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Robert Bresson's cinematic philosophy

Dennis Lim

Robert Bresson's Notes on the Cinematograph holds a special place on the small shelf of books about filmmaking by filmmakers. First published in 1975, this slender and endlessly quotable manifesto by one of the cinema's supreme masters remains, for the receptive reader, potentially seismic. As distilled and exacting as his films, Bresson's compendium of epigrams—its title misleadingly translated in previous English editions as Notes on Cinematography and Notes on the Cinematographer—is film theory at its most aphoristic, the cinephile's equivalent of Letters to a Young Poet, a book to be read in an afternoon and pondered for a lifetime.

In four decades, Bresson made only thirteen features, works of extraordinary lucidity and profound mystery, of absolute rigor and overwhelming emotion. Most of his characters—who include an imprisoned resistance fighter (A Man Escaped), an obscurely motivated petty thief (Pickpocket), and a suicidal young wife (A Gentle Woman)—are searching for a liberation of sorts, whether or not they know it, and most of his films assume the form of a quest for the essential, for a state of grace. Bresson came to movies late, having started as a painter, and he would attempt to exercise as much control over a collaborative, industrial medium as an artist has over his canvas. His allergy to compromise meant that the films were few and far between. Reflection, whether by inclination or necessity, was part of his process. "Precision of aim lays one open to hesitations," he writes in Notes, which he took several decades to complete, adding that Debussy would spend a week "deciding on one chord rather than another."

Many of Bresson's "notes" are mere sentence fragments: "Unusual approaches to bodies." "Not artful, but agile." Some, more carefully honed, resemble Zen koans: "Empty the pond to get the fish." Others take the form of concrete imperatives: "When a sound can replace an image, cut the image or neutralize it." There are kernels of pragmatic advice, as when he extols the value of the "small subject" that allows for "many profound combinations" (with bigger themes, "nothing warns you when you are going astray"). And befitting his taste for contradiction, there are paradoxes aplenty. "Put oneself into a state of intense ignorance and curiosity, and yet see things in advance," he writes, splitting the difference, as did many of his films, between chance and predestination.

While the tone verges on didactic, these are less cardinal precepts than notebook jottings, albeit highly methodical and developed ones that add up to an original philosophy of composition, editing, sound, and acting in cinema. Many of these ideas were repeated and expanded on in his occasional encounters with the press, a selection of which can be found in the newly translated Bresson on Bresson: Interviews, 1943–1983. Presented chronologically, these profiles and conversations reveal occasional refinements of thought—evolving attitudes to color, say, and to casting—but on the whole attest to the remarkable coherence and consistency of his body of work.

Widely celebrated but rarely imitated, Bresson died in 1999 at the age of ninety-eight, his lifetime corresponding almost exactly to cinema's first century. The singularity of his work stemmed above all from a conviction that this still-young art form was distinct from all the others, and full of latent possibilities. ("Everything to be called into question," he writes in Notes.) Like Dziga Vertov and the revolutionaries of the modernist Soviet cinema, who pronounced a death sentence on the films that came before for mixing in "foreign matter," Bresson bemoaned the "terrible habit" of using theatrical techniques in movies, a convention only exacerbated by the introduction of sound. ("The TALKIE opens its doors to theatre which occupies the place and surrounds it with barbed wire.") Most cinema amounted to filmed theater for Bresson, and as such constituted reproduction and not creation.

The Bresson we would come to know did not fully emerge until the 1950s, with Diary of a Country Priest and A Man Escaped, but most of his ideas were there from the start. In the earliest interview in the new collection, from 1943, the year of his first feature, Angels of Sin, he maintains that performers should "behave" and not act. There is already a suspicion of virtuosity—he prefers "an artlessness . . . that thumbs its nose at virtuosity"—and he declares himself happy to commit "crimes" against the "pre-established laws" of the medium. The self-confidence of these assertions notwithstanding, the journalist remarks on the "simplicity and sincerity in this man," and indeed the neophyte director, the most materialist of spiritually inclined artists, likens his work to humble artisanal labor: "A good craftsman loves the plank he planes." In later interviews, he would compare himself variously to a carpenter determining the length of a table leg; an electrician who must "strip the wires . . . if they want the current to flow"; and a gardener engaged in "transplanting and propagation," seeding bits of reality in his film.

