The 50 greatest living artists have been chosen because they exalt the human spirit through the creation of elegantly expressive objects and movingly modulated performances.
Lose yourself in these beautiful works and performances.
Each list consists of 10 persons in each of five categories: Dance and Drama; Film; Literature; Music; and Painting, Sculpture, and Related Media.
Within each category, the lists are alphabetical. Each individual’s country and year of birth, as well as primary field of artistic endeavor, are given in parentheses. Note: When the name of an artist’s birth country has changed, we give the name it had in the year of his birth first, with the current name afterwards, in square brackets.
In the performing arts categories (Dance and Drama; Music), not only authors (playwrights, choreographers, composers), but also performers (dancers, actors, singers, instrumentalists) are represented, as well as a few directors and conductors.
Whatever their individual differences, collectively these 50 artists demonstrate that in our day—rumors to the contrary notwithstanding—beauty is not dead.
Greatest Living Film Artists
Note on Film as an Art Form:
Some may find it surprising that we include filmmakers on this list. That is because most American films—even the very best ones—are far removed from the aspirations and the methods of art forms such as dance, poetry, music, and painting.
But just as we can distinguish between art for a mass audience—art whose primary aim is to make money by entertaining as many people as possible—and “pure art” or “high art” in the fields of dance & drama, literature, music, and the visual arts, so too can we draw such a distinction in the domain of film.
Just as there is a vast difference between Tolstoy and Stephen King, or between Beethoven and the Beatles, so too is there an equally vast difference between, say, Yasujiro Ozu and Judd Apatow, or between Ingmar Bergman and Quentin Tarantino. Just compare, for example, Bergman’s sorrowful and sublime study of revenge, The Virgin Spring (1960), with any of Tarantino’s vulgar and self-regarding riffs on the same subject (e.g., The Hateful Eight ).
This does not mean that art films must be boring. On the contrary, successful art is never boring—it is always fascinating to contemplate the creations of truly great artists.
But it does mean that, just as it takes some education of one’s taste and sensibility to appreciate classical ballet or opera or painting, so too must one be willing to make an effort, if one wishes to get the most out of film as an art form.
Once the effort is made, the pleasure to be derived from art films is much greater than that from ordinary Hollywood fare—and there is no going back.
Another issue is accessibility. Most of the films listed below are readily accessible via DVD rental (Netflix) or one of the online streaming services. But several are not.
Some of the latter may be purchased from Amazon.com. However, anyone with a serious interest in art films will probably want to take two additional steps, sooner or later:
1) Purchase a membership with Filmstruck.com, which currently offers the extensive Criterion collection of foreign and art films. With a Filmstruck account, the complete Criterion Collection is accessible through online streaming via Roku and similar devices; and
2) Purchase a “region-free” DVD player capable of playing DVDs imported from the UK, Europe, Asia, or anywhere. Many of the discs you will want to buy through Amazon.com (or Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.fr) will fall into this category.
If you have a “Region 1” (North America) DVD player only, then be sure to check a DVD’s “region” before you buy it. But having a “region-free” DVD player opens up the whole world to you. And don’t be put off at the prospect of buying, for example, a French-made DVD (say, of a film by Krzysztof Zanussi [see below]) on Amazon.fr. Just check to make sure it has English subtitles. Most of them do.
Note: All of the individuals listed in this section are film directors.
1Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Below is the official trailer for Winter Sleep.
We hesitated about including Turkey’s premier director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, on this list. While we have not had the opportunity to see his very earliest films (The Village , May Blues ), there is no doubt that the first several films which brought Ceylan to international attention (Distant , Climates , and Three Monkeys ) showed terrific promise—exquisite technical talent, a highly refined aesthetic sensibility, and vast ambition married to probing psychological acuity and deeply humane sympathy. These films are all slow and hard to follow, but one feels one is in the hands of a budding master.
However, his last-film-but-one, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011), appeared to us to tip over from gravity into ponderousness, and from mystery into inscrutability. Perhaps one needed to know more about Turkey, its people, and their customs to truly “get” the picture?
However that may be, Winter Sleep (2014) laid our doubts to rest. This film—which has apparently been given a too-literal English title; the original Turkish just means “hibernation”—is a true masterpiece. It is a visually exquisite spectacle of breathtaking beauty organically wedded to an intensely moving human narrative of probing psychological depth.
Watching the film, one is jolted at regular intervals by the expressiveness of the dialogue, the psychological penetration of the characterizations, the vivid sense of reality in the depiction of situations. Just when it seems the film cannot dig any deeper into the human condition, we take still another plunge, pealing back yet another layer, leading the viewer paradoxically ever upward, to still another peak of aesthetic pleasure.
The film is loosely based on Chekhov’s story, “The Wife,” and one of its delights is the sense of the solace that world culture brings to his anti-hero, Aydin, in his self-imposed physical and spiritual exile in the vastness of the Anatolian plateau in winter. He is living in one of the thousands of Cappadocian caves, hideaways carved into volcanic tuff by ancient peoples and inhabited by early Christians. It is within this seeming wasteland that Aydin makes for himself a high-culture retreat from the outer world.
There he sits in splendid isolation amid his books, paintings, and records (the mournful Andantino from Schubert’s late Piano Sonata in A Major [D. 959] plays throughout the film, at one point seemingly diagetically). As a retired actor, Aydin has a collection of masks that represent the world’s great theatrical traditions. Not least, there is a laptop, which represents his own so-far futile efforts to write a History of Turkish Theater. But this isolation, however splendid, is not just physical—it is also spiritual. What is worse, he not only endures it himself, he also imposes it on those around him, including his estranged wife, Nihal, his divorced sister, and a variety of retainers and servants.
For, Aydin is a disappointed man, someone who once harbored the greatest ambitions and inspired the highest hopes in others, and is now reduced to writing frothy color pieces for the local newspaper. One way to look at the movie’s subject matter is the struggle to go on living in face of such devastating disappointment.
There is no pat resolution to Winter Sleep, but there is a hint of hope. In a closing voice-over narration, we learn that Aydin has attained new self-awareness, and appears intent on making amends to Nihal—and also on becoming serious at last about employing his own remaining time on earth more productively. His long hibernation seems perhaps to be over.
Below is one of the most beautiful of the many lovely passages from The Long Day Closes. The song is “Blow the Wind Southerly,” performed by the incomparable British contralto, Kathleen Ferrier.
Terence Davies was born in Liverpool, into a working-class Catholic family. He was the youngest of 10 children.
Davies left school early and worked as a shipping clerk for more than a decade, before enrolling in the Coventry Drama School. He made his first short film, Children, in 1976, at the relatively late age of 31. Beautifully shot in black and white,Children is a somber, elegiac study of Davies’s own difficult childhood.
His next two films, Madonna and Child (1980) and Death and Transfiguration (1983), follow the central character of Children though youth and manhood, and into old age and death. The three films together are referred to as the Terence Davies Trilogy.
Along with Peter Greenaway, Davies is one of the few formalists working in the English-language cinema. His most characteristic films do not tell stories; they evoke feelings by depicting characters in representative situations. As time has gone by, the situations in Davies’s films have become increasingly abstract—and their overall aesthetic effect more and more powerful.
