Reflections on the Golden Screen

Most people will not watch foreign films (now called World Cinema) for various reasons - they might believe they are the sole province of pseudo-intellectuals, perhaps are boring, don't care for the subject matter or just don't like sub-titles.  Although at one time American films were the only game in town and for many people they still are, the fact is that the rest of the world is catching up fast, and a number of very talented Directors, screenwriters and actors are producing quality films.  Sub-titles are an acquired taste and once you get used to them, they are not a problem  - in fact just lately, I have been finding them an alternative to the Brandonesqe mumblings which are becoming more prevalent in American films.  I think that as a cinema-goer its fine to watch the latest Hollywood blockbusters but if you wish to expand your mind and perhaps see a different view of the world then foreign movies can be a surprising revelation.
 

Mongol   (2007) - Director - Sergei Bodrov
Here in the western world we know little about Mongolia and for most of us Genghis Khan conjures up visions of a pagan warlord, whose armies raped and pillaged across Asia - and anyone who knows more than that is better informed than a large percentage of the population.  Richard the Lionheart was a contemporary of Genghis Khan (1162 -1227 ) and while the Crusaders were fighting in western north Africa the Mongol hordes were invading most of central Asia, China and as far west as Baghdad.  It is a measure of Genghis Khan's influence that although most of us, including me, are badly informed about the man , he has come down to us as a legendary and fearless warlord.
However, Mongol has avoided the obvious trap of making a film of the warlord's conquests which would have ended up as little more than the usual sword and savagery drama, and instead has concentrated  upon his childhood when he was simply Temudjin and the situations which made him into the redoubtable warrior he became.  The film is a co-production of German, Russian and Kazakhstan companies, made around the 800th anniversary of Genghis Khan's death - buried in an unmarked grave, his last resting place has been sought for centuries and during the making of the film, the Director came into contact with Mongols who revered Genghis Khan to such an extent that they awaited his return to earth.
When I first watched this film, life on the Mongolian Steppes and the dramatic events were so harsh that I believed it to be fiction but it is in fact a well-researched biography of the early years of Genghis Khan who was then the son of a small clan-chieftan.  Temudjin's father had taken his son to a neighbouring clan in order for the 9 year old boy to pick a bride who would then marry him after 5 years.  In the event it was the prospective bride who chose Temudjin - a girl name Borte who would remain faithful to him for the rest of his life.  On the return journey, Temudjin's father is poisoned by another clan chieftain, leaving Temudjin at the mercy of his enemies who strip  his tribe of everything they possess leaving them all in dire poverty.  The survival of the young Temudjin is a remarkable story as he grows old enough to marry Borte but fate is once again unkind when Borte is kidapped soon afterwards.  Chuluuny Khulan plays the adult Borte and came into the part by accident when the Director chose her for her fine looks - Chuluuny is actually a Mongolian journalist.  Tadanobu Asaro is a Japanese actor who plays the part of the adult Temudjin superbly and has as much presence and magnetism as any Hollywood A-lister.   
When Temudjin approaches another clan leader to help him regain his bride it is the beginning of Temudjin's mission to amalgamate the clans and become Genghis Khan in the process.  The battle scenes are brilliantly done and the costumes evoke another age when Mongolian warriors were feared across Asia.
As I was watching Mongol, throughout the film it was striking just how similar the nomadic Mongols were to Native Americans - bot cultures revered horses above women, treated women as chattels, were superb horsemen, fought as tribes or clans, even their tepees were similar.  There is a theory that Native Americans originated from Mongolian migrations across the Bering Strait and on this evidence is easy to believe it is true.

 
Black Robe {1991 } : Director : Bruce Beresford
On the shores of Georgian Bay, Canada, there is an accurate reconstruction of one of the many Huron villages that existed in this area not too many years ago. No Disney-like Indian village this ----it is a carefully excavated archaeological dig which has unearthed long-houses, palisades, artefacts and a tiny church with the whole site having the wonderfully evocative title of Saint-Marie- Among -The- Hurons.  Champlain passed this way in 1715, closely followed by a Jesuit mission consisting of six missionaries stationed within the village with the other two brave souls spreading the gospel out in the wilderness. The  Huron called them Black Robes.
The native Indians of Canada were every bit as fierce as their counterparts in America and perhaps more so, but the Huron accepted the Black Robes with good humour and but for their help the missionaries would have perished in the killing Canadian winters. It might have been as well if they had all died given the fate that was in store for them all when the implacable and bloodthirsty Iroquois came calling. Caught up in a savage conflict between the two nations, the Black Robes were all captured by the Iroquois and subjected to the most appalling tortures before being burnt at the stake - a fate once reserved for heretics, the irony was lost on the savages.
The martyrs of the wilderness suffered just as much as the early Christians and all have been canonized in recent years -their shrine can be seen at the church and stations of the cross just outside the gates of Saint-Marie.  For some reason, the custodians of Saint-Marie deny that
Black Robe the film has any connection to the village they administer but the similarities are inescapable.

