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  • Kerry Chambers

It’s time. How long I have revelled in pondersome procrastination as I tried to conjure up a new article. Yet here it was, standing right in front of me all along. Because I’m a total fool for Ingmar Bergman. Despite the opinion I held that he would be very dry, I didn’t expect his filmography to be so explicitly juicy, venomous and downright outrageous. But there you go; I said I was a fool. And true fool I am for the Swedish master.

Scenes From a Marriage (Tartan DVD, 1974)

Born in the early twentieth century, Bergman grew up in a strict household to a Minister and nurse, surrounded by wealth but little freedom. It was here he would explore the fantastical and the bounds of his imaginations. So it made sense that as he matured, he took a great interest in theatre. Bergman eventually went onto write and direct stage plays before transitioning into film. An actor’s director, his wit and intelligence exude into his scripts with fast, dialogue heavy films that paint a dismal picture of the human condition whilst intertwining exciting imagery that explores the reaches of the human capability, of lust and longing, of fear and fancy.

Persona (Tartan DVD, 1966)

Bergman made over sixty feature films, many TV movies, wrote many books both fictional and on filmmaking, along with writing and directing countless plays whilst conducting multiple affairs with a variety of actresses. He was a very busy man. He's been showered with awards, sweeping the shelves of international trophies every which way he turned, even nabbing three Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film and one for Best Original Screenplay. Major directors still cite him as a huge influence on their careers including Pedro Almodóvar, Francis Ford Coppola, Ang Lee, Park Chan-wook and David Lynch to name but a few. The guy created some of the most iconic scenes in cinema: the two women, profile and face on, the boy against the screen from Persona, Death and the knight playing chess on the beach from The Seventh Seal, that tree scene in The Virgin Spring. He’s also been mimicked by many; Abba’s Knowing Me, Knowing You, anyone?

Stemming from his theatrical routes, Bergman formed a troupe of sorts that eventually filled his nightmarish universes, including the marvellous talents of Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann, Gunnar Björnstrand, Erland Josephson, Ingrid Thulin, and Max von Sydow. These actors gave some of their best work under his direction and proved, despite being a difficult man that he was magnetic and thrilling to work with. Better still, his long-time collaboration with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, made many of his greatest films transcend the medium, delivering lush, organic and immersive images. But perhaps his most significant collaboration was with the island of Fårö, of which he eventually made his home. It was here he filmed many of his works, the desolate Scandinavian beauty of the land became as much a character of his works as his casts.

Autumn Sonata (Tartan DVD, 1978)

Beyond all of this, he was a master storyteller. He flipped cinema on its head. His landscape was the realm of dreams and psychosis. It was believed he was a lucid dreamer and many of what he was tormented by found its way into his films. Perhaps this is what makes them both great and unsettling. His melancholic madness weaved its wonderful magic, created illusion and mysticism, raw sensibility and honesty. He even broke the biggest rule in film, ‘Show, don’t tell’ by telling and not showing… and then sometimes showing us too, and the sometimes absolutely explaining nothing at all about what he just showed. He is worthy of all the praise and longevity of his work. In the end, a lot of people have been moved by his depiction psychological torment, artistic and emotional insanity and (let’s face it) daddy issues.

Fanny and Alexander (Tartan DVD, 1982)

Before we start, some honourable Mentions:

The Rite (1969): Although made for TV, this short film is quite shocking as it explores a theatre troupe accused of public lewdness due to a pornographic performance.

Summer Interlude (1951): A slightly older entry, I found myself rather engrossed in this beautiful film about a ballerina recalling her first love summers before.

The Silence (1963): There was no reason I excluded this film, other than that I prefer the other two in the Faith Trilogy and that all of them being so masterful, there would not be room for a comedy here and there. A Neglected child is forced to endure the toxicity of two sisters whose resentment of one another bleeds into their every activity.

Summer with Monika (Tartan DVD, 1953)

15. Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

One of the lighter films amongst psychologically challenging oeuvre, this early film was one of a string of films to brought Bergman much international attention. Probably the only lark on this list, it is still evidence of the directors witticisms and sharp sense of humour. It’s a pretty easy way to start his filmography but I wouldn’t wholly recommend it, he left behind this kind of story and many of the more light-hearted farces choosing to explore the muggy planes of the human subconscious.

Smiles of a Summer Night (Tartan DVD, 1955)

In turn of the century Sweden a series of romantic comeuppances unfold as the servants and the upper class find themselves at odds amongst lust and jealousy. A large cast of characters, we see son fall for his new, young stepmother, father eye up the servants and more. It’s fast-paced and full of vitality, something that makes a welcome change in the director’s works.

Smiles of a Summer Night (Tartan, 1955)

14. Summer with Monika (1953)

The one that kicked up a storm upon release, marketed as soft-core porn to English-speaking markets, poor Summer with Monika had a seedy reputation for a while in the UK as a raunchy teen melodrama with actual nudity. It was censored and snipped where it could be, robbing the film of its very essence. The film actually explores something far more melancholic, the bloom of young love and the trivialities of fickle youth, it becomes at once romantic and then incredibly honest.

Summer with Monika (Tartan DVD, 1953)

A troubled young man finds himself swept off his feet by the vivacious Monika. The two elope and begin a life together, but are soon faced with harsh realities as idleness and complacency lead them into trouble. Harriet Andersson shines in this early role, one of the many muses of Bergman. She is both likable and utterly infuriating, but ultimately sympathetic. Even after all these years she can hypnotise audiences with this wonderful turn.

Summer with Monika (Tartan DVD, 1953)

13. The Seventh Seal (1957)

I wanted to be controversial when I place this film here. When I think of gateway films into a director, the film must be accessible and a staple of that filmmakers work. When I think of The Seventh Seal, it’s visually iconic sequences, its overwhelming praise within the study of film and its notoriety within the director’s filmography it also comes a little lacklustre. The Seventh Seal is dry. The ending scene is beautiful in the performances, incredibly moving, but the build up to it can seem unapproachable to many. If I was to get someone into Bergman, I would never choose this. It was my first; had I not known his legacy I would have given up then and there. With hindsight, I can see it for the beautiful film it is, but only with time and repeat viewings.

The Seventh Seal (Tartan DVD, 1957)

A knight returns from war to a land ravaged by plague. Upon a desolate beach with his squire, he is met with Death, who challenges him to a game of chess. Upon their departure he meets further travellers. Together they make their journey through towns, with Deaths presence ever impeding, the Knight longing to be met with his wife who awaits him in their lonely manor. Upon multiple viewings I have grown to admire this film, and enjoy it. We see recurring players such as Gunnar Björnstrand, Bibi Andersson and Gunnel Lindblom but it is Max von Sydow who is absolutely magnetic. A cinematic pairing on equal heights with Kurosawa and Mifune, Scorsese and de Niro, Allen and Keaton, no one captures the director’s vision of troubled masculinity and fragile humanity like von Sydow.

The Seventh Seal (Tartan DVD, 1957)

12. Winter Light (1963)

The second in the Faith trilogy, a series of films that explore spirituality and morality in all its messiness, it oozes pessimism. Of course that makes it a favourite of mine. A pastor, questioning his faith in God and the ministry, resists the affections of a parishioner in love with him and the fatal consequences of his own indifference. A stripped back story, it contains a minimal cast made up of Bergman’s best.

Winter Light (Tartan DVD, 1963)

Björnstrand is truly remarkable, playing against his usually mischievous or villainous type as he inhabits the being of a depressed man battling with his own fears. Ingrid Thulin is marvellous as the plain, loyal schoolteacher after the pastors affections, her charisma bleeds through the costume as she forces her way past the impenetrable barrier that keeps the man she loves so far from her. A brief film, it explores big themes whilst remaining understated and eerily peaceful.


11. The Magician (1958)

I had to watch this one a couple of times to really appreciate it. Totally worth it. Von Sydow slays as the titular character, who with his wife and band of deceivers arrive at a mansion one night to perform to the nobility. Within enemy territory, they are faced with scepticism, with the people of the house wishing to make fools of the illusionist. However, not all is quite as it seems.

