Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project
Reviewed by Aaron Cutler
A dual-format Blu-ray/DVD box set of nine discs containing six films. More information here.
A quick glimpse at Martin Scorsese’s new corporate satire The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) shows his ongoing dialogue with film history. The strong camera movements between human figures across a single plane of action recall the films of Hollywood pioneer Raoul Walsh; the candy-colored palette and penchant for outlandish gags with lovable human monsters revives the spirit of Frank Tashlin; the tendency towards rapid, agile editing to achieve shock effects can be found in films from Nicholas Ray. One can also find traces in Wolf of films by Marco Ferreri and Yasuzo Masamura. Scorsese has never made a secret of his attachment to classical Hollywood cinema, nor one of his devotion to Italian neorealism and its descendants, nor to great cinema from Japan, England, China, and a wide array of other countries. In fact, it has been the contrary: Scorsese has consistently used his celebrity to call attention to older films, doing so as a filmmaker, as an activist, and, most essentially, as a preservationist.
In 1990, Scorsese founded the Film Foundation, a nonprofit group that has aided the restorations of over 560 films as of this writing. The vast majority of them were made by filmmakers based in the United States and in Western European countries like England, France, and Italy with established film archives. Scorsese then later founded the World Cinema Foundation to restore films from countries that have historically lacked film preservation efforts. This second organization—now called the World Cinema Project (WCP) as it joins with the Film Foundation—has premiered between one and four restorations (realized at the invaluable restoration and conservation lab L'Immagine Ritrovata of the Cineteca di Bologna) each year since its 2007 inception, with initiatives coming from archives, from board members, and from Scorsese himself.
A new Criterion Collection box set, Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, brings six of the organization’s films to Region 1 home video for the first time, with representation from Senegal, Mexico, Bangladesh, Turkey, Morocco, and South Korea. The Criterion box, intended as the first in a series, offers a tantalizing glimpse of the WCP’s work in reviving wonders that have long since been out of circulation or hard to find in good conditions. While several of its restored masterpieces are still unavailable on home video in North America—among them Lino Brocka’s Manila in the Claws of Light (1975, Philippines), Mário Peixoto’s Limite (1931, Brazil), Shadi Abdel Salem’s The Night of Counting the Years (1969, Egypt), and Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (1991, Taiwan)—enormous care has been taken with the titles included in this box.
In addition to being presented in an excellent-to-resplendent transfer with clear and elegantly translated white English-language subtitles, each of the six films is accompanied by a brief Scorsese introduction, an illuminating video essay or interview with a living filmmaker from the film’s region, and a well-researched booklet essay by a specialist critic. These elements work together to give useful historical and aesthetic context for the films, addressing a chief WCP goal discussed by its Executive Director Kent Jones in his introduction to the Criterion booklet: to expand the narrative of global cinema, and in so doing, enrich our understanding of what has recently taken place throughout the world.
The WCP’s films, hailing from countries that have typically been left out of the Western reading of film history—many of them recently independent former colonies—often focus on people who live at crooked angles to their society. This is the case with the Criterion box set’s first title, the Senegalese film Touki bouki (Wolof for “The Hyena’s Journey”), directed by Djibril Diop Mambéty. As Cineaste editor Richard Porton discusses in his booklet essay, Touki bouki arrived at a moment when African cinema as a whole was still young: the continent’s first feature, Senegalese artist Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl (1966), had been produced less than a decade prior, and Senegal itself was serving as a breeding ground for several new, exciting filmmakers working with French production money.
This seeming conflict between independence and dependence lies at the essence of Touki bouki, the self-taught Mambéty’s debut feature and the first part of an intended trilogy about colonialism’s effects on the African mindset. (The second part, Hyenas , was realized nearly twenty years later; Mambéty died in 1998 of lung cancer before he could realize the third.) The film begins with a young boy leading cattle across a dry plain on their way to the slaughterhouse. The boy remains unnamed, though a connection is suggested between him and the film’s main character, Mory (played by Magaye Niang), who appears a few scenes later, riding through a shantytown on a motorbike with cow’s horns affixed to its front.
Mory, in debt to people throughout the town, dreams of escaping it, and makes a plan with his girlfriend Anta (Mareme Niang) for how to do so. The two will dress and act rich so convincingly that no one will suspect them of being anything else, which means that no one will notice when they steal some money, and that they won’t look out of place when they board a boat to Paris. Mory believes that their actions won’t be immoral—in his eyes, much bigger crooks than them are working for the Red Cross.
