To begin my list, I chose L’Atalante, by Jean Vigo, because it was one of the first truly special films I saw as a boy. It was showing one night on TV, I didn’t know anything about the director, and I’d say it was at that moment that I got hooked on cinema. L’Atalante is a poetic marvel that suffered a slew of insults before becoming legendary as a masterpiece. Actor Michel Simon is superb as an old sailor, and the love portrayed between Jean and Juliette is as sublime as it is universal. There is an incredible grace in seeing Juliette as a bride walking on the dock in the midst of a fog, imagining a Paris she has never seen, and then to see Jean looking for her everywhere, even in the sea. And through the magic of cinema, he is reunited with his love in the waters of the canal, able to embrace her once again. I love Jean Vigo because he was an anarchist, as well as one of the great filmmakers of the last century, who invented new ways of showing. Vigo died at the age of twenty-nine, having made only one other feature, Zéro de conduite (1933), and a few shorts, but everything he created is so intense and full of poetry.
Vittorio De Sica
Bicycle Thieves is very dear to my heart. When a movie makes me cry, it’s a successful movie. The story takes place during a highly dramatic moment in Italian history, right after the war, and I love the way Italian society is represented as being so full of humanity. I’m touched by how people are portrayed as being simpler yet more empathetic, especially in comparison with what Italy has become now. The movie acts as a fresco depicting the country as a whole. I put Bicycle Thieves and Paisan next to each other on my list because they are the cornerstones of Italian neorealism, which was probably the greatest era of Italian filmmaking, born amidst the rubble of a war-torn Europe after the fall of fascism.
It’s important to appreciate Rossellini’s methods as a filmmaker, which resemble those of the documentary form. For Paisan, Rossellini worked with real people and immersed himself alongside them to tell their stories. With this film, Rossellini was the first to depict in such an observational way the realities of his country at a time when it had been completely destroyed by the war and needed to be rebuilt. When I think of the episode of Paisan that takes place in Naples, I see my father, who likewise grew up in the middle of the rubble. Rossellini poured his affection for his country into Paisan, and it touches me all the more when I think of my own father and the history of Italy as a whole.
How can you not love Jacques Tati’s films? Mon oncle is another memory from my childhood. There’s such a simplicity in Tati’s films that even children can appreciate them; indeed, even my daughter likes this film. I find Mon oncle important because it juxtaposes two societies living in parallel albeit very different worlds. Mr. Hulot’s ideal world is not the one marked by modernity and irrational consumerism, but the one of people sharing with others in their working-class neighborhood, in houses where they all live together. Tati focuses on the details of life in the old squares, such as a man’s hands greasy from the fritters he sells on the street, showing a world full of truth and raw humanity. He juxtaposes this with the plasticized futurist neighborhood of the little grandson, portraying the consumerist society developing in Europe in the late fifties. Mr. Hulot becomes the common thread crossing between these two different worlds. Tati expresses so much without any dialogue, using the tools of silent cinema and making us feel closer to a pure form of the seventh art. With his nostalgic outlook, Tati addresses the dreamers of another era and shows that there is hope for redemption, even if only through dogs and children.
The Apu Trilogy
In this trilogy, Satyajit Ray reveals his great ability to express sincere emotions, and even the human soul, through the cinematic art form. As in much neorealism, he tells the story of a young man, a dreamer and an idealist with great hopes but few achievements. We follow Apu throughout the course of his life, through trials and tribulations. After tragedy strikes, he falls into apathy and a refusal to live, wandering for many years as a vagabond. The final film sends the message that friendship, as well as family, is at the core of existence. These films are also about destiny and love, especially that between father and son. The final sequence of the last film is among the most beautiful endings in the history of cinema. As Apu walks sadly along the river, we perceive in the background a small figure in the distance: it is his son Kajal, who has decided to follow him, the father he has never known. Ray presents to us a moving metaphor for an entire trilogy through their closing dialogue and embrace.
