Friday 30 June 2023

A Diary (7) - The Road to Bologna and IL CINEMA RITROVATO - Holiday snaps


Jonathan Rosenbaum

Dave Kehr, Neil McGlone

Bernard Eisenschitz

David Thompson

The Bologna canal

Angela Allen
(94 year old -Continuity Girl on THE THIRD
MAN and dozens of others
especially for John Huston)

Thursday 29 June 2023

A Diary (6) - The Road to Bologna and IL CINEMA RITROVATO - Artefacts and queues.

Avocado, Black Rice, Smoked salmon and 
sun-dried tomatoes from Gamberini

Il Cinema Ritrovato has proved surprisingly easy to negotiate though I have to confess having paid the premium on the ticket to become a Sostenitore really helps. As late as last night when I changed my mind about an afternoon movie my favourite seat on the aisle in the crossover row was still available, notwithstanding a likely full house, it being reserved for the premium ticket holders and the Artistic Committee. Occasionally an occupant has to be asked to vacate the seat but no dramas least yet....

Some films brought back seen to be more like artefacts or signposts to distant history than works of art. The American film Bushman (David Schickele)was made between 1968 and 1971, a problem caused by the lead actor being summarily and suddenly deported back to Nigeria, being its biggest impediment. After forty minutes or so of narrative featuring a black university teacher and his white and black girl friends, the film stops and we move to another story, that of what happened and how it happened to the actor. 

Niki de Saint Phalle's Un reve plus long que la nuit/A Dream Longer than Night is another such, a film by a woman who devoted most of her life to monumental sculpture but between 1973 and 1976 made two films. Dream is the second of them. It's a delirious Alice in Wonderland meets Jean Cocteau tale ending in battle scenes between actors equipped with giant paper mache exploding penises (above). The audience didn't find it funny and one of the best-known international film critics who sat next to me snoozed and occasionally snored throughout.

Finally an unseen Rouben Mamoulian gave you an insight into his better work, some of his least appealing films occupying other slots. Rings on Her Fingers (USA1942) with Henry Fonda and Gene Tierney may not be as good as The Lady Eve  but it's a very funny story about social climbing and true  love which to my mind featured more kisses (like above almost) between its two principals than I think I've ever seen before in a Hollywood movie, even in Hitchcock's pictures.

Finally another quick update. Cinema Reborn Organising Committee Member Simon Taaffe's progress report nominates as his best so far  IL GRIDO (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 1957), FACE TO FACE (Roviros Manthoulis, Greece, 1967), THE SUSPECT (Robert Siodmak, USA, 1945) and THE PLOT AGAINST HARRY (Michael Roemer, USA, 1971).

...and after another unknown Michael Powell at 6.45 pm it will be off to Da Lucia once more...a creature of habit...Bologna's RK San

Wednesday 28 June 2023

A Diary (5) - The Road to Bologna and IL CINEMA RITROVATO - Best laid plans

The beloved dog sitter Elziby has sent through a photo suggesting that Ralfie is coping with our absence.

First quick update. Film-maker and Cinema Reborn Organising Committee Member James Vaughan is atending his second Il Cinema Ritrovato and has so far been especially impressed with IL GRIDO (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 1957), STELLA DALLAS (Henry King, USA, 1926) made even more special by a brilliant Stephen Horne score performed for the first time in a screening in the Piazza Maggiore, THE RITE (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1969), CROSS OF IRON (Sam Peckinpah, UK/Germany, 1977) and the PROGRAM OF SHORT FILMS FROM 1903.

Meanwhile new records for lengthy introductions are being set by Caterina d'Amico, daughter of the fames scriptwriter Susso Cecchi d'Amico. At a triple bill of short episodes of films by Visconti and Antonioni which Susso wrote, the intro went for (with translation doubling the time) for 40 minutes. This beat the previous day's intro to Processo Alla Citta  (Luigi Zampa, Italy, 1952) which lasted about thirty. An attempt at the 25 minute mark to give Caterina a round of applause was met with "No. I haven't finished yet" as she told an elaborate story of how her mother was working on films for Blasetti, Visconti and Zampa at the same time.

The rouble with intros that over run is that they upset the necessary to the microsecond timing involved in getting from one session to another before the computer clocks you out as a no show. ..and that puts you on a BAD LIST with consequences...

