New York

“New Directors/New Films”

Museum of Modern Art and Film Society of Lincoln Center

Cynical folks might say that any film series curatorially committed to the plight of the international underdog must wallow in liberal platitudes. Fortunately, some of the movies included in last spring’s “New Directors/New Films” series (cosponsored by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center) helped to remedy this cynic’s jaundiced eye. In lieu of reiterating high-minded but familiar rallying cries for human liberation, nearly half of the 14 films included reflect upon intricate social ironies in calm tones and cool styles, through characters and situations that are far from banal. These films, from countries as politically and culturally diverse as Italy, Brazil, and Ghana, I separate from the rest because of their prevailing antiromanticism and antimoralism; the different modulations of voices here all bespeak a nonconformist morality, a morality of despair.

Only by coincidence, according to the curators, were several of the films in the series the products of “Third World” countries; only by coincidence did more than half the films in the series center on women. At the polar opposite from the pious Portrait of Teresa, by Cuban director Pastor Vega, was the modest but unsettling Simone Barbès, or Virtue, written and directed by newcomer Marie-Claude Treilhou. Like the familiar, “modern” cinematic French heroine who yearns for dramatic release from her suffocating ennui, Simone Barbès (Ingrid Bourgoin) continually complains about being fatiguée. But unlike those sad but unlikable heroines, Simone is not immoral, indifferent, or cruel. Externally, she has as little time for self-pity as her director does for cinematic overindulgence.

Treilhou’s portrait of Simone’s dreary, lonely life is economically told in three humorous acts, all of which happen in the space of one evening. We see Simone at work as an usher in the tacky lobby of a porn theater in Paris, dressed in black leather and handling the pathetic male clientele that trail in and out as if she were born to do her tedious job. Simone Barbès’ bemused sadness is further developed when we see, through her weary, resigned eyes, a performer’s comic explosion of aggression in the private lesbian nightclub where her girlfriend works. Finally a middle-aged slob picks up Simone, on her way home in the wee hours of the morning, by nearly running her over in the street. The camera remains on Simone and her shadowy companion as she drives his fancy car and patiently lies her way out of accompanying him home, while he weeps silently. Her furtive glances back and forth in the darkness are unfortunately interrupted by a heavy-handed love song that isn’t necessary to make the scene’s otherwise subtly and sparingly crafted point: Simone Barbès’ virtue lies in her compassionate but unemotional acceptance of the misery of longing. The strength of Trelhou’s film lies in its ability to give this emotion such simple definition.

Equally cool but more interestingly constructed is Immacolata and Concetta: The Other Jealousy, the first feature-length film by the Italian film critic Salvatore Piscicelli. Immacolata (Ida di Benedetto), a wife and mother who runs a butcher shop in a small Southern Italian town, responds to her repressive society as pragmatically as Barbès does to her open one. Though she is rigid when necessary, she is not one of what Molly Haskell has called the “anesthetized” modern heroines of the sort found in the films of Roberto Rossellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. Sent to prison for recruiting a minor to sexually entertain a man to whom she is in debt, Immacolata meets and falls in love with Concetta, a militant lesbian who is doing time for shooting the jealous husband of an exlover, Once out of prison the women continue their affair openly, to the dismay of Immacolata’s tantrum-throwing husband and of the rest of the town. Ironically, when Immacolata seizes a chance to add economic independence to her social freedom, she is violently stopped—not by the repressive mores of the old order, but by the idealistic Concetta, who cannot accept the compromises that a Simone Barbès would wistfully dismiss. The final conflict of wills in Immacolata and Concetta is a desperate last gasp for romanticism, which proves useless for everyone involved.

Though Immacolata and Concetta is heavy with melodramatic plot twists, Piscicelli’s eye is unsentimental, and he paints what may well be one of the most unromantic pictures of the Southern Italian landscape ever seen. The lovemaking scenes between the two women are shot in the same flat light as the rest of the film, and contain the same unabashed frankness. Piscicelli’s remarkably sure distancing never falters, allowing events to operate on a philosophical level instead of as unbelievable Romantic melodrama.

By exercising enormous restraint in his approach to potentially explosive material, Piscicelli creates an extremely challenging film. The same can be said of Hector Babenco, the director of the Brazilian film Pixote. This is a graphic and matter-of-fact account of the ravaged lives of a group of Saõ Paulo homeless and runaway children, who wander from detention center to slum, and to drug dealing and murder. Though we glimpse some of the immediate causes for the grisly brutality that characterizes the lives of the boys, Babenco, who tells us that there are three million such children in Saõ Paulo, never judges the unforgettable Pixote (Fernando Ramos Da Silva) and his crew. The film avoids being exploitative through the frankness and the evenness of an unimpressed camera. Babenco grants us an intimacy with Pixote in his everyday life that makes all he does seem a natural, circumstantial outgrowth of social chaos. By refusing to cast easy blame, Babenco underlines the stark gravity of the situation of Saõ Paulo’s street children.

Though the Swiss-German-Austrian coproduction The Boat is Full clearly separates the victims from the victimizer’s, Markus Imhoof, who wrote and directed the film, doesn’t waste his time with familiar moralizing either. Set during World War II, the film tells the story of a small group of Jewish refugees who manage to cross the German border into Switzerland. The most devastating part of Imhoof’s low-key, eloquent drama is his portrait of the Swiss, who, thinking that their country is being overrun with political refugees, cast the homeless group back to the wolves—on legal grounds, of course.

The cinematic sparseness and restraint of The Boat is Full underlines the emotional rigidity of the Swiss, and the utter futility of the refugees’ attempt to survive. In one scene the refugees, who are unrelated, try to pose as a family in an attempt to outwit deportation laws. They arrange and rearrange themselves like pieces of secondhand furniture. The absurdity of the scene carries with it a comic edge, born from the futility of trying to make sense out of arbitrarily imposed nonsense. Imhoof’s camera is far more lyrical than Babenco’s, but it is convinced of a similar despair.

Kwaw Ansah’s Love Brewed . . . In The African Pot, which tells the story of a Ghanaian heroine caught in the middle of the cultural and class warfare between her bourgeois father and her auto-mechanic husband, straddles the fence between angry moralizing and ironic fatalism. Apparently the first independently made movie in Ghana, this is a lazy, sun-drenched Romeo-and-Juliet tale that turns, toward its end, into an accelerated description of the competition between Western culture and traditional Ghanaian culture, in which the heroine is offered up as a sacrificial lamb. Equally pessimistic and far less melodramatic is the Algerian-Tunisian coproduction Aziza, directed by Abdellatif Ben Ammar. His Tunis, with its difficult blend of Islamic and Western values, has the makings of a polarized community that is almost as dreary as Piscicelli’s Italy; Aziza’s claustrophobic landscape is one in which idealism and romantic expectations have no apparent use.

Though Aziza, and to a greater extent Love Brewed . . . In The African Pot do not have the powerful stylistic definition of Immacolata and Concetta or of Simone Barbès, or Virtue, their contents are equally concerned with a willful ambivalence toward their respective cultures. Aziza concludes with its lonely heroine going impassively to her dreary job, just as Simone Barbès returns from hers. The “morality” of a Simone Barbès or an Immacolata is quietly decent but primarily self-serving; but Piscicelli and Treilhou convince us that it is mostly self-preserving. While calmly dissenting from conventional sentimental views of society, these filmmakers define morality in modest, personal terms, which may be one’s only answer to despair.

Joan Casademont