11 October 2006

Dino Saluzzi Group
Juan Condori
music as deep as life

Most listeners probably associate the bandoneón with the tango, thanks to the genius and legacy of Astor Piazzolla. Piazzolla’s work brought life back to the genre – including the ‘darkness’ of mood, the pain and sometimes the violence that accompanied life among the working classes, playing out in the bars and streets of Buenos Aires and other urban areas. While Dino Saluzzi’s work has the spirit of the tango in its soul, in no way should his work be considered to be ‘in the shadow’ of Piazzolla. He has taken his composition and playing many paces beyond the tango – he has fearlessly crossed those invisible boundaries by which too many musicians feel themselves constrained and imprisoned, naturally embracing jazz, classical and folk motifs, combining them with the tango and other influences into a music that is his own, a vehicle with which to express the song he hears in his spirit. He has always eschewed labels for his work – he calls it ‘a music of the emotions’, intended to express the widest possible range of feelings. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to hear his playing would surely agree that he has been successful in that goal.

On Juan Condori (named for a childhood friend), Dino gathers his family about him: Dino’s son José Maria Saluzzi (guitars), brother Felix ‘Cuchara’ Saluzzi (saxophones, clarinet), Felix’s son Matias Saluzzi (double-bass, bass guitar) and a family friend (‘honorary family member’) from Italy, U. T. Gandhi (drums, percussion). The sense of comfort that pervades this recording is palpable – the musicians are at ease with themselves and each other, and the result is (in my opinion) one of Saluzzi’s most satisfying sessions in years (and this is certainly not to deride anything he’s ever done – it’s all wonderful).

All of the compositions on this CD are by Dino, with the exception of ‘Milonga de mi amores (by Pedro Laurenz), ‘Soles’ (by José Maria Saluzzi) and ‘Improvisation’, a group creation. The sensitivity of these players allows them to blend their instruments’ voices effortlessly and gracefully, highlighting and complementing each other’s work without ever over-stepping or showing off. The feeling of ‘family’ – in the truest sense of the word – permeates every bar of every track…they’re here to join together and support, and they do so marvelously.

Dino Saluzzi is without a doubt the premiere bandoneón player of our time – he has made dozens of recordings (for ECM as well as other labels), as a leader and as a participant. In his hands, this difficult instrument is made – perhaps, more aptly, ‘allowed’ – to sing. His melodies can be as delicate as the wings of a butterfly or as powerful as the muscles of a horse in full gallop – and every level in between, as the spirit of his music requires. He touches the soul of the listener with his own, through his music. Saying that the bandoneón ‘breathes’ in his hands is not an overstatement – it becomes a living thing, united with the performer.

Dino’s brother Felix has played with him on and off since childhood – and the empathy that such a long-term musical (and familial) relationship encourages shines here. Felix’s reeds wind their way through the arrangements, lending accents and finding contrapuntal paths that are amazingly dexterous. Felix’s son Matias’ bass work is just right, not merely adding ‘bottom’ to the mix, but accenting melody deftly. The work of U. T. Gandhi on drums and percussion is never heavy-handed or inappropriate – he lays down a rhythmic foundation that supports and accents with perfection.

One of the delights, for me, in hearing this recording, is the ongoing growth and maturity evident in the playing – and composition, evinced by ‘Soles’ here – of Dino’s son José Maria Saluzzi. José Maria played drums on Mojotoro (at 16), Dino’s 1991 recording for ECM. He later turned his attention to the guitar, and contributed to Cité de la musique (ECM, 1997) and Responsorium (ECM, 2002). On Juan Condori, José Maria plays beautifully on both acoustic and electric guitars – his lines are flowing, melodic and inventive, and his work is an essential element of the ‘feel’ of this session.

I’ve had this CD for less than five days – but I’ve listened to it probably a dozen times. There is life here – there is the air of the mountains, the scent of the pampas, the longing of the soul for a lost friend or lover, the ache in the heart to see home again, the love of family, the pain of loss, the joy of companionship, the echo of memory – and more. When music can contain so much, and mean so many things to both the composer/performer and the listener, it’s a treasure to be savored.

10 October 2006

Sound and image:
two new releases from ECM illustrate the connection

Even before the advent of sound in motion pictures, there has been an inescapable tie between the two forms of expression. When films were still silent, musical accompaniment was provided ‘live’ in the theatre, when possible, by a pianist – and often this musician employed other sound effects to augment the images playing out of the screen, thus embedding them more deeply in the minds of the audience members. Sound recording coupled with cinema took this relationship much further – most of us, no doubt, connect certain pieces of music with the films in which they were utilized…even if it’s on a subconscious level.

Two releases from the esteemed German label ECM Records, out this week, give wonderful examples of the ways in which sound and image complement each other – and urge each other on to new paths, ideas and goals.

