A Door to the Sky


Morocco / 1989 / Arabic & French

Directed by Farida Benlyazid

With Zakia Tahri, Chaabia Laadraoui, Eva Saint-Paul

Still from 'A Door to the Sky'If religion could be reduced to an essential dichotomy it might look thus: it is daily interactions and customs, and then it is also the mysticism behind them, those things really not meant to be tested against reality. Its two faces shore each other up, protect one another from irrelevance and too much scrutiny. If the necessary degree of mystery wasn’t there, belief might lose its background sense of consequence, of gravity. Practicality keeps spiritualism ensconced in daily life. A film that looks at Islam through the story of a French-Moroccan woman discovering her roots, A Door to the Sky muses on religion’s utility, first cloven by cultural disconnect and then sutured by good intentions for humanity.

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The Day Shall Dawn


Pakistan / 1959 / Urdu

Directed by AJ Kardar

With Zurain Rakshi, Khan Ataur Rahman, Tripti Mitra

Still from 'The Day Shall Dawn'In a lacquered night scene, fishermen call to each other across the water in sing-song voices. Huge catfish writhe and gulp in the boat. The dark of the water merges with the dark of the night, people’s lucent faces encrusted by lamplight. Here in the Ganges delta, water is everywhere and everything: it acts as road and neighborhood, a collection of capillaries and veins matting at the Bay of Bengal. The water sits all around, hangs vividly in the morning light, and runs with the people’s blood. They live and die by it. Read the rest of this entry »

USA / 1967 / English

Directed by Joseph L. Anderson

With Larue Hall, Ted Heimerdinger, Marjorie Johnson

Still from 'Spring Night, Summer Night'A young man named Carl stands in his backyard shooing the headlights out of a tractor with a shotgun. Well-built, neat, with a crest of blonde hair, he seems out of place – the land around him is muddy, chaotic with refuse both human and natural. But the destructive emptiness of his activity sums up the fact of being stuck where he is, with his quarrelsome family in Southern Ohio. Could this place, between rust belt and Appalachia, have ever been vibrant? If it once was, it now breathes indigence. The mining industry that boomed there has withered up and gone, leaving equally withered people – but who can’t leave – in its place. Read the rest of this entry »



Turkey / 2006 / Turkish

Directed by Özer Kızıltan

With Erkan Can, Güven Kiraç, Meray Ülgen

Still from 'Takva'Muharrem is a follower, in every sense of the word. Middle-aged and solitary, he works as peon for a plastic bag merchant. In the evenings, he joins throngs of men at the mosque of the Sufi sect to which he belongs. Of this world but not in it, he follows God with a similar degree of subservience, living a gray, spartan life in his tiny apartment, and abstaining from any contact with women. He drinks tea, but only makes coffee for his (very infrequent) guests. Thus he keeps his world hermetic, and therefore clean, free of complications. Read the rest of this entry »

While my next review takes its time percolating, I thought I’d offer a rare picture-essay, a nod to the fuel that (ordinarily) pushes my writing forward:


The coffee siphon (also known as the vacuum coffee pot) makes brief, innocuous appearances now and again in films. Its design has changed little since the 1830s, when it was first patented in Germany. And indeed, the glass bell and bulb suspended by a retort stand over a flame suggest both ornamental and scientific Victoriana, its utilization a delicate and ritualistic art, like alchemy or a seance. Its subtle presence as a status symbol persists through rare sightings in Western cinema. Read the rest of this entry »

Sri Lanka / 1984 / Sinhala

Directed by Dharmasiri Bandaranayake

With Swarna Mallawarachchi, Cyril Wickramage, Somi Ratnayake

Still from 'Woman in a Whirlpool'The beautiful coloring of a snake – the diamond backs, the coral stripes – are self-defense just as much as they are an aid in killing. The two skill sets are often related. Killing is adaptive, a means of survival, and just like other organisms, people are often pushed by their surroundings to do the same. Woman in a Whirlpool, not plying us with visual poetry or statements about love and sacrifice, illustrates the inherent brutality of survival. Without pontificating on the subject or brooding over its implications, it casts its keen, voracious eyes over a human landscape as desiccated as the unforgiving outback that surrounds it. Read the rest of this entry »

Solar System


Germany & Argentina / 2011 / Kolla

Directed by Thomas Heise

Still from 'Solar System'Stillness is a form of motion. Even when things aren’t moving, they are moving – that’s one of the dullest platitudes and most amazing paradoxes of our being on a planetary orbit. Let’s look at another paradox, along the same lines: digital cinematography presents us with absolute stillness as film cannot replicate; its illusion of stillness is matchless. Aside from the occasional torrents of grain silting up in low light, inertia is a perennial condition of digital recording. It gets carte blanche in contemporary cinema. Read the rest of this entry »


Chinese Cinema Looks at Ethnic Minorities

There is a strong temptation on the part of those from outside of China to either think of it as a monoethnic mass or to go the other way, to narrow focus onto its ethnic minorities as an antidote to the vastness of the country and wide reach of Han hegemony. Just as orientalism isn’t only a zero-sum game between the West and the East (in spite of what any correspondence-student of Edward Said – and they are legion – will argue), but can just as easily exist across and within Asian societies, so too does that desire to bypass the flawed and simplified notion of homogeneous China and fixate on minority cultures exist among Han Chinese themselves. In visual culture this can be positive, celebrating difference and valuing cultural diversity. But more often than not, it’s used to cement notions in the Han audience of their own dominance, and also create an image of an untroubled coexistence, one lacking in history, humanness, and political implications. Read the rest of this entry »



India / 1985 / Malayalam & Tamil

Directed by Govindan Aravindan

With Bharath Gopi, Smita Patil, Sreenivasan

Still From 'Chidambaram'A Bhojpuri folk song, sung throughout the diaspora (in Trinidad, Mauritius, Fiji, and beyond), relates the image of two swans in a pond, a male and a female. The pond, the lyrics go, cannot be beautiful without the lotus. Helen Myers, who documented the song for years in her brilliant ethnomusicology work, generally speaks of it as a song about family ties; the pond represents the wedding tent, and the lotus represents a sister-in-law and her importance to the ritual proceedings. But, like most folk songs, it can have other metaphors snaking away from the central image. Read the rest of this entry »

Crimson Sunset


Iceland / 1977 / Icelandic

Directed by Hrafn Gunnlaugsson

With Helgi Skúlason, Róbert Arnfinnsson, Rúrik Haraldsson

crimsonsunset4Cobwebs may be old, abandoned spider’s webs, but they are still spider’s webs. Couldn’t an insect still find itself caught up in the wispy swaddling, genetic memory of the attendant carnivore bedeviling its tiny brain? Floating innocuously above us they appear empty, or perhaps damning reflections of neglect. But to smaller lifeforms, they are still traps, the stuff of nightmares. Read the rest of this entry »