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Archive for April, 2010

My son Caleb received a copy of the book “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” from a friend for his 18th birthday the other day. The whole family had a great time adding up how many films we’d each seen. I found that I have seen 789 of the 1001 movies I need to see before I die (many of them quite a few times). Apparently I will need to slow down, as at this rate I will run out of them before I am 60. Realizing that Caleb has already seen over 200 of them – this is a kid who was spellbound by the 5-hour version of Fanny & Alexander when he was 10 years old – was a nice affirmation of parental duty fulfilled.

While by and large I think the choices made by the editors are excellent, I do of course have a few quibbles. One filmmaker who is not represented in the book is Ariane Mnouchkine. She is of course known primarily as a theatre director, for over 40 years now the artistic director of Theatre du Soleil, one of France’s leading artistic companies.

I will post separately a note I wrote for Mnouchkine’s masterpiece, Moliere. It was through this 1978 film that I became familiar with her art and her troupe. It played for one week in Toronto in 1983, and I was there three of those nights. Since then I have seen the company perform two of its shows live; one, Tambours sur la digue in a hockey arena in a Montreal suburb in 2000 or 2001, the other, Le Dernier Caravanserail outside the Lincoln Centre in Manhattan in 2005. I simply have not experienced artists working in any medium who are as committed, refined, and masterful. I find it difficult to speak about their work in brief without gushing incoherently.

I acquired a DVD of the television version of Le Dernier Caravanserail over a year ago when it showed up on amazon.fr, but I found that I could not watch it until more time had passed from the experience of the live show. This week, I finally screened the film, 2 parts totaling 4½ hours.

Where to start? First of all, the material has an urgent relevance that makes even (especially?) most “politically committed” art look like vain posturing. It originated in the testimony of refugees from a range of European and Middle Eastern countries – primarily Russia, Chechnya, Iran, Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Iraq – regarding their experiences at home and in their journeys to find refuge in the EU and Australia. The stories are often unbearably sad, sometimes grotesquely violent and cruel, yet lit up by heartbreaking flashes of compassion and spirit. They are recounted as a series of vignettes. As for each of their productions, the company explores the material to devise its own, always hauntingly beautiful yet powerfully direct theatrical language. Against this aesthetic distance, it sets performances of incredibly psychological depth and detail.

Since Mnouchkine proved long ago with Moliere that she can direct a film better than 99% of those who have tried it, she clearly understands the useless of a filmed play that fails to reimagine itself for the very different medium. I found her solutions here brilliantly successful, and the film of Le Dernier Caravanserail even more devastating than the play. It succeeds in retaining the dazzling theatrical devices, while using cinematic elements (a controlled frame, naturalistic sound) for greater impact. The episodes, while remaining theatrical tableaux, play hypnotically onscreen.

This is a work with enormous power to awaken the viewer to one of the definitive human experiences of our times, that of the refugee. It is of course an experience we would desperately prefer to avoid confronting; an experience that it would be unbearable to confront without the grace of such generous artistry.

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