Greek composer Eleni Karaindrou is no doubt best known for her work in creating the scores for the films of director Theo Angelopoulos – she has worked with him on his last seven features: Voyage to Cythera (1984), The beekeeper (1986), Landscape in the mist (1988), The suspended step of the stork (1991), Ulysses’ gaze (1995), Eternity and a day (1998) and Trilogy: The weeping meadow (2004). Angelopoulos has said of her contributions to his work, ‘Eleni Karaindrou’s music doesn’t accompany the images – it penetrates the images, it becomes an inextricable part of the images. I would say it takes part of what is called anima, so, in the end, you can’t tell one from the other – that’s how closely knit they are... I believe that Eleni is at the moment one of the best existing film musicians in the world.’ Anyone who has seen any of these masterfully crafted works of modern cinema cannot fail to be moved by the effect of Eleni’s music in conjunction with Angelopoulos’ art.

However, her work extends beyond those efforts into writing music for the stage as well – both before her association with Angelopoulos and in the time since. In 2001, she produced one of her most expressive and innovative works to date – the music for a staging of a modern translation of Euripides’ Trojan women. She often draws on the ancient dramatic and musical traditions of her homeland, sometimes combining historical instruments such as the lyre, santouri, laouto, kanonaki, harp and ney with all or part of a modern orchestra, as well as voices, either by way of a choir or featuring soloists.

Eleni relates in the CD booklet that she began to sense a thread running through her work – the Angelopoulos film music as well as her compositions for the stage: the spirit of the exile, who has by choice or by fate been uprooted from his homeland. Her music laments this exile, but in the same breath gives hope and strength to the spirit – it penetrates the listener to the very soul, sometimes striking a vibrant chord, sometimes delicately setting subconscious strings in sympathetic motion, causing a subtle yet very effective echo to resonate, sending its ripples radiating out from the point of contact. There is a beauty and focus to her music that rivals that of the images seen by the eye.

The music on this 2-disc set was recorded in concert in Athens in late March of 2005. The Camerata Orchestra is conducted by Alexandros Myrat – the Hellenic Radio / Television Choir by Antonis Kontogeorgiou. Also performing is an ensemble of musicians performing on traditional instruments. Maria Farantouri – whose association with Eleni’s music goes back to the early 1970s, and whose work with such notables as Mikis Theodorakis is recognized and cherished in Greece, is the featured vocal soloist. Eleni Karaindrou performs on piano – her solo rendition of ‘Refugee’s theme’ from The suspended step of the stork is breathtakingly beautiful.

The composer has woven pieces from the films and theatre productions into a new tapestry – those who have heard these works in their original contexts will recognize them immediately, but will also be struck by the new ‘whole’ of the conceptual framework. Eleni’s music is a treasure – she has found a common golden thread and used her instincts to present it in such a way as to make it completely new, even as the familiar strains heard before echo in the well of the listener’s soul.

As a final note on this release: ECM’s production values are, as usual, of the highest order. Although it was recording in concert before an audience, you’ll completely forget about that until near the end of the second disc. The sound is perfect – every note shimmers.

The second release I’ll address here comes from François Couturier – the notable French pianist whose work with oud master Anouar Brahem (another artist on ECM’s roster) first caught my attention. On Nostalghia – song for Tarkovsky, Couturier presents twelve works that, rather than being ‘scenic’ music, are intended by the composer to represent or echo ‘…a specific emotion linked to the universe of this director – to his films, of course, but also to some of his favourite actors or composers’. To this end, while the titles of some pieces refer to specific Tarkovsky films, others bear dedications to actors Anatoli Solonitsyn and Erland Josephson (both of whom worked on multiple Tarkovsky projects), the great cinematographer Sven Nykvist (who contributed his amazing talents to The sacrifice), Italian writer Tonino Guerra (who co-wrote, with Tarkovsky, the screenplay for Nostalghia, as well as several films with Angelopoulos, Vittorio de Sica and Michelangelo Antonioni), electronic composer Eduard Artimiev (who contributed music for Solaris, Mirror and Stalker), as well as musical references to Bach and Pergolesi.

Accompanying Couturier on this outing are three exceptional musicians. Accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier is another veteran of the Anouar Brahem trio – he has also worked with Louis Sclavis. His playing is sensitive to both the spirit and body of the compositions. Jean-Marc Larché plays soprano saxophone – he’s another veteran of work with Brahem, as well as with the celebrated French big-band Orchestre National de Jazz. Rounding out the group is cellist Anja Lechner – a long-time member of the widely respected Rosamunde Quartett.

