2022 A to Z Movie Challenge: U – Z
Updated: Dec 26, 2022
Alas, we have reached our destination. With this entry, we will make it to Z, thus marking the 24 international film goal. If this challenge’s context is a bit lost on you, check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4. For those who have been on the train since the beginning, thank you. Here's Part 5.
U – Under the Shadow (2016)
U takes us to Iran with a thriller that is unfortunately timely given the present circumstances in the country. Set in the years following the Iranian Revolution, Under the Shadow follows Shideh, a medical student, who is prevented from continuing her studies because of her political views. She returns home to her daughter and husband, discouraged. Her husband, initially supportive of her career, tells her that “maybe it was for the best.” Soon, he is called off to join the military, and Shideh and her daughter Dorsa are left to occupy the household in the midst of the war. Sinister supernatural forces start to manifest, and Shideh begins to question her sanity.
I find supernatural thrillers a bit kitschy – they tend to be redundant. “Is it real? Am I crazy? What cruel god wants me to suffer?” The success of the film is usually a question of how much the actors can sell their distress. If you’re judging the film based on that, you’ll find little to complain about. Narges Rashidi and Avin Manshadi sell their respective mother-daughter roles with considerable intensity. Rashidi’s face droops as she is gradually depleted of her hope, patience, and sommeil. You can’t help but empathize with her sudden full-time confinement to the household sphere, particularly in a state of heightened external crisis. Manshadi’s wide-eyed innocence plays well as she develops more notable signs of PTSD over the course of the film. Often paralyzed with her own fear, Dorsa’s longing for any sign of safety is genuinely tragic, and I’d go so far as to say that her performance is the highlight.
Under the Shadow is frequently compared to Jennifer Kent’s Babadook (2014) for its mother-child dynamic and handling of stress and grief thematics. I would agree with that comparison, especially because of their portrayals of domestic isolation. In Under the Shadow, however, there is a political element that further complicates the matter. Although the curse the two endure is said to be related to the djinn (a mythological Islamic spirit), there are undeniable connections to shame for gender roles that Shideh does not embody. Within the war backdrop that puts her family in harm's way, Shideh is shamed for not adhering to Islamic tradition, her pursuit of education and generally being a bad mother. One of the tortuous visions she has is of a floating chador (a modest cloak worn by many Persian women), and, at one point, she is nearly arrested after running from her home without a proper head covering.
Although director Babak Anvari is never hyper-explicit in the nuances of his societal commentary, such factors do enhance the standard haunted house set-up. Disorienting horror editing is more effective with the reminder of bombing raids lurking just around the corner. However, even at 84 minutes, it does run long. Consistent atmosphere could have been achieved if condensed into a short film. It’s also technically a period piece, but you don’t get much taste of the ‘80s beyond some workout VHS tapes and drab clothing, so greater ambiguity on the temporal front might’ve helped cement its connection to age-old curses.
Under the Shadow is mostly in line with what you’d imagine as contemporary “elevated horror,” rendering allegorical demons out of real-life conflicts and tragedies. The CGI is solid and a lot of the imagery is effectively creepy, especially the use of Xs (which Shideh tapes on her window to keep from bombings shattering the glass). If you like polished psychological B-movies, you will probably find a lot to like. The director is set to helm a new Cloverfield movie after a couple of flops, which seems like the right direction for his talents. Hopefully, in the coming years, we’ll see a revitalization of movies tackling such topics by a woman’s hand.
V – Viridiana (1961)
Next on the drain train is a Buñuel. I have seen one other film by the legendary Spanish filmmaker, a little movie called The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. It satirizes silly rich people who have nothing better to do than be lying snobs. Many think it is brilliant. I find it annoying. As it turns out, V is not a very popular letter for movies to start with either, so my streaming choices were somewhat limited. Reluctantly, I gave Buñuel another chance. This is the man who made Un Chien Andalou, after all.