Touki bouki proceeds by resisting literal connections for poetic ones, and often discarding a linear narrative for a road-movie structure in which seemingly any kind of sequence is possible. The images of the couple dressed in colorful outfits, wearing big hats and smoking cigars, find surreal and carnivalesque complementary sights throughout their journey. A sign outside the shantytown advertises “Nice, La Riviera et la Corse”; a man walks through a crowd seated at a wrestling arena, calling on Senegal’s ties to France in order to convince people to donate to General de Gaulle’s memorial; another man lustily opens a treasure chest, thrilled with the possibility of obtaining gold coins, and then runs away, shrieking at the sight of a human skull.
Money is unshakably linked to death throughout the film, which uses a Josephine Baker song advertising Paris as “a little piece of heaven on Earth” as an aural refrain and the image of buzzards encircling characters as a visual one. It is also linked to slavery, and as Mory and Anta prepare for their boat trip, the question emerges of whether they, in trading Senegalese debtors and keepers for French neocolonialists, would be reaching a better life or embracing servitude. The film’s comedy is punctured by a few brief, sad moments of the couple sitting silently by glistening water that seems to reflect both liberty and oblivion. They are free to leave if they choose to do so, but the film also ambiguously suggests that greater freedom—as well as hardship—might lie in a choice to stay.
Touki bouki emphasizes material wealth in order to question whether the soul can be bought. Something similar could be said of Redes (Spanish for “nets”), the second film in the Criterion box and a Mexican social drama starring nonprofessional actor residents of the small fishing village of Alvarado in the state of Veracruz. LikeTouki bouki, the film contrasts the reality of terrestrial life with the appearance of freedom that water gives, in this case through a story of fishermen coming to understand and react against the extent to which their bosses control their lives.
Redes’s production history, however, is much more convoluted than that of Mambéty’s film, as the booklet essay by Latin American cinema scholar Charles Ramírez Berg gracefully explains. Redes was financed by Mexico’s Secretariat of Public Education (SEP) as the first and last entry in an intended series of films about life throughout Mexico. The film found inspiration in a “docu-fiction” story by American still photographer Paul Strand, who had previously traveled throughout Mexico and who wrote the script with Agustín Velásquez Chávez, the nephew of instigating Carlos Chávez, head of the SEP’s Department of Fine Arts. Co-directing credit went to the Mexican filmmaker Emilio Gómez Muriel and to the Austrian Fred Zinnemann (later of From Here to Eternity  fame), who had recently arrived in Hollywood. Zinnemann and Strand, the film’s cinematographer, fought frequently throughout a turbulent seven-month shoot and then both returned to the States, leaving the editing to others.
One might reasonably be afraid to try a broth cooked by so many, but the resulting film—an oft-wordless, beautifully expressionistic work running slightly under an hour—is both moving and remarkably coherent. Redes finds wonder in the sea’s crashing waves (whose movement is mimicked by Silvestre Revueltas’s score) as well as in the faces of the fishermen encountering them, beginning with a dynamically edited sequence of men at work casting their nets. Their rush soon dissipates, however, with the realization that there are not many fish to be had.
This is of especially great concern to Miro (Silvio Hernández del Valle), a fisherman whose son is sick and whose requests for a loan with which to pay a doctor are brutally refused by the town’s fishing boss, Don Anselmo (David Valle González). At the boy’s funeral, Miro shakes his head and says, “It’s not right for a child to die because his father couldn’t pay to cure him.” His words become a kind of rallying call for this Christ figure and fellow fishermen to unite against Don Anselmo, his overseers, and the corrupt politician (Rafael Hinojosa) who claims to want to help the people while actually just seeking votes and cash. Yet the group’s consciousness is not awakened immediately, and the film tracks a series of rises and falls in energy as Miro and his allies discover the hollowness of most of their victories. The chief profits of their work continue to go elsewhere, leaving them and their families with centavos.
A defeatist mentality haunts the whole of the film, whose main tension derives not from the question of whether the rich will be toppled but that of whether the poor can continue their struggle. With that said, the future is suggested in a scene where an embittered old man (Antonio Lara), who has had a lifetime of work forced upon him, begins to slash at the fishing nets with a knife until Miro stops his hand, calling against mindless destruction; like the nets, the fishermen are stronger united.
