Silent cinema was a foreign land: they did things differently there. Anyone who considers modern sound cinema to be more sophisticated than the wordless pictures made between 1895-1930 should take a look at Alexander Dovzhenko's Zvenigora (1928), which employs a dazzling array of artistic theories and screen techniques to explore such diverse topics as Ukrainian mythology, Soviet industrialisation, pacifism, the beauty of the landscape and the arrogance of the European bourgeoisie.

Sergei Eisenstein left the premiere of this compelling blend of lyricism and montage claiming that it had much to teach the most accomplished film-maker. But, even those equipped with a rudimentary knowledge of Ukrainian history and folklore struggled fully to understand a complex avant-garde exercise that owed more to Charlie Chaplin and René Clair than the Kremlin. Indeed, it remains remarkable that the state censor granted it a release, as it was not just guilty of Formalism, but also of introducing the masses to Surrealism, Dada and Modernism.

Several critics have attempted to impose a degree of linearity upon the action and it certainly aids viewing to have a basic notion of the narrative thread. In the `ringing mountains' of Zvenigora, salt trader Nikolai Nademsky leads a band of Cossacks on a treasure hunt. However, they are forced to fight with Polish troops hiding in the woods and find their path blocked by a sinister monk (L. Barné), whose Rasputin-like malevolence haunts Nademsky's dreams, as he joins grandsons Semyon Svashenko and Les Podorozhnij at the pagan spring fertility ritual.

Soon afterwards, the Great War breaks out and the socialist Svashenko goes to the Eastern Front, while the nationalist Podorozhnij remains home with his grandfather to search the hills for the legendary hoard. Nademsky tells him about the traditions of the pre-Slavic tribes and he becomes obsessed with the beautiful princess Roxana (P. Sklyar Otawa), who tried to resist the invading Turks and Vikings.

These tales inspire Podorozhnij to paint his black horse white and join the Ukrainian resistance and oppose the Red Army ranks that include his brother. However, the cause is lost and the new order prevails, prompting Podorozhnij to head for Paris and Prague to raise the funds to mount a new treasure hunt, while Svashenko commits himself to the workers to bring progress to the backward peasants.

As a result of selfless labour, the railway comes to Zvenigora. But Podorozhnij is convinced that it will facilitate Muscovite imperialism and he urges Nademsky to join him in a sabotage mission. However, Svashenko leads the Bolshevik defence and Podorozhnij commits suicide rather than see his homeland subjugated. But Nademsky accepts the need for transformation and commits himself to the Communist utopia.

Although this breakdown allows the viewer an entry in the diegesis, this is a film to be experienced as much as fathomed. Dovzhenko employs montage in city symphony passages as dynamically as Dziga-Vertov, while the bucolic poetry is as serene as it would be in Earth (1930), which completed the Ukrainian trilogy. But, while the aesthetic aspects of Boris Zavelev's cinematography, Vasili Krichevsky's and Dovzhenko's editing are audacious, they almost pale beside the boldness of the political statements that defy centralism to celebrate the intrepidity and independence of the Ukraine.

Barely seen outside the Soviet Union, Zvenigora was allowed to slip into obscurity as Soyuzkino chief Boris Shumyatsky sought to discourage experimental direction by enforcing the tenets of Socialist Realism. Thus, it was only discovered in the West relatively recently and it has yet to acquire the same reputation as Earth and the second part of the triptych, Arsenal (1929).

Just as he detected seven episodes in Zvenigora, the outstanding Dovzhenko critic Ray Uzwyshyn identified a similar structure in this harrowing tale of military defeat and mass uprising. In the spring of 1917, Tsar Nicholas II (A. Yevdakov) continues to send Russia's youth to senseless slaughter, while a woman tries to sow seeds in a village almost entirely populated by amputees. But, as silhouette armies march to their doom, even the advancing Germans suffer casualties, with one soldier (Amvrosi Buchma) laughing hysterically from the twin effects of gas and the insanity raging around him.

