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The Scrivener: The Gold Of The Silver Screen

Christmas – the time of year when TV stations churn out a day-long diet of “old'' films. In Britain that means stilted Carry On comedies and yet another encounter with James Bond.

Brian Barratt lists some of the films which have brought him the greatest satisfaction and joy – quality films you are most unlikely to see on your TV screens in these late December days.

Why not follow Brian’s lead and compile your own list of all-time favourites - films you wish to see again and again.

For yet more bracing mental activity do please visit Brian's invigorating Web site www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

Favourite films?

To misquote the apostle Paul, when I was a child I spoke as a child and watched films as a child. Now that I am grown up, I've put away childish things. For instance, I no longer watch any Walt Disney films. Mind you, I wouldn't mind seeing a couple of Laurel and Hardy films again.

It's difficult to answer the question, 'What is your favourite film?' Our tastes and preferences change over the years. However, now that so much is available on DVD's, I've been searching for a few films which made an impact when I first saw them and still impressed me the second and third times. In other words, they are films which have added something to my life. Along the way, it's been a pleasant surprise to discover how many of them won significant awards.

Here are notes on some of those films, grouped under broad themes. You might not like them; they might not be your proverbial cup of tea, but they all satisfy my thirst. They are listed here because they're all available on DVD if you search hard enough. Some of the comments are culled from blurbs and reviews; some of them are mine. It isn't compulsory to agree with me but I'd like to make the point that you do not have to 'enjoy' a film in order to appreciate how good it is.

* *


The Secret of Roan Inish

Directed by John Sayles, 1994. Adapted from Rosalie Fry's novel 'The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry'. Filmed in County Donegal, Ireland.

An influential newspaper review in London commented, '...those who still have their childhood inside them will find this film a magical experience'. This is the story of Fiona, a little girl who goes to live with her grandparents in a small fishing village in Ireland. Selkies, mythical creatures, half human, half seal, are said to live around the nearby island of Roan Inish. She searches for her baby brother, who disappeared a few years earlier, perhaps taken by the Selkies.
What transpires in this unpretentious film is beautiful, moving, and magical.

There are no sub-titles (closed captions) and it can sometimes be difficult to follow the strong Irish accents. That's a good reason to watch it again, and again.


La Gloire to Mon Père and Le Château de Ma Mére

Also known as 'My Father's Glory' and 'My Mother's Castle' (available in Penguin books). Directed by Yves Robert, around 1957. Jointly Best Film at the Seattle International Film Festival.

Based accurately on the autobiographical stories of Marcel Pagnol, a highly honoured French writer.

An adult Marcel Pagnol nostalgically recalls an idyllic summer spent with his family in the hills and valleys of Provence. They return for Christmas and then Easter. Before long, they are heading for their rural retreat every weekend.

These affectionate reminiscences charmingly reflect childhood in a loving but idiosyncratic family, in a long-gone era, among the sunlit villages and landscapes of his beloved Provence. The author retains a unique ability to recall how he thought when he was a boy and to see the world through the eyes of his remembered childhood.

Perhaps I'm a sentimental old chap but these two sun-drenched films of family life evoke tears of sheer joy every time I watch them.

* *

Tragic Love

Romeo & Juliet

Directed by Franco Zeffirelli, 1968. Not everyone liked this adaptation of Shakespeare's timeless story but it was nominated for four Academy Awards. I think it is marvellous.

The leading roles are played, as they should be, by teenagers.
Leonard Whiting is Romeo. As a boy, he played the Artful Dodger in the original London production of Oliver!, and had to be coached out of his Cockney accent for the role of Romeo at the age of 17. Juliet is played by Olivia Hussey, 16, whose touchingly innocent beauty reflects her South American family background.

OK, the nude scene raised eyebrows but surely we're grown up now, and understand that the author was dealing with young teenagers in love? This film is awash with drama, declamation and dust as well as highly appropriate settings. It's a total experience.

