31 Days of Cinema, Days Twenty-Six, Twenty-Seven and Twenty-Eight: “Autumn Sonata” | “In the Name of the Father” | “La Ciénaga”

Autumn Sonata is sui generis in cinema: the only collaboration between Sweden’s two most famous cineastes—actress Ingrid Bergman and director Ingmar Bergman—done just in the nick of time, right before the actress’ death and the director’s retreat into television and theatre. It’s as sensational a mix as Pacino and De Niro in Heat, and as productive. Ingrid plays Charlotte, a concert pianist who takes an invitation to reunite with her estranged daughter Eva (Liv Ullmann)—which results in a long traumatic evening when tensions simmering between the two erupt. Ingrid brings a classical, more expressive edge to Ingmar’s typical modernist austerity, and watching her bravado working with Ingmar’s nostalgic, poetic, rigorous monologues and dialogue is breathtaking. She even has the wisdom to find some humor in Ingmar’s template. Searching for humor in late Ingmar is like combing through a white sand beach for pearls. Indeed, I’ve read that Ingmar hated this approach of Ingrid’s and attempted to squelch it, but he did not. Some black humor is there in the first half, and I imagine Ingrid needed it to play such a narcissistic snob of a character—and one not loosely based on her.

Pay attention, with this as with all of Ingmar, to the actors’ faces; you train yourself after seeing quite a few of his films to register the thaws and cracks in the characters’ façades. The scene where Eva plays some Chopin for Charlotte is one of many standouts: Eva takes just enough admiration in the music but strains to play it well, while Charlotte alternates between pleasure and insecurity in her effort to control Eva. You can sense all of this from each smile, grimace, flicker and bow under pressure seen in Ingrid and Ullmann’s faces. Right after, Charlotte instructs Eva on the proper way to interpret Chopin, and you wonder whether she is talking less about the music than about the approach to life that she is trying to foist upon her daughter. Critics always reveal as much about themselves as they do about art. Nonetheless, I will criticize, because my expectations for Bergman are high: his usually unassailable photographer Sven Nykvist displays his tacit genius, not least in how he often uses dark shades to frame his pale Nordic faces like piano keys, but his lighting of some flashback scenes is too golden and syrupy for this material. The great Ullmann, playing a cloistered shell of a woman, does not get to show her trademark mystery until the film’s second half, while the late I Am Curious alum Lena Nyman’s portrayal of Helena—Eva’s sister, who has ALS and cannot speak intelligibly, and who is the source of much consternation for Charlotte—is iffy, with a tad too much mugging, even if its symbolism is fitting. But hey, you’re not going to see many actress-director combos as exciting as this.

Grade: A

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There are few things that outrage and perturb me more than abuses of power—than when those in authority assault those under them, for personal gain if not out of spite, in an institution that works to sustain and vindicate such power. In the Name of the Father has no scarcity of such abuses and touched me at the core because of it. The narrative is based on a real-life act of political evil (the word “corruption” will not do here) in a developed Western imperialist nation. In 1974, in the wake of the IRA’s bombing of the Guildford Pub near London, eleven Northern Irish civilians are rounded up and charged with the crime on almost no evidence. The two of men focused on here are the wayward metal thief Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his father Giuseppe (the late Pete Postlethwaite). Gerry and three of his peers are tortured into signing false confessions and are sentenced to life in prison. (Between viewing this and reading Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, I am now quite motivated to never confess to anything I didn’t do. I will never attribute my name to anything I didn’t write or approve of.) Giuseppe died in prison; many of the convicted served their sentences in full; Gerry and the other three lifers were exonerated in 1989, after fifteen years. The story is brutal, in life as in cinema—though the execution in the latter suffers a bit from some inaccuracies. For one, Gerry and Giuseppe never shared a prison cell, as they do in the film, so I imagine the director Jim Sheridan (who also worked with Day-Lewis on My Left Foot, et al.) decided to give father and son more proximity to expedite, and to adapt to film, whatever contact and correspondence they may have had with each other in life.