Robert Siodmak

Finally I can report that the world premiere of Universal's restoration of Robert Siodmak's The Suspect  (USA, 1945) drew a packed and very appreciative house. The introductions were  a succinct explanation  by Cassandra Moore of Universal of their restoration program followed by Phillippe Le Guay, an expert on Charles Laughton we were told, who mentioned how Laughton had gone to the States in 1939 and stayed there for a couple of decades.

    and dinner with James  where we discussed his choices was in a new place for me La Cucina del Leopardi... very relaxing as we listened to the thunder and lightning that inevitably meant chaos as the evening's screening in the square was transferred to the much more limited seating of the Arlecchino Cinema. You can see what my focus was on...

Sunday 25 June 2023

A Diary (4) - The Road to Bologna and IL CINEMA RITROVATO - Plus ca change

A welcoming face in the Tre Vecchi Breakfast Room. Thomas the always smiling, always helpful waiter. The Covid years saw the hotel closed for close to three years but its back and bustling.

But it was down to business, kicking off with a an early Sunday morning screening of Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1945) that followed it being screened the night before to thousands in the Piazza Maggiore. Beautiful black and white restoration by Disney and the Academy Film Archive. Just before it started an announcement was made from the stage for us not to be alarmed when we commenced with four minutes of music played on a black screen. Who knew. What had I forgotten. Well the fact that Norman Lloyd, only recently departed at the age of 102, was one of the villains and the sultry Rhonda Fleming had a part as what Hollywood used to call a "nymphomaniac."

On to one of the real treasures  Amori di Mezzo Secolo. Made in 1954 it's one of those portmanteau films and its not quite complete because one of the starting six episodes by Domenico Paollela was instantly removed and all trace of it destroyed. The other five stories than had a chequered existence with initial censorship cuts on matters deemed too sensitive for the Italian people follwed by TV releases that were forced to screen the version with the cuts. Inevitably the standards vary but old master Roberto Rossellini bowled everyone over with his contribution - a WW2 love story between a film starlet, played by an absolutely gorgeous Pier Angeli, and a soldier set amongst the bomb shelters in Rome. It ends badly, another cause for concern by the authorities at the time. The intro explaining all of this by Marta Donzelli and Alberto Anile of the Cinteca Nazionale was a model of its kind.

Lunch  was another treat. A return to the terrific pasticceria Gamberini, another fond memory, just a short walk away and a black rice risotto on a bed of mashed avocado, topped with smoke salmon and accompanied on the side with sun-dried tomatoes. 

Then things got a bit dire at least for me if not for the crowd packed into the Jolly Cinema for Ousmane Sembene's Ceddo. The intro by Sembene's son Alain, Cecilia Cenciarelli doing double translation duties, and Lee Kline of Criterion/Janus, who did the superb restoration, started seven minutes late and was still going 20+ minutes later. I'm afraid lunch caught up with me and I have to reserve any report though it did seem like everyone in the film shouted a lot.

 Les mystères du château de dé (Man Ray, 1929)

Much more interesting because i was back awake was the program of films by Man Ray made between 1923 and 1929. Full on surrealist experimentation, abstraction, abstract narratives and every trick known to a camera at the time. These films may have been more famous if they had had some shocking element like an eyeball being slashed but they remain obscure and more preservation work needs to be done. What made it a standout was the muiscal accompaniment by Sten Horne and Frank Boeckius with Horne alternating between flute and piano and Boeckius coming up with some amazing drumming.

Michel Simon, Tire-au-flanc

Finally an unseen Renoir, his 1928 silent Tire-Au-Flanc, a farce about military service and love finding its own sweet way. After setting up class division in the first sequence where Michel Simon as a clumsy butler and George de Pomies as his dreamy would be poet master have to cope with being drafted. The butler fits right in to the barracks but the poet is the subject of practical jokes and endless bullying. The officers who attempt to control this are variously incompetent or aloof. Easy to see why this was smash on the stage and why Renoir would have been attracted to its mix of knockabout comedy and some very tender romance between the soldiers and their various women. The knockabout does go on a bit in a film that runs for 115 minutes. 

