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Feasting on old films

In Photo: Albert Finney and Rachel Roberts in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, a British classic that’s one of the top films in any all-time list in Europe.

A FRIEND has surprised me with a collection of old films. They’re not really classics in that these films, save for one or two, may never end up in a syllabus for a film class. But that’s what makes these gifts charming: the films were popular and comprised one’s memory of cinema outside the critical discourse.

Believe me, the list is awesome. Upon beholding the contents, I felt like a small boy in front of a huge Christmas tree—and this is from someone who isn’t fond of Christmas.

The Fall of the Roman Empire, All About Eve, Gunga Din, The Apartment…I could go on and on.

I’ve started viewing some of them and discovering a tradition of criticism. The 1950s and 1960s are always seen as example of traditional filmmaking but their films reveal more than such simplistic evaluation.

Out of the heap, a British film, titled Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, was found. It stars a very young and very handsome Albert Finney. Naïve as this may sound, there’s no sign at all of the old Albert Finney that cineastes treasure presently. This is Albert Finney in the mold of James Dean but with a grittier acting style.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is described in many film textbooks as an example of what has come to be known as “kitchen sink” dramas. The film is directed by Karel Reisz who, together with Lindsay Anderson, John Schlesinger and other film directors, formed the New Wave in Great Britain.

The story is about this young man Arthur, who works in an assembly line of a company manufacturing bicycle. The whole week, he works hard for a measly fee, which he uses during the weekend for fun.

He has an affair with a married woman, played brilliantly by Rachel Roberts. As Brenda, Roberts essays this character which will not shock a bit the audience.  She becomes pregnant by the young machinist and attempts even to get an abortion. In the end, she decides to keep the baby.

Arthur starts seeing a girl his age. She is Doreen, who is proper and would not go to bed with Arthur until she is promised marriage.

There’s no nudity in the film, no violence except for the mugging that takes place when Brenda’s husband finds out about the affair and sends for his brother to teach Arthur a lesson.

The word “abortion” is hinted at. During the year the film was made, abortion was illegal in Britain. The film was rated X back in the day. The rating  not only teaches us how classification and evaluation have changed but also how we assess our morality.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning remains one of the top films in any all-time list in Europe. It also signals a shift in how films can depict reality.

While I must confess to a fondness for senior actors portraying lead characters—and this means admiring Albert Finney when he was already a bit older—looking at a very young Finney has afforded me a view of the purity of the angry young man, a notion that made its triumphant entry into our cinematic space in the 1960s.

Rachel Roberts would go on to bigger, meatier roles. She would define the age of the British New Wave by starring in another major film of the era, This Sporting Life. She would wed a big British actor, Rex Harrison. Her death has been described as a suicide. I remember Rachel Roberts in Murder on the Orient Express some 15 years later. She would be one of the passengers with other characters played by divinely stellar cast composed of Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery and Wendy Hiller, among many others. Hercule Poirot, the flamboyant detective created by Agatha Christie, was played by Albert Finney.

Finney is still alive. He is remembered by fans in The Bourne Ultimatum and The Bourne Legacy, these outside his serious films, like The Dresser. Finney was, at one time, married to Anouk Aimee of the iconic A Man and a Woman.

After the quick seduction by the British masterpiece, I was left contemplating what film to savor next. Would I go for the Hercules saga or the perorations about Maciste, Knights or the Roman Empire? I picked next a film that has the stereotypical Charlton Heston playing what announced itself as grand and grandiose: the great artist Michelangelo.

Many things were going for the film The Agony and the Ecstasy. It’s vivid in my mind, the still shots from the film, which appeared on the Philippines Free Press. I don’t remember well if I did watch the film. What I recall, though, was the fact that my father was fond of telling stories about epics and big men, like Michelangelo and Da Vinci. He had what seemed like a fascination with King Arthur, Prince Valiant and the Holy Grail (yes, there are films about all of these in the collection, and they’re all waiting to be viewed).

I was also jolted to realize that opposite Charlton Heston is Rex Harrison playing the Pope. We all know the latter for his incomparable portrayal of Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady.

The Agony and the Ecstasy is directed by Carol Reed, who also helmed The Third Man. The film noir based on the novel by Graham Greene is considered one of the best films of all time.

Not more than 10 years after these films were shown, martial law would be declared in this country. The artifice of cinema paled beside the institutions and the lies they wove for the people. We, who suffered during the martial-law years, looked back to the late-1960s as our own peacetime. Our generation did not fight a war with enemies. The government created its own enemies among the people. Many lives were wasted by the years under martial rule. The dictatorship conjured its own tales. In the absence of good art and good air to breathe, we looked back in anger and with joy to the silly and fancy films of the 1960s. They were entertaining but they never prepared us for the sordid carnival and the distortion of the true, the good and the beautiful.

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