After a period of much violence and struggle, Redes ends with hope for these wretched of the earth. This ending leads into the beginning of the Criterion box’s third film, A River Called Titas, which presents text that reads, “This movie is dedicated to the myriad of toilers of everlasting Bengal.” Titas was directed by the Bengali master Ritwik Ghatak, who essentially dedicated his life to his people. He was an inveterate alcoholic, Indian Communist Party member, and impassioned teacher who had been traumatized at an early age by the 1947 Partition between Pakistan and India, which divided the then-province of Bengal along religious lines and uprooted millions in the process. Ghatak—who also worked as an actor, theater director, and writer in addition to filmmaking—strove to create a “useful” cinema that might help others through a series of parables about this catastrophe. He died at age fifty, having realized eight features along with several shorts and documentaries; A River Called Titas (based on Advaita Malla Burman’s novel of the same name) was his penultimate feature, and in 2007 a British Film Institute poll declared it the greatest Bangladeshi film.
Like Ghatak’s earlier masterpiece The Cloud-Capped Star (1960, with a wonderful non-WCP restoration made by the Cineteca di Bologna in 2012), the film creates a metaphor for the damaging effects of partition through a family-focused melodrama that places the struggles of people to build relationships within nature’s power to grant life and death. A River Called Titas establishes this cruel power early with an image of a dried-up riverbed near the fishing village of Gokannaghat. Just as the village’s workers are dependent on the river to provide life for them, so do lovers, parents, and children within the village and its surroundings depend upon one another. These residents include Basanti (played in adulthood by Rosy Samad) and Rajar Jhi (Kabari Choudhury), two young women who dream of happiness with another person and, for a brief moment, find it.
Both of the young womens’ marriages are soon ended in surprising ways, with subsequent attempts at rebuilding life, made and remade as they find and lose other loves. The Australian critic Adrian Martin amusingly recounts in his booklet essay a few of the incredible complications that take place simply within the film’s first half hour, contextualizing the narrative curlicues within Ghatak’s greater style of rupture: a scene between people will often proceed within a full, developed composition, and then, at a sudden and shocking point, a cut will tear them apart.
The film posits this pattern as the order of existence. Mothers become of particular interest within it as the creatures most capable of creating as well as destroying. For instance, the young Basanti says, “There’s only one real thing in the world: motherhood. There is nothing else.” As the years pass, though, she turns from caring for a boy (Rani Sarkar) that she has adopted as her son to resenting him, partly because of how his presence becomes a burden to her own mother (Roushan Jamil). Basanti is one among many of the film’s characters who are essentially caught between generations, struggling to simultaneously honor the past (as embodied by tradition and by old and lost loved ones) and the future (as represented by young lives and lives to come). In the process, the present risks being displaced, and what Basanti calls her “river of pain” deepens while riverbeds of the Titas run dry.
This description perhaps risks making A River Called Titas sound overtly tragic. It is hard to express in words how stunningly beautiful, and even calming, the film also is, with dissolves and bursts of light giving the impression that life will continue, even in its essentially flawed form. Titas shows how humans play, at the most, a very small part in controlling the world, despite their efforts to the contrary. So does the Turkish film Dry Summer, the Criterion box set’s fourth film, in more straightforwardly didactic terms. The film deals with mankind’s folly in striving to conquer nature. It begins with a man brutally whipping animals along a dirt path and ends with his dead body, like a piece of debris, washed away down a stream.
The fat mustached man’s name is Osman (Erol Tas). He is a greedy tobacco farmer living in an Aegean village with his younger brother Hasan (Ulvi Dogan), whose illicit love for the beautiful Bahar (Hülya Koçyigit) is made legitimate by marriage early in the film. Hasan’s wish to build a peaceful life with his beloved, however, is complicated by his older brother’s possessiveness. Osman desires to own all the water surrounding their property, and demands that the unwilling Hasan join him in building a dam with which to fight the neighboring farmers who claim that the earth’s blood belongs to no man. He also more quietly desires Bahar. After Osman kills one of the farmers and convinces Hasan to serve a prison sentence on his behalf for it, he is left with all of his family’s potential property, including his brother’s wife.