Meanwhile, an attempt is made to hijack a train carrying Ukrainian haidamaks. But, even though the attack is thwarted, the locomotive crashes on a steep downward slope and Semyon Svashenko, a demobilised trooper on his way to resume his duties in a weapons factory, emerges from the wreckage to proclaim his pride in his profession and his homeland. Yet, when a republic is proclaimed during the Easter celebrations in Kiev's St Sophia's Square, Svashenko refuses to march in the parade or sign up to Nikolai Kuchinsky's new army.

Instead, he becomes a Bolshevik deputy at the first meeting of the national government. However, proceedings are interrupted by a telegram from the Black Sea fleet announcing its support for revolution and Svashenko and his comrades leave the congress as the entire Ukraine is cast into a state of uncertainty that Dovzhenko conveys in a sequence showing activists attempting to sabotage trains, the bourgeoisie talking endlessly but doing nothing, and the people waiting for the emergence of a strong leader.

As the winter of 1918 sets in, the Bolsheviks make a bid to seize the arsenal and Svashenko leads the workers in a 72-hour rearguard that ends with the nationalist forces breaking into the premises and shooting at Svashenko, who has run out of bullets. But, despite the hail of gunfire, he remains invincible and dauntlessly declares himself to be a `Ukrainian worker' as the picture ends.

Having seen how Eisenstein used the factory sequences in Strike (1924) and the mutiny in Battleship Potemkin (1925) to extol the strength and unity of the people, many in officialdom were appalled by Arsenal's failure to exploit the uprising for maximum propagandist purposes. Indeed, Dovzhenko was accused in some quarters of promoting Ukrainian concerns ahead of the Communist crusade. Yet he would later argue that he was attempting to show how being a Ukrainian and a Bolshevik were not mutually exclusive.

Nevertheless, the Eastern Front sequences seem to be more imbued with humanism than Marxism, as Dovzhenko uses the silhouetted execution of a soldier unwilling to keep killing to suggest there is more than one way to oppose tyranny. In other passages, he employs montage to juxtapose this brutality with a peasant flogging his dying horse and a mother beating her crying children. But, by using long takes as often as rapid cutting, Dovzhenko is able to dwell on the grief of a mother who has lost three sons and, thus, emphasise the pain of individual loss that is so often ignored in films by contemporaries, who placed much greater emphasis on the intractability of the mass hero.

Despite denouncing the Tsarist regime and the chaos proposed by the anarchists, Dovzhenko seems only to offer qualified support for the Bolshevik victory by placing nationalism on an equal footing with egalitarianism and claiming pacifism as a superior sentiment to both. But, as in the other parts of the trilogy, he places his greatest faith in the land and the people who work it Consequently, he and cinematographer Daniil Demutsky appropriate iconographic poses and give them a new revolutionary purpose and this sense of reverence would be even more apparent in Earth (which was reviewed in this column in June 2010).

Dovzhenko produced this masterly trio at the time that Luis Buñuel was making his first films in France with Salvador Dalí. However, the situation in Europe in the 1930s forced Buñuel to leave Spain for exile in Mexico and he was still resident in the capital when he followed Los Olvidados (1950) - which had helped restore his international reputation after an enforced period of directorial inactivity and a couple of low-key domestic releases - with Susana (1951), an adaptation of a novel by Manuel Reachi that demonstrated his ability to lace even the most sensationalist melodrama with scathing satirical venom.

Consigned to an reformatory for an unspecified crime, 20 year-old Rosita Quintana is tossed into a solitary cell full of rats, bats, cockroaches and spiders for her latest indiscretion. Despite not believing, she curses God for making her the way she is and suggests that, given the chance, she would mend her ways. As if by divine intervention, the bars on her cell window suddenly come loose and she disappears into a stormy night and seeks sanctuary in the stables of local hacienda owner, Fernando Soler.

Quintana's arrival coincides with the still birth of a foal and pious housekeeper María Gentil Arcos urges Soler's trusting wife, Matilde Palou, to have nothing to do with the bedraggled stray. But Palou's Christian charity ensures that Quintana is welcomed into her home and she quickly takes advantage of her husband, her son (Luis López Somoza) and the lusty foreman (Víctor Manuel Mendoza), who recognises her for the hellcat she really is. Yet, in trying to blackmail her in return for sexual favours, Mendoza allows himself to be outmanoeuvred and it's only when Soler's prize mare Lozana falls ill that Palou finally accepts Arcos's warning and is rewarded for casting Quintana into the wilderness by the miraculous recovery of her horse.

