Tuesday, August 15, 2017

208. Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s film “Le gamin au vélo” (The Kid with a Bike) (2011) (Belgium) based on the directors’ original screenplay: Painful yet uplifting film that forces you to re-evaluate human behaviour and your own actions

"We tend to think that the closer one gets to the cup, to the hand, to the mouth whose lips are drinking, the more one will be able to feel something invisible—a dimension we want to follow and which would be otherwise less present in the film… Perhaps by filming the gesture as precisely as possible you can render apprehensible that which is not seen.” —Luc Dardenne, “Taking the Measure of Human Relationships”, Cineaste (Summer 2003)

We don’t believe that music should come from the movie. Music is above the film actually. It will descend into the film thanks to Samantha (the character). For us, music represents everything that is missing to Cyril (the character): love, tenderness, and consolation. It’s hovering, waiting, and the audience would like to see it enter the film. We’re not against music. It’s not present in our other movies only because we didn’t see the necessity for it.” (On using music for the first time in their movies.) --Luc Dardenne’s response to interviewer Ariston Anderson in Filmmaker Magazine.
The Belgian film The Kid with a Bike (2011) is outstanding for several reasons.
The Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are able to elicit an exceptional performance from young actor Thomas Doret, who plays the 12-year-old boy Cyril, abandoned by his biological parents in an orphanage of sorts. Doret brings on screen the life of Cyril, who loves and misses his father in the orphanage like facility and craves his father’s company. He brings on screen his violent and disobedient side of his character. The viewer does not like him but the director script a tale for the viewer to gradually empathize with Cyril until you begin to love the kid anew. The Dardenne brothers are adept at getting amazing performances of their lead actors: one would recall the amazing performance of Marion Cotillard in their recent work Two Days, One Night (2014). The difference is that Ms Cotillard is an adult and an experienced actress, but young Thomas Doret was an early teen making his first film appearance in The Kid with a Bike.
Cyril (Thomas Doret) with his bike, riding a bus

The second important facet is that the tale is an original script written by the directors. It is not an adaptation of an existing written work or even a true event. The script is so well crafted that you almost believe you are watching a documentary.
Thirdly, the Dardenne brothers mirror the social problems of contemporary Europe in The Kid with a Bike—the toll on the children of broken marriages the parent refuse to acknowledge, the importance a single parent gives to economic survival over parental responsibility, the knee-jerk reaction of another parent to protect a son who might have killed another, the inability to accept an apology.. The list goes on. What is amazing is that this directorial duo is able to make films that reflect contemporary problems with original scripts—film after film.
Finally, the duo makes films where the visual detail is paramount while the soundtrack records diagetic sound almost all the time. In The Kid with a Bike, for the first time, the directors use the music of Beethoven briefly.
It is, therefore, no surprise that the film won the Grand Prix of the Jury at the Cannes Film Festival and the Best Screenplay honor at the European Film Awards.
Cyril meets up with his father who tells him
 that he should not try to meet him again

Many critics have connected the film to two famous film classics: De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief and Truffaut’s 400 Blows. These are misplaced comparisons save for certain common factors. The Italian film is about a father searching for a stolen bike in the company of his son. The Kid with a Bike, on the other hand, is the son searching for a bike originally gifted by his father, then eventually sold by him, then a similar bike is purchased by a foster parent figure only to be stolen again for a while. The Italian film has an unbroken bond between father and son, which is not the case in the Belgian film. The French film likewise has a kid with a mother and a non-biological father faced with a troubled childhood as a result of the parents’ behaviour towards him.
The Kid with a Bike is thus different and unique.  Most of all it has an angelic beautician named Samantha (Cecile De France) who becomes Cyril’s foster mother—the first significant female figure in Cyril’s life. Samantha buys Cyril’s bike from her own savings. She tries to protect Cyril and even chooses a life with Cyril over a life with her existing boyfriend.
Cyril with Samantha (Cecile De France), the foster mother,
who gives up her boyfriend for bringing up Cyril

For the Dardenne brothers, the women figures seem to be important. The men are interested in their survival, but women are often shown as the caring and relatively balanced figures.
Cyril rides a bike--the symbolic connection with his father, only to realize
his father had sold it off without his knowledge.
Cinematographer Marcoen at work.

Films of the Dardenne brothers might be on troubled subjects but their effect on the viewer is generally uplifting. Like the British director Ken Loach, the Dardenne brothers primarily deal with the working class. There is no sentimentality, with minor details captured visually. There is a third important member of the Dardenne team contributing to their notable films--cinematographer Alain Marcoen, often relying on hand-held cameras--a contributor few have noticed and rarely lauded. And he is good. A fourth regular on their team is editor Marie-Helene Dozo. It is is interesting to note how the best directors today (Andrei Zvyagintsev, Andrei Konchalovsky, Ken Loach, etc.) work with a close-knit team, film after film, and their products are all award-winning films that make you think. The lovely scripts of the Dardenne brothers include hard-hitting spoken words. Very few filmmakers today make films like they do while eliciting immaculate performances, film after film, from their actors to boot. 

