Sorrow & Joy
Danish director Nils Malmros’ latest (and apparently his last) film is an intimate account of his nine-month old child’s real-life death, at the hands of his temporarily psychotic wife. However, semi-autobiography does not necessarily guarantee good cinema.
Jacob Cedergren plays Johannes, a filmmaker whose manic-depressive wife Signe kills their infant daughter Maria. Rather than showing the tragedy, Malmros depicts only scenes that his on-screen counterpart is present for: Johanne’s discovery of the event, his subsequent attempts to protect his wife from psychiatric detention, and their eventual reconciliation.
Perhaps, in fact, Sorrow and Joy suffers from too much autobiography. Malmros’s decision to structure much of the story as flashbacks, framed from Johannes’s conversations with a court psychiatrist, surely presents an opportunity to innovate with storytelling. But alas, the narrator is too reliable. Everything Johannes tells the psychiatrist plays out verbatim in the flashbacks. He admits to everything, including constant put-downs and nit-picking, and Bergman-esque obsessions with his leading lady.
Helle Fagralid, though, is enchanting as Signe. In an epilogue, set 26 years later, she urges a reluctant Johannes to make his final film, “about learning to love”. This meta-cinematically explains the filmmaker’s own motivations.
Perhaps the filmmaking process may have been therapeutic for Malmros, but the story is not accessible. For all its talk of love, the film is incredibly cold. And despite Johannes’s awareness of his own role in his wife’s deterioration, the events are never rationalised, nor is the forgiveness justified. Whether Malmros himself personally deems the film a success or failure, it is unlikely to become a favourite with audiences.
The Brick and the Mirror
Ebrahim Golestan’s 1965 masterwork, The Brick and the Mirror, predates the Iranian revolution, but its message remains relevant inside and outside Iran. Golestan produced, wrote, directed, and edited the film, employing a crew of four non-filmmakers – and several non-actors – to assist. The end result is a timeless assault on injustice, which outlives Iranian political struggles, and should resonate amongst all viewers.
The plot follows protagonist Hashem. He is a taxi driver, who struggles to decide how to deal with a baby girl, left in his cab by a mysterious woman. Despite Hashem seeking advice from his fellow men, it is his girlfriend, Taji, who offers genuine help, hoping that the child will fill some kind of void – perhaps even becoming a kind of saviour for the relationship.
And yet the baby is just one of many abandoned in Tehran. The film skewers red tape and institutions, including the police, hospital, and the heaving courts. It all culminates in a moment where, after Hashem has taken the baby to an orphanage, Taji attempts to retrieve her. Suddenly we see the environment in an unforgettable way; genuine shots of orphans are edited together in a protracted sequence that appeals to the audience directly.
Stylistically, the film is remarkable. Golestan’s poetic long takes and slow style seem to channel Antonioni, and yet the film’s date suggests that these innovations were all his own. The moment where Taji leaves the orphanage, and leans upon a wall, with the camera tracking backwards through the corridor, slowly, surely echoes Resnais. Even though, at the same time, various revolutions and New Waves were emerging in European cinema, It quickly becomes clear that Golestan was spearheading something similar in Iran.