The story of an unholier-than-thou waif who runs riot in a supposedly respectable household had previously been filmed by Alexander Korda in The Squall (1929) and would be revisited by both Pier Paolo Pasolini in Theorem (1968) and Buñuel himself in Tristana (1970). But while Susana may lack the subtlety of these later variations, it remains a splendidly knowing melodrama that exploits the deliciously overwrought performances and Raul Lavista's hilariously bombastic score to emphasise every unctuous utterance and hypocritical gesture.

No one will miss the irony of the fact that Mendoza's character is called Jesus and first appears in a stable. But Buñuel and co-writer Jaime Salvador revel in such nudge-wink details, as they chronicle Quintana's conquests with an amused glee that contrasts with the salacious disapproval that typified contemporary Hollywood's approach to similar scenarios. Yet Buñuel would later regret not adding more irony to the mix and he also conceded that he was never quite sure how melodramatic to make El Bruto (1953) and subsequently blamed its failure on interfering producers.

Notwithstanding a few well-aimed digs at the Mexican middle-class and a condemnation of the poverty in which the lower orders are forced to live, this is more a bleak comedy of manners than a slice of social realism. Tired of Roberto Meyer leading vocal protests against the state of his slum tenement, landlord Andrés Soler hires slaughterhouse palooka Pedro Armendariz to soften up the demonstrators prior to their eviction. However, he accidentally kills the ailing Meyer with single punch and is given sanctuary by Soler, his much younger wife Katy Jurado and his enfeebled, but still lustful father Paco Martinez.

Despite all but Armendariz knowing that he is Soler's illegitimate son, Jurado allows her feelings to get the better of her and she rips open the brute's shirt and kisses his hairy chest. Yet the moment he tries to reciprocate, she slaps him down, as she clearly wishes him to be as docile as Martinez, who enjoys licking tequila off her finger while gorging himself on caramels. Complaining of headaches to keep Soler at bay, Jurado turns Armendariz into her plaything. But the tenants have vowed to avenge Meyer's murder and Armendariz is left to fend for himself after he also kills Soler in a fit of fury. But it's not her husband's death that turns Jurado against Armendariz, but the fact he has fallen for Meyer's daughter, Rose Arenas, who forgives him for throttling her chicken to prevent it from betraying his hiding place and offers to protect him after Jurado calls in the cops.

Filled with choice moments, such as Jurado chopping the heads off her flowers as Soler asks how he can rid himself of the revolutionaries inhabiting his property, this may not be one of Buñuel's most refined outing. But the script co-written with Luis Alcoriza is persistently pitched to play up the outrageous farcical and satirical elements of a plot that is hilariously counterpointed by Raúl Lavista's booming score. Agustín Jiménez's cinematography and Gunther Gerszo and Roberto Silva's production design ground the action in the direst conditions. But Buñuel refuses to sentimentalise his penurious characters and his insistence that grotesquely funny things happen to those dwelling in the lower depths makes this a good deal less patronising than many of the problem pictures that would be produced around the world by earnest, left-leaning directors over the next decade.

By contrast, Michelangelo Antonioni began his career within the Fascist film industry. While still a student, he had contributed to the journal Cinema, which was edited by Benito Mussolini's son Vittorio, and co-scripted two wartime dramas, Enrico Fulchignoni's I due Foscari and Roberto Rossellini's A Pilot Returns (both 1942). However, he returned from assisting French director Marcel Carné on the biting allegorical fantasy Les Visiteurs du Soir (1942) - which is long overdue a DVD release - to edge towards neo-realism with the documentary, Gente del Po (1947). But, in searching for his own style, Antonioni shifted focus away from the proletariat to concentrate on the bourgeoisie in his feature debut, Story of a Love Affair (1950), and its considerably more accomplished follow-ups, The Lady Without Camellias (1953) and Le Amiche (1955).

One of Antonioni's recurring themes was the individual outside their comfort zone and his genius for locating characters within their environments made these studies seem much closer to life (for all their meticulous choreography) than more supposedly spontaneous outings. Thus, his depiction of the creative chaos at the Cinecittà studio rings so true that it becomes easier to accept that Milanese shopgirl Lucia Bosé could be so exploited and cheapened by the industry that had made her a star.

