Films are, arguably, one of the most powerful mediums in the history of society. They can also be, through the eyes of a great director, an eye opener into other societies and cultures, both past and present. Indeed, it is this aspect which appeals to me most about the medium. As someone who has lived in Scotland, Ireland and now Wales, I have chosen Cardiff as my home not only because of the diversity of cultures which adds so much to its identity, but how it truly embraces this.
To celebrate this diversity and contribute a lighter tone to the ongoing EU referendum debate, I thought I would share some brief thoughts on some of my favourite films from our European neighbours.
The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1973)
The Conformist is, fundamentally, a story about a man seeking identity. Conveyed through dreamlike, almost unearthly and rich, striking visuals it can equally be described as a powerful representation of the inherent vulnerability of human nature. As the central character’s journey progresses, revolving around a spy and assassin for Mussolini’s regime, it becomes clear how, as individuals, we all have the potential to be persuaded to conform to ideas which, ultimately, oppose our own existence and destroy the society in which we live. This is made most clear at the film’s end, as our protagonist is as quick to abandon fascism after Mussolini’s death to survive society’s retribution, as he is to embrace it.
The Devil’s Backbone (Guillermo Del Toro, 2001)
While Pan’s Labrinyth may be Del Toro’s most well-known and acclaimed film, this film’s exploration of Fascism’s rise during the Spanish civil war is in this cinephiles eyes at least, a superior film. It was on my 3rd viewing that I realised its opening scene can be interpreted as a cinematic prelude to the events depicted in Picasso’s Geurnica. As such, this makes its core message only clearer; how ghosts of the past will always haunt the future if suppressed and, ultimatley, can never be forgotten. This is delivered with the visual craftsmanship fans of Del Toro’s films have come to expect and very strong performances by the entire cast, especially the young orphan who acts as the narrative focus. At the time of the film’s release, Spain was only beginning to confront it’s Franco past, with individual efforts to dig up mass graves at sites such as Payables del Hoyo.
Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wajda, 1958)
Wanda’s film focuses on an idealistic young assassin of Poland’s resistance against occupying communist forces between 1946 and the early 1950’s. In doing so he masterfully portrays the complex character of Maciej as a parallel for this turbulent point in Polish history when the Soviet Union ‘liberated’ the country. His excellent performance ensures that despite his fate (a necessary narrative move to please Poland’s then communist rulers) the audience will identify with his motivations.
The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari (Robert Weine, 1920)
What many consider to be the first true horror film is also a representation of Germany’s fractured mindset and trauma after their defeat at the end of WW1, with its jagged and expressionist visuals a clear metaphor for the destruction reaped in past battlefields. Both the film’s original writer’s became pacifists after witnessing such horror first-hand as soldiers.
The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2012)
Here an East Berlin agent begins to doubt his mission to spy on a famous playwright, suspected of disloyalty to the socialist cause. A brilliant character study and exploration of loyalty, human relationships and morality it succeeds in showing the perversion of these values under an authoritarian system and yet, how even a tiny act of resistance can have powerful consequences for others.
Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)
Bicycle Thieves is one of many films produced under the Neo-realism movement in post WW2 Italy. Others include Rome, Open City (1945) and Germany, Year Zero (1948). As such, it shares many key elements of other neorealist films; a raw, documentarian approach which allows character to organically drive the plot and a focus on ordinary people. As the film progresses its focus shifts from the father’s efforts to find his bicycle to the impact of the poverty he cannot escape, on his relationship with his son. By the conclusion what is lost most of all is innocence. This message is equally delivered through performances of both characters who are, again like many other examples in this movement, played by untrained actors.