As one who admires – reveres – the work of Tarkovsky as a genius of filmmaking, I approach any ‘tribute’ to his work with high expectations. This recording didn’t disappoint me in the least. Couturier has captured an indescribable essence of spirit and mood from the films – and thoughts – of the great Russian director. Instead of merely echoing what Tarkovsky has placed before the viewers in his inimitable way, this CD reflects beautifully the ways in which the films have touched the soul of the composer. In his brief notes, Couturier says, ‘Andrei Tarkovsky is my favourite filmmaker…I have seen all of his films over and over again…They are long poems, hypnotic in their slowness, and pervaded with spirituality.’

The same can be said of the compositions presented here. With the exception of two group improvisations (‘Solaris’ and ‘Solaris II’) and the duo improvisation ‘Ivan’, this music is meticulously constructed – and all of it is masterfully performed. The instruments interact so naturally that at times they seem like extensions of each other – a sure sign of musicians who are operating as a living, breathing unit. There is delicacy as well as power portrayed in the various selections – and there is, even in the more free-form pieces, an elegiac quality similar in spirit to that which haunts all of Tarkovsky’s films. Just as his films reveal more and more with repeated viewings, the music on this release will open deeper levels for the listener to experience each time it is heard.

As the album background information on ECM’s website says, the meaning of ‘nostalghia’ is central to understanding the heart that beats at the centre of the director’s work. Rather than simply conveying the literal translation of ‘nostalgia’, or even the deeper Russian meaning of ‘longing for one’s homeland’, it goes on to quote Tarkovsky as saying that the word was meant to indicate a ‘global yearning for the wholeness of existence’.

It is at this point (for one) where the film works of Tarkovsky and Angelopoulos gently touch – neither is derivative of the other, but there is a yearning for ‘something more’ expressed by both in their art. The spirit sees what could be, and longs for it – it’s what drives us to reach for more, to become what we know we can be as human beings, as searching souls.

04 October 2006

Energy – beauty – life:
Spaccanapoli – Aneme perze (Lost souls)

I was a little late in hearing this wonderful recording (it came out in 2000, another gift to music listeners from Peter Gabriel’s Real World label) – it was recommended to me by my best friend a couple of years after that. There’s a quote on the back cover of the CD that sums up the album perfectly: ‘From the streets of Naples, vibrant energy, impassioned vocals and wild abandon – modern protest songs from ancient roots’. The members of Spaccanapoli were all part of a much larger musical / political group called E Zezi, formed in Naples in 1974 and involving ‘…more than 100 singers, instrumentalists and dancers’ (description from the booklet to this CD). E Zezi was a true cooperative, taking the musical traditions of Italy’s past and smelting them with the creative heat of political passion into a new type of urban folk music. Those passions – of politics and life, which are in reality intertwined so thoroughly – drive the music of Spaccanapoli with an energy that is beautiful, infectious and at times a little frightening (but what a rush!).

Naples is a city that has always embodied elements of other cultures – and it’s easy to hear influences from around the Mediterranean in this music. The Roma element is particularly strong – sometimes more in sheer energy than in direct melodic or instrumental ways.

The vocals are handled by two incredible singers – Monica Pinto and Marcello Colasurdo (who also plays the tammorra, a traditional one-sided hand-held drum). Their voices are infused with a fiery power – but they are never out of control. The lyrics are all in what I’m guessing is the Neapolitan dialect (‘popular to contrary belief’, ‘proper’ Italian isn’t spoken everywhere in the country), with partial translations provided (the full translations are available on the band’s website) – but not understanding much of the language didn’t keep me from feeling the emotions conveyed here. The other three group members are Antonio Fraioli (violin, piano, percussion), Oscar Montalbano (acoustic guitar, bass) and Emilio De Matteo (acoustic and electric guitars). This core group of five players and singers is joined here and there by nearly twenty other fine musicians – never overloading the arrangements, always contributing just the right touch to complete the song. There are electronic keyboards in play on occasion – but for the most part, the instrumentation is acoustic, giving the recording an overall purity of sound that only adds to the power of the performances.

I have a feeling it’ll be a rare occasion that this group ever performs live close enough to where I live for me to see them – but I can also tell from this recording (and from the photos I’ve seen of them in performance) that it would be a show I would never forget, so I’m going to keep my fingers crossed and my eyes open. In the meantime, I’d love to see additional recordings by them. It’s been six years since this one – with the energy they display here, as well as the apparent commitment to their art, I was hoping to hear more by now. Spaccanapoli’s website is still up – but I can’t find any evidence of touring or recording activity in the past few years.
revisiting an old favorite:
Area (International POPular group)

I thought I’d take a few minutes and leave a post about one of my all-time favorite progressive bands. Area were mostly Italian (their singer was Greek, born in Alexandria, Egypt), and were active from their founding in 1972 until 1979, when Demetrio Stratos, their amazing lead vocalist, died of complications arising from his treatment for leukemia. The other members carried on in one form or another, intermittently, until 1997 – but despite the high quality of their musicianship, it was never the same after Demetrio’s untimely death.