The Magician (Tartan DVD, 1958)

Bergman plays with the audiences perceptions, this we know at the start from curbing our expectations through the dressing of the stunning Thulin as man and only later exposing her to be the gentle caregiver of her troubled husband; he is saying what you see is not what you get. Meanwhile entwining elements of humour and mysticism, every turn is a curveball on the director’s part. Laced with Gothicism and performance, once again we delve into human psyches upon the backdrop of a performer’s life, an outcast to society. Bergman weaves a story that conjurers to mind the revenge tales we are so familiar with today – perhaps more chaste, it still packs a sturdy punch as the story unfolds.

The Magician (Tartan DVD, 1958)

10. Wild Strawberries (1957)

A road movie of sorts, more importantly, it is Bergman’s masterful tale of the melancholy autumn years of life. The ones loved, lost and the lives led are all captured in this wonderful tale of an aging professor travelling with his daughter-in-law (a steely yet divine Thulin) across country to receive an honorary doctorate. Meeting a group of youths along the way, they give them a lift, soon they pass through places from his youth and he recalls a past laced with bittersweet memories.

Wild Strawberries (Tartan DVD, 1957)

The most tender of Bergman’s films, it stars legendary Swedish director Victor Sjöström (the man behind 1921’s infamous silent horror The Phantom Carriage), a great inspiration on the formers work. The uniting of two legends does not overshadow the simple story, nor the marvellous play on past and present. But most notable is the iconic dream sequence of which the film opens with, an homage of sorts to the works of Sjöström, the treading of nightmare as his professor is faced with his own mortality and the gradual passing of time is absolutely haunting. Yet still, Bergman presents to us clarity, if lacking much reassurance, which comes with age as we enter the final years of our lives.




9. The Hour of the Wolf (1968)

The closest Bergman ever got to making a horror film is this eerie psychological drama. An homage to German expressionism, Bergman’s tale unfolds as an interview with the heavily pregnant wife (Ullmann) recalling the final days of her husband, a tormented artist (von Sydow), suffering from insomnia and residing in an isolated cottage who gradually descends into madness. Haunted by their strange neighbours, the couple are forced to endure harrowing nights as the artist’s existential misery, paranoia and obsession grow unbearable.

The Hour of the Wolf (MGM Home Entertainment, 1968)

Long did Fårö become both a place of refuge and isolation to the filmmaker and no series of films quite capture his torment and alienation from his own countrymen. Known as the Fårö trilogy, although unofficial, was followed up by Shame (1968) and The Passion of Anna (1969). Yet Hour of the Wolf is a wildly original film, reflecting a painful state of mind of its director. An exploration of dreams, the realm of reality and psychosis plagued both him and his works, so it’s no wonder that all these aspect weave their way into his narratives and none as strikingly as he managed in this trilogy. Repulsive lust, acts of repugnance told in nightmarish fashion, shadowy halls straight out of gothic horror, it’s a stand out among a string of highly original works.


8. Through a Glass Darkly (1961)

Where Winter Light was a question of faith, Through a Glass Darkly is a cynical study of madness and religion, the confusion of lust and giddy love for an incomprehensible entity launching the madness laced adoration into disturbing ecstasy. Partly shot on Fårö upon request of long-time collaborator and wonderful cinematographer Nykvist, it’s a beautiful first entry to a powerful trilogy. When a woman (Harriet Andersson) vacations on an isolated island, after leaving a facility where she was treated for schizophrenia, with her husband (von Sydow), father (Björnstrand) and brother (Lars Passgård), she begins to experience delusions of God, appearing to her in the form of a spider. Her father uses her in his works of fiction, unbeknownst to her, whilst her brother harbours sexual frustration which borders on incestuous. Meanwhile her husband battles with her whilst craving her physically.

Through a Glass Darkly (Tartan DVD, 1961)

It’s all happening in this family drama, a psycho-sexual assault on the subconscious; it unfolds the mess of which the household has fallen into. A self-centred fathers behaviour is borderline torturous upon his suffering children, and Bergman explores the means of exploitation of the arts in both the fathers writings and to some degree, the sons own attempts at directing a play, later offending his father as he has laced some hard truths into the farce. The most unbearable of all however is the ramifications of Andersson’s fragile mental state as she both fears and desires the hellish depiction of God. The confusion of devoutness reaching scales of love, it is also in these delusions she finds a macabre security and vengefulness as she rejects the advances of her husband yet seeks the approval of her ever distant father, her betrayer.


7. Scenes From a Marriage (1974)

As a group experience, I can only praise this film for how vocal it made us as an audience. Bergman’s work during the seventies was up, down and all around but no one can argue how absolutely spectacular Scenes from a Marriage is. It certainly paved the way for every domestic dispute caught on film, including Marriage Story (Baumbach, 2019) and Before Midnight (Linklater, 2013) following its release yet none hit quite so hard. Released and available as mini-series, the film is equally wonderful with one of my favourite Bergman pairings; the astounding Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson.

Scenes From a Marriage (Tartan DVD, 1974)

The plot is very simple. Their perfect married life gradually crumbles as revelations of infidelity come to light. The film follows them over the years as heart break and cruelty leave their marriage and lives in tatters. Bergman strips it back as much as he can, following various encounters between the two, with many scenes only revolving around them. We see their vulnerabilities and banalities. Ullmann’s fragility is played up in this epic as we beg her through the screen to grow a backbone and yet the film has us second guessing our own perceptions and understandings. We are made to experience the lies and deceits through hearsay. Their relationship is toxic. But that being said, can we ever really move on. Saraband (2003), the made for TV sort of sequel explores their relationship later in life on the periphery of a different character. It’s not really canon but it kind of is. I would urge one only to watch it as an addition to his filmography rather than an enhancement of the overall experience of this 1974 classic.

Scenes From a Marriage (Tartan DVD, 1974)

6. The Virgin Spring (1960)

A tale of revenge like no other, haunting yet packed with stunning visuals and fascinating folklore, it is the shocking film that has stood the test of time. It should be mentioned that it was influenced by one of my absolute favourites Rashomon (Kurosawa, 1950) but many horror fans will recognise this for the explicit remake by Wes Craven, The Last House on the Left (1972). But where he sheds away any truly meaningful allegory or commentary in place of exploitation and shock visuals, Bergman weaves a spell over this story leaving it timeless and forever unnerving.

The Virgin Spring (Tartan DVD, 1960)

A couple seek revenge for the rape and murder of their precious virginal daughter in medieval Sweden when the group of men behind it unknowingly seek shelter at their home. The tragedy is captured in perfect harmony with von Sydow’s weary performance. The beautiful cinematography captured by Nykvist is legendary, in particular the captivating shot of the father uprooting the young tree he intends to uses in his ritual of preparation for the revenge, at first bathing in the sauna and then flogging himself (an act that is used to get the blood flowing) but also could be interpreted as a way of punishment for his future sins, as he rejects forgiveness.

The Virgin Spring (Tartan DVD, 1960)

5. Fanny & Alexander (1982)

The most fantastical of Bergman’s works, it was also the last of his cinematic output before his semi-retirement. But what a way to go out on. It has semi-autobiographical treats (a moment I’m rather fond of is a lie told by titular Alexander is rather revealing once realised that Bergman himself did the same thing with regard to his actual father), childhood wonder and mystery, magical uncles, evil stepfathers and enchanting toy shops, and you can find all of this in both its theatrical and Mini-series releases. It’s a sort of Christmas film, with beautiful elements of family and theatre all wrapped into one with luscious sets and costumes, worn by an outstanding cast. It’s delightful and heartfelt.

Fanny and Alexander (Tartan DVD, 1982)

In turn of the century Sweden, two children are torn from their doting extended family following the death of their thespian father and the remarrying of their mother to a cruel-hearted clergyman. Through the eyes of the children, the merging of reality and fantasy, merge as they try to, at first cope and finally escape the malevolent man who has trapped their mother in an abusive marriage. It truly is an epic piece of cinema, and common seasonal practice each year in Sweden. Don’t let the runtime bother you, it’s worth every minute, with the mini-series being far more satisfying.


4. Shame (1968)

I have no more happiness left to share in this list for now we’re entering the weighty zone. And first is the second and greatest film in the unofficial Fårö trilogy, Shame. Starring Max no Sydow and Liv Ullmann (another underappreciated pairing) in an unspecified time and place, a war has broken out and now a couple must survive and endure both their marriage and the conflict unfolding around them.