His first full-length feature was Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988). Whereas the major themes of the Terence Davies Trilogy were the mother/son relationship and the difficulty involved in being accepted by others and fitting in to society (Davies is gay), in his first major feature film—which was also his first color film—the thematic focus was on the father. Brilliantly embodied by the distinguished British actor Peter Postlethwaite, the father in DVSL is drunken, brutal, sometimes affectionate, always unpredictable—and therefore terrifying.
Distant Voices, Still Lives is an unquestionably brilliant depiction of a certain type of family dysfunction—the patriarchal tyrant. Tonally, it is also relentlessly bleak and pessimistic. DVSL is considered by many to be Davies’s best film, but it could be argued that, from a purely aesthetic point of view, it in fact represents a departure from the main line of Davies’s work—from the Trilogy to his next and (most would say) greatest cinematic achievement, The Long Day Closes (1992)—which acknowledges suffering, certainly, but also strives toward transcendence.
The Long Day Closes is a small miracle of a film; it should not work, but somehow it does. With the barest hint of a narrative thread, it paints a kaleidoscopic and convincing picture of the inner life of a young boy—another Davies stand-in—in provincial England during the post-war period.
In it, Davies slowly and meticulously assembles a collage of striking images and emotionally resonant sounds (the film includes many beautifully rendered popular songs of the period), to create an overwhelmingly powerful representation of the sorrow, yes, but also the sublimity of an ordinary human life that is perhaps unique in the history of the cinema.
None of Davies’s later films ever quite lived up to the standard set by The Long Day Closes. He made several more mainstream commercial films, before returning to his characteristic mature style for an arresting documentary, Of Time and the City (2011).
Of his commercial ventures, however, The House of Mirth (2000), based on the Edith Wharton novel, and The Deep Blue Sea (2011), based on the Terence Rattigan play, are well worth watching. The latter film, especially, is deeply affecting and contains many fine sequences reminiscent of Davies’s best work.
In 2015, Davies released Sunset Song, a meditation on the beauty, solitude, and occasional brutality of the lives of Scottish tenant farmers in the early twentieth century. Based on the classic novel of the same name published in 1932 by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, the story is told—in stream of consciousness (partly in Scots dialect) and set against the backdrop of the First World War—from the viewpoint of a young girl named Chris Guthrie. Interestingly, it has a strong feminist undercurrent, which is a bit of a new departure for Davies, all of whose previous films, while certainly suffused with a gay sensibility, are nevertheless studiously apolitical, in the sense of expressing sorrow at the human condition as opposed to anger at society.
Like all of Davies’s best work, Sunset Song is strongly visual—almost silent, in places. However, here the marriage between the director’s real interests—Gesamtkunstwerk and sensuality—and the necessary compromises forced upon him by the exigencies of conventional story-telling result in an ill-matched and uneasy alliance. Sunset Song belongs among the middle tier of Davies’s more commercial endeavors, one or two rungs below The Deep Blue Sea.
Davies’s most recent film is A Quiet Passion (2016), a study of the life of Emily Dickinson. It is the director’s most ambitious attempt to date to meld the sublime lyricism of his best early work with the conventional narrative demands of the commercial cinema. There are many gorgeous passages strewn like jewels throughout the narrative thread of the film, which as a whole leaves an indelible impression of the prickly genius that was the poet of Amherst. However, A Quiet Passion is not a perfect film in the way that The Long Day Closes very nearly is. Far from it. The narrative segments are often marred by a heavy-handed script and awkward acting. But somehow, it all works, more or less. The lyrical passages cause one to forgive the stiffness of the surrounding narrative, while the conventional narrative makes the lyricism more palatable for the uninitiated. It is a good film for anyone who is curious about Davies to begin with, if he or she does not feel ready to tackle the exquisite but unrelentingly austere early works of this great cinematic auteur.
Below is a video comprising brief clips from all three of Erice’s feature films, as well as one or two of his shorts.
Victor Erice is at once a “filmmaker’s filmmaker”—as rigorous, as dedicated to his unique vision, as uncompromising as they come—and also a quite approachable film artist who offers the viewer the full range of sensual delights which, among all the fine arts, only the cinema can provide: total immersion in the world as delivered up to us by our five senses.
Through a judicious construction out of the primary visual and aural elements of film, which in turn conjure up the smell, the taste, and the texture of everyday life, Erice achieves a piercingly nostalgic, yet eminently realistic, evocation of lived experience—especially that of the child.
Erice has made numerous short films over a career that has spanned more than 40 years; however, his reputation rests on his three feature-length films (of which one, The Quince Tree Sun, is a documentary). But though few in number, his feature films are all quite remarkable, and one of them—The Spirit of the Beehive—belongs (in our humble opinion) on any top-50 list of the best films of all time.
There would be little point in giving detailed accounts of the plots of these films, whose narrative elements are only the underlying framework for reproducing in the consciousness of the audience the lived experience, memories, and emotions of the characters so splendidly evoked by the unique aesthetic means of the cinema. For this reason, we will give only a bare-bones description of each of the three films.
The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) is centered on the consciousness of a six-year-old girl, Ana, living with an older sister in a delapidated mansion, with estranged parents. The film is set in the year 1940, in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. The father spends his days tending his beehives, as his estate crumbles around him. His wife—the girls’ mother—is much younger, beautiful, and obviously bored and depressed. She seems to be writing surreptitious letters—perhaps to a lover? But everything is filtered through the consciousness of Ana. Although we, the audience, are of course in a better position than Ana is to make inferences from the overheard snatches of conversation, we too are in a constant state of bewilderment as to the exact significance of the many half-hidden events occurring around us. The brilliant “macguffin” that drives the film forward—infusing it with animation, preventing stasis—is Ana’s obsession with the 1931 James Whale classic, Frankenstein, which is shown one day in their village by a traveling projectionist. Out of such simple elements as these, Erice creates a consummate work of art that penetrates the soul of the viewer, and will not soon be forgotten.
In 1983, Erice released his second feature, The South. A 95-minute film originally conceived to be twice as long, The South is essentially one panel of a diptych, the second panel of which was never made due to financial difficulties. In many ways, The South is a reprise of the themes of The Spirit of the Beehive, though the aesthetic approach and the emotional impact are rather different. The child at its center grows from girlhood to adolescence over the course of the film. The setting this time around is a small town in the north of Spain (as opposed to an isolated country estate), where the father works as a doctor. The family are not so reclusive this time; the girl goes to school, takes dance lessons, seems to live a normal life. Nevertheless, once again, we see and hear everything through her consciousness, and we are often at a loss, just as she is. The macguffin here is the girl’s nostalgic picture of her family’s former life in the south of Spain, which she herself has never visited, but which becomes for her a mysterious paradise. The second half of the film was supposed to show her disillusionment when she actually travels to the south. But even in its mutilated state—and setting aside the thematic similarities with Erice’s first film—The South remains a masterly achievement in its own right.