If you’re a fan of phenomenal progressive music that stretches the envelope to the bursting point, and you’ve never experienced the music of Area, you should immediately check them out. They began releasing albums in 1973, they created some of the most incredible recordings of the era – and those releases are as startling today as ever. It’s said too often when speaking of musical conglomerations, but it’s truer in this case than in most: they literally sound like no one else.

The solid base on which their sound was built is the superb musicianship and imagination of the individual members. Ares Tavolazzi (acoustic & electric basses, trombone, pocket trumpet, mandola) and Giulio Capiozzo (drums & percussion) – these two guys are phenomenal in their power and precision, absolutely one of the best rhythm sections I’ve ever heard (and the term doesn’t do them nearly enough justice, considering their contributions to the whole). Layering their talents on top of this foundation are Patrizio Fariselli (electric & acoustic pianos, synth, bass clarinet, percussion) and Paolo Tofani (electric guitar, guitar synth, flute) – two more astoundingly talented players/composers. Fariselli is incredibly fast and melodic in his keyboard work – and I would rank Tofani right up there with the top guitarists of the era. His guitar synth work is very tasty indeed, not trite and contrived like many who utilized this tool with their instrument.

The vocals – I don’t know how to describe what Demetrio Stratos (who also contributed work on organ and electric piano) did with his voice. Demetrio took the human voice into realms that were hitherto unexplored. He sang of course – and he yodeled and shrieked and cooed and performed vocal gymnastics that were absolutely mind-blowing. When he ‘just’ sang, he was demonstrating abilities that are far beyond the reach of most humans – and when he went further, improvising fantastically, it was stellar. He destroyed borders and mercilessly shattered preconceptions. He took singing to new definition and heights. He has been described as ‘operatic’ – but that actually limits the description too much. There are elements of that in his style, to be sure – but there is so much more. He uses his voice as an instrument more than just about anyone I’ve ever heard – Tim Buckley’s legendary recordings Lorca and Starsailor are the closest comparisons I can think of. If Stratos hadn’t tragically died in 1979, there’s no telling where his explorations would have taken him. There are times when he can be heard singing two or three notes at the same time – really. During his lifetime, he released five solo albums – I’ve only heard one of them, but it amazed me. He recorded it without any instruments or electronic effects, and it’s a truly mind-expanding document. I’ve just discovered that these are available as a boxed set, 5 CDs in replica cardstock slipcases with extensive notes in Italian and English – it’s on my ‘get it quick’ list, trust me.

I’ll comment further on two specific albums, Crac! (released in 1975) and 1978: gli dei se ne vanno, gli arrabbiati restano! (strange as it might seem, from 1978)...

Crac! is made up of three songs and four (more or less) instrumental pieces (utilizing Demetrio’s voice as additional player). The opening track, ‘L’elefante bianco’, is one that I literally wore out on my first copy of the LP – thankfully, CDs are more durable when it comes to playing a track over and over – one can simply hit the repeat button!
[ Humor me while I relate an anecdote: I worked in a record store when this album was newly released, and it spent a lot of time on the turntable there (hey – I was the manager, so who was going to stop me, capite...?). One day when I was playing it (‘L'elefante bianco’ had just kicked in, at pretty good volume…), a young woman came dashing into the store, demanding to know what we were playing. I showed her the cover – she was amazed at what she was hearing. She started hanging out at the store, became a good friend, and wound up being one of our best (and brightest) employees. Are you out there somewhere, Renae…? Get in touch!! ]
The second track, ‘La mela di Odessa (1920)’, was a concert favorite – the band lays down a deadly jazz-funk beat (and when these guys did it, it was on a whole other level compared to other bands who tried the same thing), with Stratos alternately singing, speaking, performing his vocal pyrotechnics…and eating an apple (he does this on their live album, AreAzione, as well – so it’s apparent that it’s an integral part of the song – and besides, ‘mela’ means ‘apple’). ‘Megalopoli’ begins with Fariselli’s and Tofani’s synthesizers, working its way into a more conventional (well…as conventional as this band got, I guess) instrumental workout, with contributions from Stratos as well.

‘Nervi scoperti’ is another instrumental, this one kicked off by some amazing and beautiful flourishes from Tavolazzi’s bass – and I believe, with uncounted repeated listenings, that most of his work on Crac! is on an acoustic stand-up bass, which makes what he’s doing all the more incredible – the drums, keyboard and guitar join the fun, and some nice interplay ensues. 'Gioia e rivoluzione' is another song, with some very tasty, complex combined rhythm-and-picking work from Tofani on guitar. ‘Implosion’ finds the band in an instrumental vein again – and ‘Area 5’, which ends the album (composed by European avant-gardists Juan Hidalgo and Walter Marchetti), takes them further out on the experimental limb. This track especially will give the listener an idea of what Stratos can do with his throat.

