Fernando Ramos da Silva in Hector Babenco's Pixote

Filmmakers frequently present a world that is lush and extravagant, but they can be equally adept at capturing the hardships and difficulties of life. Currently showing on Filmstruck are a series of films that humanize those experiencing hard times. We’ve selected five to highlight:

Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 silent classic is more famous for its original eight-hour version than for this cut that MGM carved out of it (though apparently there were several prerelease versions, which Stroheim screened privately for separate groups). The studio junked the rest of the footage, and apart from a reconstruction cobbled together recently with production stills and the shooting script, the release version is all that remains today. But even in its butchered state this is one of Stroheim’s greatest films, a passionate adaptation of Frank Norris’s great naturalist novel McTeague in which a slow-witted dentist (Gibson Gowland) and the neurotic woman he marries (the great ZaSu Pitts) are ultimately destroyed by having won a lottery. Stroheim respected the story enough to extend it imaginatively as well as translate it into cinematic terms, and he filmed exclusively on location (mainly San Francisco, Oakland, and Death Valley). Greed remains one of the most modern of silent films, anticipating Citizen Kane in its deep-focus compositions and Jean Renoir in the emotional complexity of its tragic humanism. Jean Hersholt costars. Essential viewing. 133 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Oliver Twist
Alec Guinness as the master pickpocket Fagin is the high point of David Lean’s 1948 version of the Dickens classic. The film wasn’t allowed into the country until 1951 because of its alleged anti-Semitic overtones, but it was given an entry permit after most of Guinness’s profile close-ups were scissored. Lean’s faithfulness to the grimy details of the novel is still a shock for those brought up on the sugary world of Oliver! With Robert Newton, Kay Walsh, and Anthony Newley as the Artful Dodger. 116 min. —Don Druker

Pather Panchali
In 1955, the year Satyajit Ray’s beautiful first feature won the Grand Prix at Cannes, no less a humanist than Francois Truffaut walked out of a screening, declaring, ‘I don’t want to see a film about Indian peasants.’ Time and critical opinion have been much kinder to this family melodrama—derived, like its successors in the Apu trilogy, Aparajito and The World of Apu, from a 30s novel by Bibhutibhusan Banerjee—than to Truffaut’s remark. Yet there’s no question that Ray’s contemplative treatment of a poor Brahman family in a Bengali village, made on a small budget and accompanied by the mesmerizing music of Ravi Shankar, is a triumph of mood and character rather than an exercise in brisk Western storytelling. In Bengali with subtitles. 115 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Hector Babenco’s 1981 study of a ten-year-old delinquent who mugs, pimps, and hustles through the reformatories and slums of Brazil without revealing a glimmer of moral consciousness. The film is a return to the style and assumptions of neorealism, though it’s a neorealism stripped of sentimentality and romantic fatalism. Babenco does his best (through an objective, generalizing camera style based on lateral tracks and a looping, episodic narrative that suppresses authorial guidance) to hide his attitudes toward the material, yet they emerge in such matters as the treatment of motherhood (which is literally all but absent in the film, but is projected successively on a psychologist, a warden, a young homosexual, and an aging whore). Babenco scandalizes, but he doesn’t editorialize—which may be the real scandal. With Marilia Pera and Jorge Juliano. In Spanish with subtitles. 122 min. —Dave Kehr

A Time for Drunken Horses
Writer-director Bahman Ghobadi returned to his native village near the Iran-Iraq border to make his 2000 debut feature, the first Iranian film in Kurdish. Reminiscent of Italian neorealism, A Time for Drunken Horses uses nonactors to tell the heartrending story of a family of poor orphans desperate to find money to pay for an operation for their handicapped brother, Madi. Madi is a teenager who’s no bigger than a two-year-old and suffers from terrible pain that expensive medicine only partly relieves. His time is clearly running out, but his five young siblings are devoted to him and try everything in their limited power to prolong his life. The eldest sister agrees to marry a man from Iraq with the understanding that her in-laws will pay for Madi’s operation and is devastated when they refuse. Then 12-year-old Ayoub joins a group of smugglers driving horses loaded with contraband over the border—the film’s title comes from the smugglers’ practice of lacing the horses’ water with alcohol so they’ll keep working. More grim and less sentimental than other Iranian films featuring plucky children, this strikingly photographed work stresses the harshness of daily life in Iranian Kurdistan. It shared the Camera d’Or for best first feature at Cannes with Djomeh, another Iranian film. 80 min. —Alissa Simon