Shame (MGM Home Entertainment, 1968)

Bergman managed to make one of the greatest anti-war films of all time without ever specifying a war, and this move is entirely genius for it. The politics don’t matter here. With the characters knowing little about the conflict as much as the audience, it begins to reflect the experiences of those in years past that would have known little about their own conflicts. The villagers far from cities, the poor unable to own radios, all left in the dark for a fight they had no say in partaking. Most upsetting is the vicious attack the director makes on human kind; he reminds us that we are all despicable. What starts out as a rather likable couple, soon become grotesque as cowardice and scheming drags them further and further apart. Ultimately, it is pessimistic but maybe Bergman was right. In times of struggle, we are inherently selfish.

Shame (MGM Home Entertainment, 1968)

3. Persona (1966)

The vampiric story of duality, of consciousness and presence. The absolute mind-bender worthy of Kafka. The shocking, ground-breaking work from a director that had already raised the bar of what cinema could be. The story that sets both Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson with and against one another in a story oozing with sexual repression, feminine fantasy and obviously, the outward persona that eventually binds these women into one; this is a true landmark of cinema.

Persona (Tartan DVD, 1966)

An actress (Ullmann) is struck mute in the middle of a performance. No longer speaking, she is assigned a nurse (Andersson) who travels with her to a large house by the sea where, in attempt to get the woman to talk, opens up about herself, her fears, her fantasies and her very darkest secrets. In time, these women’s lives become entwined. I shan’t tell you much more as so much of Persona lacks true comprehension lending itself to fascinating analysis. With an opening scene both haunting and shocking, a child (the youthful persona of the director) stands before a projection, of the faces of Ullmann and Andersson uncannily similar (an inspiration behind the story as Bergman was strike by their likeness when held side by side). And then a series of images flashing on screen, explicit and vulgar, of genitalia and violence. It prepares you for the dysfunction existing in these characters minds, the obscenity far from our expectations of the stars. It’s raw and sensual whilst hideously lewd. But Bergman gets a handle on the psyche of his characters by exploring such vehement processes of his muses.

Persona (Tartan DVD, 1966)

2. Cries and Whispers (1972)

I can’t help it; Bergman is at his best for me when his films are the most grotesque. And I’m coming to the realisation that maybe, Bergman had some mummy issues too… Supposedly of some inspiration to The Exorcist (Friedkin, 1973), it is certainly one of Bergman’s most unsettling films. Following the devastating failure of his first English language feature The Touch (1971), Bergman went back to his roots. Recruiting three of his favourite stars with Harriet Andersson, Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Thulin, accompanied by Kari Sylwan and featuring minor roles with Erland Josephson and Anders Ek (from 1953’s Sawdust and Tinsel and 1969’s The Rite), Bergman wanted to return to the intimacy of his company of players to explore one of his most unsettling films.

Cries and Whispers (Tartan DVD, 1972)

Three sisters in turn of the century Sweden reside in a large country manor. As one (Andersson at her agonising best) lays dying of cancer, consumed by unbearable bouts of agony and suffering, she is only comforted by the religious maid (Sylwan) who tends to her much like the child she lost years before. Meanwhile the other sisters are too consumed in their own psychological torment to offer support. One (Ullmann) is guilt-ridden over the attempted suicide of her husband due to her infidelity. The other (Thulin) is steely and disciplined with much self-loathing, who finds in her sister only revulsion. These women are broken, they’re corrupt and watching their secrets unravel is both excruciating and fascinating. Some scenes play out shockingly, some are worthy of a horror but much that revolves around Cries and Whispers is the need for nurture, for touch. At cinematographer Nykvists’ suggestion, the house is filled with reds, lush carpets and drapery to mimic the warmth of the womb. The return to the childish neediness upon death as experienced by the dying sister, craving to be held whilst the others are too repulsed by death; it’s all so grotesquely upsetting and revealing.

The final scene is one that simply breaks my heart, despite having spent the runtime being mesmerised and horrified. The performances are flawless. There’s no question of that. But in the end, what more could one expect from the master… certainly not the glass scene.

Cries and Whispers (Tartan DVD, 1972)

1. Autumn Sonata (1978)

Here we are. This one is my favourite. I thought I would put Cries and Whispers here, after all it’s the one I’ve watched more. But the one that tore me apart was Autumn Sonata. One word is all takes to describe this film: devastating. Liv Ullmann is paired with Ingrid Bergman, in her only Bergman film and her last cinematic venture, having been diagnosed with cancer during the filming. It’s the ultimate rivalry; the conflict between aging mother and neglected, resentful daughter who wants nothing more than to please an absent parental figure. This is Bergman’s ultimate tragedy. Far more stripped back than his other films, a late career entry for the filmmaker; somehow he really knew how to write women. Well certainly here.

Autumn Sonata (Tartan DVD, 1978)

A daughter (Ullman) lives with her husband, significantly older than herself, and cares for her bed-ridden, disabled sister. One day, after a seven year absence, her mother (Bergman) who is a classical pianist, returns and it is this that re-opens old wounds and the bitterness that has festered for years on a very long, dark night. Oh how I suffered! Bergman’s mother character is selfish and unbearable, a woman that pursued her career and left behind a family, and worse still seemed to abhor them to some degree. The repulsion mixed with anguish and neediness that Ullmann’s daughter encapsulates upon her return reveals a frightened child so desperate to be loved. Even as a grown woman, her costume suggests an immaturity, a fragility that she never outgrew. And upstairs is a sickly daughter who wishes to be seen, to be held by a mother frightened of her, who takes no responsibility

I found tears escaping during one of Ullmann’s greatest scenes, honestly confronting her mother. It’s a beautiful elegy to mother and daughters; it’s both twisted and all too relatable. In the end, there is only reality left. Bergman’s greatest film plays on memory and psychosis, rooted in the real world rather than the dreamscape, shattering the hopeless dreams of his once youthful daughter character. Autumn Sonata, however, feels cathartic. A lot of words, yet so much unfolds… and how powerful those words can be in the penmanship of Ingmar Bergman.

Autumn Sonata (Tartan DVD, 1978)

There you have it: My Top 15 Ingmar Bergman films. Did I put it off (yes) or was I simply thinking really hard about it (sort of)? In the end, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading, find a new favourite and revel in the joys of the Swedish master. Let me know the ones you love?

Persona (Tartan DVD, 1966)

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  • Kerry Chambers

Warning: Some Images NSFW


Pedro Almodóvar’s latest cinematic feat is something monumental in his long career. A short film starring Tilda Swinton and adapted from the play by French cinematic legend Jean Cocteau, The Human Voice is his first English language film. Having finished its brief theatrical run, we are now fortunate to be getting a limited edition Blu-ray out next Monday, exclusive to HMV. To complete my Almodóvar collection, I have very evidently pre-ordered this. In the wake of this release, I’ve been contemplating my favourites by the director who opened my eyes to the big ‘ole world of cinema beyond the English-speaking world, never to look back. He’s worked with and established some of the best actors to come out of Spain, including Carmen Maura, Cecelia Roth, Rossy de Palma, Victoria Abril, Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz. He has never given into the pressure of the film industry, staying true to his own vision and creating truly beautiful and startling cinema, strikingly original in its conception.

Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (Pathe, 1990)

Almodóvar is one of the most progressive filmmakers of the modern era. Born in La Mancha, in Franco’s Spain, his early years were one immersed in heavy censorship and strict rule. As a homosexual young man, when the country was liberated during the 1970’s, he was able to embrace both his sexuality and his talent in the arts. Following Francos’s regime, Spain saw a boom of extravagant, outlandish arts that rebelled against the prior system, revelling in its cultural identities. Almodóvar was not only part of this but also a major player in the underground Gay arts movement that allowed him to break out into the mainstream. Here he tackled taboo subjects, controversy and shock cinema before establishing himself as one of the most important voices of the 20th century cinema and going on to win multiple academy awards and other highly regarded accolades.

