This week’s roundup is highlighted by a nine-plus-hour masterpiece about World War II from director Masaki Kobayashi, “The Human Condition” (1959-61), the latest must-have release from the Criterion Collection.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
The Human Condition (Criterion)
Made between 1959 and 1961, Japanese director Masaki Kobayashi’s massive, three-part masterpiece is, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest films ever made. Don’t be put off by the inordinate length (nine hours) and grim subject matter (a pacifistic Japanese soldier becomes a Soviet POW during World War II): Kobayashi, a truly humanist artist, has made a powerful, transcendent character study of one man’s struggle to make sense of inhumanity that features several momentous, extraordinarily cinematic set pieces. Tatsuya Nakadai, who gives a staggering performance, also starred in other Kobayashi (and a few Kurosawa) films. The widescreen B&W photography, so integral to the film’s forcefulness, looks luminous in Criterion’s hi-def transfer; extras include a 1993 Kobayasji interview, new Nakadai interview and an appreciation of the film by director Masahiro Shinoda. All in all, it’s a remarkable package for a remarkable film.
Center Stage (Film Movement Classics)
Taiwanese director Stanley Kwan made this intelligent 1991 biopic about Chinese silent-era actress Ruan Lingyu, who died by suicide at age 24. Kwan fascinatingly pieces together the remnants of her life, her career and her legacy by layering his film with several interviews with former colleagues, some lush recreations of scenes from her films—including titles which are lost—and discussing her artistry with Maggie Cheung, who commandingly plays her. It’s challenging and lengthy (2-1/2 hours) but utterly absorbing, with an emotionally shattering final sequence that merges sorrowful film and personal history. There’s a first-rate Blu-ray transfer; extras include a Kwan intro and interview as well as a making-of featurette.
Falstaff (C Major)
Giuseppe Verdi’s enchanting final opera based on Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor” still enchants, even in this straining-to-be-hip, updated 2018 Berlin State Opera staging by director Mario Martone. Even though the great character of Falstaff has lost some comedic gravitas in this production, Michael Volle plays him estimably—and hilariously—and he is supported by a superlative stable of the women surrounding him, led by Barbara Frittoli’s sublimely funny Alice Ford and Nadine Sierra’s bewitching Nannetta. Daniel Barenboim ably conducts the terrific State Opera Chorus and Orchestra; both hi-def video and audio are exemplary.
The Snow Maiden (BelAir Classiques)
Would that the fairy-tale sweep of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s lovely fantasy opera wasn’t muted by director/designer Dmitri Tcherniakov’s 2017 Paris Opera modern-dress production; at least the composer’s shimmeringly beautiful music conjures whatever the onstage action has blocked from view. Rimsky’s score sounds gorgeous performed by conductor Mikhail Tatarnikov, the orchestra, chorus and cast—in which Aida Garifullina makes a touchingly vulnerable snow maiden. Hi-def video and audio looks and sounds superb.
In-Theater/Streaming/Virtual Cinema/VOD Releases of the Week
Alain Resnais Shorts (OVID)
These short films (from 1950) by the great French director Alain Resnais (1922-1914) might seem slight compared to the shattering, innovative films he would make—like the short “Night and Fog” and features “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” “Muriel” and “Love Unto Death”—but are springboards to a unique cinematic oeuvre. “Paul Gauguin” is an intriguing if unexceptional look at the French painter with an appropriately dramatic score by Darius Milhaud, but “Guernica” (also 1950) is something else entirely: how Resnais juxtaposes and superimposes imagery from Picasso paintings as the wonderful French actress Maria Cesares speaks poet Paul Eldard’s impassioned narration about the ghastliness of war, “Guernica” anticipates later Resnais masterpieces.
The Ancient Woods (Sengire)
Mesmerizingly dream-like, Lithuanian director Mindaugas Survila’s astonishingly photographed documentary has been a pet project for decades, and it shows in its child-like wonder at the mysteries that pervade in nature. Over a period of 10 years, Survila and his intrepid crew went into an old-growth forest in Lithuania and recorded life in all its forms, from the smallest ants and insects to owls, deer, wolves and other memorable creatures (even man). With no narration or music, Survila’s thrilling film is like discovering the glories of the natural world for the first time.
The Real Thing (Film Movement)
Like his previous film “A Girl Missing” but on a much larger scale, Japanese director Koji Fukada has made a slowly evolving drama about a young man who rescues a strange but compelling woman when her car stalls on railroad tracks and soon finds himself drawn to her increasingly messy existence while trying to balance his own relationships—including a sometime girlfriend, who’s not thrilled with this latest intrusion. Based on a graphic novel, Fukada’s film contains a surfeit of melodrama, which he keeps mostly in check; but at nearly four hours, “The Real Thing” degenerates into occasional self-indulgent messiness.
Tove (Juno Films)
Creator of beloved children’s books about moomins, hippo-like characters having myriad adventures, Finnish illustrator Tove Jansson lived a complicated but fulfilling life as an artist and a free woman, dramatized in director Zaida Bergroth’s engrossing biopic. Set during and after World War II—her formative years where she grew as both an artist and a woman—“Tove” recounts Jansson’s open marriage, relationships with other women and the growing respect she eventually won from the public and artistic community. There’s a sympathy and light touch paralleling the author’s delightful illustrations and stories, which is cemented by Alma Pöysti’s wonderfully multi-faceted performance in the lead role.
DVD Release of the Week
Devil in the Flesh (Icarus Films; also streaming on OVID)
Marco Bellocchio’s controversial 1986 film about Andrea, a high school student who gets involved with Giulia, an older, strong-willed and—as he soon discovers—psychologically disturbed woman is typically operatic, as Bellocchio allows his characters to act out their grand drama amid sweeping emotions, radical politics and robust sexuality. Dutch actress Maruschka Detmers—who gives a fiercely committed (in all senses) portrayal of Giulia in what is truly a performance for the ages—was apparently the first mainstream performer to partake in a non-simulated sex act onscreen, but that sequence is remarkable for its casualness and restraint. It’s too bad the transfer on DVD and streaming looks even less good than the only adequate look of the 2005 No Shame release (which at least had an interesting interview with Bellocchio).