Despite its apparent modesty, Bressonian style was also a forceful act of resistance, so stark a departure from the prevailing language of narrative cinema that Bresson would come to insist on an alternative term for his aesthetic system: not le cinéma but le cinématographe. His most famous and blatant strategy is his disavowal of professional actors, and indeed his rejection of much of what passes for screen acting: a theatrical tendency to gesticulate, to project outward, to render thought and feeling crassly legible, a speciousness made even more false by the unblinking gaze of the camera. Bresson would eventually come to use only nonprofessionals, whom he termed models, and who were called on to deliver their lines with minimal inflection. (Some, like the perfectly inscrutable Dominique Sanda of A Gentle Woman [1969], would go on to actual acting careers.) Even with the donkey that was the title character of Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), Bresson declined to use a trained animal; he had to stop the film for two months to prepare it for the circus scenes.

"Radically suppress intentions in your models," Bresson writes in Notes. He asked his performers to empty their minds of thought, to speak as if to themselves, and he subjected them to dozens of takes so their actions and words would become automatic, like a pianist practicing scales. Bresson's remarks sometimes put his relationship with his models in a vampiric light—he generally used an actor only once, and spoke of drawing out their "virgin nature"—and sometimes a mystical one. "Between them and me," he writes, "telepathic exchanges, divination."

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Robert Bresson at a screening of Diary of a Country Priest, ca. 1951. © Robert Doisneau/Rapho

The blanker the models, the more they seem to withhold—from the stoic protagonist of Pickpocket (1959) to the zombie youth of The Devil, Probably (1977)—the more we are invited to read into them. This radical conception of character engenders an unusual, and startlingly potent, form of empathy. In Bresson's schema, the actor does not provide a point of identification, but is reduced to a formal element, a human figure (or a donkey, for that matter) as a tabula rasa. Central to this gambit is the question of interiority that is so important for Bresson, who more than almost any other filmmaker deemed cinema the realm of the ineffable. Discussing Pickpocket, he speaks of his interest in "the way in which concrete things . . . make their way into the life of a soul"—a line that could apply to his entire oeuvre.

Conventional wisdom holds that literature is the narrative art best suited to accessing inner life, but Bresson thought that cinema, with more means at its disposal, could do even better. "The novel tells, describes," he says in a 1949 interview. "The cinema does not describe the field, the town, an interior. You are there." Throughout Notes and in his interviews, Bresson alternates between a respect for cinema's powers and a chagrin at its misuse. Addressing Jean-Luc Godard in a 1966 Cahiers du cinéma interview, he says, "I, like you, believe that the camera is a dangerous thing—meaning it's too easy, too convenient, we have to almost forgive ourselves for it."

Combating the camera's tendency to reveal too much, to rely on the full-body proscenium framing derived from theater, Bresson developed a language of fragmentation and elision. His camera isolates gestures and looks, closes in on faces and hands and feet, lingers on objects and spaces; the pinpoint precision of his sound tracks suggests a world beyond the frame. ("A locomotive's whistle imprints in us a whole railroad station.") Even though Bresson made films of piercing beauty, he shunned the picturesque, calling for "not beautiful images, but necessary images." What mattered was not the images per se, but what happened to them in combination with other images and sounds. Bresson likened this to the work of a poet: "The most ordinary word, when put into place, suddenly acquires brilliance." In several interviews he recounts the boredom that his collaborators inevitably feel on set, only ever having partial glimpses of the whole. For Bresson, the cinématographe is an art of relations and a process of constant transformation, as he vividly describes in one of the most frequently quoted passages from Notes: "My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected on to a screen, come to life again like flowers in water."
Notes commences with a vow of purification—a pledge to "rid myself of the accumulated errors and untruths"—and abounds with prohibitions. "No psychology (of the kind which discovers only what it can explain)." "No music as accompaniment, support or reinforcement. No music at all. Except, of course, the music played by visible instruments." No ostentatious camera movements: "One should not use the camera as if it were a broom." Many of its injunctions lean toward minimalism: "The faculty of using my resources well diminishes when their number grows." "One does not create by adding, but by taking away." The sparer and more modest the materials—flattened images, impassive line readings, minor subjects (when adapting the likes of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, he opted for short stories)—the greater the possibility of transcendence. By many measures Bresson was a minimalist, but as anyone who has sobbed through the struggles of Mouchette or the death throes of Balthazar knows well, he strove for maximal effects, "thinking first and foremost of the end," as he put it, quoting Leonardo. "Production of emotion determined by a resistance to emotion," he writes in Notes.