Cléo from 5 to 7
I’ve put Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 on my list next to a Jacques Demy film, because, as creative and life partners, they surely influenced each other in finding the beauty and harmony in the world without filters. Varda’s is a cinema of the street: free, inventive, unhinged from the constraints of a studio and the so-called cinéma de papa. Through her filmography, she made her own form of revolution, not by climbing the barricades but by using a discreet grace all her own. This film has the kind of energy and harmony only found in the work of young directors. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment, but I also love the imperfection of it. The strength of the film is in the simplicity of the narrative and the camera movements. Using black and white with harmonious music, the film reminds me of silent cinema, especially the moment when Cléo meets the soldier and the camera pulls away as they start walking. For me, Varda’s film is a way to reconnect with that time period, when films had a more profound meaning. Yet Varda speaks deeply about the world she’s living in, and it comes across so intensely. I must say, as a male filmmaker, I find it harder to achieve the level of sensitivity that transpires here. There’s something truly magical about it.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
This is another movie that always makes me cry. In the first minutes, everything seems happy and bright, but the violence of the real world and differences in social class permeate even when everyone sings together. These star-crossed lovers can’t avoid their tragic fate in a world that conspires against their perfect romance. I love everything about this movie, which tells such a simple story but is so full of humanity. It is a greatly original musical, Demy taking the rhythm of an opera and transposing it to a contemporary tale. The music in the film is extraordinary and has such poetry to it, thanks to composer Michel Legrand. Demy’s courage and confidence to break out of traditional narration in portraying simultaneously a love story and a social drama makes this film unique and irreproducible. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a wonderful and deeply heartbreaking work of art.
The Tree of Wooden Clogs
This is Ermanno Olmi’s masterpiece. He is perhaps the only Italian director who has been able to present working-class and peasant conditions not as social problems but simply as relationships between people. Olmi chose nonprofessional actors, protagonists in their own right, to portray this epic of a peasant community. In depicting his roots, Olmi reminds us of our own ancestors, as Italy was mostly populated by peasants. The Tree of Wooden Clogs is a choral film, in which the stories of four families at the end of the nineteenth century in Lombardy are intertwined. Above all, it is a fable that reminds us symbolically where we come from, who we were, and how we became, and it does so through the mysticism of “cinema d’anima”—or cinema of the soul. Olmi was not only a director, but also his own producer, director of photography, and screenwriter. A truly independent filmmaker, Olmi had started his career making documentaries, through which he honed his skills before turning to his first fiction film, Time Stood Still. For me growing up in Italy, Olmi and Rossellini were the two filmmakers who taught me the most, and they are real points of reference for many Italians.
I love Soviet cinema, and there are many Soviet directors in the collection I could have cited, but I wanted to focus on Larisa Shepitko because she is so great and yet so little known. The first part of The Ascent alone, where two fugitives laboriously advance in the snow, would be enough to secure this film a slot in the History of Great Cinema. It is a spiritual, philosophical, didactic, emotional, anti-militarist film, but above all it is a raw portrayal of human nature, with its chiaroscuro revealing the cruelty, yet at the same time the film contains moments evoking pietas. The extraordinary music of Alfred Schnittke—one of the greatest composers that cinema has ever had—accompanies the film’s Stations of the Cross. This is a film about faith but not religion, following a certain tradition of Soviet cinema. The Ascent shouldn’t have been Sheptiko’s last film, as she was only thirty-five at the time. Unfortunately, in 1979 a car accident on a highway south of Leningrad brought her to an untimely death alongside four crew members during the first days of production on her film Farewell, which was later finished by her husband, the great director Elem Klimov. Sheptiko’s films deserve to be rediscovered and promoted everywhere. We can remember her in the portrait made by Klimov, Larisa, which is as much a loving tribute to her as to cinema in general.
Come and See
Elem Klimov was an immense artist and part of a group headed by Mikhail Romm, professor and leader of many Soviet new wave filmmakers. Klimov’s Come and See portrays the tragedy of Belarus during World War II and is probably the most important film ever made about war. It tells the story of Florya, a child who becomes a man marked by the experience of war. Indeed, the terror and anguish of war are deeply ingrained on his face and that of the young girl, Glasha. Come and See monumentally depicts the destruction of a world in total decay, and Klimov masterfully brings all of the pain to life, for this is his own story; he was only ten years old during the siege of Stalingrad. Klimov then waited ten long years before getting official approval to shoot this film. And despite the success of Come and See, he made no more films after, for he had said all he had to say.
Ramin Bahrani’s Top 10
Iranian-American writer and director Ramin Bahrani’s feature films include: Man Push Cart (2005), Chop Shop (2007), Goodbye Solo (2009), 99 Homes (2014), and Fahrenheit 451 (2018).