2022 A to Z Movie Challenge: P – T
Updated: Dec 17, 2022
There remain just two more legs of this international A-Z movie challenge. Thank you to everyone who has been sticking with this lengthy series. Click the links for Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
P – Pixote (1980)
Brazilian cinema’s often-referenced claim to international acclaim is City of God (2002), a movie about slums in Rio de Janeiro overrun by Shakespearean rival youth street gangs. It’s a highly stylized movie that touches on many social issues as recounted by its protagonist, a real person on whom the movie is based. Despite its success, some consider the film to be exploitative of the poverty that it depicts. If that’s the oppositional case being made for that movie, Héctor Babenco’s Pixote will probably traumatize many of those same critics.
A daring combination of cinéma vérité and Scorsesean precision, Pixote follows a 10-year-old boy who winds up in a juvenile detention facility that is rife with internal corruption. The actor who portrays Pixote, Fernando Ramos da Silva, was roughly the same age and came from an impoverished background.
Although sensationalizing the grittier details will do no service for the story, be wary that the child is depicted as, among other things, huffing glue, witnessing grave violence and aiding a sex worker. It’s a deliberately bleak experience that obviously raises some ethical questions; the protagonist’s tragedy is elevated by the fact that at 19 years old, after years of struggling to make it in the acting industry, da Silva was shot and killed by police inside his house.
These are all tragic details that accompany an already tragic story, and I apologize if it discourages you from giving the film a chance, but if you are able to look beyond those elements, you’ll find some stunning performances and a truly immersive atmosphere. Pixote’s detention facility peers include other hard-on-their-luck teenage boys and a trans girl, Lilica (Jorge Julião), whom the staff frequently pick on. As the abuse continues, Pixote, Lilica, and two others resolve to run away and start a new life on the streets of Rio.
Raw in every sense of the word, the film still finds occasion to display the innocence within its young protagonist. Pixote and Lilica’s friendship is surprisingly sincere, and most of their moments together constitute the film’s emotional core. Lilica acts as a maternal character, something that Pixote doesn’t have in his life. Her tragic monologue explaining that no matter what she does or what kind of life she tries to live, the police will always be after her, is extremely poignant. It also makes her eventual parting excruciating, even if her only security promised by staying was to be provided by two pre-pubescent boys.
Pixote has one of those endings that just sticks with you for a good long time. In its imagery, in its vulnerability, in its fleetingness. It’s hard to imagine any sort of contemporary filmmaker taking such a visceral risk. I feel bittersweet about it all. Although I am grateful for the more extensive protections for children working in the industry today, I must say that the finale provoked something distinctly melancholy in me. Even with its moments of great brutality, it demonstrates sensitivity to the systemic prevalence of that violence and the tumultuous feelings that a child at heightened exposure would experience in turn.
Watch it if you can stomach a child witnessing multiple tragedies, but don’t feel ashamed if you can’t. I think it’s a beautiful movie, but one that could never get made today with such rigor and honesty. It’s a product of a bygone era of classical realism.
*Note: I elected to skip the letter Q after doing some research and remembering that I had made a promise to explore diverse cinematic landscapes. I had originally reserved the spot for Britain’s Quadrophenia (1979), the movie inspired by The Who’s rock opera. This may be a controversial opinion (no it isn’t), but I think 20th-century British music culture has been pretty well exported and discussed in the States. There’s a whole era known as the British Invasion (a staggering 170 other countries can likewise attest to their own, non-musical British invasion). I’m also running out of time to finish this project by the end of the year and I already covered a British film in the form of F’s Fish Tank, so I figured it was a worthy sacrifice. Moving swiftly on!
R – Rome, Open City (1945)
Rome, Open City is another one of those early game-changers (like B’s The Battle of Algiers) that you might’ve skipped over in your self-administered cinematic education – if you were to watch every single European movie about Nazi occupation, you probably wouldn’t have time for anything else. I myself had that issue; when making the decision about whether I would rather be an expert in Italian neorealism or French New Wave, I went for the latter essentially because I thought Pierrot Le Fou (1965) looked prettier.