Erice’s last feature-length film was The Quince Tree Sun (1992). It is a documentary about the effort of the Spanish artist Antonio López García (see below, under the Painting and Sculpture category) to paint a sunrise through a quince tree growing in his own garden. Erice uses many of the elements of narrative film to create a sense of suspense about the outcome of each of the myriad subtasks which make up such a project. The personalities of the artist and the filmmaker, as well as the latter’s wife, are sketched in. But this is fundamentally a film about the creative process itself—the mental and manual task of creating a spiritual object out of canvas and pigments. As such, it can best be compared to Jacques Rivette’s La belle noiseuse (1991). Perhaps it is a matter of taste only, but it seems to us that The Quince Tree Sun is clearly the superior work, though it is hard to say precisely why. Perhaps it is the greater purity of Erice’s film, which abandons nearly all overtly narrative elements, apart from the drama inherent in the creation of the work of art itself. But we think the difference between the two films goes beyond that. For us, what particularly distinguishes Erice’s film in relation to Rivette’s is a whole, implicit philosophy of life. What Erice has as an artist that Rivette lacks, above all else, is a sense of the religious meaning of art, a sense of the humility of the artist as he confronts things greater than himself—in short, a sense of spiritual pudeur.
Below is the official trailer for A Separation.
Asghar Farhadi is perhaps the least “painterly” of the filmmakers on our list. His films are elegant in the sense that no scene—and scarcely a word or even a gesture within a scene—is wasted. But most of them are shot in the ordinary, if not drab, surroundings of unpretentious, middle- and lower-class people living in big cities (usually Teheran or Paris). One of his films (About Elly) is set at the seaside, but the shots of the sea are bleak, even menacing, rather than majestic or beautiful.
Why, then, in our opinion is Farhadi a must-have for this list?
Because the perception of beauty is not restricted to our senses alone. There is such a thing as moral beauty—beauty of character—that we perceive with the mind and the heart. And we are not talking about moral perfection, but the glimpses of it that ordinary people take in out of the corner of their eye as they go about the business of their daily lives. We are not talking about sainthood, but about the quotidian striving of harried but decent people to be and to treat each other a little bit better. This moral striving in the midst of our inescapable mediocrity is Farhadi’s great subject—a subject through which beauty shines in every frame of his films.
Farhadi, who got his start working on a popular Iranian TV series, has released seven feature films to date. The first two—Dancing in the Dust (2003) and Beautiful City (2004)—we have not had a chance to see, and will not comment upon.
The next two—Fireworks Wednesday (2006) and About Elly (2009)—seem to us apprentice works. The realistic technique and meticulous attention to the minutiae of everyday life which will characterize Farhadi’s three later masterworks—A Separation (2011), The Past (2013), and The Salesman (2016)—are already in evidence in Fireworks Wednesday. However, the development of these techniques is still under development in the earlier film. Whereas the later films always feel emotionally transparent and utterly convincing, even to a non-Iranian viewer (despite the occasional murkiness of plot details), Fireworks Wednesday—which at its most basic level is about whether a wife’s poisonous jealousy is justified—feels tentative and in places even opaque, eliciting feelings in the foreign viewer of something “lost in translation.”
About Elly is an entirely new departure for Farhadi—it is clearly an experiment, and one cannot say it is a happy one. It abandons strict realism for portentousness and symbolism—resembling nothing so much as Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 L’Avventura, transplanted to the shore of the Caspian Sea. It is not a terrible film—if you like that sort of thing—but it is very far in spirit from Farhadi’s best work.
Then, in 2011, Farhadi’s efforts gelled into a new kind of cinema that is both brilliantly expressive of universal human nature and at the same time revelatory of the director’s own personal vision deeply colored by his experience as an Iranian. We know of no other film quite like A Separation (which clearly remains his masterpiece), though there are hundreds if not thousands of films which aspire in vain to do what Farhadi actually accomplishes in this film—namely, paint an authentic picture of a slice of human life through the accumulation of telling detail, which tacitly opens out onto vast spiritual vistas of the meaning of life and man’s place in the cosmos.
The plot of A Separation is again extremely simple. A couple are separated while going through the process of obtaining a divorce. Farhadi recounts these everyday events objectively, one might almost say “clinically,” only with no trace of the cynicism and the ideological tendentiousness that that term has come to suggest. Rather, his vision always tends towards the tragic: Human beings must suffer because this is the way they are. If only they were better, they would suffer less. But they are what they are. And even as they are, they are infinitely valuable individual souls. Something like this attitude towards human existence seems to be implicit in every frame of A Separation.
The next film, The Past, which came out two years later, confirmed that A Separation was no flash in the pan. In several ways, The Past is an even more ambitious film, dealing with more characters, more plot elements, and a greater range of emotions. The central situation concerns an Iranian couple who had been living in France together for some time before the film begins. The husband had returned to Iran some years earlier, and in the present of the film has come back to Paris at the wife’s request, although only to complete divorce proceedings so she can remarry. There are various complications relating to the couple’s own history, as well as that of the wife’s fiancé. Various hints of a reconciliation between the main couple are dangled before us, only to be frustrated by the weight of the characters’ own past decisions. The title of the film clearly alludes to the idea that through our actions we build our fate brick by brick, as it were, until eventually it becomes determined.
Put baldly like that, the film might well sound schematic. However, it is anything but that. Here, Farhadi puts the sympathetic portrayal of densely lived life that he pioneered with A Separation to similar effect, while also taking a look at various other themes, such as Iranian emigrants, the relations among different ethnic groups (the wife’s fiancé is Arab, not Persian), and the effects of broken families on children. The Past is a great achievement in its own right, but somehow the larger number of characters and themes dilutes the power of the Farhadi’s distinctive techniques. If A Separation remains the more powerful film, it is because it is a more distilled, a purer application of those techniques.
The Salesman (2016) continues to deploy Farhadi’s trademark formal techniques, while expanding their deployment to new substantive themes in characteristically subtle and thought-provoking ways. The main subject matter of the film appears to be a classic Western “liberal” critique of sexually oppressive Iranian society, which imbues a woman with a sense of shame at having been sexually assaulted, leading her to refuse to notify the authorities, and to fall into a deep depression. But little by little, the woman’s interpretation of events is called into question, and the focus of the film gradually shifts from the ambiguous attack to her seemingly misplaced anger against her husband, and the latter’s desperate efforts to redeem his own sense of honor in an increasingly murky situation.
Like all of Farhadi’s films, The Salesman leads the viewer far beyond the clichés of liberal or any other ideology into the complexities and ambiguities of actual human life. The husband and wife are actors who are staging a production of Arthur Miller’s 1949 Death of a Salesman, and Farhadi invites the viewer to identify the husband with the role he is playing—that of Willy Loman. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that its main theme is the powerlessness and humiliation of the husband, which cause him to lash out irrationally, bringing about tragic consequences for everyone. The brilliant inclusion of the Death of a Salesman theme makes it impossible for a Western audience to easily pigeonhole the film as being principally about the backwardness of Iranian society. We who grew up with Willy Loman, thinking of him as a next-door neighbor, cannot so easily look down on Iranian society as from some pinnacle of superiority.
Below is a clip from Le Pont des Arts. The song is Monteverdi’s “Lamento della Ninfa,” from his Eighth Book of Madrigals (1638).
Eugène Green was born (sans the accent grave) in New York City, but has spent his entire career as an artist and filmmaker in France. To all intents and purposes, he is a French filmmaker, and, indeed, his career—and his films—are unthinkable as products of the American film ecology.
