Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Summary Judgements #5: Failed Revolutions

The Peach Girl (Tao hua qi xue ji 1931) Starring the luminous Chinese screen legend, Lingyu Ruan, The Peach Girl, is an histrionic and predictable silent melodrama. What saves it from obscurity is the iridescent beauty of Lingyu Ruan, and the assured direction of veteran Shanghai director Wancang Bu. A young peasant girl and the son of a wealthy widow are star-crossed lovers, and the girl and her family are tragically ruined when she falls pregnant and the boy's mother refuses to allow him to marry the girl. Though the plight of the girl and her family is sympathetically handled, the resolution is reactionary, with a romantic reconciliation between the families. The greater tragedy for the Chinese peasantry is that still after 80 years, a revolution, and the madness of the Great Leap Forward, the baton of class arrogance and corruption has not been destroyed, but only passed from the bourgeoisie to corrupt Party cardres and a greedy economic elite.

Christ in Concrete (aka Give Us This Day 1949) Based on the novel by Italo-American Pietro Di Donato, this powerful leftist denunciation of contemporary capitalism from director Edward Dmytryk, had to be filmed in the UK, and was buried two days after its US release by a reactionary backlash. Telling the story of Italian immigrant building workers and their families in Brooklyn during the Depression, the film is the closest an Anglo-American movie ever got to the aesthetic and socialist outlook of Italian neo-realism. Teeming tenements and residential streets are shot with a provocatively gritty realism and film noir atmospherics. The cast is superb with particularly powerful performances from the two leads, Sam Wanamaker and Lea Padovani, who embody the immigrant experience, which is so imbued with vitality and compassion that the film soars above any other similar work of the period. Enriched by a poetic script, the innovative cinematography of C.M. Pennington-Richards, and a brilliantly evocative score from Benjamin Frankel, the movie is a revelation. The opening scene in a deprived urban locale that follows a drunken man from the street and up the stairs of a dirty tenement building is a tour-de-force. An inspired mise-en-scene and a moving camera that follows the action from below Ozu-style, framed by the drama of the musical motifs, had me enthralled. Film as art, Christ in Concrete is simply a masterpiece.