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Journies of discovery
A region 2 DVD review of TICKETS by Slarek

This is a project that began when celebrated Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami suggested to producers Carlo Cresto-Dina and Babak Karimi the idea of a trilogy of documentary films, linked by a common theme but made by three different directors. Asked who he wanted to work with he immediately named Ermanno Olmi and Ken Loach, whom he had ever met but whose work he greatly admired, and both responded enthusiastically to the idea. Over the course of subsequent discussions, the project changed from three separate documentaries to a single feature made up of three fictional tales, all set on the same train journey from central Europe to Rome. Although the stories would be different, they would not exist in isolation but form a complete and inter-related whole.

Certainly Tickets has a number of precedents in European cinema, films that have brought together celebrated directors to create a single short story each that may or may not be linked by a central narrative or theme. The results have been variable, to say the least, often showcasing some directors at the expense of others. The short film format is a notoriously tricky one in which to develop fully rounded characters and stories, and some respond better than orthers to the challenge. There is also a critical trend with such films to champion one sequence at the expense of its companions, something I have also been guilty of in my enthusiasm for Fellini's exuberant piece in the uneven but always interesting Bocaccio '70. Tickets has tended to fall foul of this same process, with Olmi often coming off worst and Loach copping the most praise, at least in the UK. Maybe that says something about how we read film as a nation, who knows. I would argue that one of the considerable strengths of Tickets is that there is an impressive consistency of quality in all three films and that they despite their differences in content and style, there is a clear unity of vision to the project as a whole.

In all three stories the train journey proves to be a life-changing one for central characters, whose eyes are opened to the world around them in ways that prompt decisive (although not always obviously dramatic) action.

In Ermanno Olmi's opening story, a 60-year-old pharmacologist known only as The Professor is unable to concentrate on the report he is writing due to the impression made on him by a kind and beautiful PR woman who arranged his ticket and saw him off at the station. As the train departs, he remembers small moments between them, looks and gestures whose meaning could be taken as more than friendship, and begins writing a letter to her to express his feelings, a task at which he repeatedly stalls.

A simple story in itself, it unfolds in seductively non-linear fashion, reflecting The Professor's own memory of their meeting and of a childhood recollection that provoked a similar emotion, of a piano played by a girl whose face he never saw, a memory that appears to be riding in the very same carriage just a few seats down. As the journey progresses, The Professor's thought process is intermittently disrupted by other small stories that are taking place around him, of which we are shown only enticing glimpses. Is the man energetically conducting to music he is both reading and listening to a professional musician or just an enthusiastic aficionado? Just why is the man sitting in the opposite aisle glumly tearing stories out of the newspaper? And just what are the soldiers and their gruff, shade-wearing commander on board for? As the commander sits sternly opposite The Professor, his men stand in the corridor trying to chat up a young, pretty female member of an Albanian family who presumably cannot afford seats and remain effectively segregated from the relative luxury of the dining car. The Professor's attention is repeatedly drawn to them, people whose plight he would usually never have considered, shielded as he would have been by a first class ticket. His simple act of kindness towards them may seem to be given undue dramatic weight, but for him this moment represents a genuine awakening, from memory, from fantasy, and perhaps even from ignorance of the world at large. He will not be the only one to undergo such an enlightenment.

The move to daylight in Kiarostami's second story also lightens the tone with the introduction of some nicely judged character comedy, as a large and intolerant woman makes her way through the train and eventually hijacks two reserved seats, one for herself, the other for Fillipo, a meek young man we presume is her son and whom she constantly chastises and bullies. She is clearly not to be messed with, and anyone who has even the slightest disagreement with her comes in for a mouthful, sometimes with unexpected results (the conclusion of a conflict over a mobile phone prompted loud laughter in the cinema), while a chance meeting between Fillipo and a young girl from his home town prompts him to re-evaluate his own recent life decisions. Even more than the first story, this is an exploration of relationships and how experience, status and even duty can shape lives and personalities. Central to this is the true purpose of the woman's journey, whose revelation tells us a great deal about the behaviour of both her and her young companion, and leads to a decision on Fillipo's part that allows us to briefly glimpse the frailty that lies beneath the woman's bluff exterior.

A few carriages down (they can be glimpsed briefly in the background in the previous segment) are the protagonists of the final sequence in the shape of three young Scottish football supporters on their way to a Champions League match in Rome. Few will have trouble instantly recognising this as a Ken Loach piece (those familiar with his recent work will also recognise the writing style of Loach regular Paul Laverty), and it provides the film with its most significant jump in style, as the language switches to (broad Glaswegian) English, the swear count goes up significantly, and character humour plays a far more prominent role. Communication is once again an issue here, but central to the story are themes of working class nobility and international solidarity dear to both Loach and Laverty, a little simplified by the short film format but well worth making nonetheless in an age of increasing moral and political isolationism.