Green began his career as an actor and theater director, specializing in the great French classics (Pierre Corneille, Jean Racine), as well as French Baroque opera (Jean-Philippe Rameau). He has also written a number of plays, novels, and essays collections. However, it is undoubtedly his remarkable films for which he is deservedly best known.
Green made his first film, Toutes les nuits, [All the Nights] in 2001—at the age of 54! As a result, he has completed only six feature-length films and a handful of shorts to date. But all of them bear Green’s unique authorial stamp, and several of them qualify as works of near-genius.
The subject matter of Toutes le nuits is fairly commonplace—childhood friends group up, are confronted with the responsibilities of adulthood, experience disillusionment and loss, and ultimately go their separate ways. But the way in which these themes are handled is highly original.
From a technical point of view, Green is unlike anyone else working in film today, with the possible exception of the American indie director Dan Sallitt (All the Ships at Sea, 2004). Both filmmakers are evidently influenced by the great French Robert Bresson, and Green explicitly acknowledges his indebtedness to the master. (It is perhaps worth mentioning that Bresson only hit his stride as a filmmaker in the decade of his fifties, as well.)
In any case, Green employs distancing effects pioneered by Bresson, especially an affectless style of acting. The great French director famously called his actors “models,” and required them to recite their lines without vocal or facial expression. The resulting “objectification” of the dramatic situations paradoxically heightens the audience’s emotional response. For the most part, Green follows suit.
It is not that we identify all the more strongly with the characters thus distanced from us. That would be paradoxical indeed! Rather, the stylization allows us to participate in a more universal emotion—the feeling of being vouchsafed a glimpse into the truth—and the tears, the lacrimae rerum—at the heart of things.
Like Bresson, Green extends his stylization to photography, as well, often centering his images on individuals’ hands or feet, instead of their torsos or heads. Unlike Bresson, Green’s alienating techniques are in service to a more contemporary and arguably a more humane (or, at any rate, a less relentlessly bleak) vision. One of Green’s dominant themes—especially in his later work—is the metaphysical reality of beauty and the redemptive power of art.
Green’s second film, Le monde vivant [The Living World] (2003), was no doubt intended as a bit of a lark. A fairy tale in contemporary dress, it is an ill-starred marriage between Bressonian gravity and whimsy à la Jacques Demy (as in La peau d’âne, 1970). Mercifully, there is no singing. The film occupies a place in Green’s oeuvre similar to that of Lancelot du Lac (1974) in Bresson’s: a bold experiment in artifice that simply does not pan out.
In 2004, Green finally hit his stride with his third feature, Le Pont des Arts. The film, named for the venerable foot-bridge over the Seine in Paris, is a ravishing concoction of ecstatic beauty and ineffable sadness. It is utterly unlike anything anyone else has ever done. It is undoubtedly Green’s masterpiece.
A bare outline of the plot—the tragic suicide of a brilliantly gifted but emotionally fragile young singer delivers a young flâneur unknown to her from his narcissistic despair—does not sound promising. But Green’s sui generis directing techniques—together with the breathtakingly beautiful music of Claudio Monteverdi—transform the pedestrian plot into an intense and unforgettable viewing experience.
Green’s fourth feature film, La religieuse portugaise [The Portuguese Nun] (2009), is another exercise in making vivid the way in which the experience of beauty can put human beings in touch with the transcendent in our post-Christian age, filling lives otherwise bereft of meaning with purpose, making the inevitable pain of living endurable. Here, the Portuguese song style known as fado plays the transformative role that the Baroque madrigal played in Le Pont des Arts. In addition, the stunningly gorgeous city of Lisbon is almost a leading character in the film. If the overall impact of La religieuse portugaise is somewhat less than that of Le Pont des Arts, it may simply be because even getting struck by lightning becomes humdrum after a while!
La Sapienza (2014) is perhaps Green’s most gorgeous and, in some ways, his most accomplished film (Le Pont des Arts has less of a professional sheen). It is also probably his most accessible one.
The film takes its name from the Roman church, Sant-Ivo alla Sapienza, completed by Francesco Borromini in 1660. The church is often referred to colloquially simply as “La Sapienza” (hence the title of the film—the word sapienza, of course, meaning “wisdom”). La Sapienza is usually considered to be one of the principal masterpieces of Baroque architecture and, as such, one of the greatest treasures of Western civilization. Green uses Baroque Roman architecture in this film the way he uses fado and the madrigal in his two previous outings.
This time, the redemption occurs in the souls of a bland young French professional couple. He is a professor of architecture; she is a social worker. The film works on several different levels, one of which is as a satire of the bien-pensant, European jet-setting liberal class (analogous to the satire of the corrupt, government-run, French art establishment in Le Pont des Arts). We suspect viewers will find the emotional impact of to be somewhat muted, perhaps because the couple at its center is harder to sympathize with than the leading characters of Green’s two previous films. But La Sapienza is still a marvelous film—head and shoulders above anything being produced on this side of the Atlantic, with precious few exceptions.
Green’s sixth and most-recent feature-length effort, Le fils de Joseph [The Son of Joseph] (2016), is something of a new departure for Green. In it, he takes the formula that has marked his work as a mature film artist over the course of his preceding three films—minimal narrative development and a heavy emphasis on artistic performances within his films—and inverts the order of importance of the elements. Now, it is the narrative thread that is front and center, occasionally punctuated by artistic interludes involving the Louvre, as well as various churches, public gardens, and other sumptuous public spaces around Paris. As to the plot, it would be a mistake to take the biblical parallels too seriously—the director’s intention here is clearly playful, though respectful. And yet, the allegorical element, exiguous as it is, does somehow add resonance to the plot—without it, the film would not pack quite the emotional punch that it does at the end.
All in all, Le fils de Jospeh is probably Green’s most assured, and certainly his most accessible, film to date. It is, moreover, perhaps his most purely Bressonian film (compare it, for example, to L’Argent ). Indeed, we feel sure it is a film that the master himself would have been proud to make.
The video below is a montage of brief clips from many of the films of Kore-eda.
In 1995, Hirokazu Kore-eda made a dazzling debut as a feature-length fiction filmmaker. With a background in advertising, he had previously done several short features and documentaries for Japanese television. But with Maborosi [Phantom], he stormed onto the stage of international cinema, positioning himself as perhaps the sole contemporary heir of the Great Tradition of serious, artistically ambitious, humanistic filmmaking in Japan—as someone fit to be mentioned in the same breath with the likes of Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, or Akira Kurosawa.
Maborosi is a tour-de-force of mood evocation—specifically, the mood of loss, grief, and mourning.
Kore-eda chose not to follow up the stunning Maborosi with any other films of a comparable aesthetic rigor. In fact, his career has been marked by a decided eclecticism. Nevertheless, as he has explored various styles, he has never been less than original, even path-breaking, in his varied approaches.
The two main elements that have united all of Kore-eda’s highly varied work are an exacting standard of technical proficiency and a deeply felt humanism. And it is precisely in this combination of abiding qualities that his work is most justly seen as standing in the great tradition of Ozu, Mizoguchi, and Kurosawa, even though each of those earlier masters had a readily recognizable style of his own. For Kore-eda, at least, the lack of a signature style has simply not been a decisive factor.