Granted, the decision pays off because the acting and interacting of Day-Lewis and Postlethwaite is superlative. Day-Lewis’ Spartan method acting needs no elaboration here. I do wonder if he is capable of simplicity—of jumping into a role and improvising, of acting and embracing artifice as opposed to being and becoming. But I can respect the angle from which an actor needs to get to know his character, and Day-Lewis’ approach does succeed in getting you to feel how long this man has been imprisoned and lost out on freedom. (And his Belfast accent is so good, I’ve heard it called authentic.) Postlethwaite, as perhaps the film’s most tragic figure, grounds his performance in the character’s astonishing religious integrity, which his son is left to inherit after his death. Emma Thompson, as the solicitor Gareth Peirce, is underused but makes the most of her time, without resorting to cliché and over-righteous fervor. The late Corin Redgrave, as the main nemesis, is appropriately smarmy and officious, more concerned with looking good as a detective than with being good. Don Baker, as the actual IRA bomber, presents a critical moral dilemma when he shows up at the Conlons’ prison. He has confessed to Guildford to no avail and wants to take responsibility for the Conlons’ predicament, but is he genuinely after redemption or does he merely mean to expose the British elite as zealous imperialists, even if they are? The set pieces I will always cherish are the opening Belfast riot; the Jamaicans’ comic relief; Giuseppe’s death; the indignant courtroom scenes; Peirce’s epiphanies; every scene between the two leads; and every scene anchored by Trevor Jones’ taut, haunting, ethereal music. Do yourself a favor, and watch this.

Grade: A

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I’m not going to spend too much time on La Ciénaga, because frankly, I didn’t care that much for it. It did not take that long for the film to lose my investment, and it was the most substantial letdown of the month. The film opens and spends most of its time at a neglected summer home in the Argentine pampas, where an indistinct, churlish mass of characters—a family—loiters around. The matriarch Mecha (Graciela Borges) cuts herself on shards of glass, and everyone rushes with her to the hospital as if they were busybodies running late for a wedding. A cousin of Mecha’s, Tali (Mercedes Morán), learns about the injury and decides to take the opportunity to bring her family to the home to do some loitering around while they can. One waits for the film to expand and blossom from this premise, at least in an artistic and emotional if not in a narrative sense, only to come to the slow and inexorable realization that it won’t. Every scene is like the last: confused, monotonous, repetitive, smug, self-alienating. This is the debut of one Lucrecia Martel, and it comes with a handful of common errors that debuting directors make: obvious religious symbolism, obvious parallels (one son of Tali’s gets his leg sliced shortly after Mecha’s accident), an inability to increase conflict without injury, risk of injury, a sexual interaction, or a sexual coercion.

The Criterion essay tells me that the title is Spanish for The Swamp, and the film means to be swamp-like: lost in the humidity, realistic to excess, dirty, meandering, with none of the clear trappings of plot or character. I think the film is dishonest in this technique; if it really meant to submerge us in a proverbial swamp, it would be slow-paced and longer, not rushed as it is. It would take its time to invigorate or at least intrigue us into following these characters’ lives for two hours, into joining them in their bog, and it would make the effort to distinguish the characters and give them dimension, as all great social realism ought to do. No chance. There are some curious moments that save this from being a failure, such as Tali’s surprisingly convincing account of a friend’s encounter with Mary Magdalena, and an imminent, perhaps hazardous trip to Bolivia—from which the story ultimately cops out. Otherwise, as I was watching this, I failed to keep track of characters’ names and basic personalities and to recall key events, and I felt I was better off checking out early. Days later, I struggle to readily find a synopsis of the film’s story online, and while I could likely say the same for other films I’ve seen this month (Marketa Lazarová, e.g.), I cared for those films and was willing to get lost in their worlds. La Ciénaga shuns audience involvement and sees that as an excuse to disregard developing its world. Skip it.

Grade: C-

To Do: I can confirm that though I have had to play catch-up, I have successfully finished watching all thirty-one of the films that I prescribed myself to watch this past July. Hence, reviews of Yi YiPather Panchali and Winter Sleep are imminent.

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31 Days of Cinema, Days Twenty-Six, Twenty-Seven and Twenty-Eight: “Autumn Sonata” | “In the Name of the Father” | “La Ciénaga”

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