Decades later Tire-au-flanc  was remade by Claude de Givray (produced by Francois Truffaut). Never seen that either but now quite curious. Maybe David Stratton has a copy.

Saturday 24 June 2023

A Diary (3) - The Road to Bologna and IL CINEMA RITROVATO - Bologna at last

Arriving back in Bologna for the first time since 2019 and things click into gear. You can walk from the station to the Tre Vecchi Hotel and get  sense of delight when your advance request for a room overlooking the Garibaldi statue out front is taken so literally that you get the room closest to the man and his steed (above).

So a pass acquired and a first tour of the book and DVD fair in the library produces a minor discovery, Marcel L'Herbier's L'Aventurier from 1934 in a Blu-ray 4K restoration issued by Pathe paid for by the Centre Nationale Cinematographique.

Then the movies start and its somewhat varied. First up is one of the Cineteca's own restorations done in conjunction with Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project and paid for by George Lucas and the Hobson Lucas Foundation. Yam Daabo  directed by Idrissa Ouedraogo (Burkina Faso, 1986) a story of post-colonial independence  when a family walk away from the American aid being dumped on them in the bush and create their own small piece of paradise under their own control. Things aren't always simple though and complications like teenage pregnancy test the unit's resolve and harmony. A superb copy made from the original 16mm negative.

The copy of Rouben Mamoulian's Applause (USA 1929) was we were told a pristine 35mm copy taken from the original negative but seems like someone forget to tell the copier that aspect ratios were slightly different back then and the image often had a line of sprocket holes running down the right hand side. I know people long for the days of 35mm (the Randwick Ritz still seems to pack out 35mm screenings each week) but when the image is distorted I'm not so sure. Perhaps one might say its ripe for restoration. Mamoulian's mise-en-scene is full of angles, tricks and tropes of lighting, and some very hammy performances but the dialogue had a lot of punch about it when the villain of the piece, Hitch (played by Fuller Mellish Jr, whatever happened to him?) the master manipulator of women, effortlessly had them eating out of his hand.

Finally the Michael Powell before Pressburger kicked off with Hotel Splendide (UK, 1932) a brisk 57 minute quota quickie written by Philip MacDonald and Ralph Smart in which a bunch of people descend on a small hotel in Speymouth, on being the new owner the rest a bunch of crooks and police in disguise. The object is to recover a stolen necklace and the complications whiz by. Beautiful restoration by the BFI Archive which we promised is part of a massive restoration project they have devoted to Powell's careeer. We are promised new versions of his masterpieces soon. The  screening was introduced by a panel of four who kept their comments succinct. James Bell, Bryony Dixon (who intro-ed two shorts starring Powell from a series called Riviera Revels which was intended to play weekly with the same bunch of comics getting into trouble in the south of France. Powell played Cicero Simp complete with toupee hat and a butterfly net and seems to have had the main part. His scene where he accidentally falls inside the wheel of a water mill is truly remarkable and he probably defied death in doing it. His widow Thelma Schoonmaker was also on had to talk about his contributions. A model of its kind.

That was enough but for a dinner at my old favourite Da Lucia with old friend Neil McGlone, also returning to Bologna for the first time in four years.

Friday 23 June 2023

A Diary (2) - The Road to Bologna and IL CINEMA RITROVATO - Days and nights in Milan

Dumplings stuffed with potato in a creamy celery and
marmalade (!) sauce served at
Casa Lodi on via Capellari

A bustling place with trams everywhere including right outside my double glazed hotel window. 

There is something about the Brera Pinacoteca which brings you back again and again. For starters there is Mantegna's Lamentations on the Death of Christ with its extreme foreshortening and its echo all the way to Pasolini's Mamma Roma.



