[10 February 2014]
Even if Martin Scorsese were a terrible filmmaker, which of course he is very far from being, there would be a spot in film history reserved for him for his work as a curator and film historian. He is perhaps the world’s most beloved cinephile, having worked for decades in the restoration of classics of cinema like The Red Shoes (his frequent collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker married director Michael Powell after Scorsese introduced them to each other) and constantly creating projects that serve as his contribution to preserving films. His documentaries about his love of movies, particularly My Voyage to Italy, are love songs so ecstatic in their passion that the moment you see them, you want to put your entire life on hold and go see every single movie he discussed.
In 2007, Scorsese made his love for cinema even more “official” by creating the World Cinema Foundation (later the World Cinema Project), a non-profit organization devoted to “preserving and restoring neglected films from around the world—in particular those countries lacking the financial and technical ability to do so.”
At the very core of the World Cinema Project’s mission is the idea that films are worthy regardless of where they’re done and how big their budgets are and aims to preserve, or create even, the patrimony of poor countries where cinema is still thought of as a luxury. With that in mind, Scorsese went one step ahead and in collaboration with The Criterion Collection created Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, the first volume (in what we can only hope are hundreds) in which the director handpicked films from all over the world and put them together in a luxurious box set complete with myriad bonus features. So far, a total of 21 films are among those featured in the World Cinema Project website, six of which are included in this box set.
The films span five decades in their release dates, with the oldest being from 1936 and the newest having been made in 1981. There’s nothing that unites these films, no common actor, subject matter, studio or obvious theme, other than: “these are the movies Martin Scorsese wants us to see”, and we don’t have the option to say no. Watching each of these six films though, we come to understand why Scorsese picked them with such urgency, as these are all films of extraordinary historical value. Even the least entertaining of them (we’ll leave this up to the viewer) has unsurmountable worth when it comes to capturing a specific place and time.
In Redes (1936) for example, we find photographer Paul Strand working together with future Academy Award winner Fred Zinnemann and Mexican filmmaker Emilio Gómez Muriel to create a docudrama in which we see the daily lives of poor fishermen living on the Gulf Coast. Strand, who was known for his too-liberal thinking, wrote the story of how one of these men (played by Silvio Hernández del Valle) decides to break free from the corrupt world in which he lives and urges others to join him in a revolution. Think of it as On the Waterfront meets Italian Neorrealism, with a touch of stunning visual poetry.
Redes is strongly anti-capitalistic, and we can only imagine how conservative audiences might have reacted to a film that openly said it opposed everything they represented. Perhaps the film works as a curious reminder of the fascinating cinematic works that can spring from multicultural collaboration, given that you can almost see what each of the main filmmakers contributed to the project. On a visual essay by Kent Jones that accompanies the film, we learn that Strand would never again make a film in Mexico.
The Housemaid (1960)
Next up in chronological order is The Housemaid (1960) from South Korea. Perhaps better known for its recent remake, the film is a disturbing character study in which we see how a beautiful young woman (Lee Eun-shim) reveals to be nothing if not evil personified, as she blackmails the family that hired her to look after their home.
The Housemaid might be the most “entertaining” film in the set, but it’s also one which has been treated with less respect for this very reason. In this movie, director Kim Ki-young builds a state of pure delirium which pretty much invented what would become known as modern Korean cinema and this film in particular remains a landmark of Asian art, because of the way in which it allowed a sexually perverse character to become the protagonist.
Dry Summer (1964)
From Korea we travel to Turkey with Dry Summer (1964), a Steinbeckian tragedy in which we see two brothers argue over water to use for irrigation. Directed by Metin Erksan, the film centers on a love triangle between the siblings and one of their wives, who finds herself repeating a cycle she thought she’d escaped once she’d cut loose from her wicked mother. Dry Summer is sensuously shot and offers a Biblical simplicity so effortless that we can’t help but want to give it another look, if only to decipher hidden symbols we might think we missed on the first round.
Touki Bouki (1973)
From 1973 we have two films, Touki Bouki from Senegal and A River Called Titas from Bangladesh. The former is an impressionistic film inspired by the French New Wave, in which director Djibril Diop Mambéty pushes the boundaries of the medium by using pretty much every stylistic flourish invented. He tells a simple story that never becomes as important as the way in which it’s told. Perhaps the most surprising elements about this film is its ambition, especially compared to how little we know about African cinema even now.
A River Called Titas (1973)
The Senegalese film is quite the opposite of the Bangladeshi, the latter which seems like a neorealist epic that spans decades and characters as it shows us the lives of women in fishing villages. Directed by Ritwik Ghatak, A River Called Titas might not always be enthralling, but it certainly proves that countries with smaller film industries had nothing to envy Hollywood in terms of scope and ambition.
Finally, Trances, a 1981 film from Morocco that might have planted the idea for the World Cinema Project in Scorsese’s head. This concert film directed by Ahmed El Maânouni, first came to Scorsese’s attention when he watched it as he worked on The King of Comedy and would go on to inspire the soundtrack for The Last Temptation of Christ. Watching the way in which the film combines footage from performances by Nass el Ghiwane, with your standard documentary floating heads gives us a sense of universality that might’ve clicked in Scorsese’s head, making him see how we’re all the same.
It’s no coincidence that the music of this band is hailed for its positive messages and its band members are renowned human rights activists. What the film lacks in thrills, it certainly makes up for in historical value.
The Criterion Collection presents these movies in a luxurious set featuring three Blu-ray discs and six DVDs which include interviews with filmmakers like Fatih Akin, Bong Joon-ho, Kumar Shahani and Abderrahmane Sissako who discuss how the movies featured here inspired their own works. There is a wonderful short documentary in which Trances director Ahmed El Maânouni, joins the producer and Scorsese to talk about the film’s importance and its production.
Also included are introductions to each of these films by Scorsese, who talks about each of them with the same passion of someone who made them. In terms of historical importance and overall cinephile thrills, few home media releases will surpass this one, at least not until we get the next installment.