A later version of the story with Leonardo di Caprio is surprisingly good, too — that lad can act. However, his Titanic was an amateurish farce with its weak special effects and cardboard cut-outs.


Elvira Madigan

Directed by Bo Widerberg in the late 1960's. Best Foreign Language Film, Golden Globe Nomination. Background music: Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 21.

The title role was played by the then ravishingly beautiful young Pia Degermark, who was awarded Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival, surely the highest honour of all.

When a friend invited me to see the film for the first time, she advised, 'Bring a box of tissues'. Unless you're totally insensitive, you'll find out why, when you watch this lyrical story of two runaway lovers as they wander blissfully through sunlit fields and forests. They break all the social norms of the day, the late 19th century. Theirs is a forbidden love, doomed to lead to tragedy. Keep those tissues handy.

Based on a true story, moving at a gentle pace, with very little dialogue, this film broke new ground with its use of pastel shades of colour.


Death in Venice
Directed by Luchino Visconti, 1971. Based on Thomas Mann's novella. Winner of many awards and nominations including Cannes Film Festival Special 25th Anniversary Prize. The background music includes the Adagietto movement from Mahler’s Symphony no. 5.

The main character, Gustav Aschenbach, is played convincingly by Dirk Bogarde (who was knighted in 1992, Sir Derek Jules Gaspard Uric Niven van den Bogaerde, did you know?) Visconti changed the story a little to reflect something of the composer Gustav Mahler in this character.

Tadzio, the Polish boy with whom he becomes visually infatuated, is played by Bjørn Andresen, an almost androgynous Swedish teenager who, in spite of what people assumed, was not gay.

Tadzio's mother is played by Sylvana Mangano. What more need I say? She has only to come in sight of the camera to dominate a scene, without words.

‘...a stunning, richly romantic evocation of time and place.’ ‘...awash in mood, period detail and seething emotions beneath placid surfaces.’ A beautifully and grandly filmed tale of impossible love of a different kind. Visconti was a perfectionist as well as being homosexual. Perhaps not to everyone's taste but I rank it alongside Elvira Madigan.

* *


Under Milk Wood

Directed by Andrew Sinclair, 1971. Based on the brilliant play for voices by Dylan Thomas which was never meant to be performed in costume on stage or as a film.

Literary critics disapprove of it, but I relish it and all its idiosyncratic Welshness, twists of language, whimsical fun, and totally eccentric characters. In one of the interviews on the DVD, Richard Burton says that he believes that if Dylan Thomas had not died so young, he would eventually have approved of such a film being made.

The cast is a galaxy of well-known faces and names, including Richard Burton as the First Voice (in narration) and Peter O'Toole as Captain Cat. Some of the actors, such as the young David Jason, don't quite fit the part or manage the Welsh accent. Unfortunately, the prostitute Rose Probert in Captain Cat's dreams is played by Elizabeth Taylor. Her voice and diction are fine but her visual splendour just does not belong in this film.

This is not so much a story as a series of vignettes, dreams and fantasies involving the people of Llarergyb — Dylan Thomas, forever playing with words, wrote buggerall backwards. I think the film version can be appreciated only when you read the book first, and then read it again after you've seen the film. And then do it all over again and let yourself be immersed. You probably won't make head of tail of it, but it's a glorious romp.

Three better versions of the work as a play for voices only are probably still available on audiocassette or CD. A narrated version can also be heard on a website on the Internet.



Directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, about 1949. Screenplay by Noel Langley adapted from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

In black and white, with painted backdrops and a 1940s feel about it, but wonderful to watch, and authentic. The cast is a catalogue of 'greats', including Kathleen Harrison, Jack Warner, Michael Hordern, Mervyn Johns, a young George Cole, Patrick McNee, Hermione Baddeley and the very young John Charlesworth (who committed suicide at a tragically early age). Scrooge himself is played by the inimitable Alastair Sim — 'Alastair Sim's performance as Ebenezer Scrooge is generally regarded as the definitive portrayal of the role.' Indeed, his acting at the end of the film is absolutely superb.