But before you get to them you are confronted, twice, with a nude statue of Napoleon by Antonio Canova. Having conquered Northern Italy Nap wanted the Brera to become Italy's Louvre or its Musée Napoléon as the Louvre was called when the great man held sway. Some excerpts from Wikipedia fill in the story

At Napoleon's personal and insistent demand, Canova went to Paris in 1802 to model a bust of him. In 1803, after his return to Rome, he began work on the full-length sculpture; it was completed in 1806. Its idealised nude physique draws on the iconography of Augustus ...France's ambassador in Rome François Cacault and the director of French museums Vivant Denon both saw the sculpture while it was a work in progress: Cacault wrote in 1803 that it "must become the most perfect work of this century", whilst Denon wrote back to Napoleon in 1806 that it belonged indoors in the Musée Napoléon "among the emperors and in the niche where the Laocoon is, in such a manner that it would be the first object that one sees on ...In late 1810 the sculpture was transported to France, reaching Paris on 1 January 1811. When Napoleon saw it there in April 1811 he refused to accept it, calling it "too athletic" and banning the public from seeing it...In 1811 a bronze copy of the statue was cast in Rome by Francesco Righetti and his son Luigi,... Since 1859 the bronze has stood in the main courtyard of Palazzo Brera...In spite of the poor reception of the marble statue, Canova had it cast in plaster. Five copies were made, and were destined for the Accademie di Belle Arti of Italy. The best-preserved of these is now, following restoration in Florence, in the Pinacoteca di Brera. ...and here it is below...

and one other that brings you back.... Caravaggio's Dinner at lighting on the top not MMs

At the Multisala Eliseo each cinema is named after a director (Olmi, Truffaut, Scorsese, Wenders and another). On Thursdays one of their films is screened in its original language. This week its Daliland  a film I'd never heard of. Turns out its directed by Mary Harron from a script by Harron's spouse John Walsh. Ben Kingsley takes on the famous painter and Barbara Sukowa plays the tempestuous and intimidating Gala. Seems it went on at Toronto last year and has since near sunk without trace. The Italian release last month is the first recorded.

The format is another of those stories where a young man is introduced into the menage and slowly some of the mysteries of the lives of the combatants are revealed. Seems that Dali and Gala were perpetually living beyond their means back in the 70s and the film hints that they got up to no good signing pieces of paper that dealers later used to photocopy stuff and sell as originals. The explanation of how all this worked was offered but remained somewhat elusive. Easy to see why the movie has not attracted attention.

Here is the entrance door where it screened.

Elsewhere, Wenders films are having a go round courtesy of the Cineteca Milano. Also on the Cineteca's programs are a series of environmental docos about waste, some films by Jonas Mekas and Michael Snow's Corpos Callosum (Canada, 2002). Hard to recall the name of the last Michael Snow film I saw, but something at the Art Gallery of New South Wales back in the day when Robert Herbert was curating the program. The corpus callosum is a central region of tissue in the human brain which passes "messages" between the two hemispheres, not that that's explained in the movie itself. I had to look it up but it does immediately help.

To enter the  screening of the Snow film, which attracted  six spectators, you pass through a terrific exhibition of posters and machinery devoted to the history of the cinema which currently is interspersed with a series of exhibits relating to the life and work of Jonas Mekas. The Museum has been screening Mekas's catalogue since April and is going to complete it ast the end of July. That is some retrospective. So here's one of the posters on display.

Thursday 22 June 2023

A Diary (1) - The Road to Bologna and IL CINEMA RITROVATO 2023 - Paris and Lyon

Pierfrancesco Favino (The Last Night of Amore,
Mario Martone, Italy, 2023)

Not enough time to explore the continuous film festival that is Paris so one film only, a sure fire likely contender for prime spots whenever the next Italian Film Festival takes up all the screens at Palace Cinemas everywhere. The Last Night of Amore (L'ultima notte di Amore) has a ring to it but you quickly learn that "Amore" is the name of the detective whose last day on the job goes very badly indeed. Pierfrancesco Favino (last seen in Nostalgia (Mario Martone, 2022 and earlier in Bellocchio's The Traitor, 2019) is a cop who, on his last day on the job, is offered some easy money to protect a visiting Chinese drug/crime figure. But it's a set up and goes horribly wrong and his cop buddy, a younger man with a young family, is killed in an ambush. Very fraught story line but Favino stands tall as a ...well..almost  honest man of integrity when all about are on the take...

A week later in Lyon I caught up with just one of a parcel of five restored Mexican films from the 1940s doing the art house circuit around France, inevitably with the tag line of Mexican noir (Leaflet cover above). Which means pot boilers and melodramas. Salon Mexico is directed by the pre-eminent director of his day Emilio Fernandez and photographed by Gabriel Figueroa. The French title "Les Bas-Fonds de Mexique" might be an attempt to give it gravitas which it doesn't warrant. Wikipedia tells me it is cited as a classic example of the Mexican genre of Cabaretera (Dance Hall film) about "a sympathetic character, a good woman forced into a bad life by circumstances beyond her control." 