The film, set in the same era as the Jesuits, shows clearly the struggle to survive the winter and is not slow to demonstrate the callous and casual cruelty of the Indians whether they are Huron, Algonquin or Iroquois. Lothaire Blutheau, fresh from his success in
The Jesus of Montreal  plays Father Laforgue who is travelling from Quebec to the Huron villages.  Tantoo Cardinal has only a small part here and is far more memorable playing Black Shawl in Dances With Wolves.  The hardships of the wilderness are countered by the courage and faith of the Black Robes in their desire to convert the savages but Laforgue has an even greater struggle when he discovers that the Huron have a religion of their own based upon dreams and the world of night.
Bruce Beresford in a complete departure from
Driving Miss Daisy  has directed an historically correct adventure using a wholly French-Canadian cast which only just escapes being a documentary in its realistic approach.
English wrestling enthusiasts of 50's and 60's vintage would sit up at one name in the cast list - that of Billy Two Rivers. Largely forgotten except for an older generation of wrestling fans it's difficult to describe just how popular Billy was in his heyday in Great Britain even though every bout followed the same format ; Billy would get a hiding for 3 rounds and then just when he was about finished he would summon up his last reserves of strength and following a war-dance with his Mohawk haircut standing proud he would demolish his opponent with his famous "tomahawk chop" - nice to see then and nice to see now. within this text box.
Apocalypto (2006): Directed by Mel Gibson
Despite the fact that Mel Gibson is the Director of Apocalypto the film qualifies as World Cinema in respect of the co-writer Farhad Safinia being Iranian born, all of the actors are either Native American or Mayan, the subject matter is completely foreign but most of all because Mel Gibson has bravely chosen to use no other language than Mayan throughout the film.
Gibson made several "historic" films prior to this one - Mutiny On The Bounty being the best of them; Braveheart is one of Gibson's most popular films but suffers badly from a great deal of fiction injected into the so-called historical background and despite the rousing battle scenes it can never be considered anything like a serious account of William Wallace and his life.  But if Braveheart lacks authenticity, then the execrable The Patriot plumbs the depths as far as historical accuracy is concerned. Whether it is his Aussie background which the cause, Gibson certainly has it in for the English in these two films and Colonel William Tavington ( Jason Isaacs) who is almost certainly based on the real-life Liverpudlian Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton, is portrayed as a sadistic English commander who is demonised by the (fictional ) atrocities he commits.  Edward Longshanks played by  Patrick McGoohan  in Braveheart is demonised in the same way and the two men's roles could be almost interchangeable. 
Because the above two films sacrificed authenticity for sensationalism when Apocalypto was released it was approached with some caution not least by myself.  However, Gibson has at last produced a first-class adventure film based upon the declining days of the Mayan Empire and the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors.  There have been detractors of the historical authenticity of the film but although I am not qualified to comment they do appear to be from specialists in that particular field who will always have some bone to pick such is the extent of their knowledge.  For the layman, the lives of Jaguar Paw (played by Rudy Youngblood), Seven, his wife ( Dalia Hernandez) and Turtle Run, his son, are as real as they can be, as they face the threat of the increasingly bloodthirsty Mayan priests in the dying days of the Mayan Empire, circa 1511.   
The Mayan Empire is almost always known for its cruel and pagan religious rites but a contradictory reality of its existence was its sophisticated knowledge of science, medicine, cosmology and other disciplines which are not in evidence in the film.  Apocalypto is primarily an adventure story which uses the dying days of the Mayans as a backdrop to the lives of Jaguar Paw and his family caught up in events not of their making - a thrilling nail-biter of a film as Jaguar Paw races against time and the Mayan warriors to rescue his wife and son.  The heavily tattooed Mayan warriors are an enemy to be feared and they all present a terrifying picture of savagery, with painted bodies, heavily decorated faces in metal and bone and fearsome weapons - none more so than their leader Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo) who incidentally played the Iroquois Chief in Black Robe.  Of all the warriors, Middle Eye is the most terrifying of all - he takes pleasure in inflicting pain and is completely merciless with a sadism born of a cretinous lack of compassion.  Middle Eye lives for nothing else but shedding blood in ever- varying cruel ways and as the tool of the Mayan priests he epitomises the decline of the Mayan race. 
In a film which is replete with action and drama, one of the most evocative scenes is when the captive Mayans are taken to their place of execution in the Mayan city.  Taken from their homes in the jungle, none of the native captives have ever seen the city, and their horror increases with every step as they enter into a necropolis of severed heads where slaves coated in limestone are worked to death cutting stone, macaws watch over rivulets of blood running in the street, flamboyant courtiers dressed like pantomime dames chatter endlessly as slaves are sold on the block and human heads stare out from poles driven through them.  But worse is yet to come as it dawns upon the prisoners that as human heads bounce down the steps of the Mayan pyramid and still pulsing hearts are held aloft in triumph by the priests, that they themselves are soon to be victims of this Kingdom of Cruelty.  While blood and gore, disease, squalor and corpses litter the streets, they exist side by side with the grandeur of the Mayan pyramids and it is one of the reasons why some historians believe that the decline of the Mayan empire was because the Mayan priests and royalty had descended into madness -on the evidence of this section of the film it is hard to disagree.
Apocalypto is the best thing that Mel Gibson has ever done and is so good that I can almost forgive him for his previous mangled histories.
 