Cold Comfort Farm

Directed by John Schlesinger, 1996. Screenplay by Malcolm Bradbury from the novel by Stella Gibbons (1932).
With Eileen Atkins, Stephen Fry, Freddie Jones, Joanna Lumley, Ian McKellen, Miriam Margoyles, the list goes on.
This is the cult classic which added a famous phrase to our language: 'I saw something nasty in the woodshed!' Once you've heard it from the mouth of Aunt Ada Doom, you will never forget it.

Flora Poste takes on the challenge, and challenge it is, of tidying up Cold Comfort Farm, somewhere in the south-west of England and with accents to prove it. The broken-down place is seething with the strangest, most feral farming family you're likely to see anywhere. Family is a loose term. It's not always clear if or how they are related to each other. Up in the hayloft, babies arrive every year, and there's one cousin, er, she might be a cousin, who sits in a corner of the kitchen, filthy and scowling, and says nothing.

Ian McKellen as Cousin Amos preaches hellfire in a stentorian voice every week at the chapel of the Quivering Brethren. Freddie Jones as Adam Lambsbreath (is he related?) listlessly cletters the crusted edges of the porridge plates with his liddle thorn twig. Stephen Fry as the ineffectually pushy Mr Mybug (he is not related) warns that he is a queer moody brute, but there's something there 'if you cah to dig for it'. The filthy scowling cousin, if she's a cousin, is eventually stripped and washed by force in the horse-trough.

It's a romp, an hilarious romp, from start to finish.


A Passage to India

Directed by David Lean, 1984. Screenplay by David Lean from the novel by E.M.Forster. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards. Won 2: Supporting Actress, Peggy Ashcroft; Best Music, Original Score, Maurice Jarre. Golden Globe Award: Best Foreign Film.

It stars Peggy Ashcroft (later Dame Peggy Ashcroft, and well deserved too) as Mrs Moore; Judy Davis as Adela Quested;; Victor Bannerjee as Dr Aziz; Saeed Jaffray as Hamidullah; James Fox; Nigel Havers. Also Sir Alec Guiness as Professor Godbole. I love Alec Guiness, his voice and his diction, but this was a very poor bit of casting for a film about India, made in India.

'...hauntingly beautiful film...supreme entertainment and a visual wonder that is truly spellbinding.' It gives you (well, me) the feeling 'they don't make films like that any more'.
It follows E.M.Forster's novel fairly accurately but changes the ending, and therefore an important political message, in a significant way.

* *

Larger Than Life

Lord of the Flies

Directed by Peter Brook, 1963, black and white. Founded strongly on William Golding's classic novel, one of several which later led to him being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. There are two DVD versions. The Criterion Collection version is a superior print and has valuable Extras, including comments by both Peter Brook and William Golding, though there are some quaint errors in the sub-titles.

When I first saw this film in London in the 1960's, it had an X classification. I think that was mainly because of its depictions of violence and savagery. Perhaps the British censors also disapproved of glimpses of nakedness. In more recent years, it has been a read and studied in at senior level in secondary schools.

On the surface, it is the story of boys who are marooned on a remote island after a plane-crash, and how they split into two groups, one of which degenerates into savagery and murder. Beneath that, however, it is a remarkable allegory of the veneer of convention, civilisation, and its decline. At neither level is it easy viewing.

The novel should be read first, and then read again after viewing the film. Only then can one truly understand those timeless words near the end of the novel: '...with filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy'.

There is a later film version in colour, which should be thrown into the rubbish bin. Whoever made it had no understanding of the story, the allegory, or motifs such as Innocence, the Monster, and Primordial Fear. For instance, American school cadets substituted for English choirboys immediately rob the story of its real meaning. It is an insult to Sir William Golding.