Mercedes (Marga Lopez) is a dance hall girl, presumably a cover for a prostitute and we first meet her when she and her pimp played by Rodolfo Acosta are in a dance competition and he asks the judges to make sure he wins. They do and he refuses to share the winnings telling her she's looking for a slap. He crosses the street and picks up a prostitute and heads indoors. She later robs him and we learn she badly needs the money to support her sister's education in a refined school for young ladies. Much goes horribly wrong but the young sister finds true love... On the way there are at least six band and dance numbers performed by some very enthusiastic musicians and one especially attractive dancer who gets to do a very sexy solo routine.

Entrance to the Institut Lumiere cinema
with a photo of the late Bertrand Tavernier prominent

Of all the changes in Lyon since I was last there about five years ago the most noticeable is that the activities of the Institut Lumiere, situated on the site of the Lumiere Bros factory and the place in the photo above where the first ever film  was shot and screened, has now spread by establishing a small chain of art house cinemas in the town itself. That's where I, and one other punter, saw Salon Mexico.

Finally Lyon is home to the rather amazing Museum of Cinema and Miniatures (above). It's a five story warren of rooms devoted to miniature sets like that for Wes Anderson's The Fantastic Mr Fox (below), several rooms of completely recreated sets for Tom Tykwer's Perfume, poster art,  a Batman room and even a room devoted to the special effects involved in creating mutilated bodies where the sign on the door says Children should not Enter. When you enter any number of children are inside taking selfies next to severed arms and exploded heads.


Sunday 11 June 2023

Streaming on YouTube - Barrie Pattison nostalges about the career of DAVID GREENE and ... AND THEN SHE WAS GONE (Greene, USA, 1991)

David Greene

Nostalgia is a moveable feast. Now that Ivan Mozjoukine and Buster Keaton have been safely embedded in film history, it comes as Mighty Mouse and Audie Murphy or Fellini and Fassbinder or (think Filmink) Jaws and Clint Eastwood.

I got a whiff of this when You tube offered me In a Stranger’s Hands, which used to be  ...And Then She Was Gone, a l991 Movie for TV with Robert Urich of Spenser for Hire and Megan Gallagher, who propped up Dabney Coleman in the excellent Slap Maxwell series. Despite the beautiful copy, I was about to surf on when David Greene’s director credit came up.

That was a name I knew. After doing odd jobs, Greene had been invalided out of the WW2 navy and became an actor (a 1950 Thérèse Raquin) and director in un-promising fifties British TV. This did bring him into contact with producer Herbert Brodkin, then peaking with The Defenders and its satellite series. Greene did episodes of prestige U.S. titles like Twilight Zone and Playhouse 90  and Brodkin’s The Defenders, For the People, The Doctors and the Nurses and his excellent 1963 British series Espionage, along with Michael Powell and Ken Hughes. 

Dirk Bogarde, Lilli Palmer, Sebastian

Greene’s feature debut was the atmospheric 1967 The Shuttered Room (Oliver Reed searching for Carol Lynley by the light of a blazing teddy bear) and he did Sebastian, produced by Powell in 1968 with Dirk Bogarde, Susannah York and Lilli Palmer as Cold War code breakers. This one should have attracted more attention. He followed with distinctive features Madam Syn with Bette Davis, cop movie The Strange Affair, Those People Next Door and Godspell. 

However, with British production in steep decline, Greene moved to the area where he would make his most sustained contribution - US movies for TV. He was one of the few people - think Joan Tewksbury and Paul Wendkos -  whose work could be noticed in this deluge.  ... And Then She Was Gone is not the best of his efforts but it is elevated by a strong cast and a plausibly detailed Los Angeles texture.

Urich, his makeup tan visible in the High Definition copy, is a one time Dartmouth football hero, who has risen in the world of computing (“serial connecting ports”). A key negotiation with Asian clients comes up at the same time as his repeatedly postponed Antigua vacation with striking redhead Isabella Hofmann. 

