This was a list really hard to edit. First of all has to define what profound means in cinema, and in art in general. Looking for the word profound in the dictionary, I found interpretations such as ‘penetrating or entering deeply into subjects of thought or knowledge’, ‘having deep insight and understanding’, ‘of deep meaning’, ‘of great and broadly inclusive significance’. So we are in search of directors that release deeply meaningful movies.
And how could this be detected? Are there any narrative techniques beyond the script that contribute in meaningfulness and depth? Symbolism, allegory, metaphors? Ambiguity, a tendency to pose question rather than to give answers? The molding of characters, the ingenuity of the setting?
Taking into consideration all the above and much more, balancing symbolic tradition and cinematic innovation, this list, which is in no way exhaustive, tries to highlight the oeuvre of some distinguished auteurs who dealt with deep, philosophical questions, traced the inmost aspects of human psyche, depicted under a critical lens the society they lived in, its values and morals.
This is an endless list. It started with ten directors, then 20, it ended up with 15. Should be a list of 100. At least. There are so many important directors that dealt with crucial social topics and approached human psyche in very artful and cinematically fantastic ways. But I had to make a list. So I ask Orson Welles, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, Andrey Tarkovsky, Sergei Eisenstein, Wim Wenders, the Cohen brothers, John Houston and many others to forgive me, and I proceed with the following list:
15. Yorgos Lanthimos
Films: Lobster, The Killing of the Sacred Deer, Dogtooth, Alps
Whether you like his work or not, you should admit that Lanthimos is a special auteur in world cinema. Founder of the so-called weird wave of Greek cinema – the world’s most messed-up country making the world’s most messed-up cinema – Lanthimos chooses to tell his stories creating not just dystopian places but something more, a world made up of misconceptions and unstated agony.
His settings don’t possess the dark qualities of the dystopian futures created in cinematic art since Lang’s Metropolis. They lay somewhere between truth and unwholesome imagination, they are somewhat scary, somewhat funny, they practically are weird. You may not understand what this is all about. Don’t worry, neither do his protagonists. They live in a world where irrationality reigns and, most important, they suffocate as they are wrapped in family ties.
Nuclear family’s morbidity haunts Lanthimos’ stylish nightmares. All wrong comes from mating and parent – child relations. His canvas is filled with grotesque images of distorted families or couple– likes, as if there are not – there cannot be – any love relations that are not based on repression and perversion. What is the origin of all those messed-up families? If we figure that out, we may enter the world Lanthimos films for us.
14. Bela Tarr
Films: Werckmeister Harmonies, the Turin Horse, Karhozat, Satatango
Tarr met big difficulties in making movies, due to his political affiliations that were not approved by Hungarian People’s Republic of the 70s. He finally released three movies – his ‘proletarian’ trilogy – centered on the problems of eastern European societies, movies that resembled to the Czechoslovak New Wave filmography.
After those first attempts he made a U-turn towards a dark symbolism. The movies that followed, dystopian tales of black and white (with the exception of colored Almanac of Fall) tell stories of poor, powerless men that have to face big challenges and take decisions, stories of strange newcomers that unsettle the routine of those poor and powerless men and put spells on them.
The films of Tarr treat human existence as it is plunged in futility and alienation, with a totally unconventional narrative. He uses long shots of several minutes to illustrate anxiety, impasse, the unceasing battle of humans with themselves and with others. As he lately stated ‘I was developing my own language, my film language. I went deeper and deeper…with The Turin Horse, I arrived at the point where the work is complete, the language is done.’, adding that Turin Horse was his last cinematographic work.
13. Darren Aronofsky
Films: Pi, Requiem for a Dream, Noah, The Wrestler
American cinema’s enfant terrible, Aronofsky has managed with just seven feature movies to provoke and challenge, to make fans and foes, people who believe he is psychotic and others who think he’s a new-age philosopher. He superbly knows how to create nightmarish worlds full of dead-ends.
Each of his films is a character study. His heroes constantly balance between greatness and insanity, always in the bridge of a dramatic breakdown, they pursue their dreams even though they realize that this will lead them to self-destruction. No matter what they are obsessed with, higher mathematics, dance, drugs, fighting, they are trying in vain to escape form the world they live in and enter in another one, a world where their dreams and aspirations will be fulfilled.
Aronofsky’s dysfunctional heterotopias, people who live in the verge of social normality, build up his own vision of a world full of people in deadly need of escaping from the cruel reality they live in.
In his latest work, Mother!, Aronofsky goes far beyond. In a film full of allegories and symbolism, he tries to tell the story of the world implicating, religion, ecology, psychanalysis and social history….with a result that shocked and puzzled most of his audience.
12. Michael Haneke
Films: Cache, White Ribbon, Amour, Funny Games
Europe’s most featured director of 21st century, Austrian Michael Haneke surpises with every new movie both audiences and critics. He seems decided to criticize every single aspect of modern Europe’s social pathology focusing on the role that violence plays in formulating social roles and stances.
