French Dialogue, ‘Navajo’ Subtitles

NY Film Fest’s Jewish-themed offerings are moody works by European old masters; just don’t expect to understand everything.

09/29/2010
Special To The Jewish Week
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By a curious coincidence, the two new feature films in this year’s New York Film Festival that deal directly with Jewish themes are the work of two older masters of European cinema, neither of them Jewish: Manoel de Oliveira and Jean-Luc Godard. It would be hard to imagine two more dissimilar films than Oliveira’s “The Strange Case of Angelica” and Godard’s “Film Socialisme,” as even their titles suggest. Perhaps those differences are derived from the distance between their birth dates: 1908 in Oliveira’s case, 1930 in Godard’s. But one doubts that generational differences really are at play here.

Oliveira’s career is a biographical marvel. That 1908 birth date isn’t a typographical error. The Portuguese filmmaker will be 102 this winter, and he remains active, turning out a couple of films a year. The current offering, “Angelica,” is a project he was not allowed to make in the early 1950s due to the stringent rule of the Salazar dictatorship; apparently the Fascist censors were ill-disposed towards a fantasy of doomed love that featured a Jew as the central character.

Intriguingly, Oliveira has made few changes from the half-century-old screenplay. The film still revolves around the slow disintegration of a Sephardic photographer, Isaac (Ricardo Trêpa, who looks like a young Tom Cruise), who is called out at night to take photos of a beautiful young woman, Angelica (Pilar Lopez de Ayala), who has died suddenly and mysteriously. While he is taking her photo, she seemingly sits up, opens her eyes and gives Isaac a huge smile. (Later, one of the photographs he has developed will repeat this improbable act.) Understandably, he becomes obsessed with the beautiful dead girl, dividing his time between a personal project photographing a group of olive growers who still use old-fashioned methods of cultivation, and literally dreaming of flying off with Angelica.

One of Oliveira’s best films is entitled “Doomed Love,” but that could be the title of almost any of his films, including this one. His work is shot through with the romantic fatalism of the Iberian poets, but “Angelica,” like so much of his recent work, tempers this fatalism with a very dry ironic wit. This is never more apparent than after a rather disastrous breakfast scene in Isaac’s boarding house, when Oliveira holds his camera long after the human protagonists have departed so that we can watch the landlady’s cat eyeing her caged pet bird with undisguised hunger.

It’s not a comment on Isaac’s near-narcoleptic state; it’s just a funny vignette affirming the basic instincts of mammals. Oliveira treats his ghostly apparitions with a similar humor, with the spirits of Angelica and Isaac floating off with identical rictus-like grins, or her spirit playing a rather low-comedy hide-and-seek with the besotted young man.

What Oliveira does not treat humorously is Isaac’s uneasy status as a Jew in a deeply Catholic society. There is little to identify him as such, other than a line of dialogue very early in the film, and his invariably atypical dress: black suit, white shirt, black fedora. But people treat him differently. Angelica’s upper-class family views him with suspicion if not outright hostility. His landlady dotes on him but finds him utterly baffling. The breakfast table companions find him an alien species. But he is treated with immense sympathy by Oliveira who, in interviews has recalled vividly the plight of World War II-era Jews stuck in Portugal, hoping to escape the Nazis by flight to the U.S. or England. And while he sets the film in the present, Oliveira has done nothing to mitigate the sense of dread.

But “The Strange Case of Angelica” isn’t a dour or grim film. On the contrary, with his deadpan, long-take driven style, Oliveira treats his ghost story as a quirky, frequently wry reworking of “Orpheus” (with subtle tips of his hat to Jean Cocteau’s version) and “The Dybbuk.” If you can imagine the latter remade in Portuguese with a bit of the Three Stooges gently added, you may have some sense of this sublime, delicate and gently out-of-kilter film.

Coincidentally, Jean-Luc Godard’s newest work, “Film Socialisme,” is something of an extended homage to Oliveira’s 2003 effort, “A Talking Picture.” Both are set on cruise liners working their way through the Old World’s great cities. Each features wildly multilingual casts discoursing to one another in their own languages regardless of who they are addressing, and both films are meditations on the wreckage of the 20th century. Of course, this last subject has been Godard’s focus, even compulsion, for many years, and at 80 he is no better disposed towards the modern world than he was at, say, 60.

He’s also none too fond of his audiences, if the evidence of “Film Socialisme” is to be believed. On the one hand, it is the most dazzlingly beautiful film Godard has made in a long time, perhaps in his entire career, a film that utilizes every conceivable cinematic and video palette with a profusion of super-saturated colors, inky blacks, solarizations and other visual tricks. On the other, the film is a dizzying 97 minutes of seemingly disconnected events, including a long entr’acte set in a gas station owned by a couple of local French politicians who opt out of their campaign to support that of their teenage daughter. It’s the kind of Godardian garage whose denizens include a burro and a cheerful-looking llama. (Leave it to Godard to find a llama that takes direction.)

But most dismaying to almost any audience, “Film Socialisme” is a film with almost no subtitles. By design.
Godard has created his own set of subtitles for the film, using what he calls “Navajo subtitling,” cryptic, two- and three-word titles that pick out key words — and some not so key ones at times — rather than translating the dialogue. When added to a typically mysterious Godard scenario in which a character named Goldberg may or may not be a) Jewish, b) a Nazi hiding out, c) an international financier, d) a former Stalinist agent or e) all or none of the above; a missing cache of gold, possibly stolen by the Comintern at the end of the Spanish civil war; a profusion of historians-plotters-passengers, the result is a kind of mental mayhem. My French just isn’t good enough to decipher the Goldberg subplot on a single viewing, so the most I can say is that it is of a piece with Godard’s Jew-obsession, his anti-Zionism and his deep concern with various resistances to fascism and racism.

What one takes away from “Film Socialisme” even without a knowledge of French, Spanish, Afrikaans, German, Russian and Hebrew — to name some of the languages on the soundtrack — is the realization that Jean-Luc Godard is still deeply in love with the powers of cinema, with Sergei Eisenstein and Manoel de Oliveira and Chris Marker and John Ford, all of whom are quoted visually, and he is still mordantly funny as a critic of the conspicuous and dangerous over-consumption that has driven the world economy since World War II.

Is it a great film? It’s sumptuous to look at and great fun, if you don’t mind the feeling that you’ve just stepped into an empty elevator shaft. Is it anti-Semitic? I don’t know. All I can say is that without a lot more French or non-Navajo subtitles, I can’t say for sure.

Maybe that’s the point.

The 48th Annual New York Film Festival is running at Lincoln Center through Oct. 10. For information go to www.filmlinc.com  .

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