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Sight & Sound May 2016

Westward the wayward! Getting down, dark and dirty with the ‘psychological western’. Plus Johnny Guitar, Joan Crawford and the women of the west; Holocaust historian Nikolaus Wachsmann on Son of Saul; Agnieszka Holland looks back; the rise of virtual reality; Miguel Gomes’s epically ambitious Arabian Nights, and Jaco Van Dormael’s scabrously funny The Brand New Testament.
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Saddle your horses and strap on your six-shooter, because our May issue takes a ride down the Wild West’s lonesome trails. Our Deep Focus special feature, published to tie in with a corresponding season of 12 films at the BFI Southbank, takes an in-depth look at the western’s turn to darker, more psychologically complex and troubling themes in the post-war years – the heyday of the ‘psychological western’.

Graham Fuller explores this most fascinating period when, in the troubled aftermath of World War II, a new breed of western emerged, one that borrowed elements of film noir to present a very different kind of hero to the one who had ridden West in search of land, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the triumphant expansionist dramas of the 1920s and 30s. Obsessive, violent and often masochistic, these angry, alienated protagonists lent the films psychological depth and moral complexity, helping to reinvigorate the genre and better enable it to grapple with the socio-political concerns of the Cold War era.

One of the most daringly original and still startlingly iconoclastic westerns of the period was Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, starring Joan Crawford as saloon owner Vienna. As the film is re-released into UK cinemas to coincide with Sight & Sound’s Ride Lonesome: The Psychological Western season, Imogen Sara Smith looks again at this unique fever dream of a movie, and at the role of women in other westerns of the period.

Of the new films featured in this month’s issue, none are as viscerally powerful as Hungarian director László Nemes’s extraordinary, devastating debut Son of Saul, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film earlier this year. A searing drama that takes us straight into the Holocaust’s heart of darkness, Nemes’s film dares to depict the ‘reality beyond belief’ of life inside Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944 as a prisoner tries to arrange a Jewish burial for his son. Historian Nikolaus Wachsmann, author of the highly acclaimed book KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, praises a film that is unflinching in its depiction of the “nightmare of crime” that was the web of Nazi death camps in Europe.

Another director who has attempted to portray the horrors of Europe in the Nazi years is the Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland. From her portrait of the plight of the Jews in World War II in Europa Europa, and her depiction of life under Communism in A Woman Alone, up to her more recent TV work in America on shows such as The Wire and Treme, Holland’s remarkable body of work offers a masterclass in versatility. On the eve of a retrospective of her work at BFI Southbank, Holland talks to Isabel Stevens about her long and fascinating career.

Miguel Gomes’s hugely ambitious three-part Arabian Nights explores more recent European history, blending as it documentary and fiction in a labyrinth of tales exploring the travails of Portugal in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis. Nick Pinkerton talks to the director about the grim reality of austerity, his long fascination with Scheherazade’s folk tales and why he just kept telling stories until the money ran out.

Lighter relief arrives in the form of Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael’s scabrously funny The Brand New Testament, a version of the biblical creation story in which a slobby, sadistic God dreams forth Brussels and has to face down a rebellion led by his young daughter. After a long period away from the limelight following his brilliant debut Toto the Hero, the film finds Van Dormael back on top form. He talks to Jonathan Romney.

Lastly in this month’s features, we examine the cutting-edge technology that is making virtual-reality filmmaking very much an actual reality. Marisol Grandon surveys this brave new world, explores its great potential and wonders if it will it prove as exhilarating and disorienting for modern viewers as the experience of early cinema was for the audiences who watched the Ciotat train arrive at the station in the Lumières’ short in 1896.

Elsewhere in this month’s issue, we have reviews of every new UK cinema release, including Jacques Audiard’s Palme d’or winning Dheepan, Jeff Nichols’s naturalistic sci-fi Midnight Special, Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead and Mark Cousins’s ode to his hometown in I Am Belfast.

Our Wide Angle section profiles five of the most exciting new Spanish filmmakers working today, examines the work of Lithuanian artist filmmaker Deimantas Narkevicius, surveys Shakespeare adaptations in the silent era and more.

Our Home Entertainment section includes a review of a new boxset of Ken Russell’s pioneering TV films, heralds a revival of Chan Kaige’s sweeping Farewell my Concubine, and picks out some of the most exciting new DVD and Bluray releases.

Our book reviews hail a groundbreaking biography of production designer William Cameron Menzies and round up a handful of other recently published books.

All this and much more besides.

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