Severino: The Secret of Condor Pass (GDR, 1978) Claus Dobberke

January 10, 2009 at 12:34 am

This Gojko Mitic vehicle from his later period is interesting to mostly as it represents yet another good example of the transnational filmmaking that was in full swing in the area of popular cinema in the Soviet bloc countries of the period. The actor is past his prime here, and even though he does pull some of his traditional stints of horseback riding and shows off his sculpted upper body on several occasions, it is more by way of giving fans a treat in a routine effort to maintain an established star image rather than an attempt to impress new audiences. (In a way, it is a film that can be compared to the fare that Tom Cruise is involved in these days — mostly relying on past glory rather than radical reinvention.)

The film is set in Argentina and is based on a novel by Eduard Klein. A mature and balanced man, Severino is a Manazanero Indian who has been away for ten years and now comes back to his village, ridden by conflict between the locals and the settlers, all evolving around the secret of a certain Condor pass (a climb to which provides one of the nicest moments in the film, with awe-inspiring views over the highest parts of the Andes). Severino does his best to settle the disputes and manages to do so, but only to some extent; he is also involved in a love affair, but it is an added subplot that lacks sparkle and does not engage. In the overall, the film feels tired and overlong, even for its short 78 minutes. There is very little character development, almost no gripping action, and the conflicts are not persuasive nor deep enough to engage. There is surprisingly little effort to propagate the cause of proletarian struggle (which is a feature of earlier films like Osceola); the advancing age of the actor and the early decline of socialism are both felt in the film.

Thus, as I said, the most interesting aspect for me remains the information that the film brings on the matter of international socialist co-productions. The cast of the film includes the titan of Polish cinema Leon Niemczyk, as well as a host of Romanian actors such as Constantin Fugasin or Violeta Andrei, as well as many more. The film is made by DEFA in collaboration with the Romanian Buftea Studio (and it is places in the Carpathian mountains that seem to stand in for the Andes). What is particularly important, however, is that it appears there is no consistent pattern in the co-production dimension in these DEFA projects. In other cases there is usually one co-production set-up that is put in place and then exploited all over again for as long as it is possible; it is simply not economic to have a new co-production configuration put in place on a per-project basis, especially if one already has got a set-up that is working. Yet, in the case of these productions, the films are shot in a different production configuration each time — Osceola is made in co-production with Cuba and Bulgaria, this one — with Romania, The Scout — with Mongolia, Ulzana — with Russia and Romania, The Sons of Great Bear — with Bosna film. It reads like a list of socialist international cultural collaborations. What is specific here is that the driving force behind many of these projects seems to be not so much economic convenience (nor financial considerations of pulling together budgets or resources) but rather the desire to be involved in joint projects with the group of ‘brotherly’ countries. This was the underlying motive of many of the cross-border cultural initiatives of the period, and it worked. It is important not to lose it out of sight today.

© Dina Iordanova
10 January 2009

Romani actors and Invisibility: Welcome Images, Unwanted Bodies

December 7, 2008 at 11:02 am

Having seen many films featuring Romani themes and actors over the years, I cannot help observing that there are rarely actors of Romani origin that sustain more than an episodic career in cinema. In most cases, the pattern is one of appearing in a film, making a great impact, and then either coming back for one or two more installments of doing some more of the same like in the earlier film, or vanishing completely. For instance, Gordana Jovanovic, the beautiful young Romni from Aleksandar Petrovic’s classic I Even Met Happy Gypsies (1967) only appeared in his next film, It Rains in My Village, and ten years later, in a small role in Goran Paskaljevic’s human trafficking film Guardian Angel (1987). The Gypsy musicians of Slobodan Sijan’s classical Yugoslav saga Who Is Singing Out There? (1980), the brothers Miodrag and Nenad Kostic, have appeared in a handful of other Yugoslav films, always playing the same role of Gypsy musicians, a role which they also happen to play in real life as well. The unforgettable motherly Ljubica Adzovic from Kusturica’s Time of the Gypsies (1989, pictured) and Black Cat, White Cat (1999), had no roles in cinema in the decade between the two films, before falling out of sight (reportedly, she was determined to only be in this particular director’s films, so much she liked him). There was a brief report somewhere that she was claiming asylum in France around 2002. Then, according to a note on the imdb, she has died in 2006.