Bad Education (Pathe, 2004)

Bright, madcap and bold, one cannot mistake an Almodóvar shot. Show a single frame to any film lover and they can tell you it’s him. Pop art, heavily influenced by Luis Buñuel, classic Hollywood melodramas, the LGBTQ+ communities, Almodóvar is important in so many ways. And if he isn’t poking tongue-in-cheek at the media, TV culture and celebrities in as camp and outlandish a way as possible, are we really talking about the same filmmaker. Without him, I may have never ventured out of English-speaking cinema. His stories have not only spoken to myself on a personal level but to so many others, providing canvasses for powerful female-driven narratives and much diversity that broke the barriers for many future filmmakers. His journey as a human being and a storyteller is wonderfully captured through film, the aspects of the creative periods of his life will be remembered in the years to come much like how we remember the great artists, so vibrant and significant are they to the understanding and context of his films. But even with all this, many of his works are commercial successes and perfectly accessible to so many people. Weird people, weird places and even weirder things happen there, just as Almodóvar’s worlds should be, which is why everyone loves visiting them again and again.

Julieta (Pathe, 2016)

15. Broken Embraces (2009)

Beautiful as this film is, I have never quite seen why it had ranked as highly as it has. One of the few that I have been unable to lose myself in entirely, this film is often considered one of his best of the ‘commercial’ boom his films saw. A blind screenwriter reminisces on his past, the years before he lost his sight in which he was a director conducting a passionate affair with an actress (Penélope Cruz). A dire mistake in his career, the woman is supported by a rich financial backer and producer of his films. Through flashbacks, the ups and downs of this turbulent relationship are uncovered revealing not only plenty to the audience but exposing secrets long since buried. Of all Almodóvar’s films, this feels less significant. Not that all films should feel any other way, but it’s certainly that way for me anyway, the least rewarding of my experiences with his films. Still worth the watch, I rank it fifteenth for this.

Broken Embraces (Pathe, 2009)

14. Live Flesh (1997)

The only film he has ever made with the brilliant Javier Bardem, the first and one of few adaptations the director has ever made and a messy, sordid romantic/crime drama; so much of this film I love. But it lacks the very things I adore so much about Almodóvar, and often feels distant from his other work. This should and could be a good thing, with some amazing compositions and beautiful work from him as always, still, it feels lacking where I want it to thrive. I would love for him to work with Bardem again; the two could make some magic as Almodóvar has famously done with the actor’s partner, Penélope Cruz.

Live Flesh (Pathe, 1997)

Adapted from the novel by Ruth Rendell, a messy love triangle between an ex-convict, Victor, an ex-addict, Helena, and a paraplegic police officer, David, plays out. A two part introduction, with the birth of Victor on a bus during a declared emergency under the Franco state by prostitute mother (played by Cruz in her first collaboration with Almodóvar) this is then followed by the now grown man’s encounter with addict Helena, the woman he lost his virginity to. They fight and the police arrive (Bardem’s David) who, in the dispute, is shot leaving him wheelchair bound and Victor sent to prison. We then skip forward to David and Helena, sharing a home together in seeming comfort. But Victor has now returned to woo and win Helena. There are many elements to this film, and it’s a bleak entry in the filmography, sandwiched between two distinctive melodramas, but there’s no doubt that its worth the watch.

Live Flesh (Pathe, 1997)

13. Flower of My Secret (1995)

This film ties is so beautiful in the narrative of Almodóvar’s journey. Significant as a viewing choice with regard to his later works (the novelist in this film begins to pen a dark story that is later used by Almodóvar for the plot of Volver), but it is not a film I would ever recommend to anyone as a first in the submergence of his films. It lacks punch, is a little wishy-washy in places. But it is still beautiful, telling a mature woman’s story and focussing on her personal plight as the crossing of her writing and real life consumes her. Her trashy romance novels, which she writes under pseudonym, begin to lose focus as her issues surrounding her husband become increasingly more unbearable. The best part of this film is Marisa Paredes wonderfully vulnerable performance. Often playing the extravagant older woman, the seasoned player who offers some wisdom amongst her own dysfunction as age creeps up on her, in this role she is far more vulnerable. Desperate and sad, she carries the film with her powerful delivery.

Flower of my Secret (Studiocanal, 1995)

12. Julieta (2016)

Another adaptation, this time from a collection of stories by Alice Munro, it follows a woman struggling with her past and the disappearance of her daughter. Its setting feels distant from prior films, with some of the story playing out in a rural seaside village and his colour scheme of blues blended within the 1980’s aesthetic is absolutely delicious to behold. It’s a melodrama through and through, with little to no major set piece moments. But it still holds the sensibility of the director in its grasp, an interesting territory he took up (it was set to be his first English-langue film but decided against the idea). With this he takes the works of the Canadian Munro and translates the stories into something significantly fitting with his own voice. The story plays around with time, space and perspective to unravel the personal dissipation of a family and explores the clash of female generations and the burden of motherhood. Not his best under this umbrella theme, as you will find out later, but still beautifully captured. It also features a late career Rossy de Palma, fabulous if downplayed, a wonderful addition in the combing of time periods, of old and new.

11. Bad Eductaion (2004)

One of Almodóvar’s most important films, it also isn’t a favourite. I am ashamed to admit it but it’s true. Highly personal, it tells the story of institutional abuse in a Catholic school for young boys and a homosexual child’s journey into adulthood and the bizarre relationship he later forms with one of his abusers. It’s such a bold film, certainly a wild follow up to his Academy Award winning Talk to Her, but I can’t bring myself to love it. Maybe that’s its point and I would never want anyone to miss out on such a powerful film. And why I rank it highly. It also boasts a brilliant performance from Gael García Bernal, in his one-time appearance in an Almodóvar universe. It’s sultry but dark, a combination which Almodóvar handles wonderfully.

Bad Education (Pathe, 2004)

10. What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984)

This film is so weird. I love it. A play on Italian neo-realism, melodrama and exploitation cinema, the best way I feel I can describe the film is total Social Surrealism. A housewife (played by early Almodóvar’s wonderful recurring player Carmen Maura) is put-upon, manipulated, and downtrodden by everyone in her life. Her family is strange and neglectful; her neighbours are quirky and bizarre, made up of a prostitute and an enviable picture perfect housewife. Her sons are a rent boy and addict, her husband is a taxi driver in love with a German singer from his past and she is hooked on amphetamines to get through the long hours of cleaning she must do to make ends meet. They live in a run -down high rise flat with their grandmother, strange in herself and longing for her village. And yet Maura’s housewife is all the more isolated. Despite all of this, Almodóvar paints a surprisingly funny and off the wall picture. A dysfunctional family all abhorrent in so many ways, it still manages to make social commentary whilst poking fun at the genres it’s heavily influenced by.

9. High Heels (1991)

Controversial opinion: I think High Heels is wildly underrated. Not only does it establish the very themes that Almodóvar later executes so beautifully but it captures the tantalising tragedy surrounding its subject matter beautifully. Similar in vein to works like Autumn Sonata (Bergman, 1978), its feeds on the absent mother and the resentment of the daughter into adulthood, competing for the affections of the same man and dealing with their own traumas and conflicts.

High Heels (Studiocanal, 1991)

When Almodóvar handles stories like this, I can’t help but embrace them wholeheartedly. As one of the few male filmmakers to understand women, his balancing of the two characters, portrayed by the lovely Victoria Abril and Paredes as her mother the two balance the scales beautifully. There is something wholeheartedly meek and unsuspecting about Abril in all her performances, no matter how depraved or saucy the role is. Ultimately, she rings very true as a woman whose own maturity into womanhood has been hindered by a careless mother. It broke my heart despite having a very camp dance sequence in the middle. It features all the bizarre extravagances of Almodóvar’s world whilst still holding true to the sentimentality at its very heart.

High Heels (Studiocanal, 1991)

8. Law of Desire (1987)

The film that really brought Almodóvar attention was this controversial classic. Featuring explicit scenes of gay sex, large amounts of violence and a relatively positive and highly underrepresented transsexual character, this film pushed boundaries that many filmmakers were not willing to cross, even now. Eusbeio Poncela stars as a porn director pining for his lost true love, and in his sadness begins a steamy affair with a psychotic fan played by the brilliant Antonio Banderas. This relationship proves dangerous and deadly all the while inspirational, as the director begins to pen a play for his transgender sister played by Carmen Maura. Their lives intertwine in the underbelly of Spain’s subversive culture, hypnotic and lavish in its composition.

