Brothers And Sisters Of The Toda Family (1941)

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Fourth time with Ozu after Tokyo StoryLate Spring, and Floating Weeds. This was a freebie on the BFI TS DVD (badly in need of some restoration).

Definitely in the mould of TS, with the sliding and shuffling negotiations between levels of family – parents to offspring, brothers to sisters. Almost Ozu-in-reverse as the death of a cherished but obviously slightly distant patriarch precipitates these readjustments, with the relocation of his widow (and her youngest daughter Setsuko) seemingly the central task.

Some delicately sketched characters: Setsuko is hemmed in by a brother (Shojiro) who insists she mustn’t marry and a sister (Chizuko) who insists she mustn’t work at least in part because she will be marrying soon. She sticks with her permissive mother, who is wrong-footed by a hyperactive grandchild to the annoyance of his disciplinarian mother Chiz – who herself has an unsettling preoccupation with clothing and appearance (taking distasteful pride in selecting an outfit to wear to attend to her dying father at short notice). Shojiro indulges a centrifugal ambition (by moving to China) partly motivated by guilt over his own misbehaviour and tendency to inconvenience his late father (our sympathies with him are perhaps the film’s most complex: he appears rightly ruffled by the vulturous materialism when his father’s assets are auctioned off to pay his secret debts, but he slowly emerges as a somewhat hypocritical stickler for filial duty).

The focus is spread fairly evenly across these illustrated figures, with the effect that BASOTTF feels quite decentralised, more structurally freeform than TS or LS (the strange ending is a point at which this is particularly, uncomfortably evident). This also lacks the chorographic roaming of FW and the big-money shots in TS and LS, honing in, instead, on Ozu’s characteristically reticent but evocative detail. Sho professes his lack of remorse upon receiving the news of his father’s death but the emotion comes to him through the memories embedded in the objects and arrangements of a favourite restaurant. A picture of the grandfather hangs above a doorway in one of the houses, and we get the sense that his gaze is cast over every surface in the film, imbuing each scene with restless melancholy. A year swings round and after all the rearrangement, something has slipped through the cracks.

Another elegant and naturalistic portrait, pretty low-key but with some creative structuring, and some historical interest for tracing the development of Ozu’s key themes. It’s going to be hard to find a bad one.

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Bicycle Thieves (1948)

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First time with De Sica.

Out of the furnace of Rome Open City, which chewed a documentary route through a poor Roman community before jumping on the fire, three years later BT sits atop the cooling heap. As with the self-refuting Dogme 95 filmography or undefinable kraut rock canon, neo-realist procedure has fused with sculpted melodrama in a paradoxically kenotic celebration of the genre’s peerless capacity for generating empathy.

Antonio’s deadbeat Sinatra hat and limp grey jacket blown around town like empty rags, his rosy-cheeked boy Bruno in pursuit. I kept thinking of Ulysses: the sequenced narrative, the peripheral encounters and character vignettes, the summative sweep through the city (I’d love to see a roadmap of A’s real journey, if there is one and was one).

Cléo de 5 à 7 in the wandering and the unsympathetic haruspex. Why does A turn to the one comfort that he derides his wife for frittering money on? I think he has been kicked out of the habitual momentum of work (or of trying to find it, jostling and petitioning like On The Waterfront) and sees his worries full in the face. “The boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being”.

Sparing use of closeups is efficient; similar mid shots for pursuit; long shots for urban examination recalling domestic War footage and BFI archives. Mass Observation; chucked in at the deep end and nervous until we spy A in the crowd.

The market sequence is so tense in the editing (now closeups, the artificial panning across rows of possibilities – no chance); the church is infuriating (suits and sneers suppressing real secular concerns); the restaurant is heartbreaking (cf. drinking in LTT, Gambling in LBH – narratives of addiction? Certainly the excavation of fatalistic routes to crime is needed again today).

Constant consonance with comedic greats: Monsieur Hulot in A’s pursuits and near-misses, Keaton’s Cameraman in his fluster and frustration. While BTs own funny moments are deftly sequenced, (genuflecting mid-pursuit in the church; stranded between lookalike German monks under an awning in the rain) there is an uncanny comic undertone to A’s tribulations. Like the academic cliché about Kafka being a funny writer, we are sometimes positioned uncomfortably as spectators to a ‘tragedy happening to other people’.

“If only you knew what this meant to me,” he pleads with a policeman, but do we know any better? The foundation of documentary is alterity, the experience and revelation of otherness in an ethical encounter, the something “a little different” in the faces of the people we are shown. Watching BT with a friend we both remarked upon the strangely distasteful postcard beauty we saw in the Roman streets, the markets and the dappled pavements. How can we justify not just appreciating but ‘enjoying’ this story, this world? (didn’t want to get into this but it suggests itself)

I think the defiant ending is vital. A is absorbed into the public’s “passive grains without an echo”; the demolition of his future is muffled by the cushioning numbers. Rome Open City is best when its community comes together – following interlinked characters, the resistance of the wedding day. In BT A is plagued by community, hounded out of the vicinity of the man he insists is the culprit by tribalistic neighbours. When his fat friend Baiocco (kept unhelpfully thinking of Welles in Touch of Evil) has aided to no avail and sent A and B away on a lorry, he turns and walks towards us with another man; muted under the vehicle’s noise they speak animatedly but, we feel, about something else. As with nearly all of the film’s characters, we don’t see him again. BT may have been an attempt to refine “the drama in everyday life,” but everyday life (in the film, at least) sucks the drama up and streams forward as if nothing had happened.

