Chess of the Wind (1976) | Courtesy of Criterion
Chess of the Wind (1976) | Courtesy of Criterion

Different Countries, Same Troubled Planet: Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, No. 4

Although the films in Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 4 come from different countries, decades, and languages, they reveal similarities in social conscience and film experiments.

Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 4
27 September 2022

Chess of the Wind (Shatranj-e Baad, 1976) Director: Mohammad Reza Aslani

As in Muna Moto, a hated patriarchal tyrant dominates the proceedings, at least for Chess of the Wind’s first half. Haji Amou (Mohamad Ali Keshavarz) throws his weight around the fancy Iranian mansion of an earlier era, being especially cruel to the wheelchair-bound Lady Aghdas (Fakhri Khorvash), who’s introduced smashing bottles with a little swinging flail.

After behaving like one of those obnoxious figures in an episode of Perry Mason or Murder She Wrote who anger everyone until the inevitable murder, the patriarch gets dispatched. Sheyda Gharachedaghi scores this scene and others in a hooting modernist dissonance with traditional instruments. For the record, the composer is a woman, as is production designer Houri Etesam, and these aren’t traditional choices in Iran’s cinema or anybody’s.

Despite the murder, Chess of the Wind is no whodunit because we see clearly who engages in the conspiracy to knock him off and hide the body. Then the plot goes in a direction strongly reminiscent of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique (1955).

At various points, for punctuation, the action shifts to a wide shot of women washing clothes at a fountain while commenting and gossiping about the action. These scenes are presented without cuts but with the camera sometimes gliding in slowly. This “Greek chorus” or “vox populi” element indicates that the working classes are always paying attention and judging the activities of their “betters”. Since this chorus is all female, it carries a whiff of Susan Glaspell’s story “A Jury of Her Peers” (1917), which might have been known to Aslani through its incarnation as a 1961 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Let’s ask him.

A crucial role belongs to Shohreh Aghdashlou, making her film debut as the servant girl or handmaiden Kanizak. She serves her Lady Aghdas even to the point of a startling implication of lesbian passion, presented distantly but noisily. We can imagine this scene raising Persian eyebrows in 1976. Since being Oscar-nominated for House of Sand and Fog (Vadim Perelman, 2003), Aghdashlou has a thriving Hollywood career that includes the X-Men and Star Trek franchises and the sci-fi television series The Expanse. Today she sounds like Leonard Cohen, and that’s not a knock.

Houshang Barlou’s photography frequently curves with catlike prowl around the characters in this claustrophobic setting. In one hair-raising sequence, it even tracks someone down the stairs. These sequences cast an orange-yellow light, perhaps to increase a sense of fevered delirium. In the making-of, Arslani makes visual references to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) and innovative Iranian painter Kamal-ol-Molk.

Chess of the Wind premiered badly at a Tehran festival in 1976 and soon joined the legacy of pre-Islamic Revolution cinema being banned in 1979. Recently rediscovered by an accident that can fairly be called miraculous, it’s been revelatory at festivals.

Two Girls on the Street (Két lány az utcán, 1939) Director: André de Toth

Director André de Toth is known as a Hollywood guy, the only director in this whole set who worked there. Among the many cinematic emigres who landed in Hollywood during WWII, he built a reputation as a reliable craftsman in B films, mostly thrillers and westerns. Dark Waters (1944), Ramrod (1947), and Pitfall (1948) are worthy examples. Despite being blind in one eye, he directed the 3-D horror House of Wax (1953).

The third of his five Hungarian films, Two Girls on the Street follows the perspective of two women of different classes who become roommates in the big city. The slightly older and wiser Gyöngyi (Mária Tasnádi Fekete) – who begins the story by being tossed out of her comfortable home with an unwed pregnancy and loses the baby in childbirth – takes pity upon the naïve and somewhat tiresome Vica (Bella Bordy).

