Mar 31, 2024

Best Premiere Viewings of March 2024

1. Pociąg / Night Train (Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1959)

Almost entirely set on the train, with the passengers representing a microcosm of Polish society of the time, Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s ensemble cast drama is a psychologically probing portrait of emotional unfulfillment perfectly summarized in one of the main protagonists’ final line: “Nobody wants to love. Everybody wants to be loved.” A tautly directed examination of innate loneliness, and myopia of mob mentality, ‘Night Train’ enters the dark tunnels of human minds linked in a tightly-knit network of paranoia, as Kawalerowicz and his DoP Jan Laskowski establish the atmosphere of claustrophobia and inescapability. It is simply incredible how camera maneuvers in confined spaces of narrow corridors and crammed compartments, capturing the characters’ inner workings in acutely framed shots often focused on revealing facial landscapes. The racket of the moving train accentuates the ever-growing tension which arises from the suggestion that there may be a murderer on board, whereas the recurring jazz theme of dreamy vocalizations creates a sense of mystery, one of life’s inconclusive nature. The film can be labeled as a missing link between Hitchcock’s ‘Strangers on a Train’ and Antonioni’s ‘trilogy on modernity and its discontents’.

Watched as a part of the ‘Days of Polish Cinema’ event by Cultural Center of Niš and Polish National Film Archive. The film is available on, HERE.

2. Fata/Morgana / Left-Handed Fate (Vicente Aranda, 1966)

“Each murder is the story of a meeting. Each meeting is a love story.”

In dystopian Barcelona whose eerily empty streets echo with paranoia, an unnamed professor (Antonio Ferrandis, superbly forbidding) predicts that a model, Gim (Teresa Gimpera, embodying the vulnerability of beauty in her first screen appearance), is going to be killed, and yet he continually thwarts the attempts of a detective, J.J. (Marcos Martí), to reach out to her. Apart from Gim’s love interest, Álvaro (Alberto Dalbés), who takes care of one mentally unstable Miriam (Marianne Benet), all the remaining men in the city act like stalkers, which creates a simulacrum of suspense in an ambiguous story rooted in the fever-dream logic. A script that Vicente Aranda co-penned with Gonzalo Suárez unleashes a school of red herrings on the viewer, leaving you defenseless against a plethora of questions, but somehow gradually and eagerly attuning to the feature’s peculiar wavelengths that anticipate the directorial oeuvre of Alain Robbe-Grillet, all the while bouncing between the Buñuelian absurdism and Antonioni-esque dislocation. Unclassifiable in its stubborn refusal to follow any genre patterns, ‘Fata/Morgana’ plays out like a subversion of giallo (or Hitchcockian thriller?), and exists in its own meta-world of fabulous jazz music composed by Antonio Pérez Olea and austerely beautiful visuals peppered with pop-art irony, and captured by DoP Aurelio G. Larraya.

3. Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie / The Saragossa Manuscript (Wojciech Has, 1965)

“We are like blind men lost in the streets of a big city. The streets lead to a goal, but we often return to the same places to get to where we want to be. I can see a few little streets here which, as it is now, are going nowhere. New combinations have to be arranged, then the whole will be clear, because one man cannot invent something that another cannot solve.”

Spoken by a character called Don Pedro Velsaquez, these words pose as a reflection of the film’s convoluted narrative structure that is comparable to a Möbius strip, Chinese box or Matryoshka dolls. One story leads to another, then the second one gives birth to a third which may contain the clues for the resolution of the first, or open doors for the fourth, and so on, and so forth, until you find yourself lost in a labyrinth of half-told exploits. Gothic, erotic and/or picaresque, they bring together army officers, African princesses, evil spirits, Spanish inquisition, rich merchants, an old hermit, and a devilish Kabalist in lavish costume and production designs beautifully captured in stark B&W by Mieczyslaw Jahoda, and accompanied by a bizarrely eclectic score composed by Krzysztof Penderecki. It is the stuff that Raúl Ruiz’s dreams were most probably made of, at least before he released the likes of ‘Three Crowns of the Sailor’ or ‘Love Torn in a Dream’.

Watched as a part of the ‘Days of Polish Cinema’ event by Cultural Center of Niš and Polish National Film Archive. The film is available on, in two parts: PART 1 + PART 2.

4. Aurora’s Sunrise (Inna Sahakyan, 2022)

“As we crossed, soldiers tore children from their mothers’ arms. The river took them all...”