The oldest film in this challenge by a decade, Rome, Open City is often regarded as launching the neorealism movement on a global scale – it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and was even nominated for Best Screenplay at the Academy Awards. It precedes other beloved neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves by three years and documents a World War II story set just one year before. Roberto Rossellini would eventually become a household name for his many collaborations with future wife Ingrid Bergman, but before that, he was mostly making shorts. According to IMDb, they started shooting the movie within two months of the Nazis leaving Rome.
Those interesting circumstances aside, Rome, Open City does stand the test of time. It’s an ensemble piece chock-full of thought-provoking dynamics and symbolic compositions. Most intriguing is the character of Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), a priest tasked with helping Resistance leader Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero) escape Rome in the face of Nazi pursuance. His arc carries the film’s foremost conflict of scruples – a simple tale that admittedly boils down to good versus evil – but nonetheless instills a feeling of grandeur and martyrdom into naturalistic surroundings.
Buffering the priest’s narrative are sisters Pina (Anna Magnani) and Laura (Carla Rovere), a principled young woman who is with child and her free-spirited younger sister, respectively. Laura is friends with Marina (Maria Michi), a cabaret performer who happens to be dating Manfredi. Marina has recently fallen into the spoils of drugs and luxe, provided by a strategic maternal stand-in who has been instructed by the local Nazy commander to manipulate her. Pina and Laura are predictably tragic characters (a certain scene with Pina is also the movie's most famous shot), but Marina provides an interesting foil to Manfredi’s hero. She has been successfully coerced by the occupying forces, yet there seems to be some recognition that, because she is a woman, she lacked the social mobility that gave Manfredi an advantage. She eventually becomes an antihero, but only by desperation – and design.
Rome, Open City is significant for its array of characters which each offer something different to the concepts of struggle and surrender. The camerawork occasionally leaves something to be desired, but even when conforming to staticity, many of the compositions themselves do tell a story, particularly in the case of the ending. It's a classic war film that constructs solid narrative frames, supported by personages with more meat than meets the eye.
S – The Stranger (Agantuk) (1991)
Satyajit Ray’s The Stranger was a much-appreciated pleasant watch after the earlier two movies. Although still dealing with some element of inner turmoil, the film is largely limited to the mundanities of the domestic sphere, and there’s quite a bit of light-hearted charm to be found.
I have seen one other Ray film, The Coward (1965), and I really did not care for it. It’s not his most popular, and nor is this one, but I opted to give him another shot. I’m really glad that I did because The Stranger is one of the best discoveries of this series.
The Indian director’s final film, The Stranger follows a middle-class Bengali housewife, Anila, (Mamata Shankar) upon receiving news that her uncle, whom she has not seen in 35 years, is coming to pay her a visit. Anila is initially excited about the prospect of meeting a family member she has barely ever met. Her husband, however, is much more skeptical about the random arrival of a long-lost relative and believes it’s a scam. When Mr. Mitra first arrives, Anila is welcoming, but her husband’s doubts gradually cloud her thoughts. Over the course of his visit, the two investigate the man’s legitimacy, bringing in friends to help reveal the truth.
On one hand, the movie’s tone could come off as a little creepy: a strange man, whom Anila has never officially met, staying in her house and interacting with her son. Most of her other relatives are deceased, so there is no one to verify his likeness. Admittedly, that sense of foreboding is deliberate. I think part of the fun of the film was finding out the truth by myself, so I won’t spoil anything. But even without sharing the ending, I will say that there are moments of humor and great beauty.
In the latter hour, Anila and her husband open themselves up to her “uncle” whose experiences are so wildly at odds than theirs. There are several moments of positively gripping dialogue between Mr. Mitra and coupled friends that the duo brought in so as to not grill him themselves. Mr. Mitra confidently explains his controversial philosophies adopted after living among indigenous tribes across three continents. Are the Boses doubtful of him because he is intruding, or because he is different than them?