Could it be that this is the way these Romani actors are, in line with the widely spread belief of the freewheeling Gypsy soul that cannot bear the straitjacket of commitment and permanence? Or, could it be that there are other factors at play here? I simply do not know what may have affected casting decisions in the Yugoslav films that I just referenced. However, in more recent cases, I have stumbled upon evidence that the approach to transnational casting of Romani actors often comes along with ‘strings attached’ : true to the transnational nature of their community, Roma are allowed to appear in films shot in different countries, but such appearances cannot possibly serve as the basis of immigration claims on their part. In order to secure this rule, strict measures are put in place. On the one hand, one embraces the Gypsy screen presence while, on the other, one acts to keep the actual Roma out of sight. The resulting paradoxical (and ultimately hypocritical) situation is that Roma actors are hailed as images on the screen, but only as long as they do not attempt to show up in flesh and blood.

In one case from the mid 1990s, the French authorities gave permission to Ovidiu Balan, a Romanian Roma boy (born around 1980 in my estimation), to stay in France for the duration of the shooting of Tony Gatlif’s Mondo, a sensitive drama of adolescent bonding where he played the main role. He was promptly deported to Romania as soon as shooting wrapped up. Balan has since appeared in two more films — the Canadian-Swiss tale of human trafficking Clandestins (1997) and Gatlif’s own Gadjo Dilo (1997), where he played a prematurely grown up community leader. Clearly extremely gifted, Balan has had no film appearances for more than a decade now, and, like in most other cases of actors of Romani origin, his most productive years have clearly not been taken up by film roles.

In another instance, Maria Baco, the Hungarian Roma actress who played the lead in Silvio Soldini’s Un’anima divisa in due (1993) was refused an entry visa to Italy and and effectively barred from attending the screening of the film at the Venice International Film Festival’s competition (where her partner won the award for best actor). This remains her only role up to date, and there is no information on her date of birth or place of residence and occupation today. Meanwhile, leading roles of Romani women in Hungarian cinema have been assigned to actresses of the main ethnicity, like Dorka Gryllus, who look the part.

© Dina Iordanova
7 December 2008

As usually is the case, only a few of these films are available to purchase. Here is what one can buy from Amazon.

Transnational/migrant actors: A certain case of invisibility I I

November 18, 2008 at 12:04 am

Just this past week I came across two instructive examples that illustrate the invisibility of transnational actors that I have been talking about. In these particular cases, it seems, it all comes along with a degree of voluntarily acceptance of the condition of invisibility. Let me elaborate.

The first instance was with Ingeborga Dapkunaite, the Lithuanian-born actress whom I first came to know of more than a decade ago, from Nikita Mikhalkov‘s Oscar-winning film Burned by the Sun (1994). She since emigrated and, I believe, is based in the UK, but has been taking roles internationally. I just watched her a few days ago in a Belgian production called 25 degrees in Winter a few days ago. She had the lead here, playing a Ukrainian immigrant to Belgium who gets involved with a displaced Spaniard while searching for an elusive Russian husband. A fully competent performance, precisely like the other work in roles Dapkunaite has delivered in more than ten other films where she has been given lead roles (e.g. the British Kiss of Life, 2003, where she plays opposite Peter Mullan). So I could not help being surprised when I came across the Wikipedia entry on the actress, which was not making any mention of what one would think were high profile engagements but was instead describing her exclusively as an actress engaged in ‘minor roles’ in Hollywood, e.g. as the mother of Hannibal Lechter in the ridiculous Hannibal Rising (2007) or as Brad Pitt’s wife in the utterly forgettable Seven Years in Tibet (1997). And yes, it also said she also appeared as a Bosnian refugee in a British TV drama. Clearly, the entry could be enriched substantially. Yet the very tone in which it was written was more than suggestive: whereas I would tend to describe the actress as a notable figure of transnational cinema who mostly moves within the realm of European film, this most easily accessible reference to her profile slots her immediately in the category of actors who are normally engaged in small supporting roles. Hence the resulting lesser visibility.

