Legendary writer/director and noted film buff Martin Scorsese established The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project in 2007 to restore and present classic films from around the world that are little known to U.S. audiences. The latest collection brings together five black-and-white films and one color film that have been painstakingly restored from the best possible elements, a Herculean effort considering their origins in countries with little care for preservation or even outright scorn for cinema. In the case of the film Downpour, the Iranian government purposely destroyed all original elements and known copies of the film, leaving only the director’s own 35mm print with burned-in English subs to use as a source. Putting aside the rarity of these works, each of the films are absolutely worth watching and are revelations of 20th century life in far-flung corners of the globe.
Scorsese filmed new introductions for all six of the films where he briefly discusses their history, acting as a pseudo professor for our virtual film class. His dedication and deep love for film are clear, and his involvement obviously helps to amplify each of these important cinema voices, but special kudos are also due to Criterion for continuing to release these lesser-known international works in sumptuous box sets despite their limited commercial appeal.
The films originate from Cuba (Lucia), Indonesia (After the Curfew), Brazil (Pixote), Mexico (Dos monjes), Mauritania (Soleil O), and Iran (Downpour). After viewing all of them, I can’t pick a clear favorite, but gladly, I also can’t say that I disliked any of them. Pixote‘s study of the rough life of Brazilian street youth is the most arresting of the set and likely to linger in my thoughts the longest, although Soleil O runs a close second with its searing depiction of racism against African immigrants in France in the 1970s that is sadly still more relevant than ever today.
Lucia looks at life in Cuba from the aspect of three unrelated generations of women named Lucia, starting from the capitalist excesses of 1895 to the socialist decline of the 1960s. Each Lucia has her own difficulties, although 1895 wealthy aristocrat Lucia clearly has a superior life to the 1932 bourgeois Lucia and the 1960s peasant Lucia, even in spite of the war of independence from Spain raging around her. It’s intriguing to see the three eras of Cuban history as related by actual Cubans, an exceedingly rare treat for American viewers. A new bonus documentary feature includes the director and members of the cast reminiscing about the 1968 movie, thankfully still possible due to their youth at the time of filming.
After the Curfew is a look at an ex-soldier attempting to reintegrate into Indonesian civilian life, hoping to marry his lovely and upstanding girlfriend but tempted to low life by a whore managed by his seedy ex-compatriot. The curfew in the title references an enforced measure in place at the time that could result in imprisonment or worse for any citizens unlucky enough to be caught, further oppression contributing to the lead’s despair about his future options. The bonus feature is a journalist’s discussion of the film’s legacy.
Pixote follows a 10-year-old homeless boy as he traverses the horrors of a seedy juvenile prison only to face even worse once he returns to the streets. The actors are all amateurs, and the whole thing is made even more heartbreaking when it’s revealed by the director in the bonus feature interview filmed in 2016 that the magnetic young star ended up being shot dead by police when he was only 19. Pixote is the sole color film in the set, although those colors in the dismal prison and gloomy streets are so muted that they practically border on monochrome.
Dos monjes has some outstanding cinematography and a surprising amount of challenging camera movement, easily the best-looking film in the box. It also recalls Rashomon as it presents its flashback story-within-a-story from the perspective of two different warring monks at a gothic monastery. There are interesting surreal touches as well, such as when an array of monks turns into puppets at one point as the lead descends further into madness as a result of the shock of seeing his former acquaintance at the monastery. It’s really ambitious and well done, transcending its era and even its significant place as one of the earliest Mexican films with sound. A scholar discusses the film in its bonus feature.
While Soleil O is presented as a Mauritanian film, it was shot on location in France, albeit entirely from the perspective of an African immigrant attempting to find a foothold in the country. Racism is omnipresent, both the expected white folks holding back and disparaging the star as well as a bit of colorism from a lighter-skinned African and a gaggle of white women gleefully desiring to test the star’s sexual prowess to see if it holds up to their preconceived myth. Perhaps the most telling scene in the film is a lengthy romantic embrace between the star and one of the sexually adventurous white women in the middle of the Champs-Elysees as clearly agitated actual passersby register their distaste. Director Med Hondo appears in the 2018 bonus feature discussing his surprise and delight about Scorsese’s attention to his film.
Downpour follows the repercussions of a new school teacher moving into a highly insular part of Tehran as he upsets expectations in his classroom and comes between a beautiful young lady and the rich ogre expecting to marry her. The point seems to be how much change can be brought by one person, almost as if Mary Poppins had descended on the town to upend traditions before moving on to her next engagement. It has some comical moments that make it the lightest film of the set. The now U.S,-based director filmed a new interview for its bonus feature.
The film restorations are mostly superb, aside from some unfortunate persistent warping around the middle of the frame reportedly due to vinegar syndrome in After the Curfew and constant audio hiss throughout Dos monjes, understandable considering its status as the oldest film by far (1934) in the set. The restoration notes describe the monumental efforts taken to restore the films, with the teams carefully scouring the globe for elements and combining the best ones from the original negatives all the way to third-generation duplicate positives. Although Downpour only had one surviving source to work with, it sounds like the 1500 hours used to restore the director’s heavily damaged copy made it the most challenging of the set.
The Criterion box set includes all six films on both DVD and Blu-ray, with two films contained in each of its three gatefold cases. The films are presented one per DVD and two per Blu-ray, adding up to nine discs. The box also includes a sizeable booklet with credits, essays and restoration information about each of the films. It’s basically a film school in a box, and well worth seeking out.