Every now and then, the natural world and the massive self-satisfying erections of man provide filmmakers with ready-made metaphors of massive torque and resonance. Werner Herzog is an expert at locating these visual/thematic El Dorados; Marker, Kiarostami and Ghobadi are current explorers of the paradigm, which necessitates an embrace of documentary reality. (Slavic artists are just beginning to make use out of the ex-Soviet landscape of unfinished and derelict public projects, from decommissioned nuclear power plants to entire cities left abandoned after infrastructure support dried up.) But Jia Zhang-ke is the filmmaker bringing new life and commitment to the idea of finding universalized meanings in real-life monstrosities. Jia’s “Platform” used its traveling theater troupe as a stand-in for the average citizen watching Chinese history pass chaotically before them, but it was with “The World” that Jia discovered the surreal significances that emanated organically from the titular, and largely depopulated, Epcot-ish amusement park, which presents mini-versions of global cities all clustered together within a single monorail track. It seems inevitable, then, that the Three Gorges Dam would attract Jia, as it slowly devastates an entire countryside, displaces millions of people, and leaves countless towns and cities, many thousands of years old, permanently underwater. It’s an unprecedented Moloch, ravaging a helpless society one buried life at a time.
The enormity of the project and its impact on Chinese geography has created all by itself a post-apocalyptic landscape only hinted at in sci-fi movies; massively abandoned urban centers, vanished cultures, armies of refugees living under bridges and on plots of land earmarked for submersion, human culture refuse sent lost and floating, mountains covered with old concrete skeletons straining upward and, often in Jia’s film, falling under day-worker demolition. It’s “Waterworld: The Prequel,” or one of Antonioni’s garbage dumps times a zillion — that is, an absurd crystallization of how developmental progress ruins lives across the globe. Jia has made not merely one film out of it but two, the fictional “Still Life” (2006) and the documentary “Dong,” which profiles the artist who invited Jia to visit the Fengjie and its surrounding area with him. (The DVD carries both.) Employing the entire catastrophic mountainside city as its set, “Still Life” is classic Jia, shot with observational long takes that take on an odd personality as they persist: laborers hammering away at a building develops the aural and graphic thrust of a rhythmic dance routine, as the same syncopated cacophony provides the soundtrack for a team of hazmat inspectors searching the ruins and its squatters for radioactivity. Jia’s story centers first on a middle-aged miner who comes to the region to find his long-lost wife and daughter and finds their address under the river, and then on a younger nurse looking for her wayward, dam-worker husband. They’re just our reconnoiterers; from the first pans across the passengers of a crowded worker ferry, it’s clear that Jia is interested in the big picture, the full scope of social damage done.
It’s a magnificent journey, made all the more mysterious by Jia’s seizures of fantasy (a UFO passes over the Yangtze at one point, resembling nothing so much as Kenneth Anger’s extraterrestrial moment in “Lucifer Rising”), the most moving of which is the ghostly appearance of three Peking opera jing figures huddled around a table, as the sign of a character’s off-screen death under a pile of rubble. As always using a non-professional cast and incorporating the left curves of happenstance into his setups, Jia is making the kind of cinema the early 21st century may well become noted for eons hence — a circumstantial cinema, of poeticized reality and observed humanity, free of bullshit and patronization and cliché.
I don’t remember hearing, amidst the plaintive cries for certain rare films to be finally available on DVD, the call going out for Roberto Rossellini’s “Era Notte a Roma” (1960), arguably the infrequently considered auteur’s least known film, but here it is, bundled into one of those trademarked Lionsgate boxes sold on the strength of a famous name but including that name’s most forgettable films. This is not the neorealist Rossellini, the wrestling-with-Ingrid Bergman Rossellini, nor the historical-dissection Rossellini. This is the Rossellini that dumped Bergman and came back to Italy after getting kicked out of India by Nehru (for another romantic scandal, to a married woman who’d become his third wife), and found himself paying penance with studio projects. “Era Notte a Roma” (released in the U.S. as “Escape by Night”) looks at first like Rossellini painting by numbers, with its escaped-POW scenario, fresh-faced nuns and studio-Rome sets.
But of course, it evolves into a much more complicated matter, often detailed by the master’s capacious camera moves and multitasking scenes. The nuns that take in the fleeing Allied soldiers (Brit Leo Genn, wounded Yank Peter Baldwin and Russian Sergei Bondarchuk) in the post-Mussolini Nazi occupation aren’t nuns at all but black marketeers; their gorgeous leader (Giovanna Ralli) hides the trio in her attic until she realizes she can be summarily shot by the Germans if discovered. But by then, they can’t leave and “Era Notte a Roma” spirals out into a portrait of Italy itself. The film’s individuals bristle with generosity just when you pegged them as antagonists and vice versa (excepting one defrocked priest, who’s the epitome of the slavering collaborationist, and who gets his just desserts), but the Italian people as a whole take a ferocious beating, as amoral “banners in the wind,” fair-weather Fascists, Nazi enablers, Royalist vanity cases and greedy exploiters of each other’s needs. For the Rossellini-starved, there are plenty of set-pieces that you must rewind and see twice: the sensitively wrought Christmas dinner (which is when the conventional scenario sprouts serious tears), the dream-like interlude for the POWs in a Vatican seminary (one pan of a crowd of seminarians absorbing the news of Nazi reprisals is a stunnah), a covert surveillance ballet between churchgoers, priests and the defrocked informant in a church. The DVD version is nearly an hour longer than the truncated cut that saw American theaters in the ’60s, and boxed with Rossellini’s “Dov’è la Libertà…?” (1954), a biting social satire in which monster-eyed comic Totò plays a cuckolded fool who, after emerging from years in prison, cannot land a break or find a dollop of freedom in postwar Italy and connives to repatriate himself to the penitentiary.
[Photos: “Still Life,” New Yorker Films, 2006; “Era Notte a Roma,” Lux Film America, 1960]
“Still Life” (New Yorker Video) and Roberto Rossellini: Director’s Series (Lionsgate) are now available on DVD.