Once again, the Film Society of Lincoln Center leans on the staff of its monthly magazine, Film Comment, to present this annual series, an eclectically curated group of overlooked and perhaps underappreciated films. This year proves no exception to the typical high quality of noteworthy films from around the world, many of which are making their U.S. premiere in the program.
Terence Davies, a perennial favorite of the Film Society, offers Sunset Song, the coming-of-age of protagonist Chris Guthrie (a wonderful Agyness Deyn), daughter of a stern, avowed socialist who keeps a modest farm in the Scottish countryside. Under the inevitable specter of the impending First World War, Chris experiences the death and departure of family members and falls in love with a suitor, only to see him depart for the Western Front and leave her with a young son. The highland setting is ripe for broad emotional themes of self-reliance and courage, yet in keeping with Davies’s tendency toward sharp intellectual comment, the story can be seen as a point of departure for a much larger conversation.
Davies tends to take his time in laying out this adaption of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel, and he relies heavily on irony. Socialism, for Chris’s father, seems more a convenience than a true ideology. He’s a rural antigovernment man, and the belief du jour of the region seems to run through every neighbor we meet. However, his politics doesn’t keep him from behaving as an unfair and strict father to his school-age children, nor does it encourage him to respect his wife’s opinion on household matters. When Chris’s eventual husband, Ewan, goes off to war, his own self-described Socialism doesn’t stay his actions either. Here, belief is often a fickle motivator.
Another palpable irony is that, as we know from our broader view of history, a woman out in the country would exist on the margins of the action, yet here she appears in nearly every scene and as the focal point. It’s at a very provocative place where we’re left at the film’s end. Barely out of her teen years, Chris is still a young woman (even by early 20th-century standards), and she has a farm to keep and a young boy to raise. It’s hard to imagine she won’t face the same conflicts of pragmatism that others in her life faced, despite the marginalization she inevitably faces.
Programmed in parallel to Davies’s powerful story of the home front is an equally powerful story told from the trenches in which we witness the strange and fact-based horrors of World War I through the eyes of a young infantryman, Gabriel (newcomer Nino Rocher). Writer/director Damien Odoul’s adaptation of Gabriel Chevallier’s semi-autobiographical novel, La Peur (The Fear), recounts several years on the French line and the wreckage, both physical and emotional, of battles as infamously savage as Verdun and the Somme.
Gabriel’s letters home to his lover provide a vague structure of narration, yet the film’s skillful direction and indelible imagery leave a lasting impression of the war’s events. Gabriel is on a descent through the netherworld, enhanced by Odoul’s judicious blend of naturalism with intense spectacle. Odoul’s camera is expressionistic, his score effective, and his cast memorable. Additionally, the scenery and costumes are outstanding.
Technically, not much separates this film from a sensationalist and broadly appealing Saving Private Ryan, for instance. But instead of leaning on broad transparent appeal, Odoul and his producers have offered a more meditative and intellectual experience: soldiers translate letters home for each other, or later share a cigarette while sitting on the edge of a war-torn trench. In, the next minute, they are confronted by a fellow infantryman gone mad. On the 100th anniversary of the Great War that so changed the course of Western culture, we are told that “war is hell,” as everyone since knows, and invited to experience the unique nuances—the emotional highs and lows—that tell us more about ourselves (perhaps even why war is perpetuated) than any blockbuster could do.
Kianoush Ayyari’s The Paternal House, an Iranian offering from 2012, tells the heartbreaking and gut-churning story of several generations of a family in the aftermath of what they refer to as a “crime of honor.” In the early part of the 20th century, a father, Kabal ((Mehran Rajabi), cannot bear the shame of his eldest daughter’s mental instability. She displays symptoms that at the time would have been called “hysteria” (now we know that this could be any number of disorders, either psychological or physical). In a panic one morning when alone with her, the father and his youngest boy, a roughly 10-year-old Motashahn, together, in the heat of the moment, bash in her head and bury her corpse in a basement room. The mother and the rest of the family believe her to be missing. Thus begins a cycle of sadness and shame that plagues the family over the generations and throughout the remainder of Motashahn’s life. As each succeeding generation grows and learns of the indiscretion, more death and ill luck befalls them.
Each generation fits into a chapter of the film that plays out as a single extended scene, so that there are really only four or five sequences. The family’s size, wealth, and status grow, but the family members seem incapable of outliving the crime. The question of God’s judgment lingers throughout every moment, and one wonders whether they truly believe that God sanctioned the original crime, despite an outdated paternalistic philosophy toward women as subservient creatures to be punished when they disobey.
It’s hard not to be drawn in to what is undoubtedly a powerful, well-acted, and frenetically directed film. As a form of protest, though, it perhaps doesn’t cut as deep as it might. The commentary is impartial and subtle, considering the subject matter. Are we victims of Iranian government censorship or of a director who has consciously self-censored? Maybe that’s the real crime.