Das Weisse Band (The White Ribbon)

Director:  Michael Haneke

2009

The White Ribbon Michael HankeThe White Ribbon is a strange little film and one I found quite disquieting to watch. In some respects it reminded me of the musical Spring Awakening (Duncan Sheik & Steven Sater, 2006) as they are both set in Germany and share some similar themes – abuse and sexual awakening being at the forefront.

I also found the conclusion rather unsatisfying. While you think you have worked out the culprit of the unpleasant episodes in the community – thank in part to the narration of the teacher – nothing is ever confirmed and you certainly never get an explanation as to the motive behind them.

Actually very little happens in The White Ribbon – or rather much of what takes place, certainly the “accidents”, happens off-screen and we as the viewer only get to see the fallout or hear about the incident – usually through the School Teacher.

The children have a creepy air surrounding them – especially the two ringleaders Klara and Martin (played by Maria-Victoria Dragus and Leonard Proxauf respectively) which in some ways is borne out of the oppressive nature of their home life. Their father, the Pastor, runs a strict household and the core of the film comes from his, for want of a better word, teachings. In order to teach his children about the dangers of sinning and being disrespectful he makes them wear a white ribbon. On the surface it doesn’t seem much but it is a daily visual humiliation and reminder they are not good enough in their parents’ eyes and acts as the catalyst for an increase in the incidents that rock the otherwise peaceful community in the years leading up to The Great War. As Stacy Title says, “the preacher’s kids have misbehaved and they must wear his scarlet letter: a white ribbon for trivial mistakes. Their shame and the implied but less explicit shame and pain of the other village children, makes them act out in horrible, unimaginable ways.” (922, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

“Hanke uses a time in Germany before World War I to explicate his point. There is a root to evil and it comes in the form of abuse. In the form of disempowerment.” (922) The outbreak of War seems almost an afterthought as it is announced right at the very end of the film.

“Shot in color and then drained to black-and-white, The White Ribbon sets out to tackle a complicated foe: terrorism.” (922) The film has a fairly bland palette which I think comes from filming in color and then altering it to black and white. While it still has an artistic feel to it the film lacks the dramatic light and shade films shot in black and white have.

I’m not really sure what to make of The White Ribbon. I came away with an uneasy feeling coupled with a lot of unanswered questions. Were they simply acting out against their parents or was it something deeper? And why the high level of violence in the acts? Did the incidents stop due to the outbreak of World War I or did they continue? It seems Hanke is on of those directors that makes for uncomfortable viewing as I also found his latest film, Amour (2012) uncomfortable, if for very different reasons.

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City Of God (Cidade de Deus)

Director: Fernando Meirelles, Kátia Lund

2002

City of God Cidade de Deus“It is the open-ended final minutes, in which a generation of almost feral homeless kids take over the projects, that makes the film’s point crystal clear: This is a horror movie of the first order.” (901, Ernest Hardy, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You DieCity of God is really quite a brutal movie, all the more so when you realize that these are kids who actually live in a similar environment. For all its brutality the film is vibrant and pulsing with life (despite all the death that surrounds them).

I found the Portuguese difficult to understand for quite a large part of the film but I think that’s due to my never having heard it before. Towards the end my ear was starting to tune into it making it easier to understand.

“[…] each successive generation becomes less connected to the human traits of empathy, conscience, and hope.” (901) Of all the street kids the ones that I found the most disturbing and difficult to watch were “The Runts” who end up taking over the city. I think it’s because they are so young and yet already so full of violence. There’s a particularly horrific moment when Lil’ Ze forces one of the young members of his gang to shoot one of the Runts, as initiation. The two victims, having already been shot in the foot, are crying reminding the audience just how young they are making the whole incident harrowing to watch.

Hardy says “if there’s a lead in the ensemble of motley characters (the cast is composed of non-actors, real-life street kids) and intertwined storylines, it’s the hyper-violent Lil’ Ze (Leandro Firmino), whose prosperity for violence and complete lack of remorse make him a terrifying figure.” (901) In some respects he has hit the nail on the head. Lil’ Ze is psychotic and it manifests itself early on in his desire to kill from such a young age. However I felt like the lead was actually Buscapé, played with a sensitivity lacking anywhere else in the City of God, by Alexandre Rodrigues who narrates the film. He’s so removed from the violence that permeates every aspect of his life, it’s quite refreshing. And unlike anyone else he manages to escape the hellish conditions The City of God has descended into.