By the time 1978: gli dei se ne vanno, gli arrabbiati restano! was recorded, Paolo Tofani had left the band. Their sound changed a bit – but the spirit remained the same. This recording kicks off in fine style with ‘Il bandito del deserto’, with some wonderful work from Fariselli and Tavolazzi. The melodies laid down by the former are beyond categorization, but somehow they always sound intrinsically ‘Italian’ – and the latter’s bass work is simply stunning, moving from incredibly fast riffing to chording and back again, without missing a step. Stratos wastes no time making his presence known, either – he shifts from (more or less) straight singing to his trademark fluid ‘yodels’ with ease, once again staking out territory where no other singers dare tread. His voice figures as one of the main instruments on ‘Interno con figure e luci’, the album’s second track, as well – Fariselli adds some particularly well-played acoustic piano here also. ‘Return from Workuta’ is another vocal showcase for Demetrio – I don’t know for sure what he’s doing to his voice on this one, but I seem to recall reading somewhere that he never used any sort of synthesizer in conjunction with his singing, that he achieved all of his effects more or less ‘organically’. Once again, Tavolazzi dazzles on the stand-up bass. ‘Guardati dal mese vincino all’aprile!’ begins with what sounds like a European police car siren, moving quickly into some great work involving Fariselli on piano, Tavolazzi’s bass, and Capiozzo’s precision drumming – then Stratos enters and takes the whole thing higher. With a stop-and-start, odd time signature combined with a surprisingly hummable melody, this is a track that will stay in the listener’s head for some time.

‘Hommage à Violette Nozières’ (a reference to the woman at the centre of a notorious Paris murder case in 1933, who was later pardoned by DeGaulle) features some lovely work by Tavolazzi on mandola – perhaps making up a bit for the missing Tofani – another song with a rousing, memorable melody line. ‘Ici on dance!’ is another upbeat number featuring Stratos’ vocals – ‘Acrostica in memoria di Laio’ is a composition similar in construction to ‘La mela di Odessa (1920)’ on Crac!, with Stratos singing, speaking, cooing and screaming all of the parts of what appears to be a conversation between 3-5 different characters. ‘fff (festa, farina e forca)’ starts off with a very impressive (and not too lengthy, a pit into which too many percussionists fall, sadly) drum solo from Capiozzo – he’s soon joined by Tavolazzi and Fariselli for an interesting instrumental ride. The final track, ‘Vodka-Cola’, typically on Area recordings, is much more free-form and experimental than the rest of the album, giving the whole band a nice chance to demonstrate their improvising skills.

All of the lyrics to Area’s songs are in Italian (or ‘Stratos-ian’, in some cases…) – I’ve seen rough translations of some of them, and I’ve been able to get short phrases translated online, enough to gather (from the titles and photos and articles on the band as well) that most of them are left-leaning political in nature. Communist parties in Europe – and other organizations that turned to Marx for their theories and inspiration – have never had the ‘bugaboo’ stigma attached to them, as they have in the United States. They seem to be regarded by Europeans as ‘one more school’ of political thought – not demonized as they are in the US. Especially in the 1970s – when the band was most active – there was a large sector of the Italian population who professed Marxist beliefs, and there were several bands working at the time who incorporated the accompanying philosophy in their music. Area were immensely popular for a band whose music was so experimental – although, as with their politics, the Europeans have always seemed considerably more open-minded that their American counterparts. In 1979, with Demetrio seriously ill with leukemia and in need of expensive treatment, a huge concert was organized, to take place in Milan, to raise money for him. He died before the show could take place – it occurred the day after he died, with 60,000 in attendance.

Most of the band’s catalogue is still available. There’s a boxed set of their first four albums available, with others found here and there individually. All of their first six albums are notable: Arbeit macht frei (1973), Caution: radiation Area (1974), Crac! (1974), AreaZione (a live recording, 1975), Maledetti (maudits) (1976), and 1978: gli dei se ne vanno, gli arrabbiati restano! (1978) – after that, the work is pretty uneven, but with some brilliance in spots.

