Long live The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, Martin Scorsese’s passion project that has restored more than 40 oft-neglected films from around the world. Same sentiment applies to the Criterion Collection’s steady stream of home video releases of the project’s restorations, including stellar standalone editions of films like Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl or Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, and box sets of some of the more obscure titles. There’s no doubt Criterion’s line has trended toward a more mainstream approach over the last five years or so as the big studios have become much more open about licensing, but the company’s continued commitment to releasing these films on Blu-ray is heartening.
Like the first two sets, Criterion has released Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 3 as a dual-format collection, with each film getting its own DVD and two films sharing each Blu-ray. This review will focus on the Blu-rays, but the content is identical on the DVD copies. The films are:
Directed by Humberto Solás
An ambitious triptych, Lucía is fashioned as an epic, but its structure relies on cumulative thematic rhyming more than large-scale storytelling. Recounting the tales of three major inflection points in Cuban history, each segment features a woman named Lucía, though each is played by a different actress. Solás adopts a different genre packaging for each part, but there’s a distinct through-line of how the political becomes personal; history is writ small in these societal microcosms.
Part one, which is set in 1895 during Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain, is the strongest. Lucía (Raquel Revuelta) is an aristocratic Cuban woman who falls for Rafael (Eduardo Moore), a man who claims to have both Cuban and Spanish heritage. With a blitheness that’s exclusively reserved for the upper class, he assures her that he has no interest in politics.
Solás films the posh life with a blinding gleam, pushing the whites to near-overexposure in scenes of society women mingling. But the horrors of war lurk just outside, and Lucía soon discovers she can’t stay aloof. As the segment progresses, Solás pushes the visual degradation further and further, adding jagged, grainy blacks to the increasingly blown-out whites. By the end, this section has morphed into a full-on horror film, with many of its queasy images reminding me of another 1968 release, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
The film’s middle part, an achingly melancholy melodrama set in 1932, concerns a middle-class Lucía (Eslinda Núñez) who abandons her comfortable bourgeois lifestyle to take up with Aldo (Ramón Brito), a freedom fighter against the Gerardo Machado regime. Though the change in lifestyle lends some excitement to her life, Lucía never seems to be able to shake the feeling of being an outsider, and her doomed romance is mirrored in a revolution that doesn’t quite take.
The film’s third segment, set in the Castro 1960s, opts for rowdy, acrid comedy in its story of newlyweds Lucía (Adela Legrá) and Tomas (Adolfo Llauradó) clashing over gender roles. As in the first two sections, this Lucía is deeply in love with a man, but in a shift, she has no interest in him determining the trajectory of her life. Tomas’s revolutionary ideals apparently stop at the doorway to his house, and he bristles at Lucía’s interest in learning to read (particularly given that the state-sponsored tutor is a handsome young man) and remaining in the workforce. After the charged romantic doom of the first two parts, this finale can feel a bit flippant in comparison, but its honest vision of an imperfect revolution fits right in. Though Solás clearly posits the 1960s revolution was a giant leap forward for Cuba, he’s clear-eyed about the challenges that remain.
The restoration work that the WCP performs on many of the films they encounter is heroic, and the efforts pay dividends on this set, which is by and large, stunning. Lucía sports a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer on the Blu-ray, restored in 4K from the original 35mm camera negative and several duplicate positives to replace sections of the neg that were severely damaged. This is a beautiful transfer, from the high-contrast graininess of the first section to the sunny naturalism of the third. Clarity and detail are strong throughout, and any shifts between materials are not obvious (particularly given the shifting visual style of the first part). Uncompressed mono audio is solid.
Like all the films in the set, Scorsese offers a brief filmed introduction, talking both about what makes the film notable and any restoration challenges. Also included is a 2020 documentary short featuring interviews with Solás and other members of the cast and crew.
There are some easy criticisms to make of Indonesian filmmaker Usmar Ismail’s study of postwar malaise, most obviously its somewhat manufactured ending, telegraphed pointedly by both the film’s opening sequence and its title. But despite the film’s blunt storytelling, there’s a lot to admire about its moody treatment of a man who can’t find a place to fit in after fighting as a revolutionary in Indonesia’s war of independence from the Netherlands.
Iskandar (A.N. Alcaff) is seemingly set up perfectly after being discharged from the army. He has a caring fiancée, Norma (Netty Herawaty), and a father-in-law who’s arranged a job for him at the governor’s office. But Iskandar can’t settle in, haunted by PTSD for his actions during the war and disillusioned by a society that he sees as riddled with corruption. None of this feels pro forma as performed by Alcaff, who possesses a Cassavetes-like rueful intensity.
