Thursday, 24 May 2007

Robert Duffin reviews his ten favourite films, Part 4

Grave of the Fireflies
Japan 1988
Director: Isao Takahata
Screenwriter: Isao Takahata
Runtime: 93 mins
Certificate: 12
DVD Distributor: Optimum DVD

Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most potent animated films ever created and marks an impeccable pairing of story and form. Labelled as an art solely catered towards children, here Takahata creates a subtle character study that is one of the most powerful anti-war films ever made.

The first time I saw Grave of the Fireflies it left me an emotional wreck and constantly permeated my thoughts for days. The story, which follows two young siblings, Seita and Setsuko, in World War II Japan is deceptively simple yet compelling. You are drawn in by their story as the overwhelming responsibilities of adulthood fall on young orphaned shoulders. Setsuko and Seita’s enjoyment of life is transcendent, they don’t realise their circumstances, and they just want to live life to the fullest possible and yet the film never characterizes them as idealized victims. They are not the angelic children of many a Disney feature; they loot, lie and succumb to the most stubborn of enemies: teenage pride.

This film will tear the heart out of anyone watching it for the utter lack of sentimentality and the inexorable optimism of its characters. Some of the scenes depicted by Takahata are relentlessly brutal, such as when after American bombings we see their injured mother wrapped head to toe in bloody bandages, being gnawed at by maggots in a mass grave. These types of sequences would be un-watchable in a live action film; they would feel so over the top and brutally sadistic. In this I see the real power of anime. The distance between what is being represented and what is depicted does not reproduce the horrors of reality but instead heightens them and allows for the expression of ideas. It may be a ‘cartoon’ but it is one of the finest films ever made.

The Third Man
UK 1949
Director: Carol Reed
Screenwriter: Graham Reed
Runtime: 104 mins
Certificate: PG
DVD Distributor: Optimum Home Entertainment

Writing for Slate Magazine, Stanley Crouch says that everything in film noirs “takes place at the bottom, in the sewers of sensibility” and in the case of The Third Man he is literally correct. As the film’s much-celebrated final chase scene in the Wienkanal sewers of war torn Vienna kicks in it is but the icing on Carol Reed’s sumptuous piece of noir. What brings it to my list is that fifty-eight years later it remains as fresh and as exciting as if it was filmed only yesterday and puts most modern thrillers to shame.

Along with Greg Tolland’s work on Citizen Kane, and Russell Mety’s work on Touch of Evil, Robert Krasker’s black and white cinematography on this film has to be one of the defining achievements in cinema. The crisp chiaroscuro is breathtaking as shadows pervade and creep over the bombed out streets of post-WWII Vienna. His skewed compositions reflect the disorientation and paranoia of both the period and the plot, and who can forget Orson Welles’ entrance? Krasker’s light lapping over his face sporting a devilish smile. Despite Welles now appearing on the cover of the DVD, I still get a pang of excitement in my chest when he is revealed in the doorway.

Coupled with the stunning visuals is Graham Greene’s magnificent yarn that he spins around the neck of his protagonist, laconic pulp fictionist Holly Martins. It has all the hallmarks of the noir tradition that I love: shifty spies, sharp suited gangsters, hardboiled dialogue (“leave death to the professionals”) and everyone can hold their liquor and puff their smokes. Yet their remains at the soul of The Third Man a doomed romance more heartbreaking than the similar Casablanca. The final image of the film, as Anna Schmidt walks down that long road in front of the cemetery and ignores Holly Martins, is shattering.

Read the final Part 5 tomorrow!

No comments: