Daily Archives: December 29, 2023

Benilde, or The Virgin Mother

If memory serves, I wrote this for the Chicago International Film Festival’s catalogue in 2003 after I selected it as a Critic’s Choice to be shown at that festival. — J.R.

My first encounter with the stupefying talent and singular career of Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira — who turns 95 this December, and has been making at least one remarkable feature a year since 1990 —- was in 1981, when I saw his 1978 masterpiece Doomed Love, one of the greatest literary adaptations in the history of cinema. And when I had a chance to explore his work further, it was Carl Dreyer, the greatest of all narrative filmmakers, whom de Oliveira seemed to resemble the most: an eccentric, obsessive modernist who managed to make about one feature per decade during the sound era after starting out in silent cinema. At least that’s how it looked in the early 80s, when Doomed Love was only his fifth feature, and the film that immediately preceded it, Benilde (1975), was especially evocative of Dreyer in its spiritual ambiguity and its stylistic intensity, including its unabashed theatricality. It was adapted from a play of the mid-40s by José Régio — a writer who had enormous personal importance for de Oliveira, having written passionately about his first film, Douro, faina fluvial (1931), and then gone on to become a treasured friend and role model. Read more


Written in May 2021 for Il Cinema Ritrovato’s July catalog. — J.R.


A chorus girl (Nancy Carroll) marries a much older tycoon (Frank Morgan) but can’t break her ties to a dourbitter sculptor (Glenn Anders, whose suicidal character here could have encouraged Orson Welles to cast him as the funnier but equally creepy Grisby in The Lady from Shanghai) and a chipper pianist-composer (Fredric March at his most energetic).The fact that we can’t even tell whether Laughter (1930) has a happy ending may be the best—or at least the most interesting–thing about it.

It may be the closest Hollywood ever came to the sophistication and autocritical narcissism of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s flapper prose, complete with all its sad ambivalence about extravagance and glitter. Shot in Paramount’s Astoria studio only a few months after the Wall Street crash, it was clearly ahead of its time, anticipating screwball comedy, Donald Ogden Stewart’s Marxism, and comic dialogue with domestic gender reversals by several years. A melancholy farce put together by privileged partygoers who knew how to superimpose their morning hangovers over the giddy evening shenanigans that produced them, it feels personally expressive of at least two of the three men credited for the Oscar-nominated original screenplay: director Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast, Stewart, and perhaps even the lesser-known Douglas Doty. Read more

MARTHA: Fassbinder’s Uneasy Testament

Like my essay on The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, this article was previously published by Madman in Australia to accompany their DVD release of this later Fassbinder film. Prior to that, it was commissioned by the Fantoma DVD label in the U.S. for their own release of Martha. —J.R.

MARGIT CARSTENSEN: You really are a wretched person.

RAINER WERNER FASSBINDER: That’s what I’ve been saying all along.

MARGIT CARSTENSEN: How am I supposed to pull myself together after this?

The following exchange, appearing at the end of a dialogue that took place between the writer-director and his lead actress after the completion of their film Martha in 1973 (1), helps to pinpoint what continues to make that film politically lethal. Fassbinder’s sarcasm, which becomes oddly comforting in most of its on-screen as well as offscreen manifestations, offers a particular kind of challenge to the viewer in Martha that becomes inextricably tied to how one regards its title heroine. Accepting the self-rationalizations and denials of a woman trapped in a monstrous marriage to a sadist is made to seem intolerable, a cause for squirming, and the fact that Fassbinder plays this game as poker-faced high comedy only makes the challenge more formidable. Read more