...And Then She Was Gone

Meanwhile, Gallagher’s young child Caitlin Dill (her only performance) has been abducted. Despite his priorities meaning Isabella goes off outraged, Urich is sidetracked, when the missing child drops her rag doll in his subway car and his well-intentioned attempt to return it to the address located from a photo poster gets him roughed up by neighbours and dragged off to the station, where Detective Vondie Curtis-Hall remembers Bob's triumphs on the sports field. 

Waitress Gallagher sympathises (“You got hit again”) and is shocked to find his tie damaged in the scuffle, which she offers to replace, costs ninety dollars. About now the contrivance in the writing starts to weigh the piece down. Urich recruits the company’s Ivy League computer guy to use his dormitory hacker experience to track the nasties through the phone system and becomes one of the heroes you keep on wanting to shout “Call the cops!” to. When he does, they put him on hold, so he goes solo vigilante. 

Despite this, the film has elements, which show Greene operating above his pay grade. Like Hoffman, a pre West Wing Janel Maloney registers. There’s a chilling scene where junkie-whore Christine Dunford knowingly ODs, like Janet Munro in Sebastian"


...And Then She Was Gone

... And Then She Was Gone is not going to change anyone’s worldview or live in the collective memory but it is as good a snapshot of the entertainment of its day as we are going to get. I was sucked in ... and that copy is so good.

Tuesday 6 June 2023

Sixty Years of International Art Cinema 1960-2020 the Sixties part 6 (14), France part 6 : Creator of Forms (i) Bresson - Bruce Hodsdon's series continues

Robert Bresson

Some other ‘creators of forms’ in modern French cinema include Godard, Duras, Varda, Marker, Resnais and Robbe-Grillet.                      

“In a medium that has been primarily intuitive, individualized and humanistic,” the work of Robert Bresson (1901- 99)  “is anachronistically non-intuitive, impersonal, and iconographic” (Schrader 85). 

Bresson had been an inspiration for the nascent new wave in the early 50s with his breakthrough third feature, Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and three following films that, with Country Priest, form Bresson’s prison cycle although he was still well over a decade away from his radically affecting narrative, Au hasard Balthazar (1966).

After mixed critical receptions for his two theatrical debut features made during the Occupation, Bresson fully arrived when both the world of letters and the world of cinema enthusiastically accepted his version as writer-director for the proposed film of Georges Bernanos’s novel.  ‘Cahiers’ editor Andre Bazin’s finely wrought review of Bresson’s film was subsequently endorsed and pointedly directed at the mainstream tradition of quality by a young Truffaut in 1954 in his first major essay, “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema.” Truffaut takes Diary up as a cause célèbre in which “the literary masterpiece was wrested from the overweening hands of these “professionals” and given over to a true man of the cinema.”

The special status of the adaptation adopted by the French press gave Bresson unusual scope to insist on his rigorous conception of the novel as a film, refusing the slightest compromise in taking on the tradition of its premier scenarists, allowing him to break with standard practice in overturning the notions of the “cinematic story” and the “primacy of the image.”

Whereas French quality cinema is architectural, public, clear, gaudy, and conventional, Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, on the contrary, is fluid, musical, interior, obscure, aesthetic, and idiosyncratic (Dudley Andrew 117).

Diary of a Country Priest

As he makes clear in his subsequently published ‘Notes on Cinematography’ (1975), Bresson was concerned to completely rethink the notions of the actor, the shot, and the sound track. Most important was his strategy of total discipline and control “put at the service of discovery, that is, at the service of the spontaneous revelations that grace the making of a work of art.” In contrast to conventional commercial practice Bresson warns himself in his notes “to be prepared for the unexpected and to bend with it so it can be incorporated into the living texture of the work.”

Let no classic and imperfect images draw attention to themselves; let no editing structure rationalise and clarify motivations; let not the actors think through their roles. Rather all should happen with the smooth unrolling of a natural gesture, but a gesture acquired after infinite, patient practice.  And may this gesture be prepared to seize whatever sparks of life or truth emerge from the encounter with the subject (ibid 119).

This tends to render standard film analysis irrelevant.  The success of Diary of a Country Priest, suggests Andrew, “is not as an allegory of spiritual experience but as direct exemplification of such experience.”