Viridiana, named after its titular protagonist, has a much less playful tone than The Discreet Charm. Shot in high-contrast black and white, it centers on a young nun who is sent to go visit her uncle, a man whom she does not care for but is somewhat indebted to because he funds her studies. Her uncle is a loner who, aside from seeing his maid and her daughter, does not get out much. Unfortunately, he is not the endearing kind of loner; he is just plain creepy. He instructs Viridiana to dress up in his deceased wife’s wedding gown (she looks just like her) and have tea with him. So, Vertigo, but make it ten times worse. Oh, and that’s just the first 25 minutes. Another arc is yet to come!
I was under the impression that the entire movie would be about her creepy uncle’s advances, which wasn’t a super tempting way to spend 90 minutes. However, he is removed from the picture pretty early on, leaving Viridiana and his estranged son, Jorge, to inherit the estate. She does not head back to the nunnery, instead aspiring to create a homeless shelter in one of the quarters with the local poor, opting for the “moral edification” route. She occasionally butts heads with her handsome cousin, but she believes she is doing the right thing.
I struggle to develop a thesis for this movie because there are so many different interpretations of it. Many would consider it to be about Viridiana’s graying worldview, going from pious optimist to downtrodden nihilist. Maybe it’s about how Catholicism is a sham. Perhaps it’s about her unintentional sexual awakening. Well, they all kind of tie together in some respects. Viridiana is not exactly fleshed out as a three-dimensional character, but being the blank slate that she is, rather than developing her own nuances, she grows by observing the nuances of others. Her uncle is a weirdo, but he has dealt with his own slew of tragedies. Her cousin is a cynic and a player but he ends up being right about some things. The poor she attempts to help are not the perfect little helpless angels that she imagined.
In the latter half of the film, the financially misfortuned prowl upon an opportunity to enter the main house while Viridiana and Jorge are out on an errand, leading to the film’s most famous sequence recreating “The Last Supper.” At first, you’re rooting for these down-on-their-luck individuals to take back the house and enjoy a fancy meal. But as the alcohol flows, more barbaric tendencies emerge, and like the famous sequence in Czech New Wave classic Daisies, they leave the place in ruin. It’s disheartening, and the film directs you to feel what Viridiana feels: betrayal.
Are class distinctions possible to overcome, or are people bound to their economically-based perceptions of the world? Is sex the baseline of all interactions in a patriarchal society? The movie was initially banned in Spain under the fascist Franco regime. There’s a lot of interesting history better explained by this Slash Film article if you’re curious to read up about it (including a non-explicit reference to a ménage-á-trois in the finale). I like Viridiana; visually, I found it compelling. I might have to watch it again to catch all the supposed heresy that the Catholic Church saw in it. Then again, it was a very different time under a very different regime, and I am not overtly sensitive to such controversies in my secular lifestyle. Just be wary of its rough treatment of women and thick melodramatic shell. There’s more to explore beneath the surface.
W – Walkabout (1971)
Now we head to the Outback. Like Viridiana, Walkabout is listed on Roger Ebert’s list of Great Movies. Nature and civilization collide when two English schoolchildren are abandoned by their father in the middle of the Australian desert. The older daughter, 14, is tasked with both reassuring her younger brother, 6, about their father’s abandonment and keeping them alive in the wilderness. Just when all hope seems lost, they come across an Aborigine boy who is on his walkabout, an indigenous tradition whereby a young man will venture out alone to prove his survival skills. His knowledge of the terrain saves their lives, and despite communication issues, he appears to be guiding them back to the urban world.
Walkabout has all the images of extreme no-man’s-land you’ll likely never see in person. Venomous creatures, arid sands, vivid sunsets at their most undisturbed. It’s a borderline hallucinatory experience and, standing by itself, a most unique wavelength. Even with the suffering of its protagonists comes a sort of sun-baked peace, knowing that, if they were to die, it would be in the most natural of ways. Luckily, the entrance of “Black Boy,” as he is so aptly named, keeps them from the likely course. Instead, they come to appreciate the simplicity of life out in the outback. Girl remains hesitant to commit, but White Boy is young enough to attempt to learn Black Boy’s language and engage fully with the lifestyle.
