NYC Happenings: The Middle Ages Come To Anthology Film Archives!
The Middle Ages, long colonized by posh Hollywood productions that maximize spectacle and romance, are overdue for the kind of re-examination that this ingeniously programmed series provides. And that's not to say that what AFA is doing merits interest only from cinephiles with pointy heads: as a setting, the period is simply tremendous fun. After all, just take a look at the way its elements are frequently usurped by the fantasy genre (LOTR, Game of Thrones); it's almost enough to make you forget how thrilling the real thing is.
Of course that designation of the "real" is problematic, as we're firmly in the territory of legend. That's true whether we're dealing with historical figures such as Jeanne D'arc or those at the center of Richard Lester's Robin and Marion. Regarding the former, both Bresson's The Trial of Joan of Arc and Rivette's rarely-screened multi-part film on the same topic are part of the series, and should be sought out by New Yorkers even if they weren't complemented by so many other goodies in the lineup. What comes to mind in terms of its mix of history, nationalist saga, and outright mysticism is Sergei Paradjanov's Legend of Suram Fortress [pictured], a true revelation for me and a stylistic echo of his better known The Color of Pomegranates. To say that the camera is largely static and that most of the shots are symmetrically composed at middle distance might give the impression that the film is mimicking a theatrical presentation, and that's accurate to some extent. But the way that Paradjanov uses depth-of-field and crams details into every available inch of screen space almost seems to create a new form of simplified, yet powerful, cinema. The overall effect somehow feels as if an artist from the Middle Ages were telling you stories.
An interesting companion piece might be Pasolini's adaptation of The Decameron in that it also leverages still-standing locations and (obviously) spins multiple tales. A reductionist take on the film would simply label it "bawdy" or "profane" (there's a nunnery-set sexcapade that might have offended Buñuel), but Pasolini displays just as much assurance with material that's tragic, even haunting: a scene where a young woman calmly decapitates her already-dead lover is worth the price of admission by itself. Not having read The Decameron myself, it's hard to say whether the film reflects Boccaccio's sensibility, or '60s/'70s mores (there's plenty of male and female nudity), or an artful blend of the two. All I can say is that you might want to use Tarkovsky's somber and beyond-brilliant Andrei Rublev as a kind of chaser.
Finally, and as a bonus, Japan is represented quite well in the series. Although there's not much to say about Sansho the Bailiff or Onibaba that hasn't been said before, I should point out that Shindo's lesser known Kuroneko is unforgettably gorgeous and unsettling. I know there's a Criterion disc of the film, but please, try to catch it on the big screen. You could easily program it in a series of great Japanese films of the '60s, or in one spotlighting all-time classics of Asian horror--that's how wonderful it is.
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