Allegories perceived and actual: Night Train, Cria Cuervos and Theorem

23 May 2013

Three films released on Monday, 27 May play to varying degrees with allegory: 'Night Train' (1959) is the latest DVD from Second Run, while 'Cría cuervos' (1976) and 'Theorem' (1968) are the BFI's latest Dual Format editions.

Though Night Train (Pociąg, aka Baltic Express, 1959) follows Mother Joan of the Angels (1961) to be the second film directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz to join Second Run’s expanding and impressive roster of Polish films, it feels for the most part more French. To begin with, Andrzej Trzaskowski’s cool jazz score goes against the contemporary tropes of his country’s cinema, while Leon Niemczyk’s protagonist Jerzy, a strong silent type who may or may not be a killer on the run, is introduced to us wearing the kind of dark shades that Godard wore for his cameo in Breathless (1960) and in that iconic photo of him holding up some film stock.

With its casually trimmed genre elements, Night Train is an unusually accessible would-be thriller precisely because its technical achievements and general aesthetic resemble more the production values of first-rate Hollywood B-movies than those of other Polish (not polished) films of the time. Even before those Vertigo-style shots of Lucyna Winnicka’s icy blonde Marta from behind, the film is given a Hitchcockian edge by the very nature of its ensemble, one-setting set-up: an overnight train whose passengers make small-talk about the day’s newspaper headline concerning a wife-killer on the run. Cinematographer Jan Laskowski imbues claustrophobia with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, while Kawalerowicz ups tensions by cramming as many as eight actors along the same Z axis at any one time – the narrow corridor along which berths adjoin doubling as a space in which rumours spark.

But this isn’t all high thrills. In fact, the film sets up a whodunit only to frustrate expectations. As one character puts it: “That’s great, how moving, now they’ll be imagining a romantic adventure… a night train, thundering into the unknown… a man and a woman… a romantic adventure. You see, that’s just my bad luck.” Undercutting the need for sensationalism, for intrigue, for narrative purpose, the film anticipates the laid-back musical ensemblism of Altman in working within and against genre conventions.

Two dramatic epiphanies are soundtracked by audible echoes of a natural outside world. In the first, the murderer aboard is outed and alights, making his way across the moors (a possible influence on Alain Delon’s jazz-backed escape from a train in 1970’s Le cercle rouge); the other passengers catch up to their man (in an aerial shot that recalls the film’s opening view), only for their hysteria and rage to be humbled by the suspect’s apparent fragility and vulnerability – prefiguring that similar and beautiful culmination to the anarchic hospital raid in Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) some forty-one years later – and all to the sound of dogs barking far off into the distance, an aural suggestion of embarrassing animalistic instincts.

In the second instance later in the film, Marta’s former-lover Staszek (Zbigniew Cybulski), who has spent the film wangling his way onto the train and into his love’s inhospitable presence, realises the full extent of his feelings’ lack of reciprocation when another man appears in her carriage window; Staszek’s evident devastation is made all the more poignant by a combination of the camera moving away from him (we are aboard the train, he isn’t) and the sound of indifferent (Hitchcockian?) seagulls above.

There’s a good half-hour or so still to unfold once the killer is caught in Night Train. Indeed, the A to B progression of the train’s journey seems undercut by a narrative expansion that is outward rather than forward: the film becomes more contemplative in tone, demanding the opposite of a clearly defined plot. Might we read this as political allegory? The film after all seems to be travelling at least symbolically away from the political specificities of Poland’s history. At any rate, it seems to think of itself – especially in its middle third – as a thriller not unlike a 1950s RKO Production, though goes about its aim with directorial precision and ideological uncertainty. “Where are you going?” the ticket inspector asks a young lad earlier in the film, to which the latter replies: “I don’t know.”

Ana and her sisters

The title of Cría cuervos (1976) is the beginning of a Spanish proverb that translates to “Raise ravens and they will peck out your eyes”. The allegorical implications are clear enough for a film made during the death agony of Franco’s military dictatorship, and writer-director Carlos Saura’s film is just the kind that expertly interweaves the symbolic and the literal to sophisticated and rewarding effect.

On the face of it, Saura’s film takes place in a woman’s world: Ana (Ana Torrent), older sister Irene (Conchí Perez) and younger sister Maíte (Maíte Sanchez) are orphaned when their father Anselmo (Héctor Alterio), a high-ranking military officer, dies – their mother María (Geraldine Chaplin) having passed away years earlier. Under the joint care of their Aunt Paulina (Mónica Randall), housemaid Rosa (Florinda Chico) and their mute, invalid grandmother Abuela (Josefina Diaz), the three young siblings encounter and endure those formative and often traumatic moments when childhood is finally confronted by mortality, sexuality, gender, deception and loss.

But this gender-specific domestic space is also gendered in the political sense. The three adult characters vary in the extent to which they adapt to their respective daily roles, all of which are in some way institutionalised: Paulina at first seems a tyrannical figure, though we come to view and sympathise with her as a woman upon whom motherhood has been forced; Abuela, the oldest character in the film by a generation, is ineluctably bound to a wheelchair, her social function rendered redundant by having outlived a daughter, and left now with nothing but the internalised memories of a life better left behind; Rosa, meanwhile, continues her labour as before – social relations have shifted, but the proletariat toils on.