La Haine (Hate) (1995) - Director: Mathieu Kassovitz
 
"We live like shit in rat-holes and you do sod all to change that!" - Vinz
 
On the face of it, La Haine is simply the story of three disenchanted French youths as they fill their empty lives and aimless days with petty crimes and inane banter, after the fashion of Mean Streets.  However, the run-down tenements which are the backdrop to their feckless existence are not simply a backcloth to the action but are in fact the story itself and without knowing their history the film is virtually meaningless.  The Council estates which have sprung up on the outer reaches of central Paris, are called banlieues - they are breeding grounds for vandalism, anti-social behaviour and drug dealing, with a multi-cultural community both alien and alienated to the average Parisian; Parisians know all this, the actors are more than aware of it and the Director takes it for granted that it is common knowledge - which may be true in France but is certainly not the case in other countries.
The banlieues are a true anachronism in that their origins can be traced back to French colonial days when Algerians, Malians, Tunisians, Vietnamese and others, flocked to Paris in their thousands with hopes of a better life in what they then regarded as some vague motherland.  Most of them found that their newly acquired French language skills and native Arabic or African tongues were of little use in a city devoted to tourism where the lingua franca was English, and instead of living in some swish apartment close to the Eiffel Tower they found themselves banished to the wastelands beyond the péripherique, in places such as Vanves, Pantin and St Denis, with work limited to jobs such as cleaning laundry in hotel basements. The featureless high-rise blocks of the banlieus combined with an absence of work and a general atmosphere of exclusion is a toxic mix and inevitably led to resentment and it was a short step from there into a ghetto, where danger lies in wait for anyone foolish enough to wander into a land of burnt-out cars and hooded youths on every corner.  The banlieus are a problem that has never been solved and it is a telling indictment of their continuing menace that 20 years after the making of La Haine, the terrorists who carried out the atrocities of November, 2015, in central Paris, hid among the rookeries of the St Denis banlieu.  Although La Haine was filmed in the Paris suburb of Chanteloup-le-Vignes there is no specific banlieu mentioned in the film.
Kassovitz stated that the inspirations for La Haine were the death of Makome M'Bowole from Zaire, who was shot in 1993 while in police custody, the death of 22 year old student Malik Oussekine, beaten to death by riot police in 1986, mistakenly suspected of taking part in a street demonstration, and the Director's own experiences.  There is a documentary feel to the film which focuses on the lives of three youths; Hubert, an Afro-French boxer (who looks like a young Sidney Poitier) played by Hubert Koundé, Saïd, an Arab, played by Saïd Taghmaoui, and Vinz, a Jew, ( Vincent Cassel) whose burning hatred and nihilism will ultimately lead to tragedy.  In another time and another place Hubert would have made a success of his life, and Saïd could have easily reformed, but Vinz is a lost cause who spends hours in the mirror imitating Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver and empowered by the finding of a police firearm becomes a force for his own and anyone else's destruction.  There is no mention of the three friends being of different ethnic backgrounds but the suggestion is that all cultures become one when faced with the same adversities.  With a background of rap music, what is also apparent is how all the youths are enamoured of American pop culture and much of the dialogue is peppered with references to Batman, Lethal Weapon, and revealing an underlying innocence, there are serious references to cartoon characters which are similar to the dialogue of the boys in Stand By Me .