Doctor Zhivago

Directed by David Lean, 1965. Adapted by David Lean from Boris Pasternak's novel. Musical score by Maurice Jarré. Five Academy Awards and I feel sure there were many other awards.
Starring Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Rod Steiger, Alec Guiness, Ralph Richardson..., what a line-up! In the opening scene of the funeral, so magnificently photographed for the wide screen, Zhivago as a boy is played by Omar Sharif's young son. Just as Gone with the Wind stunned us in its time, this film — photographed in several countries that did not include Russia — continues to stun in every way. In particular, the marriage of visual symbol, e.g., candle through window and sunlight through trees, with music, e.g., sweeping balalaikas and 'Lara's Theme', is superb.

I need not 'go on' about this one. Everyone knows that it is a masterpiece.

The Mahabharata

Directed by Peter Brook. Around 1989.

Length: Just over 5 hours, it is a shortened version of the 9-hour play which in turn was adapted from the second longest poem, four or five times longer than the Bible, written in any language.

Mahabharata means 'great people', 'story of the great people of the past'. A mix of myths, folktales, stories of gods and divine heroes in ancient India.

Like a couple of the others in my selection, this DVD is a BFI (British Film Institute) endorsed copy of an internationally produced film. In other words, it is recognised as one of the great films of all time. And great it is, but not for the faint-hearted. There is no continuous story, but five hours of loosely connected tales, including the story of the battle from The Bhagavad Gita.

The actors are not all Indian; they come from every continent, and are remarkable for their facial features. Their ages are irrelevant to the roles they play. This is sometimes confusing but has a reason and purpose. However, I would have preferred a more authentic, younger, dark-skinned Krishna.
Quite remarkably, it was (I understand) filmed totally in a large warehouse or similar building outside Paris.

Because of its content, structure and complexity, it has to be viewed several times before it starts to make sense as a narrative, but the visual impact, particularly of those faces, is immediate. I never say to anyone, 'You will like this film'. People who say that are often wrong. In the case of The Mahabharata, I would suggest that it's tackled only by someone with an interest in ancient myth, Indian and Hindu traditions, a love of genuinely artistic film-making, a fascination for faces from around the world, and a lot of patience.


Directed by Federico (not Frederico) Fellini. 1968. 1970 Oscar nomination, Best Director. I feel sure it won other awards.
This is Fellini's own adaptation of the notorious but incomplete Roman pornographic classic written about 2,000 years ago by Petronius. I don't know much about film producers but I surmise that the only others who might have attempted such an epic on such a grand scale are Paolo Pasolini and Peter Greenaway.

'Suitable only for persons of 18 years and over'. True, true. It has sex, nudity, violence, and more sex.

'...visually seductive scenes that are shocking, unprecedented and brilliantly stunning'. I know where the gory bits are, and I don't like them, so am ready to cover my eyes before they start.

'A truly literate and sophisticated film spectacle by perhaps the greatest of all film artists.' I would add that this is Art on the silver screen. The Italian dialogue is badly dubbed but there are good English sub-titles (closed captions).

Though this is not the most bawdy film I've seen (Pasolini's adaptations of classics are in that category), it is a sumptuous feast of decadence, as well as a commentary on society. It is definitely not for your Aunty Millicent.



Directed by Linday Anderson, 1968. It set new standards in film-making, I believe. It was for a time among the BFI's 'Top 20 films of all time'.

Introducing Macolm McDowell. Featuring many faces you see in more recent films and TV series and know you've seen them somewhere before, e.g., Peter Jeffrey, Arthur Lowe, Mona Washbourne, Geoffrey Chater and Graham Crowden.

The theme is appropriate to the time it was made: Revolution. It is set in an English public school with a heirarchy of staff, senior boys, and juniors. In the middle, we find the Crusaders, a group of boys who decide to break the system. There are also two women who play surrealistic sexual roles but I won't give away the secrets.

