While regular travel may still be off the table for most of us at present, there’s always armchair travel, particularly the audiovisual kind. Hollywood’s brand has increasingly turned in one direction, towards fantasy. But the new (and returning old) movies we’re highlighting here offer two alternative types: Travel back in time (albeit just of the mid-20th-century sort), and travel to foreign lands, in particular primarily Islamic nations from Morocco to Afghanistan.
Max von Sydow: The Best Stradivarius
The biggest celluloid flashback here is a tribute (in the virtual cinema programs of both BAMPFA and Rafael Film Center) to an acting giant whose death almost exactly one year ago at age 90 was largely overlooked amidst COVID’s early global impact. A spindly stage-trained Swede popularly typed as a classic soulful Scandinavian brooder thanks to his prominent role in Ingmar Bergman’s films of the 1950s and ’60s, von Sydow was in reality a performer whose range seemed almost limitless.
Particularly once fame (and multilingual dexterity) rendered his career international, he appeared in plenty of bad and/or crassly commercial films. Still, it seems doubtful he ever gave a bad performance in even the worst misfire. His ability to convey spiritual strength (and torment) served him well in roles from the impossible one of Jesus Christ (in The Greatest Story Ever Told) to ailing Father Merrin in The Exorcist.
Often tasked with heavy-lifting parts for directors like Billie August and Jan Troell, he also enjoyed occasional villainy (including a 007 nemesis), and was underappreciated (save on stage) for his comic chops—purportedly he never had so much fun as when playing Ming the Merciless in 1980’s camp extravaganza Flash Gordon. He worked with directors from John Huston and George Roy Hill to Scorsese, Francesco Rosi, John Boorman, Arturo Ripstein, Bertrand Tavernier, David Lynch, Andrei Konchalovsky, Woody Allen, Wim Wenders, Julian Schnabel, Thomas Vinterberg, even Brett Ratner, Penny Marshall, and Dario Argento. It was a truly wide-ranging career, and if he wasn’t always in those talents’ best films, he invariably elevated their game.
But the bedrock of his contribution to the medium are decades of major Swedish films, particularly all those peak Bergmans. The mini-retrospective include’s 1958’s acidic The Magician and the prior year’s unforgettable medieval parable The Seventh Seal. A decade later there would be the frightening Hour of the Wolf and 1970’s The Passion of Anna, two demonstrations of von Sydow’s memorable screen partnership with fellow long-term Bergman collaborator Liv Ullmann. They were also paired in Troell’s 1971 The Emigrants, the first half of a 19th-century cross-Atlantic migration epic (followed by 1973’s The New Land). Several of von Sydow’s greatest later roles were for August, represented here by another historical epic of tragedy and resilience, Pelle the Conquerer (1987). Few actors were so accommodating of scale: Seemingly without effort, this one could transition from embodying a towering figure to characters frail, even foolish and trivial.
The streaming series runs March 5-April 30 for both BAMPFA and Rafael Film Center, with some special live online events, including conversations with Ullmann (April 23) and Troell (March 5).
Another flashback is the re-release of Francine Parker’s 1972 documentary, which got a fleeting theatrical release before basically going unseen for the next half-century. (The reasons for its original withdrawal are unclear, but it’s been suggested that Nixon’s White House exerted considerable pressure on the distributor.) It’s a record of the stage show performed by Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Holly Near, Peter Boyle, the SF Mime Troupe and others at sites near US military bases both at home and around Southeast Asia in 1971. Their revue offered an antiwar alternative to the flag-waving USO shows Bob Hope toured annually, something contrastingly hip, impudent, and openly political.
As Fonda notes in a newly filmed introduction, the high-profile protest movement the Vietnam War stirred on American college campuses was to an extent matched by resistance efforts amongst actual G.I.’s, who formed their own activist organizations and published underground newspapers. But those efforts were (like this film itself) largely hushed up from public notice by punitive commanders and a complicit mainstream media.
The F.T.A. Show (stands for Free—or Fuck—The Army) nonetheless played to about 64,000 active troops. Judging from the raucous audience responses here, with just one instance of heckling, the soldiers in attendance highly approved of this “political vaudeville’s” ridicule towards military protocol, corporate war profiteers, the Nixon government, institutionalized racism, and blind “patriotism.” Interviews with enlisted and drafted personnel alike sprinkled throughout further underline the deep disillusionment many felt by this point at participating in a seemingly unwinnable, unjust war. The music and comedy skits are fun in themselves (veteran fans of the Mime Troupe will certainly recognize their general style), though you will soon understand why “Hanoi Jane” has never been known for her singing. F.T.A. is available for streaming as of Fri/5 through www.kinomarquee.com, as well as the online programs for Larkspur’s Lark Theater and the Rafael Film Center.