Their work remains, after more than thirty years in some cases, some of the freshest, most invigorating music in my collection. As a final comment: Patrizio Fariselli continues to do innovative work, and has a website with information on his current projects as well as a complete illustrated Area discography and photographs (just click here for the link).
Earth and ashes
by Atiq Rahimi
(translated from the Dari by Erdağ M. Göknar)

Atiq Rahimi’s short novel set during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan compresses an amazing amount of emotion, pain and loss into its 81 pages. He gives us an incredible, ground-level view of what war can do to a nation that is already poor (in material things, that is – the spirit depicted here is stunning in its resilience) and lacking in the infrastructures and other benefits we tend to take for granted – running water, literacy, health services. The TV newscasts tend to take a view rather like some history books, speaking in terms of armies and generals and referring to people as nations, thereby depersonalizing the conflict.

The author has done an astonishing job in conveying the experience of his elderly narrator, Dastaguir – the old man has seen his village destroyed by the Soviets, all of his family that lived there killed with the exception of his grandson Yassin, who has been left deafened by the explosions. Dastaguir, in his grief and desperation, sets off on a tortuous trek through a harsh landscape in order to find his son Murad, Yassin’s father, and inform him of the death of the boy’s mother and the destruction of the village.

Along the way, Dastaguir wrestles with his grief (how to allow it to escape his heart); his conscience (how to tell Murad of the tragedy without destroying him); his sense of revenge and his hope for his nation and the world; nightmarish visions, hallucinations and memories that are too terrible to accept as reality. All the while, he must care for his grandson.

The boy has no understanding of what has happened to him – he knows that most of his family is now dead, and he comprehends the destruction of the village, but he fails to grasp the reality of his own deafness. He thinks that the Russians have stolen the sounds from the world, and the voices from the people, in the attack. When Yassin finally asks ‘Grandfather, do I have a voice?’, and the old man tells him ‘yes’, it begins to sink it – his next question to Dastaguir is ‘So why am I alive?’ It’s a question that breaks the old man’s heart – and one that he cannot answer.

On his journey to find his son, Dastaguir encounters several amazing characters. Chief among these in kindness and wisdom is Mirza Qadir, a shopkeeper. The book makes the point that every single person has his or her own story – that these are individuals, not just a faceless ‘nation’. They laugh and cry and love and suffer pain and loss and grief – and all of these are brought to life vividly in this short but rich work.

This is a story that will stand the test of time – and it is one that each of us should experience. I feel a heartfelt gratitude that Atiq Rahimi has focused what is obviously a formidable talent into blessing us with this precious gift.

Earth and ashes was made into a film, directed by the author, released in France in 2004 (the stills on this page are from the film). It has been shown at film festivals all over the world to wide acclaim, but as far as I can tell, has never been in wide release in the United States – nor does it appear to be available on DVD anywhere in the world. This is a shame – the reviews I’ve read of the film indicate that it’s not only a faithful rendering of the novel, but a beautiful and moving cinematic work as well. Keep your eyes open, just in case it’s available for viewing sometime in your area – and I’ll keep my fingers crossed that it becomes available on DVD, so that more people can experience it.

In the meantime, there’s always the novel – it’s an incredibly well-written, moving read.

03 October 2006

Offret (The sacrifice)
(Sweden – 1986)
directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

It seems to be the opinion of some reviewers that Offret (The sacrifice) be termed ‘Tarkovsky light’. This film – the great Russian director’s final work – is certainly more accessible than his others, more straightforward in its storytelling…but there are plenty lot of wonderful elements involved, and it certainly doesn’t deserve to be relegated to any sort of ‘minor works’ category. Other reviewers have also drawn comparisons between this film and the work of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman – there is some of Bergman’s ‘look’ to the film, perhaps because Tarkovsky chose to use Sven Nykvist as his cinematographer, who worked on several of Bergman’s films.

Even with this Bergmanesque presence, this is definitely Tarkovsky’s film – and if it’s more accessible than some of his others, perhaps it’s a good place for someone who is unfamiliar with his work to start.

Several of Tarkovsky’s favorite themes are present in Offret – alienation, an aching emptiness of the spirit, the slighting of nature by mankind. Erland Josephson portrays Alexander, a wealthy, semi-retired writer who lives with his wife, teenage stepdaughter and ‘Little Man’, his young son, in a lovely house that sits rather isolated on the seaside in Sweden. His son is obviously his favorite, the center of his soul and existence. We see him with the little boy (who is apparently recovering from some sort of surgery, perhaps to have his tonsils removed), planting a tree, telling him a story about devotion to duty involving a young Japanese monk and his master.

Alexander’s birthday is at hand, and his family, along with a couple of friends, makes ready to celebrate. As the group waits for dinner to be served, there is a roaring – like a low-flying jet – in the sky, followed by what appears at first to be a mild earthquake. A ceramic milk pitcher vibrates its way off a shelf, shattering on the floor – news broadcasts on the television seem to indicate that World War III has begun. Each of the characters reacts in their own way – Alexander’s wife falls to pieces and requires a sedative from their friend Victor, a doctor.

