Kon Ichikawa's 1959 war film Fires on the Plain may be the bleakest film I've ever seen. It's certainly up there with unbelievably depressing fare like Dancer in the Dark. Fires on the Plain (part of my current mini-obsession with cinema from J-pan) is a grim story told in the very last days of World War II. It's set on a Philippine island and follows three Japanese soldiers as they walk from one end of the island to another part of it and try to survive. Well, sort of. It's really just this long, endless march of doom. The thing is, the film is absolutely brilliant. It's magnificently shot and beautifully composed. The acting is wonderful and the script is pretty damn near genius: Kon Ichikawa's wife is the screenwriter, and she pares down the novel so that at least fifty percent of the film proceeds without dialogue. It's great writing. The outlook of this film, though, is relentlessly dour, and though it's never oppressive or boring, it's a hard film to watch (but definitely worth it.) The last Kon Ichikawa movie I saw I moved to my all-time favorites list. Fires on the Plain doesn't have the hope that The Burmese Harp has, so I didn't love this film as much as the last one, but it's undeniably powerful.
I also saw Víctor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive (El Espíritu de la Colmena), which is a quiet film about a young girl confronting a monster in war-ravaged Franco-era Spain. It's lyrical and beautiful and completely compelling. It's also beautifully shot, with a hexagonal beehive motif running through the film. I loved this film (and I am very grateful to Criterion for putting films like The Spirit of the Beehive and Fires on the Plain out so that I can see them. Watching these Criterion DVDs is like attending film class. It's so awesome.)