A heartwrenching confession of Aurora (née Arshaluys) Mardiganian (1901-1994) – a survivor of Armenian genocide during World War I, and spokesperson for the victims of the atrocities orchestrated by the Ottoman Empire, ‘Aurora’s Sunrise’ blends animated dramatization of her life, snippets of interviews recorded before her death, and scenes from 1919 feature ‘Auction of Souls’ (aka Ravished Armenia), only partially saved, in which she portrayed her own self. The detailed, painterly artwork and the simplicity of the paper cutout-like technique provide an odd, almost surreal effect, allowing Sahakyan to imbue the harrowing story with bits of alleviating poetry, given that the film is not intended to act as ‘guns and swords’, nor as the ‘little pointed crosses’ used for torture. It is only hours after watching that it begins to haunt you, and keep you reflecting not only on the events it describes, but also on all of the (in)human monstrosities throughout the history...

5. Once Within a Time (Godfrey Reggio & Jon Kane, 2022)

At once archaic and hyper-modern, Godfrey Reggio’s first ‘narrative’ film is a bizarre sensory overload that could be best described as a zany love letter to Georges Méliès, with quirky references to Kenneth Anger (caged heads), Albert Lamorisse (red balloons), Stanley Kubrick (the iPhone-smashing monkey), as well as to Bosch and Botticelli. Told from the wide-eyed perspective of a child-hero, ‘Once Within a Time’ is a strikingly playful fairy tale, an incessant stream of strong audio-visual stimuli that makes you forget its overt symbolism, and invites you to dive head-first into its cinematically exciting, delightfully carnivalesque world. Intertwining the ecological, technological and eschatological themes into a wild phantasmagorical smorgasbord of experimental techniques, the 50-minute-long featurette leaves no space for a breather, as enchanting colors of Philip Glass’s eclectic score meld into the dreamlike noise of ‘baroque’ imagery.

6. Victim (Basil Dearden, 1961)

A strong contender for the most decent and tasteful of once controversial films, ‘Victim’ thematizes what is now an antiquated law (code: blackmailer’s charter), but remains a carefully constructed character and social study that largely rests upon the shoulders of the great Dirk Bogarde in a daring, deeply personal role he addressed as ‘the wisest decision he ever made in his cinematic life’. Overcoming the obstacles of the (liberalizing!) feature’s talky nature, while accentuating the inner struggle of Bogarde’s barrister hero is the stark, noir-inspired B&W framing by Otto Heller of ‘Peeping Tom’ fame.

7. Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994)

Some satires are like razorblades. ‘Natural Born Killers’ is the equivalent of a machete, or rather, multiple machetes posing as vanes of a giant, caseless fan. An incessant assault on the senses, it takes a ‘more is more, and that’s never a bore’ approach of tilted angles, frenzied camerawork, feverish editing, psychedelic color schemes, inebriating rear projections, wild animated intrusions, and other visually stimulating whatnots to probe into the cancerous tissue of mass media and tabloid culture. Boldly overstated in its experimentation with the music video aesthetics, it appears like a loony, MTV-informed successor to ‘A Clockwork Orange’, (paradoxically) pulling no punches in its somewhat cartoonish depictions of violence marked as ‘bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad!’ (to quote Juliette Lewis’s anti-heroine, Mallory). It plays a risky game of fighting fire with fire, but its brutally honest portrayal of societal psychoses is highly effective.

8. Le Vourdalak / The Vourdalak (Adrien Beau, 2023)

A promising feature debut from designer and scenographer turned director Adrien Beau, ‘The Vourdalak’ is a unique take on the heavily exploited vampire subgenre, with the titular creature represented by a life-sized marionette (and voiced by Beau himself) in a Carax-like twist. Bringing together its author’s ‘passion for 19th century dark romanticism and puppetry’ (as noted in the Variety interview), it is a moody and quaintly stylish adaptation of Alexeï Tolstoï’s novella ‘The Family of Vourdalak’ written in 1839, and first published in 1884. Beautifully shot on 16mm, and on a lush forest location surrounding Prieuré du Sauvage Monastery posing as unspecified somewhere in the Balkans (according to the book, Serbia), a grisly, unhurriedly paced chronicle of a peasant family torn by love (and, literally, pater familias) is told from the perspective of a French aristocrat (a funny, lampoonish performance from Kacey Mottet Klein), though the ending suggests a feminist shift in the view. Ariane Labed in the role of the unlikely hero’s romantic interest Sdenka acts as a leading violin of a fine-tuned ‘chamber ensemble’ of well-cast actors, providing – as expected from Yorgos Lanthimos’s muse – a sticky aura of charming weirdness culminating in a zany dancing scene. The carefully measured doses of wry humor are neatly interwoven into the poetic tapestry of horror, never thwarting the dense, immersive atmosphere of omnipresent evil.