The director’s second feature is the quietly humorous and deeply moving After Life (1998). The original Japanese title—Wandafuru Raifu—alludes, of course, to the superb (if overexposed) Frank Capra film, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)—a fact which gives already gives some idea of the gently nostalgic tone of the Japanese film. The plot is a variant on the limbo, or waiting-room-to-the-afterlife, films of which Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1943) is the prototype. In this case, the recently deceased must review old VHS tapes of their lives complied by the slightly seedy divine bureaucracy, selecting the one scene they want to relive for the rest of eternity. It doesn’t sound like it should work, but somehow it does. The film is exquisite and very much in keeping with the Japanese aesthetic of mono no aware—the awareness of the beauty in the fleetingness of all things.
There is not space here to describe all of Kore-eda’s dozen or so feature films in detail. Therefore, we will concentrate on two of his later films (including one undoubted masterpiece), and end up with a brief consideration of his “family” films.
The undoubted masterpiece (the third one, after Maborosi and After Life) is Still Walking (2008). The title of the film alludes to a verse from a pop song that figures in the plot, but of course at the same time speaks to human endurance. The plot is as simple as can be: grown children arrive at their parents’ seaside home to celebrate an annual ritual of remembrance for a brother who drowned while saving the life of a neighbor boy. But the plot is of little consequence. All the significance in the film accrues through the accumulation of the details of daily life—especially women’s life. The mother and daughter-in-law spend most of their time onscreen engaged in the immemorial round of food preparation—shopping, cooking, serving, and cleaning up—which we are given to understand is the fundamental texture of their lives, within which they chat and bicker and reminisce and simply enjoy life and each other’s company. The men have their own concerns, which are depicted with sympathy and precision, as well, but the film belongs to the women. Nothing much happens—except life itself. And a big part of the life of these people is the appreciation of beauty in all its simplest manifestations—the waves on the beach, the elegance of the stones in a cemetery, mulberry blossoms, a moth in a candlelit room. Still Walking is not only a film in the grand Japanese tradition; it is a film that would have fit comfortably in the oeuvre of Ozu himself.
Air Doll (2009) is another “high-concept” film, like After Life. That is, it is constructed on the basis of a single, fantastic premise—in this case, the notion of a life-sized, inflatable, sex toy that comes to life. Once again, it does not sound like a promising idea, to put it mildly; however, once you get past the “yuck” factor, the director’s faultlessly tasteful execution of his idea wins you over. If anything, the film risks falling into the opposite trap from pornography, namely, sentimentality. But while it totters in places, it never quite falls, in our opinion. In the end, we are left with a winsome and thoughtful little fable about the relationship between lust and love, the body and the spirit.
Kore-eda’s most recent film to be released in the West is Our Little Sister (2015). It is another study of family dynamics with a central focus on a child. Together with I Wish and Like Father, Like Son, it forms something of the third panel of a triptych, and is suffused with the same subdued, ruefully amused, and quietly emotional tone and cadence that are hallmarks of what must be considered the director’s “late style.” This time out, the emphasis lies on the working out of a sometimes-difficult modus vivendi among half-sisters raised by different parents. It is another reflection upon parents’ influence on their children for ill and for good, only carried out at one remove—as opposed to a direct meditation upon the parent-child relationship, as in the two previous panels. Our Little Sister is a fine small film which, however, does not add a great deal to the oeuvre as a whole.
In 2016, Kore-eda released a new film entitled After the Storm, but we have not yet had a chance to see it, and so will not comment on it here.
Below is a 2012 interview with Lonergan, which includes some brief clips from Margaret.
Kenneth Lonergan is a fairly prolific playwright and screenwriter for other people’s films, but he has only three directing credits to his name, You Can Count on Me(2000), Margaret (2011), and Manchester-by-the-Sea (2016).
So, why is he on our list of the 10 greatest living film directors?
Because Margaret is quite simply a masterpiece—one of the best films (from the point of view of art) ever made by an American, and among the best films made by anyone during the past 30 years.
Lonergan was born in the Bronx, to an Irish father and a Jewish mother. He began writing plays while still an undergraduate at New York University.
He earned his keep for a while writing speeches for government agencies and scripts for television commercials. His first play (This is Our Youth) was produced in 1996. His most recent play, The Starry Messenger, premiered Off-Broadway in 2009.
In 2000, Lonergan directed his first film. You Can Count on Me is a low-key but ultimately moving domestic drama about the difficulty many young people have in finding their footing in life, and the pain experienced by a brother and sister who must finally go their separate ways.
You Can Count on Me is brilliantly written by Lonergan and memorably acted by Laura Linney (as a bank officer and single-mother) and Mark Ruffalo (as her ne’er-do-well, loner brother). The film racked up numerous awards, and though essentially a chamber piece, marked Lonergan as a budding cinematic talent to keep an eye on.
Unfortunately, those keeping an eye on him had to wait 11 years to see his next film.
There is a long and convoluted history, complete with multiple lawsuits, behind this misfortune. Essentially, the vision of the director clashed with that of his producers, who demanded cuts he felt were unacceptable. As a result, the film sat on the shelf for five years, before finally appearing in 2011.
But Margaret was well worth waiting for. It is unlike any film made in America for a very long time: a nonlinear, kaleidoscopic style of storytelling put at the service—not of trendy cynicism or hip knowingness—but a stern moral vision of the universe as a place in which good and evil hold sway and the way we live our lives profoundly matters.
We won’t give away the plot here. Suffice it to say that there is no character in the film named “Margaret” (the central character, acted brilliantly by Anna Paquin, is named “Lisa”).
Rather, the film takes its title from the magnificent poem “Spring and Fall” (1880), by the great English poet and Jesuit priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins. A quick reading of the poem will give you a good sense of the major theme of the film—they way in which we project our own fears and moral failings onto others.
If at all possible, be sure to watch the 186-minute, “extended-cut” version of Margeret (as opposed to the 150-minute theatrical release version). The half hour that was hacked out of Lonergan’s original cut by the producers makes the film significantly more difficult to follow. (Both versions are available on DVD.)
With the missing footage restored, Margaret snaps together as neatly as a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle—and the resulting tableau of a microcosm of humanity on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in which we see reflected the human condition writ large, is simply astonishing. Margaret is a rare film that truly inspires the Aristotelian feelings of pity and terror.
Lonergan’s latest film, Manchester-be-the-Sea, was released in 2016, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. Casey Affleck won the Oscar for Best Actor for his highly nuanced portrayal of a man whose surface calm barely keeps his inner turmoil in check. Manchester by the Sea is painterly in a way that Lonergan’s two previous films are not. In its dramatic arc and the feeling of place and character it evokes, the film harks back to You Can Count on Me. All in all, Manchester by the Sea is silver-medal Lonergan—Margaret remains by miles his masterpiece. But even second-rank Lonergan is more artistically ambitious, more morally serious, and more cinematically accomplished than almost anything else coming out of Hollywood these days.
The video below contains a brief excerpt from Mother and Son.
Aleksandr Sokurov has made nearly 50 films over the past 40 years, so there is no question of our being able to give his work the comprehensive attention it deserves here. A complete filmography of Aleksandr Sokurov may be found on Sokurov’s personal website. However, that is not quite as great a handicap as it might seem, for Sokurov’s appearance on this list is based on a relatively small number of his films which in our opinion attain the level of masterpieces.