The film moves in and out between real life and the surreal. The occasional switch from colour to black and white has no deep meaning. Black and white film was first used in a chapel scene, for reasons relating to the sheer cost of lighting for colour film. It worked so well that the director decided to do it again from time to time.

The background music includes the Sanctus from the Missa Luba, which adds more than a touch of irony to the state of rebellion which is inexorably rising among the students.

The DVD is labelled '15. Contains strong violence'. Definitely not everyone's cup of tea. A shatteringly violent ending. I don't like violence, so the inclusion of this film and Lord of the Flies might seem strange. Nevertheless, the violence in these two films, though portrayed with startling realism, is an essential part of allegories with much deeper meanings.


A World Apart

Latcho Drom

Directed by Tony Gatlif, 1993. In Romani and other languages. Winner, Grand Prix Special des Amériques at Montreal World Film Festival 1997. Special Citation, National Society of Film Critics Awards, USA, 1996. In addition, Tony Gatlif won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival for his film Exils in 2004.

Tony Gatlif is a French Tsigane, a Rom, a Gypsy, who has made several films about his people, the Roma. This is probably the greatest of all. It is a glorious film. There is no continuous narrative, there are no professional actors. It is a series of linked visual and musical images of 'a people whose only destiny it is to travel the latcho drom '— good road, safe journey.

'...a musical journey through the eyes and ears of Romany's nomadic culture... transcends language and culture, spanning the four seasons as told through the musicians and dancers of India, Egypt, Turkey, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, France, and Spain. For these people, music, song and dance are food for the soul: the narratives in which they express their joy and suffering, chronicle their histories, and teach the cultural values of family, journey, love, separation, and persecution.'

In the midst of all this colourful exuberance, we encounter an old Slovakian Roma woman sitting alone beneath a tree in a stark winter landscape. The camera zooms in as she sings a short but heart-breaking lament, written in Romani by Ruzena Danielova, for those who died in Auschwitz. The Nazis killed at least half a million Gypsies. This woman survived. We see the number tattooed on her arm.

Here are some of the verses, in Romani and English, as shown on the website http://www.geocities.com/Paris/5121/holcaust.htm

Ausvicate hi kher bro
Odoj besel mro pirano
Besel, besel gondolinel
Te pre mande pobisterel

O tu kalo cirikloro
Lidza mange mro lilro
Lidza, lidza mra romake
Hoj som phandlo Ausvicate

Ausvicate bokha bare
Te so te chal amen nane
Ani oda koter maro
O blokris bibachtl

In Auschwitz there is a great house
And there my husband is imprisoned
He sits and sits and laments
And thinks about me.

Oh, you black bird!
Carry my letter!
Carry it to my wife
For I am jailed in Auschwitz

In Auschwitz there is great hunger
And we have nothing to eat
Not even a piece of bread
And the block guard is bad.



Directed by Tony Gatlif, 2001. In French and Romani.
In the 5-star rating, David Stratton, the doyen of Australian film critics, gave this film 4½ stars, something he very rarely does. For me at least, that means more than an Oscar. He said, 'I love this film. The screen lights up with the warmth and humanity on display.'

In November 2006, The Council of Europe included this film in a fortnight of Roma cinema, at Strasbourg (where the film was made), to celebrate the art, culture and contribution to European society of the Roma.

An 11-year-old French boy on a summer holiday is drawn to the spell-binding guitar playing of Miraldo and the local Gypsy Manouche Jazz group which follows the style of the great Django Reinhardt. He also forms a special friendship with Swing, a lively and somewhat androgynous Gypsy girl of about the same age. This is not one of those so-called 'coming of age' stories, but a well-observed tale of young friendship, differences, fun, and discovery.

Non-Roma viewers might be surprised, perhaps shocked, at the way someone's caravan is destroyed according to Gypsy tradition, towards the end of the film, but will be moved by the way the children symbolically send the soul of a great musician on his final journey before they themselves must go their separate ways.

Yes folks, for me this is another tear-jerker.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2007.
May not be copied or reproduced in any way.


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