Reminding all of us nearly jaded film buffs that there really is so much more still to discover and explore, Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project has been doing vital, admirable work since 2007 to restore and bring attention to movies that otherwise probably wouldn't reach the English language market. An initial set showcasing some of the fruits of this labor is being released by Eureka's Masters of Cinema Series, with additional volumes seemingly to follow. The three films included make up a diverse cross-section of cinema. Joined perhaps primarily by a consistency in quality, these pictures hopefully serve to also tease at the treasures to which we can look forward.
Up first is Dry Summer (Susuz Yaz), a Turkish film directed by Metin Erksan and winner of the Berlin Film Festival's Golden Bear in 1964. The following decades did nothing to bolster its reputation, with the picture getting banned by Turkish authorities and thus going largely unseen. Now, however, we can find out for ourselves what the fuss would have been about almost fifty years ago for this strikingly shot black and white feature dominated by water. Specifically, the story involves a Turkish village where the local stream is controlled by a pair of brothers, one of which insists on making a dam to deprive his neighbors of the water. Dry Summer initially seems to revolve entirely around this issue of the availability of the water but then develops into a story with deeper subjects. Yet, by the end it becomes clear that the water, symbolically or not, really does act as the crux of everything else. Everything of note that occurs, from beginning to end, is somehow tied into the water.
Osman and his brother Hasan own and occupy the land through which the water passes. The older one, Osman, does not want to share the water, which he claims ownership of since it passes through his property. Hasan soon marries Basar, which creates some sense of lusty jealousy in Osman. After one of the neighbors is shot and killed, Osman talks his brother into taking the rap and returns to the farm alongside Basar while Hasan serves the prison sentence. The tragic consequences that ensue are almost inevitable, if still presented in a novel, dramatic way. Such a seemingly simple tale manages to achieve a kind of poetry in its telling. The collision of beauty and ugliness, literally in regards to Osman and Basar and figuratively elsewhere, informs much of the look and feel of the picture.
Bright black and white photography helps to give off the impression of the heat in the village and, as a consequence, the denied relief of the cool water. The baking sun increases the tension. Osman's rigid, stubborn position does nothing to create a calming influence. When Hasan is sent away, and as Osman engineers a plan of manipulation, the film takes on an almost suspenseful quality of constant foreboding. Throughout, though, Erksan skillfully avoids resorting to predictable storytelling. The film remains remarkably fresh in feeling, harboring a mood rarely felt in western cinema. It builds and builds at a deliberate yet involving pace. And even when it doesn't immediately seem to concern water, Dry Summer remains, ostensibly and otherwise, about the liquid flowing through its center.
Turning the page dramatically is the Moroccan documentary Trances (Transes), from 1981. About the musical group Nass El Ghiwane, Trances was directed by Ahmed El Maanouni and became the first project taken on by the World Cinema Project in 2007. Scorsese states in an interview included on the disc that he became familiar with the movie during the editing of The King of Comedy. He would see it play on television and develop a strong fondness for the almost hypnotic rhythms it emits. The film itself seems to unspool freely as a portrait of its subjects as well as a somewhat more oblique capturing of its time and place. You do get a sense, however fleeting, of the struggles of Morocco during this time period. Still, more than anything else, the music, made with traditional instruments, shapes the reaction.
There are elements, too, of this being a concert film, particularly early on when we enter the movie to the band performing in front of a large, live audience. Surrounded by passionate fans, the four members perform a bold, politically-charged song that would seem to stir up any and all who witness it. But as things progress, it becomes clear that Trances is about more than this or any other performance, and that its core is probably closer to capturing something more ambitious and encompassing. That's why Trances is exceptionally difficult to characterize. Simply calling it a "music documentary" seems to omit the film's very conscience. During the course of the picture we learn about the band, including its past, both through the music itself and from the interviews included. We get to know these people, their struggles, and what drives them. The artful way it's all captured is why the film resonates far beyond its edges.