Social status proves crucial to this section's narrative. As supermarket workers on minimum wage, the three have nicked a bag of sandwiches from their workplace for the journey, food they stack on shelves for a living but could not afford to buy on the wages they are paid for doing so. Thus when one of them loses their ticket, the panic it prompts is real – there's no buying their way out of this with a credit card. The sandwiches also become a gift that the trio use strike up an initial friendship with the Albanian family from Olmi's segment, whom we discover have also spent everything they have to make a journey of even greater importance to them. The bond forged between these two groups from the lower end of their respective societies is soon shattered when the Scots suspect the family's young son of stealing their missing ticket. Its retrieval becomes of paramount importance if its rightful owner is avoid arrest on arrival in Rome, but their attempts to do so uncover a story of family hardship that seriously dwarfs their own, presenting them with a moral dilemma that is aggravated by the suspicion that they may be being spun a well practiced line. It is here that the relevance of the title is most keenly felt, where the ticket is much more than just a document of passage and becomes instead something that could genuinely transform lives.

The three stories are linked by more than just the journey and characters; they share thematic concerns of communication, relationships, social status and self-awakening, and yet explore these areas in pleasingly different ways. The casting is inspired throughout, with veteran actor Carlo Delle Piani as the The Professor beautifully conveying the thoughts of a man lost in memories old and new, while Sweet Sixteen's Martin Compston, William Ruane and Gary Maitland turn in delightfully naturalistic performances at the three Celtic supporters. But it is in Kiarostami's centrepiece that the casting is most effective, with Filippo Trojano as Fillipo and Carolina Benvenga as the girl he encounters communicating as much through their eyes – his suggesting both gentleness and hidden sadness, hers as wide and large as an anime princess – as they do with words.

Always engaging, occasionally hilarious and rich in character detail (Olmi's segment in particular is littered with intriguing observations), the tales are on the surface deceptively simple ones, but subsequent viewings reveal just how layered and thematically interconnected the three stories are. Tickets may not be the very best Olmi, the very best Kiarostami or the very best Loach, but as a collective work it still shines, and despite the variances in style and approach, there is always the sense of three very fine film-makers working towards an impressive and enjoyable common goal.

sound and vision

The anamorphically enhanced 1.85:1 transfer here serves the film well, with colour, contrast and sharpness all very impressive, although the carefully composed and lit photography of Olmi's segment tends to look richer than Chris Menges' documentary-like camerawork for Loach's finale. There are some compression artefacts visible on rare areas of single colour and very visible grain in The Professor's memory of the piano playing girl, but this was how these shots looked in the cinema and is thus no fault of the transfer.

The Dolby 2.0 stereo soundtrack is unfussy but clear, the piano score of the first sequence tending to fare best of all.

There are two English subtitle options, the first providing translation for the foreign language sections of the film, the second covering all of the dialogue, which may prove a help for those who struggle with Glaswegian accents. I was pleased that the translation subtitles had not repeated a frankly baffling inclusion on the cinema print, when most of the English spoken by the daughter of the Albanian family was subtitled, a little condescending given the clarity of her delivery.

extra features

For some reason I wasn't expecting much in the way of special features, and while there is only one substantial extra, it's a damned fine one. Tickets x 3 (55:10) is a documentary by Leonardo Di Costanzo on the making of the film and proves an invaluable companion to the main feature, not least for its rare footage of the three directors at work, planning shots, rehearsing their actors and shooting the film proper. There is quite a bit of coverage of production meetings, which are conducted in three languages with conversations having to be constantly translated, sometimes duplicated by English subtitles (including when Loach is translated for the others), although these can be switched off. On the whole this is a revealing and enjoyable inclusion that communicates well the camaraderie that clearly existed between the three directors.

The Theatrical Trailer (1:55) is well enough assembled, but is misleading on the thrust of the first story and includes shots from the final scene, so I'd avoid watching it before a first look at the feature. It also avoids including any significant non-English dialogue so as to not scare off the anti-subtitle crowd, a common (and irritating) trend when selling foreign language films to an English-speaking audience.

The Production Notes briefly outline how the project was kick-started.

There are also brief Biographies of the three directors, which include filmographies for each.


Three great directors, three interesting stories, one very involving film. Each of the tales have their own specific pleasures, from the melancholic mood and gorgeous editing of Olmi's sequence to the energetic exuberance of Loach's, with Kiarostami proving that language is no barrier for his dialogue-driven approach, or his too-rarely seen sense of comic timing.

Artificial Eye have done well by the film, with a very decent transfer and a splendid making-of documentary, even if I was still left wondering just how they got a moving train to shoot on, and just how short the actual shooting schedule was. Warmly recommended.

I'm not one for goofs, and this is a REALLY geeky observation, but in the opening story The Professor's laptop is clearly a PC running Windows, and yet all of the close-ups are of a Mac running OSX. Just thought I'd share that.


Italy / UK / Iran 2005
102 mins
Ermanno Olmi
Abbas Kiarostami
Ken Loach
Carlo Delle Piane
Valeria Bruni Tedeschi
Silvana De Santis
Filippo Trojano
Martin Compston
William Ruane
Gary Maitland
Blerta Cahani
Klajdi Qorraj

DVD details
region 2
1.85:1 anamorphic
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Italian, Albanian and English
subtitles .
English for foreign language dialogue
Making-of documentary
Production notes
Artificial Eye
release date
24 April 2006
review posted
13 April 2006

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