Law of Desire (Studiocanal, 1987)

One of my favourites of early Almodóvar, he tells an intricate story of human behaviour, jealousy and deception and relishing in the exploitative nature of his material to make a bold and true statement. The film is significant yet received no awards in its native Spain, too shocking at the time of release; even now it is far more extreme to many audiences than what they are used to, a testament to how brave Almodóvar was in his content. Its relevant and brilliant, a game-changer in representation on screen.

Law of Desire (Studiocanal, 1987)

7. Pain & Glory (2019)

Almodóvar’s autumn years have truly begun with this contemplative piece. Semi-autobiographical, he reunited with Banderas to create a story of an aging filmmaker struggling for inspiration, battling ailments both physical and mental as he reunites with a past collaborator all the while contemplating a past that weighs heavy on him and who he later became. As every great filmmaker does in their latter years, they delve deep into their own experiences and psyche to create a masterful meditation of the life they have led, the childhood that shaped them and the people who came and went. Bergman did with Fanny & Alexander (1982), Truffaut did it with The 400 Blows (1959) and Fellini did it with Amarcord (1973), so he was bound to get reflective. But with a career heavily influenced by his own upbringing and past, being both mysterious and candid in his experiences, it’s an astoundingly fresh take for the director. Far more vulnerable a film, the experience is made all the better for Banderas amazing performance as his on-screen persona, a man who knows him very well indeed. Yet it is best enjoyed once fully immersed in the world of the filmmaker.

6. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

The film that shot Almodóvar to true fame in the English-speaking world is also still one of his funniest works. Boasting an amazing cast including Maura, de Palma, Banderas and more, it’s about as madcap and zany as he gets , a true farce of comedy and drama. There’s a reason it’s been adapted into a successful stage play, it holds all the elements that make the film work as a large scale set piece. Pepa (Maura), a voice actress, has been dumped by her married boyfriend who is now avoiding her. She throws clothes around the room, sets fire to her bed and ignores all her friends’ phone calls. So very depressed, she laces her Gazpacho with sleeping pills, intent on killing herself. Only, she is interrupted by a friend whose boyfriend has turned out to be a terrorist, a young couple in search of new apartment made up of Antonio Banderas and the uniquely stunning, unforgettable Rossy de Palma, and the maniacal wife of her ex-lover, now on the path of revenge.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Studiocanal, 1988)

So much happens in Women on the Verge, it doesn’t seem possible that Almodóvar can wrap it all satisfyingly. But he does. With heart and soul. His women are relatable and wild. His world is over the top, vibrant, with costumes straight off the catwalk. It’s a merging of all the things that worked so well for the filmmaker before, to create a concoction if mayhem. The writing is sharp, the acting is flawless. It’s purely delightful.

5. The Skin I Live In (2011)

This film came out around the time I became award of Pedro Almodóvar in general. With this in mind, it begins to feel incredibly contemporary to my own discovery of Spanish cinema. An ode to Eyes Without a Face (Franju, 1960), the story follows a renowned plastic surgeon (played by a wonderfully predatory Antonio Banderas) who after the tragic loss of his wife years before has developed a realistic synthetic skin to help burn victims of which he secretly tests, with the help of his faithful housekeeper (Parades returns for a more motherly role), on a mysterious female patient, Vera (Elena Anaya). Hidden in the safety of his isolated home in the countryside, the appearance of people from his past soon disrupt the strange harmony he has created and the perverse truth gradually unfolds.

The Skin I Live In (Pathe, 2011)

The closest to a horror film that Almodóvar has ever made, it is certainly eerie but firmly resides in the psychological drama/thriller category. It’s sleek and voyeuristic, playing with characters framed within ginormous images (Think Bergman’s Persona, the boy against the projected image of the woman… I’m referencing Bergman a lot; someone needs to do a top fifteen of him next). The eyes are highlighted intensely, the intimacy and claustrophobic nature of the mansion, the rooms that become maze like. It’s deeply enjoyable on an entertainment level and on a deeper level. Either way, it’s a really fun place to start with Almodóvar, the perfect example of Banderas amazing acting chops when he’s working in his native language and with one of his best collaborators.

The Skin I Live In (Pathe, 2011)

4. All About My Mother (1999)

An homage to classic Hollywood, the actresses of old and the icon Bette Davis (the title is a play on the 1950 Joseph L. Mankiewicz, All About Eve) is not all this film is good for. It is also one of Almodóvar’s most devastating dramas. Cecelia Roth plays a single mother, a nurse, raising her son. They share much in common including a love of acting and the theatre. One night they go to see a play of his idol, an ageing stage actress (Parades returns again) but tragedy strikes when he is hit by a car, dying later in hospital. Following this, his mother goes on a journey to the city in search of her son’s birth father who is now a transvestite. Along the way she meets many women who help her with her grief and the search for her ex, eventually forming a new surrogate family. One is played by the brilliant Penélope Cruz, in her second film under the director, this time in a larger role as a pregnant, HIV positive nun. She plays wildly against the American typecast that plagued many of her English speaking roles, embracing the meek and shy young woman suffering with an incurable disease. Also in this found-unit are the aging actress, finding comfort in the mother’s attentiveness and a transgender sex worker with a huge heart and wonderful sense of humour.

All About My Mother (Pathe, 1999)

A perfect example of the fortitude of women, Almodóvar displays his beautiful understanding of the female kind, highlighting and encapsulating the power that exudes from a loving close knit group. He adores his actresses, and he clearly adores the women in his life. The film is filled with heart and soul, deeply moving and strikingly funny, the film lands on all marks. It’s simply beautiful, one of the best examples of a diverse, female-led film of recent history. His truest and most sincere depiction of motherhood, even after losing a son, he highlights the powerful endurance required to be a mother. There’s a reason it won the Best Foreign Language film at the Academy Awards.

3. Talk to Her (2002)

The film that won Almodóvar his second Oscar for best original screenplay, Talk to Her, to many this is his Magnum Opus… and the only film in which his predominant female characters are both comatose. What a fascinating premise, I hear you say? Well, it is. Somehow, Almodóvar has crafted an amazing story with matadors, nurses and male bonding. When Lydia is gored by a bull, seriously injured, in the ring, she is taken to a hospital and watched over by her writer boyfriend Marco. Here, he befriends male nurse Benigno, who cares for another comatose patient, Alicia with excessive, intimate and lavish care. Once a ballet dancer, she has been in a coma since being hit by a car. Through this friendship, he learns to communicate with the woman in his life better It is Benigno’s belief that these women somehow can hear and talk back to them in their own nuanced, affirmative if very silent way. However, the unfolding of events reveal that there is far more going on behind the scenes.

Talk to Her (Pathe, 2002)

The men are fixated on the women, trapped by them as much as the others are in their comatose state. The women’s fate contrasts so dramatically with the physicality of both of their careers, and even more so with the opening and closing of the film, framed within two dance performances choreographed by the late, great Pina Bausch. These men meet here, although unbeknownst to them at the start of the film and the eventual closing of the films curtains allude to a future act in the story for Marco. Almodóvar plays with the acts as structures and shapes his story around this, aware that the medium of film is equally as lavish to that of theatre, revelling in his melodrama whilst remaining grounded in the humanity of his characters. He alludes heavily to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and also the cinema of the silent era, going as far as to intercept the film with the now infamous ‘Shrinking Lover’ silent short that becomes a metaphor for a shocking incident. In anyone else’s hands, the story would have unravelled in sheer ridiculousness. But somehow, Almodóvar has a magic touch, embracing the extremities in his story and keeping in touch with something that easily communicates with his audience. It’s how he’s had such longevity in the industry. This is the film that truly proves his mastery in storytelling.