The other curious case I came across was the one of Max Freeman (a.k.a. Momchil Karamitev). I was on the IMDb, doing research on the Bulgarian epic film Time of Violence (1988), on which I am writing in my forthcoming book on Balkan film and history. Scrolling down the list of actors’ names, I came across the unlikely reference to Max Freeman in the role of the shepherd Goran, a strange appearance of a Western name among the long list of Bulgarian names. What was this Westerner’s name doing here? I did not remember any significant Western actors having taken part in the film. A simple click through the link supplied the answer: Max Freeman was the new name of the actor formerly known as Momchil Karamitev.

Freeman’s filmography as an actor, consisting of 20 titles in total, listed 11 Bulgarian films. He had played in ten of those during an intense five year period between 1984-1989, before emigrating in the early 1990s. In the eighteen years since 1990, the actor had apparently been in another nine films, some in Italy and some in the US. On the IMDb he is pictured with the make-up from his appearance in a singular installment of Star Trek: The Experience (2004; episode 4.04 more precisely); we also learn that he was entrusted with the role of a Russian mobster in the straight-to-video thriller Hit Me (2005). A click through to Freeman’s biography informs that he is the child of two actors, but the Bulgarian references are kept to a minimum. After all, what has been Momchil Karamitev in the past, is no more, and the new name is more like the new face given to him in the context of Star Trek.

As I am Bulgarian, I cannot help thinking of Max Freeman mostly as the son of two of Bulgaria’s greatest actors, the formidable Apostol Karamitev and the theatre diva Margarita Duparinova, people at whose talent I have had many an opportunity to marvel in my early years. Max Freeman’s biography does not include links to the father’s or the mother’s nor to his sister’s profiles on the IMDb, a place where linking to family members who are cineastes is commonplace. Well, true, linking to the names of actors from an obscure nation (even if they are great locally) would not help the actor raise from the certain degree of invisibility that seems to have afflicted him (like many others). Let’s hope that the change of name does the trick for him.

© Dina Iordanova
18 November 2008

Transnational/migrant actors: A certain case of invisibility I

November 6, 2008 at 12:51 am

There is a scene in István Szabó’s Mephisto (1981), a film which tackles the case of actor Hendrik Hoefgen (based on famous German actor Gustaf Gründgens), where his friend, the actress Nicoletta von Niebuhr is shown pondering on the advantages and disadvantages of emigrating. She is clearly aware that her career would face decline once abroad, and articulates her concerns over her chances to master a foreign accent or over other types of marginalization she would be likely to face. It is a fateful conversation, which proves decisive not only for her but for the protagonist as well, who decides to stay in Nazi Germany (and returns there even when he has got the chance to emigrate easily). By staying in his native country he enjoys a high profile career indeed, but also becomes a Nazi collaborator. In any case, by committing to a national culture, even if to a problematic one, he avoids the danger of becoming invisible.

This was back in the 1930s, or more than seventy years ago. Things have changed, and the migrations of actors over the years have increased. Yet, scrutinizing the creative paths of those actors who go into emigration today and build transnational careers is most instructive, especially as one traditionally believes that for actors, faced with the challenge of mastering new languages and accents, emigration often spells the end to a career. Having looked closely in the cases of many actors who emigrated out of various Eastern European contexts over the past decade or so, I can clearly establish that it is only singular actors who are able to sustain meaningfully visible careers abroad, and it is a mixture of resilience and luck that proves decisive in the process. Many vanish, or even worse, make appearances in films that are of a much lower quality than the ones in which they have launched their careers, and, having moved over to the nearly invisible periphery, keep working but are never noticed.

