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‘Bergman Island’ and the paradise of Scandinavian cinema

“Bergman Island” (2021) was screened at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center this past Wednesday as part of the Nanovic Institute for European Studies’ film series. The film is directed by French-Swedish director Mia Hansen-Love who follows two filmmakers and their relationship with each other and with famed director, Ingmar Bergman.

Bergman, a Swedish filmmaker, is considered one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Bergman’s most famous films like “Seventh Seal” and “Persona” were released during the late 50s and early 60s and explored themes of spirituality, death and the identity. He would generally film at Faro, an island just off the coast of Sweden.

The movie follows a filmmaker couple who visit Faro to work on their respective projects and to get inspiration from Bergman’s legacy. The wife, Chris (Vicky Krieps), is troubled by Bergman’s bad relationship with his children — he married five times and was not involved in raising his own children. Chris’ husband, Tony (Tim Roth), is a more established filmmaker and doesn’t feel conflicted about separating Bergman’s art from his personal life.

Chris begins writing a film set on the island but struggles with her work. She reads her script out to Tony to get his thoughts. The film switches between these scenes of the film-within a film where Chris’ script plays out for the audience and back to the story-line with Tony. He is constantly distracted while Chris is sharing her work with him while the film within-a-film traces a passionate relationship which seems to be drawn from Chris’ own life, before her marriage.

The film is wonderfully meta — Chris and Tony’s relationship breaks down in the same house where Bergman filmed “Scenes From a Marriage” (1973), the series that caused many couples to divorce. The characters themselves seem to mirror the director’s own life — Mia Hansen-Love was in a long-term relationship with Olivier Assayas, the established French filmmaker who, like Tony, has an uncomplicated love for Bergman.

Of course, the film is not completely autobiographical. In an interview, Hansen-Love says that her experience of writing a film in Faro was very easy, unlike Chris’ struggles. Furthermore, she never visited Faro with Assayas. Peeling back the layers of what’s drawn from reality is a cinema trivia junkie’s game, but even for someone like me, a wannabe cinephile, it makes Hansen-Love’s brand of realism feel authentic.

Recent Scandinavian films in general have been exploring modern life with this similar sort of realism.  Joachim Trier’s Norwegian film “The Worst Person in the World” (2021) is similar to “Bergman Island” in its exploration of creative ambitions and modern love. Protagonist Julie is a 30-year-old who still hasn’t settled on a career and struggles to cope with finding meaning in life. It also boasts beautiful cinematography that captures summer in Oslo in all its glory and hilarious commentary on the hypocrisy of social justice warriors online.

Danish director Thomas Vinterburg’s 2020 film “Another Round” follows four school teachers to tell an engaging and emotional story about mid-life crises and the worrying side effects of drinking culture. “Flee” (2021) uses animation and realism to explore the life story of an Afghan refugee in Denmark, evocatively capturing the trauma of alienation and exile.

The humor and realism of “Bergman Island,” along with its many Easter eggs, has inspired me to dive deeper into Bergman’s legacy and into Scandinavian cinema in general. It also made me consider fascinating questions about the relationship between art and artist — not just in terms of an artist’s problematic personal life, but also in terms of how artists insert themselves into their work while capturing universal experiences.

Title: “Bergman Island”

Starring: Vicky Krieps, Tim Roth, Anders Danielsen Lie

Director: Mia Hansen-Løve

If you like: “Marriage Story,” “Worst Person in the World,” “Scenes from a Marriage”

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5

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‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ grabs your attention and does not let go

War is awful. Most everyone believes that, but those without firsthand experience cannot truly grasp the horrors of war. “All Quiet on the Western Front” does a stellar job of imparting the devastation of war onto its viewers. Before I dig deeper into my review of the movie, however, I’d like to give two quick disclaimers. First, I have never read the book “All Quiet on the Western Front,” nor have I watched the previous 1930 and 1979 film adaptations. Second, beware because spoilers lie ahead.

The film centers around Paul Baumer (Felix Kammerer), a 17-year-old fresh out of school who decides to enlist into World War I with his group of friends. On the Western Front, the boys also become close with Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch) and Tjaden Stackfleet (Edin Hasanovic). The movie spends most of its time with Baumer, but it also gives some attention to other storylines as well — mainly the efforts of Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Bruhl) to end the war and General Friedrichs (Devid Striesow) to keep the war going.