2. Volver (2006)

The translation of its title is’ to come back’. That moves me in itself. I know it’s not as good as Talk to Her, or as significant as All About My Mother, but Volver takes and breaks my heart in a way that I didn’t know I was capable of. Over and over again, upon every re-watch, I can’t help but fall totally in love with the story. As mentioned before, it ties in nicely with Flower of My Secret, but this is far superior in cast, performances and story. Another reflection of the endurance of women and the power of motherhood, the maternal instinct, it’s a beautiful drama exploring grief and forgiveness. As much in the narrative as it is behind the scenes. Penélope Cruz leads the cast as the feisty Raimunda, troubled but deeply loving matriarch finally slipping into a lead role in the director’s filmography and proving to be absolutely devastating. The role of the sweet, unassuming and reliable sister, Sole, is played by Lola Dueñas, a supporting regular for the filmmaker. Most notably, Carmen Maura returned for the first time to an Almodóvar film since Women on the Verge, following a falling out with the director, playing the deceased mother of the two women, Irene. It is also a return of a few more familiar faces, and very much feels like a family feature, of women uniting.

Volver (Pathe, 2006)

Raimunda’s husband is alcoholic and abusive, but she never expected him to prey on their teenage daughter. In an act of self-defence, the young girl kills him. The woman decides to cover up the murder, protecting her daughter from the law whilst also overseeing the restaurant of a friend whilst they are away. Meanwhile, her sister, a hairdresser, is being visited by her dead mother’s ghost who was haunting their recently deceased aunt. She is trying to hide this from her sister, who not only regrets losing her mother but also had a strained relationship with the woman whilst she was alive.

It’s very melodramatic, but at this point if you’re watching Almodóvar for anything else then you should look into a different filmmaker. But it’s executed so warmly and stylishly. He imbues wonderfully tender and minute moments that hold so much more for the viewer than the more elaborate scenes. So attentive is Almodóvar to these moments, capturing sisterly bonding, the familial love that draws one into each scene with the women that by the end, you’re not ready to leave. A particular scene, of Raimunda singing (a dubbed Cruz at this point) to an audience of her neighbours, the song Volver by Estrella Morenete, is beautiful and powerful. Cruz’s performance is truly astounding, tugging at my heart strings. I’m a total sap for this film…

Volver (Pathe, 2006)

1. Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down! (1990)

There was no other choice for me. It could be no other way. Because Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down! (Atame! in Spanish) is the most entertaining, brilliantly tongue-in-cheek, outrageous romantic comedy of the Twentieth century. Ricky (played by an amazing Banderas) just got out of a mental hospital. He goes in search of the woman he lost his virginity to, now a Porn star, called Marina (Abril makes her first appearance in an Almodóvar film and plays wonderfully off her leading man). He kidnaps her, taking her hostage, demanding that she fall in love with him. Through a series of events, some kind of Stockholm syndrome and a rather funny, yet totally outrageous push and pull between the characters, she gradually begins to grow feelings for him.

Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (Pathe, 1990)

Spoofing the rom-com formula, Almodóvar’s controversial romance is still shocking today. It would never get made, ignoring how very outlandish and cynical he is in his interpretation of girl-meets-boy, embracing and radicalising the basic tropes to the extremes, one would assume that the director was being offensive. But it’s clear he is incredibly well-versed in the history of cinema. So he instead takes the most familiar and makes it wildly uncomfortable, until even the audience is rooting for this questionable pair. It’s such a weird film, over the top in every way. It pokes fun at the adult film industry, the very melodramas Almodóvar is so fond of, with his cast giving brilliant comedic performances – every element just falls so nicely into place. It thrives in its controversy. Almodóvar truly made a wonderfully funny, wholly unique experience. It’s made all the better with Abril and Banderas, a pairing that could and should have been explored more, a display of the great performances the two deliver with Almodóvar and wildly likable despite the subject matter.

I don’t regret picking this as my number one. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t watched this film more than some of his other culturally relevant films, like way more. But this one is definitely important. Following Women on the Verge, he outraged everyone. He titillated and stirred the pot, provoking conversation on the depiction of relationships of women on film. He flipped the genre on its head and gave the story his own artistic twist. He does just what he wanted. And we fans wouldn’t want it any other way.

Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (Pathe, 1990)

There is no denying just how influential Almodóvar is. After the years I have delved into his work, he never fails to move and engage me. Perhaps one the biggest influences on me as both a writer in all forms and as a human being, this Spanish filmmaker transcends many of his contemporaries. What is most significant, however, about Almodóvar, is his conviction. To his vision, to his work and to his quirky cast of characters, Almodóvar has remained entirely true. It is clear to see why so many of his actors return again and again to him, his sensibility and sensuality in all his work allows them to embrace their roles wholeheartedly and push themselves as creatives. One of the few true auteurs still remaining in the world of cinema, Almodóvar has never deviated, never crumbled under studio pressure. He’s remained admirable and inspiring to audiences and fellow storytellers alike.

Volver (Pathe, 2006)

To think this list was going to be a top ten, after much consideration I couldn’t manage it. With only twenty-one feature films (not including any of his numerous shorts or the out of circulation debut, Folle... folle... fólleme Tim! in 1978), I may as well have ranked them. But ultimately I wanted to revel in my favourites. Besides, my choices today have been incredibly personal to me and after being a fan for so long, I have spent long enough with the filmmaker to know what really works for me.



The Human Voice is available here.

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*Some images NSFW*

Opening scene - Mandala (1971)

An illicit affair between brother and sister. A cult whose violent form of recruitment is through rape. A houseboy dragged into the seedy existences the lady of the house, her husband, his brother, the maid and the apprentice. These are the stories that make up Akio Jissôji’s The Buddhist Trilogy. Jissôji’s career is most notable to western audiences as being the director of cult sci-fi series, Ultraman but some of his best work was with association of ATG (Art Theatre Guild). He worked closely with contemporaries such as Nagisa Ôshima (who wrote the screenplay to his first feature, 1969’s When Twilght Draws Near) and Kijū Yoshida, significant filmmakers of Japanese New Wave. The first in the trilogy won the Lorcarno Golden Leopard award in 1970 but slipped out of international circulation, in spite of the following films receiving equal praise and accolades. Despite remaining staples in their origin country of Japan, an influential addition to their film history, they have only, in the last few years, become widely available internationally. Major in their position within the Japanese New Wave movement, Jissôji’s trilogy, made up of This Transient Life (1970), Mandala (1971) and Poem (1972) are incredible, original films as subversive and shocking now as they were upon release.

The Apprentice and the Houseboy - Poem (1972)

I want to write about this series of films. I need to and yet I feel I lack the tools or eloquence to dissect what it is that makes them so powerful. Instead I’m going to do what I do best, which is lavish lot’ of descriptive words and hope somebody thinks their worth visiting themselves. Written by one of Japanese New Waves most significant writers and consistent collaborator on the Ultraman series, screenwriter Toshirô Ishidô (who wrote Ôshima’s 1960 political commentaries The Sun’s Burial and Night and Fog in Japan and Shohei Imamura’s 1989 drama Black Rain), they explore spiritual philosophies, the place of religion in a post-industrial world, sexuality and morality. Recurring players in the trilogy give the films continuity in its collaboration and exploration of metaphysical ideas; these include Ryô Tamura, Shin Kishida and Hiroko Sakurai. Ultimately, the taboo content and extremely provocative scenes within the trilogy can be hard for many to endure, but to fans of the avant-garde or Japanese cinema, they are an absolute must. Furthermore, as someone who knows the bare minimum about Buddhism and Shinto philosophy, these releases still resonated with me and proved to be incredibly emotive and impressive achievements of radical seventies cinema.

Jissôji’s style is something to behold. A fascinating character in the Japanese New Wave movement, his work is thoroughly modern and beautiful. He holds Buddhist imagery in his compositions and shots artfully. This Transient Life has a camera moving often by dolly, smoothly with its protagonist, gliding with them though their existence, where nothing of the materialistic or societal is comprehensive to him. Mandala has extreme uses of the wide angle lens, enhancing its own subject of voyeurism and the abnormal. And in Poem, the most accessible of the three films, he seeks high contrasts of light and shadow, thoughtful patience in his shot and scene construction. In all, he chooses unusual frames, giving characters large amounts of head room, capturing their smallness in the face of great ideas and concepts, room for thought. Otherwise, he is exploring textures of skin and surfaces, seeking out religious iconography and dense locations such as forests or shrines to capture the elaborateness of man’s spirituality and nature. Faces fascinate Jissôji as much as the figures of Buddhist statues or shrines, Zen gardens or reception rooms of aristocratic homes. He will capture their passion, pleasure, shame, doubt, beautifully capturing the human conundrum; spiritualism in the modern world.

