Criterion Review: Martin Scorsese’s WORLD CINEMA PROJECT VOL. 3

Vol. 3 features Lucía, Pixote, After the Curfew, Dos Monjes, Downpour, and Soleil Ô

Established by Martin Scorsese in 2007, The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project has maintained a fierce commitment to preserving and presenting masterpieces from around the globe, with a growing roster of more than three dozen restorations that have introduced movie lovers to often-overlooked areas of cinema history. Presenting passionate stories of revolution, identity, agency, forgiveness, and exclusion, this collector’s set gathers six of those important works, from Brazil (Pixote), Cuba (Lucía), Indonesia (After the Curfew), Iran (Downpour), Mauritania (Soleil Ô), and Mexico (Dos Monjes). Each title is a pathbreaking contribution to the art form and a window onto a filmmaking tradition that international audiences previously had limited opportunities to experience.

Lucía (1968)

A formally dazzling landmark of Cuban cinema by Humberto Solás, the operatic epic Lucía recounts the history of a changing country through the eyes of three eponymous women. In 1895, Lucía is a tragic noblewoman who inadvertently betrays her country for love. In 1932, she is a member of the bourgeoisie drawn into the workers’ uprising against the dictator. And in the postrevolutionary 1960s, she is a rural newlywed struggling against patriarchal oppression. Shot in an array of distinct, evocative visual styles, Solás’s sprawling triptych is a vital document of radical progress.

A triptych of sorts, following three women, each named Lucía, through three different periods crucial to shifts in the political and social climate of Cuba. During the war of independence against Spain, the wealthy Lucía (Raqual Revuelta) who falls in love with a roguish man who turns out to be a Spanish spy on the lookout for her brother, a rebel who has gone into hiding. In the 1930’s, Lucía (Eslinda Nunez) falls in with another young revolutionary in the aftermath of a rebellion against Cuban dictator Gerardo Machadoa. Together they become dissatisfied with the new regime that has been installed and pot another change to fend of Western encroachment.In the 1960’s, another Lucía (Adela Legra) leaves the confines of working the fields in a subsistence living, to another type of confinement in a marriage to a cruel and repressive man, before being offered a future by a local proletariat group.

Lucía doesn’t just chronicle social chance, it champions the revolutionaries, those who push back and try to instigate it. More than that, how hey are often foiled or frustrated in their cause, in this case by men. Shifting dynamics across the eras only reinforces what remains the same, with class and wealth keeping those underfoot firmly there, but there is an undeniable sense of empowerment as the people/women of Cuba go through an awakening, both personally and historically. Solás crafts a film that kicks off with an old school Hollywood feel, a romanticism, that gives way to a brooding tone. Throughout, a Cuban energy persists, exuding pride and celebrating these peoples and their progress.

After the Curfew (1954)

Giving voice to the anguish of a nation fighting for its soul, Usmar Ismail’s After the Curfew follows the descent into disillusionment of a former freedom fighter who is unable to readjust to civilian life following the revolution that gave Indonesia its independence from the Netherlands. Steeped in moody atmospherics and psychological tension, the film struck its national cinema like a bolt of lightning, illuminating on-screen, for the first time and with unflinching realism, the emotional toll of Indonesian society’s postcolonial struggles.

Another film with ties to the independence of it’s host country, in this case, Indonesia. Lewat Djam Malam focuses on the veterans, and their lives in the aftermath of liberation from Dutch forces. Focusing on one man, proclaimed as a hero, and the struggles as he returns to a society, one that fails to match up to the ideals he fought for. Flashbacks fill in backstory and frame his emotional state, as well as the trauma of war. Dream and aspirations replaced by reality and disillusionment, as he sees the corruption, complacency, and way things are run in this hard fought “land of the free”. It’s a melodramatic and affecting affair, that uses a small scale tale to offer commentary on a nationwide response to a horrific conflict, one perhaps made more well known through the work of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing.

Pixote (1951)

With a blend of harsh realism and aching humanity, Héctor Babenco’s international breakout Pixote offers an electrifying look at youth fighting to survive on the bottom rung of Brazilian society, and a stinging indictment of the country’s military dictatorship and police. In a heartbreaking performance, Fernando Ramos da Silva plays a young boy who escapes a nightmarish reformatory only to resort to a life of violent crime, even as he forms a makeshift family with some fellow outcasts.

