All posts by Rafael Moreira

CAPSULE: PITFALL (1962)

Otoshiana

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Hisashi Igawa, Sumie Sasaki, Kunie Tanaka

PLOT: A miner in search for work is led to a ghost town where he’ll become embroiled in a plot involving manipulation, trade unions, and doppelgangers.

Pitfall (1962)

COMMENTS: Pitfall was the first of a series of collaborations between Hiroshi Teshigahara (director), author Kobo Abe (screenwriter), and Toru Takemitsu (composer); the trio would later produce works like The Woman in the Dunes and The Face of Another. Although an interesting piece on its own, Pitfall feels more like a prelude to greater works to come.

The beginning of the film establishes a sense of mystery and intrigue, as well as looming menace and disquiet (to which Takemitsu’s experimental score proves indispensable). Our main character is a miner traveling with his son in search of a job; he receives a map and instructions to go to a certain town where work awaits him. Upon arrival, the place is revealed to be practically deserted, save for a woman living in a house on its outer edges. After a brief interaction with her, the miner finds himself pursued by a figure in a white suit who eventually stabs him to death.

The Kafkaesque setup (and tone) only paves the way for further strangeness. A few scenes later the miner returns as a befuddled ghost helplessly wandering around the town, unable to interact with the living but trying to uncover the reason for his assassination. The remainder of the film maintains this dynamic: an unfolding drama in the realm of the living, with commentary of ghosts who can do nothing but passively observe.

Even before being reduced to a ghost, the main character is already caught in a web of mysterious causes and effects, moved by an ineffable logic not unlike the inscrutable bureaucratic machinations of  The Trial. Once the plot turns its focus on the investigation of the miner’s murder, the drama thickens (along with the confusion and weirdness), and stretches to a conspiracy involving the leaders of separate factions of a trade union.

More so than in the other films by the trio, the political dimension is particularly evident in Pitfall. The well-dressed figure in white, a symbol of the upper class or even capital itself, orchestrates the events like a demiurge, leading the working class to destruction. They persist only as powerless ghosts who can only witness their own oppression, and comment on it without ever being heard. This is but one of the levels of analysis, and we should not ignore the aura of alienation that the film communicates on a purely existential level.

For a first excursion, Teshigahara’s direction is surprisingly assured. As is usually the case with early efforts by masters, the seeds of what he would go on to accomplish are fully on display in Pitfall. Even if the story does not play out as elegantly and concisely as future offerings by the same team, the film is an assured recommendation to anyone who has enjoyed them.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a classic ‘first film,’ full of restless energy and expressionistic visuals. It’s doggedly odd, but thoroughly involving.”–Noel Murray, AV Club (Criterion DVD box set)

CAPSULE: INTERNATIONAL GUERILLAS (1990)

International Gorillay

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DIRECTED BY: Jan Mohammad

FEATURING: Ghulam Mohjuddin, Mustafa Qureshi, Saeed Khan Rangeela

PLOT: Salman Rushdie (portrayed here as a Bond-style supervillain) plots to destroy Islam by building casinos, nightclubs, and brothels to spread vice and corruption; three brothers band together to avenge their faith and kill Rushdie, who is hiding in the Philippines under the guard of the Israeli secret services.

Still from International Guerillas (2024)

COMMENTS: The publication of Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” in 1988 sparked a wave of intense debate and controversy that led to bans, riots, assassination attempts, and other violence. The affair, which became one of the major cultural events of the latter half of the 20th century, culminated in a fatwa issued by Iran’s then Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. International Guerillas starts from this context, but the plot summary above should tell you everything about the tone of the film. It’s safe to assume that the filmmakers were not passionate ideologues looking to contribute a propaganda piece in the fight against Rushdie, but rather businessmen who saw the recent controversy as an opportunity to cash in on the ongoing issue by slapping it on a generic spy/action flick plot. The producer would go on to admit that the film was a purely commercial, rather than artistic (or, shall we say, ideological) affair. Regardless, it should be noted that BBC originally intended to ban the film upon its release, a decision opposed by Rushdie himself, who appealed to the principle of unconditional artistic freedom (even if applied to works that portray him as a cartoonish villain) and feared that a ban would only increase the film’s popularity.