Dry Summer—which became the first Turkish film to win an international prize when it claimed the Golden Bear at the 1964 Berlin Film Festival, though for years afterwards was hard to see in anything other than its producer’s mutilated cut—was directed by the former film critic Metin Erksan a few years after Turkey’s leadership changed in a 1960 military coup. Erksan had previously made Revenge of the Snakes (1962), a film about battles over rural land, and chose to follow it by adapting Necati Cumali’s novella narrating a dispute over water. He did so outside of then-standard Turkish production norms (which, as New York Magazine critic Bilge Ebiri discusses in his booklet essay, were experiencing a renaissance thanks to government funding incentives) by shooting on location in the village where the novella took place, casting several of its villagers as extras, and making the actors speak with rural Aegean accents as opposed to the Istanbul Turkish customary to national films.
One could see these choices stemming from a documentary impulse, with Erksan and cinematographer Ali Ugur employing shimmering light to capture natural splendors. At the same time, the film’s environment reflects the psychology of its human characters, with bubbling emotions pushing the action towards melodrama as though they were the waters of a bursting dam. This is particularly true in the performance of Erol Tas, whose characterization of Osman creates a leering burlesque of abuses of power by using the surrounding world as his props. In one scene, he dresses a scarecrow up as Bahar and proposes to it; in others, he lewdly fondles and sucks a cow’s udder in front of the real woman, and tells her to check the water’s flow so that he can look up her dress. Throughout the film, the neighboring farmers serve as a kind of Aegean chorus, commenting clear-eyed on how Osman, in taking what does not belong to him, is stealing “the earth’s blood.” The embattled Hasan must resist his abusive elder and reclaim no less than life.
“Brothers, when shall our days brighten?” implore the musicians of the Moroccan group Nass El Ghiwane, as a crowd swells around them during the group’s concert that opens the fifth film in the Criterion box set, the Moroccan musical Trances. This concert film about Nass El Ghiwane was the inaugural film restored by the World Cinema Project due to a personal initiative from Scorsese, who had used the group’s song “Ya Sah” in his film The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Scorsese first sawTrances on late-night television while editing The King of Comedy (1983) and has since called it “the soundtrack of my life.” He was captivated by the energetically rendered images and sounds of a group that played native instruments and sang in a local tongue in order to spread messages throughout their country about the need to search for love and peace.
Trances was directed by Ahmed El Maânouni, who had previously featured a Nass El Ghiwane song in his film Oh the Days! (1978), which had been the first homegrown Moroccan film to screen at Cannes. Oh the Days! was not the first Moroccan film to have done so; Orson Welles’s Othello (1952), technically a Moroccan production, had even won Cannes’s Grand Prix more than twenty years prior. As the Morocco-based film scholar Sally Shafto discusses in her booklet essay, cinema had existed in the country ever since the Lumière brothers came to visit. It was only after the movement for independence from French and Spanish rule (elusive footage of which appears in Trances to accompany an allegory that Nass El Ghiwane member Omar Sayed tells) succeeded in 1956 that films both made and produced by native Moroccans began to be made.
Many of the most notable post-independence Moroccan films were documentaries about everyday living conditions in the country, including Trances, which bases itself upon footage from three Nass El Ghiwane concerts, rehearsal scenes, and interviews with the group’s four present-day musicians while also showing them driving, walking, and playing music with the residents in some of Casablanca’s poor neighborhoods, with the suggestion that being among their country’s poor and working classes helps inspire their songs. The group—which was founded in 1971, and whose name means “the disciples of a chanted philosophy”—drew upon traditional Moroccan poetry, religious rituals, and theater for its music, attributed equally in the film’s end credits to the live musicians and to Moroccan folklore. Front man Larbi Batma and his fellow musicians rejected popular Egyptian melodies in favor of the sounds made by indigenous instruments such as the bendir, darbuka, and guembri,and they sang in Moroccan Darija, a popular local dialect of Arabic that had previously existed exclusively in oral form.
“It is our fault that we have no unified language or rhythm,” the group wails in one number about a nation officially divided among five tongues, while urging its people to unite beneath a shared Arab heritage. Though Trances provides a brief portrait of each musician, the men come to form a single entity joined together by their music, which flows smoothly throughout dissolves from one scene to the next as though weaving an aural tapestry. Within this movement, sentiments of hope and freedomstand out more than individual songs do. “I say, never will oblivion darken my heart,” Nass El Ghiwane’s members sing in one instance; “I will never eat stale bread again,” they offer to listeners several scenes later. These words and sounds are given with the spirit of friends soothing friends (including the deceased Nass El Ghiwane member Boujemâa H’gour, who receives a late-film tribute). The film alludes to how the still-active group’s approach made it wildly popular, with images of audience members rushing en masse onto the stage to join the musicians, or else writhing among themselves as though caught up in a religious swoon.
