Criterion Corner: Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project Takes Cinephiles to Parts Unknown

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Criterion’s box sets can be something of a daunting prospect for those who struggle as it is to afford single films, with compilations stretching past the $100 mark with ease. Yet these are frequently the release that show off the best that the label has to offer, resurrecting not one but several films around a shared theme, be it the works of one director or, as in the case of the recent, gargantuan “Zatoichi” set, a franchise. The latest set, Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, is the most loosely bunched. As the title suggests, the films within are the result of a partnership with director Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, dedicated to the restoration and re-exhibition of films made outside the usual cinematic hotspots, as well as some nearly forgotten works in foreign countries that are known for their filmic output. The six films included in this set come from a variety of places, from Mexico to several African nations to South Korea, and they are all vastly different from one another. At first glance, their one shared attribute is their difference, their innate stance as foreign from the monolithic film industries of the world.

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Not that this is a hindrance to enjoyment; indeed, the stylistic and geographic distinctiveness of the collection’s entries is its great pleasure. Let’s start with the 1936 Mexican film “Redes,” the oldest film in the set, and the breeziest at a mere hour in length. Co-directed by the Mexican Emilio Gómez Muriel and the Austro-Hungarian Fred Zinnemann (who’d left Germany but not yet gotten his Hollywood break), “Redes” almost looks like a work of Soviet Constructivism; indeed, its depiction of proud fishermen standing up to greedy, underpaying businessmen could position it as a workable double bill with Eisenstein’s own overview of Mexican history, “¡Que Viva México!” Then again, the directors’ loving, elegant shots of the daily fishing routine of the village, the casts of nets into glinting water, the beatific smiles of hard workers rowing out to their spots with verve, are steeped in propagandic language but break into the more poetic tones of Boris Barnet, particularly his “By the Bluest of Seas.” Though the use of non-actors and a generally placid style gives the impression of a kind of pre-neorealism, evocatively angled compositions and the incorporation of Silvestre Revueltas’ gorgeous, stirring but never never overbearing score suggest that the directors learned the best lessons of Soviet propaganda and German expressionism, even as their catalog of rural Mexican ritual breaks the film of its European artistic debt and crafts a language all its own.

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“Redes” makes a fitting starting point for diving into this set, for the rest of the films branch off along its political and anthropological traits. The Turkish melodrama “Dry Summer” (Metin Erksan, 1964), updates its class content into a more complex scenario, in which one farmer, Osman (Erol Taş), wages a capitalist war against his peers, exploiting his farm’s position near the only local water source to dam up all the water for his own crops to starve out the competition. His increasingly fraught conflict with other farmers is exacerbated by the rivalry he opens with younger brother Hasan (Ulvi Dogan), who finds Osman’s behavior deplorable. The film is pure melodrama, with Osman’s pride broken up with shots of Hasan constantly bedding his new bride,Bahar (Hülya Koçyiğit) and the brotherly strife leading to almost ludicrous ruin, but Erksan’s direction never settles too long on classical framing. Instead of fully static, intercut shots or smooth tracks, Erksan spends many shots panning after any movement or dialogue, adding a percussive visual punch to every gesture and line. Even the morality play of Osman’s catastrophic greed is given a new context, wedded to cultural considerations of an eldest son’s sense of entitlement, to profits, to nature, even to his younger sibling’s wife. Modern political commentary is thus set against a backdrop of tradition that offers a viewpoint different to that of Western film.

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“The Housemaid,” a 1960 Korean film from Kim Ki-Young, is the film of the set most like a Hollywood production, though if it mostly plays by Western genre rules, the film that results is, if anything, more sophisticated and daring than anything a major Hollywood studio would have allowed at the time. The film concerns a bourgeois family’s aspirations to wealth, which they prove not only with their large, well-furnish home but the people they employ to tend to the house. Things go awry, however, when the philandering patriarch, Mr. Kim (Kim Jin-kyu), brings on a young maid (Lee Eun-shim) who becomes deranged after Kim impregnates her and she is pushed to miscarry her child. At that point it turns into a psychological thriller so demented that only Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion,” made five years later almost certainly with no knowledge of this film, can match the effrontery of its symbolic rot and stylized claustrophobia. What’s more, Kim’s film features a shocking class critique aimed not at the rich but at those who aspire to being rich, whose class aspirations lead them to renounce their humanity, suggesting that the truly heinous figures in class warfare are those attempting to cross battle lines. Compared to lingering European resentment of aristocracy and Hollywood’s love of Horatio Alger fables, to stake out this position is nearly avant-garde.

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If “The Housemaid” represents the most forthright realization of the set’s political content, the remaining films build more upon the sociological aspects on display in “Redes.” Like that film, the Bengali “A River Called Titas” (Ritwik Kumar Ghatak, 1973) focuses on a fishing village, though where the former is fast-paced propaganda, the latter is a sprawling epic of allegorical decay, set in a pre-Partition Bangladesh and tracking a host of characters across many years as the Titas River on which they live and profit slowly dries up. Ghatak does not explicitly link this atrophying to worries of colonial history or of impending fragmentation but to a broader history of tribal conflicts and local custom. His camera hones in on ritual, on the processes and ceremonies that have bonded a community for centuries. That sense of history infuses the parade of miseries put forth by the narrative, from a man driven mad by his lover’s disappearance to the resigned sadness of the woman who loves him settling for another whom she herself loses. These sorrows contain traces of overt and subtle Hindu mythology, casting their narratives as much as comments on a shifting Bangladesh as corporealizations of cycles of immortal life beyond their understanding. Ghatak’s angular, diagonally oriented compositions are cluttered, but they emphasize the space the space between objects, the growing emptiness as the riverbank grows ever larger as the water itself evaporates.