Bresson doesn’t argue for the presence of the supernatural in his film, nor does he demonstrate it as the logical result of his intrigue. It is simply there as an effect of the text, produced, critics seem to agree, by the accumulative method which couldn’t be further from conventional plotting.

Diary of a Country Priest

Country Priest 
is, Andrew concludes, “a meditation that forces us to revaluate experience” refusing conventional values, “concentrating on new facts and events, over-determining them until they form a spiritual economy.”

Bresson’s main body of work is identified by Kovács as the first to develop a radically minimalist form in modern cinema (141). He defines and re-defines his own path in his films in what builds into an investigation of the nature of cinematic narration. His first three films in the 50s are variations on the notion of written diary entries being transposed to voice-over commentary on the visualised action. In The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) the transcript of the trial provides a variant on this form of narration. In Une Femme Douce (1969) the voice of the husband recalls the history of their relationship as he keeps vigil by his wife’s body while in the following film, Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), the lead couple define themselves by relating their previous histories to each other.  

Adams Sitney notes that Bresson allows the tension between the continuity of written and spoken language and the fragmentation of shots in the search for meaning, to become, per se, an important thematic concern.  The narrators tell stories in search of that meaning for themselves (and thus the audience) which is finally rendered elusive through Bresson’s elliptical style. 


In his sixth feature film, Pickpocket (1959), Kovács considers that Bresson’s style with its unfailing unity of form and theme, reached its maturity. That is true if applied only to the prison cycle concerned with the theme of spiritual escape beginning with Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and culminating with The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962).  It can also be argued that early stylistic maturity is shared with the second film in the cycle, A Man Escaped (1956). However Dudley Andrew in his essay recognises that it was already there beyond doubt when Bresson “seized the chance” to take on the entrenched traditions of the “prettifiers and popularisers of literary classics” in the French cinema’s so-called tradition of quality. Just before his death in 1948 the author Bernanos had given a humiliating reception to the script of his novel by the well-established writing team of Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost (La Symphony pastorale, Jeux interdits and many others).

Schrader makes the point that the premise of Bresson’s films has precedence in religious art in the “surface aesthetics” of the everyday. The details of location and insistence on live sound is “a stylisation that consists of elimination rather than addition or assimilation. This is based “not on a concern for ‘real life’, but from an opposition to the contrived, dramatic events which pass for real life in the movies“. Like Ozu he uses music only in what Schrader terms the “decisive action” in the narrative that ends in the “stasis” of the final image inviting meditation (89).


Bresson and Carl Dreyer are seen as the major predecessors, in the 50s, of modernism. Bresson introduced “a kind of minimalism based on extensive use of off-screen space that was a result of radically static composition” combined with a uniquely dispassionate acting style of his own devising, referring to the actors in his films as ‘models’. With the ‘model’ technique Bresson required them to do repeat takes multiple times for each scene until all semblance of performance was stripped away. Kovács’ fully includes spiritual style in the trajectory of modernist European cinema, 1950-80, most notably its spread into what he terms the “expressive minimalism’, for example, of Antonioni and some of Bergman in the 60s.

Bordwell writing in the 80s finds that only Bresson and Ozu had intuitively and consistently employed what he identifies as parametric narration (see para 4 above) in their films in which cinematic style - the repetition and development of technique - tends to become the dominant factor at the expense of other factors, even plot.  He and Kovacs in their analyses implicitly in effect leave the posing of meaning to André Bazin,  Amedee Ayfre, Susan Sontag, Paul Schrader et al. 

Sontag’s path-breaking essay on Bresson’s “Spiritual Style,” was first published in 1964 and is therefore  focused on the prison cycle. She placed Bresson’s then six films in the field of great reflective art in which “the form of the work […] is present in an emphatic way.” The intended effect on the viewer is an awareness of form causing extension (“elongation”) of emotional response providing  a state of ‘spiritual balance’ for what Bresson wants to say. Sontag identified his interest “in the forms of spiritual action - in the physics as it were, rather than in the psychology of souls,” the subject of Simone Weil’s book ‘Gravity and Grace’ from which Sontag quotes : “Grace fills empty space, but it can only enter where there is void to receive it, and it is grace itself that makes this void.” 