The film’s best scenes contrast the joy of a welcome-home party Norma throws for Iskandar and the doleful domestic life of a prostitute, Laila (Dhalia), whose pimp is a former squadron-mate of Iskandar’s. The happiness is hollow for Iskandar at the party, and he finds some solace spending time with Laila, who dreamily admires consumer goods in catalogs. The smallness — and yet obvious futility — of her desires seems to resonate with Iskandar, and it’s a small island of delusional but comforting hope in an environment where hope is in short supply.
The disc’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is sourced from a 4K restoration of a variety of elements, and it’s easily the set’s most problematic transfer, with frequent occurrences of celluloid degradation that swallow up large parts of the image. Still, this is incredibly impressive restoration work, with mold damage largely mitigated and consistent image stability that belies the huge amount of work done. Clarity and detail are quite nice outside of the damaged portions and segments that use a lesser source. Uncompressed mono audio is also cobbled together from multiple sources, and it has its share of harshness and variable fidelity.
Extras include the Scorsese intro and a new interview with journalist J.B. Kristanto.
Probably the most well-known film in the set, Pixote is a landmark in Brazilian cinema, and an early triumph for Argentinian director Héctor Babenco, who would go on to a brief detour in Hollywood. Pixote is an achingly beautiful piece of work, sidestepping poverty porn and miserablism pitfalls to tell a harrowing but emotionally sensitive story about children trying to survive in a society where they’re not valued.
Taking on the mantle of Neorealism, Babenco cast mostly nonprofessional youths, including 13-year-old Fernando Ramos da Silva as Pixote, part of a group of young people rounded up by the corrupt police department and sentenced to a juvenile detention center masquerading as a reform school. Da Silva delivers what is surely one of the most astonishing child performances ever, suffusing Pixote with easy charisma and heart-wrenching vulnerability.
Part of what makes Pixote so effective is it’s no tale of corrupted innocence. In one of the film’s early scenes, Pixote shows he’s savvy enough to keep quiet after witnessing a brutal gang rape in the living quarters. Any innocence was long gone before the film began. Babenco’s frank depiction of the disposition kids must adopt in this environment allows us to experience Pixote as a person, not a cautionary tale. The picaresque film involves Pixote and his makeshift family of other kids descending deeper and deeper into a life of crime, but Babenco is laser-focused on his characters’ humanity, and the film’s brief grace notes are like a gulp of fresh air.
The film’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is sourced from a 4K restoration of the original 35mm camera negative, with a first-generation internegative subbing in for some missing frames. This is a gorgeous transfer, handling the film’s heavy grain beautifully, with no apparent dip in quality during a switch in elements used. The image is clear, with great depth of detail. There is a slight yellowish/greenish tint to the color grading, which tends to be the kind of thing that’s more distracting when seen in a single frame than when watching the film in motion. It does lend a slightly sickly look to some scenes, but I can’t say it bothered me much at all, especially considering the strengths of the transfer otherwise. Uncompressed mono audio sounds superb.
Extras include the Scorsese intro, where he relates the terribly tragic fate of da Silva — a stark reminder that the events of the film are only nominally fictional. A filmed introduction by Babenco that opened the US cut of the film has him explaining the real-life inspiration for Pixote: the Brazilian law that made children vulnerable to exploitation because they couldn’t be prosecuted for crimes. Excerpts from a 2016 interview with the late Babenco are also included.
Early sound films can be thrilling and awkward in equal measures, propelling filmmakers to new experimentation but providing as many opportunities for clunky missteps. Mexican director Juan Bustillo Oro’s Dos Monjes has both elements in about equal measure, with a stolid narrative undercutting some of the film’s structural inventiveness and German Expressionism-inspired visual style.
After a monk, Javier (Carlos Villatoro), suddenly flies into a rage and tries to murder Juan (Víctor Urruchúa), another monk who’s newly joined his monastery, the other clergy members are left with the task of puzzling out why. Bustillo Oro’s bifurcated film is a proto-Rashomon, first recounting Javier’s side of the story, and then Juan’s.
Visually, this strategy pays dividends, with differences ranging from subtle changes in costume to the bold flourishes of obviously divergent camera setups to distinguish the two sides. Unfortunately, the love triangle with a woman named Ana (Magda Haller) that constitutes the pair’s disagreement is rather dull. And though the film predates Rashomon by nearly two decades, it’s more a case of one character being deliberately left in the dark about certain facts than an examination of the murky nature of perspective and truth.
More interesting than the flashbacks are the bookends set in an imposing Gothic monastery, where prolific cinematographer Agustín Jiménez shoots the stark shadows of spookily barren rooms to great effect. And any narrative shortcomings are quickly forgotten when the film tips over into all-out surrealism in a finale that splits open Javier’s tortured psyche.