P.S. This critic has reviewed the Dardenne brothers 2014 film Two Days, One Night earlier on this blog. (You can access each review by clicking on the name of the film). The Dardenne brothers are among the top 15 favourite active filmmakers of the author. (The full list can be accessed at http://www.imdb.com/list/ls064262544/)

Sunday, June 25, 2017

207. Japanese director Naomi Kawase’s film “Sharasoju” (Shara)(2003) (Japan) based on the director’s original screenplay: A philosophical look at life and death and one’s relationship with nature, a source of spiritual sustenance

Naomi Kawase is one of the most interesting female film directors alive and actively making films. Her films are slow moving, contemplative works that discuss the close relationship of families, of religion, of tradition, and of nature. An overarching common factor for most of her films is the inevitable cycles of life and death.

A twin brother running after other twin for no apparent reason, early in the film
(Note: Shun is touching the wall, as he would touch parked cars later
in the run as his brother does)

Shara is an intimate portrait of two contemporary nuclear Japanese families living in the old Japanese town of Nara with narrow streets, barely more than the width of a large car and yet one sees cars of many sizes parked off the narrow streets. There is tradition and there is modernity—a conflict that is often tangentially discussed in Kawase’s films.

The two families have similarities. Both have had a male member suddenly leave/disappear. (In one case, the viewer is told, a young boy was found dead—without additional explanations, while in the other family a married man disappears after a child is born to his sick wife).  In both families, the disappearance of the male member affects another member of the family deeply. A sister wears the slippers/clogs of her missing male brother; the other young boy paints the portrait of his missing dead brother from memory. The daughter of one family is drawn to the son of the other—and both are students.

The run in reverse, the surviving twin, Shun, with childhood friend Yu

Students and young love are recurring themes for director Nawase [e.g., Still the Water (2014), An/Sweet Bean (2015)]. So is death of loved ones {e.g., Mourning Forest (2007), Still the Water, An/Sweet Bean] and the dead set of lovers in Hanezu (2011) compared and contrasted with a living pair. There is birth and pregnancy in Kawase’s films as well (Shara has a lovely childbirth sequence and pregnancy is pivotal in Hanezu).

Kawase is also of one of the few directors today who consistently discuss positive interactions between the young and the old in most of her films. And finally, there are the constant references to nature (the forest in Mourning Forest, the sea in Still the Water, the cherry trees in An/Sweet Bean, the vegetable and flower garden in Shara and the mountains, spiders and other arachnids in Hanezu. In Shara, growing green eggplants in the kitchen garden with tender loving care becomes a metaphor for the love within the family, a feeling that well-meaning neighbours can appreciate.

This critic has often described Ms Kawase as the Terrence Malick of Japan and one is not sure if Ms Kawase would consider that to be a compliment as she lost out to Malick at a Cannes competition. The common factors between Malick and Kawase are too many to ignore. Malicks’ The Tree of Life and Nawase’s Shara deal with death of a young boy in the family and consequent extended bereavement.  Both films deal with childbirth. Malick’s Knight of Cups and Kawase’s Shara both deal with closeness of siblings. All the works of Malick and Kawase, deal with metaphors of nature mirroring life. Both discuss their respective religions and their importance in living and moving on despite traumatic loss of loved ones.  Both directors have a penchant for underscoring memories of precious events in individuals’ lives. Both directors prefer to film their own written original screenplays though both have adapted others' works in rare instances.

Blooming of Yu as a woman she leads the dancers of the Shara festival

Unlike Malick’s films that depend on voice-overs, much of Kawase’s films can be associated with a lack of spoken words. Wind, rain, waves, shadows and light are more important for Kawase than spoken lines. Traditional religious songs and chants take up long sequences in Shara, Still the Water and Hanezu.

Buddhist chants as a rope is revolved around by hands of devotees
young and old to the sound of chants

bviously for Kawase young people riding bicycles are important. The similarity of such shots in several Kawase’s films is too obvious for a viewer to miss. Now Nara has a lot of automobiles parked in front of their houses. Yet never during the entire length of Shara, shot entirely in Nara, was a car, bus or truck shown moving on screen. There is one shot of a two-wheeled moped in action. That was the single sign of automation in the entire film.

Shara has two important sequences where young people are running. Early in the film we are shown two brothers (twins?) running through empty streets touching parked cars. Towards the end of the film two youngsters –a girl and a boy run on similar empty streets.  Though the runs are visually striking and important sequences, the lack of people and vehicles on the route make the runs almost dreamlike and unreal.  One wonders if that was Kawase’s intention as the entire camera movements of the film Shara appears as though it were  a perspective of an individual who recollects the past events.
Traditional amulets from Yu to Shun (In Kawase's films it is the women
who initiates, not men)

Shara is important for Kawase watchers as this is a rare film in which she acts in a major role, directs, provides the original script, and serves as one of the three co-editors. In this film, viewers see Kawase first as a slim young mother of twin boys, and later, for most of the film, as an older  housewife in an advanced stage of pregnancy who delivers a child capturing the entire event.