It is not so much that Sokurov’s work is uneven, exactly, as that it is highly varied. It falls into several quite distinct genres—some of which Sokurov himself invented!—but some of the genres are more successful than others.
First, there are the straight documentaries (originally shown as TV miniseries), such as, for example, Spiritual Voices (1995) and Confession (1998). These explore the life of Russian soldiers and sailors, respectively, at great length (the films run more than five and four hours, respectively) in something close to real time, in the style of Frederick Wiseman. Both of these films contain breathtaking passages, but there is no getting around the fact that they become trying to sit through—perhaps because we (Americans) lack the intimate background knowledge that we bring to the films of Wiseman. Such knowledge may be a necessary prerequisite for full sympathetic identification with the individuals in these films—an identification that must be capable of being sustained over four or five hours of scrutiny of the banalities of everyday existence within an institution like the Russian army or navy.
Then, there are the relatively straightforward documentaries devoted to prominent Russian artists, containing interviews, still photographs, readings from letters, and other familiar documentary-style material. In this category would fall such outstanding works as Sonata for Viola (1981), about the great composer Dmitri Shostakovich; Moscow Elegy (1988), concerning Sokurov’s own mentor, the celebrated filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky; Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn (1998), which consists of taped conversations between Sokurov and the Nobel Prize–winning author, whom many Russians considered to be the conscience of their country, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; and Elegy of Life (2006), about the distinguished cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich. These documentaries are quite engaging and, especially for those already interested in their subject, are not to be missed.
Next, there are the works that conform more closely to ordinary feature-film expectations, often dealing with either literary or historical material. Included in this category would be such films as Save and Protect (1989), loosely based on Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 novel, Madame Bovary; Stone (1992), inspired by the works of Anton Chekhov; and Whispering Pages (1993), inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1866 Crime and Punishment. The films are often beautiful to look at, but quite idiosyncratic, not to say confusing, in narrative style. They are noteworthy mainly for Sokurov’s abiding interest in nineteenth-century literature.
Perhaps Sokurov’s most controversial work is his “tetralogy of power,” consisting of a series of four character studies of tyrannical personalities: Moloch (1999), dealing with Adolf Hitler; Taurus (2000), about Vladimir Ilyich Lenin; The Sun (2004), which concerns the Japanese Emperor Hirohito; and Faust (2011), based on the protagonist of Goethe’s 1832 epic poem of the same name, whose overweening pride and trafficking with the Devil Sokurov sees at work in the psyches of the three historical figures. It must be said that on the whole these four films are failures. They are uncharacteristically drab and discouraging, pleasing neither to the eye nor to the spirit. But one thing Sokurov cannot be faulted for is lack of ambition. For him, art is experimental or it is nothing. It is of the essence of true art to strive for originality, to test the boundaries of what has gone before, and it is in the nature of experiments that they cannot all be successful.
Then, there is a small miscellaneous group of films, which are somewhat more conventional stylistically. These would include the almost unbearably bleak The Second Circle (1990), about a son battling the Soviet bureaucracy to give his father a proper burial; the remarkably sunny Father and Son (2003), tightly focused on the relationship between a father and his son who will be leaving soon to do his military service, which is surely one of the most sublime paeans to paternal and filial love ever put on celluloid; and the wrenching Alexandra (2007), about a mother searching for her soldier son in the hell of the war in Chechnya. These are all extremely well-crafted, if still unconventional, films, which take the viewer on a roller coaster ride of emotion.
Two more of Sokurov’s best-known films are completely sui generis, one-off experiments, which are entirely successful. They are both real tours de force—veritable coups de cinéma! The first is Mother and Son (1996), which is a gorgeous, almost wordless study of the death of an old woman and the tender devotion of her son, set against the backdrop of a seemingly depopulated, primeval nature. This short film (with a running time of 67 minutes), which uses distorting lenses to achieve highly unusual visual effects, is impossible to describe in such a way as to adequately convey the overwhelming impression it makes on the viewer: It must be seen to be imagined. Mother and Son is without a doubt Sokurov’s single most outstanding artistic achievement.
The other entirely successful experiment—and the work by which Sokurov is probably best known abroad—is Russian Ark (2002). The film is based on a gimmick—it comprises a single, uninterrupted, unedited take, 99 minutes in length! The content of the film consists of a camera crew moving through the great Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, while actors in period costume linked to the works of art in the museum speak lines illustrative of Russian life and history. Again, it has to be seen to be believed. Sokurov’s gamble here pays off—the gimmick works—and the overall effect is exhilarating, even ecstatic.
Finally, there is an entire cinematographic genre that Sokurov seems to have invented: a sort of cross between a conventional documentary and a “pure cinema” tone poem, such as Abbas Kiorastami’s 2003 Five Dedicated to Ozu. There is no name for the offspring of such a union, but perhaps one might call these inimitable films “poetic documentary fictions,” or “fictionalized documentary poems,” or something of the sort. They are characterized by a free-floating, subjective consciousness functioning as a narrative voice, which sometimes claims to be a protagonist—the dreamer—of the narrative matter we are watching, and sometimes reports more dispassionately on the images on screen. Nature always plays a starring role as a counterpoint to human civilization. Music is used sparingly, but with superbly expressive pathos. These works also blend the fundamental visual and aural components of film in innovative and evocative ways.
The thematic material of Sokurov’s poetic documentaries may be art itself, or else ordinary people living their lives (at least, they certainly feel like ordinary people, that is, non-actors). In the first category—comprising Hubert Robert. A Fortunate Life (1996), Elegy of a Voyage (2001), and Francofonia (2015)—the last-named film is particularly notable for the way in which it blends poetic reverie with documentary footage and recreated real situations to tell the remarkable story of how a French bureaucrat saved the contents of the Louvre from destruction during World War II. In the second category is Sokurov’s extraordinary Japanese trilogy, Oriental Elegy (1996), A Humble Life (1997), and dolce… (1999)—perhaps the pinnacle of his achievement as a cinematic artist.
In summary, while many of Sokurov’s films misfire, his several sublimely beautiful and utterly original successes mark him as one of the finest filmmakers active today.
9Lars von Trier
Below is the exquisite and mysterious final scene from Antichrist.
We hesitated a long time before deciding to add Lars von Trier to this list. There can be no doubt that he is one of the most talented filmmakers of our day—or any day. But our principal criterion for inclusion is beauty, and there is more to beauty than talent. It might even be argued that von Trier’s work is wicked; therefore, in a spiritual sense, ugly. However, we believe it is philistine to require beauty to pass any ideological test.
On the surface, von Trier’s films are all extremely dark, glowing with a finely polished patina of nihilism. The emblematic moment comes in Antichrist (2009) when a dead, half-devoured piece of carrion—a fox—raises its head, looks into the camera, and delivers itself in satanic tones of words which might stand for the thought underlying all of von Trier’s films: “Chaos reigns.”