La Haine is not a pleasant film but it does highlight the plight of the emigrants locked into their high-rise apartments like so many pigeons in a loft and it does illustrate clearly how young lives are wasted without  meaningful work.  Recently the situations highlighted in La Haine have taken on a new significance given  the amounts of displaced people of all backgrounds roaming around Europe - they are seeking the same things that the French colonials did when they came to Paris all those years ago.  It would be a tragedy all round if the newly displaced emigrants ended up the same way.
The French have always been inveterate cinema-goers and unlike the Brits they will watch a variety of films from other countries.  They do appreciate quality films from British studios but have always favoured the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and will watch thrillers, blockbusters, gangster films and westerns, entranced by all things American.  Although there have always been thriving film companies in France, their films have been largely ignored in England where they have been confined to art-house cinemas, seemingly the sole province of intellectual audiences.  The mould was broken to some extent in the 1950's when Brigitte Bardot was making an art-form out of looking coquettish in a bikini and starring in such classics as Babette Goes to War, but genuine actors and actresses were routinely ignored, with the likes of Jean Gabin and Simone Signoret virtually unknown to British audiences.  Simone Signoret (1921-1985) began her career mixing with the writers, actors and intellectuals of the Café de Flore, Aux Deux Magots and Brasserie Lipp in Saint-Germain-des Prés during the war, beginning her film career with bit parts eventually rising to become one of the greatest stars of French cinema.  Her sensual and smoky good looks earned her the role of a prostitute in the earthy film La Ronde and her career took off from there when she made a series of French language films.  Simone Signoret may well have been unknown to British film audiences but she was well known enough to Director Jack Clayton who chose her for the role of a femme fatale in Room At The Top which won her an Academy Award for Best Actress and the distinction of being the first French actress to win the coveted award.  Simone is buried beneath a weeping birch tree in the cemetery of Père La Chaise in Paris where devoted fans still visit her grave and leave flowers.  Louis Jourdan (1921 - 2015) came to Hollywood after the war and trading on his handsome features, cheesy smile and French accent, made his career as a matinee idol of the old school and was possibly the best known French actor in England of the 1950's onwards.  Apart from those mentioned, French actors and French films have been anonymous in England and a whole cultural experience ignored.  In the latter years actors such as Gérard Dépardieu, Jean Reno, Marion Cotillard, Audrey Tautou and others have kept the tricolour flying although it has to be said  that they also have been required to ply their trade in Hollywood.
If anyone is in any doubt as to the popularity of the cinema in France one only has to stroll around Paris to see cinemas on virtually every corner, ranging from the grand picture palace called the Le Grand Rex in Clichy to the Chinoiserie of La Pagode in Rue de Babylone and onto the historic Le Studio 88 in Montmartre.  Paris is for cinema historians a nirvana of buildings in every style and an affirmation of how cinema has been loved in Paris from its very beginnings. 
Mesrine  2008   : Director Jean-François Richet.   French/ Canadian film. 
Based on Mesrine's memoirs in the book "L'Instinct de Mort " - Instinct for Death. 
The film is very long and on DVD is split into two discs.  The two parts below are a commentary on the life of Mesrine and split into two parts similar to the film.
 
"I don't like the laws and I don't want to be a slave of the alarm clock my whole life."