The register is not far from a typical B-movie, with some kinship to older Bollywood cinema (over the top caricatures, cheesy dramatics, sensationalist camerawork and score); nevertheless, the combination of general silliness, the inherent oddity of the backstory, and a fair share of eccentric choices along the way makes for a strange viewing experience, especially for the western viewer.

The bloated runtime of nearly three hours (!) allows for plenty of funny (or, depending on the viewer, tedious) moments, including a surprisingly detailed set-up (the main credits only appear past the 40-minute mark) where we witness the murder of the protagonist’s sister at an anti-Rushdie protest, and his gang’s subsequent vow of revenge. What follows is a more or less continuous flow of senseless action interrupted by long (5+ minutes) dance numbers and seemingly random narrative detours. At some point along their quest, our heroes show up donning Batman costumes for some reason (or, more likely, none at all). We’re treated to the activities of “Rushdie” in his Philippine resort where, of course, he lives a hedonistic lifestyle. Besides torturing and executing Muslims by hanging, beheading, crucifying, or dropping them off a helicopter (Pinochet-style), another method of torture appears to be reciting excerpts from his blasphemous book. He also turns out to have an interminable host of clones, guaranteeing a lot of additional screentime and endless fighting scenes. And, of course, there’s the famous ending where “Rushdie” is destroyed by three flying Korans that inexplicably appear in the sky, a quite literal deus ex machina.

The basic premise of Muslim fundamentalists (undisputed heroes in the comic book morals at play here) hunting down “Rushdie” (even if he bears no resemblance at all to his real-life counterpart, physically or otherwise) might make some viewers understandably uneasy. This may be even more pronounced in today’s uber-politicized world, especially since Islamist terrorism has become more common. The obvious cheekiness of the presentation, however, means most will struggle to take it seriously as a piece of propaganda. In any case, this cult curiosity is likely to please or at least entertain viewers familiar with “Turksploitation” movies, with which Guerillas shares similarities—mainly, the idea of appropriating a popular western filmmaking template while giving it a gloriously over-the-top “national” spin for a cheap and quick cash-grab that proves funny in some intended ways and in all unintended ones. Although it might prove taxing for some, anyone who had fun with the likes of 3 Dev Adam or the Turkish Star Wars should have a guaranteed good time with International Guerillas.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a hallucinogenically awful mish-mash of music, action, crude comedy, continuity screw-ups, and dreadful production values… One of the weirdest scenes has the trio dressing in baggy Batman costumes and tracking down a bunch of identical Rushdie impostors…”–Steven Puchalski, Shock Cinema

CAPSULE: SHADOW OF FIRE (2023)

Hokaje

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DIRECTED BY:

CAST: Shuri, , Ouga Tsukao

PLOT: Amidst robberies and other exploits, a young boy tries his best to survive in the black market area of a ravaged town in post-WWII Japan; his path intersects with other struggling characters, including a war widow and a man who recruits him for an unknown enterprise.

Still from Shadow of Fire (2023)

COMMENTS: Shadow of Fire is the latest offering by Shinya Tsukamoto; more specifically, the Tsukamoto who brought us films such as  Kotoko, Fires on the Plain, and Killing. These late-career outings see the director opt for a more conventional register, while keeping more or less all of the trademarks that define his peculiar filmmaking style.

In the immediate aftermath of WWII, an unnamed war orphan makes his way through a devastated town’s black market, eventually finding refuge in a tavern kept by a woman who has resorted to prostitution after the loss of her husband and her son. She soon develops a motherly affection for the boy; the inn also begins receiving frequent visits from a young soldier.

In spite of all the differences that separate Shadow of Fire from Tsukamoto’s earlier work, the sensibility of the Tetsuo director is still on display here, not only in certain aesthetic choices but also in film’s core themes: for instance, the emphasis on the thinness of the barrier between what we call “human” and whatever lies outside its fragile boundaries. The soldier who finds shelter in the tavern undergoes, at a sudden reminder of his wartime torments, a quick transformation, unlike those in the director’s more fantastical productions, but no less terrifying precisely because of how plausible it is. (One can only imagine how many veterans underwent similar transmogrifications.) Equally notable is how repressed subjects (in this case, war traumas) are always ready to burst forth violently and dramatically—this time, not through physical mutations or explosions of steel and monstrous flesh, but in eruptions of emotional intensity. Shadow of Fire portrays an environment of disquieting uncertainty that underlies even its warmer moments, such as the familial bonding that develops between the three characters, with horror always on the periphery, looking to intrude at the slightest invitation.