Ray’s visual style is riveting. He commands a slow-moving camera that adjusts for each speaker to build tension. There’s an extended scene wherein Anila performs on a tamboura that is genuinely breathtaking. Maybe it’s just the effect of a beautiful instrument, but it’s one of the few times you really see Mr. Mitra relax and see Anila as more than just an observer of the men’s conversations. It hints at a deeper connection between the two, and it creates a distinct shift in the film’s tone to something more transcendental.
The Stranger is tragically underseen compared to the filmmaker’s famous Apu trilogy, but it’s a hell of a final project. The motions are subtle, but it contains considerable character and thematic depth. It made me want to call up an estranged relative and ask them about their life, which I cannot say I am often compelled to do.
T – Talentime (2009)
From what I’ve deduced about Malaysian films, there’s not a lot of homegrown filmmaking that gets seen on the international level. They’ve submitted seven films to the Academy Awards since 2003, but none have been nominated. It was hard for me to find a Malaysian film that was A) streaming and B) not a co-production with another country, set elsewhere. Netflix, luckily, has a random hub of international stuff, and Talentime happened to be pretty highly rated across the different platforms. Excellent.
I’m going to get my grievances out of the way now because if I don’t, I’m going to end on a sour note, and nobody wants that. This movie was made in 2009. As far as I’m concerned, 2008 – 2011 was pretty much the stylistic low point for 21st-century cinema. Some might argue the immediate post-9/11 crop of films, but I disagree. I just think there was a lull in the transition to the hyper-digital Internet age, and not that the film has that awkwardly glossy look in particular, but there are just some narrative choices that feel alarmingly 2009. Along with that, the movie is very amateurish. But if you can get past a lack of shot coverage, a lot of awkward silences, and some questionable acting, you will probably think this movie is fine and even cute.
Talentime is an ensemble dramedy following a high school’s arrangement of a talent show. Students, teachers, and families: all coincide to create drama leading up to the talented students’ performances on the big stage. Players include a Eurasian pianist/singer, Melur, a Malay guitar player, Hafiz, and a Chinese erhu instrumentalist, Kahoe. Melur eventually falls for a deaf Indian boy, Mahesh, who is instructed to transport her to and from the school.
Their ethnicities happen to be key to the story because Malaysia is an extremely multicultural country. That diversity is a source of national tension, whether it be in the realm of ethnicity (as aforementioned) or religion (Sunni Islam vs. minority religions). Director Yasmin made six feature films before her untimely death, and Talentime was the last. Many of those movies dealt with challenging topics such as interracial relationships, eastern vs western ideology, and class dynamics. In Talentime, it’s clear she has an open-minded view of how people could get along, but she presents a relative truth about how generational divides can create discord.
A talent show as a central premise does carry a naive connotation of inconsequentiality, but Yasmin hashes out the melodrama of the students' home lives and their sources of grief in the foreground. Some performances work – Jaclyn Victor as Mahesh’s protective older sister clearly has great instincts, and Mahesh and Hafiz’s arcs complement each other well. Even though his character is somewhat glossed over, Kahoe provides an important, sturdy presence in the film, and the male friendships on display are rather endearing.
Unfortunately, with so many arcs, it’s inevitable that some of them aren’t as satisfying as others. Melur has a large family and not all of them are world-class actors. The obliviously farting teacher (same sound effect every time) is a character I might try to forget, but Adibah Noor as the show organizer, on the other hand has fantastic comedic timing. I only wish there were more close-ups so we could see the nuances of those performances.
Still, if you want any reason to check this movie out, it should be for the music. Original songs by Pete Teo, most of which are bangers, especially “I Go.” The audition scene is, as expected, very entertaining. The film provides a unique insight into the pluralism of Malaysian culture and Yasmin’s earnestness in trying to level them all out.
Pixote is streaming on The Criterion Channel, Rome, Open City and The Stranger are both on HBO Max and Criterion, and Talentime is on Netflix.