Soleil Ô / Downpour
A furious cry of resistance against racist oppression, the debut from Mauritanian director Med Hondo is a bitterly funny, stylistically explosive attack on Western capitalism and the lingering legacy of colonialism. Laced with deadly irony and righteous anger, Soleil Ô follows a starry-eyed immigrant (Robert Liensol) as he leaves West Africa and journeys to Paris in search of a job, a community, and intellectual engagement—but soon discovers a hostile society where his very presence engenders fear and resentment. Drawing on the freewheeling experimentation of the French New Wave, Hondo deploys a dizzying array of narrative and stylistic techniques—animation, docudrama, dream sequences, musical numbers, folklore, slapstick comedy, agitprop—to create a revolutionary landmark of political cinema and a shattering vision of awakening black consciousness.
Defined by a brash stylistic exuberance and a vivid way of looking at everyday life in prerevolution Iran, this first feature from the renowned Bahram Beyzaie helped usher in the Iranian New Wave. When he takes a job as a schoolteacher in a new neighborhood, the hapless intellectual Hekmati (Parviz Fannizadeh) finds that he is a fish out of water in a place where everybody’s business—including his tentative flirtation with an engaged seamstress (Parvaneh Massoumi)—is subject to the prying eyes of adults and children alike. Shot in luminous monochrome and edited with quicksilver invention, this touchstone work, which has been painstakingly restored from the only known surviving print, captures with puckish humor and great human tenderness the societal and intellectual conflicts coursing through Iran at a pivotal historical moment.
The third collection of films found in Criterion’s latest box set for Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project presents two titles: Med Hondo’s Soleil Ô (from Mauritania) and Bahram Beyzaie’s Downpour (from Iran). Both films have been given 4K restorations and are presented in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The two films are presented together on a single dual-layer Blu-ray disc, encoded at 1080p/24hz high-definition. Each film is also presented on their own dual-layer DVD with standard-definition encodes. Because of the aspect ratio neither film has been enhanced for widescreen televisions on their respective DVDs. Though this review will focus on the Blu-ray presentations I’ll note that the comments can hold true to what I sampled from the DVDs, the only catch being compression is more of an issue because of the format’s limitations. Upscaled, the presentations do come off decent enough.
Though there are some minor issues that are source related these two presentations end up probably being some of the more impressive looking ones I’ve come across going through these sets, Downpour standing out in particular. According to Scorsese and Beyzaie (in the disc’s included introduction and interview around the film) the filmmaker has the only known copy of the film, which is a theatrical print with burned in subtitles. The negatives and other prints were destroyed after the Iranian revolution.
Scorsese and the notes on the film’s restoration explain that this lone, surviving print was in terrible shape with a number of scratches, tears, splices, stains, and so forth, and it took over 1500 hours to repair the film, which would work out to 2 months straight if it was just one person working without sleep. The amount of work put into this has paid off and outside of a handful of things you’d never know the film was in dire condition. Impressively, damage is minimal and only a few minor problems arise: some scratches, what look like burns, some stains on the edges, but little else. English subtitles are burned in and most of the flaws appear around them, as though the restorers could go in only so far before harming this aspect of the image. The image also fades a little around the subtitles, creating a halo effect. The subtitles themselves are not great, though. They’re blown out and can disappear in the black-and-white image. I should also note it doesn’t appear everything is translated, and no digital subtitles have been added to compensate for this.
Outside of what issues remain the image is otherwise quite good. Detail is decent enough, much stronger than I was expecting I will admit, but the finer details don’t pop and I put this down to the source materials themselves. Contrast is also not great and the grey levels aren’t all that distinct, though again this is probably because of the source materials. Grain is there but it’s not all that sharp, which either comes down to the film stock used to create the print or filtering was done to manage it. If it’s the latter the impact appears to have been minimal.
Soleil Ô was also a nice surprise, though it appears this one may have just been in fairly good condition to begin with. There are some scratches and marks but they’re few and far between and the image is incredibly clean otherwise. It’s a very grainy film a lot of the time, but the encode renders it cleanly. Details are sharp when the source allows (some shots look a little out-of-focus) and the image has a wonderful texture to it. Brightness and contrast are both superb, allowing the grays blend beautifully.
In all, two very nice-looking presentations, both receiving gorgeous restorations and strong encodes.
Soleil Ô (1970): 8/10 Downpour (1972): 7/10
Both films offer lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtracks, Soleil Ô in French and Downpour in Persian. Downpour’s is still rather rough, not a surprise really, but I was expecting worse. Dialogue and music come off a bit distorted and it sounds as though some filtering has been applied. It ultimately is what it is. Soleil Ô’s soundtrack is more experimental in nature and does have some odd noises and sound effects in the background (like animal noises during one sequence) that come off a bit harsh and edgy, but outside of that dialogue and music sound decent enough, just lacking fidelity really.
Soleil Ô (1970): 6/10 Downpour (1972): 5/10
Again, to keep costs down (I suspect), special features are limited. Like all of the other films in the series each one receives an introduction from Martin Scorsese, who talks a little about the films and their respective restorations, though gives more attention to Downpour in this regard (again, I wish restoration demonstrations were more of a thing with these releases). Criterion also includes interviews with the directors, each found under the film’s respective “Supplements” sub-menu. Mel Hondo’s interview comes from excerpts of one conducted in 2018, Hondo talking about first discovering film and how, after a move to Paris, he found his way into filmmaking. He explains the racism he experienced, pointing out how the subtle things could build up, and this led to him making Soleil Ô, which he explains in the opening was more therapeutic. There are also stories around filming that are sadly not all the surprising, like where he recalls shooting the scene between his protagonist and the blonde woman out in public. What's made me smile a bit, though, is how he still seems shocked to this day that the film managed to get a release, and he expresses how thrilled and surprised he was when he found out Scorsese's foundation had chosen his film for restoration. The interview runs around 21-minutes.
Bahram Beyzaie’s interview, running around 29-minutes, was filmed exclusively by Criterion (remotely) for this edition, and the filmmaker talks about his upbringing and culture and how that led to him making the film. Not being a Muslim, he explains how the film and his beliefs eventually offended the Iranian ministry of culture after the revolution (it appears a big part of it had to do with how women are represented in the film), leading to his film being banned and him losing his job. Even while making the film he ran into difficulties, he explains, since he had to shoot in multiple locations (since Tehran was going under heavy construction) and had to abide by the religious beliefs of the locals in the neighborhood. This led to his script being constantly scrutinized to make sure it passed the smell test. It’s an interesting interview, showing how the film ends up being a reflection of Iran pre-revolution.
Sadly, that ends up being it for both films, but they’re both very good interviews, delving more into each filmmaker’s beliefs and experiences and how that all ended up being placed up there in their respective films.
Another strong collection in the set, the films receive amazing presentations and excellent interviews from the respective filmmakers.