Shara is equally important because it does not spoon-feed the viewer. A diligent viewer of the film will note the perspective provided by the camera movements as the film opens and later in the closing stages when the camera behaves like an intelligent being that seems to quietly intrude and inspect the activities just as Aleksandr Sokurov’s camera in his famous Russian Ark (2002), a film made just a year before Shara.  It also indicates why Shun’s (the main boy) brother Kei’s strange unexplained death is never shown on screen but evidently is well accepted by the families.

For the perceptive viewer: Yu (Shun's girlfriend) walks by the same wall
Shun touched 17 years ago, on the initial run,  when he lost his twin brother

Kawase’s writing accomplishes two things. One is to provide scope for the camera to “talk” and move as a human interloper and the second is to ensure participation of an entire town in an energetic, ritualistic song and dance on the street. The latter exercise provides an avenue for traditions to be continued by younger people and for young Yu (the girl) to bloom as a lady both in the eyes of her foster mother Shouko (a strikingly beautiful and elegant Japanese actress, Kanako Higuchi). That sequence provides action and energy in a film bereft of action except for the two running sequences.

What does the title Shara mean, one could ask? My friend Michael Kerpan was kind enough to inform me that the original Japanese title of the film Sharasoju could mean sandalwood/sandalwood incense or even a sal tree. One wonders why the film is called Shara when its meaning is not clear to non-Japanese audiences.

For the lazy viewer, Shara will indeed appear to be dreary, pointless film. Kawase merges spirituality and nature in a unique way, film after film. For the attentive viewer, Shara will prove to be a clever and delightful film where the viewer is encouraged to ponder over minute details and savour them. Every work of Kawase is amazing and Shara is no exception.

P.S. This critic has reviewed Kawase’s Mourning Forest (2007), Hanezu (2011) Still the Water (2014) and An/Sweet Bean (2015) on the blog. (You can access each review by clicking on the names of the films). So are reviews of the Malick films The Tree of Life and Knight of Cups, mentioned in the above review. Mourning Forest is included on the author’s top 15 films of the 21st Century. Ms Kawase is also one of the author's 15 favourite active filmmakers (see list at http://www.imdb.com/list/ls064262544/)

Thursday, April 20, 2017

206. Russian director Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s film “Belye nochi pochtalona Alekseya Triyapitsyna ” (The Postman’s White Nights)(2014) (Russia): An amazing, profound elegy reconciling one to the fact that good and evil coexist in Russia, then and now

Where does this music come from? From the heavens or from the ground? Now it’s stopped.
--- A quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, used as the end quote for The Postman’s White Nights

Any serious Konchalovsky film viewer will recall that the end-quotes of his films, when used, are very important to put the tale one just viewed in its intended perspective.  He did use it with aplomb in Runaway Train (a quote from Shakespeare’s Richard III) and Shy People (a quote from Revelations in the Bible). What is the music he is referring to? It would be too simplistic to consider it to be the music of the film’s composer Eduard Artemev, the talented composer of Tarkovsky’s three monumental works—Solaris, Stalker and Mirror, and the important Russian sci-fi film Dr Ivan’s Silence. The music is most likely to be a metaphor for the waves of good and evil forces that an average Russian encounters in life and learns to live with over time.

The real postman Aleksey Triyapitsyn "acts" as himself--his army clothes
indicate his status of a paid government employee

Now, Andrei Konchalovsky’s career can easily be divided into three distinct phases: pre-Hollywood work in former USSR, some with classmate Andrei Tarkovsky (The Steamroller and the Violin, Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Rublyev) and some alone; his Hollywood phase (which included Runaway Train, Maria’s Lovers and Shy People); and the recent post Hollywood phase in Russia working with the obviously unusually talented co-scriptwriter Elena Kiseleva. The Postman’s White Nights marks the beginning of this exciting new phase in Konchalovsky’s career when he begins his collaboration with co-scriptwriter Elena Kiseleva. His second film with Kiseleva was Paradise (2016). He is currently working on a third film with Kiseleva, tentatively titled Il peccato. This critic could see parallels in this fascinating collaboration with that of the late Polish maestro Krzysztof Kieślowski’s collaboration with co-scriptwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz, towards the evening of his respective career that resulted in his masterpieces Dekalog, The Three Colours trilogy, and The Double Life of Veronique.

The Postman’s White Nights is one of the finest works in recent years from Russia that can rub shoulders with the cinematic gems of Andrei Zvyagintsev. The depth of the film can be lost on a casual viewer while it can offer profound commentary on Russia for the mature viewer.

The rural Russian folk smoke endlessly, drink tea and vodka, and die often alone

What did Konchalovsky and Kiseleva do in The Postman’s White Nights that will stun the viewer? They scripted a tale set in a rural setting where the village school is in ruins; men are turning alcoholics and survive on pensions; newspapers, bread, medicines, are brought from the nearest town by a postman, an alcoholic in the past, currently a bachelor; with one other regular government employee posted in this village an unpopular lady mayor, living alone with a young son, because she fines folk caught trawling fish in the nearby water bodies to win brownie points with her unseen superiors.