Masao - This Transient Life (1970)

In This Transient Life, the story of incest between siblings from a wealthy family, Masao and Yuri, unravels into a catalyst for deep reflection on morality and faith. Through sex and taboo, Jissôji’s characters are forced to deal with the repercussions of the act committed by Masao, a hedonistic, pseudo-intellectual. He further tries to understand the nothingness in Buddhism, reveling in each pleasure afforded to him as a young man. His own struggle with spiritual contentment finds him avoiding university, of which his father demands of him, eventually following his own bath to become an apprenticeship with a Buddhist sculptor, the only work in which he believes there is anything worthwhile; ‘One can’t become a Buddha, so one keeps making Buddhist sculptures.’

Masao in the Noh mask - This Transient Life (1970)

Masao and his sisters unions are shocking, long affairs that begin with childish games and lead to disastrous consequences. Their first tryst in their family home, in the presence of the family shrine and elders upon the walls which appear to look down on their ‘unholy’ union, is a deeply intense moment. The feeling that, under the watchful eye of the higher deities of religion and ancestry, we never escape the scrutiny of something beyond us is present in this scene, noted by Film Essayist Cinema Nippon in their video on the series of films (2019). They play with their parents Noh masks, as they did as children. Later, they join at night, whilst their parents are asleep and, with further increase to risk, out in the elements of the graveyard, close to the temple where they are seen by both a monk, Ogino, and the houseboy, Iwashita.

Ogino and the Statue - This Transient Life (1970)

Yet, Jissôji refrains from observing their sexual unions as either right or wrong, that these characters struggles are gained through their pursuit of pleasure in correspondence with the Buddhist teachings. The cause and effect of the brother’s hedonism, the sister’s displacement and desire for love, the houseboy who lusts after Yuri, these people are slaves to their own desires, to an extent. He leaves it for the viewer to draw their own conclusion about these characters moral positions, or perhaps how humanist their struggles are.

Although, Masao is perhaps the most sound of these characters and clear of his intent and own disassociation with organized tradition, rejecting family and society as things of human construction. His basic philosophy is that if he lives his life doing exactly as he pleases, that everything will work out in the end. This ideology, ultimately, is one that is at the expense of those around him. But as he moves from one desire to the next, he is being honest with himself, where as those attempting to conform are driven to extremes; the other men of this story are repressed voyeurs, sexually frustrated. Ogino fondles statues of the merciful Buddha Kanno, whilst Iwashita flicks through porn magazines, extinguishing cigarettes on the private parts of women who eerily resemble his object of desire, Yuri. His behaviour exposes the others, as he states, 'These people only faced their own destiny when their lives crossed with mine'. Masao has a desire for life. When making love to his sister, he has visions of her in a Noh mask and in the form of a skeleton. His own view of her is wholly inconsistent, as Tom Mes discusses in his essay on the film, ‘… this only spurs him to greater craving of Yuri’s body. A reminder of death is also inherently one of life’. (2018)

The sculptor, his wife and Masao - This Transient Life (1970)

Mandala is far more controversial, and notably the weakest of the three films. However, it does also feature some of my favourite compositions in Jissôji’s work and an opening scene both outrageous for its explicit nature but equally beautiful as two bodies writhe together in bliss, housed within the confines of a white room, intersected by framed of black and over-laid with the sound of the ocean. It contrasts dramatically with the violent, abhorrent sex scenes that follow and the metaphorical union that the film concludes with. Visually, it’s a dream of existential union.

The aftrmath - Mandala (1971)

Two students, Shinichi and Hiroshi, are at odds with their own opposing ideals as a socialist and disillusioned individualist. The men are both searching for something more meaningful than their fleeting carnal unions with their girlfriends Yukiko and Yasuko, exploring through sex with other partners, politics and eventually through the cult. Under the watchful eyes of the cult leader, Maki, Shinichi and Yukiko are ambushed on the beach, the woman raped and the man forced to watch leading to the recruitment of the two. The cult itself expects female members to prostitute themselves for income whilst the men go in search of new ‘recruits’. It is an environment formed on the sullying of ideals, contempt and violence. Yet it is their ‘values’ that the protagonists are drawn to, a life of ‘equality’, agriculture and pleasure. It becomes a commentary of revolutionary ideals in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s in Japan and the divide between student factions that quarreled over the details rather than the bigger picture, it’s characters Hiroshi and Shinichi at odds with Trotskyist ideals whilst the other has rejected the anti-state he once believed in all together, turning in on himself and embracing individualism. This political undercurrent I know very little about but those who have an interest in this should definitely look into the underlying theme and it’s correlation in the narrative. A conflict in ideologies, as Anton Bitel put it in his 2018 essay, Hiroshi and Shinichi’s final divide can be summarized in something quite simple: a clash of Faith and the Faithless.

Shinichi and Yasuko - Mandala (1971)

Shinichi is a conflicted character. As mentioned before, he has thrown aside his ideals for a united, socialist future in order to see to his own idealisms, to seek meaning in his conflicting world, to seek a difficult to define ecstasy. It leads him down a path of abhorrent and deviant behaviors. He becomes obsessed with the idea of time, the passing and losing of it. Stemming from childhood, he seeks to stop it and to revel more in the moment, unable to face the immanency of death. Mostly, this can be seen in the necrophilic fantasies he has. Unable to have sex with his girlfriend unless she is unconscious, later the woman explains to Maki that it’s that he can’t bear a moving body, as movement represents time. He likes things still. His dream of revolution comes to a standstill, so must everything else. Equally rejecting the future and the present, he is willing to reside and revel in his moment of short-lived, unsatisfactory ecstasy.

Framing in Mandala (1971)

Maki has a wife. Isolated from the others, she is chosen to be entwined in sexual acts with the gods, a strange antiquated figure in her kimono and white make-up, a contrast to the modern garb of the students that make up the cult. Solitary in her throngs of ecstasy, it is unclear whether the others, including Maki, believes that she is actually in unison with some transcendental entity of perhaps simply mad. Still, her scenes of rapture are all the more bizarre. Does she let them into her? Or is it that they take? Or is it that she avoids the greedy clutches of the real men of the cult? If the Gods are reaching out to her, can anyone else hear them? Or must blind faith be placed in such unsettling acts in the twentieth century? Through this we are able to see in Jissôji’s storytelling a distinction between the sexual ecstasy experienced through the religious planes, at the cults temple and the hotels where sexual encounters are under surveillance via CCTV, something highlighted by Henri de Corinth’s 2020 article, ‘freeing’ the women sexually and the mundanity of the ‘safe’ sex, in which consent is gained and the act is non-violent. That women and men are freed from terms such as ‘rape’, for it did not exist in ancient times, or so Maki wants to believe.

This is a hard to stomach concept in the film, but one must be able to comprehend the idea that Mandala is a provocative, titillating experience condoning the act and actually an exploration of Eros and the corruption and soiling of modern ideals in the face of a society equally torn by the future and archaism. In a future where all are equals, something never granted in the actuality of our long history on planet earth, then this idea of disassociating with the idea of rape because in ancient times the idea of it did not exist and that women were free for the taking like beasts, is redundant.

The assualt - Mandala (1971)

As in This Transient Life, Jissôji is exploring the individual’s discrepancy and challenging of the institutions, may it be societal or religious, exploring the challenge of modernism in a culture shrouded in it’s past. Not nearly so effectively, it still broaches the ‘Zen’ of its’ characters, to find pleasure is as much a part of life. But what that can be to one person, no one knows? And at what cost to others, should the pleasures of the individual be satiated? Idealism is all well and good, but where can morality come into play?

Hiroshi - Mandala (1971)

Finally we come to the last addition in the trilogy, Poem. By this time in the trilogy, audiences will be familiar with the players and the themes that Jissôji is exploring, but it is the culmination and understanding that enhances and already incredibly watchable film. The story unfolds around the Moriyama family. An illegitimate son is kept as a houseboy to his wealthy brother, a paralegal, and his bored wife. His life is meticulously scheduled to each minute, following a ritual of work, housework, eat and then sleep. He lives on mostly barley and takes etchings of symbols from shrines and gravestones. His room is littered with pages upon pages of kanji characters and calligraphy, deftly imitated. He displays reserve and capability, overseeing the maintenance and security of the property, cleaning and polishing every surface and by night patrolling the grounds with his flashlight, a beacon searching for any structural abnormalities. Despite being the illegitimate child of the head of Moriyama family, he displays amongst all of them a love and respect for the ancient name that he has been deprived of.

