By Spencer. Welcome back to the S&N World Cup Of Cinema! For those who need a refresher on the “rules,” we covered all that last week.
To recap our Group A action, Mexico’s Y Tu Mama Tambien and Ireland’s Once fell early in close but unsuccessful upset bids against two powerhouses, the United States and Russia. In the Quarterfinal match, the United States’ Citizen Kane laid down a thorough 4-1 beating on Russia’s Battleship Potemkin. The United States will now go on to meet the final winner of today’s Group B contests.
Now that you’re all caught up, here are your Group B qualifiers:
Spain: Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Other Films Considered – Talk To Her, All About My Mother, The Sea Inside
It’s hard not to select a Pedro Almodovar film here, given his prolific contributions to Spanish cinema. But the film that most captures Spain’s tragic history and vivid imagination is Guillermo Del Toro’s 2006 fantasy, Pan’s Labyrinth. Best known for its darkly fantastical visuals, it tells the story of a young girl named Ofelia in 1940s Spain with a love for fairy tales — perhaps a necessity for a childhood set in such dark times — who is drawn into one of her own. As she embarks upon three tasks to prove her identity as a long lost princess of the underworld, the real world constantly intrudes — her mother ill with pregnancy, her new stepfather a cruel Fascist officer determined to hunt down the last remaining Socialists hiding in their midst, and a servant (Y Tu Mama Tambien‘s Maribel Verdu) who has lost her own belief in fairy tales trying vainly to protect Ofelia from the death and misery all around them.
Rich with meaning, it’s a film that questions the futility of childhood fantasy in a world that could use so much more of it. And its true power lies in how it parallels Ofelia’s quest with the uniquely Spanish guilt of a civil war that still haunts the country some two generations later. Majestic, terrifying, and full of wonder, Spain is proudly represented here by Pan’s Labyrinth.
Japan: Seven Samurai (1954)
Other Films Considered – Tokyo Story, Rashomon, Audition, Ringu, Gojira (Godzilla)
Akira Kurosawa is one of those names you hear thrown around by cinephiles so often that its importance, if you haven’t seen his films, seems like it can’t possibly measure up to the reputation. That’s the consequence of constantly gushing over foreign auteur filmmakers; in the battle to establish who really matters and who is a passing fad, it’s too easy to dismiss them all as fodder for pretentious poseurs. That’s a particular shame with Kurosawa, though, because despite its subtitles and its three-and-a-half hour running time, Seven Samurai is a hugely accessible film — full of laughs, action, romance, outrageous characters, and haunting imagery.
Fans of the American western The Magnificent Seven (a remake of Seven Samurai) will recognize the plot: a farm town besieged by a band of traveling bandits seeks out the help of seven warriors to defend them. As they prepare their defenses for the coming battle, we get to know each character — giving us a stake in who lives and who dies. When the epic battle scene arrives, full of swords and rain and fire and mud, Kurosawa’s gorgeous black-and-white photography sets a somber mood and a near-perfect cinematic experience. From Japan, it’s one of my favorite all-time movies, Seven Samurai.
Australia: Gallipoli (1981)
Other Films Considered – Mad Max, Picnic At Hanging Rock, The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert
Gallipoli, the World War I battle, is something of a cornerstone moment in Australian history, akin to Gettysburg or Pearl Harbor as a point of national tragedy and patriotic pride. So it makes sense that Gallipoli, the movie, would be Australia’s finest cinematic moment.
Directed by Peter Weir and starring a very young Mel Gibson (you forget now, but he’s Australian!), Gallipoli tells the story of two boyish Aussies off to fight a war halfway around the globe that doesn’t even affect them or their homeland. What starts as a romantic adventure, of course, ends in wasted death as their British commanders send wave after wave of troops in futile charges, only to be butchered by Turkish machine gun fire. Questions of historical accuracy aside, Gallipoli is such a beautiful movie because of the simplicity with which it captures such sweeping events. As the Aussies train in the shadows of the Great Pyramids, it’s all adolescent fun and culture clash. It all turns sour as soon as they land in Turkey, where shells rain down so constantly that no one even notices anymore, and the pointlessness of it all seems to be questioned only by the audience.
In its realism and its unromantic view of war, Gallipoli was a forefather to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and the two great HBO WWII miniseries, Band Of Brothers and The Pacific. You’ll see echoes of those movies here as the Aussie troops make their dying charges — as great a testament to the absurdity of war as any you’ll see in film.
Representing Australia, it’s Peter Weir’s Gallipoli.
Poland: Knife In The Water (1962)
Other Films Considered – Katyn, A Short Film About Killing
You’ve probably never heard of Knife In The Water, but you’ve heard of its director, Roman Polanski. In 1962, Polanski co-wrote and directed his very first feature film in communist Poland. Shot in breathtaking black-and-white, Knife In The Water ratchets up the tension slowly, like a modern thriller. It’s the story of a married couple who pick up a young hitchhiker on their way to a sailing trip. The husband takes an instant disliking to the younger man, but invites him along on their trip with less-than-noble motives: to prove his own superiority over a younger rival in the eyes of his beautiful young wife. Thick with sexual tension and impending violence, the title assures you a dark ending is coming — and it does not disappoint.