Everybody smokes, but the postman has kicked his drinking habit
after it ruined his family life 

As in both the Konchalovsky and Kiseleva films, the scriptwriters build-up details that do not seem to add up midway but punches you at the end of the film. And if you blink you might miss that brilliant visual that says more than all the spoken words in the entire film. (There is a third partner in the Konchalovsky-Kiseleva films: cinematographer Aleksandr  Simonov). The Russian government obviously seems to have ignored the well being or the development of this rural township.  Not only is the school in ruins (possibly because there are not enough kids to attend school) but the folks there have only the TV sets as sources of entertainment. There are no tractors to till the land, only animal driven ploughs. From all evidence there is only one plough for the entire community. It is no wonder that people in that locality are driven to steal outboard motors of boats or trawl the water bodies for fish—an illegal act for all except the powerful generals who infrequently visit the area. But not very far away, Russia rocket/space power is quietly advancing ignoring the plight of the rural poor.

The good and the bad coexist in the rural world with the committed postman being the prominent do-gooder. The townsfolk do not go out of the way to help the postman when he faces a professional crisis with his motorboat’s engine stolen and thus not being able to discharge his duties for the rural folk.  In the world of email communication and mobile telecommunication, the postman fills a multitasking role. And he loves to do it. He has to file a theft report and wait for a replacement to be supplied.  The elders in the rural areas wistfully recall better days during the socialist regime and some even recall being in Vietnam during the war there.

The postman and the mayor's son

What most viewers are likely to miss out is an important decision taken by director Konchalovsky—all characters in the film’s rural setting are played by authentic villagers. The only professional actors are the two individuals who play the roles of the lady mayor and her delightful young son, Timur, who addresses the postman as “uncle.” Now that is incredible considering how the onscreen presence of the real postman engages the viewer.  One would mistake him for a professional actor able to convey so many complex emotions and body languages.  The Russian title of the film would read as the white nights of Aleksey Tryapitsyn, the name of man who plays the postman in the film. He is playing himself. Thus the entire script revolves around real people playing themselves.  But the script belongs to brilliance of Konchalovsky and Kiseleva.

Look at how they built the script. The entire background of the life of the postman is provided by Aleksey Tryapitsyn’s monologue as he sifts through old photographs of himself with the movie’s camera placed behind his head and shoulders.  Who is he talking to? The viewer. Such a monologue is never repeated until the end sequence where all or most of the village folk sit shoulder to shoulder on a ferry, their differences forgotten, without a word spoken, looking at the camera. Who are they looking at? The viewer.

The postman shares his childhood fears and tales with the
mayor's son.

The next striking visual is the repeated morning waking shot of the postman looking down at his boots on the carpet that he need to get into. He is living alone. There is no tap water; he has to fetch water in pails. The mayor and the postman wear camouflage army clothes—possibly because they are the only paid government employees.  His life is spartan.

The filmmaking trio emphasize rumination and natural beauty—the characters are constantly reflecting, outdoors and indoors.  Those sequences are with the music of Artemev as in the early Tarkovsky and Konchalovsky films.  And that leads on to the dark grey cat (“there are no cats in the village” the viewer is informed, and ergo the cat is a metaphor of a silent imaginary friend of the lonely postman—a cinephile will recall Tarkovsky used totemic images of a dog in Stalker).  The silent cat comes through the window, follows Aleksey Tryapitsyn during his imaginary visit to the school ruins, and finally sits on the stomach of the reclining postman. Does the cat have a common link with a cat’s images on the postman’s tablecloth?

Simonov's cinematography and Artemev's music can be stunning 

...and who wouldn't ruminate on contemplating the natural beauty of Russia
captured by cinematographer Simonov?

Apart from the good actions and the bad actions of the characters in The Postman’s White Nights, the overarching philosophy of the film is to accept this truth and reconcile what is left of one’s life with this attitude. The postman runs away but decides to return to the same community where, not surprisingly, he is still welcome. Konchalovsky “ran away” from USSR to work in Hollywood on to return to Russia with all its continuing faults and greatness. The film might be a great anti-smoking film with almost all the elders addicted to tobacco and evidently not healthy but the young boy also learns to smoke following the actions of the elders. But in the end segment, Konchalovsky, Kiseleva and Simonov are pointing out with their tongues firmly in their cheeks that Russia is launching spacecrafts and rockets not very far from the world of rural folk who can’t fish in the water bodies without asking for trouble or have any entertainment beyond state TV. And guess what, these Russians on the fringes of Russian society addicted to tobacco and vodka are still happy and content as long as they get their pensions.

Where does the strange sustenance of the Russians come from? From the ground, or from the rockets? A Shakespearean conundrum indeed!

It is a meaningful film for the serious film viewer, and richly deserving of the Venice film festival honour.