In contrast, the Criterion box set’s sixth and final film, The Housemaid, sardonically warns against the dangers of losing oneself in ecstasy; it also presents some perils of pursuing patriotic ideals, familial stability, material security, and one’s dreams. Kim Ki-young’s film begins by showing the members of a calm and stable South Korean middle-class nuclear family—husband, wife, and a sweet child of each sex—gathered in their household’s living room, with the man reading a newspaper story about the members of another happy family whose lives were ruined by their maid. The bulk of the film then shows what happened to these unfortunate souls, with the actors from the prologue portraying them.
We learn that this family was destroyed by its efforts to grow. The piano instructor Mr. Kim (Kim Jin-kyu) offers himself to his teenage female students for extra lessons in order to cover the cost of the two-story home into which his clan has just moved; Mrs. Kim (Ju Jeung-nyeo) is pregnant with the couple’s third child, but still slaves at a sewing machine to help pay the family bills. The exhausted wife eventually begs her husband to procure a housemaid to help them. He seeks a recommendation from his attentive student Miss Cho (Um Aeng-ran), who sends a crazed-looking unnamed young woman (Lee Eun-shim) into the Kim household on the condition that she receive part of the girl’s salary. On a rainy weekend when Mrs. Kim and the children are out of town, Miss Cho comes over and tells her teacher that she loves him; the older man throws her out of his house, but then immediately succumbs to lust for his housemaid, who has been watching the whole time. Soon afterwards, the housemaid plunges the whole group into hellish circumstances with the news that she is pregnant.
The film’s plot turns progressively more demented after this point, and its style grows wilder in reflection. Cinematographer Kim Deok-jin’s frequent prey-and-hunter-like arrangements of the actors, composer Han Sang-gi’s inescapably pounding score, and the continual bursts of lightning glimpsed from inside the house work together to push a viewer towards both laughter and fright. Sharp tonal variations occur throughout a story of people becoming entrapped by their objects of comfort. The status marker of a piano at home comes to sound dire warnings; a stairway connecting a house’s two floors turns from a symbol of luxury into a battleground; and a servant becomes a threat to one’s health, with the masters barking instructions at the put-upon housemaid despite knowing that she could poison their meals.
Kim Ki-young’s ninth film was made while South Korea was still recovering from Japanese colonialism and a few years before a military dictatorship assumed power. Cinema was a profitable national industry at the time, with the dominant aesthetic tradition (per East Asian culture scholar Kyung Hyun Kim’s booklet essay) tending towards rural stories with subdued emotional palettes; Kim broke from this tradition, which even his previous, more neorealist films had embodied, in order to tell a tale about his society’s psychology at the present moment.
The Housemaid (which Kim himself remade twice, and which was then again remade by the younger Korean filmmaker Im Sang-soo in 2010) would impact the future of Korean cinema, with a new generation of artists finding inspiration in it and in Kim’s other surviving works in the 1990s, with their discoveries coming despite a prior nationwide tendency to recycle film prints for immediate practical purposes, eliminating much of Korean film history. (The Korean Film Archive [KOFA] was first founded in 1974.) Bong Joon-ho, who in films like The Host (2006) and Mother (2009) moves between developing and detonating prototypes of socially adjusted families, appears in an interview on the Criterion release pleasurably comparing Kim to Buñuel and Imamura for the ways in which his films explore the dangers of human desires.
Desire in The Housemaid, of course, is not only sexual—though Mr. Kim is defeated by his animal urges, it is Mrs. Kim’s quest for comfort that first helps bring danger home. Some late words by her resonate both comically and tragically throughout the guilt-ridden self-unmoorings by characters with seemingly stable lives in later films by Bong, Park Chan-wook, and others. Mrs. Kim sees the pain that her loved ones have suffered and moans, “If only I hadn’t wanted the new house.”
More information about the World Cinema Project, including a list of restored films, can be found here.
To purchase Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, click here.
Copyright © 2014 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXIX, No. 2