It’s a largely plotless film, with the exception of the journey back to society. White Girl eventually warms up enough to her new circumstances to bathe nude in a pond that the trio come across in one of the film’s most iconic scenes. Actress Jenny Agutter was only 16 or 17 at the time of filming. Upon, reflection, she explains that she does not regret filming it, only the fact of those who have taken it out of context for sexual purposes. In this case, the human body is of key importance in the film, what with the sunburn and maladies they are subject to in the new environment.
As I have made a routine of addressing controversies within my reviews of each film, I’ll agree with Agutter and say that the scenes are entirely non-sexual. Black Boy is practically naked in every scene save for a loincloth, thus contributing to what is obviously a double standard by the male gaze alone. Director Nicolas Roeg makes a point of showing their father (by all means, a bad dad) looking at Girl in a suggestive way before his departure, thus demonstrating an awareness of her coming-of-age sexualization but presenting it with a critical eye. Likewise, he suggests that she is freed from such while in exile from society.
It’s only been a day or two since I’ve seen it, but Walkabout is already a vague relic in my memory. New Wave influences sparked Roeg to use juxtaposed quick-cuts, comparing general existence or brutality out in the desert to that which exists in urban environments. Primary hunting next to butchers, the predatory animals next to the traffic of the city. It’s a technique that, upon seeing it for the first time, feels totally revolutionary. I have watched my fair share of French New Wave (and Senegal’s answer to it, Touki Bouki), so I can’t say it seemed quite as progressive this time around, but nonetheless, seeing it in the context of Australia’s at-conflict colonized vs. indigenous worlds was profound in its own way.
Most importantly, the film transcends language because it isn’t dependent on it. It’s a tale of going back to nature, realizing what it’s like to interact directly with the land. The siblings would be at a loss without Black Boy’s aid, but his fate is wildly different than theirs. The ending is genuinely powerful, and anyone who’s truly had to fight for their lives will probably feel a strong sense of déjà vu in watching it. Walkabout is timeless. The untouched will always be out there. It may just spark your sense of adventure, or confirm that you never could endure it.
*The letter X was excluded for reasons obvious to anyone familiar with the limited number of words commencing with X. Sorry Xanadu.
Y – Yi Yi (2000)
The longest film in this challenge at an epic three hours, Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang’s Yi Yi sits comfortably at the tied-for-90th slot in this year’s Sight and Sound poll (his other most famous film, A Brighter Summer Day , clocks in just shy of four hours). A milestone for many reasons, the film might as well be considered as kicking off 21st-century cinema, pulling from and reflecting on an admirable past while giving a taste of masterful technique to come.
Following a multigenerational family, the film breaks the ice at a wedding banquet. Father NJ, mother Min-Min, and their two children attend the wedding of their loosey-goosey uncle A-Di, who is getting married to his pregnant wife. Min-Min and A-Di’s mother suffers a stroke soon after the wedding, and the movie follows the subsequent period of time that she spends comatose in her daughter’s household.
The movie is sufficiently long to give development to all of its characters, leaving no family member unexplored. NJ, an engineer, probably has the most screen-time, as Min-Min departs for a Buddhist retreat soon after her mother falls ill. He is the patriarch and moral center that the film revolves around, the lives of his children and siblings an extension of his worries, but their realities concealed by the chaos of his work life. Little brother Yang-Yang is a particular highlight. Although he is eight, his petite size makes him look closer to four, and the innocent mischief he gets into provides a nice break from the adults’ melodrama.