Migrant actresses remain invisible even when cast in key roles. For example, international critics nearly unanimously destroyed Bruno Dumont’s Twenty-nine Palms (France/ Germany/ USA 2003), featuring Russian-Lithuanian-French Actress Katia (Yekaterina) Golubeva (pictured here in Claire Denis’ L’Intrus, 2004). Their criticisms of the film were directed elsewhere, yet most of them spoke of the actress as a completely unknown face dug out by Dumont from who knows where. In fact, Golubeva has been a more or less permanent presence in films by Sharunas Bartas since the late 1980s, so these same critics are likely to have not only watched her but also to have praised her for performances in a range of films at the festivals they frequent. In addition, she played significant parts in well-known French art house films such as Claire Denis’s J’ai pas sommeil/I Cannot Sleep (France/Switzerland 1994) and L’Intrus/The Intruder (France 2004) and the lead in Leos Carax’s Pola X (France/Switzerland/Germany/Japan 1999), all extensively covered by these same international critics. Yet, in her new reincarnation in the Californian desert, Katia Golubeva remained unrecognized and was treated as a newcomer (or, rather, not particularly welcomed outsider). Similar examples can be discovered in the case of many other migrant actresses (e.g. Croatian star Mira Furlan, Russian Chulpan Khamatova, Polish veteran Grazyna Szapolowska, the Lithuanian-Russian Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Serbian Branka Katić and Mirjana Joković), all stars of award-winning films by directors such as Kieslowski or Kusturica, yet unrecognized in the Western productions they have appeared in lately. One discovers that these actresses have managed to keep themselves employed by appearing in perfectly respectable Western European or American films even after changing countries. In reality, however, they remain known only in the context of their original national cinema; their transnational work remains invisible.

The situation with migrant male actors is similar. The most successful among the East Europeans are those who, while abroad, are happy to embrace the limitations of typecasting and play the roles of Eastern European villains or migrant patriarchs. This fully applies, for example, to former DEFA star Armin Mueller-Stahl and to Yugoslav Rade Serbedzija, who enjoy high-profile international careers today. Both actors maintain a remarkable transatlantic schedule by regularly taking on roles in Hollywood, in American art-house and indie films, as well as in films made in a range of European or other countries (New Zealand, Canada, Australia), and in their countries of origin. They both are well-known for roles that link them to their Eastern European heritage and tradition: Armin Mueller-Stahl recently played a London-based Russian Godfather in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007) while Serbedzija (pictured), who, to his credit, has persisted in retaining his difficult name unchanged even under the temptation to Westernize it by making it somewhat easier to spell or pronounce, has readily embraced the roles of an Eastern European mafioso, Russian gangster or underground trader, in a range of international productions since the mid 1990s.

© Dina Iordanova
6 November 2008

Intoarcerea lui Voda Lăpuşneanu/ The Return of Prince Lapushneanu (Romania, 1979, Malvina Ursianu)

November 1, 2008 at 1:07 am

Alexandru Lăpuşneanu, a descendant of the Stefan the Great (who ruled for nearly fifty years in the 15th century), was installed prince of Moldova for two periods in the second part of the 16th century. At that time Moldova has lost its sovereignty and has become a vassal to the Ottoman throne; all the affairs of the country are controlled by Istanbul, and this interference is clearly sensed when the Prince’s young son Bogdan is taken away from him and kept away from his father for seven years. Surrounded by all sorts of intrigue, facing resistance from the local feudal landowners, not being particularly capable of (or interested in) communicating with the ordinary people, and often excessively tough, the Prince is often isolated and clearly his life is not easy. He is faced with constant threats to his lands coming mostly from the Hungarians to the West but also from other directions. He cannot rely on proper support from Istanbul and yet he is expected to regularly deliver the Sultan’s cut of all the income.

The Return of Prince Lapushneanu is based on a classical Romanian novel by Costache Negruzzi, written in 1913. It is representative of a wave of films made in the region in the 1970s and 1980s, usually well funded productions that often involve significant numbers of extras, elaborate historical costumes and sets, and revisit important moments of national history. This film clearly influenced other historical productions, for example Bulgarian Boris I.

Malvina Ursianu, the director, is one of the rare women-directors from the region. She has several more titles to her name, and this is clearly her most important film. It is clearly influenced by other films made across Eastern Europe during this period; most of all I see influences by the Polish historical epics of the type made by Jerzy Kawalerowicz, even though the art direction relies more on Byzantyne and Othrodox imagery which makes the ultimate product look quite differently. The main influence, however, is from Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, and it comes across as loud and clear that it overwhelmes at moments: the dark corridors of the compound, the treacherous members of the court who move silently and are engaged in relentless plotting, the unsettling shadows they cast on the walls — it is all as if taken directly from that classical film.