The Houseboy and his etchings - Poem (1972)

Meanwhile, his brother is weak-willed. He wants nothing more than to take the property and sell off all the assets and land of his family, in their possession for hundreds of years; he lacks respect for culture and tradition. The man has a live in apprentice. Lazy, having failed the bar exams multiple times, he is having an insincere affair with the maid. The lady of the house, catching on to the affair, begins to show signs of extreme sexual repression and dissatisfaction, in part due to a distant husband and through her disinterest in bearing him children, and seeks out the houseboy for her own pleasure. But he is not interested. Entirely indifferent.

The Maid and the Apprentice - Poem (1972)

There are all these sordid and sleazy things taking place in the household. Modern day dilemmas, people lost to their desires. The character that is the most disciplined and hard-working to the extent it becomes a risk to his own health, is considered lesser due to his illegitimacy. His values uphold the legacy of the Moriyama family, less of a matter to the younger generations. Rejecting the future and the past, the legitimate family revels in their own excess without a thought for the circumstances surrounding them, enabling them. Which leaves the houseboy in a lurch as his use and capability becomes wasted on them. This is evident in his need for routine, refusing to work later than five to help them with documents that need copying; instead he resumes his own routine of preservation. He doesn’t fit to their own individualist, selfish needs just as much as they don’t fit in his own universe. Once again we see the clash of archaism and modernist futility (de Corinth, 2020).

The Paralegal - Poem (1972)

The Moriyama name is in decline, the family’s gradual breakdown by their own hand. Hundreds of years of history are attempting to be eradicated by the younger generation. But it is in this that we are seeing a total collapse in their own network. By having no faith in a future, they are literally carving a path forward in which there is no satisfying end in sight. Where in, the houseboy’s philosophy, a life of no want, leaves him with some satisfaction and purpose.

The Lady of the House - Poem (1972)

Jissôji’s choices in the film, they are some of his most interesting in the trilogy. Most notably the stark contrast in light and shadow’s the Gothicism of the night patrol scenes (Bale, 2018). He is far more restrained, opting for steady shots and interesting framing throughout most of the film, giving gravitas and a sense of hierarchy to his characters and the name of the Moriyama. But when it comes to the night, when the family are getting up to their most seedy actions, the intensity of the torch light shining on them is as much like being caught in headlights; the lady of the house, discovered peeping on the apprentice and the maid, a revelation of her own desire. The houseboy hardly fits in their lives as he also becomes the one to highlight their own corruption, made worse by his indifference to them. He is a presence in the home, a reminder of the generations before him watching down over the family, like in This Transient Life.

The Houseboy's Patrol - Poem (1972)

Poem lacks political drama. It becomes a personal journey of purpose and self. Textures and time; the intimacy of each routine in the houseboy’s life is perfectly filmed as he takes his etchings and meticulously cleans each sacred surface of the Moriyama house. The sounds are enhanced, so minute and deeply felt, thoughtfully, almost sensually, a meditation in self-control and the intricacies of these religiously reserved tasks he plays out. A way to adore love upon the name Moriyama. It contrasts dramatically with the textures and sounds of the apprentice and maid in the throes of passion, often happening in parallel to the houseboys work. These two are in it for their own pleasure.

The Houseboy's work - Poem (1972)

But Jissôji will break this up, this stripped back soundscape, particularly in the latter half of the film, when he introduces to Summer, 3rd Movement from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. This stands out, not only for being the only film to have this sort of soundtrack, but also for its dramatic intensity as a piece. Often used as a way to capture internalized struggles and dramas, for major turning points in the plot, it is most prominent in the finale of the film during the Houseboys ultimate sacrifice of spiritual harmony. It’s both a tragic conclusion and interesting choice. The piece is loud and intense, violent in a film that lacks much of the viciousness of its predecessor – it becomes its ultimate turmoil.

The Houseboy's affair - Poem (1972)

So what, ultimately is Jissôji doing with The Buddhist Trilogy? What was his motive? Much like his contemporaries in Yoshida and Ôshima, his work titillates as much as it displays radical ideas and philosophies as Japan was entering its next cinematic stage, post-war. The New Wave movements liberalism was a major a statement, using sex and violence and creative experimentation to push the boundaries of art, history and culture. A society significantly torn by its nostalgic, antiquated sensibilities and its own progressiveness, perhaps notoriously and even admirably, the most contrary in its output - as de Corinth put it, ‘…Jissôji’s Japan reveals the struggle to distinguish the antiquated from the modern’. The collective efforts of the New wave directors pushed for change and rebellion in a scenario where there was much political unrest. An urge for revolution, to move forward into a more liberal world was most desired.

The Moriyama family - Poem (1972)

So what is it about The Buddhist Trilogy that stands out so significantly? First of all, its wildly original and modern. The restorations by Arrow Academy have been outstanding, but as a collection of films there is much that displaces the stories. They are not a product of 1970s’, but like most classics, stand in a realm that transcends any place and time in which it was made. The themes and desires of the stories are as much the current dilemma of a fast-evolving age as it was fifty years ago. Secondly, it’s entirely about the human condition. No matter how outrageous its content, Jissôji still finds some humanity in the perversion and nihilism. What we are seeing is not a depravity of another exploitative filmmaker, but the work of storyteller dissecting the mind frame of mankind, delving deep into the subconscious of our species. He is exposing us for what we are. The simple creatures we deny being. Philosophy, spirituality, sexuality, violence; these have been what have troubled people for thousands of years, now the genetic makeup of our individual downfall. Perhaps this is why the future is so hard to comprehend? Because in it, we see more of the same. Does the future make for change, or are we too arrogant to see that we cannot change, that we will all be divided and individualistic in our own way?

Masao - This Transient Life (1970)

I’m spouting nonsense now. But The Buddhist Trilogy is complex. If we can honestly give up our materialistic desires, the modern world will flush those successful in this out; there just may not be any room for such spirituality in the future. Jissôji is not just asking this. He examines humanities harmony in the world. The more I think about it, the more it seems to be the lack of it. Whatever it is, Jissôji has made a series of film worth dissecting and digesting for many years to come. Even now, as I type this, I find myself as much the contrarian as I described previously. Both complex and coherent, the films establish the greatest of the Japanese New Wave, surpassing many of the works that were released at that time and pushing boundaries before many of his own contemporaries had. Probably my favourite of the cinematic era, The Buddhist Trilogy is truly a blessing to the film world, and not to be missed.


Buy the The Buddhist Trilogy here


Bibliography:

BALE, E. (2018). Poem. First Edition. UK: Arrow Academy.

BITEL, A.(2018). Mandala. First Edition. UK: Arrow Academy.

CINEMA NIPPON. (2019). 26th September. Stepping into "This Transient Life". Cinema Nippon – Youtube. [Online Video]. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T393pgg-yDQ. [Accessed: 19th May 2021].

CINEMA NIPPON. (2019). 28th October. Unraveling "Mandala". Cinema Nippon – Youtube. [Online Video]. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=znvjFV1jGJ0&ab_channel=CinemaNipponCinemaNippon. [Accessed: 20th May 2021].

CINEMA NIPPON. (2019). 15th December. Reading into "Poem". Cinema Nippon – Youtube. [Online Video]. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CdsMmPVREFc&ab_channel=CinemaNipponCinemaNippon. [Accessed: 20th May 2021].

DE CORINTH, H.(2020). But What Is Ecstasy: Akio Jissôji’s The Buddhist Trilogy. Mubi.com [Online]. 14th February. Available from: https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/but-what-is-ecstasy-akio-jissoji-s-the-buddhist-trilogy. [Accessed: 19th May 2021].

MES, T. (2018) This Transient Life. First Edition. UK: Arrow Academy.

MES, T. (2018). Akio Jissôji, Sacred and Profane. First Edition. UK: Arrow Academy.

The Finale - This Transient Life (1970)

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A Space for Reviews, World Cinema Appreciation, Essays and Reflections by Writer Kerry Chambers

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