Jaws (1975) PICK
La Grande Illusion (1937) PICK
La Promesse (1996) PICK
Rosetta (1999) PASS
Three must-see masterpieces debuting on Blu-ray are among the latest home-video releases.
The best-known one is Jaws, Steven Spielberg’s breakout blockbuster, a perfect storm of primal fears (man-eating predators, the unseen, the ocean) and riveting direction, combined with sympathetic lead performances and that classic two-note theme from John Williams’ edgy score. The heroes’ foibles and weaknesses only make the film stronger, as they face an implacable threat and their own mortality. Still one of the most thrilling scary movies ever made.
There’s also Vatican film list honoree La Grande Illusion, from writer-director Jean Renoir. A World War I story made on the eve of World War II, it’s a celebrated anti-war masterpiece that practices rather than preaches its rigorous humanism, regarding every character with sympathy and nuance. German or French, noble or common, Gentile or Jew — all are simply human in this semi-comic tale of civilized warfare at the end of the age of nobility. Characters on all sides display forms of prejudice and absurdity, but none is reviled or scorned.
Finally, from the Criterion Collection comes a pair of important films from Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, the celebrated Belgian brothers whose films are among the most morally charged in current cinema. (The Dardennes are recent winners of the Robert Bresson Prize for “spiritual filmmaking,” awarded by a Catholic foundation with Vatican ties.)
La Promesse is the Dardennes’ international breakthrough, a stunning drama depicting the moral awakening of a teenage boy whose father is a slumlord trafficker in illegal immigrants. The hero is a ruthless young man following in the footsteps of his predatory father until a tragic incident, a promise to a dying man and another human being’s need open his eyes to empathy. Like La Grande Illusion, La Promesse practices the empathy it celebrates, even with regard to the odious, but human, father.
Rosetta, their follow-up film, offers an unsparing look at the dire existence of a desperately impoverished teenage girl living with her alcoholic mother in a trailer park. Although infused with their typical humanism, Rosetta is perhaps the bleakest of the Dardennes’ output, unleavened by more than a hint of that grace overshadowing most of their work.
I admire the film’s rigor and social conscience, but its harshness is hard to take; I can recommend it only to hard-core cinephiles and Dardenne fans.
CONTENT ADVISORY: Jaws: Sometimes graphic violence and menace; brief bedroom-themed content and shadowy undress (nothing explicit); some objectionable language. Teens and up. La Grande Illusion: A comic sequence involving soldiers in drag; references to adultery and an implied non-marital encounter. Teens and up. La Promesse: Disturbing criminal behavior and exploitation of characters; brief violence; mixed spiritual elements. Could be fine for mature teens. Rosetta: Disturbing depiction of hardship and poverty; recurring violence and some menace; alcohol abuse; references to promiscuity; some obscene and crass language. Adults.