DVD box sets invariably feature some sort of unifying principle. Most commonly, all the movies were directed by the same person; when that’s not the case, they were all made in the same country, or for the same studio, or at least during the same damn era. Criterion’s latest set, however, is called Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, and the only thing its six features have in common is that they were all restored by Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, which he founded in 2007 with the goal of preserving and promoting world cinema’s lesser-known treasures. Spanning the years 1936 to 1981, this particular assortment features movies from across the globe: Mexico, South Korea, Bangladesh, Turkey, Senegal, Morocco. Some are considerably more viewer-friendly than others, to put it politely, but even the duds are of keen historical interest for the serious cinephile.
Let’s start with the toughest sit: Ritwik Ghatak’s 156-minute A River Called Titas (1973). Next to Satyajit Ray, Ghatak is perhaps India’s most renowned filmmaker, but his consensus masterpiece is The Cloud-Capped Star, which might have been a better introduction to his work than this clumsily melodramatic tale of the fallout that occurs after bandits kidnap a pregnant bride. Leaping forward in time without signposts and continually wandering off on pointless digressions, the film is somehow both overly plotted (coincidences and conveniences abound) and dramatically shapeless, with its lauded anticipation of “hyperlink” cinema—abrupt shifts in focus from one character to another—often coming across as random. What’s more, Ghatak has enormous difficulty simply establishing a coherent tone; the story’s most tragic moment is so broadly played that it threatens to inspire laughter rather than anguish. The only appeal is the steady stream of breathtaking black-and-white images on the banks of the titular river.
Titas’ inclusion would be more justifiable, merely as a portrait of an impoverished fishing village, if the set didn’t include a much stronger film in the same basic milieu. Co-directed by Fred Zinnemann (High Noon) at the start of his career in 1936, the Mexican docu-fiction Redes represents an impressive early instance of non-actors employed essentially to play themselves in a narrative loosely based on their actual lives. There’s not much to that narrative, which sees a Christ-like martyr (at one point depicted delivering a fiery oration in what’s unmistakably an allusion to the Sermon On The Mount) struggling to organize his fellow ill-treated fishermen into a viable union, so that they can be paid a fair wage for their catch. But Redes still has one foot in the silent era, as many non-American films did well into the 1930s, and Zinnemann, working in collaboration with Emilio Gómez Muriel, achieves astonishing stretches of pure visual poetry when observing the fishermen at work or the stately procession of a child’s funeral.
Equally but more clumsily elemental is the set’s Turkish entry, Dry Summer, made in 1964. (It won the Golden Bear at Berlin that year, beating out Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker.) Again, the story is simple, arguably simplistic: A selfish farmer decides to build a dam on his property, cutting off the water supply for the entire village below. For too long, director Metin Erksan declines to develop this conflict much, repeating the same basic scenes over and over; the villagers complain, the selfish farmer’s kinder younger brother urges him to reconsider, and the bastard refuses. A mid-film plot twist in which the nice guy agrees to take his awful brother’s place in jail, however, transforms Dry Summer from a stodgy peasant war into a lurid Cain-and-Abel saga, as the villain proceeds to put the moves on his incarcerated brother’s pretty wife. There’s still more mustache-twirling and badly post-synched dialogue than preferred, but Erksan does know his way around a wildly chaotic fight scene, and emotions run gratifyingly high.
Speaking of chaos and high emotion, the set’s best film, hailing from South Korea, is also far and away its most certifiably insane. Recently remade by Im Sang-Soo (in a version that more or less inverted the original’s entire point, to no discernible purpose), 1960’s The Housemaid reappeared out of nowhere about a decade ago and revealed its director, Kim Ki-Young, as a forgotten visionary, with a style aptly described as Sirk on acid. To reveal much about this movie’s demented, absurdist plot would be a disservice, as it’s the kind of thing best experienced cold: Basically, a middle-class family hires a new maid, and then… stuff happens. Remarkably nasty stuff, actually, all of it shot by Kim in a deliriously expressionistic manner that makes arresting use of the family’s seemingly ordinary two-story house. A recurring shot from within the kitchen cupboard—where the rat poison is kept—chills the marrow, and The Housemaid also wrests the title of 1960’s most forbidding staircase away from Psycho. It’s an unforgettable experience.
That’s also true of 1973’s Touki Bouki, the one title here that was already pretty firmly canonized. One of the earliest triumphs of African cinema, it ought to have launched a dazzling career for Senegal’s Djibril Diop Mambéty; instead, it would be another two decades before the director managed to make another feature. That’s a tragedy, because this tale of young lovers seeking passage to Paris, where they hope to escape their dull rural lives, combines a deeply rooted understanding of the local landscape with the freewheeling dynamism of the French New Wave. (Godard’s Breathless and Pierrot Le Fou are unmistakable influences.) Mambéty deals primarily in color, movement, and silent expressions of fervent desire; if he’s sometimes a bit blunt with his metaphors—anyone squeamish about unsimulated depictions of animal slaughter, incidentally, should avoid not just Touki Bouki but this box set in general—that’s a small price to pay for the giddy, stylish passion he invests in characters who might otherwise seem irredeemable.
Finally, there’s Trances, a 1981 music documentary that was reportedly one of Scorsese’s primary motivations for starting the World Cinema Project. Focusing on the Moroccan group Nass El Ghiwane, it’s a typical mixture of concert footage and interviews, though blessedly short on direct-to-camera address; for the most part, the musicians, when not performing, sit and gab among themselves, often paying little or no attention to the presence of the camera. They’re all committed human-rights activists, and their lyrics generally preach the gospel of solidarity in the face of hardship and oppression. In a sense, Trances’ inclusion in this collection is symbolic, representing any number of similar films—its value today isn’t so much cinematic, or even musical, as it is culturally historical, providing a window on a very specific time and place. Good or bad, movies eventually metamorphose into testaments, like the series of still photographs they fundamentally are. Box sets like this one amount to a world tour in a time machine.