Plucked from her parents' drapery by executive Andrea Checchi, Bosé becomes an overnight sensation when the public warms to test screenings of her debut in producer Gino Cervi's Woman Without Destiny and Checchi decides to spice it up with a few racy scenes to boost its box-office potential. She stumbles through the shoot without really understanding what is happening to her and the sequence in which she wanders towards the cinema superbly sums up how much of a face in the crowd Bosé remains, despite her sudden celebrity. Moreover, Antonioni reinforces this irony by showing how diva-ish she has become by the time she returns from her honeymoon with Checchi, who has forbidden her to appear in any more salacious flicks and insists that she now only lends her talent to prestige pictures.

Perhaps reflecting Ingrid Bergman's fall from grace after she committed adultery with Roberto Rossellini shortly after playing Joan of Ar before, Antonioni has Checchi turn director and cast Bosé in a lavish account of the Maid of Orleans's harrowing trial. However, Checchi's limitations behind the camera quickly become as apparent of Bosé's lack of chemistry with leading man Alain Cuny and the epic flops so badly at the Venice Film Festival that Checchi is ruined and Bosé deserts him for diplomat Ivan Desny, who has become her No1 fan and is prepared to support her as she attempts to rebuild her career by learning to act and working her way up from the basement. .

Much criticism has been levelled at Lucia Bosé for her display in a role reportedly rejected by Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren. Yet she capably captures the keen to please bemusement of a Trilby being swept along on the adoration and ambition of her Svengali. Moreover, much of her performance is shaped by Antonioni's placement of Enzo Serafin's camera and Eraldo Da Roma's edit points and, consequently, she frequently seems like a living prop being manipulated by either Checchi or Antonioni (or both). Indeed, there is a knowing nod in this direction in the fact that starlet Monica Clay sees what is happening to Bosé and, even though she reads Pirandello on set, she opts to take her chances in a piece of sword-and-sandal trash entitled Pyramid Slaves.

This acceptance that there was more to Italian cinema than neo-realism adds to the authenticity of Antonioni's behind-the-scenes revelations and it's intriguing to contrast his perspectives with Luchino Visconti's in Bellissima (1952) and Federico Fellini's in 8½ (1963). But Antonioni would demonstrate an even greater appreciation of the problems of being a woman during Italy's fabled Economic Miracle in Le Amiche (1955).

Based on Cesare Pavese's novella, Among Women Only, the action opens with Eleonora Rossi Drago returning to her native Turin to manage a new boutique for a chic Roman company. On her first night home, she comes to the aid of newly hired salesgirl Madeleine Fischer, who has taken an overdose of pills in the neighbouring hotel room. But she is quickly acquires a better class of friend after she is adopted by superficial socialite Yvonne Furneaux and her circle.

Constantly cheating on her wealthy husband in the luxury apartment he bought her, Furneaux is currently dating Franco Fabrizi, who is the architect designing Rossi Drago's salon. But lives in this goldfish bowl continually overlap, with Rossi Drago falling for Fabrizi's working-class foreman, Ettore Manni, and Fischer developing a crush while posing for struggling portrait painter Gabriele Ferzetti, even though he is married to successful, but masochistic ceramic artist Valentina Cortese, whose single-minded gravitas contrasts with the vacuous self-obsession of the last member of the group, Anna Maria Pancani.

Coming from humble origins, Rossi Drago is aware she should despise the shallow, snobbish cruelty and the crass, selfish decadence of Furneaux's clique. But she also recognises that she needs its patronage and has increasingly little in common with Manni and his sort. Moreover, she knows she has worked too hard to improve herself and, unlike Fischer, she isn't going to let a small thing like love spoil her chances of affluence and comfort.

Anticipating many of the themes he would consider in his international breakthrough, L'Avventura (1960), this controlled dissection of middle-class mores and the alienating effect of urban existence marked a turning point for Antonioni. It's easily the best of his early works and not only confirmed his gift for camera movement (in this instance in conjunction with the masterly Gianni Di Venanzo), but also for presenting enigmatic emotions and self-destructive ennui. Moreover, it also taught him that pare down his narratives to essentials, as novelist Italo Calvino criticised him and co-scenarists Suso Cecchi d'Amico and and Alba De Cespedes for unnecessarily complicating Pavese's subtle story.