The movie is visually stunning with every shot included by director Edward Berger leaving a strong impact. One thing that immediately sticks out is his choice to include brief shots of nature in between some of the most gruesome scenes. I found that these quick views of nature made the previous bloody scenes stay with me more than if the movie had just transitioned straight into the next piece of plot. The nature shots gave me a second to reflect on what I had just seen and how awful it must have been for World War I soldiers. Another great choice by Berger was to transition from the mud and cold of the trenches to the fanciful finery of the government and military officials. The quick cuts built my anger at just how out of touch those in power were about the conditions their soldiers were in.

The acting in this movie was also top tier, particularly the acting of Kammerer. There was a scene where Baumer — trapped in a pit with an opposing soldier — stabs the man to death only to have to listen as the other man slowly dies. Kammerer’s portrayal of the various emotions Baumer felt while the other man died was heart wrenching. But every actor beautifully played their part in the movie as well. I had no choice but to be sucked in to feel for (and in the case of Erzberger, against) all these characters.

“All Quiet on the Western Front” shone particularly in the little moments and details included. For example, the movie starts by portraying the death of a soldier named Heinrich. When Baumer receives his military uniform with Heinrich’s name on it, he thinks that the uniform simply belongs to someone else — not that the someone it belonged to was dead. This little moment was an amazing method of portraying Baumer’s — innocence that he is quickly going to lose on the battlefield. Other little details like the bullet hole that stays in Baumer’s helmet throughout the movie and the shot at the end of the film of a poster that Baumer’s dead friend put up, built up layers of emotional depth in the film.

While there are aspects of the film that could use a little improvement (besides Kat, all Baumer’s friends lack meaningful characterization), the film overall is superb. Every second of the film I spent on the edge of my seat waiting to see what would happen next, and I felt deeply for all the hardships that Baumer and his friends went through during their time on the Western Front. If you want a movie that pulls you in and does not let go, look no farther than “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

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‘Utica: The Last Refuge’: A stunning commentary

Last Wednesday, Saint Mary’s College hosted a showing of the documentary “Utica: The Last Refuge.” The film showcased the many aspects of what it means to come to America, including the struggles and the hardships migrants face. The documentary looks back on the experiences of what it was like to be an immigrant three generations prior to now.

The film opens with an introduction of the Azein family who hope to resettle in Utica, New York after leaving Sudan. From the beginning, the viewers learn of the struggles of what it is like to “become American” as the family arrives to Syracuse International Airport.

The documentary not only shows the kindness and compassion of those who are willing to provide for refugees, but also demonstrates the family’s struggle with the overwhelming decision of whether they should distance themselves from their culture or assimilate to their new society. 

The film clearly visualizes the sociological cycle of immigrants and how it varies each generation. It was evident that the five Azein children would be raised as Americans.

It is not solely the children who begin the process of integration. Mohammed Azein began school in 2019 while also working to support his family. His journey of finding work and enrolling in school was done with the help of the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees (MVRCR). 

The documentary highlights the struggles that the MVRCR faced as policy changes occurred at the state and national level in the United States. Despite, the restricted number of refugees allowed into the country, ‘Utica: The Last Refuge’ pushes back and argues for the rights of immigrants.

In the final scenes of “Utica: The Last Refuge” the audience witnesses the emotional presentation of citizenship certificates. This documentary calls viewers to action. The town of Utica is also a major player in this film. Their economic structure somewhat relies on refugees. Scenes of protests shortly after the 2016 election demonstrate the power of advocacy as well as the role politics plays within topics of immigration in small towns and cities across the country.

Title: “Utica: The Last Refuge”

Director: Loch Phillipps

Shamrocks: 5 out of 5

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‘Extraordinary Attorney Woo’: A call for diversity and equality

“Extraordinary Attorney Woo” is a Korean legal drama focusing on Woo Young-woo, an autistic law school grad beginning her career as an attorney at Hanbada, one of the most respected law firms in Seoul. Almost every episode focuses on investigating a different court case. In addition to the court drama, the show has a strong focus on emotional relationships between family and friends. The show’s greatest feat is the awareness it has raised for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in South Korea.

