film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Barren Lives (1963)

Barren Lives, an adaptation of a beloved Brazilian novel, is ultimately a simple story; an impoverished cowhand (Átila Iório) leads his family in a long journey to remote farm in search of work, various complications prevent them from saving money, and they give up and leave again.

The simplicity was a perfect choice for the growing “Cinema Novo” movement in Brazil. Cinema Novo is a Brazilian take on the then-popular French “New Wave” movement; and, if you think about it, both were probably inspired by the Italian neo-realism of the 1950s. All tend to focus on “realism” on screen – focusing on ordinary people, paying attention to how people actually speak, and in many cases even casting non-actors. Cinema Novo in particular presented itself as an alternative to the big splashy musical costume pictures the mainstream studios were producing in Brazil; they focused on the starker, grittier reality the poorer people in the country struggled with, and frequently called attention to issues of social inequality.

The film was also a close adaptation of a popular book (also called Barren Lives ) from the late 1930s; unfortunately, it may have followed a bit too slavishly. I didn’t look into the film’s history until after watching it, and struggled a bit with the film’s sparse dialogue. When they did speak, characters tended to repeat themselves a lot (the mother in the family, played by Maria Ribeiro, spoke so frequently of wanting to buy a “leather bed” that I started to grit my teeth each time it came up). The many shots of the relentless sun baking down through the trees were effective at first, but towards the end they started to sour on me. It wasn’t until I read about the book that I realized that this repetition and sparseness was a feature of the book as well – so this was a definite feature for the book’s fans, but for me it was a little baffling.

But the repetition is a small quibble, and overall was infrequent. Other moments shocked me with their rawness; the very first line of dialogue is something the mother mutters to herself, after having to kill the family’s pet parrot to feed everyone. As she’s plucking its feathers, she simply observes, “it couldn’t talk anyway.”

Overall this was a stark glimpse into the starker lives many in Brazil’s more impoverished regions were leading, and that was precisely the point.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Woman In The Dunes (1964)

School teacher and amateur entomologist Niki Junpei (Eiji Okada) is on a day trip to a small seaside village, on a hunt for some tiger beetles. But he gets a bit lost amid the dunes, and when he asks a local man (Kōji Mitsui) where he can get the bus back home, he’s told the last bus already left. But don’t worry, someone in the village can put him up for the night; in fact, there’s a local lady, a recent widow (Kyōko Kishida), who’d probably appreciate the company. Junpei is game enough, thinking it’d be a charming “local color” kind of experience, so he’s not alarmed when they bring him to a deep pit with a shack built into the bottom, and urge him to climb down a rope ladder to meet his hostess.

He also doesn’t think anything of it when she heads outside after dinner to dig in the sand, filling up buckets which the other villagers pull up on a pulley. It helps to keep the pit clear, she says, and the village sells the sand to a cement company. Junpei chivalrously offers to help, but she says no – strangely adding that he doesn’t need to work “on his first day.” Junpei reminds her that he’s leaving in the morning, but otherwise doesn’t think anything of it and goes to bed. He still doesn’t question it when the widow is fast asleep the following morning; he dresses as quietly as he can, gathers up his things and tiptoes out the door.

….Only to find that the rope ladder is gone. The whole thing was a trap – the widow is a virtual prisoner in the pit, and the villagers now expect him to live with her, helping her dig sand in exchange for food and water lowered down to them from the pulley. And, in time, becoming her next husband.

This is a weird story. A lot of the elements don’t really make sense if you think about it too hard – where are all the other houses in the village? How does no other tourist discover this pit the whole time Junpei is there? If the sand is so precarious, isn’t their digging just going to make things worse? Isn’t anyone going to look for Junpei? But somehow the story stays just this side of believable, in that gray area between “true story” and “fairy tale”, and gradually you realize those are the wrong questions. You should be asking deeper ones instead – like, does it make sense to try escaping the way Junpei does? Or does it make more sense to accept your fate, like the widow? Does trying to get a peek at the outside world help you or distract you? Should you try to get little luxuries like a radio or just be content with what you have? Junpei himself asks at one point, “Are you shoveling to survive, or surviving to shovel?”

It’s heady stuff that doesn’t really hit you until later. And at the end – once you’ve recovered from the shock of learning just how long Junpei’s been in the pit – you realize that his final actions make a lot of sense.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Contempt (1963)

“Real life” relationship issues and conversations are a tricky thing to depict on screen. They’re weirdly meandering, filled with in-jokes and unique interpersonal references, and can be kind of boring to watch. But somehow, midway through this film, Jean-Luc Godard pulls off not only capturing a true-to-life feeling couples’ argument, he makes it matter.

Paul (Michel Piccoli) is a young French playwright who’s been tapped for a film adaptation of The Odyssey, rewriting the script to resolve creative differences between the smarmy American producer “Jeremy Prokosch” (Jack Palance) and director Fritz Lang (playing himself). Paul brings his wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot) with him to the set in Italy, where she comes to meet him after his first meeting; Prokosch is so taken with her he spontaneously invites everyone back to his villa for drinks. But whoopsie, there’s only room in his car for one person! So, how about Camille rides with him and everyone else can follow in a taxi?….

It’s pretty obvious that Camille is less than thrilled by this suggestion, but Paul agrees – and shows up late to the villa after his taxi gets a flat tire. Prokosch is still his smarmy self, and Camille seems upset – sulking all through their drinks and then all the way back home. There, over the course of nearly 20 minutes, Paul and Camille have a long slow simmer of an argument and their marriage falls apart without either one realizing it just yet. They try to put it behind them with a trip to Prokosch’s other villa in Capri (and that trip is one of the things they were arguing about ) – but the trip only confirms things for Camille, driving her to make a hasty, and ultimately tragic, decision.

In a weird way, this film reminded me of parts of the more recent film Marriage Story; in both films, the plot hinges on an argument between a married couple which ultimately severs their connection. But the argument in Marriage Story is a no-holds-barred shouting match, with Adam Driver and Scarlet Johannson exploding months’ worth of pain on each other, while the argument in Contempt is a more organic and subtle talk, with neither party really realizing where they’re going until they get there. It’s as much of a surprise for the audience as it is for Paul when Camille says how unhappy she is. ….Well, sort of – it was clear to me how uneasy she felt in Prokosch’s company, and I’m sure a lot of other women watching were getting just as frustrated as she that Paul seemed so clueless. (And I know I’m not reading into this – towards the end, during their final conversation, Paul finally seems to Get It – but by then it’s too late.)