However, we don’t buy it. We know how much von Trier loves to play the enfant terrible. But even if we could take his Nietzscheanism entirely seriously, we would still be inclined to include him on our list for this reason alone: von Trier contradicts his own “official” nihilism with every breathtakingly, heart-rendingly beautiful image cum soundscape he commends to our eyes and ears. Such creative genius proves the transcendence of the human spirit far more effectively than any mere intellectual argument. Von Trier’s work provides what philosophers call an “existence proof” of the power of beauty to elevate the soul. Any pretended overarching ideology to the contrary is entirely defused by this simple fact. For this reason, this list is unthinkable without von Trier’s name on it.
Von Trier’s early work—The Element of Crime (1984); Epidemic (1987); Medea (1988); Europa (1991); and the TV mini-series, The Kingdom (1994–1997)—can be summarized here in just a few words. These films are dimly shot, their goings-on obscure. The general atmosphere of bleakness is of the trendy—that is to say, unearned—post-apocalyptic sort. The influence of David Lynch’s 1977 Eraserhead seems pervasive. These early films are as pointless as they are repulsive, and if von Trier had persisted in this vein, very few indeed would now know his name.
But he did not. After his long and tedious apprenticeship, von Trier finally struck out on his own with the wholly original, wildly melodramatic, and utterly unforgettable Breaking the Weaves (1996). It was the first of his films to clearly reveal his great theme—the war between the sexes. Though women would be at the center of most of his films from then on, it often seemed that von Trier’s vision viewed the female of the species primarily in terms of the self-sacrifice, humiliation, torture, and even physical extinction required of them so that the male might survive the existential threat they represent to him. Shades of Nietzsche, once again—woman as the physical chain preventing the male spirit from taking flight.
Whatever one may think of von Trier’s sexual politics—and we hasten to say that we do not approve of them!—the fact remains that Breaking the Waves is a startling, overpowering work of art. In a nutshell, a woman’s love of her husband is so great that she sacrifices first her body, then her life itself, in an obscure pact with God to save her husband’s life. The basic idea might be a variation on Andrei Tarkovsky’s great last work, The Sacrifice (1986), though in that film it is the whole world whose existence is at stake, not one man’s.
A complacent, secular Western audience is guaranteed to squirm at the spectacular final scene of the film. Up until then, they might simply assume that the wife (played superbly by the British actress Emily Watson) is insane. And then—the heavens ring out with the tolling of bells, seemingly affirming the reality of the transcendent. Unless, that is, this scene, too, is taking place only in Watson’s character’s mind (after all, von Trier is an outspoken atheist). Be that as it may, with the final, indelible image of Breaking the Waves, von Trier established a pattern that would manifest itself in all of his late masterpieces, of the putative ideological content of his work being contradicted by his own artistic genius.
We will skip over The Idiots (1998), a sophomoric film about a hippie-ish commune of young people who pretend to be mentally handicapped. By now, von Trier had clearly developed a taste for cocking a snook at the bourgeoisie, but such crude exercises did nothing to further his art.
Dancer in the Dark (2000) is one of von Trier’s most conventional and accessible films—which is saying something, considering that it is a musical drama about poverty and capital punishment shot in black and white! The obvious debt here is to Jacques Demy’s magical 1964 The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Catherine Deneuve (see above) stars in both films (alongside, in Dancer, the Icelandic pop star, Björk). While Dancer in the Dark cannot really compete with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, it is a surprisingly successful exercise in homage. The film is engrossing, touching, and—especially in its final frames—emotionally searing.
It also shows von Trier’s interest in political themes—or, to be more exact, his interest in bashing the Unites States in any way possible. His next two projects, Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005), continue this trend to the point of absurdity. Both films take place on purely abstract sets with rooms and houses represented only by chalk marks on a stage. The first film condemns gangsters, the second slavery. It is not clear to us who in today’s America von Trier (who famously will not fly and has never been to the U.S.) thinks takes the side of Al Capone and slavery. But however that may be, these didactic films are clearly failures in their own terms—little more than exercises in preaching to the converted.
Then, there was Antichrist (2009). Antichrist is as great a artistic leap forward for von Trier in relation to Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark as those films were in relation to the muddled, monochromatic films that went before them. There is no space here to describe the story in detail, and no need. Antichrist seduces the viewer not through its story or its characters (fine as the performances of Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg are), but rather through the sheer sensual power of its amazing images (often in slow motion) perfectly married to its ravishing music (“Lascia ch’io pianga,” from George Frideric Handel’s 1711 opera, Rinaldo). This is the film in which the half-eaten fox declares that “chaos reigns.” It does have several short, but quite explicit, pornographic and violent passages—viewers should beware. And yet nothing could be further from chaos than the aesthetic power of this remarkable piece of cinematic art.
We cannot help wondering whether von Trier knows the famous lines that Mephistopheles speaks in Goethe’s Faust (First Part):
I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.
We would not care to bet against it.
Von Trier’s next film ups the ante from Antichrist still further. Melancholia (2011) not only contains the most believable and frightening, but at the same time deliriously gorgeous, depiction of the end of the world that ever was or will be committed to the screen, it also makes you understand how a person (like von Trier himself) who lives in the grip of chronic depression might consider this a “consummation devoutly to be wished.”
Finally, von Trier’s most recently completed film, Nymphomania I & II (2013), represents yet another new departure in relation to Antichrist and Melancholia. The film takes place largely in flashback, as a woman tells her life story to a strange man who has found her bloodied and bruised in an alleyway, and given her shelter in his home. While there are once again some sexual situations that border on the pornographic, here they are quite in keeping with the narrative content of the film, which is basically a depth-psychology character study of a “nymphomaniac”—or, as the politically correct terminology would now have it—a “sex addict.” The film is no more salacious than Steve McQueen’s similarly themed 2013 Shame, perhaps less so. Like Shame, Nymphomaniac film is a sober and thought-provoking exploration of its subject matter. However, it avoids degenerating into a cold and clinical pseudo-documentary exercise by being suffused throughout with von Trier’s exquisite compositional and also unsuspected story-telling flair. It is a grueling, but rewarding—and anyway unique—cinematic experience.
Below is a brief scene from near the end of A Year of the Quiet Sun.
Krzysztof Zanussi studied physics at the University of Warsaw and philosophy at the famous Jagiellonian University in Krakow, before transferring to the National Film School in Łódź. While there, he became a close, lifelong friend of Krzysztof Kieślowski, whom many consider to be one of the foremost filmmakers of the second half of the twentieth century.
While we are happy that Zanussi’s presence on this list may serve as an homage, both to his late friend and to the fine tradition of Polish cinema more generally (which includes such other outstanding names as Aleksander Ford, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Andrzej Munk, Andrzej Wajda, and Wojciech Has), there is no question but that Zanussi has earned his place on any list such as this through his own accomplishments.
Of all the film directors on this list, Zanussi’s work is the most remarkable for the way in which it tackles ideas in aesthetically venturesome ways. Even while probing metaphysical depths, his films never feel clumsy or didactic; rather, they are unfailingly witty, inventive, and entertaining. Zanussi is also considered to be a major contributor to the aesthetic movement in Polish film during of the 1970s and ’80s known as the “Cinema of Moral Anxiety”—a sort of response to Western existentialism by those living under Communist regimes—to which the best-known adherent was of course Kieślowski.