Despite of its ambition and professionalism, The Return of Prince Lapushneanu suffers from two major weaknesses: the pace of editing and the choice of the male lead. Had the editor given the film a slightly faster pace, it would have had the chance to become a truly engaging viewing (and it would have cut the unnecessarily long running time of 140 min.). George Motoi, the actor playing Lăpuşneanu, is competent and certainly good looking, but does not have the dramatic presence that would allow him to elevate the role to the epic psychological dimensions that seem to be written into it. It is a miscasting error that can be compared to the miscasting of Colin Farrel in Oliver Stone’s recent Alexander (2004): there are certain actors who clearly cannot carry an epic film. I was intrigued to discover that Motoi was born in 1936 on the Caliacra peninsula on the Black Sea, a place that was on Romanian territory at that time but is now in Bulgaria — yet another one of these situations of irredentist acquiring or re-acquiring of small pieces of land that have been typical for the region over the last two or so centuries (this particular one linked to an intervention from Nazi Germany around 1940). The ethnic issues typical for the region (known as Dobroudja) are explored in Lucian Pintilie’s excellent Un été inoubliable/ An Unforgettable Summer (1994) with Kristin Scott Thomas.

The film is recognized as one of the most important films in the history of Romanian cinema and screened recently as part of a Romanian cinema panorama as Return of the Banished at the Siskel Center in Chicago.

© Dina Iordanova
1 November 2008

Osceola (GDR, 1971) Konrad Petzold

August 3, 2008 at 11:00 am

Osceola was one of the great films of my childhood, a prime example of the action-adventure cinema that was produced for the needs of viewers within the communist East bloc and of the specific transnational set-up of film production of the period.

Starring Yugoslavia-born Gojko Mitic, who showcases the best abs east of the Iron Curtain, the film’s story is loosely based on the real historical figure of 19th century Seminole leader Osceola and features the resistance that his followers, comprising of Seminoles and Black slaves, put against their White masters in Florida. The film’s politically correct ‘socialist realist’ plot is fully in line with the ideology of the time: the suppressed proletarian classes (which in this case are represented by the suppressed racial and ethnic minorities) manage to see their shared interests, identify their common enemy, and put up resistance in united fashion. A secondary, less overt, message of the film is to keep alive the consciousness of the wide-spread racism and discrimination that supposedly still prevail in disguised form in the South of the United States. Most importantly, in contrast to the traditional Western where the protagonists are usually low-class white settlers, the film positions Indians and the Blacks in the core of the action.

Osceola is entertaining and engaging, even if it appears somewhat slow if judged by today’s standards for an action-adventure, as it lacks the fast pacing and dynamic cutting that characterize the Hollywood action films of the same era. The film, however, manifests an extremely important feature of the cinema of the communist period: Productions that were perceived as having a wider audience potential and that could be marketed across the shared market of the East bloc were made in transnational fashion (thus transnationalism in production was as prevalent here as it was in the West, even if not a more persistent feature). How is this illustrated in the specific case of Osceola, a co-production between the GDR, Cuba and Bulgaria? First of all, in the range of shooting locations, which are chosen and showcased in a way that successfully replicates the approach of classical Westerns, featuring breathtaking vistas and spectacular landscapes. Scenes requiring lush valleys punctuated by tall palm trees are shot in Cuba while the scenes showing village life are made at the Boyana Studios in in Bulgaria (most likely using already existing sets that were adapted from other productions). Similarly, other Gojko Mitic native Indian-themed films have been made in co-production as well and shot in Romania, Yugoslavia, Mongolia, and so on.

The cast of the film illustrates the transnational approach particularly well. Gojko Mitic in the lead role of Osceola is a transplanted Serbian; the actor still lives and works in Germany, where he enjoys a significant cult following. Besides the German actors, key roles are assigned to Romanian Iurie Darie and to Bulgarian actresses Pepa Nikolova and Iskra Radeva. The two black men are played by Almamy Soumare and Boubakar Toure (who, credited as Touré Beubacar, also played in the 1970 DEFA production Signale, a film that featured an even wider transnational cast of actors from over ten different countries, mostly from the Second and the Third world). The performance of Toure is competent and comelling, but I have not been able to establish any further information on his career path. Maybe he was one of the young people from the Third world who were sent to the East bloc to get subsidized higher education? He may have played in Osceola but may have been pursuing a different career path and may have become a doctor or an engineer later in life. Or maybe he was educated as a film professional and, having returned to his African country, may have become a filmmaker in his own right. If this is the case, information about him is still to emerge on the IMDb.