The wind blows where it will; it doesn’t matter once all is grace.  This phenomenology of salvation and grace in his films has been chronicled by the above named critics and by Bresson himself. Schrader notes he was a rarity among film-makers: he knew exactly what he did and why he did it” (85).

Au hasard Balthazar 

Beginning with Au hasard Balthazar  (1966) and Mouchette (1967) there is an increase in the arbitrariness of wilfully evil or morally ambiguous actions in comparison with the prison films with their binaries of confinement and freedom, free-will and predestination, religion and crime as a vocation with the real conflict individually interiorised. It had also seemed almost unimaginable that the images in Bresson’s films would be other than black and white, never more so than in Mouchette, until colour unexpectedly opens up the potential for further expressiveness in Une Femme Douce (1969) and the four films to follow.

In his final film, L’Argent/Money (1983), Bresson fully extended his minimalist style in terms of narrative, “visually mutilating” a scene by using medium close-ups whose composition is made unclear from the beginning of the shot sequence in combination with elliptical editing involving minimal framing in providing a tenuous continuity. This stylisation gives the impression of a series of still images much as in silent cinema where the means of creating continuity were much more restricted and supplemented by inter-titles (Kovacs 142-144).  As in The Devil Probably (1977) the form seems more implacably all-encompassing in its representation of materiality, the protagonists’ death described by Bresson as “the routing of the forces of evil”, the extension of grace more elusive or short lived in a world of dehumanising violence and corruption. Kovacs contents himself with only describing the form of Bresson’s ‘new minimalism’. No other major filmmaker has gone as far into formally raising unanswered moral questions about the nature of being in an increasingly hostile world while invoking spiritual mystery.


As Bresson made clear in interviews, he had no wish to win a wide audience if it meant having to adopt the prevailing norms of mainstream commercial filmmaking. “By forcing an active, deflected concentration on the spectator’s part, Bresson creates a sense of intensity that an ordinary film would invest entirely in the actions and expressions of conventional performances” (Kristin Thompson 312).


David Bordwell  Narration in the Fiction Film 1985                                                                            

Susan Sontag “Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson” essay in Partisan Review (1964) reprinted in Against Interpretation 1967                                                                                              

P Adams Sitney entry on Bresson in The International Dictionary of Directors  ed  C Lyon 1984 

 András Bálint Kovacs Screening Modernism  2007                                                                            

Kristin Thompson Breaking the Glass Armour 1988                                                                          

Dudley Andrew  essay on Diary of a Country Priest in Film in the Aura of Art  1984                        

Adrian Martin entry on L’Argent in 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die  2003 ed.                  

 Paul Schrader Transcendental Style in Film  2018 edition                                                                        

Dana Polan revisionist view of Bresson’s cinema in Au hasard Balthazar  Senses of Cinema 42



Previous entries in this series can be found if you click the following links


Sixty Years of International Art Cinema: 1960-2020 - Tables and Directors Lists to Accompany Bruce Hodsdon's Series


Notes on canons, methods, national cinemas and more


Part One - Introduction

Part Two - Defining Art Cinema

Part Three - From Classicism to Modernism

Part Four - Authorship and Narrative

Part Five - International Film Guide Directors of the Year, The Sight and Sound World Poll, Art-Horror

Part Six (1) - The Sixties, the United States and Orson Welles

Part Six (2) - Hitchcock, Romero and Art Horror

Part Six (3) - New York Film-makers - Elia Kazan & Shirley Clarke  

Part Six (4) - New York Film-makers - Stanley Kubrick Creator of Forms

Part Six (5) ‘New Hollywood’ (1) - Arthur Penn, Warren Beatty, Pauline Kael and BONNIE AND CLYDE

Part Six (6) Francis Ford Coppola: Standing at the crossroads of art and industry

Part 6(7) Altman

6(8) Great Britain - Joseph Losey, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Richard Lester, Peter Watkins, Barney Platts-Mills

6(9) France - Part One The New Wave and The Cahiers du Cinema Group

6(10) France - Part Two - The Left Bank/Rive Gauche Group and an Independent

6(11) France - Part Three - Young Godard

6(12) France - Part Four - Godard:Visionary and Rebel

6 (13) France Part 5 Godard with Gorin, Miéville : Searching for an activist voice