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The mixture of real and mythic history into the story recalls the more abstract works of African cinema, one of which, Djibril Diop Mambéty’s “Touki Bouki” (1973), is included in this set. Mambéty’s film follows two Senegalese students, Mory (Magaye Niang) and Anta (Mareme Niang), who commit various petty crimes around Dakar to raise the money for a one-way trip to Paris. In following their attempts to ditch their homeland for the promise of their erstwhile colonial power, Mambéty devotes much of his energy to aestheticizing Senegal’s strange, insoluble mixture of ancient ritual and the modern Western civilization foisted upon them by an outside force. The director does so with a surreal, achronological work, bridging together seemingly incompatible shots and taking great liberties with linear time. An early shot of a boy riding an ox calf cuts suddenly to an over-the-shoulder shot of a young man riding a motorcycle with ox horns pasted to the handlebars. Is the cut an allegorical juxtaposition of Senegal’s own growth pattern, its tribal, rustic infancy now in a growth pain of existential doubt? Are the boy and the teenager in fact the same person? Anything seems possible in Mambéty’s film.

Indeed, that jolting cut is, on the whole, one of the less beguiling of the movie. In one stirring sequence that completely jumbles time into a mini-mystery of bewildering edits, Anta seems to regard the slaughter of a goat, at which point she disrobes as if the West-loving student feels an abrupt some primal connection to ritual. That strange sight then runs up against Anta running across the path of an older woman, who stops skinning her own goat to taunt the young woman while brandishing a blade, causing Anta, dressed in a Western blouse and bell-bottoms before the traditional garb of this maniacal woman causes Anta to collapse in fright, immediately controverting the prior scene by suggesting that the young woman truly is alienated from her surroundings and even views them the way a visitor would. Eventually, all the pieces are, if not fully sorted, clarified to the extent that Anta’s actions are more logically explained, yet the sudden rush of traditional and modern ties hang over the rest of the film, especially in the finale, in which both characters feel pangs toward both home and the West and end up caught in an emotional quagmire, unsure of what they want. “Touki Bouki” is a rich, multivalent work, and also one with a deep vein of humor, with Mambéty approaching the material satirically as much as he does poetically.

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“Trances” (Ahmed El Maânouni, 1981) handles its social content with a similarly tonal approach. Nominally a documentary about the massively popular Moroccan ban Nass El Ghiwane—”The Rolling Stones of North Africa,” as they are called, making Scorsese’s interest in preserving this film all the more fitting—”Trances” quickly moves away from its exciting footage of packed stadiums going wild for the band’s brand of African folk-pop to a more free-form visual document that visualizes the band’s social context as well as the liberating power of their music. Only rarely do the musicians explicitly mention their history as avant-garde artists who parlayed their challenging, form-breaking early days into expansions and updates of traditional Moroccan music; instead; shots of the band living normal lives and carrying out the routines of living in Moroccan cities as they also rehearse and tour are cut up with pillow shots of nature and urban development to create an understood, felt history of both Nass El Ghiwane and Morocco. As with all of the films in this collection, “Trances” is not so radical a departure from received cinematic convention as to be baffling but features tiny but crucial divergences from the norm: when, near the end of the film, the band starts addressing the director not with anger or challenge but simply as an acknowledgment of the person in the room, the casual, innocent violation of the remove so much nonfiction fashions for itself is broken in such a charming manner.

As if to emphasize the deep cultural histories of these works, every film in the set predominantly features water, even “Trances” and “The Housemaid,  the former in abstract shots that sync with both music and lyrics, the latter in a generic sequence that uses a rainstorm in Hammer horror-esque fashion, as a portent of impending doom. One could say that the presence of water signifies the primitive, unindustrialized nature of each milieu, as nearly every film takes place in small villages whose residents cannot live too far from a water source. But it is more accurate to look at the water, naturally, as elemental. It signifies life, death, hope and limitation, a fundamental need that encapsulates the manner in which some of these films seem to return to zero (to borrow Godard’s phrase) and build out an individual type of cinema. The great pleasure of foreign cinema in general is the possibility it introduces to not only spend time watching a different civilization but to see that civilization, ideally, through the eyes of its denizens. Criterion’s collection highlights this rewarding facet, offering up six films whose quirky violations of “proper” film language reveal truths and perceptions through their very construction that offer glimpses into different worldviews. Across the pond, the UK’s Masters of Cinema label has released a similar set with some of the same films and the same name, albeit with the important additional tag “Volume 1.” Let us hope that this set is also but the first in a series of fruitful collaborations with Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, and that future collections offer as many chances to see, however briefly and mysteriously, parts of the world that the established film centers of the world have either ignored or simplified.

The Criterion Collection will release "Martin Scorsese Presents the World Cinema Project" on December 10th.