By Spencer. Continuing with the preliminary rounds of the S&N World Cup Of Cinema, it’s time for Group C. For those who want to catch up, you can learn the rules here. So far, the United States and Japan have each moved on to the semifinals. Which of our Group C competitors will join them?
Here are your Group C qualifiers:
England: Lawrence Of Arabia (1962)
Other Films Considered – The Third Man, The Red Shoes, The Life & Death Of Colonel Blimp, The 39 Steps
Selecting England’s top film is no easy task. Many would argue for the 1949 film noir, The Third Man, and if I were picking a personal favorite that would be the one. You could also make a case for The Red Shoes or The Life & Death Of Colonel Blimp, both technicolor masterpieces full of distinctly English restraint and personality. But size matters, and there’s no English film so universally known as Lawrence Of Arabia.
The movie that defined “epic,” Lawrence Of Arabia has it all — stunning cinematography, a majestic score, big battles and political machinations, a larger-than-life performance by Peter O’Toole in the title role, and equally impressive work from a supporting cast that includes Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, and Claude Rains. It has become fashionable in recent years to argue that Lawrence Of Arabia is a flawed picture unworthy of its reputation. With all due respect, that’s pure historical revisionism. All movies are a product of their time, and while Lawrence Of Arabia may not measure up to the modern epic, it was still decades of its own time.
Here, in one of the most famous cuts of all time, O’Toole blows out a match and we’re instantly transported to the desert sun setting on the horizon:
Or the equally famous long shot of Omar Sharif riding out of the desert, almost like a mirage:
For these scenes and many others, England is represented by Lawrence Of Arabia.
India: Sholay (1975)
Other Films Considered – Pather Panchali, Pyaasa, Mother India, 3 Idiots
Selecting a single film to represent England was hard; selecting one to represent India is damn near impossible. Ask ten different Bollywood fans and you’ll get ten different answers. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising. India churns out twice as many movies every year as Hollywood.
I could have gone with Pather Panchali, a black-and-white classic known for its harsh depictions of childhood poverty. But that film, beautiful as it is, wouldn’t represent the rich color and lavish musical numbers for which Bollywood is known. And besides — I couldn’t find a copy of it. So I’m going with 1975’s Sholay. Adjusted for inflation, Sholay is the highest grossing Indian film of all time. Unlike some of the artsier picks in our World Cup, this one’s an action picture that captures everything that Indian cinema aspires to be: glamorous, over-the-top, and every bit the competitor of any spectacle Hollywood can throw at you.
It tells the story of two thieves who are hired by a police officer to hunt down an even more dangerous criminal boss. The visual style is an unholy mix of Sergio Leone and Quentin Tarantino, and the acting and plot … well, they’re ridiculous. This is Indian cinema trying for the first time to adopt Western influences and a summer blockbuster style, so the jokes are bad, and shit blows up. A lot.
As if that’s not enough, the cast is also prone to breaking out into song at random moments. Here, our two heroes ride a motorcycle around the countryside and sing about their friendship for each other. No, really.
Now Indian cinema, perhaps more so than any of the other nations of our World Cup, can be more difficult to connect with for non-native viewers. It can be hokey and unrealistic, and the dance numbers — while they carry on a stage tradition that is an immense point of pride to Indian moviegoers — have a tendency to take you out of the movie if you’re not used to them. Indian film doesn’t aspire to capture reality. Like the very first films, its aim is pure diversion. Sure, there are also smaller, more thoughtful Indian films that are every bit the equal of the art produced by any other country. But to feature one of those films here would be to overlook the thing Bollywood does best: spectacle. So here, representing India, is Sholay.
France: Breathless (1960)
Other Films Considered – The 400 Blows, The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, Pickpocket, Amelie
It’s easy to forget now but France practically invented the movie. It was the work of the Lumiere brothers and Georges Melies in the 1890s and early 1900s that turned moving pictures from a fairground curiosity into the world’s most popular artform. Since then, France’s contributions to art house cinema are well known. And the peak of that contribution undoubtedly came with the introduction of the French New Wave movement in the 50s and 60s. No film better represents that unique style, or France as a nation, than Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless.
Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo as a Humphrey Bogart wannabe on the run from the law after he indifferently shoots a traffic cop, and Jean Seberg as his part-time American girlfriend, Breathless isn’t quite drama and it isn’t quite comedy. Its characters aren’t particularly likeable, and in the end, you want the protagonist to get what’s coming to him. So why watch? Because the imagery is a love letter to Paris in the 1960s. Because the dialogue pops and feels natural and fresh in comparison with the movies of its time. Because it’s full of wit and style. Because it is arguably one of the starting points for what we now know as the modern movie.
Notice the direction in this famous scene of Belmondo and Seberg driving through Paris in a stolen car. The camera shows the back of the actors’ heads, not the face, as they talk; we’re clearly meant to focus not on them but on the unfolding cityscape behind them. Notice the jagged, discontinuous camera cuts, out of time with the car trip and the conversation — as if to lend a certain unreality to the whole thing. At the time, it was edgy, it was sexy, and it was distinctively French.
Breathless also presages the dialogue-heavy movies of future auteurs like Scorsese and Tarantino. For example, this long scene of Belmondo and Seberg just talking in her apartment, about nothing in particular. It doesn’t move the story along, but it tells us so much about our characters, both in its text and in its subtext. It’s in this moment that we first get to know them, as individuals and (more interestingly) as a couple.