Working under tighter restrictions in Czechoslovakia, Miloš Forman always had to temper his satire to avoid alerting the state censor. But it's evident from A Blonde in Love (1965) that he consistently succeeded in lampooning the Communist way by adopting a deadpan tone that made his criticisms seem deceptively harmless. Moreover, along with co-scenarists Jaroslav Papoušek and Ivan Passer, he also managed to subvert the turgid socialist realist style by importing tropes from both Free Cinema and the nouvelle vague.

Hana Brejchová (who was actually Forman's sister-in-law) works in a shoe factory in Zruc, a small town in Central Bohemia that has 16 women to every man. She gossips with her friends about hoping Antonín Blazejovský will marry her, but he is in no hurry to settle down when there is such a large and willing field to play. Concerned that his workforce is becoming unproductive because of its sexual frustration, manager Josef Kolb organises a dance with soldiers from the local army base. However, they mostly turn out to be middle-aged reservists and although three try their luck with Brejchová, she only has eyes for Prague pianist Vladimír Pucholt.

By no means experienced, but certainly more worldly wise than Brejchová, Pucholt invites her back to his hotel room and she convinces herself during a night of awkward passion that he wants her to come to the capital and start a new life. So, she takes the bus to Prague and somehow manages to find his home. But Pucholt is out and she receives a confused welcome from his parents, Josef Sebánek and Milada Jezková, who suggests she stays until their son comes home.

Unsurprisingly, Pucholt is horrified to see Brejchová and is forced to endure a ghastly night sharing a bed with his parents, while Jezková warns him about unscrupulous women seeking to snare themselves a husband. But Brejchová has seen enough of where romance leads to flee the next morning and return to her dead-end job, her dormitory bunk and the merciful prospect of never finding a suitable man.

Although this three-act play seems like a cosy comedy of misplaced affection, it is actually a bleak snapshot of a life under regime that would strand young women in the back of beyond simply to provide enough footwear and would then accede to the manager's suggestion to open a camp nearby to afford the workers an occasional distraction from their soulless labours. Indeed, one only has to look at the portly, balding men ogling the desperate girls (and even slipping off wedding rings before going into action on the dance floor) to see how unheroic the Czech forces are and how badly the Party has conducted its experiment in socio-economic engineering.

Yet, for all the biting censure of Communism, this is also a universal comedy of soured domestic bliss, as the brow-beaten Sebánek and the shrewish Jezková tear into each other, Pucholt and Brejchová with a waspish wit that Hollywood was only just learning how to emulate during the last days of the Production Code. But, for all the acerbic verbal wit, this is also an inspired visual comedy that reflects Forman's love of Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Moreover, it's a razor sharp character study that is superbly played by the lead quartet and filmed with an unerring eye for the telling detail by Miroslav Ondricek, as he lets the camera rove around Karel Cerný and Vladimir Macha's impeccably designed sets that allow Forman to narrow in from the open spaces of the factory and the dance hall to the cosily impersonal hotel room and the cramped and wholly miserable family apartment.

If this bittersweet picture was tolerated by Jozef Lenart's government after it earned the country only its second Oscar nomination, Jirí Menzel's Larks on a String (1969) suffered from the post-Prague Spring backlash and was `banned forever', as new First Secretary Gustáv Husák sought to reassure Moscow that the Dubcek-Svoboda era of reform was well and truly over.

Adapted by co-screenwriter Bohumil Hrabal from his novel Advertisement for a House I Do Not Want to Live in Anymore, the action is set in Kladno in the 1950s, as the Stalinists seek to consolidate their grip on power by sending members of the detested bourgeois intelligentsia to work in a junkyard. The purpose of their billeting is `re-education', but none of trustee Rudolf Hrusínský's charges seem in the mood for learning lessons.