© Dina Iordanova
3 August 2008

French film actors on the stage: Sami Frey

June 28, 2008 at 12:03 am

Many of the well-known French film actors seem to regularly appear on stage as well. Spending time in Paris gave me opportunity to go and see such cinematic legends like Jeanne Moreau (in a reading of Quartett by Heiner Muller at Theatre de la Madeleine) and Isabelle Hupert (in Le Dieu du Carnage by Yasmina Reza at Theatre Antoine) live on stage. Moreau is now 80, and Hupert – 55, and they both look amazing, fully defiant of advancing age. Amazing.

For me, though, the biggest attraction was watching Sami Frey read on stage, along Moreau. The man is 71 years old now, but, like his ageless partner, seemed no older than fifty. His good looks now come with a certain degree of subdued reticence, as if he wants to suppress references to his artistic persona of eccentric Latin Lover (whom he has played many times over the years).

The earliest I remember Frey is in the lovely threesome dance in the bar sequence in Godard’s Bande à part/Band of Outsiders(1964), alongside Anna Karina and Claude Brasseur. Apparently, he started his career back in 1956; one of his early appearances has been in Agnes Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7/Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962). His main claim to fame from the period, however, is the highly publicized affair with Brigitte Bardot. Later in life Frey was partner of actress Delphine Seyrig.

Even if a small role, his outrageous appearance as El Macho in Dusan Makavejev’s subversive Sweet Movie is a key cinematic moment for me. True to his brandmark approach to using extreme stereotypes, for this film Makavejev turns Frey into the perfect embodiment of the Latin Lover from the popular imagination: he dresses him in a black-and-gold matador’s costume topped by a large cape under which El Macho can shelter women during lovemaking, and he makes him wear thick mascara and eye shadows in glittering gold. Then he plants him up on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower and has him sing a high pitched Spanish song of fate and history, surrounded by an adoring crowd of female fans. Miss Monde (Carole Laure) who is passing by, is so powerfully attracted to El Macho that she literally jumps on the man. Their love embrace turns out so awesomely crushing that eventually the copulating pair have to be taken to hospital to be medically separated from each other. Unforgettable.

Frey’s most important performance achievement, however, remains the remarkable portrayal of a mentally unstable aging Artaud in Gérard Mordillat’s rive gauche investigation of an artist sinking into madness, En compagnie d’Antonin Artaud/My Life and Times with Artaud(1993).

In North America Frey appeared in Bob Rafelson’s noir thriller Black Widow(1987) where he plays a businessman involved with both Debra Winger and Theresa Russell.

© Dina Iordanova
28 June 2008


Quand j’étais chanteur / The Singer (France, 2006) with Gérard Depardieu and Cécile De France

June 23, 2008 at 12:51 am

The revival of the 1970s and the popularity of shows that bring back the music of ABBA is clearly a trend that still has got some steam. After seriously tarnishing his reputation with in the English speaking world with a series of appearances in all sorts of Hollywood rubbish, Gérard Depardieu, another man who was young in the 1970s, makes a nostalgic comeback in The Singer.

If analyzed critically, the film would not withstand much scrutiny. But it is one that belongs to the guilty pleasures kind, and this is all that matters, really. It has the full potential to become a cult classic among the sizable group of those whose cultural consumption got a boost by ABBA’s revival.

Depardieu’s rugged charm is juxtaposed to the attractive French newcomer beauty, Cécile De France, who mostly poses than plays a female protagonist that is preposterously underdeveloped and unconvincing. But who cares. The film is really enjoyable to watch, part because of the erotic dynamics between the lumpy Depardieu and the stylish sex appeal of De France, and part because of the numerous ‘oldies’ that are performed and sang in the film, at various dance halls, discos and restaurants in the Clermont-Ferrand area.

