relates the film to Persian printmaking, which is an interesting comparison and one that warrants more attention, but his conversation with Cheshire is cut too quickly (not to mention shot, oddly, all in profile) to allow time for lengthy exegesis. It would have been similarly useful to hear more from Ahmad Kiarostami, especially since he was put in the unique position of carrying his father’s mantle, but the focus skews largely toward his own impressions of the finished film at the expense of anything too specific about its production or his father’s life. Somewhat redeeming are the incisive liner notes by Bilge Ebiri, who’s always written eloquently on the late Iranian director.

Overall

A once-in-a-generation cinematic poet leaves us with a hypnotic, quietly enchanting farewell testament, but Criterion doesn’t fully rise to the occasion in properly honoring it.

Director: Abbas Kiarostami Screenwriter: Abbas Kiarostami Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 114 min Rating: NR Year: 2017 Release Date: January 8, 2019 Buy: Video

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