Indeed, literature professor Vlastimil Brodský hides his collection of proscribed books, while saxophonist Eugen Jegorov continues to believe in improvised music and public prosecutor Leos Sucharípa clings to the right of the individual to plead his own case. Moreover, incurable romantic Václav Neckár (a Seventh-Day Adventist who was jailed for refusing to cook on the Sabbath) finds himself unable to stop falling in love, even though association with the female workers in the adjoining camp is forbidden. Thus, he agrees to marry Jitka Zelenohorska in her absence and exchanges vows with her grandmother so that Hrusínský can maintain his non-fraternisation rule.

Yet, while Hrusínský and adjutant Jaroslav Satoranský are slaves to the conventions that minister Vladimír Smeral insists are upheld, Menzel refuses to demonise them, Indeed, he adheres to his Jean Renoir's maxim that everyone has their reasons in depicting the Party lackeys as being as much victims of oppression as the prisoners they are guarding. Consequently, rather than being a savage assault on an Orwellian dystopia, this is more an absurdist whimsy that takes quiet pleasure in the fact that a system built on rusting metal is doomed no matter how high the pile grows and how many crucifixes and typewriters are melted down in the furnace.

Despite reuniting with the writer of his Oscar-winning Closely Observed Trains (1966), Menzel so offended the authorities with lines like `We'll pour our peaceful steel down the imperialist warmongers' throats - hands off Korea!' that he was barred from working for seven years. However, he had the last laugh, as the film shared the Golden Bear at the 1990 Berlin Film Festival with Costa-Gavras's Music Box when it was finally released the year after the Velvet Revolution that was brought about by the very `new kind of people' that the Communist smelter was supposed to produce.

Although it sounds like a film by Menzel and Forman's contemporary Frantisek Vlácil, Valley Obscured By Clouds (1972) is actually the English title of Barbet Schroeder's La Vallée. Released at the end of a brief vogue for trippy counterculture movies depicting trendy people venturing to exotic locations in a bid to get their heads together, this is best known for its Pink Floyd soundtrack and Nestor Almendros's sublime cinematography. But, while many have dismissed it as little more than a cross between Lost Horizon (1937) and Easy Rider (1969), this sincere odyssey offers some interesting insights into contemporary attitudes to consumerism, ecology, post-colonialism, the status of women and the nature of freedom.

Diplomat's wife Bulle Ogier wants for nothing. She has a residence in Melbourne stuffed with luxury items, a cutesome lapdog, a full social life and lucrative contacts with a boutique in Paris. But, when she becomes obsessed with the colourful plumage of the Kamul bird of paradise, she insists on travelling to Papua New Guinea to secure a supply of feathers, even though the trade would be illegal and would exploit the native tribes inhabiting a jungle region that is so dense and mysterious that it is only shown on maps as a patch of white.

Leading Ogier's expedition is the strapping Michael Gothard, while among her fellow seekers are Jean-Pierre Kalfon, Monique Giraudy and Valérie Lagrange, although their quest is for spiritual fulfilment rather than material gain. Nevertheless, they are glad of Ogier's largesse when she pays off a couple of brigands and they are able to pitch their communal tent in a Mapuga village where the local priest is rumoured to have a fabulous Kamul collection.

In fact, Ogier discovers that the feathers have become increasingly rare and, despite chancing upon a shaman who is willing to trade because she has the ability to commune with the spirits, she becomes distracted by the freeing of her inhibitions and not only sleeps with Gothard, but also Kalfon, as she comes to share the mystic's views on free love and getting back to basics. Indeed, she becomes so entranced by the landscape and the simplicity of the indigenous lifestyle that she has to be reminded by the disillusioned Gothard - as they watch the Mapuga Day of the Dead ceremony - that while she may believe she has found a Shangri-La, the tribal existence is based on superstition, intimidation and the subjugation of women.

Some may find the love-making and substance-sampling sequences somewhat clichéd and overly idealistic. But Schroeder and screenwriter Paul Gégauff always make it clear that the lifestyle Ogier mistakes for an escapist idyll is a harsh reality for those who know nothing different. Consequently, they leave it open as to whether enlightenment is just another precious commodity Ogier has to possess and whether her decision to scale Mount Gilowe and go in search of the fabled valley (from which no outsider has ever returned) is an act of soulful ecstasy or as reckless a folly as her Edenic exchange with a mesmerising green snake.