Home The Washington Diplomat November 2009 Time-Tested Perspective

Time-Tested Perspective


Kurosawa Masterpiece’Rashomon’ Does Justice to Foreign Cinema

By universal acclaim, “Rashomon” (1950) is one of the best films of all time — by one of the best filmmakers of all time, revered Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa (“The Seven Samurai,” “Ran,” “Yojimbo,” “The Hidden Fortress”). Its impact on the history of cinema is profound in many ways. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, truly introducing Japanese cinema and Kurosawa to international audiences. In the United States, its large box office success — unprecedented for a film with subtitles — was accompanied by the 1952 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. The word “Rashomon” has even been absorbed into English-language circles to describe a confusing situation that can be told from varying multiple perspectives.

At Kyoto’s Rashomon Gate, people seek shelter from a rainstorm. One of them, a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), has recently witnessed a shocking crime: the murder of his samurai (Masayuki Mori) and the rape of his wife (Machiko Kyo); the prime suspect is a local bandit (Kurosawa’s regular star Toshirô Mifune). Via flashbacks, four versions of the story are told by the woodcutter, the samurai’s wife, the bandit, and even the deceased samurai’s ghost, summoned by a medium.

Throughout the four versions, though with slight differences in each, Mifune’s bandit remains an impudent, mischievous vagrant — defining a role that would become a trademark throughout Mifune’s illustrious career. Mori plays the samurai in both a positive and a negative light. As the wife, Kyo ranges from being an innocent victim to a scheming femme fatale. It’s not necessarily unsurprising that the stories conflict with each other. What’s startling is that each storyteller claims responsibility for the murder! And the film provides no definitive resolution. The lesson is that there is no absolute truth.

Powerful acting brings to life the characters telling the stories. As is often the case in Kurosawa’s films, the acting is more theatrical than realistic — full of expressiveness and emotions — a style drawn from the silent era. Indeed, despite the use of four different storytellers, dialogue is relatively unimportant compared to the striking camerawork and innovative use of flashbacks.

Rashomon (Rashômon) (Japanese with subtitles; 112 min.) Landmark’s E Street Cinema Opens Fri., Nov. 13 5 out of 5 stars

Painful ‘Antichrist’

Danish provocateur Lars von Trier (“Breaking the Waves,” “The Idiots,” “Dancer in the Dark,” “Dogville”) is back with the controversial horror film “Antichrist,” which made its eagerly anticipated U.S. premiere at the 2009 New York Film Festival. Right off the bat, let’s make it very clear that this film is far from anything close to popcorn entertainment for someone wanting to have a good time at the movies. This is by no means the latest episode of “Friday the 13th.” In “Antichrist,” the two protagonists’ brutal actions are very punishing for each other — as well as for the audience, frankly. One might ask: Why be subjected to the torture? Well, “Antichrist” is a unique artistic experience rather unlike anything ever seen. So it can be rewarding for select adventurous cineastes who complain that nothing new ever comes along.

While “He” (Willem Dafoe) and “She” (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are having sex, their baby meets an untimely death falling out the window. In their grief, they escape to Eden, their isolated cottage in the woods. He, a psychotherapist, decides to take the suffering She goes off her meds so that She can address her issues head-on. Needless to say, that’s a risky move. He subjects her to probing, painful questions. And She goes absolutely berserk. Well, it’s probably safe to say that both are extremely mentally unstable. Without going into graphic details, they hurt each other — a lot.

Von Trier doesn’t shy away from explicitly depicting the physical violence they inflict on each other. Needless to say, the actors have courageous jobs, and they step up to the plate. Gainsbourg won Best Actress at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, where the film was greeted with mixed reactions, to put it mildly. Credit goes to von Trier’s longtime cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Oscar winner for “Slumdog Millionaire”) for his role in creating a very dark vision that’s pretty out of this world. “Antichrist” certainly succeeds as a visceral depiction of madness that’s downright frightening. But again, it’s not a pleasant ride for anyone, let alone the squeamish.

Antichrist (English; 104 min.; scope) Landmark’s E Street Cinema 4 out of 5 stars

‘Maid’ Cleans Up

Chilean writer-director Sebastián Silva’s “The Maid” was a distinctive selection on the slate of New Directors/New Films 2009 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art. At the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, Silva won the Grand Jury Prize (World Cinema – Dramatic) for “The Maid.” Lead actress Catalina Saavedra also took home a Special Jury Prize for her tour-de-force performances as a live-in domestic servant near her psychological and physical breaking point.

After 20 years of working for a Chilean middle-class family, grumpy Racquel (Saavedra) is definitely in charge of the household, getting away with treating her boss Pilar (Claudia Celedón) with disrespect. Racquel imagines herself to be one of the family, but she’s really just a paid servant, epitomized by her eating alone while her employers convene in the dining room. Even after the family celebrates Racquel’s birthday with cake and presents, she returns alone to her permanent station in the kitchen.

Her everyday routine, including going through the motions of cleaning things that don’t really need to be cleaned, is like living in a level of Dante’s Inferno. (Shot on video, the house is shown to be a rather drab environment.) Over time, Racquel has become increasingly isolated, fatigued and physically ill, with migraines and fainting spells. To provide her with relief, Pilar hires additional help, which Racquel considers to be a personal attack. She scares away two different maids before a third one, Lucy (Mariana Loyola), rolls with the punches and sticks around. Lucy introduces new energy and dynamics, changing Racquel’s impending breaking point into a turning point.

For the majority of the film, Racquel’s sullen presence is withdrawn, almost invisible, as if she’s blending into the background of the house like the furniture. Saavedra’s fine performance quietly shows the effects of Racquel’s longtime emotional deterioration. Then, as Lucy enters Racquel’s life, Saavedra demonstrates a remarkable psychological and physical transformation. Racquel suddenly appears happier, even younger — a transition displayed primarily through the skill of Saavedra’s acting rather than changes in makeup, costume, lighting, music or other tricks.

The Maid (“La Nana”) (Spanish with subtitles; 95 min.) Landmark’s E Street Cinema 4 out of 5 stars

About the Author

Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.