At TheBestSchools.org, education includes challenging students to move out of their comfort zones. It is about growth and expanding one’s horizons.
These days, movies are being increasingly incorporated into college curricula; however, all too often, professors use films as a way of pandering to students. They not only show a lot of Hollywood films in their classrooms, they also adopt the attitude of Hollywood producers by giving students things to watch that they already know and are comfortable with. But the truth is that the very greatest films, the ones that qualify as genuine works of art, mostly come with subtitles attached.
What do we mean by a “work of art” in reference to movies? The same thing that we mean when we apply the term to great painting, or music, or literature: a work that achieves a perfect marriage of stylistic beauty and substantive depth. A work that repays repeated re-reading, re-listening, or, in this case, re-viewing. A work that teaches us about good and evil, about life and love and death, about suffering and the overcoming of adversity, about the grandeur and the nobility that the human spirit is capable of. Great works of art are ones that do all of these things for us. That is why they are so valuable to us, and why one of the main functions of education ought to be to teach students to understand and benefit from them.
Just as only a small minority of books qualify as great in this artistic sense, so too only a handful of films do. Unfortunately, many of these are hard to find. The first thing that the serious student of art film must do is equip himself or herself with a “region-free” DVD player, in order to watch DVDs produced in Britain (which may be obtained from amazon dot co dot uk). Many of the DVDs produced in France also have English subtitles (these can be obtained from amazon dot fr).
But all in good time. First, it is necessary to acquire a taste for serious films, just as it is necessary to acquire a taste for serious books, serious art, and serious music. Fortunately, this can be done quite well using only resources that lie closer to hand. Here is a list, in no particular order, and with brief descriptions, of 10 great works of film art, all of which are currently available from Netflix.com.
Approach each of these films as you would a great work of literature: do not expect a thrill ride or a light entertainment. Rather, submit yourself to the film, bring all your powers of concentration to bear on it, strive to meet it halfway, in the knowledge that your life will be richer for the experience.
1. Smiles of a Summer Night, by Ingmar Bergman (Sweden, 1955). Not a typical Bergman film, because one of his rare comedies. Nevertheless, Smiles is increasingly looking like one of his very greatest achievements. Inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Smiles is a sort of commentary on Puck’s famous exclamation, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” But at the same time, it is a warm and tender celebration of life and love. Watch for the counting of the smiles.
2. Charulata, by Satyajit Ray (India [Bengali], 1964). It is shameful that Ray, who is one of the very greatest film artists of all time, has been so neglected by DVD producers in this country. To see his very best films (Pather Panchali, Aparajito, World of Apu, Two Daughters), you must obtain the DVDs from Britain. However, Charulata is a charming domestic comedy/drama that comes close to the top rank of his work. A bored housewife and a neglectful husband both do some growing up and are reconciled. Watch for the beautiful last freeze frame.
3. Au hasard, Balthazar, by Robert Bresson (France, 1966). It is difficult to pick just one film by this greatest of Catholic filmmakers, but if we have to choose just one, it must be this one, which is unlike any other film ever made. It is a moving parable of the joys and sufferings in the life . . . of a humble donkey. The title is untranslatable, but “Balthazar” (one of the Three Wise Men) is the donkey’s name. Watch for the ending, with its serene depiction of death in the midst of life.
4. Late Spring, by Yasujiro Ozu (Japan, 1949). Together with Tokyo Story, indisputably Ozu’s masterpiece. One of the most moving depictions of love and devotion between parent and child ever put onto the screen. Watch for the apple.
5. Sansho, the Bailiff, by Kenji Mizoguchi (Japan, 1954). While Mizoguchi’s best-known film is undoubtedly Ugetsu (a very great work of art, to be sure), his masterpiece, for our money, is Life of Oharu. Unfortunately, the latter film is not currently available on DVD in this country. But Sansho is also a towering work of art. The only epic work on this list, it is a moving portrayal of the power of our sense of right and wrong. Watch for the father’s teachings.
6. Love, by Karoly Makk (Hungary, 1971). Makk’s unique collage style lends great power to this study of the ways in which love can overcome the pain of separation and distance, both in time and in space. Watch for the old photographs.
7. Oriental Elegy, by Aleksandr Sokurov (Russia, 1996). Sokurov’s greatest achievement to date is surely Mother and Son, which is currently unavailable from Netflix. However, Oriental Elegy is a worthy runner-up. All of Sokurov’s films (see, also, the extraordinary Russian Ark) are closer to visual poems than to conventional narratives. This short feature is a study of the solitude inherent in human existence. Watch for the tree with red fruit.
8. La Strada, by Federico Fellini (Italy, 1954). Fellini’s masterpiece. An unparalleled study of the resistance against callousness and inhumanity afforded by purity of heart. The title means “The Road,” meaning the road of life. Watch for the Fool’s parable of the pebble.
9. The Spirit of the Beehive, by Victor Erice (Spain, 1973). One of only three feature-length films by this master filmmaker who was never able to fulfill his tremendous promise. One of the most haunting depictions of childhood ever filmed, Beehive is basically about the coming to consciousness of oneself and the world. Watch for the little girl, Ana, watching the little girl, Maria, in the film, Frankenstein.
10. The Decalogue, by Krzysztof Kieslowski (Poland, 1987). A series of ten one-hour films originally shown on Polish television, each episode loosely tied to one of the ten commandments. A cinematic tour de force and unparalleled exploration of the human spirit in our day. Watch for the angel.