Friday, December 16, 2005

Picked Flick #68: Chronicle of the Smoldering Years

I write this capsule, so many of 2005's movies have attempted to delve into the ongoing crises and entrenched corruptions of the developing world, with especially strong epicenters in the Middle East (Paradise Now, Syriana) and central Africa (The Constant Gardener, Darwin's Nightmare). To recognize that Syriana was written and directed by an American, Darwin's Nightmare by an Austrian, and The Constant Gardener by a Brazilian does not deprive their films of any claim on authenticity, but it remains noticeably rare that the filmmakers of the so-called Third World acquire the license and resources necessary to make films about their own national histories and struggles, and even rarer that these films "play" on the world market. The three-hour Algerian epic Chronicle of the Smoldering Years, aka Chronicle of the Years of Embers, was something of an exception, garnering the Cannes prize in 1975, but clearly its exceptional status has only gotten so far. The film is all but impossible to see outside university archives and screenings. Even in the hour of its victory, amid a field that included Antonioni's The Passenger, Herzog's Mystery of Kasper Hauser, and Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, the film didn't make as much headway as you might hope among the Western critical mandarinate; in the Film Comment writeup of that year's Cannes, the writer blithely confesses to having skipped "the three-hour Algerian movie" to dally around the Croisette, and describes how many of her cohorts were stunned, but not quite shamed, when it claimed the top prize.

Like Within Our Gates, my #69 Flick, Chronicle of the Smoldering Years is a film that I like in no small part because I am rooting so hard for its point-of-view and its projects, including its own unlikely and prodigious existence on film. But also like the Micheaux picture, the film commands awe and respect for what it shows and does, not just for what it represents. Director Mohammad Lakhdar-Hamina works powerfully with extreme long shots of crowds; he loosely strings his story around the tale of a serially displaced worker and sometime convict played by Yorgo Voyagis but remains clearly more invested in the massive, tidal clashes among the Algerian people and between Algeria as a whole and its imperial foes. The very first shots follow various rural Algerians already grown furious with the penury and difficulty of their lives, barging off to the city and its mirage of promises. Even these brisk and muscular shots, however, focalize the crowds of fellow citizens trying hard to keep their communities together at least as much as the outraged emigrés. Quickly following is one of the movie's most impressive sequences, a fierce skirmish between two colossal clans over a listless, shallow, and muddy river that lies in the desert like something half-dead and flung down. Then, mid-brawl, a rain falls, and the fantasy of a truce with each other and with the world is temporarily realized. The stakes and sources of these people's misery are not hard to discern, and Lakhdar-Hamina's filmmaking neither employs nor requires much subtlety in revealing them, but his steady refusal to individualize his tale is fresh and revelatory to audiences accustomed to tales of the noble outsider or isolated freedom-fighter. They also pose a challenge to the editing of the film, since the standard grammar of alternating crowd shots with close-ups on heroes or favored personalities is so clearly out the window much of the time. Beyond the Voyagis character, a couple of key relatives, and Lakhdar-Hamina's own admittedly romantic role as a mad prophet of colonial-Marxist rebellion, precious few faces hold themselves aside in this movie, but the progress of the movie never feels clunky or sluggish or ungrounded in human experience. You actually experience history in a different way, watching it happen to groups of bodies rather than unique victors or sufferers, and even more than the geography and perimeter of the film's concerns, hardly over-exploited in world film, the very approach is illuminating.

At the end of Gillo Pontecorvo's infinitely more famous The Battle of Algiers, the chorus of wailing women and rising armadas in the far-off hills of Algeria imply that while the European colonials have won the most recent round of combat, Algeria's self-liberation is still imminent. Pontecorvo's film has become such a cultural shorthand for the Algerian experience of their own struggle that the hinted-at but mostly withheld tale of village-level agitation can lapse into abstraction or invisibility—unless, of course, we do something truly revolutionary, like take our history from books and testimonies instead of just the movies. Don't worry, Kettles, I'm the pot in this equation the vast majority of the time, but Chronicle of the Smoldering Years, in itself and in its solidarity with the Third Cinema movement, helps to keep our eyes re-opened, our memories challenged, our vistas expanded. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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