Killer Instinct
Brought up on a diet of sensational film titles designed to attract, there are  very few British and American cinemagoers who would be
attracted to a film with such an enigmatic title; but throughout the 1960's and 1970's Mesrine was a household name as he made headlines around the world whilst running the French police ragged.  It's tempting to think of Jacques Mesrine as a French John Dillinger and it is true to say that there are many similiarities - for instance; both men loved publicity and courted it assiduously; both robbed banks; both achieved notoriety by robbing two banks on the same day, sometimes across the same street; both enjoyed making fools of the law and both were expert at breaking out of jails.  Mesrine and Dillinger also had such a devil-may-care attitude to the law that they both achieved the rare feat of breaking back into jails to release some of their friends.  However, the similarities between the two men end there except for one final  thing which was the manner in which they went to their deaths.

Mesrine was born in 1936 into a middle-class family in Clichy, a suburb of Paris, where he was expected to find a respectable job and live as his family lived in middle-class obscurity; although there is some suggestion in the film that Mesrine's father cooperated willingly with the Nazis during the occupation and it may have been some kind of rebellion on Mesrine's part which caused him to join the French army.  As a paratrooper during the 1950's, Mesrine served in Algeria during the bitter fighting and was reputed to have been a part of a French death squad.  On his return to Paris his military training served him well when he entered into the violent and sinister French underworld.  It was there that he met Guido, a Godfather of Parisian crime played in the film by Gérard Depardieu, and under his influence became immersed irretreviably in a life of crime in which killing was an integral part.
In 1961 Mesrine met a Spanish girl named Maria De La Soledad and in a similar scenario to the Mafia gangsters depicted in Goodfellas and the Godfather, he married and saw no irony in bringing up a family in a solid, bourguois manner while living a duel life as a career gangster.  It was at this time in 1962 that Mesrine served his first term of 18 months in jail followed by a further 6 months in 1965, both sentences were for robbery.   Despite having three children with Mesrine, unlike the gangster's molls of American folklore, Maria could never reconcile the domestic and the dangerous and the couple divorced in 1965.   

In 1966 Mesrine met Jeanne Schneider who was attracted to the aura of danger surrounding the gangster and they embarked on a lfe of crime together, robbing Parisian hotels and jewelry shops until police pursuit became so intense that they took the radical step of escaping to Canada.  Mesrine had no intention of ever changing his way of life and it was while in Québec that in 1969, accompanied by the ever-faithful Schneider, he changed  from bank robbing to kidnap as  his favoured crime.  The kidnapping attempt was doomed from the start and with the Canadian police hot on their trail, Mesrine and Schneider drove into the U.S.A. as far as Arkansas where they were apprehended by the American police and sent back to  Québec.  In 1970, Mesrine's association with Jeanne Schneider came to and when she received a sentence of 5 years for her part in the kidnap and he was sent to the maximum security prison, Saint Vincent-de-Paul, for a period of 10 years.  It was in prison that Mesrine befriended Jean-Paul Mercier, a convicted murderer, and in 1972 the pair concocted a carefully conceived plan to cut through the wire while the guards were distracted by other prisoners.  The escape was a complete success, making a mockery of the Canadian penal system, and while the prison guards licked their wounds, Mercier and Mesrine embarked on a series of robberies in Montreal.  However, Mesrine was not satisfied with humiliating the Canadian authorities, he wanted revenge for perceived cruelty in prison and in a brave but madcap scheme, Mercier and Mesrine returned to Saint Vincent-de-Paul in an attempt to bring about a mass break-out.  The scheme ended in a firefight with prison officers which caused the wounding of two prison officers and Mercier but achieved nothing except the burning resentment of Canadian police.  Hatred of Mesrine and Mercier became white-hot when one week later while target shooting in a remote wilderness area, the two gangsters and Mercier's girlfriend were accosted by two Wildlife Rangers, resulting in the shooting of both Rangers who were far from young and far from capable of tackling the ruthless killers.  The killings did not stop the two killers from robbing more banks in Montreal before Mesrine decided to leave Canada once and for all and he travelled to New York, staying at the Waldorf Astoria, before leaving for Venezuela and in 1972 returning to Paris.

