Shadowland

A nearly 40-year-old classic of French cinema finally gets a screening in the Bay area

click to enlarge WAYS OF MAKING YOU TALK: Army of Shadowseffectively portrays a world of fatalism and paranoia during the French Resistance. - Rialto Pictures
Rialto Pictures
WAYS OF MAKING YOU TALK: Army of Shadowseffectively portrays a world of fatalism and paranoia during the French Resistance.

The cine-gods have answered a few prayers this week, although their timing is a little perverse. Last week's film column, you may remember, singled out Jean-Pierre Melville's stunning Army of Shadows — released across America last year but, inexplicably, not in Tampa — as an example of just the sort of movie that Bay area cinephiles are missing out on because of unadventurous local bookers.

And now, barely a week later, here it is. It's not playing at a local festival, however, nor did one of our handful of remaining independent theaters finally have the guts and taste to show Melville's masterpiece. No, Army of Shadows is being brought to us courtesy of Eckerd College's International Cinema Series, which returns on Feb. 9 and on consecutive Friday nights to amaze and delight us with movies that other venues are apparently no longer able or willing to present.

Army of Shadows was released in France in 1969 but was never distributed in this country until just last year — and so, to some, it bears the double stigma of being both "foreign" and "old." The film is a strange bird, no way around that, but it's anything but "old." The truth is, it feels fresher and more alive than anything currently in movie theaters.

Army of Shadows is a tale of the French Resistance during World War II, although it's closely related in tone and timbre to those elegantly icy gangster movies for which Melville is best known (moody, existential crime yarns like Bob Le Flambeur and Le Samourai, both now available on DVD). The style of Army of Shadows is just as spare and clinical, the mood as deeply fatalistic, and the palette, both physical and emotional, every bit as magnificently chilly. The world in Melville's movies is generally steel blue and smoky grey, right down to the ashen complexions of the characters.

Melville introduces us to a small group of Resistance fighters headed up by Lino Ventura, following them as they embark on a series of missions, find themselves trapped and imprisoned, plot their escapes and meet various untimely and tragic ends. There's not so much a plot, per se, as a series of loosely connected episodes segueing from one point to another (Paris, say, to London or Lyon) with a disregard for logic recalling the surrealism-by-default of old French silent serials like Les Vampires.

Melville seems mostly interested in immersing us in a collapsed, disoriented world and in an atmosphere of moral unease and high anxiety, where every character suspects everyone else, where noir-ish paranoia seeps into every frame and where safety does not exist.

Army of Shadows is a film guided by voices, a stream of hypnotic voice-over narrations that shifts from character to character (much as Terrence Malick's Thin Red Line would decades later), reinforcing the feeling that what Melville (himself a former Resistance member) is providing here is nothing less than the random poetry of human memory. With its long, glacially paced takes and lyrical rendering of empty spaces and extended silences (there are excruciating sequences where nothing seems to be happening at all), this is that rare sort of cinema that requires both patience and participation. Unfashionable in the best possible way, the whole of Army of Shadows might well be seen as a kind of waiting game, an inaction movie that is, happily, everything Smokin' Aces isn't.

Like all of the other films in the International Cinema Series, Army of Shadows will be screened as a beautiful, brand-new 35mm print (as opposed to a projected DVD — an important and increasingly underappreciated distinction), making this event even more of a must-see.

We'll be providing regular updates on the coming season of the International Cinema Series, but just to give you a heads-up on future highlights, the Quay brothers' surrealist extravaganza The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (another film that should have played here last year, but didn't) is next up, on Feb. 16; the universally acclaimed South Korean horror film The Host screens on Feb. 23; and, if all goes well, David Lynch's mysterious and massively controversial Inland Empire (yet another film that, you guessed it, Bay area bookers wouldn't touch) will show up in the spring.

There are lots of reasons why anyone who loves films will want to acquaint themselves with the coming season of Eckerd's International Cinema Series, and Army of Shadows is the perfect beginning for what could be a beautiful friendship.

More Darkness at the Edge of Town. If Army of Shadows wets your whistle for a taste of noir, there's a lot more where that came from. Shadow Over the Sunshine City: The Second Annual Film Noir Festival rolls into town this week at St. Pete's [email protected], with nine cool classics on display from Feb. 9 to 16. The fun and games begin with a bang on Fri., Feb. 9 with a gala mixer and Stanley Kubrick's tough-as-nails The Killing, followed by a Saturday double dose of Jules Dassin's Thieves' Highway and a little movie you may have heard of called Sunset Boulevard.

The deal is sealed on Sunday with a clever pairing of two examples of latter-day designer noir: the Coen brothers' affectionately revisionist Blood Simple and Ridley Scott's retro-futuristic Blade Runner.

There's more Dassin in the days that follow, with The Naked City screening on Tues., Feb. 13 and Night and the City on Wed., Feb. 14; one of the most gloriously nasty noirs of all time, Born to Kill, on Thurs., Feb. 15; and Otto Preminger's hauntingly bittersweet Laura makes for an elegant finish to the festival on Fri., Feb. 16.

There's nothing here that can't be readily found on DVD (which is exactly what they'll be projecting at the festival), but it's still nice to see all these classic blasts of darkness gathered together under one roof and properly celebrated. And there's not a clunker in the bunch. All films screen at 7 p.m., at 620 First Ave. S., St Petersburg.

Between the Film Noir Festival and the International Cinema Series' one-night-only screening of Army of Shadows, Feb. 9 already offers an almost daunting buffet of opportunities for movie lovers.

But there's one more option: Feb. 9 is also the date of the next Tampa Film Review, a monthly round-up of local short films presented at the International Bazaar in Ybor City. This month's program runs the gamut from the filmed reflections of an American Muslim to video installations on child-abusing priests, with pit stops including a re-creation of the Dennis Hopper-Christopher Walken scene from True Romance.

What else you might find at the Tampa Film Review is anyone's guess, so stop by and see for yourself. Screenings begin at 8 p.m. at the International Bazaar, 1600 E. Eighth Ave. in the Centro Ybor Complex. Admission is free, and more information can be had by e-mailing [email protected] or visiting www.thetampafilmreview.com.

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