While there exists a trove of astute critical writing on Bresson, much of it anthologized in a volume edited by James Quandt, who organized a landmark touring retrospective in the late '90s, Notes is hard to beat as an introduction, a book that at once exemplifies and explicates Bresson's work and worldview. Shorn of ornamentation and gratuitous anecdote, this "technical book," as Bresson called it, is the fittingly terse testament of a man who kept details of his private life largely to himself; no biography of Bresson exists in any language.
Asked in 1977 what "the young Bresson" was like, he replies: "As if I could tell you! Violent? Absolutist? Excessive? Lots of alcohol and tobacco." The picture that emerges in the interviews is of a cultured man, apt to quote Montaigne, Pascal, and Chateaubriand, and a cautious one, painstaking in his responses and, as one journalist observes, "tortured by the prospect of unwittingly disclosing too much." On the subject of his Catholicism, a perennial fixation of Bresson scholars, he declares simply: "Faith is in me, it is me." Recalling his experience as a prisoner of war during the Occupation, he says, with characteristic understatement: "Certainly a bit of war, a bit of captivity left their mark." Elsewhere, he matter-of-factly allows for a link between the life and the work, remarking on the preponderance of doors in his films: "When you're in prison, nothing is more important than the door."

There is no doubting Bresson's importance to legions of younger filmmakers—Godard pronounced him synonymous with French cinema—and yet more than once, he confessed to feeling alone in his endeavors: "I would like not to be the only one to find my way out of the woods." Later in life, he spoke of his wish to establish an atelier, not for technical instruction but to promote the kind of attentiveness necessary for creation: "I would make them want to look and to listen." Bresson was not the kind of artist who inspired a school of disciples—attempts to mimic his style are often doomed to mannerism—but his example as a hard-nosed visionary is more relevant than ever, just as Notes, with its commitment to rethinking the very form of cinema, stands as an implicit rebuke to the homogenizing forces of today's film schools and screenwriting labs.

Bresson is often branded a pessimist—his last two films, The Devil, Probably and L'argent (1983), were also his bleakest—but there is an implicit optimism in his view of his art. While cinema has been proclaimed a dying medium for almost its entire existence, under threat from the invention of sound, television, digital technology, and so on, Bresson always contended that it was just being born. Films were "at the stage of academic painting," he said, and the cinematographe was nothing less than "a writing for tomorrow." Speaking to Cahiers du cinéma in 1983 about the last film he would ever make, Bresson concludes the interview with a double-edged assertion of disappointment and defiance: "The cinema is immense. We haven't done a thing."

Dennis Lim is the director of programming of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the author of David Lynch: The Man from Another Place (New Harvest, 2015).

All in the Family: A Day on the Rossellini Farm

We get a tour of Isabella Rossellini's Bellport, NY farm with her daughter, Elettra Wiedemann, and son, Roberto Rossellini, Jr. Not to mention Boris, Pepe, Boom Boom, Bobo, Bibi, and a lot of sheep named Harriet.
Were you to be reborn as one of the animals on Isabella Rossellini’s farm in Brookhaven, Long Island, there’s about a 75 percent chance you’d get a name. If you want to be guaranteed one, you’d have to be a kunekune pig or a goat. As the former, you’d join Boris and Pepe, the squat, acorn-eating swine; as the latter, you could find yourself in the goat pen with an onomatopoeic name alongside Boom Boom, Baba, Bobo, and Bibi. If you associate more closely with the avian family, you’re taking a risk—only some of her turkeys, chickens, and guinea hens have names. If you were reborn as one of her sheep, though, your name would undoubtedly be Harriet. All the sheep are named Harriet.