Alexander is shaken as well – but he’s not sure what to do. He has lost his faith several years before, and yet he finds himself begging God to reverse the horrible events unfolding on the television screen. In one of the film’s most poignant moments, we see him drained of strength, falling on his knees, barely able to speak, praying with all his might. He attempts to ‘strike a bargain’ with God, offering to give up everything – his home, his belongings, his family…even Little Man, his beloved son, if the world can be ‘put back like it was before’.

In a conversation with his friend Otto, the local postman (and more that a little eccentric), Alexander learns of Otto’s suspicion that Maria, one of Alexander’s servant girls, is a witch – and Otto suggests that if Alexander goes to Maria and sleeps with her, she could use her powers to reverse the horrible events. In his desperation, Alexander succumbs to Otto’s suggestion – he never voices his request to Maria, but she sees the pain in his eyes (and in his actions) and takes him to her bed in an attempt, I think, simply to comfort him. This scene – like lovemaking scenes in all of Tarkovsky’s films, when they occur – is photographed beautifully and tastefully. Tarkovsky never stooped to gratuitous or graphic sex or nudity. We see the couple lie down, embrace – and levitate, floating gently into the air, a lovely, tender visual rendition of the healing power of love.

The film ends with a sequence that pushed the time limits of cinematography almost to the breaking point, involving a fire which destroys Alexander's house. Tarkovsky insisted on shooting the take using only one camera, and as proof that the infamous Mr. Murphy is at work in all parts of the globe, the camera malfunctioned, and the film was unusuable. The house was reconstructed completely (at least as far as one can see from the outside), and the shot was re-done, this time with two cameras running, with complete success. This and other great information can be found in the documentary Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, included in this release as a bonus item.

Tarkovsky's book Sculpting in time is a wonderful read for any film buff wanting to get inside the mind of a great director. As one can see in viewing all of his work, he was a big believer in allowing time to play itself out before the viewer, without artificial compression. It's just one aspect of his art that makes his work so memorable and unique.

You’ll have to see the film in order to find out if Alexander’s efforts – in either course of action – are rewarded. I don’t want to spoil anything for the potential viewer. Suffice to say that even as the film ends, the viewer is left with as many questions as answers – and that’s one of the things I find so stimulating and rewarding about Tarkovsky’s work: you'll find yourself thinking about it long after the screen goes dark, pondering what you've witnessed. As with all of his films, it reveals more and more with repeated viewing...it's a bit like peeling off the layers of an onion.

I can’t give any film I’ve seen by Tarkovsky anything less than my highest recommendation – and while some might feel that this final work isn’t on the same levels as his other films, it’s still head and shoulders above the commercial films coming out of the major studios. His work is infinitely rewarding for me as a viewer, and never disappoints.

The spirit of the beehive
(Spain – 1973)
directed by Víctor Erice
One of the most recent additions to my film collection is Víctor Erice’s Espíritu de la colmena (The spirit of the Beehive), made in 1973 in Spain. Franco’s dictatorship was in its waning years – but the censorship the Generalissimo had fostered still remained in effect – many directors of the day had to fight to have their films shown. If they portrayed anything that had to do with the Spanish Civil War – especially showing the Resistance in a favorable light – they had to do it metaphorically. Some films were cut to ribbons by the censors, some were delayed almost indefinitely – and some never saw the light of day (or the dark of a cinema, if you like).

Erice’s first feature is set in 1940, and shows a Spain still reeling from the pain of the civil war. Set in a small village on the Castilian plain, the film speaks volumes about both the physical and psychological damage done by the conflict. The village is seen to be quite run down – the family at the center of the story lives in relative comfort in a large old manor house, but it, too, is in a state of neglect and disrepair. While quite spacious compared to the homes of their neighbors, the rooms are shown to contain little furniture – and the one meal we see the family sharing, a breakfast, is a sparse one.

The members of the family seem to exist in their own isolated orbits – coming close to each other at times, but never really connecting. The two young sisters – Ana (Ana Torrent) and Isabel (Isabel Tellería) – share more of a bond than the parents have with each other, or with their children. The girls’ father (portrated by popular Spanish actor Fernando Fernán Gómez) is a beekeeper – the first time we see him in the film, he’s tending the hives, dressed in his protective gear, looking a bit like a space explorer. Their mother (Teresa Gimpera) writes letters to an unnamed man – from the address seen on an envelope in one scene, a refugee from the fighting living in a camp in France. We never learn if he is a former lover, a relative, or just an old friend caught up in forces over which he has little control – but from the frequency of her letters to him, and the emotional depth of the words she writes (which we hear in a voice-over), it’s obvious this is a person about whom she cares a great deal, and whose absence torments her.