There are so many beautiful compositions in the movie that it made it rather difficult for me to choose just a few frames. Yang does wonders with windows in particular, finding the perfect angle to layer individual reflections with city skylines, approaching persons, and neon lights. The colors are soft and subdued, and the lines are thoughtfully arranged; pausing the film at any given moment tells a deeper story. I have seldom been so mesmerized by the movements of a camera, and even then, what Yang chooses not to show is often just as noteworthy as what he captures.
Beyond the stellar craft, which is one of the obvious reasons this movie is so widely appreciated, the sense of intimacy between the characters is unparalleled. Hinting details lie in every room. There aren’t very many close-ups, but because of how naturalistic the interactions are, you are able to get all the information you need from afar. Words and glances exchanged build and build until you arrive at the finale, and you acknowledge how far everyone has come. The last remarks, delivered, significantly, by a refreshingly eloquent Yang-Yang, ties together both the film and the experience you’ll have while watching it. We feel older, wiser, and more in tune to the struggles of others. It’s an immersive journey that requires some patience, but stick it out and you’ll be duly rewarded with a perennial comfort film.
Z – Z (1969)
We’ve made it to the end. The last movie. The Z in our A–Z. Who would’ve thought? Not me. Our concordant Zed is a political thriller with a fast mouth and a heart of gold. A movie that I thought was Greek until realizing that it was a satire about the Greek government by the French, but by a Greek director, and co-produced by Algeria. Things get messy in movieland, and France, you’ll learn, has its hands in a lot of different productions.
So, Costa-Gavras and three other screenwriters collaborated on a script aimed at reenacting the 1963 murder of a Greek democratic politician by fascist police in an elaborate cover-up. Using French actors in the respective positions of military officers, lawyers and witnesses and shooting in Algiers, the film makes the ballsy statement that the police suck.
The film opens with a right-wing leader declaring goals of eradicating mildew – leftists – in a moral society. That speech coincides with a bold text basically saying that “any similarities to persons living or dead is completely intentional.” It’s a badass launch for a film that sputters just a little before getting on a proper breakneck roll. The cover-up police, their drafted thugs, the upstanding magistrate, a muckraking journalist. Back and forth, uncovering the truth, bang bang bang. Slick editing reminiscent of Brian De Palma’s best action sequences and a groovy soundtrack accompany.
The simplicity of the story is one of its main strengths. Instead of clouding the waters with an empathetic voice for each and every character, Costa-Gavras is basically shaking the viewer to do one task: “stop fucking lying.” It’s a story of governing power, which means there’s going to be a lot of testosterone in the attack line. The assassinated politician’s widow is one of the only female characters, and she isn’t given too much to do. But what can she do? This is the structure they’re condemned to, and false hope will cost you more than cynicism. The right-wingers want blind obedience – seeing a list of what all the Greek military junta banned at the end of the film will give you a good idea of what vision they have for their “moral society.”
To understand how much of an impact this movie made on people, it was the first international film (non-English language) to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. With stars like Jean-Louis Trintignant, Charles Denner, and Irene Papas, it had great international appeal. It was, of course, banned by the ruling junta from 1969-1975, its success being a huge F-U to global authoritarianism. It remains one of the great rebel films intent on exposing political corruption, and will likely continue to be a symbol for oppressed groups – in part, invigorating those same people with its less-than-uplifting ending.
If you’re looking to get mad, look no further. I was hoping to go out with a bang for this challenge, and this is a pretty good way to do it: a movie, financed by uninvolved countries, so that an ex-pat could make a scathing film about his country’s politics that he would not be able to make in his own. International cinema at its finest.
Thank you to those who bothered to read about all 24 films. I hope you learned something or at least took away a recommendation. A lot of these films were awesome discoveries that I will be nagging people to watch for the next few years. I encourage people to challenge themselves with movies that seem far away; the more stories heard around the world, the more we stop to think before we judge.
Under the Shadow is streaming on Netflix, and the latter four are all available on the Criterion Channel.