Pixote loosely translates as “small child”, referring to the titular character, a 10 year old boy (Fernando Ramos Da Silva) who grifts his way through the slums of São Paulo. One of many children, abandoned by their family and their society, living day to day, begging, cheating, stealing to survive.Pixote is swept from one hell into another, as he is thrown into juvenile prison, a cruel environment made all the more harsh due to the cruelty of the prison guards. Pixote and a number of these mistreated youngsters seize an opportunity to escape, and after finding their way to the streets of Rio de Janeiro, are pulled into the it’s seedy underbelly, where sex, drugs, and violence are not just ways to exist, but a way of life.

Writer (along with Jorge Durán) and director Héctor Babenco takes on the task of drawing attention to the very real plight of these abandoned children on the periphery of Brazilian cities and society. The structure is made up of interconnecting vignettes, and adopts the feel of a documentary. These approaches let the filmmaker keep a cool distance from the subject at hand, letting the nightmarish descent of these kids speak for itself. Despite operating in makeshift families, there remains a lack of moral guidance and in Pixote we see an eternal yearning to fill the void left by the absence of a mother. Some of the young actors featured were actually lifted from the streets for filming, or returned to them afterwards, the extra features further highlighting the tragedy of the situation. Shunned by society, trying to eke out an existence in it, childhood innocence warped and worn, taking an ever darker turn towards drugs, prostitution, and ultimately murder. Babenco chronicles this tale with a simmering fury at a harrowing life, no child should ever have to endure.

Dos monjes (1934)

This vividly stylized, broodingly intense early Mexican sound melodrama by Juan Bustillo Oro hinges on an audacious flashback structure. When an ailing monk recognizes a new brother at his cloister, he becomes deranged and attacks him. Dos monjes recounts the men’s tragic shared past once from the point of view of each, heightening the contrasts between the two accounts with visual flourishes drawn from the language of German expressionism, including camera work by avant-garde photographer Agustín Jiménez.

The oldest film nestled into this release and yet it feels surprisingly fresh. An elderly, serene monk attacking a new brother entering his order is certainly a hook to kick things off, but Dos monjes looks back not forward to explain events. A bold deployment of flashbacks to show how these two men came to their current point in time and more pertinently to blows. Not just content with that, the film tells two tales, offering up the history between the men from each of their perspectives, with all the bias you’d expect.

It feels adventurous in terms of concept and execution while director Juan Bustillo Oro plants the tone squarely into Gothic territory. A compelling yarn that toys with experimental ideas while keeping its sights on a brooding melodrama.

Soleil Ô (1970)

A furious cry of resistance against racist oppression and a revolutionary landmark of political cinema, this feature debut from Mauritanian director Med Hondo is a bitterly funny, dazzlingly experimental attack on capitalism and the legacy of colonialism. Soleil Ô follows a starry-eyed immigrant as he leaves West Africa and journeys to Paris in search of a job, a community, and intellectual engagement — but soon discovers a hostile society where his very presence engenders fear and resentment. With this freewheeling masterpiece, Hondo crafts a shattering vision of awakening Black consciousness.

Racism rooted in the past, casting troubling shade in the present for a young African man (Robert Liensol), and indeed many of his kin. Setting off from Africa in an attempt to leave behind the colonial yolk that is holding him back, he moves to Paris with dreams of a better future only to find himself thwarted in all his efforts to make a home for himself. Besides trouble finding accommodation and a job, he is a social outcast to most, and a curiosity to the rest. He eventually finds kindred souls in the fellow Africans in the city who try to combine their efforts to make things a little better for themselves, finding strength in the bonds that were forged when bonds were broken.

Director Med Hondo’s tackles a topic that sadly feels as politically and socially relevant today as it did back in the 70s. Remnants of a colonial past and the causal and overt racism of a major city in the West. What empathy exists seems to ring hollow. Odds (aka prejudice) stacked against people of color, pushing them towards each other through their shared pain and frustration. From this, comes an awakening and a glimmer of hope to root for. The film levers a low budget to underscore the rawness of the story and immigrant experience while still exuding a distinct and varied style. Punctuations of sound, music, and sharp editing cuts all complement the discontent and dissenting tone of the narrative. A cutting reminder of the persistent pain and suffering that stems from slavery and that Black Lives Matter.