Public Enemy No I
Similarly to Dillinger, Mesrine took great pride in being declared Public Enemy No I and back in Paris he once again pursued his old career robbing banks with a supreme disregard for the law.  But in 1973 he was taken into custody and while awaiting his court appearance in a scene reminiscent of Michael Corleone's famous shooting of  Captain Mark McCluskey in The Godfather Mesrine escaped using a gun hidden in the toilet cistern.  Mesrine had made fools of the authorities once again but 4 months later he was back in custody and at his trial,
displaying a breathtaking display of hubris, proceeded to taunt the judge with a mixture of witty remarks and insults.  However his grandstanding did little to endear him to the authorities and Mesrine was sentenced to 20 years penal servitude in La Santé Prison located near to the Lion statue at Denfert- Rochereau and considered impregnable.  It was in La Santé Prison that Mesrine wrote "L'Instinct de Mort " which led to a new law passed by the French authorities preventing criminals from profiting from such books. 
While in prison Mesrine met a jail-breaker as accomplished as himself named François Besse and together the two men hatched a plot to escape which involved a stolen pistol, illicit keys, grappling irons. ladders and a firefight; too complicated to elaborate on here, the escape was beyond daring and the product of a collaboration between two highly intelligent and determined  escapees - it was the first time in history that the walls of La Santé had been breached.

Once free, Mesrine resumed his robberies accompanied by Besse, travelling to Sicily, Algeria, London, and Brussels until they returned to Paris
where Besse became alarmed at Mesrine's taunting of the police and also his departure from banditry and into the world of extreme politics;  Mesrine began to see himself as a revolutionary and made contact with members of the Red Brigade, the Baader- Meinhof group and the Palestine Liberation Group causing Besse to leave Mesrine to his own devices.  Mesrine became less interested in robbery and more into imaginative schemes which highlighted his own audacity and once again he tried kidnapping , one a failed attempt on a judge and another which reaped 6 million francs.  In 1979, Mesrine kidnapped a French journalist named Jacques Tillier and in a brutal attack, he shot him three times; amazingly Tillier survived although he lost the use of one arm, but the attack outraged the French press which Mesrine had previously used for his own ends, famously appearing on the front cover of Paris Match in 1978. 

But the French authorities had had enough of Mesrine's antics - taking him to court had little effect, he escaped from the highest security jails and his constant taunting of the police was an insult to the authorities , and on November 2nd, 1979, as Mesrine and his girlfriend were driving through Paris, leaving the city via the wide boulevard of Porte de Clignancourt, a van pulled up in front of their vehicle.   A tarpaulin was pulled up and Mesrine had a few seconds to take heed of a row of guns aimed directly at him before he was killed in a hail of bullets.

Epilogue
The above account is a mixture of Mesrine's biography and the film itself.  They are, however, virtually indistinguishable because the film is a faithful reproduction of Mesrine's life and contains far more than is detailed above - for instance, I have omitted Mesrine's penchant for disguises and never captured the pace and gripping scenes within the film itself.  Although La Haine brought Vincent Cassels to the attention a French audience and also an American one which saw him go to Hollywood it was as Mesrine that the actor made his reputation and the film remains his finest work to date. 
There is one final thing that Mesrine had in common with John Dillinger and it is the fact that both men were so difficult to capture that the authorities had decided to relinquish any attempt to arrest them and their deaths could only be described as assassinations; Bonnie and Clyde were also killed in such a manner.
While John Dillinger was for a long time regarded with a rosy glow of fondness in the American mid-west where he retained the legend of a Robin Hood among the largely unsophisticated farming communities, today he is fast disappearing from the consciousness of an American youth culture preoccupied with social media.  However, the opposite is the case in France where Mesrine has become a cult figure, adopted as the patron saint of rebellion by young people of every hue; Mesrine now occupies a place in the French cultural pantheon, joining Edith Piaf, Zinedine Zidane, Bardot, Sartre and all the other French icons - for many years he was actually voted the most popular man in France.   Tourists in the cities of Paris, Lyon and Marseille can often be puzzled by French youths sporting T-shirts with Mesrine pointing a pistol and the words "Profession Ennemi Public - Mesrine, pour toujours et  pour jamais"  (Profession Public Enemy - Mesrine, forever and always) and graffiti proclaiming "Mesrine - -pas mort " (Mesrine is not dead) in the manner of certain Elvis fans.  French rappers in particular have taken Mesrine to their hearts writing highly inflammatory song lines and deifying their idol as the French version of Scarface or Che Guevara.
Often sadistic and cruel and a killer without a conscience, Mesrine was a dangerous man to be around, but there's no denying his daredevil exploits and devil-may-care lifestyle which go to make up a roller-coaster ride of a film which would be unbelievable if not for the fact that it is all true.                                                                                                                                                                                                                         
                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