The first of three very different new movies set in different parts of the Muslim world is by Sharbanoo Sadat, purportedly the first-ever female Afghan feature-film director. It’s a followup to her prior Wolf and Sheep, which focused on shepherd children in the nation’s central mountains. Here, the protagonists (again played by nonprofessionals) are teenage boys housed in the titular facility outside Kabul in 1989, towards the end of Afghanistan’s occupation by Soviet forces. 15-year-old Qodra (Qodratolla Qadiri) is dragged here reluctantly, preferring his makeshift but free existence on the streets selling handmade keychains, or reselling tickets to the Bollywood musicals he loves. (And which he occasionally imagines himself in, as Sadat amusingly mimics that genre’s conventions.)
Nonetheless, he adjusts easily enough to institutional life, making new friends and having a few adventures, including a surprise long-distance trip to a “patriot camp” in Russia. External politics seem to have little bearing here, despite one comely Russian teacher who instructs in her mother tongue. Yet we realize just how fragile the orphanage’s isolation is when the Soviets get thrown out and the Muhajideens take over, installing an Islamic State overnight.
Sadat’s film is not exactly tightly scripted. There’s little overall narrative development, and shifts in character dynamics occur without our having the least idea why or how. It’s a clumsy movie, not just in terms of storytelling but in its wildly inconsistent tone. Still, it does provide some insight into one recent chapter in Afghanistan’s almost perpetually tormented history. The Orphanage is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Maryam Touzani’s Moroccan film is much more focused, almost excessively so—it wouldn’t have hurt for a little more to happen in her slowly paced drama. Samia (Nissrine Erradi) is a heavily pregnant young woman desperately seeking work and shelter on the streets of Casablanca when she’s reluctantly taken in by widowed baker Abla (Lubna Azabal of Incendies), mostly at the behest of the latter’s impish little daughter Warda (Douae Belkhaouda). It’s an uneasy alliance, because Abla is a somewhat joyless drudge fearful of offending her gossipy neighbors, while Samia does not want to discuss the circumstances that left her expectant and alone in a society where “illegitimate” birth remains deeply stigmatized.
Nonetheless, the two adults do eventually bond. Adam (named after a character who makes a belated appearance) is awfully low-key, to a degree that undercuts its final emotional impact. Still, the performances are solid, and the film conveys a strong sense of what it is like to be an independent woman “without a man” in the culture portrayed here—a status so risky and fragile we sometimes wonder whether the story is taking place now or many decades ago. Adam is currently streaming in the virtual cinemas of Rafael Film Center, and Rialto Cinemas in the East Bay.
Turkey is also predominantly an Islamic nation, though it has no official state religion, and certainly the protagonists in Elizabeth Lo’s documentary could care less about who worships what. (In fact, it ends on a cheeky note in that regard, as one subject howls in concert with a sung call to prayer.) Nor do the local humans seem to mind the canines in their midst, despite some Muslims’ perspectives on dogs as being unclean. An opening text informs that “Turkish authorities have tried to annihilate strays since 1909, leading to mass killings of Istanbul’s street dogs for the last century”—then notes that widespread protest against those policies finally turned Turkey into “one of the only countries where it is now illegal to euthanize or hold captive any stray dog.”
Thus Stray is a portrait of street hounds in Istanbul, where apparently they are plentiful, and sufficiently tolerated that no one seems to care much when an entire pack roams past. Our hero, so to speak, is the Shepherd mix designated as Zeytin, who has a noble, intelligent face. He strolls around with confidence, though not without occasionally running afoul of strange fellow mutts (let alone cats). We don’t fear for his well-being. But we do for little Kartal, whom a group of glue-sniffing youth apparently steal from a litter. Those homeless kids and adults, whose ranks include a number of multinational refugees, coexist peaceably enough with the stray population—but don’t necessarily seem the most responsible “masters.” And that poor puppy does look terrified.
A first feature for a documentarian who’s made several shorts, Stray satisfies on the basic level of pet-lovers “porn”: The animals are very appealing, while the filmmakers’ long hours trailing them results in some privileged moments. (As well as a few hair-raising ones, such as when Zeytin hesitantly crosses roads through heavy traffic.) But it’s also a bit sad, because while their lives could be worse, these dogs would surely be better off in circumstances more stable than simply running loose in a major city. Stray begins streaming Fri/5 in the virtual cinemas of the Rafael, Roxie, Rialto, Orinda and CinemaSF; it will also be screened once, Wed/10, at the pop-up drive-in Fort Mason Flix.