Each of these three films included have their own unique strengths, and there's little flow among them. That said, Trances probably still feels like the outsider against Dry Summer and the set's third film, the Kazakh drama Revenge (Mest). Directed by Ermek Shinarbaev and with a screenplay by Russian-Korean writer Anatoli Kim, the movie may not be immediately recognizable as being Kazakh in origin since its characters are mostly Asian. The primary setting is actually an island located between Japan and Siberia. Its time period varies dramatically, from a prologue which takes place centuries ago to a shifting into the earlier part of the 20th century. There are also neat sections dividing the film. This allows time to skip forward, especially aiding in the creation of the central theme of revenge found within the movie.
It's not the act of revenge which matters here, but the concept, spanning decades and generations. A man even goes so far as to take a much younger wife with the express intention of having a son who can carry out his vengeful wishes. This child, then, is stuck with the burden of having to one day make good on such a plan. It's an enormous pressure, told delicately and with patience by Shinarbaev and Kim. Across the various chapters we see a bubbling sense of carrying out this ultimate act, to the point where it can feel like there's little reason beyond the rigid commitment to doing so. It's a powerful display, where the vengeance angle comes to represent stubbornness more than the catharsis of closure.
As with the other films here, Revenge never fails to be engrossing, though its burn is maybe a bit slower than the others. I like what Kent Jones wrote in his booklet piece, about the picture having to be discovered "one startled viewer at a time" regardless of the circumstances of its distribution. Thankfully, we now all have that opportunity.
This is a Dual Format release containing three DVDs and three more Blu-ray discs from Eureka's Masters of Cinema Series. Originally announced, and thus sometimes still listed as, "Martin Scorsese Presents: World Cinema Foundation Volume One," the release is locked to Region B for the single-layered BDs. (The DVD editions weren't made available for review.)
Dry Summer and Revenge are both presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio while Trances is brought to us in 1.66:1. Dry Summer frequently looks amazing, not at all like it was made roughly forty years ago. The black and white images sparkle and show little to no damage. Detail is excellent. The source used for the restoration was the original 35 mm camera negative. That said, the credits had been lost and were digitally reconstructed in a noticeable almost to the point of distraction way, in the vein of a silent. Trances was shot on 16 mm and therefore exhibits tremendous grain here, if still in just about the best way possible. It looks alive and textured, and has been reproduced quite well here. The restoration used the original negatives. The color transfer of Revenge shows a sort of misty-looking image that nonetheless comes across nicely. It's soaked in atmosphere. There are no issues with sharpness, and grain is still present to pleasing effect.
Audio tracks are presented in LPCM mono on the Blu-rays for the films. Dry Summer is in Turkish, Trances is Arabic and Revenge is Russian. Original sound negatives were used in the restorations. The latter two don't give us much cause for concern. Trances has some limitations but still bursts forth with impressive energy. Revenge is far quieter, more modest, but carries dialogue and ambient sounds cleanly. It's Dry Summer where things go less smoothly, though not through any apparent fault of the digital presentation. Dialogue was dubbed in post-production and not especially skillfully. The result can mar the viewing experience a little. We've become spoiled by shades of digital perfection and this is far from it. It's nothing that can't be gotten over but the effect is jarring from time to time. Optional English subtitles are offered for all films.
Special features from MoC are highlighted by exclusive video introductions by Martin Scorsese and a significant, 80-page book inside the package. The Scorsese intros are all short - just a couple of minutes apiece - and somewhat basic but if you think about them as quick television-style openings from Uncle Marty then they're easy enough to look forward to either before or after the viewing. (And he's been doing these for various releases since the days of VHS so the brevity and surface skimming are pretty typical.)
More substantial, and of great help, are the three essays found in the included book. Phil Coldiron writes about Dry Summer, Bilge Ebiri takes on Trances, and Kent Jones argues for Revenge. These strong pieces of writing prove most useful after seeing the movies. The book is also outfitted with numerous images taken from the films and is an altogether attractive supplement to this fine set.