In moments like these Tsukamoto’s DIY approach reveals its strengths. The handheld camera adds immersion and immediacy, and a visceral sense of physicality that heightens the brutality. The more discrete scenes might not be pulled off as efficiently, but they are as satisfactorily executed as in a piece by a more traditional filmmaker.

In any case, the drama is genuinely compelling: in particular, the plotline involving the boy’s dalliances with a mysterious man with whom he tags along for a mission whose nature is never disclosed, apart from the fact that it requires the boy to carry a pistol. Tsukamoto maintains an effective sense of tension and intrigue until this arc’s climax, which ties in with the film’s overarching themes of the lasting effects of trauma and dehumanization.

The film’s entire POV is the boy’s, much like in the masterful Soviet war film Come and See. While the adults surrounding him deal with a variety of war scars, his plot arc mirrors his condition as an orphan. Throughout his journey, he finds himself successively abandoned, first by a new mother figure (who unexpectedly rejects him after their time together), and then a masculine figure who accompanies him for a tragically short but intense stint.

The film’s coda may be unnecessary, but further testifies to Tsukamoto’s compromise to conventional narrative film trappings, attempting to close all of the plot’s loose ends and develop them to a conclusion (that is, within the climate of uncertainty that envelops the entire scenario).

Shadow of Fire will please Tsukamoto fans who have stayed on board for his more “sober” output, like his post-2010 war films or, for a less recent example, 2004’s Vital. While the director’s style might not always lend itself seamlessly to the premise at hand, and the content might inevitably lead to cliché and over-trodden territory, the power of certain scenes is undeniable. Shadow is a worthy addition to the Japanese icon’s resumé.

The reviewer saw this film at Fantasporto’s 2024 festival; U.S. release plans are uncertain at this time.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It is not an easy watch, but, driven by performances that range from haunting and affecting, to terrifying and grotesque, it is a powerful one.”–Wendy Ide, Screen Daily (festival screening)

CAPSULE: TWELVE HOURS WITH MARIA [AS HORAS DE MARIA] (1977)

DIRECTED BY: António de Macedo

FEATURING: Eugénia Bettencourt, João D’Ávila, Cecília Guimarães

PLOT: After purportedly being raped by her stepfather and expelled from home by her mother, blind 23-year old Maria is interned in the ruined remains of an old psychiatric ward by her aunt, Sister Ângela, who entrusts her to the care of Doctor Firmino.

Still from Twelve Hours with Maria [As Horos de Maria] (1977)

COMMENTS: António de Macedo is one of Portugal’s most unjustly treated directors. One of the pioneers of the “Novo Cinema” movement (Portugal’s version of the “New Wave”) and the country’s only consistent representative of genre filmmaking, he abandoned the craft in the early 1990’s out of frustration with the open ostracism to which he was subject, including the government’s refusal to finance his movies. He nevertheless left behind an important, although little noticed, body of work including the relatively successful A Promessa (The Vows) (the first Portuguese film to be selected for the Cannes Film Festival) and lesser-known works that delved explicitly in fantastical territory. His retirement from cinema saw him focus on other interests: he was also a playwright, novelist, and an explorer of religion and esotericism.

Twelve Hours with Maria, which could be described as a Gothic psychodrama, proved controversial at the time of release, denounced as blasphemous by the Catholic Church and inciting the ire of conservative activists who sabotaged screenings with violence and protests.

Set entirely within the austere confines of the abandoned ward to which Maria is committed, the film’s tone is accordingly solitary and cold; when not focused on the main character, shots are of the bleak edifice’s broken windows and unruly surrounding vegetation. Maria’s only interactions are with her visiting aunt and the calm and professional Dr. Firmino.