Here, in a textbook example of how to build suspense, the young man toys with a knife while he and his rival subtly challenge each other between pleasantries that fool neither of them. All the while, the woman they covet swims in the background, framed in the triangle (a love triangle?) created by her husband’s outstretched arm and her young suitor’s knife — a persistent reminder of what this is all really about.
A suspense thriller that can stand alongside the very best of Hitchcock, this is Poland’s Knife In The Water.
Group Play Match #1: Spain vs. Japan
Two epics from different eras collide. Which one will come out on top?
Historical Importance: Pan’s Labyrinth is a modern classic whose reputation will only grow in the coming decades. But for now, at least, there’s no question that Seven Samurai is the more essential film. Spain, 0 – Japan, 1.
Direction/Visual Appeal: You hate to choose just one here, because both films are groundbreaking in their own right. But while Del Toro’s work is richly imaginative, it narrowly loses out to Kurosawa’s elegance and grace. Spain, 0 – Japan, 2.
Story: Give this one to Spain. The sheer ambition of Pan’s Labyrinth, juxtaposing fairy tale and war story in one seamless parable, trumps Seven Samurai‘s simplistic story and pace. Spain, 1 – Japan, 2.
Acting: Could Spain be a threat for the upset? Ivana Baquero is years ahead of her time as Ofelia; she’s unforgettable. By comparison, much of the acting in Seven Samurai feels amateurish — some of that no doubt due to the time period. Spain, 2 – Japan, 2.
National Flavor: You could make a case for either one, but I’m going with Japan here. It’s a shame either of these films had to lose in the first round — both are worthy quarterfinalists, but there can be only one. Spain, 2 – Japan, 3.
Group Play Match #2: Australia vs. Poland
Two non-traditional movie-making powers face off for the right to go against the big boys!
Historical Importance: Point for Australia! While Knife In The Water is criminally overlooked in the history books, Gallipoli influenced an entire generation of war movies and lodged itself in the national memory of its home country. Australia, 1 – Poland, 0.
Direction/Visual Appeal: Poland ties it up! That’s no knock on Peter Weir’s stunning direction. Roman Polanski captures some of the prettiest black-and-white photography you’ll ever see, and his composition is an integral part of the story line as he plays his three characters off each other in subtle ways. Australia, 1 – Poland, 1.
Story: Poland takes the lead! Gallipoli doesn’t exactly suffer from understatement, choosing instead the sledgehammer approach to deliver its message. Knife In The Water so perfectly ratchets up the tension in between moments of ordinary conversation that you can’t look away as you wait for the inevitable explosion. Australia, 1 – Poland, 2.
Acting: This one’s agonizingly close, but Poland narrowly scores the decisive goal. Mel Gibson and Mark Lee turn in star-making performances in Gallipoli, but the degree of difficulty in Knife In The Water — requiring its actors to say so much between the lines — gives it the point. Australia, 1 – Poland, 3.
National Flavor: Australia gets this one, hands down. Gallipoli is the perfect Australian movie, and its outback scenes in the first half are just as beautiful as the war shots in its climax. Australia, 2 – Poland, 3.
Quarterfinals Match #2: Japan vs. Poland
Is Poland a dark horse or will Japan avoid the upset once again?
Historical Importance: Point for Japan! Knife In The Water is a gem of a picture, but Seven Samurai is required movie-watching for anyone interested in the history of film. Japan, 1 – Poland, 0.
Direction/Visual Appeal: Japan narrowly takes this one too. There’s much to love in Polanski’s cinematography and pacing, but Kurosawa achieves both scale and intimacy in his epic, along with too many memorable shots to overlook. Japan, 2 – Poland, 0.
Story: Look out for Poland! Story isn’t Seven Samurai’s selling point; it’s the mood, the imagery, and the sense of history that make this film. Meanwhile, Knife In The Water speaks volumes about jealousy, sex, and the generation gap, while also keeping you on the edge of your seat. Japan, 2 – Poland, 1.
Acting: Poland makes it a contest! In a story where everything is in the subtext, great acting is essential, and Knife In The Water delivers in spades. Japan, 2 – Poland, 2.
National Flavor: It came down to the wire, but Japan wins again. Knife In The Water is a movie that could have been made in America or anywhere else; its themes are universal, and there’s nothing particularly Polish about it, other than the language. Seven Samurai, on the other hand, is the quintessential Japanese film, both in subject matter and in style. Japan, 3 – Poland, 2.
The Winner: Japan
Japan and the United States will face off in the semifinals next month. Check back next week for Group C action!