These movies all featured in the recent Sight and Sound poll of the greatest films of all time.
La Dolce Vita (1960) – The film’s moralism has not aged well – particularly the final party, designed to show the depths to which its hero (Marcello Mastroianni), now a roué in a cravat and white jacket – has sunk. Transvestites! How shocking! We also have to take as a given Marcello’s wasted potential as a ‘serious’ writer (Fellini has a friend remonstrate with him in a church to underline the point) because he does not display any talent in that direction or even special powers of insight. He’s a social ornament, a handsome blank; the fashionable society of the Via Veneto seems precisely the right environment for him. The movie contains a number of classic sequences, however – particularly the surreal circus that springs into life around two children who claim to have seen the Virgin Mary in a tree. Floodlights are trained on the straggly plant in question, and in the ensuing melee there’s a mixture of credulity and gleeful exploitation that says a lot about faith in a media age. ***
A Man Escaped (1956) – Like Robinson Crusoe, the hero of Robert Bresson’s film (a member of the French Resistance imprisoned during the Second World War) endures his loneliness by focusing his entire being on the arrangements he makes for his survival. We become as intent as Fontaine (François Leterrier) on the details of his preparations for escape – the planks he chisels from his cell door, the blankets he twists into ropes. By limiting our perspective to what Fontaine can see and hear, Bresson forces us to experience something of his sensory deprivation, his maddeningly partial knowledge (the gunshots that may or may not signal the death of a friend) and the interminable passage of time. The Nazi warders’ orders are not translated for us: it is brutally obvious what they mean. At the same time (again, like Robinson Crusoe), the film has a spiritual dimension: expressed physically in the high-set cell window that directs Fontaine’s gaze upwards, to heaven, and in the terse camaraderie of the prisoners. ****
Pather Panchali (1955) – In many respects, Satyajit Ray is Stanley Kubrick’s opposite (see below): his style is so unobtrusive that in his debut he seems simply to be recording life in a Bengali courtyard. But then Ray will hit you with sequences that so perfectly distil the family’s dynamics (the crown made out of silver paper that expresses both Apu’s imagination and his sense of entitlement as the boy – he’s a little prince) and larger tensions between tradition and modernity (the visual shock of the train approaching through a field of wheat) that you realise the artist’s shaping that has gone into the material all along. It’s an even-handed, generous movie: even the family’s scold of a neighbour shows some redeeming kindness. ***
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – One of the reasons Stanley Kubrick is so highly regarded among directors is that he never lets you forget he’s directing: the perfect compositions, the stately pace, the actors moved around like chess pieces – his style calls attention to itself. The film is overlong and wooden in parts (particularly the ape-man prologue) but the way it visualises space paved the way for all subsequent science fiction. Kubrick sees it satirically, as a future outpost of American office culture (on their way to view the obelisk, the bureaucrats fuss over a selection of sandwiches); he hears it as a silent immensity, punctuated only by the astronauts’ breathing. If the people are ciphers, it’s because they’re dwarfed by the vastness around them; if the climactic lightshow is a disappointing representation of infinity, it’s also a measure of the movie’s ambition. ***