Misfortune Teaches Us the Truth: Ikiru (1952)


(Warning: Spoilers ahead)

Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is an unlikely hero. A perpetually hunched over, unremarkable man in late middle age, he’s spent the past thirty years working in civil service and is now the section chief of the Department of Public Affairs. His job — which appears to consist of little more than stamping documents and directing citizens to other departments so that he doesn’t have to deal with their concerns — is one of meaningless busyness, accomplishing nothing of significance to himself or to anyone else. “He might as well be a corpse,” says the rather contemptuous narrator of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru. In fact, before introducing Watanabe himself, the narrator introduces something more interesting: an x-ray of his stomach. Although he doesn’t know it yet, he has cancer, and in all likelihood he’ll be dead within a year.

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Like a Film: A Man and a Woman (1966)


At one point in Claude Lelouch’s 1966 film A Man and a Woman, Jean-Louis Duroc (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne Gauthier (Anouk Aimée) find themselves discussing cinema:

Jean-Louis: When something’s not serious, we say it’s like a film. Why aren’t films taken seriously, do you think?

Anne: I don’t know. Maybe because we go when everything’s okay.

Jean-Louis: So we should go when it’s not?

Anne: Why not?

Ironically, approaching A Man and a Woman itself with a serious mindset may well be to its detriment.

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Blind Spot Series: Ordet (1955)


Danish farmer Morten Borgen (Henrik Malberg) is a deeply religious man, yet recently his prayers seem to have gone unanswered. His son Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye), once an aspiring parson, was driven mad by the doubts and uncertainties to which his studies gave rise, and now he goes around proclaiming himself to be Jesus Christ and lamenting the fact that his family doesn’t believe in him. Although Morten has pleaded with God to restore the young man’s sanity, the situation hasn’t improved, so he’s given up hoping for a miracle. Still, his daughter-in-law, Inger (Birgitte Federspiel), remains optimistic. She urges him not to stop praying. “How do you know what your prayers may have set in motion?” she asks.

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Loren and Mastroianni Times Three: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963)


Between the 1950s and the 1990s, Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni appeared in over a dozen films together. Three of these — Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963), Marriage Italian Style (1964) and Sunflower (1970) — were directed by Vittorio De Sica, also the director behind Two Women (1960), for which Loren won an Academy Award for Best Actress. Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow won an Oscar of its own, this one for Best Foreign Language Film. Though decidedly less intense than Two Women, it gave both Loren and Mastroianni the chance to play a variety of roles over the course of its three separate stories, each one named after Loren’s character in that particular segment.

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There Are No Whys: Pale Flower (1964)


Muraki (Ryô Ikebe), the yakuza protagonist of Masahiro Shinoda’s 1964 film Pale Flower, wastes no time in establishing himself as a nihilist, if not an outright sociopath. After serving three years in prison for killing a member of a rival gang, he returns to Tokyo, where the bustle and strain of daily life only make human existence seem all the more meaningless. “People… such strange animals,” he muses in a voiceover as the film opens with shots of the crowded city. “What are they living for? Their faces are lifeless, dead. They’re desperately pretending to be alive.” He can see little reason why “slaughtering one of these dumb beasts” should have been considered a major crime, especially when it appears to have had no lasting effect. “It’s a strange feeling. Somebody died, but nothing has changed.”

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Blind Spot Series: Ivan the Terrible, Parts I and II (1944, 1958)


In the sixteenth century, Ivan Vasilievich (Nikolay Cherkasov), Archduke of Moscow, has himself crowned Tsar of All the Russias. His aim is to unite his country and make it glorious, but he must contend with enemies both without and within its borders — most notably the boyars, high-ranking Russian aristocrats whom he considers far too powerful and self-serving. His quest for national greatness soon takes a heavy personal toll.

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Lessons from the University of Life: An Education (2009)


Jenny Mellor’s father (Alfred Molina) doesn’t believe in concerts. “He’d say there’s no point to them,” Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a schoolgirl in 1961 London, explains near the beginning of the 2009  Lone Scherfig-directed film An Education. “They’re just for fun — apart from school concerts, which are no fun at all, so we go to those. They don’t help you get on.” As far as he’s concerned, every aspect of his sixteen-year-old daughter’s life must serve a single great purpose: getting her into Oxford. Jenny herself also has her heart set on going there, but unlike him, she’s not interested in the purely material benefits of a university education. “If I go to university, I’m going to read what I want and listen to what I want, and I’m going to look at paintings and watch French films, and I’m going to talk to people who know lots about lots,” she says. While she dislikes the constant studying and having to play the cello in the youth orchestra (which demonstrates that she’s a “joiner-inner,” as her father expresses it), she’s willing to put up with such discipline for the sake of its promised rewards.

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Blind Spot Series: The Wages of Fear (1953)


When a huge fire breaks out at an American oil company in an isolated region of South America, boss Bill O’Brien (William Tubbs) decides that the best solution is to blow it out like a candle, using a nitroglycerin-induced explosion to do so. The nitroglycerin will need to be transported to the site of the fire by truck over rough roads, and O’Brien knows that no union will ever allow its members to take on such a dangerous job. He decides, instead, to hire some of the unemployed and underemployed foreigners living in the squalid nearby village, men longing to get away but too poor to afford it. Four of them end up driving the two trucks: Mario (Yves Montand) and Jo (Charles Vanel) in one, Luigi (Folco Lulli) and Bimba (Peter van Eyck) in the other. It’s a journey of some three hundred miles, and not a single inch is free from peril.

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A Mother and a Daughter: Autumn Sonata (1978)


“A mother and a daughter — what a terrible combination of feelings and confusion and destruction. Everything is possible and is done in the name of love and solicitude. The mother’s injuries are handed down to the daughter. The mother’s failures are paid for by the daughter. The mother’s unhappiness will be the daughter’s unhappiness. It’s as if the umbilical cord had never been cut.”

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