In a bonus interview on the DVD, director (and writer) Xavier Giannoli explains that he has always been attracted to the music of the 1970s. As a child of French-Italians, Giannoli had the chance to have French-Italian singer Christophe (who makes a cameo appearance in the film) as neighbor. This gave Giannoli quite a bit of exposure to the closed world of popular music. Indeed, in the film Depardieu (as singer Alain Moreau) is seen rehearsing his repertoire of ‘oldies’ on the background of a neon sign of Christophe’s name (alluding to the Christophe’s well-known passion for the American popular culture of neon-lit diners and Cadillacs).

The film was part of the Cannes competiton in 2006 and got lots of critical acclaim, mostly for Depardieu’s comeback performance, and lots of media coverage, mostly for the unmatched Parisian chic of the actress who was one of the best-dressed women at the festival. Here is the French trailer, featuring some of the 70-ies oldies that constitute a lot of the film’s charm.

The Singer has not been released in the US, not even on DVD. Amazon.com lists it as only available in French. However, there is an English-subtitled version published in the UK and available from the British amazon site at amazon.co.uk.

© Dina Iordanova
23 June 2008

Actors I discovered in the 2007/2008 season

June 3, 2008 at 12:34 am

Every new season at the movies brings encounters with actors whom I come across for a first time and who impress me such to an extent that I am interested in seeking out other films where they appear in (and wishing them successful high profile careers). Thinking of this past season, there were probably four actors that I felt I wanted to see more of. What they have in common, I realize, is the intensity of facial features, a quality that cannot be registered in a photograph but only appears when they talk or smile. Yes, they are all very good looking. Their real charisma, however, only comes about in the context of the moving image — in the way they would lift an eyebrow or smack their lips.

First of all, there was the Indian actor and film director Charu Roy (1890-1971), whom I discovered in the role of Prince Ranjit while watching Franz Osten’s German-Indian silent fairy tale A Throw of Dice/ Prapancha Pash (1929), recently restored and released in a brilliant DVD transfer by the BFI, with a specially commissioned new musical score by Nitin Sawhney. Having started his career as an actor in the 1920s, later on Roy directed a dozen of films in the 1930s. The fact that the actor was long dead at the time I was first watching him certainly gave me a strange feeling. Yet I could not help admiring his good looks and persuasive presence.

Then there was the young French actress Hafsia Herzi, born in 1987 of Algerian-Tunesian parentage in the South of France, a girl of sexual appeal that Asia Argento can only dream for. For her role as the decisive teenager Rym who knows how to capitalize on her sexuality in Abdellatif Kechiche’s La Graine et le mulet (2007), she received several awards, among which are a Cesar for best newcomer, and the Marcello Mastroianni award at the Venice IFF. She is now in the lead role in Francaise, a film by Souad El-Bouhati, just released and not yet even listed on the IMDb. Definitely, she has already been noticed, at least in Europe. I hope she gets a good choice of further offers; she could have a great acting career ahead, but I fear that in France she may end up being typecast and confined to roles within the ‘beur’ genre of migrant cinema, which is an appreciated line of work but still gets a very limited exposure.

Japanese Takuya Kimura (a.k.a. 木村 拓哉 and Kimutaku), born 1972, is already an established star with a huge fan following. A blog on Asian culture described this androginous heartthrob (and father of two) as ‘arguably the most popular and influential Japanese artist, both in Japan and Asia for the past 10-12 years.’ This is probably a correct statement. I first saw Kimutaku in the film Hero (2007), a sequel to a hugely popular TV series, which was not distributed in the West but became a tremendous blockbuster all over Asia. Like many other Asian stars, Kimutaku is also a pop idol (member of the group SMAP), and one can see him on television in Japan on a weekly basis. While visiting Tokyo his presence was unavoidable: his face is all over the city, on giant billboards promoting cell phones and cosmetics. In fashion district Haradjuku outfits were being advertised with pictures of Kumitaku wearing the same clothes. Having taken over Asia by storm, it would not be long before Kimutaku becomes a household name for Western teenagers as well, I believe. For now, in the West he can only be seen in the role of the Japanese boyfriend in Wong Kar Wai’s 2046(2004).