From France, it’s Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless.
Sweden: The Seventh Seal (1957)
Other Films Considered – Persona, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Many films are about the meaning of life; Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal is about the meaning of death. Best known for its iconic imagery of a man playing chess with death, the film has been parodied countless times. As such, it can be a bit disarming to watch it for the first time and see what a strange and unclassifiable movie The Seventh Seal really is. It’s part religious allegory and part postmodernist critique; part tragedy and part comedy; part pretension and part spectacle; part absurd and part deathly serious.
As its characters wander the medieval countryside in the wake of the Black Death, they each cope with the ever-present threat of Death in their own way: some are disillusioned, some skeptical, some peaceful, some defiant, some cowardly, and some stoic. And yet the plot isn’t why we’re here. It’s that beautiful imagery. For example, here’s that oft-parodied opening of Max Von Sydow playing chess with Death himself, hoping to buy himself a momentary reprieve from his fate:
Not as famous, but maybe more powerful, is this scene shortly thereafter where Von Sydow goes to confession and opens his heart about all of his doubts on God and the Devil and everything in between.
This is a movie that tackles the very biggest questions and does so in utterly unconventional ways. Often credited as one of the films to establish art house film as an alternative to mainstream studio entertainments, this is Sweden’s The Seventh Seal.
Group Play Match #1: England vs. India
A heated historical rivalry to be sure. Which country will prevail?
Historical Importance: Sholay was hugely important in establishing the template for the modern Indian blockbuster. But Lawrence Of Arabia is, well, Lawrence Of Arabia. England, 1 – India, 0.
Direction/Visual Appeal: England scores again! Few films measure up to the visual ambition of Lawrence Of Arabia, and it ages well. Sholay, on the other hand, looks impossibly dated. England, 2 – India, 0.
Story: The point goes to Lawrence Of Arabia. Both as an expression of a single character of unmatched ego and as a statement about the wisdom of British imperial claims after WWI, Lawrence Of Arabia goes big and succeeds. England, 3 – India, 0.
Acting: Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, and Claude Rains — together? When Claude Rains gets fifth billing in your movie, it’s not even a fair fight. England, 4 – India, 0.
National Flavor: A consolation goal for India. Sholay is dripping with uniquely Indian flavor. But what makes Indian cinema so distinct might have cost Sholay in the other categories. England, 4 – India, 1.
Group Play Match #2: France vs. Sweden
A battle of the art-house powerhouses! Who will come out on top?
Historical Importance: This one’s agonizingly close, but the point goes to Sweden. Breathless helped to kick off French New Wave, but The Seventh Seal regenerated interest in artistic films in general and made international films a topic of conversation after a long dormancy. France, 0 – Sweden, 1.
Direction/Visual Appeal: Close again, but Sweden takes this one. The vivid imagination and symbolism of Bergman’s fantasy trumps the innovative pacing and impressive photography of Godard by the slimmest of margins. France, 0 – Sweden, 2.
Story: France scores! Bergman is obviously trying to do more, and his script is impressive for its insight into faith, fear, and doubt. But Godard gives us flesh-and-blood characters and dares to make us root against its heroes. There’s no moralizing; only raw disillusionment and a surprising amount of suspense for a movie that’s mostly talking France, 1 – Sweden, 2.
Acting: We’re all tied up! It takes the right kind of actor to pull off the subtle nihilism of Godard’s characters. Dislike them as you may, Belmondo and Seberg are just so damn watchable, and their chemistry together is potent.France, 2 – Sweden, 2.
National Flavor: In a shocking comeback, France pulls off the victory! Perhaps it’s the medieval setting, but beyond the language, The Seventh Seal doesn’t feel especially Swedish. Breathless, on the other hand, is Paris distilled.France, 3 – Sweden, 2.
Quarterfinals Match #3: England vs. France
Europe’s greatest rivalry moves to the silver screen. Only one country will move on!
Historical Importance: England scores! Breathless is undoubtedly one of the forefathers of indie filmmaking, but Lawrence Of Arabia is one of the ten indispensable movies of all time. England, 1 – France, 0.
Direction/Visual Appeal: England takes a commanding lead. Breathless may feature the more inventive direction. But it feels too small beside Lawrence Of Arabia to overlook David Lean’s giant lens. England, 2 – France, 0.
Story: You could really go either way on this one, but I’m giving it to Breathless. It’s not the story that makes Lawrence Of Arabia; it’s everything around it. And all of that scale leaves you feeling a little disconnected from the characters. Breathless achieves an intimacy that makes its competitor seem hollow by comparison. England, 2 – France, 1.
Acting: A shocking goal for France! Belmondo and Seberg feel like real people, flaws and all. By rendering their characters larger than life, the cast of Lawrence Of Arabia, for all of their old Hollywood luster, keep us all at a distance. England, 2 – France, 2.
National Flavor: In another stunning comeback, France wins! Lawrence Of Arabia is a Hollywood film in its soul; Breathless creates something wholly new and quintessentially Parisian. It is the perfect French film, and that’s why this dark horse pulls off the upset and moves on to the semifinals! England, 2 – France, 3.
Next week we wrap up the preliminary rounds with Group D! Who will France face in the semifinals?