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The odd arias of Werner Schroeter

A weeklong retrospective focuses on the German filmmaker who married grand opera and avant-garde film

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Presented by Goethe-Institut and Facets Cinematheque, this retrospective on German director Werner Schroeter collects ten of his operatically inclined avant-garde features, and two of his short works. For a full schedule see facets.org.

The Black Angel This eccentric 1974 film starts as a documentary on contemporary Mexico but gradually mutates into an avant-garde drama about postcolonialism in Central America. The story—what little there is—involves two women (Ellen Umlauf and Magdalena Montezuma) who traipse around some Incan ruins and wax poetic about life and death. Schroeter stages all this as if it were some sort of operetta (most recognizably in the women's makeup, hairstyles, and gestures), but does so in a way that deconstructs the genre. His fascination with Mexico and its customs is evident from the women's interaction with both the landscape and natives surrounding them (all nonprofessional actors). But the women's esoteric rambling soon grows tiresome, as do Schroeter's touristic affections. —Drew Hunt 71 min. Mon 10/8, 7 PM.

Dress Rehearsal Schroeter's 1980 documentary surveys the Nancy World Theater Festival in France, focusing on such avant-garde figures as Japanese movement artist Kazuo Ohno and German choreographer Pina Bausch (to whom the film is dedicated). Schroeter responds to their challenging work with a disorienting, mosaic-like aesthetic, cutting restlessly between different performances and philosophical rap sessions. A meditation on art's potential to serve as a revolutionary force in society, the movie doesn't offer many explanations of the pieces it depicts onscreen; the results are frequently provocative, but if you don't have much prior knowledge of avant-garde theater, you might feel somewhat lost. In English and subtitled French and German. —Ben Sachs 89 min. Sat 10/6, 9 PM.

[Recommended] The Kingdom of Naples Clearly influenced by the epic theater of Bertolt Brecht, this 1978 feature proceeds as a series of discrete vignettes taking place in a poor Naples neighborhood between 1943 and 1972. A voice-over narrator introduces each by reporting what was happening in world politics at the time, while the episodes themselves—which vary in tone from naturalistic to melodramatic—tend to focus on domestic affairs. Schroeter refuses to reconcile the conflicting forces of family and politics, local tradition and national development; in Brechtian fashion he leaves that to the viewer, challenging him to reshape his views of Italian history in the process. In Italian with subtitles. —Ben Sachs 130 min. Fri 10/5, 7 PM.

Palermo or Wolfsburg A poor Italian bricklayer (nonprofessional actor Nicola Zarbo) travels to Germany in search of work, only to land in more humiliating poverty and wind up on trial for manslaughter. Director Werner Schroeter divides his story into three acts, adopting a different style for each: the first, set in Italy, mimics postwar Italian neorealism (in particular the early films of Rossellini and Visconti); the second, concerning the hero's arrival in Germany, transpires in lengthy, deliberately composed shots reminiscent of Schroeter's contemporary Rainer Werner Fassbinder; the third, depicting his trial, feels like an avant-garde opera, with players in heavy makeup affecting exaggerated gestures and speechifying for the camera as though performing arias. Released in 1980, the film was a critical success in Europe and won the Golden Bear at the Berlin film festival; today it feels unduly schematic, though the wealth of ideas is still impressive. In Italian and German with subtitles. —Ben Sachs 173 min. Thu 10/11, 7 PM.

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