And last but not least, the young Kazakh actress Ayanat Ksenbai (a.k.a. Ayana Yesmagambetova), who was in Volker Schlöndorff’s Ulzhan (2007) and in the Kazakh epic Nomad (2005). A natural beauty, the two international features that she appeared in have not scored very high marks, yet they have already given her an international exposure that she needs to be noticed and invited for further roles.

© Dina Iordanova
3 June 2008


Grigori Aleksandrov’s Vesna (1947), with Lyubov Orlova

June 2, 2008 at 12:29 am

A small company in France has released a copy of the rare Soviet film, Grigori Aleksandrov and Lyubov Orlova‘s musical Vesna/ Spring (Le printemps), one of the first Soviet productions made after the end of WWII. It is an amazing cinematic document from one of the fascinatingly controversial directors in the history of Soviet film, starring the most popular ever film actress of the Soviets, Lyubov Orlova, star of such quintessential Soviet films like Jolly Fellows (1934), Circus (1936), and Stalin’s favorite, Volga-Volga (1938). I have written on Orlova in the past; see my 2002 article Stalinism’s Shining Star for Senses of Cinema.

The plot of the musical comedy is based on a continuous quiproquo: a film studio decides to make a film about the inspiring work of scientist Nikitina, who is about to unveil a major discovery in the field of energy at her Institute of the Sun. The role is assigned to the young Shatrova, a feminine beaury who desperately wants to be in the film but finds it a real challenge to represent the prickly masculine scientist. So Shatrova goes to Nikitina in an attempt to get her assistance for the role, a move that generates a series of misunderstandings and substitutions, as the two women are identical lookalikes (of course, both roles are played by Orlova, and quite often both Nikitina and Shatrova appear in the same frame, in a novel and skillful usage of split screen techniques). As a result of their interaction, the scientist becomes more feminine and finds love, and the actress’s talent to play different roles is recognized and her film career takes off.

The film makes a great document for any film historian. It may have been made during the harshest years of Stalinism, yet it feels and looks like an American studio feature from the 1930s, with an amusing infusion of socialist work ethics. The elegant robes and the hairdos of the women, the long coats of the men, the cars that drive them from one place to another and the lively street hubbub, it is all as if directly transplanted from Ninotchka (1939). With the exception of an opening musical number where a group of Comsomol girls in white march through the streets of an early morning Moscow, all the other street and studio scenes look more like a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film and certainly do not resemble anything we know of the Soviet tradition. If one seeks international epigones of Hollywood studio product from the 1930s, Aleksandrov is probably the director that needs to be looked at first and foremost. He literally absorbed all style features of Hollywood musicals that he came across during his fated visit to America alongside Eisenstein in the 1930s, and later on reproduced the lessons fatefully and productively, both in dramaturgy and in film style. In Vesna, the relationships between the protagonists bear some element of socialist morality and responsibility but are equally playful to those seen in films by Mark Sandrich. The added comical subplots are directly reminiscent to Hollywood’s approach to structuring romcoms of the time. Remarkable and certainly worthwhile for a closer critical scrutiny by film historians.

The picture shows Orlova and husband Grigori Aleksandrov on a visit to the West in the 1960s, in a period when she had already wrapped her career in musicals and appeared only in smaller dramatic roles.

For Vesna, Aleksandrov has assembled a team of top professionals, who all appear unscathed after the difficult war years. Like earlier musicals from the 1930s, the uplifting music is credited to Isaak Dunayevsky, the most popular composer of the period; the chorus numbers are performed by the Bolshoy Theatre troupe. The script, as usual, is based on an idea by Aleksandrov who has developed it with the assistance of two more screenwriters. Arranging for studio space in Moscow at the time just after the war was problematic, so the film became one of the first ‘runaway’ productions to be shot almost entirely at the Barrandov studio in Prague. The great dramatic actor Nikolay Cherkassov, who is cast here as the director of the film and the scientist’s love interest, appears totally inadequate, especially as this role appears comes after his inimitable performance in Ivan the Terrible, released just three years earlier. Two other great Russian actors appear in supporting roles, the comedy star Faina Ranevskaya, as the housekeeper, and the highly respected soft-spoken Rostislav Plyatt.

© Dina Iordanova
2 June 2008

The DVD of Vesna in original Russian version with French subtitles is available for purchase from the French Amazon site.