While these characters bewail the fate of women and laborers and bemoan men in general and rich men in particular, de Toth’s script is savvy enough to present its women as flawed, multi-faceted humans. Vica comes across as a clumsy schemer who tries to manipulate people without showing finesse, which often ends badly. However, one of her ploys succeeds in landing the women in a snazzy apartment under the patronage of Gyöngyi’s father.

Gyöngyi also gets manipulative under the guise of being protective, as though Vica is her lost daughter or little sister. Gyöngyi shows jealousy of Vica and resents her attention from a rich architect (Andor Ajtay), and this behavior may imply a submerged erotic attraction between the women. In case you think that’s a stretch for any 1939 film, their all-girl nightclub band shows that one of its members is an effeminate man in drag who mingles freely in the dressing room.

After some narrowly averted melodrama, both women move on to new phases. The final scene shows Vica, now literally on top of everyone else in a new highrise, oblivious to the struggling female laborers who have replaced her in the working-class chain. It’s a cynical little note to strike in the middle of a happy ending. The film’s booklet points out that this cynicism matches the recurring theme song, which is about “saving your breath” because everybody lies.

Shot in the streets of Budapest full of urban bustle and modern construction, Two Girls on the Street mixes realism with a few moments of subjective expressionism. The story is brisk and beady-eyed, with commentary and observation from various side characters. As we’ve hinted, some language and sexual elements are franker than concurrent Hollywood films.

Kalpana (1948) Director: Uday Shankar

Among India’s most important 20th Century artists is dancer and choreographer Uday Shankar, a pioneer in mixing modern with traditional elements into a hybrid of his invention. The highly personal Kalpana is his only film. We said earlier that Muna Moto may be the most avant-garde film in Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 4, but Kalpana runs neck and neck with it.

Kalpana opens with a movie pitch between Shankar and a money-minded mogul whose motto is “Box office!” Shankar pitches the script as dramatized before our eyes. It’s his tale of founding a modern dance troupe and school in the Himalayas (as he did in real life), as tricked up with Hindi melodrama about the artist’s struggle between a Good Girl (symbolizing art) and a temptress (symbolizing the commercial world). Shankar’s wife, Amala Uday Shankar, plays the good Uma, and Lakshmi Kanta plays Kamini, the jealous vamp.

There’s much strife and digression, but that’s not the point. The point is that much of this is conveyed via modern dance numbers that take full advantage of cinematic language by doing things you can’t show on a stage. Visual devices include the editing and superimposition of multiple images on different planes of perspective. Some pieces are presented more theatrically, yet with sweeping camera moves and much elaborate design and lighting.

By coincidence, another film from this year used similar devices: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. Kalpana is shot in black and white by K. Ramnoth rather than glorious color, but much of it looks as striking as a Busby Berkeley film on a smaller budget. Workers are instructed to become machines in one number that evokes Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927).

The emphasis on dance and symbolism makes the storyline almost an abstract concept, although there are many moments of social criticism via direct lectures. Mr. Gandhi and Mr. Nehru are mentioned by name as Shankar implores that India move forward into the modern world by forsaking caste and regional division, the oppression of women, and the lure of the commercial. Early scenes convey an abusive childhood full of beatings, while gaps in this section’s narrative strongly imply that footage may be missing.

One detail that modern viewers will notice is that we first meet the hero as a boy being punished for dressing as a girl to dance on a homemade stage. Cross-dressing isn’t singled out for blame, only the desire to dance. In a later dance, female and male figures superimpose on each other to imply an internal sexual collaboration.

In the bonus discussion, scholars trace Kalpana‘s influence on the Bollywood cinema of Guru Dutt (a student of Shankar), Raj Kapoor and V. Shantaram, and the fact that Satyajit Ray watched it many times. Some of the participants went on to big film careers. For the record, Shankar’s younger brother is an equally major figure in music, Ravi Shankar.

Each film in Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 4 comes with a brief intro by Scorsese and a bonus segment of appreciation. My only complaint about this fine and noble series is that new volumes emerge too slowly. We must remember to be grateful that they emerge at all. Each box is an illuminating treasure of film history far from Hollywood, so this is possibly the single most important ongoing series in home video.