Violence is central in Haneke’s work: may that be the violence of children against adults, of natives against immigrants, of men against women, of bourgeoisie against the working class, may it be blatant or invisible, it explains many of the conflicts we face as individuals ad as members of larger social groups.
Haneke admits that he has never experienced physical violence against him in his life, and that is why he doesn’t tolerate it. He supports that the reason for the existence of violence is nothing but fear. When scared, people want to defend themselves against the supposed enemies. Xenophobia, racism, fascism are results of that primal fear against the unknown. Human nature is weak: under certain situations, one may act in a way he would believe unthinkable.
Known for his several minutes long shots, he actually follows his characters through their routine, so that the spectator feels that he participates in the events. One of the recurring themes in his movies is domesticity. Many scenes are shot inside houses. A home has a character, as well as the people who live in, it becomes the place where horror unfolds. Viewers follow the protagonists action and when it reaches its crescendo they are left hanging in the weight of the climax, with no quick release to the cruelty they have just witnessed.
11. Yasujiro Ozu
Films: Tokyo Story, Late Spring, Early Summer, Floating Weeds
Deep meanings lie into the simplest things. Beauty lies with everyday life, truth is found in the faces of the people, the objects they are using, the places they live. That was more or less what Ozu stood for in Japanese and international cinematic scene.
Master in Gandai –geki genre, films set in the modern world, he used a 50mm camera, the one closest to what our eyes can see, and framed his stories in a way that everything we need to see and know about is inside that frame. His trademark, the ‘tatami shot’, where camera was put at the height of the eyes’ level of someone kneeling on a tatami mat, brought the viewer inside the scene, close to the protagonists. Because Ozu wanted nothing to be hidden in his cinematic universe. The truth is right here, displayed in front of us, we just have to raise our eyes and grasp it.
His stories are about tradition and modernity: what family meant in traditional Japanese society and how it disintegrated in modernizing Japanese society of 20th century, how parent – children relationships were modeedl and how generation conflict affected them, His plots are basic: parents visit their children who don’t want them around, a mother tries to marry off her daughter, a father searches for his estranged son. However, there is so much depth in simplicity, the beauty of life can be found in the minor details.
10. Pier Paolo Pasolini
Films: Salo or 120 Days at Sodoma, Il Decameron, The Gospel According to St.Mathew, Teorema
An established poet, novelist, columnist and screenwriter, Pasolini entered in the cinema world as the most prominent post – war Italian intellectual. He believed that it was just another way to write poetry or . So his films are poetic and political, lyrical and ideological, passionate and analytical.
Feeling himself as part of the great wave of social changes that overwhelmed Italy and Europe at the early sixties, his first movies were inspired by Italian neorealism, stories of the misfortunate inhabitants of Rome surroundings, the borgate. He went on adapting the Gospel, Greek tragedies and medieval tales trying to find ‘mystic, mythic and epical quality in everything’.
An engaged intellectual with Marxist beliefs and catholic origins, he was a fierce defender of the poor, the peasants and sub – proletariat. He turned the lens of his camera towards the outsiders of the luxurious life of bourgeoisie. Thieves, prostitutes and workers were his heroes and heroines, and they were portrayed as pure and innocent people in search of knowledge, fighting against their debilities, that gained our sympathy.
In cinema, as in literature, he created his own linguistic system with his syntax nad, by being realistic, he transcended reality. He refused to conformed with the status quo and he questioned reason and morality, the relations of power and power itself, giving his own interpretation of fascism by his last masterpiece, Salo. When murdered in 1975, Italy mourned one of the most brilliant intellectuals.
9. Reiner Werner Fassbinder
Films: Querelle, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Ali: Fear eats the Soul, In a Year with 13 Moons
Another damned auteur, openly gay, of radical beliefs and living in the extremes like Pasolini above, Reiner Werner Fassbinder was the offspring of post-war Germany’s inner conflicts and dead ends. He was born the year of III Reich’s capitulation in a society that was trying to heel its deep wounds from the war, many times hiding them under the carpet or disguising them.
Fassbinder did not like at all that disguise. He wanted thing to be told. To be told in the cinema. To do that he used both Hollywood melodrama model and experimental forms and created movies full of passion, heroes and heroines that would die just next to you, victims of their vices, desperate love, erotic stances.
In a very short life of just 37 years he made – the amazing number of – 44 films, most of them features, that canvassed loneliness, vanity, betrayal. Being a rather difficult kind of person with his work and erotic partners, a rebellious personality marked by contradictions and obsessions, he portrayed himself in his films where protagonists were mostly outcasts and misfits, immigrants, prostitutes, transvestites, people that had to face prejudgments for their race, sex, sexual orientation or social class.
He was politically engaged. In his very own way though, that is why he was frequently accused of being anti-communist, anti-Semitist, anti-gay. His movies denounced fascism in society and within the family, his lens entered in working class milieus and in bourgeois homes alike. He painted cinematographic portraits of homosexual men and women like no one ever did. He worked all day and lived dangerously night. And he died of it, very young.