This commentary on Mesrine was written in association with Andrew Hussey. author of :
The Secret History of Paris
The French Intifada



                                Mesrine in La Santé  1978
Once Were Warriors  { 1994 }
Director : Lee Tamahori from the novel by Alan Duff
Powerful, violent and hard-hitting are hardly expressions that are usually associated with the peaceful islands of New Zealand but they are fitting descriptions of one of the very few memorable films to come out of those islands.  Temuera Moraison plays Jake Heke who dominates the film with his muscular and menacing presence in just the same way as he dominates his fearful wife and family. Sometimes charming, sometimes maudlin, sometimes ingratiating but more often vicious and sadistic, Jake's bouts of drunkenness and violence become more and more frequent as he thrashes about trying to find some meaning to his life. There is a great deal of irony in the fact that unemployed, drunk and a wife-beater he persists in trying to instill what he perceives to be worthwhile values into his long-suffering children.
Ostensibly a film about domestic violence  the film is at the same time a parable of the plight of the Maori nation and its loss of identity in the modern world.  Ethnic minorities all over the globe, from Native Americans to Zulu warriors will empathise with the Maori people depicted in this film and the similarities between nations overtaken by colonialism is striking. 

The film works on two levels and is a serious study of loss of national identity and its effect upon indigenous peoples. The peaceful image of New Zealand today hides the fact that the Maoris were an extremely proud and warlike nation and their wars with British colonists were bloody affairs with no quarter given or taken -take a look at the Haka for some idea of how a Maori warrior went into battle. Jake's fighting spirit and combative nature is derivative of this era and the bar-room battles are wincingly graphic. The domestic violence and child abuse also pulls no punches and although we may understand Jake's problem it is difficult to sympathise with a man who has everyone living in the shadow of his violent eruptions.
Jake is not the man you want to pick a fight with in a bar and Temeura Moraison plays him to perfection while Rena Owen is also superb as his long-suffering wife, Beth. The film is not for the squeamish but certainly paints a graphic picture of the underbelly of New Zealand society and is an introduction to a whole cast of native Kiwi actors who would be impressive in any company.

There have been two sequels to Warriors which is a favourite film of New Zealand movie buffs.
Wakolda  (2013)  Director: Lucía Puenzo
I never thought I would ever comment on  a film made in and about Argentina but it does serve to emphasise that the world of cinema is not confined to Hollywood.  I don't know any of the actors in this film but most of them, especially the part of the little girl Lilith and her mother Eva, would stand out in any film as superb actors whose screen presence plays a great part in the film's success.  Based upon a true story, the film begins by Eva, her husband, Lilith and her other two children meeting a travelling German doctor and taking him into their inherited hotel in Argentina which they hope to renovate.  The tension wracks up as little by little the seemingly well-meaning doctor takes an interest in every aspect of the family's health with 12 year old Lilith's apparent slowness to grow,and Eva's pregnancy of great interest to him.  The family's inherent trust in doctors becomes fractured as Lilith's father begins to suspect the treatments administered are quackery.   The doctor also takes a great interest in Enzo's skills as an innovative doll-maker and inveigles him into enter into a scheme where they can be mass-produced and sold for a profit - the resulting row upon row of dolls, each the identical twin of the other is quite disturbing and tells us a great deal about the doctor's obsession for similaritude.  When the doctor discovers that Eva is having twins his interest knows no bounds and after their birth his interest becomes more and more obsessive.  If you have not discovered by now what the family were informed, the good doctor is Joseph Mengele, the infamous  Nazi  doctor of Auschwitz who specialized in bizarre theories of eugenics, subjecting his victims to wicked and cruel experiments in his search for the true Aryan race.  The smiling Mengele stood on the platform when the trains arrived at Auschwitz and looked for sets of twins which he believed would lead him to unlock the secrets of genetics and he fed them sweets to allay their fears even as he planned the wicked and useless experiments which were straight out of Weird Science.
Mengele escaped Nazi German after the war and despite the best efforts of Mossad remained free until his death in 1979.  He practised as a doctor in Paraguay and Argentina never losing his obsession with the creation of a "Master Race."  The actor who plays Mengele in the film bears a remarkable resemblance to the real Mengele.  In case you are wondering Wakolda is the name of Lilith's doll -I will leave it up to you to find out how the family fared when Enzo discovered who their doctor was.