In a Strange Land
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The Stranger and the Fog (Bahram Beyzaie, 1974)
A small boat washes up on the beach near a village; its cargo is a man, unconscious and bloodied. Once revived, he has only a vague memory of having been attacked, and a foreboding certainty that his assailants are still pursuing him. They will come out of the sea-mist, as he did. Bahram Beyzaie’s The Stranger and the Fog (1974) is an otherworldly, cryptic, and visceral treatment of the archetypal “a stranger comes to town” story. Banned in Iran after the 1979 revolution, it screens in a particularly strong Revivals strand at the 61st New York Film Festival. Several of the standout films in this section share themes of migration or displacement, following people in flight, caught between impossible pasts and the mirage of a new life, or resettled but haunted by what they have left behind.
No theme could be timelier, as each day’s news reminds us. But Beyzaie builds a world outside of time, with its own folk rituals and iconography, at once thrillingly alien and vividly tactile, immersing us in mud, rain, smoke, and surf. The bleakness of bare trees and bedraggled thatched huts on stilts is brightened by colorful headscarves, torches, and glittering mirrors. This world owes something to westerns and a lot to Kurosawa—Beyzaie revels in fast-traveling shots of men running while yelling at the top of their lungs, and he stages a mud-wallowing battle to top the one in Seven Samurai. But he also issues a pointed prophecy about his homeland with the ominous, quietly fanatical black-clad figures who emerge from the fog, and in the villagers’ descent into self-flagellating religious hysteria and ritualized mourning.
The community swirls and regroups like a disturbed flock, unsure whether to drive out or embrace Ayat (Khosrow Shojazadeh), the stranger in their midst. He tries to put down roots, falling in love with Rana (Parvaneh Massoumi), a woman whose husband disappeared at sea, and who gradually moves to the center of the film. At first she is a stern, silent figure dressed in black; when she smiles for the first time in the film, it feels momentous. The camera is mesmerized not only by her beauty but by her life force. She is often framed alone, heroically, for instance when she steps out of her hut and stands in the rain, opening sensually to its touch. In the end she takes up arms to fight, proving more determined than the fatalistic hero.
The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project and the Cineteca di Bologna have restored both The Stranger and the Fog and another long-unseen stunner, Tewfik Saleh’s The Dupes (1972). This harrowing story of three Palestinian refugees trying to cross the desert to reach Kuwait is lucid in its rage and electrifying in its cinematic inventiveness. The film opens in a lyrical, fluidly impressionistic mode, slipping between past and present as it traces the backgrounds of three men of different generations. But once their paths converge and they throw in their lot with a truck driver who offers to smuggle them for a fee, the style shifts into a stripped-down, nerve-shredding, Wages of Fear–like hyperrealism. I would be tempted to call this a stone-cold masterpiece except that no film has ever evoked brutal heat more vividly, from eye-searing sun flares to drops of sweat sizzling on metal. Hesitating over whether to leave his homeland and undertake a risky and torturous journey, one migrant is told that once he reaches Kuwait, “You’ll wipe away all the tears with banknotes.”
The broken promise of immigration is laid bare in Pressure (1975), Horace Ové’s portrait of West Indian Londoners of the “Windrush generation,” who had been invited to emigrate to the United Kingdom only to face toxic racism and demeaning opportunities. The film focuses on Tony (the doe-eyed Herbert Norville), a boy on the cusp of adulthood. The only member of his Trinidadian family born in England, he is torn between the illusion of belonging among his white friends, the expectations of his respectability-obsessed parents, and his older brother’s militant Black Power activism. While the film scathingly exposes prejudice and injustice, it is also meticulously attentive to the texture of daily life: to the food, clothes, and music of ’70s Black Britain, and the look of the streets, shops, and rooms of lower-middle-class Ladbroke Grove. Above all, the film pulses with tender, joyful appreciation of Black faces, often pausing simply to let them fill the screen with life.
The couple at the center of Tell Me a Riddle (1980) are also immigrants, Russian Jews who fled persecution and pogroms, and have built a seemingly secure and comfortable—if quietly estranged and melancholy—life in the Midwest. But the elderly Eva (Lila Kedrova) and David (Melvyn Douglas) are suddenly cast adrift by her terminal cancer diagnosis and his decision to sell their house. As they travel to stay with children and grandchildren in Omaha and San Francisco, Eva also travels in her memories, helplessly carried back by violent traumas and sweetly nostalgic visions, tasting again the secret bitterness of her life as a mother of seven—a life stunted by patriarchal repression and male selfishness. Tell Me a Riddle was the first theatrical feature directed by actress Lee Grant, and the first feature film in America to be produced, directed, and written by women. As she would do in celebrated documentaries like Down and Out in America (1986) and Battered (1989), Grant looks unblinkingly at issues most people prefer to turn away from (poverty, old age, abortion, loneliness), but the film’s greatest strength is the acting by its two veteran leads. Kedrova is fragile and febrile as Eva, whose withdrawal into her own thoughts is punctuated by eruptions of anger, terror, and childlike joy. As her gruff, seemingly insensitive husband, Douglas—a leading man to Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, and Irene Dunne half a century earlier—unleashes a last-act flood of emotion and plays perhaps the most moving and passionate love scene of his screen career. Tell Me a Riddle is unafraid to dwell on kindness and goodness, but also honest about how little even those qualities can do to blunt life’s pain.
The first time she sees the Pacific, Eva runs onto the sand, takes off her shoes, and dances in the surf. The Woman on the Beach (1947), Jean Renoir’s last American film, turns the California shore into an eerie, haunted zone where a tormented love triangle plays out amid dreamlike images of wrecked ships and burning houses. Robert Ryan, the definitive noir actor, plays a traumatized veteran who is drawn to a woman trapped in a toxic marriage (Joan Bennett); she offers not healing but an excuse to burrow deeper into his pain. Cuts demanded by censors and changes ordered by producers at RKO after a disastrous preview only enhance the film’s ambiguity and its disconnected, alienated mood. Largely neglected ever since it tanked at the box office, The Woman on the Beach is newly restored and ripe for rediscovery. Looking back on this work, made during Renoir’s self-imposed exile from France, the director said the theme was solitude, a void “peopled with ghosts, and they are ghosts from our past.”
Imogen Sara Smith is the author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City and Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy. She has written for The Criterion Collection and elsewhere, and wrote the Phantom Light column for Film Comment.