Three European classics from the 1970s explore the sometimes painful, sometimes playful relationship between the dreams of childhood and the nightmares of oppressive adult reality in this week’s film selection.
The arthouse essential: The Spirit of the Beehive – YouTube
Spanish director Victor Erice didn’t make many films in his all-too-brief career but his legacy is rightfully earned through this remarkable, beautiful fable about childhood and hope in the face of the depressing realities of life under the Franco regime.
Set in a remote rural town in the Castilian region, it’s the very slowly unravelling but deeply patiently rewarding story of a family and their dreams and fears playing out against the backdrop of a fascist repressive state.
The father is a beekeeper whose intense focus on his apiary leaves his two daughters to their own imaginations as they sit entranced by the strange eerie images of James Whale’s Frankenstein and imagine meeting the monster in real life. When one of them befriends a fugitive soldier who reminds of her Frankenstein’s monster, she seems to be living a happy moment from a fantasy until reality intrudes to show her that her solider was not the monster but rather the harbinger of a far more dangerous and very real monster who has come in search of him.
One of cinema’s most achingly beautiful films, imbued with a strong sense of the rhythms of its setting and a keen ability to evoke the mysteries, uncertainties and potential for both magic and nightmare that childhood entails, it’s a film whose infinite possibilities only increase upon each deeply aesthetically and intellectually provocative rewatch.
The stone-cold classic: Amarcord – YouTube
If childhood under fascism is a state of existence to be quietly crushed by in Erice’s film, in master Italian joker Federico Fellini’s, it is a state of being to be celebrated with anarchic disdain and contempt for authoritarian attempts to squash the human spirit.
Winner of a Best Foreign Film Oscar, it is like much of Fellini’s work inspired by the director’s own memories and experiences. Here the story is not one of individual doubt and existential angst but rather of communal power and eccentricity as the loose narrative follows members of Fellini’s hometown in the fascist period of the 1930s. Using reliable narrative tropes like the passing of seasons and mixing elements from a diverse range of sources including burlesque and melodrama, it’s a joyous ode to a childhood that exists more in memory and reality and is painted through the lens of hindsight as one characterised not by loneliness and despair but rather community and hope.
The comic sketches and vignettes that make up the film are executed with empathy and a boyish eye for rude jokes and caricature that marked Fellini’s pre-filmmaking career as a cartoonist and always lurked beneath the more serious and sometimes self-indulgent veneer of his later films.
Politics may take a back seat to nostalgia but the broader anxieties about the fight between pleasant personal memories and looming historical tragedies is one that still finds relevance in many minds and experiences today.
It may not be the most complicated or provocative of the great director’s works but it’s certainly the one in which he most gave into his love for silliness, joy and absurdity, and that’s perhaps why it remains his most widely loved creation. Real life may never have been quite as easily ridiculous as Amarcord but there’ve been few cinematic visions of warmly empathetic and heartfelt nostalgia to match it since.
The diamond in the rough: Lacombe, Lucien – YouTube
French director Louis Malle’s drama follows the tragic path from youthful innocence and moral righteousness to terrifying moral corruption and hunger for power in World War 2-era France.
Lucien Lacombe is a teenager in rural France whose reaction to the oppressive changes brought about by the Nazi occupation are seen through his young eyes mostly in the way that they directly affect him and not within the broader context of the war that has torn the world apart.
Bored by his job as a cleaner at a hospital, Lucien first looks to the thrills and daring of the resistance as a means of escape but after he’s rejected for enlistment by virtue of his youth, he has no qualms in believing that he might be able to find the same adventure in the ranks of the Gestapo, which has no qualms about his age or lack of experience.
Carrying a gun, wielding terrifying and potentially lethal power over local residents, the selfish young man finally finds his purpose, no matter the consequences to himself and his family. When he falls in love with a Jewish young woman, however, things take a dark and complicated turn and Malle’s film, which may have ostensibly begun as a portrait of the psychology of collaboration in Vichy France, becomes a much more twisted portrait of the darkest aspects of human nature that make cold, murderous “good soldiers,” from the material of seemingly ordinary, decent young men everywhere.