Zanussi first made his mark with a pair of films featuring a physicist—as he himself once was—as protagonist. His very first feature film was The Structure of Crystal (1969), a quiet, seemingly conventional film shot in black and white, which however develops mainly as a series of conversations between two friends from student days who are now 10 years on in life. One of them has pursued an academic career within the state-run university system at some cost to his idealism, while the other has dropped out of research and settled into an isolated life manning a rural meteorological station with his wife and two children.
The influence of the French New Wave on the structure and atmosphere of the film is palpable. Indeed, parallels with Éric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s, released the same year, are quite striking. But here the daily round of conversations between the two friends is depicted as an integral part of a certain style of intellectual life—as natural to both of them as breathing—and not as basically an endless undergraduate bull session, as in the French film. The two physicist-protagonists are mature and cultured adults, not callow youth, and the problems they debate mostly have to do with whether ambition and social position, or family and friends, constitute the more secure foundation of a happy life. Somehow, we feel we are a long way from the French New Wave, breathing a purer and more tonic air.
The next film of Zanussi’s to star a physicist is one of his very best works: Illumination (1973). This film is formally innovative, with documentary-style footage—including interviews with real scientists, explaining various aspects of the natural world according to the latest scientific theories—interwoven with brief narrative sequences depicting the progression of our physicist-hero through life, from his student years to his maturity. It is the same technique that Alain Resnais would use several years later in Mon Oncle d’Amérique (1980)—only to the opposite purpose. In the French film, we are supposed to see the truth of the scientist’s reductive analysis of human behavior in the rodent-like, stimulus-response behaviors of the characters depicted in the narrative sections of the film. In the Polish film, in contrast, we see how the concrete humanity of the characters belies the abstract theories of the scientists at every turn.
A third film—The Constant (1980)—about a young, would-be mathematician who refuses to compromise his moral integrity to get ahead within a corrupt Communist system—is sometimes grouped with the preceding pair of films as a sort of “scientific trilogy.” Perhaps some might wish to classify Life as a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease (2000), an excellent film about a doctor contemplating his own impending death, as belonging in this group, as well.
All four films explore the relationship between the physical and the spiritual aspects of human existence, through such themes as devotion and disillusionment, joy and suffering, illness, pain, fear, and death. The first three (as well as other films, notably Spiral ) also contain breath-taking shots of mountains, mountain-climbing figuring prominently as a leitmotif throughout Zanussi’s work as a clear-cut metaphor for the juxtaposition of the material and spiritual realms.
Zanussi is an exceedingly prolific director, with more than 80 features and shorts to his credit, so obviously we must be very selective here. Nor, unfortunately, have we been able to view all of the significant films (perhaps the most important of the ones that are unavailable in the West is the autobiographical Gallop , which is reputed to be a masterpiece).
The films do fall into other natural thematic clusters besides the one already mentioned, such as those primarily about sex and family life (Family Life , Quarterly Report, AKA A Woman’s Decision ; those about politics (Camouflage ; Persona Non Grata ); and those about religion (From a Far Country , about the life of Karol Wojtyła [Pope John Paul II]; Life for Life , about Maximilian Kolbe).
Finally, we come to two films (or, rather, a film and a TV mini-series) that do not fit into any of the preceding categories, but which are among Zanussi’s very best works.
Weekend Stories (eight one-hour episodes spread out over five years, 1996–2000) is always compared—usually unfavorably—with Kieślowski’s masterpiece, Decalogue (10 one-hour episodes, 1989). And, of course, it is true that the structure of the two series and of the films that make them up are in some ways quite similar. But Kieślowski was a rigorous formalist and a pessimist, whereas Zanussi, though he has experimented with a wide variety of styles, is mainly a narrative realist, and is more optimistic in his fundamental orientation toward the perplexities of human existence. While no one would deny that Kieślowski was the greater artist (least of all Zanussi), still there are insights and aesthetic pleasures to be had from the more relaxed, more “polyphonic” approach to the world which Zanussi’s oeuvre has to offer. For all his brilliance, there is a chilliness at the heart of Kieślowski’s work, while at the center of all of Zanussi’s films burns a hearth fire of human warmth.
The structure of the Weekend Stories series is exceedingly simple: each film takes place over a single weekend. The subject matter of the eight films, however, is highly varied: from a woman’s settling of accounts with another woman who had betrayed her during the Communist regime (Women’s Business), to a young musician who does a neighbor a good turn and in return finds success in his own career (The Soul Sings), to a woman who, returning to Poland after many years, turns out to be not at all what she seems to be The Hidden Treasure). These are beautiful and moving films in anyone’s estimation. Each of them reveals the intricate workings of the human spirit in everyday life, and each one bears the indelible stamp of its author’s largeness of soul.
Finally, we come to what is undoubtedly Zanussi’s masterpiece, A Year of the Quiet Sun (1984). The film stars the incomparable Maja Komorowska, a veteran Polish actress who here plays a middle-aged artist and refugee trying to eke out an existence in the ruins of an unnamed city in the immediate aftermath of World War II. We know that, together with her aged and infirm mother, she is part of a group of Polish citizens who have been transported from the east to populate territory in the west that has been newly transferred from Germany to Poland. The heart of the film is a romance between Komorowska’s character and an American soldier (played, also superbly, by Scott Wilson), who is working in Soviet-occupied territory on recovering the remains of American POWs suspected of having been summarily executed by the Nazis. The two have no language in common, leading to a nearly mute courtship in which all that needs to be said is somehow communicated by looks and gestures. The conflict between the lovers consists in the fact that, in spite of the horrors they have both lived through, the American still believes in the possibility of ordinary family happiness, while Komorowska’s character finds consolation in resignation, solitude, and memory. At one point, she explains to the American that she believes there is happiness to be found even in suffering.
While A Year of the Quiet Sun is undoubtedly bleak, it is also one of Zanussi’s most stylish films visually. There are innumerable ravishing shots of encounters in near-dark rooms or compartments, illuminated by a single light bulb or ray of sunlight. The splendid ending is shot against stock footage of Utah’s breath-taking Monument Valley. The haunting soundtrack by veteran Polish film composer Wojciech Kilar adds to the atmosphere of ineffable grief and unfathomable loss.
The film is even more ravishing to contemplate with the eyes of the soul than with those of the body, for it is an almost faultless celebration of the victory of the human spirit over evil, pain, and death. Moreover, the film represents a victory of the artist over his own materials, as well, for it is quite unlike anything else Zanussi has done. Indeed, it is unlike anything anyone else has done. A Year of the Quiet Sun is quite simply unique. It is unexampled as a pure, cinematic poem that is simultaneously suffused with a sense of transcendence in every shot.
Very recently, Zanussi has released several films (e.g., Heart in Hand AKA And a Warm Heart , Foreign Body ) that deal with his disappointment with social and political developments in Poland since the fall of Communism. They are for the most part very broad—not to say crude—satires, shot in garish colors, presumably to reflect the ugliness of life as Zanussi perceives it in today’s consumerist society. While we sympathize with Zanussi’s concerns, we judge these films to be aesthetic failures. In their harsh tone and unsubtle content, they simply do not bear comparison with his best work. Luckily, given their modest place in Zanussi’s oeuvre overall, they also do little to detract from his status as one of the premier film artists of our day.