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La Terra Trema (1948)

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The enduring image from the opening section is the fishermen strung together by the twirled net sagging between them. They return successfully but their catch embodies not just life but death, too; buried macabre futility. Later these nets are hung with shimmering anchovies like silver icicles. Later still they are gone.

The deceased father is a hole at the centre: the void at the edge of which these people live; but also a lost wartime generation, therefore clash of old and young across another void. “It can’t go on!” says Antonio, a Yeatsian implosion.

“An old stone house like any other, yet it is unmistakably the house of a sicilian fisherman.” This is here and everywhere; it is deracination; it is Breughel’s portraits, a national story that is “signification without context” (Levinas, Totality); it, through Antonio, is Rukeyser’s Otto, the German volunteer in 30s Spain, in ‘Mediterranean’, a symbol of “the single issue”:

“…his gazing Brueghel face,

square forehead and eyes, strong square breast fading.”

The scales thrown into the sea! Potemkin moment in the midst of a skirmish thundering like the siege of the Tartars in Andrei Rublev. Aci Trezza’s brief flame is Pilar’s embedded story in For Whom The Bell Tolls. It is not enough to hear, and it is not enough to see when what you’re seeing is externally directed (the tanks in ‘Under The Ridge’ – also Hemingway’s – which “crawl clinking on towards the illusion of victory we screened.” Otto, like Antonio, is “no highlight hero”) You have to see. “Pilar had made him see it in that town.”

The islands! A kraken’s canines (“isole dei ciclopi” to the locals). Cola flees the town, promised exterior abundance (Mr Pip: “so much of the world seemed to be elsewhere”) Notes of Stromboli, but if Bergman simply finds god then Antonio is a Job who seems only able to exist in this place: “No one will help him. Not in Aci Trezza.” Hope dangled at the end when the boat is being fixed; beached like the huge ghostly hull in Uzak, its ribs arching upwards from the sand like a leviathan. (LTT tessellates interestingly with Stromboli, incidentally; the incredible fishing scenes around which Rossellini built the latter are only glanced at here. No level gaze at externality – when Cola leaves we see only his hung head)

“Even more anchovies than officials!” The family working with the silver fish is a joy. Women’s laughing faces of all ages, a child eerily like the boy from Paisà (two years earlier) reunited.

The storm bell! The waiting women on the cliffs! black gowns waving like death; Tarr in the street. (Dreyer too I bet)

Brothers’ Hamsun-esque desperate degradation; sisters’ slow dissolution into domestic gothic.

“We kept the wolf from the door for a moment, but now there’s no hope.” Sense of alluring fascism (Cola entranced by the man in the leather coat) crushed at the end: in the wholesalers’ office, grinning under MUSSOLINI, “hunger drives the wolf from his lair!” they bray. The Valestros are the threat; they’ve been whipped into line.

That bell returning at eviction, lingering ringing under next the celebrations of the new boats, the sickly preposterous Baroness under the same umbrella as the bailiffs, bestowing wreathed servitude on the cheering town, the bell still underneath. No man is an island.

Recalled Philip Fisher’s use of the term “manual” in ‘The Failure of Habit’: ie. “that part of any realistic novel or memoir independent of the line of action, suspense, and adventure, that part that documents how lives are lived as a means to celebrate or denounce styles of life.” Associates habit (repetition, behaviour) with ‘manual’ production, but in LTT the town’s habits both force Antonio’s hand and suppress his neighbours: the distinction is thus obliterated (c/ Rome Open City, untouchable but for the bathetically melodramatic conclusion – though LTT tends towards the same there is developmental cohesion)

Breughel’s The Blind Leading The Blind, but also (more so) Hunters In The SnowMost of LTT takes place in the middle-distance, people facing and walking away or to and fro, we observing rhythms. (Lowry too) But at the centre is a hole, the fruitless repetition and frustration, the need for more. (Tarkovsky also Nostalghia flashbacks in the crumbling streets, Mirror in the family)

This is germinal; it’s lambs’ breath; it’s the shaking earth! It’s what made cloistered Eliot tremble:

What is that sound high in the air

Murmur of maternal lamentation

Who are those hooded hordes swarming

Over endless plains, stumbling over cracked earth

It’s The Spanish Earth. “This Spanish earth is dry and hard, and the faces of the men who work that earth are hard and dry from the Sun.” Fuentadueña is Aci Trezza. This is Auden’s yesterday and today. Yet though the politics are clear, this is the defeatist first part of an uncompleted trilogy. It is the earth that shakes; it is out to sea that those nearly-widows face on their tempest vigil.

I loved Moonlight in part because I felt really glad not just that I’d seen it but that it even existed, that someone had made it. Proud, even. This is what the real family depicted in La Terra Trema had to say about Visconti’s work:

“The Family Valestro wishes to express publicly its gratitude to Luchino Visconti and his collaborators for making their story known to Italy and the world through La Terra Trema. We are profoundly grateful for the experience we underwent together, from which we have reaped the highest hopes for our future.”

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