The girls are the real focus of the story – especially the youngest, Ana. She appears to be around 6 years old – at that age when the fantasies of childhood are about to be pushed aside by the realities of life, a time of difficult transition for a child. She still accepts everything she sees as being real – fiction is an unknown concept to her. A travelling cinema comes to town, setting up in the town hall – it’s clearly something that has happened before, and we see the children gather around the van, before the dust has even settled, clamoring to know what film will be shown.

On this occasion, it happens to be James Whale’s 1931 classic version of Frankenstein. Ana and Isabel are among the children and adults who crowd into the makeshift theatre to see the film. Ana is captivated by the entire spectacle – and as I mentioned, she’s at the age when everything she sees on the screen is as real to her as what she sees on the street everyday. Ana Torrent, the young actress who portrays Ana in the film, had never seen Frankenstein before – and in one of the most moving scenes I’ve ever witnessed in a film, we see her face in the dark, illuminated only by the light reflecting from the screen, as she reacts, honestly and openly, eyes wide in wonder, not acting, to the story before her. At one point, she leans over to her sister Isabel and asks, ‘Why did the monster kill the little girl? Why did they kill the monster?’

Isabel tells her later, as the girls lie in their beds, awaiting sleep, that ‘it’s all make-believe – nothing in the movies is real’. Ana’s not buying it. Still obsessed with the experience and story of the film, she later listens intently to a story Isabel tells her of a spirit that lives nearby, in an abandoned barn.

Isabel warns Ana that the spirit will only appear when called by someone with a pure heart, who believes it is real. Ana returns to the barn several times, calling ‘It’s me – Ana’, to no avail. After a few visits, she arrives at the barn to find it occupied – a wounded freedom fighter, on the run from Franco’s guard, has taken shelter there. When he awakens with a start, hearing a noise, he immediately draws his pistol – seeing that it’s Ana, he relaxes. Ana is either determined that this man is the spirit she has been seeking, or simply decides to make him into the spirit, and befriends him – she offers him an apple, and later sneaks out of her house with her father’s jacket, to keep the man warm at night, inadvertently neglecting to remove her father’s pocket watch before handing it over to him.

Ana’s vision of this man as her own manifestation of the spirit is shattered when he is caught by Franco’s police and killed. Her father is called to the makeshift morgue – once again, using the town hall, returning to the scene of the film that affected Ana so much – to view the body. The police captain has found the pocket watch on the dead man, and has connected it to Ana’s father – he’s obviously been brought in for questioning, probably a common practice in a society under the shadow of Franco’s paranoia. His assurances that he didn’t know the man, or how his jacket and watch came to be in his possession, are evidently taken as truth, and he is allowed to take his property and go home. When he confronts Ana with the watch, simply by opening it at the breakfast table and allowing the chiming mechanism to sound, it’s pretty apparent from her facial expression that she knows something about it. He later follows her to the barn – she doesn’t know that the man has been captured and killed – and when her father attempts to talk with her there, she runs from him. Her failure to return home prompts a search party made up of villagers scouring the woods and countryside at night, carrying lanterns – a striking visual reminder of the scene in Whale’s Frankenstein when the villagers searched for the monster carrying torches.

Ana is found sleeping in the ruins of an old castle, and brought home, obviously traumatized. As we see her sleeping in the room she shares with Isabel, we notice that Isabel’s bed has been stripped of its linen – perhaps a sign that Isabel, being a couple of years older, is now in her own room, having ‘grown up’ sufficiently in the eyes of her parents to warrant this ‘promotion’. Ana’s experiences have left her changed – but how much is unclear. The border she has crossed – or is beginning to take the first steps in crossing, at least – is one that is not skipped over in the course of a day or two. It’s something that takes years to accomplish. As the film ends, we see her poignantly calling out to her spirit once more, ‘It’s me – Ana’.

The cinematography in this film is astonishingly beautiful – Luís Cuadrado worked miracles, not just in his camera angles and framing, but in capturing the honey-colored light that is so essential in conveying the feeling and atmosphere of this film. In the documentary The footprints of a spirit – one of the several fine extras included in Criterion’s new DVD release of the film – director Víctor Erice and his co-screenwriter Angel Fernández Santos, speak of their original intended storyline, and how they wound up discarding the opening scenes – they said that once they started filming, they realized that the opening, looking back from the present to the time depicted in the body of the film, was a drag on the overall effect. It’s an interesting look into the creative process.

As it turned out, the film is as close to perfect as cinema can get. Criterion has done a masterful job in restoring and packaging it for re-release. Since I’ve never had the opportunity to see this work in a theatre on the big screen, I have nothing with which to compare it – but I can say that this is one of the most beautifully filmed, moving cinematic creations I’ve ever experienced.