P.S. The Postman’s White Nights won the Best Director Award (Silver Lion) for Andrei Konchalovsky.  Detailed reviews by the author of Konchalovsky’s earlier films Runaway Train (1985) and Paradise (2016) were posted earlier on this blog. A link to the Konchalovsky written paper/lecture on the "Russian Soul" is provided on this blog and the contents are closely linked to the basic mood of the film. A critical line from that lecture reflects the essence of the film's ending "Why Russians can build a rocket and send it off into space, but not make a decent car?Mr Konchalovsky is also one of the author's 15 favourite active filmmakers.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

205. US director Jim Jarmusch’s film “Paterson” (2016) (USA): A delicate, well-conceived film on a bus driver turned poet constantly noting beauty in ordinary subjects, thanks to his contented life with a supportive spouse

Paterson would appear to be a simple tale; but it is not. It is a film where Jim Jarmusch the original scriptwriter over-shadows Jim Jarmusch the director. Yet they are both the same individual in two roles. The script is trenchant; it is brilliant. The direction follows the script. A script on a week in the life of a bus driver who writes poetry.

Bus driver Paterson (Adam Driver) at work

Optimistic, poetic Paterson  lives in Paterson City, where commercial activity
obviously is in distress (see signage on the walls)

Why is this original script brilliant? Paterson, in the movie, refers to several things—it is the name of the lead character (the bus driver and amateur poet); it is the name of the city in New Jersey, USA, where the story takes place; it is the name of the volume of the collection of poems of Pulitzer Prize winning US poet William Carlos Williams who worked as a paediatrician in Paterson, New Jersey. 

Scriptwriter Jarmusch’s lead character is a bus driver who likes poetry, writes poetry, and lives in a house with book shelves full of books of poetry by Williams and other poets. A 10-year-old girl with a penchant for writing poetry in a secret notebook who meets Paterson for the first time amiably describes him after the brief encounter as “a bus driver who likes Emily Dickinson” (the poet). The bus driver writes his poems in his own secret notebook, before and after driving his bus. These poems are odes to his partner Laura, of Iranian lineage. Now, Jarmusch’s choice of the name Laura for bus driver Paterson’s partner is not accidental—the Renaissance Italian poet Petrarch (1304-74) too wrote all his poems to his muse Laura de Noves, the wife of a Count, whose beauty made Petrarch leave priesthood even though their relationship was platonic.

Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) paints and wears black and white
and even put black and white icing on her cupcakes

Jarmusch’s creation of Laura is equally amazing. Laura is equally a creative individual as Paterson is. She loves to paint at home with white and black colours. She goes to the extent of painting her clothes while wearing them. When she bakes cupcakes, the icing is again black and white. Even her guitar that she orders on-line is painted black and white! When she takes her spouse Paterson to a movie—the movie is in black and white. Yet Laura is odd—she is devoted to her husband and recognizes his gift for poetry. She is equally devoted to her pet dog.  Her life seems fairly limited to home management and an interest in music. Yet she manipulates her husband to agree to buy a costly guitar on-line but makes up for the cost by making equal or more money selling cupcakes at the local farmer’s market.  And guess what? She had dreamt it first.

Now writer Jarmusch elegantly contrasts the life of the loving couple, who love each other intensely, despite their quite different likes and dislikes, constantly encouraging and supporting each other, while other couples in Paterson do not seem to get along with as much élan despite being together. The love between Paterson and Laura helps the bus driver Paterson to see beauty in ordinary objects and mundane situations.

Marvin the dog on a Persian carpet at home.
(The dog got a rare award at Cannes! And the film is dedicated to it, as well)

Paterson (Driver) takes Marvin out for a walk,
 before entering a pub for his daily glass of beer 

The third most important character in the script is an English bulldog called Marvin who waits outside the pub dutifully each evening as Paterson has his daily glass of beer. The dog is apparently fond of Laura more than Paterson. But the apparently docile dog is cunning enough to make Paterson wonder who is tilting his mailbox. And when Marvin is left alone in the house he wreaks revenge on Paterson the bus-driver in his own way.

Laura recollects having dreamt of having twins with Paterson. The script introduces us to several pairs of twins in Paterson and motley people all interested in writing poetry. The sets of twins include elderly men sitting on a bench, passengers on the bus, twins in the pub, the 10-year old girl poet who possibly has a twin sister, and so on. Poets include a 10-year-old girl, a man waiting to get his laundry washed, and a tourist. The recurrence make you marvel at Jarmusch’s interest in adding details that would have been inconsequential in most other screenplays.

Paterson (Driver), having lost his secret notebook. gazes at the waterfall
in solitude

Japanese actor Masatoshi Nagase as a Japanese poet, arrives at the waterfall
viewing site and later sits down with Paterson and discusses poetry.