According to Son Da-Eun, the director of Autism Partnership Korea, the stigma surrounding disabilities like autism has created a negative environment for the disabled in South Korea. There is an association between disability and shame.

“You rarely have interactions with persons with autism on a daily basis. Historically, people with autism are kept home, hidden away from the world,” said Ms. Son

Yoo In-sik, the director of “Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” said he hoped the show would foster discussion of diversity and help create a more equal society.

The show’s portrayal of ableism challenges viewers to counteract it in their daily lives. Woo faces discrimination from society — though she achieves a near perfect score from the bar exam and graduates summa cum laude from Seoul National University, one of the top schools in South Korea, she is rejected from almost every law firm. Even while she works at Hanbada, she faces repeated harassment and bullying from certain lawyers who continuously try to get her either severely reprimanded or fired. The show acknowledges that, though she is an incredible lawyer and proves time and time again she is excellent at her job, she is being discriminated against solely because she is autistic. Attorneys who initially patronize her and believe she needs their help end up recognizing that she is the “stronger” lawyer — she is excellent at what she does without needing their help.  

The show does a good job of providing general information on ASD and dismantling part of the stigma that surrounds it. For example, it drives home the point that autism is a spectrum disorder and presents differently in different people, combating the misconception that all autistic people have a common set of traits.

However, critics are concerned that its portrayal of Woo, who has savant syndrome, does not represent most autistic people. Savant syndrome is a rare condition present in about one in ten people with autism that leads to extraordinary abilities and talents. Woo can memorize and scrutinize enormous amounts of information as a result. There is concern that this will lead some viewers to place unrealistic expectations upon all autistic people. 

As serious as the show’s criticisms of ableist society are, it also has many lighthearted moments. The legal drama is entertaining and tends to pull at viewers’ heartstrings. In many cases, the viewer is led to sympathize with Woo’s client. Yet there are also cases that challenge Woo’s concept of what it means to be a lawyer, morally and ethically, and offer insight into some aspects of her personal life. The development of her relationships with her coworkers is a strong point for the show.

However, in some episodes, the drama of the court cases pales in comparison to other aspects of the show, like her relationships. This leads to pacing issues, as some episodes drag on for quite a bit before addressing the more pressing drama.

This show excels at keeping viewers emotionally invested in its legal and interpersonal drama. It also provides insight into ASD and challenges viewers to examine instances of ableism they’ve witnessed through its portrayal of ableist characters.

Title: “Extraordinary Attorney Woo”

Director: Yoo In-sik

Starring: Park Eun-bin, Kang Tae-oh

Streaming: Netflix

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5

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Thankful for Big Bird and Doraemon

I come from a fifth-generation immigrant family, meaning my great-great-great grandparents immigrated from Japan to America. Putting it that way, I sound fairly detached from my Japanese roots, but I am still half-Japanese. Despite growing up in the United States, my parents, especially my mom, always made a point to help me learn about my cultural heritage and traditions. 

A memorable way I learned about my Japanese heritage was a program called Hikari No Gakko, which translates to the “Sunshine School.” This was a two-week summer camp that I participated in from the ages of four to 16. My mom helped run the camp as co-director even way before I was born, so Hikari No Gakko holds a special place in our hearts. There is so much to love about the camp. There we learned Japanese songs, how to prepare meals and snacks (all these years later, learning how to make mochi is still one of my favorite childhood memories) and watched movies from and about Japan. Even though we watched a lot of films, one movie, in particular, left a long-lasting impression on me. It is so ingrained in my soul that it will never be forgotten: “Big Bird in Japan.” No, I am not kidding. 

I may have watched this movie before the camp, but I have a vivid memory of being a little kid watching “Big Bird in Japan” on an old CRT television during camp one day, and seeing Sesame Street’s very own Big Bird learn about Japanese culture. What was lost on me at the time (but have come to appreciate with age) is that the movie tells the Japanese folk story of Princess Kaguya, or as I know it, the Bamboo Princess. In the story, Big Bird meets the central character of the folk tale and as the movie goes on she tells him about her past and we see her go live on the moon, as the original tale goes.