 “They’re named after my friend’s dog who ran after the sheep, and she called them the ‘Hairy Jets’ because they—” and Rossellini waves her hand to signal a quick running motion as we approach their pen gate, which she leans over while her daughter Elettra is still closing it.
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One might assume that a visit to Isabella’s farm and house would entail doing things like walking the 28-acre property with the two women, smelling tiny red-colored peppers for the scent of spiciness, and watching Elettra zest lemon over spaghetti tossed with a beet-ricotta sauce made from just-picked roots. What you might not expect, however, is that you’d have to remember more than 10 different names, human and animal. But once you step on the Rossellini property, you quickly realize that every visiting guest, significant other, and escaped chicken is part of the family.

“Elettra, show the eggs with pride,” Isabella says, clutching a live chicken and encouraging her daughter as we step inside the coop; Elettra awkwardly rolls the three eggs in her palm and shoots back, “I’m trying!” The fennel and heirloom peppers and the rest of the produce are under the control of Patty Gentry’s Early Girl Farm, which supplies New York City restaurants such as Diner and Marlow & Sons, but the animals—and therefore, the eggs—are all Isabella’s.
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That day I’ll watch Isabella and Elettra cuddle up with nearly every animal that lives on the farm on my tour of the land. They wrap their arms around the snoring pigs, cluck and crow at the hens and roosters, and speak Italian to the nuzzling goats. And in nearly every picture they pose for, Isabella calls her mutts Pinocchio and Coco to squeeze into the frame with her. At the farm, Isabella Rossellini is not the child of Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman who appeared on multiple Vogue covers and who sang a sultry-sad rendition of "Blue Velvet" in front of David Lynch’s camera; Elettra Wiedemann is not the model-cum-food writer who’s just finishing up her first cookbook. Here, Isabella runs after chickens and speaks to her dogs in Italian while Elettra digs in the dirt for watermelon radish and carrots. They are pleasantly kooky and sweet and goofy; they are mother and daughter.
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About an hour and a half outside the city by car, Bellport has a population of just over 2,000. On your way in, you pass over streets like Country Greens Drive and Golf Course Road and see the word “village” in half the town’s store names. While Isabella has owned her farmhouse for over 15 years and the farm for four, she’s been coming to the Long Island town for decades. In the 1970s, the sleepy South Shore area attracted iconic fashion photographer and Brookhaven resident Bruce Weber, who attracted his friends, families, and subjects, Isabella being one of them. Now, more than three decades since her first trip, she calls the area her home—as do Elettra and her son Roberto Jr. While they both live in the city, they try to make it out to mom’s farmhouse at least once a month.

On that specific day, though, Roberto is running a bit late; he’s caught in the torrential downpour that hit the city that afternoon but somehow managed to drift just past the South Shore. When he finally makes it, he has his girlfriend by his side and a rain-spattered copy of his first Ford Models comp card in hand. “Bella, bella, bella,” Isabella repeats when Roberto hands it to her; she hugs him and looks up to meet his eyes. “Piccolo,” an Italian word for short, she says to the chickens around her ankles before squatting down to hold out her son’s comp card to show them. “His mother’s a midget.”
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We spend about 15 minutes watching the farm’s arrogant turkey as Elettra is off gathering beets, carrots, arugula, and watermelon radish from the fields; when she walks back up to us with full buckets and dirtied hands, we head back to the airy, rust-colored farmhouse to get ready to eat. Isabella fetches wine while Elettra descends into her mother’s tiny basement kitchen to grate and sauté beets. She mixes the beets with fresh ricotta, and she moves to toss De Cecco’s classic spaghetti #12 into a pot of salted, boiling water.

“Pasta’s the first thing I learned to cook,” she tells me, pulling noodles out to test their doneness. As a kid, though, she typically topped it with the tomato sauce her mother taught her to make. (Isabella, as an Italian, says she learned it through “osmosis.”) While Isabella says she also cooks every day, Elettra has made a career in food and food writing; she runs the blog Impatient Foodie, and next summer, she’ll have a published cookbook with the same name.
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Once Isabella deems the noodles to have the perfect amount of chew, we head upstairs with the beet-ricotta pasta and a watermelon-radish-and-arugula salad that will not be eaten alongside the pasta; placing the two together on the same plate, Isabella says, is “too American.” Our family would kill us, they joke in Italian; the salad never gets eaten. And while the family of three twirls their forks in the bright-pink noodles and talk to one another in a mixture of English, French, and Italian, visiting family friends and guests slowly swarm the table—some grabbing plates, some just asking Elettra about her recipe.