Downpour (1972)

With brash stylistic exuberance, this first feature from Bahram Beyzaie helped usher in the Iranian New Wave. When he takes a job as a schoolteacher in a new neighborhood, the hapless intellectual Mr. Hekmati finds that he is a fish out of water. Shot in luminous monochrome and edited with quicksilver invention, Downpour, which has been painstakingly restored from the only known surviving print, captures with puckish humor and great tenderness the cultural conflicts coursing through Iran at a pivotal historical moment.

It’s a confluence of events for Mr. Hekmati (Parviz Fanizadeh) that throw him outside of his comfort zone. A well educated schoolteacher in Tehran, who takes a position in a new school. A challenge in class is met by the expulsion of a student, which leads to an encounter with the boy’s sister. Betrothed to another man in the town, the enamored teacher is dismayed, but the response from the community at their interactions further exacerbates his already rocky transition into this new page of his life.

A fish out of water story is apt with Downpour, showing how a heavy and persistent shower of obstacles and challenges can stifle anyone, no matter how well equipped they are. We also see how judgment and gossip can destroy a career or reputation. In this case, a smart, experienced man, moving to a less affluent and more conservative community. Filmmaker Bahram Beyzaie uses the situation to paint a larger picture of the clash of ideals within Iranian culture. Education and wider world view butts heads with tradition and social pressure. The young clash with the old. Insiders versus outsiders. The film is packed full of contrasts, opens a window to Iranian life, and also challenges it too. An authentic portrayal of how an individual’s wants and needs can be suppressed or constrained by the expectations of a culture.

Special Features

  • New, restored 4K digital transfers of all six films, overseen by the World Cinema Project in collaboration with the Cineteca di Bologna, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-rays: Each film is presented in their original aspect ration, all in black and white except Pixote. They all show pretty impressive restorations considering the age of their stock and their limited availability. Dos Monjes and Lucía show some variation in quality throughout, the latter showing some blurry segments. After the Curfew has some more prominent defects too. The rest are more consistent in appearance.
  • New introductions to the films by World Cinema Project founder Martin Scorsese: Marty is always a delight to listen to and these personal introduction are no different
  • New interview featuring Downpour director Bahram Beyzaie: Focuses on the intention of the filmmaker to shake up Iranian cinema while also being held back by budget and heavy censorship in his home country
  • New interviews featuring film scholar Charles Ramírez Berg (on Dos monjes): A really solid piece which gives a bit of a history lesson of how Mexican cinema developed in comparison to the U.S., and how Dos monjes influenced many of the releases that followed in its home country
  • New interviews featuring journalist J. B. Kristanto (on After the Curfew): Incisive and detailed interview which opens up the little known world of Indonesian cinema, and the efforts by Ismail and other directors who sought to use their art to highlight various cultural and social causes
  • Excerpts from a 2016 interview with Pixote director Héctor Babenco: Some delightful personal insights into the earlier stages of his career, a rumination on Pixote, and capped off by impassioned opinions about working with child actors
  • Excerpts from a 2018 interview with Soleil Ô director Med Hondo: A love letter from the filmmaker to his film, or more specifically the original movie/story from which it was adapted
  • Humberto & “Lucía,” a 2020 documentary short by Carlos Barba Salva featuring Lucía director Humberto Solás and members of his cast and crew: Just over 30 minutes in length, its a nice reunion for the various Lucias and the director, to reminisce about the project, and also a little info about how the script developed over time and during production
  • Prologue for the U.S. release of Pixote, created by Babenco: The filmmaker gives a very brief breakdown of the Brazilian system of prison and reform
  • New English subtitle translations:
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an introduction by Cecilia Cenciarelli, head of research and international projects for the Cineteca di Bologna, and essays by critics and scholars Dennis Lim, Adrian Jonathan Pasaribu, Stephanie Dennison, Elisa Lozano, Aboubakar Sanogo, and Hamid Naficy: Cenciarelli focuses on the WCP and the restorations in this release, the rest provide insightful works specific to the six movies

The Bottom Line

Criterion offer a wealth of cinematic treasures, and in collaboration with Martin Scorsese World Cinema Project, are nobly drawing attention to some less know features, and the countries of their conception. It is an admirable feat and volume 3 of this series continues their sterling work with some rich and diverse offerings.

Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project Vol. 3 is available via Criterion from September 29th

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