All that, of course, would be limited to characters and character development. Towards the end, the script shifts gears as it introduces magic realism. Peterson, who has lost his secret poetry notebook, wistfully gazes at the waterfall in Paterson city, sitting alone on the bench. An amazing encounter with a Japanese poet leads to Paterson being gifted with an empty notebook—as though the tourist knew of Paterson’s recent loss. Paterson the bus driver-cum-poet renews his writing after this unexpected gift from a guardian angel—a tourist who is meeting him for the first time.

The final line Paterson writes is “Would you be a fish?” This might intrigue many people viewing the film. A fish might look good but it cannot read or write. And in spite of its agility in the water it can get caught and end up as food. Ergo: being a poet is better than being a fish.

The importance of supportive couples is contrasted with one that does not

A word about the actors in Paterson. Is the casting of Adam Driver as the bus driver a mere coincidence? Is the casting of the Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani as Laura who dreams of Asian images of elephants and furnishes her floors with Persian carpets, another coincidence? Is the casting of the Japanese actor Masatoshi Nagase [the lead actor in Naomi Kawase’s equally reflective Japanese film Sweet Bean (2015)] yet another coincidence? Quite evidently Jarmusch builds on details while writing his script, while casting and directing.

This film establishes Jim Jarmusch as one of the top two directors working in USA today alongside Terrence Mallick.

P.S. This critic is disappointed that this original screenplay did not even get nominated for an Oscar. It is far superior to others that were nominated in 2017. The film is one of the best films made in 2016. Unfortunately, this critic viewed it only in 2017 and, therefore, Paterson is likely to find a place in the top 10 films of 2017 of this critic. Earlier on this blog, this critic had reviewed Naomi Kawase’s Sweet Bean (2015) with actor Masatoshi NagaseMr Jarmusch is also one of the author's 15 favourite active filmmakers

Monday, March 27, 2017

204. Polish maestro Krzysztof Kieślowski’s film “Dekalog, Jeden” (Decalogue, One) (1989) (Poland): A fascinating debate on atheism versus faith in God/Yahweh/Allah

Frozen lake

The ten-part Dekalog is definitely one of the 10 best works of cinema ever made for this critic. Each segment of the ten-part film Dekalog is linked to the 10 Commandments given by God to Moses as believed by Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Now many who are not familiar with subtle changes introduced into various versions of the Bible over time would assume the Ten Commandments are written in stone and will have to be the same in all published versions. This, unfortunately, is not the case. One reason for the differences pertains to sources of the Commandments (The Septuagint, Philo’s Septuagint, The Samaritan Pentateuch, the Jewish Talmud, and The Holy Koran’s sura Al An’am and al Isra) and the second, the various interpreters (St Augustine, Martin Luther and John Calvin). (Ref: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_Commandments )

When Krzysztof Kieślowski made Dekalog in collaboration with co-scriptwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz one can guess each of the Ten Commandments, each episode refers to in broad terms.  But a detailed evaluation brings into the limelight the conflict of the tale of some episodes of Dekalog with various differences in the numbering of the Ten Commandments and the subtle differences of how each Commandment reads, depending on the particular faith of the viewer.

Now Dekalog, One refers to the First Commandment I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no other gods before me.  The story of Dekalog, One can be deconstructed to accommodate two conflicting views about God derived from two adults in the life of a 12 year old precocious boy called Pawel.  The father, Krzysztof, is a university professor who believes in reason and scientific methods. Pawel’s mother is apparently abroad.  Pawel has an aunt Irene (Krzysztof’s sister) who deeply believes in God unlike her brother.  

Pawel and his brilliant rational professor father, Krzysztof

Young Pawel is close to his father and shows off the computer skills he has learnt from his father to his aunt Irene. He can lock the door of his apartment using remote control with the help of the computer. He can even open water faucets by a similar method. However, the clever Pawel is also a sensitive boy who is shaken by the sight of a familiar stray dog that has died near his apartment.
When Pawel asks his father “Why do people die?” his father answers: “It depends—heart failure, cancer, accidents, old age..” 

The million dollar question from a 12-year old

Pawel persists: “I mean what is death?”

His father Krzysztof explains, “The heart stops pumping blood. It does not reach the brain. Movement ceases. Everything stops. It is the end.”

Pawel continues “So what is left?”

The father answers his son: “What a person has achieved; the memory of that person.  The memory is important. “

Now the film’s character Krzysztof could easily be associated with (or an extension of) its director Krzysztof Kieslowski, who had publicly stated that he was an atheist. The third Krzysztof of the film is the co-scriptwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz, who is publicly a Roman Catholic. This critic is convinced that Piesiewicz is possibly one of the finest scriptwriters in the history of cinema even though he is primarily a politician and a lawyer.

Pawel's aunt Irene is the optimistic theist 

In this amazing film, despite all the knowledge and scientific reasoning and calculations and a physical personal check of the ice that covers the frozen lake, the ice breaks.  There does seem to be a parameter beyond science and reason and physical reassurance that the calculations are correct.  Krzysztof, the father, calculated if his son’s weight could crack the ice and found the ice would hold. For the university professor, computers, mathematics and reason, is more trustworthy than God.  In 1989 Poland, computers and computation was the new God. As a good father, to reassure his own calculations, he himself goes on the ice to see if it could hold his adult weight.  He is reassured as the ice holds. Yet, tragedy follows.