This was the first movie I remember touching on Japanese tradition, but it was far from the last. Growing up, I was a huge fan of Studio Ghibli, a Japanese animation company. Some of their most notable productions are “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.” I remember seeing “Ponyo” in a movie theater. It was a retelling of “The Little Mermaid,” and, to this day, “My Neighbor Totoro” remains one of my favorite movies of all time.

While movies had a large impact on learning more about my cultural heritage, television was also greatly influential. For many children their first exposure to Japanese television was most likely “Pokemon.” Personally, I never got into “Pokemon.” I didn’t play the games, watch the show or collect the cards. Instead, I watched “Doraemon,” a wacky comedy about a robot cat from the future sent to help his owner’s ancestor. If this premise sounds a little familiar, please note that “Doraemon” debuted in 1979, while “The Terminator” came out five years later. I’m not alleging anything, but it’s something to consider … Nevertheless, I loved this show, and all the wacky antics the cast would get into with Doraemon’s robotics. Anime, animation from Japan, is a huge industry worldwide and many, such as “DragonBall,” “Naruto” and “One Piece” (with all 1,000 chapters and counting) are beloved by fans across the globe. While these ones may be the most popular, my favorite remains “Doraemon.”

Connecting through movies and television shows may not be the most traditional way to get in touch with one’s culture, but it worked for me. My entire life I’ve loved movies and television, and I’m really grateful I have this way to connect with my Japanese heritage.

Contact Andy Ottone at aottone@nd.edu

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What ‘Coco’ has taught me

Believe me, I get it. Here’s another piece on Coco! Has it been talked about numerous times since its release in 2017? Absolutely, but for good reason. Being Mexican-American myself, I was skeptical at first when Disney announced this film. I thought right away it would be a stereotypical Hispanic film that the majority of audiences would assume Hispanic culture is. However, “Coco” was a film that truly moved me emotionally. So, while this isn’t necessarily a recommendation, I would like to talk about what this film meant to me.

In case you haven’t seen it yet, “Coco” is a 2017 film directed by Adrian Molina and Lee Unkrich. The story is of Miguel Rivera, a young musician who crosses over to the Land of the Dead to find his purpose in life while connecting with his ancestors. The film is heavily influenced by the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos or also known as Day of the Dead. On this multi-day holiday, family and friends gather to pay respects and remember friends and family members who have died.

When I was little, I had very little care for Dia De Los Muertos. I was naive to the idea of death and why we spent a whole day remembering those who passed on, especially those that I wasn’t necessarily close to. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I understood the importance of this holiday, as well as remembering the dead in general.

I lost all my grandfathers in high school: my Papo (Robert Balleza) on my mother’s side, my grandfather (Raul Zarazua) and my step-grandfather (Lloyd Negrete) on my father’s side. It was hard to process. The role models of my childhood, the people I never thought would leave, are now gone. The idea of death hit me hard, and made me think about what would happen if I left now. How would I be remembered? Would I be remembered years down the line?

As I grew older, the thought wasn’t in my head 24/7, but still lingered, and appeared again when COVID-19 hit. The idea of death and not being remembered hit me like a truck. I never knew how to process these thoughts until my sophomore year, when we finally came back to campus.

I went to an event showing “Coco” and my feelings finally come together. While those we loved are no longer with us, they are never truly gone forever. Just because someone isn’t with you anymore, that doesn’t mean that the love you have for them has disappeared. Their lives have meaning because we, the living, refuse to forget them. When we pass on, we trust and hope those we love will do the same for us. 

“Coco” also shows the importance of passing on traditions and familial legacy. While Coco’s family has a strong hatred toward music, the family and audience learn the value of respecting previous generations and the knowledge our elders have accumulated. There are plenty of people who feel they have made grave mistakes in their life and wish they could take them back. However, the best thing a person can do is to teach the people they love to not make the same mistakes. While those who look up to us want to be just like us, we want them to be better than us so they can have better lives.

No one we love is ever truly gone, and we can continue to keep their legacy alive, remembering the times we had with them and continue to pass on their legacy.

Title: “Coco”

Directors: Adrian Molina, Lee Unkrich

Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal

Streaming: Disney+

Shamrocks: 5 out of 5

Contact Gabriel at gzarazua@nd.edu