The film’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is sourced from a 4K restoration of the 35mm duplicate negative and a 35mm positive print. Damage in the way of fine vertical lines is persistent, but has been mitigated well, with the underlying image displaying impressive clarity. The image is slightly soft throughout, but detail remains decent. There are a number of dropouts from missing frames. Uncompressed mono audio is pretty flat, but clean enough.
Extras include the Scorsese intro and a new interview with scholar Charles Ramírez Berg.
Mauritanian filmmaker Med Hondo’s acerbic, ambitious and slyly funny debut feature Soleil Ô was completed in fits and starts over several years, whenever the director could afford film stock and carve out time for shooting. The film’s herky-jerkiness reflects its production history, but its discursive qualities are far more a feature than a bug.
This is a film that’s angry and ecstatic in almost equal measures, with a stylistic expansiveness that reveals a filmmaker bursting with ideas. Hondo rails against a viciously racist European society, where the through-line from the colonial era to late-’60s Paris couldn’t be neater, but every scene makes the point in a new way.
Robert Liensol stars as a West African immigrant who arrives in Paris with a cheery optimism about his future. He’s quickly disabused of that feeling, as he encounters a spectrum of racism, from the overt hatred of those who refuse to hire him to the fetishization of white women curious about the novelty of having sex with a Black man to the pompous intellectualization of a sociologist who politely dehumanizes African immigrants in a spiel about labor conditions. Hondo cuts back and forth between these and other events in an almost essay-like approach, smashing spittle-flecked animosity and high-minded prejudice against each other, revealing their fundamental sameness.
The film is presented in a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer, sourced from a 4K restoration that used the 16mm original reversal positive and 16mm and 35mm duplicate negatives. This might be the best-looking film in the set, featuring an exceptionally clean image and perfect handling of the heavy 16mm grain. Uncompressed mono audio offers a solid showcase for the film’s musical elements and its experimental soundtrack. Extras include the Scorsese intro and a 2018 interview with the late Hondo, who fortunately got to see his wonderful film restored and celebrated before his death.
The set closes out with another debut feature and an early entry in the burgeoning Iranian New Wave. Bahram Beyzaie’s Downpour is both wistful and wry in its examination of a slow-blossoming romance and the many obstacles it faces. Parviz Fannizadeh stars as Mr. Hekmati, an urbane schoolteacher assigned to an insular community in a Tehran suburb. His arrival is full of portent — with a gaggle of curious schoolchildren observing, he attempts to unload his cart of belongings on a steep street, but disaster strikes. Hekmati finds himself in a similarly precarious situation trying to ingratiate himself among his new neighbors, and there are signs that he’s as hapless as that opening scene suggests.
But Hekmati dedicates himself to his new role and pushes past his outsider status. And he shows himself to be not entirely hapless in his pursuit of Atefeh (Parvaneh Massoumi), the older sister of one of his students. Their romance is beyond tentative, accompanied by the community’s prying eyes — a charming scene features a medium shot of the pair on a park bench that cuts to a wide shot of a bunch of schoolkids watching from the trees — and Atefeh’s begrudging commitment to Rahim (Manuchehr Farid), the town butcher who’s bullied her into betrothal with his financial support.
Beyzaie succeeds at building a world that feels real, even with an antagonist in Rahim who borders on the cartoonish. The longing between Hekmati and Atefeh grows quietly, building toward a catharsis that never really arrives, even as it appears to be right around the bend during the film’s climactic rainstorm sequence. There’s no sea change to be found in Downpour, but even as the film ends on a visual rhyme, it’s clear that some things won’t ever be the same.
The film is presented in a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer, sourced from a 4K restoration of Beyzaie’s personal 35mm print, the only known surviving copy after the negative and other copies were destroyed after the Iranian Revolution. This is the most impressive restoration effort in the set, taking a print that was in rough shape and creating a digital transfer that looks nearly pristine, aside from a few stray marks. Blacks and whites are luminous and fine detail is abundant. The only real clue to the difficult circumstances surrounding the elements is the burned-in English subtitles. The subtitles have their share of issues, including frequent untranslated lines, poor delineation that can cause them to get swallowed up on white backgrounds and instability that has them bouncing around the bottom part of the frame. Still, this is a remarkable rescue job. Uncompressed mono audio is fairly flat and suffers from some distortion, but is fine overall.
Extras include the Scorsese intro and a newly filmed interview with Beyzaie, who’s lived in exile in the US since 2010.
Last not but least, the set is accompanied by a booklet with essays by Cecilia Cenciarelli, Dennis Lim, Adrian Jonathan Pasaribu, Stephanie Dennison, Elisa Lozano, Aboubakar Sanogo and Hamid Naficy, along with restoration notes. Bring on more volumes of this indispensable line forever, Criterion.