La Ciénaga (Lucrecia Martel, 2001). This loose, impressionistic drama craftily captures the complexity of life itself, where outcomes can be shocking and predictable at the same time. There are incidents aplenty in this story of family, but the film is really about the shifting, sometimes treacherous relationships at play, constantly strained by lurking resentments and fears. Lucrecia Martel — who also wrote the screenplay — favors quietly telling images in her directing and highlights the probing insights of the actor’s performances. There’s a mordant comedy at play, always conveyed with subtlety and prevailing kindness, even as the film addresses social and cultural prejudice at play in the swath of Argentinian society it depicts. La Ciénaga is wise and restless, acknowledging the wounds of existence and the uncertainty that the worst of them can ever properly heal.
Seven Beauties (Lina Wertmüller, 1975). It took until the forty-ninth time handing out golden statuettes nicknamed Oscar before the voting body of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences believed a woman did a good enough job directing a feature to be among the nominees in the category devoted to that portion of the filmmaking process. And they had to cast their gaze across an ocean to find a deserving director. Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties casts Giancarlo Giannini as Pasqualino (whose nickname provides the film’s title), a low-level gangster in Fascist Italy around the years of World War II. His impetuous murder of another hood who’s been preying on his sister sets him on a twisty path that leads through prison, a psychiatric hospital, the Italian army, and, after his deserts from the military, a German concentration camp. Wertmüller’s wrote the circuitous script and sets a tricky tone of barbed farce that calls on Giannini to play his role with the bold strokes of a cartoon, which deepens the power of a shift to heavy drama in the last act. The film isn’t always totally successful — a post-war coda is especially unsatisfying — but it’s consistently fascinating. And Wertmüller sometimes has a dazzling brio to her visual construction. In particular, the scenes in the psych ward suggest what it might have looked like had Stanley Kubrick directed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Merrily We Go to Hell (Dorothy Arzner, 1932). This acidic comedy is based on a novel by Cleo Lucas. Joan (Sylvia Sidney) is a kind-hearted food conglomerate heiress. At a posh party, she meets Jerry (Fredric March), a tippling reporter and aspiring playwright who charms her with his boozy flirtation. The courtship turns into marriage, which turns into a perilous standoff of “modern” polyamorous experimentation when Jerry’s first produced play brings his actress ex (Adrianne Allen) back into the picture. The first half crackles with the rhythms of screwball comedy and the second half has the fierceness of bruised-knuckle drama. Dorothy Azner handles both tones with enviable skill, making the transition between the two sides feel as natural as a shifting breeze. Both leads are strong in their roles, operating with a naturalism that was ahead of time (as sometimes noticeably out of sync with the actors around them). Sidney is especially good at conveying her character’s shifting emotions as she adjusts to the idea that her broken beloved might never going to develop into a dependable partner.