“In America, it’s so formal to invite people over for dinner because you have different dishes and sides,” Isabella tells me. “But in Italy, we make easy things like pasta, so when people say, ‘hey, I may bring two or so friends,’ you can tell them to bring them.”

And so, we eat.
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Amanda Arnold

Visele lui Akiro Kurosawa

”Omul este un geniu atunci când visează”

Kurosawa in timpul filmarilor Dreams

Cred că toate filmele mele au o temă comună, decurgând dintr-o întrebare: de ce oamenii nu pot să traiască în înțelegere, în bucurie, în bunătate? De ce oamenii nu încearcă să fie mai fericiți împreună?
„Filmele le realizez simplu, fiind sincer cu mine însumi. Dacă toți regizorii ar fi sinceri cu ei, spectatorii din orice parte a lumii s-ar putea regăsi în filmele lor.” Akira Kurosawa
Dreams - filmul lui Akira Kurosawa - prezentat la Festivalul de Film de la Cannes in 1990, se incadreaza in categoria unui realism magic si este bazat chiar pe vise ale regizorului din etape diferite ale vietii sale. Yume are o relevanta aparte pentru ca este mai mult imagistica decat dialog. Filmul este alcatuit din opt episoade (segmente) distincte, dar nici unul dintre ele nu pare a fi un vis. Puterea de evocare a lui Kurosawa da secventelor mai degraba un caracter ceremonial decat oniric. Avem o succesiune de cadre ce contin gesturi dramatice si incantatii marete realizate intr-un mediu solemn.
Alegorie onirica plasmuita de imaginatia celui mai charismatic regizor nipon din istoria filmului, filmul este de o rapitoare frumusete vizuala, in fapt, o pastisa a propriilor vise ale lui Akira Kurosawa, unul dintre cei mai faimosi japonezi care s-a nascut vreodata.
Supranaturalul se imbina cu trairile epidermice si, uneori abisale, ale personajelor din vis. Filmul este intr-adevar o evadare in opt cadente in absolut, asa cum si l-a inchipuit Kurosawa. Filmul trimite la marile temeri ale japonezilor şi ale umanităţii în general: războiul atomic, îndepărtarea omului de natură . Acţiunea ultimului film se petrece într-un sat al morilor de apă, unde oamenii trăiesc lipsiţi de tehnologie modernă şi mor de bătrîneţe. Moartea este pentru aceşti oameni o sărbătoare la care cântă şi dansează:
Cele 8 vise au titluri şi acţiune separata : 1.Soare pe vreme ploioasă 2.Livada de piersici 3.Viscolul 4.Tunelul 5.Corbi 6. Muntele Fuji în roşu 7.Demonul plângător 8.Satul morilor de apă
Primul segment Ploaie cu soareeste viziunea unui copil ce rataceste prin padure si ia parte la o ceremonie de nunta a spiritului vulpilor, imaginile evocand frica frenetica si totodata respectul pe care il simtim cand luam contact pentru prima data cu elementele naturii.

Al doilea episod, Livada de Piersiciare o atmosfera asemanatoare primului, cu acelasi baiat care are un sentiment al pierderii, deoarece familia sa a taiat piersicii infloriti in timpul festivalului papusilor.

Viscolulne infatiseaza patru personaje prinse intr-o furtuna de zapada – zapada este peste tot, se aud vajaituri puternice ale vantului, avem viziuni sumbre ale disperarii, pana cand Kurosawa produce un miracol. Conducatorului grupului ii apare o femeie cu par lung si haine diafane in timp ce se lupta cu somnul. Aceasta imagine a miracolului este poate cea mai evocativa imagine cu privire la dorinta oamenilor de a nu renunta la lupta pentru viata.