The fact that this film is based on the true story of Buscapé’s life – as evidenced by the footage of characters from that period – and filmed using non-actors (for the most part) makes the film all the more poignant. I came away with a renewed perspective on just how privileged a lifestyle I have.

 

Pi

Director: Darren Aronofsky

1998

“Strikingly shot in high-contrast black and white with various novel and visceral camera techniques, Pi evokes the paranoia of Poe and Kafka within the fuzzy framework of science fiction.” (874, Joshua Klein, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Pi Darren AronofskyFuzzy framework of science fiction is right – it’s not a film that screams sci-fi to me. There’s a few elements that don’t really it in real world films which I guess pushes it towards the sci-fi category. Pi is a weird film but one that is exquisitely shot just as Klein says it is. Somehow the use of black and white creates a period feel despite the fact that the film remains situated in the 1990s.

Aronofsky’s debut film has most definitely set the tone for his body of work. He’s developed into a director who combines surprisingly dark narratives, a strong visual style and unusual framing – all elements that are very mush present in his debut film.  “Aronofsky lets most of the questions hang until the film’s conclusion, and keeping the audience in the dark is just another way to heighten the chaotic, exhilarating, frequently imposing mood of the picture.” (874)

The maths kind of passed me by – well completely flew over my head in all honesty – but then I have never been mathematically minded. Both factions vying for the knowledge contained in Max Cohen‘s troubled mind, Wall Street and a group of Kabbalah Jews, are both quite disturbing. Aronofsky has made both money and religion objects of mistrust here.

Sean Gullette is captivating as the savant Max Cohen, someone plagued by debilitating headaches. The headaches, or rather the immense discomfort caused by their occurrence, translates across to the viewer through the use of sound and imagery. Like Max I come to dread his headaches as the incessant high-pitched white noise made for uncomfortable viewing.

The chaotic nature of the film suits Max’s character. This is somewhat of a juxtaposition as Max’s mind works in quite a linear and obviously numerical way. Because you see the narrative from Max’s perspective your mistrust of the world increases as his does. In some ways I mistrust the overly friendly Lenny more than the professionals from Wall Street yet I can’t put my finger on why.

“His ability to capture the rush and confusion of racing down a time line toward infinity, only to suddenly slam into a dead-end, makes for impressive and occasionally disturbing stuff.” (874) Max’s solution to the ever-increasing burden of his headaches is extreme to say the least and I did think it was the end of the film. And I suppose in a way it was because by destroying the information contained within is brain he removed his appeal to those competing factions. I found the actual ending sentimental but ultimately fitting. Max gains some sense of peace although it costs him his maths – seems a worthy trade-off in my opinion.

 

The Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di Biciclette)

Director: Vittorio De Sica

1948

I first watched The Bicycle Thieves while at University during my module on Film History. It certainly made more sense to me 8 years ago when watched under those circumstances. But then I guess back then we were looking at the film through the context of it being an example of the Italian Neorealism movement rather than as a simple viewing experience.  Like Jonathan Rosenbaum says “this masterpiece […] is one of the key works of Italian Neorealism.” (227, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) and that was how I was initially introduced to The Bicycle Thieves.

The Bicycle ThiefRe-watching the film now I found it rather difficult to remain engaged. It’s a very loose narrative for a feature film – one that would possibly be more suited to a short film. And I found the ending entirely unsatisfying – after all that he doesn’t even find the blasted bicycle!

Either the subtitles weren’t consistent or it takes a lot of words to form a sentence in Italian. The good thing about watching foreign films as I have said before is that is does require my full concentration, even more so with an Italian film over say a French or German film. As befitting the Italian culture there is a lot of noise and gesticulating. A lot the time the background noise was just that – noise – I didn’t gain any additional understanding in terms of the narrative.

“The Bicycle Thief contains what is possibly the greatest depiction of a relationship between a father and son in the history of cinema, full of subtle fluctuations and evolving gradations between the two characters in terms o respect and trust, and it’s an awesome heartbreaker.” (227) The relationship between the father and his son is definitely the most interesting aspect to the film. Watching the fluctuations between them is intriguing and what really held my attention. The young son, Bruno, is such a solemn little character with an extremely expressive face. Enzo Staiola gives a noteworthy performance for such a young actor.

While for the most part I agree with Rosenbaum’s review I don’t think it is a heartbreaking film but then that could be due to the fact that I was somewhat disengaged when watching the film.  was pleasurable to watch and it was certainly informative when looking at Italian Neorealism while doing my degree but ultimately the narrative left me frustrated; I’m therefore not likely to watch it again.