There is sufficient evidence on the IMDB portal’s page on Piesiewicz that Dekalog, One, Two, Seven and Eight are four episodes that were originally written by Piesiewicz. These are four of the most intriguing episodes of the 10. Conversely the other six were originally written by Kieslowski, with additional inputs from Piesiewicz.

If we accept the Piesiewicz contribution to Dekalog, One being more than that of Kieslowski, plot wise, the end of this episode falls into place. The devastated, emotionally broken, rational father goes to the church under construction to make peace with God.  The makeshift wooden altar breaks.  The falling lighted candles drip white wax on the iconic figure of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, giving the impression that the Madonna was crying. (Dekalog, One opens with a shot of aunt Irene crying as she watches television breaking news on the streets.) As the emotionally broken father leaves the church, as a good Roman Catholic he dips his hand in the receptacle containing holy water. The water is partly frozen.   A former rational professor pulls out a piece of ice resembling a Host wafer from the receptacle and contritely presses it on his forehead by himself. What a wonderful symbol of accepting God above all his rational calculations. Was Kieslowski really an atheist as he claimed to be? 

P.S. Dekalog is included in the author's top 10 films. Three other episodes: Dekalog, Two; Dekalog, Fiveand Dekalog, Seven have been reviewed earlier on this blog. The reviews of  Dekalog, Two and Dekalog, Seven dwell on the intriguing interpretation of the relevant Commandment.

This critic was fortunate to have met and talked with director Kieslowski in Bengaluru, India, in January 1980 when his collaboration Piesiewicz had yet to begin. Dekalog, Three Colours: Blue, White and Red, and The Double Life of Veronique were yet to be made. This critic ardently hopes to meet with Piesiewicz to ask him about those films and Kieslowski, now that Kieslowski is no longer with us.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

203. French director Jean-Pierre Melville’s and cinematographer Henri Decaë’s début feature film “Le Silence de la Mer” (Silence of the Sea) (1949) (France): When silence (and the camera) talks and can be more effective than the spoken word

Some of the best films of celebrated filmmakers have been their debut films because they put in all their pent up creative energy in that effort to find recognition as a director. Examples are Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge (Handsome Serge) (1958), Mike Nichols' Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971), Sir Ridley Scott’s The Duellists (1977), and Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton (2007). Unfortunately, they rarely are/were able to repeat or improve on that amazing quality that is often not tailored for commercial viability but more for artistic value. 

Very few cineastes would associate the director Jean-Pierre Melville with his debut film Silence of the Sea; most will associate him with his cops and robbers action films or noir crime films, such as The Samurai, films that have a wider appeal. That's because Silence of the Sea is essentially unusual and intense filmmaking so different from the rest of his films. The film mainly is built around three characters with one talking most of the time and the other two of them rarely or almost never speaking to the camera. It’s unforgettable film-making, with amazing play of light and shadow and camera angles that recall German expressionist cinema. Of course, each of the aforementioned debut films by the different directors too had exhibited that finesse of melding the plot with incredible unusual technical quality. All these are films for the lover of quality cinema not for the lover of escapist thrills.

The uninvited guest--a Nazi officer Lt von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon)--is
 thrust into the world of a French village household comprising an
uncle and his niece duo during the German occupation

Silence of the Sea is based on a French novel written 7 years before the film was made. The novel/short-story was written by Jean Marcel Bruller better known by his pen name “Vercors.” He was part of the French resistance against the Nazi invaders of during World War II. Director Jean-Pierre Melville was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach and, like Vercors, was also a part of the French resistance with a code name Melville (after the novelist Herman Melville). And his name “Grumbach” transformed officially into “Melville,” once he launched his career in cinema. Jean-Pierre Melville almost did not make this important debut feature film, first because Vercors did not think he could do justice to his novel and refused permission to film it. Melville coaxed Vercors to a wager that he would destroy the film if any in a jury of 24 French resistance workers disapproved the final film product. Vercors reluctantly agreed to that wager. Then the debutant director Melville had to face another hurdle: two of his cinematographers left the project, one after the other. Debutant cinematographer Henri Decaë was the third choice and this was his debut as well. And what a debut that turned out to be!

The speaker and the two silent listeners: note the shadows,
the books and the piano--all important facets of the film

As mentioned earlier Silence of the Sea revolves around three characters. One is a German Nazi Lieutenant  called Werner von Ebrennac (played by Howard Vernon) and the other two are French residents of a French village—an elderly pipe-smoking man living with his niece, shown cooking and knitting indoors in most of the film’s duration. They are nameless—the filmmakers/Vercors do not name them. They represent the proud but conquered French population. For some unknown reason the house of this French duo is chosen for the German officer to stay and as a conquered nation the French family obliges but refuses to communicate with their uninvited guest.

