• If you don't mind:
(1) a story in which it isn't always clear what is fantasy and what is reality,
(2) a plot in which time-frames are warped, so that a person may be shot to death in one scene and reappear alive and well in the next,
(3) a plot that becomes more heavily imbued with Freudian symbolism the longer one reflects on it (very subtle—none of the usual hackneyed stuff),
(4) a plot in which numerous loose ends are never tied together (and that this seems quite purposeful, either "I'll leave you to figure out the rest," or "It's more interesting if all the pieces aren't put together explicitly, but left to you"),
(5) scenes which are too much for some viewers, presented in a matter-of-fact way, e.g. a human cadaver being ripped open from the throat to the intestines,
(6) actors you have watched for years in rather elegant roles spewing out four-letter words for the first time in their film careers,
(7) a sense of life quite opposed to what most pro-life viewers prefer, one in which mutual hatred, envy, cynicism and similar qualities predominate,
(8) constant preoccupation with death, not in the abstract but the physical process of protracted dying, presented mercilessly and leaving no illusions,
—then you are likely to enjoy PROVIDENCE very much, for it is one of the best directed, acted, and written films (especially the last) to come down the pike in a long time. Any film directed by Alan Resnais is bound to be interesting: Hiroshima Mon Amour was a moving document, Stavisky was elegant but empty, and Last Year in Marienbad was so difficult to follow that it was quite unintelligible to most viewers, but did repay seeing a second and third time if one took the trouble. In this film, his first one in English, Resnais is at the peak of his power. The film does not have the opaqueness of Marienbad, and for the script and acting alone it is a joy to watch. The script is in fact so literate (and sometimes literary) that not one viewer out of a hundred will probably understand it all; some references, for example, can't be understood unless one is steeped in Shakespeare. It is a film that challenges rather than insults the intelligence and ingenuity of a college graduate, or for that matter a Ph.D.
It does not appeal primarily to the emotions; there is much emotional strong stuff in the film, but one is so busy figuring out how the pieces of the puzzle relate to each other that one has no leisure to be moved. One must keep all his senses alert for every clue, however subtle and momentary, yet at the same time be prepared to savor every delicious detail, wishing that at least one movie out of a hundred would exhibit such intelligence and subtlety.
The script by David Mercer is one of the finest in years, and the acting is faultless: seasoned actors such as John Geilgud, Dirk Bogarde, David Warner, Ellen Burstyn, and Elaine Stritch have never been better. One should try to absorb the true greatness of these performances (especially that of Gielgud as the dying man) while attempting not to distract one's attention even for a moment from the detailed sleuthing challenge that the film presents.
As a relief from the ordinary run of films, this one comes as a total contrast (and a surprise to those who have not seen Resnais films before). That it may not correspond with one's own sense of life, or one's preferred theory of plot-construction, may in the end be a small consideration when balanced against the fact that we have here a picture that challenges us totally, and haunts us long after we have seen it. It simply won't let us go, and we are driven to dwell on its possible implications again and again. The list of other films of the last five years of which the same could be said would be a very short one.
• Any film directed by Francois Truffaut is a delight to see, and SMALL CHANGE is all about children, whose natures and foibles Truffaut has a special talent for bringing to life on the screen. His great film The 400 Blows was a masterpiece of humor, pathos, and child psychology. No director has been better at the difficult task of revealing to an audience the world seen from the point of view of a child.
This film is not as good as The 400 Blows, but it is still very much worth seeing. Aside from the kindly and perceptive schoolteacher, all the main characters are schoolchildren—learning and playing, telling dirty stories, dating for the first time and trying to find the best way to kiss, and in constantly interesting ways interacting with each other. By the time the film is over we have come to know a whole classroomful of them rather intimately. Though the film is everywhere interlaced with humor, it is not always funny: the new arrival at school will tell no one where he lives (an abandoned shack), teaches others to steal, and one day during a period medical exam when he refuses to undress, it turns out that his body is scarred from beatings and burns administered on those days when he failed to steal enough to satisfy his adopted parents. It is all done with great elan and empathy. The picture of children growing up that is presented by this and other French films is so much truer than what one gets from most American films that one wonders why so few of the insights of French directors and writers have rubbed off on their American counterparts.
• The films of India's foremost director, Satyajit Ray, are always rewarding—for their stunning visual beauty, the lovely Indian music on the soundtrack, the slowly building but always sure and penetrating human characterizations, the intimate details of Indian village life, the exquisite mixture of humor and pathos, and the triumph of the human spirit in the face of such grinding poverty as few Americans are able to imagine. Ray's trilogy Aparajito some years ago was a film classic acclaimed round the world. The first film in the trilogy, Pather Panchali, was hailed (with justification, I think) as one of the 20 or so greatest films made since the invention of talking pictures.
His latest film, DISTANT THUNDER, is not in the same class with Pather Panchali, but it has the same stroke of the master. The chief difference lies not in the artistry but in the subject matter, which may be too depressing for some viewers. The film deals with the widespread famine and starvation in Madras in 1943-4, when World War II kept most of the world from hearing much about it. Gradually and inexorably we see life reduced to its most elemental; at first we are introduced to kindly and generous people, and bit by bit we see people (but far from all of them) stealing from their dearest friends for a scrap of rice; a proud and loyal wife prostituting herself to a grotesquely deformed man in order to fend off starvation; a young girl fainting in a roadway after six days without food, a lady giving the last of her own food to her, and a village boy waiting behind the trees and then snatching the food from her dying hands. When an old man from another village, whom the main character (a schoolteacher) and his wife have befriended with food earlier in the film, appears again on the scene with 10 hungry dependents, the camera multiplies the images of the starving family into hundreds and then thousands, and we are told then (at the very end) that more than five million people died in that famine.
The film is, among other things, an exercise in free-enterprise economics: perhaps purposefully, since the film titles refer to "the man-made famine of 1943." Example: when through inflation the price of rice rises from six rupees to eight and 10 and finally 1000, some villagers accuse the local groceryman of hoarding; they tie him up, beat him, and raid his store, only to find out that there is nothing there.
But the delicate human touches, the great human sympathy, the details of individual characterization, the cumulative power, are all there, and they make the film all the more heart-rending. In the end, the bitterness one feels about men's ignorance of elementary economic principles, one's indignation at superstition and economic planning, and one's deep regret and hurt that suffering on such a massive scale occurs in human history, are tempered by one's affectionate and abiding memory of the earlier life of the villagers, who one by one, each in his or her individual way, become dehumanized by starvation, and finally succumb to it.