As seen through the imaginative eyes of Ana, these interrelations combine for a haunting, complex and compelling liminal space between the perceived and the actual. Neglected by a paternal figure, Ana and her sisters must now strive for meaning in a confusing world in the prolonged aftermath of their father’s death. As Ana manages to splice memories of her mother into ongoing scenarios, the film itself blurs past and present when Chaplin addresses the camera as an adult Ana in some suspended future-tense, recollecting these present-day scenes backdropped by a blank grey (i.e., unreadable) canvas. As Maria Delgado notes in her excellent essay in the accompanying booklet of this BFI release, “No state (past, present, or future) is legitimised over any other. The film simply demonstrates the ways in which the past shapes the present – a political act in itself in a country where the Civil War and its aftermath was conveniently fashioned into a black and white narrative of heroes and villains by the Franco regime.”

Delgado’s essay says more on the film than I possibly could here, but a quick comment on a few aesthetic choices. The film has several indelible images – its fleeting saturated exteriors are beautiful – but I was struck when watching the film by its use of sound (and silence). In general, the film’s sparse, minimalist soundtrack lingers like some wounded animal, a loaded space waiting to be filled by grief – or the result of torment in itself. The first sixteen or so minutes of the film seem especially quiet, only for a crescendo of traffic horns to accompany that hallucinatory moment in which Ana imagines herself jumping from a rooftop above; the three sisters’ first moment of temporary release in the absence of Paulina, meanwhile, is a dance to Jeanette’s sublime “Por qué te vas?”; later in the film, Ana recalls or visualises her mother’s anguished deathbed screams, Chaplin’s face contorting as Torrent, sublime throughout, says more as a ten-year-old by covering her ears than many adult performers can convey in a career.

The devil, possibly

Theorem (Teorema, 1968), whose dual format release follows a restoration and theatrical run earlier this year, is the kind of masterly-made film whose very simple synopsis precedes it and whose interpretability leaves much room for rumination thereafter. Needless to say, it’s better watched than reviewed: tellingly, the accompanying booklet is about ten pages slimmer than that accompanying Cría cuervos. Though my own notes go no further than a single A6 page, here’s an attempt to summarise and, perhaps, to pique…

Terence Stamp plays an enigmatic blue-eyed angel (or, like the late David Dewaele’s drifter in 2011’s Hors Satan, a demon; Dewaele’s character was credited as “the guy”, here Stamp plays “the guest”), who visits a Milanese bourgeois family, seducing first the maid (Laura Betti), then the son (Andrès José Cruz Soublette), and moving on to the mother (Silvana Mangano), the daughter (Anne Wiazemsky) and the father (Massimo Girotti). Then, having gratified their dormant sexual desires, he disappears. To fill voids left in their visitor’s absence, each family member pursues further satiation: the son begins to turn away from his calling as an artist, the daughter retreats into incestuous yearnings; the mother seeks sex with strangers in roadside ditches, the father turns the factory he owns over to the workers; the maid finds herself able to levitate and heal diseases.

Because his framing is exquisite and his command of colour so effortless, Pasolini’s sixth fiction feature is absorbing even when it’s something of a puzzle. Does it all boil down to the assertion that the base desires of human society are prohibited by capitalism itself? Are the bourgeoisie humans like the rest of us? Is the rigid architecture of Milan about to be reduced to a mound of volcanic ash? Come the social intervention – whatever its form – will the last be first and the first last? It seems so: Betti’s maid silently heals a child of leprosy, while a private doctor proclaims of another character's catatonia, “It’s beyond my expertise, sorry”. The deliberate insolence on display here – Stamp’s non-performance, the way he leaves the film as quickly as he entered it – is all the more cutting for being so casually funny.

Also released on Monday, 27 May is a Dual Format BFI issue of Opening Night (1977). Some thoughts from July 2007, as linked to on idFilm's recently-compiled capsules index:

Infinitely ambiguous work all to do with notions of acting. It opens with Rowlands and Cassavetes acting in a play, our view obscured by a theatre audience (it's fascinating to see how the inclusion of a fictional audience affects the otherwise harmonious reality of a film), and it unfolds in a continually episodic manner thereafter; it seems overlong, and the spiritualist turn of events midway through seems a bit naff, a mere plot device for Rowlands to have a breakdown (fighting with herself and throwing furniture at her imaginary friend), but it's easily forgivable in light of its overall lingering qualities. For one, it's a convincing, fantastic exploration of various relationships found in the cinema - actor-character, reality-metareality, actor-audience, audience-reality, author-audience, etc. The story, comprising the production of a stageplay and the interrelations of the cast and crew involved, is treated in a most elusive and liberating fashion, so that it becomes almost secondary to the performances (there's no exposition of who's who, no clarity given to how they know each other, and the play itself could be about anything, so sparingly are we given its scenes and details). If it loses its way somewhat in the final third, the final thirty minutes or so are unforgettable in their mystery and intensity: Rowlands and Cassavetes act on stage as in the opening scene, apparently ad-libbing outside the bounds of the script (or are they?), with the audience laughing at them (or with them?), and the writer, producer and director coming in and out of the theatre in either giddy excitement or helpless distress; there's something incredibly profound about this scene in particular, riveting as both a reality in itself and as a self-conscious deconstruction of all that has gone before it.

(Opening Night also features the late Ben Gazzara, a documentary about whom I caught and reviewed at IndieLisboa last month.)