The German officer who's changed into his civilian dress gives regular
monologues on why he appreciates French literature, as the French 
elder (Jean-Marie Robain) seems to pay more attention to his pipe

Most of Silence of the Sea is filmed in the very house the author Vercors wrote the novel. The film thus gets reduced to regular pleasant monologues of the German officer to his silent hosts in the evenings as the old man either smokes or holds his pipe and his niece is preoccupied with her knitting. The victor in war tries to communicate with the vanquished. In return, all he gets is silence, not even a visual acceptance of his physical presence.  The old man is forever seemingly preoccupied tending his pipe, and the young lady busy with her knitting.  The German is an intruder in their daily lives. The silence is not to be interpreted as a social weapon but as a moral and patriotic response. And where is the sea? There is no sea in the film. The “sea” of French men and women who disliked the German occupation opted to be silent in their adversity—a smart, cultured passive resistance, when analyzed in retrospect.  A silent rebellion that hurts the victorious enemy!

The silent listener to the German's monologue in French,
not even acknowledging the presence of his uninvited guest

The difference Vercors/Jean-Pierre Melville presents in the novel/film will bother the viewer’s conscience. The German officer is not a brute; he is cultured, well mannered, well read, very knowledgeable about music, and actually admires French writers Moliere and Racine. He even states that he finds German girls to be coarse. [A good cineaste would be quick to note the parallels between Vencor’s von Ebernnac in Silence of the Sea and Konchalovsky/Kiselava’s Nazi officer in Paradise (2016) who admires the Russian literary giants as he deals with a Russian lady prisoner in the prison camps.] Director Melville allows the old man to speak off-camera in Silence of the Sea using a voice over narration and one of the most pertinent lines he utters is “It pains me to offend anyone even if he is my enemy.” Despite the silence and impassive faces there is visual evidence that the niece is possibly falling in love with the “Beast” (von Ebrennac had deliberately mentioned how he loved The Beauty and the Beast, a French fairy tale) as she pricks her finger while missing a stitch while knitting at the precise juncture when the German mentions his German woman-friends. The brilliance of Melville’s film is the ability to get the camera to pick up subtle details of the silent couple that talk more than words. Spielberg did just that in his film Duel.

A rare moment when the niece (Nicole Stephane) looks up from her knitting
--her hurt finger is of little concern

The camera captures three sets of hands
evoking a silent conversation  of their own

The subtlety of the filmmaking is astounding in Silence of the Sea. Was von Ebrennac in love with niece or was he merely wanting to discuss his views on how the French and the Germans could be united in “a beautiful marriage.” Did the niece make a muffled adieu to the German without looking up towards the end? These are details for the attentive viewer to pick up.

Director Melville won the wager with Vercors when the jury of 24 eminent French resistance fighters that included André Malraux and Jean Cocteau and the La Figaro editor voted on the final cinematic product. The La Figaro editor was the only one who voted against the release of the film because he found he was a last minute substitute on the ”24 person jury.”  Director Melville would have had to burn his film going by the wager.  Luckily for us, Vercors dismissed the scribe’s vote on realizing why he had voted against the film.

While much of the film is shot indoors, there is a wonderful sequence when the niece is walking alone on the snow and the German guest walks past her in the opposite direction. No words are spoken. The visuals speak more than words.

Another unforgettable sequence is when the French elder visits the office of his German guest for some trivial requirement and the host and the guest note each other’s presence.  Mirrors play a role. Who is the guest and who is the host?  The roles are reversed. Words are not spoken between the two—but what the camera captures speaks volumes. That is great cinema.

The body language of actors can be more expressive than words. Essays could be written on the the very subtle body language of the niece captured by Melville and Decaë.

A hot beverage is seemingly more interesting than a guest's monologue

On the other hand, von Ebernnac’s character is fleshed out more by words.  Imagine a German even today stating that Bach’s music is “inhuman” and that Germany has that “inhuman” character. Of course, Vercors was writing a novel that presented the French being superior to Germans in his subtle manner through the words of von Ebernnac. In Silence of the Sea, Vercors/Melville present the unusual German (recall again and compare the German Nazi of Konchalovsky/Kiselava in Paradise) which makes the intelligent viewer to realize that there is rarely a clear black and white distinction when we consider an enemy—there are more grey areas. That is why both Silence of the Sea and Paradise will remain great works of filmed screenplays.

The low-angle shot and lighting are equally as eloquent as the spoken words

Towards the end of the film—the old man gives his guest a verbal response and a virtual goodbye to von Ebrennac  leaving open a book  by Anatole France with the opening quote clearly visible to his guest: “It is a fine thing when a soldier disobeys criminal orders.

Director Melville took a big risk in attempting to make this film. If any of 23 jury members did not like it, the negatives of the film could have been burnt as a part of the wager with Vercors. This is without a doubt the crowning glory of Melville’s and Decaë’s respective careers.

P.S. The Silence of the Sea is included in the author’s top 100 films. The films Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,  The Duellists, Michael Clayton, and Paradise mentioned in the above review have been reviewed earlier on this blog. 

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