(Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan, 1956)
A startling, Tolstoyean masterpiece. As a filmmaker, Mizoguchi accomplished something original and unparalleled: the fusion of psychologically acute melodrama with lyricism. Not content to rest there, he also managed to be a uniquely political filmmaker; somehow, amidst the mystery of poetic images, and the almost unbearable intimacy of interior emotional states, he found room to work through his righteous anger at a political system that routinely denied people their full humanity.
Mizoguchi was the best kind of political filmmaker, meaning he had no overarching agenda or theory, no discernible party line to toe, although if you wanted to, you could easily imagine him as a kind of classical liberal. He was most dismayed by the way that unaccountable external power intruded into the most intimate regions of peoples' lives, and how those lives were impeded in their expression by that same power. It's hard to think of another artist, in any medium, who so effectively channeled compassion and rage into work of such haunting elegance.
Some keepsakes from the experience (I was lucky to catch it on film): The prostitutes, each sumptuously individuated, but all sharing a hard-won stoicism in the face of a society that simultaneously needs and reviles them. Yumeko's gold teeth, and her disastrous, doomed attempt to reconnect with her son. Mickey's delightfully amoral insouciance, and the shattering revelation of her history and inner life, a repudiation like no other in cinema, fraught with incestuous shame. Hanae's frumpy, unassuming civilian garb, the alter ego of the woman who must make her bread by literally dragging men out of the street and into her bed. That late, pained angle on Yumeko, her face turned away from us, which is repeated as we learn, gradually, that she has gone mad. And the final shot manages to be a capstone to all of this majesty.
Perhaps the most surprising realization of the film is that prostitution itself isn't the problem; while it may be untenable in the mercenary wilds of a capitalist society, the real suffering comes from the various ways in which the women are manipulated and constrained. Being a "courtesan" is shown, for all of its pain, to be one of the few avenues of independence available to women. The fact that a well-meaning society, seeking to "better" itself, would be so blind to the nuances of the reality, is a perfect illustration of the power of that art holds which politics cannot hope to touch.