Al patrulea episod Tunelulvorbeste despre un om care se intoarce din razboi intalnindu-si tovarasii morti pe drumul catre casa. O secventa cinematografica excelenta si hipnotica cu imagini simple, absolute si rezonante, cu o forma dramatica lucida si un ritm coplesitor care trece de la un ritm de tristete la unul de suferinta. Realizarea cinematografica a Tunelului este o minune a artei lui Kurosawa. Cel ce se intoarce din razboiul in care si-a pierdut absolut toti tovarasii lui, al caror comandant fusese intra in drumul spre casa intr-un tunel pazit de un caine infricosator care latra la el, maraie, dar nu-i sare la gat. Ca si cum ar fi intrat in purgatoriu. Tristetea il inunda. Aparitia infricosatoare a unui prieten care ii murise in brate si care se indrepta spre luminita unde era casa lui si-l asteptau parintii il oblige sa-i explice acestuia ca el nu mai este printre cei vii si cu toata durerea il roaga sa se intoarca in liniste in tunel, sa se obisnuiasca cu starea lui. In sunet din ce in ce mai sacadat de pasi, devenit asurzitor apare apoi intreg plutonul lui care-i prezinta onorul. Tristetea comandantului devine dramatica, constiinta ca el e singurul in viata il sfasie si totusi le da ordinul tuturor sa se intoarca in tunel. Disparitia lor insotita de diminuarea cadentei pasilor militari e sincrona cu aparitia cainelui infricosator care de data aceasta pare sa nu-l mai ierte pe supravietuitor.  E tulburător chinul sufletelor care bântuie lumea celor vii în încercarea de a accepta moartea.
Te duce gandul ca acest caine poate fi purtatorul celui care imparte dreptatea divina sau poate fi chiar constiinta lui care nu-i va mai da pace.

A doua jumatate a filmului are o intensitate relative scazuta.

Al cincilea episod Ciorile trateaza o intalnire imaginara cu Van Gogh (jucat de Martin Scorsese) a unui tanar pictor.  Acesta poata sapca specifica lui Kurosawa si se regaseste in lumea haotica a picturilor lui Van Gogh, pe care il intalneste pe un camp si cu care poarta chiar un dialog. Aflam aici parerea lui Kurosawa despre procesul creativ, dar calatoria nu ne ilumineaza, e asemenea unui proiect propus de un muzeu pentru popularizarea artei, completat de plimbari prin tablourile lui Van Gogh (episod de a carui productie s-a ocupat George Lucas).

Vitalitatea scenei vine din energia lui Scorsese si utilizarea unor replici sacadate.  In „Ciorile” avem de-a face cu tema artistului consumat de nevoia de a crea – Van Gogh este innebunit sa creeze, lucru ce reiese si din replica sa  “It’s so difficult to hold it inside”. Segmentul se termina cu un cadru incert – in tabloul „Camp de grau cu ciori” - al pictorului care nu stie daca sa il urmareasca in continuare pe Van Gogh, sau sa isi urmeze propriul drum. Un vis frumos si luminos, o călătorie prin culorile pictorului Van Gogh, un exemplu de dialog al artelor, dar şi imaginea artistului devorat de visul creaţiei:
Fundalul sonor al scenei este alcatuit din fragmente ale compozitiei Prelude No. 15 in D-flat major de Chopin.

Dreams - Ciorile
Akira Kurosawa si Martin Scorsese (Vincent van Gogh) in timpul filmarilor Dreams

Episoadele urmatoare Muntele Fuji Rosu si Demonul care plange sunt viziuni sumbre si apocaliptice asupra ororilor produse de explozia unor centrale nucleare care determina populatia Japoniei sa se arunce in mare de disperare spre a scapa de norii radioactivi.

In Demonul care plangeeste portretizata o viata mohorata pe o planeta lipsita de natura si distrusa de om, impreuna intr-un iad mutant care ii asteapta pe supravietuitori.

Ultimul vis incheie filmul intr-o nota inaltatoare. Un filosof de 103 ani in Satul Morilor de Apa vorbeste despre valorile vietii simple, aproape de natura, si facand asta reafirma valorile care fac viata umana o bucurie: aerul si apa curata.

Storyboard, pictat de Akira Kurosawa

Yume - Dreams este un film reflexiv si o capodopera a cinematografiei ce ne indeamna sa facem o incursiune profunda in mintea unuia dinte cei mai mari cineasti ai lumii.

Filmul e foarte static, valoarea sa nu e dată neapărat de puţinele replici, ci mai ales de cromatică, de efectul vizual, dar şi de o problematică amplă : simţul onoarei, tema războiului, moartea, tradiţiile, armonia omului cu natura, relaţia realitate-ficţiune.