9. Морето (Петър Донев, 1967) / The Sea (Peter Donev, 1967)

Restored last year in a collaboration between Bulgarian National Film Archive and Yugoslav Film Archive, ‘The Sea’ is a fine piece of modernist cinema that no Italian or French masters would’ve been ashamed of. Chronicling a night and day in lives of Zhana (Severina Taneva) and Toni (Stefan Danailov), this slice-of-(aimless?)-life drama seduces the viewer with its swinging atmosphere of night club flirtation that leads to an early-morning skinny dipping framed in a captivating long shot, only to take a melancholic turn in the second half, as the couple learns their drunken joyride might’ve had a tragic consequence. Donev makes the most of the economic (62-minute) running time to capture the fleeting beauty of summertime (and youth), with the eye of Boris Yanakiev’s camera often intimately lingering on attractive faces of the leading duo, in emotionally resonant medium close-ups. 

For a coastal town double bill, I propose Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s 1962 drama whose title also translates as ‘The Sea’, or Boštjan Hladnik’s New Wave-ish feature ‘A Sand Castle’ (1962).

10. Nightmare (Maxwell Shane, 1956)

In a strange coincidence, on a day I created a collage titled ‘A Missing Candle’, I premiered a film in which the very first image is of a lit candle surrounded by darkness. ‘Nightmare’ is Maxwell Shane’s fifth and final feature, and it is the adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s short story ‘And So to Death’ that also served as the source material for the director’s 1946 debut ‘Fear in the Night’. A neat psycho-noir-drama of steady pacing, it revolves around a young clarinetist, Stan (Kevin McCarthy, superb in channeling anxiety and paranoia), who believes that a murder he dreamed of committing actually happened, as he discovers a few tangible clues upon waking. Reluctantly helped by his brother-in-law detective Rene Bressard (ever-reliable Edward G. Robinson), he pulls the viewer into a captivating guessing game which doesn’t end even after the twisty truth is unveiled, considering that certain elements of the story seem almost surreal in their logic. Maybe Shane’s intention was not to produce a ‘could it all be but a dream’ effect, and yet ‘Nightmare’ – despite the talkiness typical for the 1950’s cinema – gives off a good deal of oneiric vibes, partly by virtue of Joseph F. Biroc’s moody cinematography. The swinging jazz score befitting of the New Orleans setting establishes a distinct atmosphere, with a mysterious melody that haunts Stan playing an important role in his ‘quest’.

11. Stopmotion (Robert Morgan, 2023)

The long-repressed inner child (Caoilinn Springall, a strong contender for the Pantheon of the creepy kids in cinema) is possessed by a Mephistophelian entity in Robert Morgan’s feature debut which takes a deep dive into the darkest waters of artists’ obsession with their work. His heroine, Ella (Aisling Franciosi, feverishly dedicated to the role), struggles with the bequest of her dying, once overbearing mother, spiraling down into madness, as her grotesque puppet creations take the most of life she has given to them. Initially operating as a dark psychological drama along the lines of ‘Repulsion’, with impulsive cuts and effective sound design emphasizing Ella’s gradually deteriorating mental state, ‘Stopmotion’ transmutes into a gooey nightmare strongly influenced by the body horror subgenre, making sure you remember the visceral ‘literalization’ of the line: “Great artists always put themselves into their work.” Embedded in live-action tissue are, of course, Morgan’s macabre ‘frame by frame’ vignettes that often remind us how PAINstaking the technique is. The film’s red-dominated coda appears to be set in the proximity of the Black Lodge.

12. The Philadelphia Experiment (Stewart Raffill, 1984)

As paradoxical as time-travel flicks usually get, ‘The Philadelphia Experiment’ turns the eponymous conspiracy theory into a neat sci-fi romp with a B-movie spirit, and ace cinematography by Ken Russell’s frequent collaborator (and DoP on Friedkin’s thrilling adventure ‘Sorcerer’) Dick Bush who appears to be in an ‘ominous red’ period. Michael Paré in his prime is partnered by ever-likable Nancy Allen in a romantic subplot, as he sheds his macho skin along with manly tears, and slips (unscratched!) through a wormhole three times, while the SFX team treats us to some (2001) stargate-inspired psychedelia.