The film opts for a structure based on mystery. The way Maria’s inner world, and the complete account of what brought her to her current situation, is gradually unveiled through dialogue and confessions, as well as the subtler hints given by her occasionally erratic behavior, generate the suspense. Besides the broken state in which she finds herself, Maria’s mystical sense of faith is her principal character trait and the apparent source of her strength. Believing that her blindness will eventually be cured by the grace of the Virgin, and demonstrating an unshakable trust in fate, Maria’s faith is consistently challenged (as well as paradoxically strengthened) by a world that continuously subjects her to suffering and isolation. Dr. Firmino’s rationalist and historicist tirades, including commentary on scripture that is brought to life in vivid reenactments, clashes with the aunt’s dogmatic beliefs.

Besides the caricatured nun, the main source of controversy at the time were scenes where the atheist doctor presents an alternative version of the Gospel story, outrageously extrapolating from apocryphal sources to include a twin brother of Jesus, a son taken as hostage by Roman authorities, and reducing Christ’s movement to a merely political affair, depicting him as a guerrilla leader. These sections, with the bright colors of the desert, Roman troops, and bloodshed, provide a much welcome visual and tonal counterpoint to the rest of the film’s stark presentation; they are almost reminiscent of s theological explorations in The Milky Way. The film firmly avoids a satirical or ironical posture, however, adopting instead a sober approach to the dilemma of faith as it haunts the protagonist. Bettencourt’s convincing performance greatly aids this portrayal, capturing the varied inflections of a mistreated and troubled soul.

Although the story and the problems it raises don’t exactly build to a grand conclusion, the pervasive sense of mystery and the careful unfolding of new details through each new interaction or piece of dialogue will certainly provide an intriguing treat for fans of films dealing with similar themes and moods.

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1928)

DIRECTED BY: Jean Epstein

FEATURING: Charles Lamy, Jean Debucourt, Marguerite Gance, Abel Gance

PLOT: Roderick Usher invites an old friend to the portentous mansion where he lives in the company of the servants and his dying wife, Madeline, whose portrait he has been obsessively trying to paint.

Still from The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: Like it’s source material, Epstein’s silent film treatment of ’s short story doesn’t explicitly depict any extraordinary phenomena, but the aura of metaphysical discomfort and  mysterious menace is so pervasive that it lends it an oneiric character—one that’s likely to give a stronger and longer lasting impression than any more overt effect.

COMMENTS: Despite the expected controversy over the precise definition and characteristics of the movement (or whether it even qualifies as a movement), one could say that the underlying tenet of French Impressionism is the search for an emancipated cinematic language, with its own forms and techniques, in contrast to the “filmed theater” approach. Instead, cinema was to articulate, with its own unique means, certain realities (and modes of expressing them) that no other art-form could. Impressionist films focused on, among other things, subjective, psychological reality: dreams, madness and all sorts of altered states of consciousness, The methods necessary to compellingly bring it to life were unconventional camerawork, including character point-of-view perspectives, innovative editing techniques, a preoccupation with the visual composition of shots and their picturesque qualities (such as the contrasts between light and dark), etc.

With this said, it’s easy to see how such a movement proved vitally influential to weird cinema (and filmmaking in general)—as well as why it’s the perfect fit for an adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story. And indeed, Jean Epstein aptly translates the author’s most revered hallmarks—a constant, underlying sense of unease—to the language of cinema. It’s so well-realized that the viewer can predict the house’s impending ruin even without the title. The suggestion of a spectral world of shadows and unconscious forces subtly advances on diurnal reality, and the persistent aura of mystery and the uncanny reveals itself at each new turn, be it in the enigmatic presence of Madeline Usher, in Roderick’s afflicted mood and behavior, or in the many disquieting details of the mansion and its surroundings.

The resulting atmosphere of dreamlike disquiet is sustained through the film’s runtime, as if the viewer were trapped in the elegant and ethereal matter of a cloud as it gradually darkens and thickens before the storm. And as overused as it might be, “atmosphere” is indeed the appropriate term, considering the amount of shots purely devoted to its establishment (the ominous images of Nature, the manor’s vast, empty spaces where nothing but the wind manifests itself)—especially when compared to the more practical approach Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1928)