Life’s Tragedy: The Only Son (1936)

Otsune Ryosuke

The opening credits of Yasujirô Ozu’s 1936 film The Only Son end with a line that seems to promise high melodrama: “Life’s tragedy begins with the bond between parent and child.” Although the story that follows has its melodramatic moments, Ozu — in this, his first movie with sound (save for the previous year’s documentary short Kagamijishi) — seems equally interested in more mundane, universal sorrows.

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A Not-So-Simple Story: The Ascent (1977)

Sotnikov Rybak

Two characters are faced with a choice between self-preservation and self-sacrifice — or, more fundamentally still, between good and evil. One of them takes the former path, the other the latter. Both must then deal with the consequences of their respective decisions. Boiled down to its essence, it’s a tale simple enough to be a parable or a fable, but it’s also the basis for Larisa Shepitko’s powerful, thought-provoking 1977 film The Ascent.

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Hopes and Disappointments: Il Posto (1961)

Domenico

Life in the working world isn’t exactly turning out the way Domenico Cantoni (Sandro Panseri) might have hoped it would.

Ermanno Olmi’s 1961 film Il Posto is an understated, often documentary-like look at a young man — a boy, really — entering the workforce for the first time. “This is the chance of a lifetime. If you get in there, you’ve got a job for life,” his mother tells him as he sets off for a job interview at a large company in Milan, the nearest city to his small hometown. (He wants to be a surveyor, but because his younger brother is still in school, he has to go to work instead of furthering his own education.) Upon arriving, he finds himself part of a large group of potential employees — most about his own age, a few significantly older. Together, they undergo a series of tests, from math problems to physical fitness examinations to some downright bizarre questions. (“Does the future seem hopeless to you? Do you suffer from frequent itching? Did you wet the bed between the ages of eight and fourteen?”) Despite the intrusiveness of some of this, it all feels rather impersonal. The only real point of interest for Domenico is meeting and befriending one of his fellow applicants, a girl named Antonietta who goes by the nickname Magalì (Loredana Detto). When they both end up getting hired, Domenico looks forward to the chance to spend more time with her — and is immediately disappointed.

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Hidden Depths: Haruko Sugimura

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Haruko Sugimura (Source)

If a viewer watches enough of Yasujirô Ozu’s work, many of the actors become as familiar as old friends. Perhaps it’s something in the nature of his films, in their largely low-key, down-to-earth, everyday quality, or perhaps it’s because the actors who appear in multiple Ozu movies often play similar characters. At any rate, there’s a definite pleasure in seeing certain faces pop up again and again. Along with the iconic Setsuko Hara and the ubiquitous Chishû Ryû, one of the most memorable of these performers is Haruko Sugimura — even if her characters aren’t always particularly pleasant people.

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Blind Spot Series: Marketa Lazarová (1967)

Marketa Lazarova Title

During a snowy medieval winter, two Czech families, the Kozlíks and the Lazars, become embroiled in a feud that quickly escalates into violence. Among its most innocent victims is Lord Lazar’s (Michal Kozuch) daughter Marketa (Magda Vásáryová), a young woman who plans to become a nun but is instead seized by one of the Kozlík brothers, Mikoláš (Frantisek Velecký), as “payment” for sparing her father’s life. Her situation, like that of everyone else involved, grows increasingly painful and complicated as things spiral out of control.

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Car Crazy: Le Départ (1967)

Marc DrivingMarc (Jean-Pierre Léaud), the car-obsessed protagonist of Jerzy Skolimowski’s 1967 film Le Départ, is eager to take part in his first motor rally in a few days, though there is one slight snag yet to be overcome: He doesn’t have a car. More to the point, he registered for the race as a Porsche driver, so unless he shows up in a Porsche, he won’t be allowed to participate. Lacking the funds necessary to rent one, he intends to “borrow” his boss’s vehicle (which entails hot-wiring it and sneaking it out of a garage in the dead of night), but upon discovering that his boss (Paul Roland) intends to go away for the weekend in said vehicle, he’s forced to come up with a new plan of action, legal or illegal — mostly the latter.

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Setting Sun: The Death of Louis XIV (2016)

Closeup

“From the moment that Albert Serra asked me to act in this film, and that I was in a position where I was being filmed with three cameras in one particular location, I became trapped within an experience that almost simultaneously was the experience of my own death,” Jean-Pierre Léaud said of Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV (2016). “It illustrates the quote from Jean Cocteau: ‘Cinema is the only art that can capture death at work.'”

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Perpetually Unstable Equilibrium: Out 1 (1971)

Colin Blackboard

“I don’t want the viewer to ever be comfortably seated in front of the film with a story that engages them from the start in a very traditional way and which then sticks to a very exact path — apparently exact, anyway — for an hour and a half, two hours, three hours,” Jacques Rivette said in a 1972 interview. “I’d rather, on the contrary, create a sort of perpetually unstable equilibrium which is constantly being adjusted, first in one direction and then another, so that, rather than being comfortably seated in an armchair, the viewer is sitting on top of a pile of chairs balanced on top of one another, and they’re wondering whether the chairs will collapse.”

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Permanent Records: Adua and Her Friends (1960)

Kitchen

“We’re like everyone else now — we’re not registered. They’ve burned the records. We’re just ordinary women now.”

In 1958, Italy passed the Merlin Law, which shut down the country’s brothels. Two years later, Antonio Pietrangeli’s film Adua and Her Friends was released, offering a look at the effects of this legislation on four prostitutes. Although the characters and their story are fictional, the challenges they face as they try to start a new life are, no doubt, not unlike those experienced by many of their real world counterparts.

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Storytelling: The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1963)

Cookie

“My intent was to film not raw, unvarnished events but rather the account of them as given by one of the characters,” Éric Rohmer wrote in the companion book to his Six Moral Tales series. “The story, the selection and arrangement of the facts, as well as the way they were learned, happened to relate very clearly and specifically to the person relating them, independently of any pressures I might exert on that person. One of the reasons these tales are called ‘moral’ is that they are effectively stripped of physical action: everything takes place in the narrator’s mind. The same story, told by someone else, would be quite different, or might well not have been told at all.” His 1963 film The Bakery Girl of Monceau, the first entry in the series, exemplifies this approach in a compact twenty-three minutes.

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