Sunday, November 14, 2021

269. Canadian film director Denis Côté’s tenth feature film “Hygiène sociale” (Social Hygiene) (2021) in French, based on his original script: An unusual film that serves to entertain verbally and visually as a dark comedy, without sex or violence














T
he title of the film Social Hygiene will remind viewers of the Covid pandemic’s cardinal rule to avoid infection—maintain social distancing to avoid infection. In fact, no two characters make physical contact in the entire film and maintain at least a 12 feet distance between each other. There is no mention of Covid or even wearing of masks in the film. Simply put, though the film was made during the pandemic, the film has nothing to do with it. Further, the film’s original script was written by the director Denis Côté in 2015, much before the onset of the pandemic. 
 
Antonin (right) spars verbally with his love
Cassiopée, while her new admirer silently watches 
in the background



The film is built around the pivotal character, Antonin, married, but staying away from his wife, Eglantine. Where? In a friend’s Volkswagen! Antonin, we realize is prone to making up unreal stories, is well read, deft with language wordplay, and is a thief, vandalizing cars in the process. The director/screenplay-writer Denis Côté’s central character encounters four ladies apart from his wife Eglantine. He meets with his sister, Solveig; his secret love, Cassiopée; a lady named Rose from the Ministry of Revenue tracking him down to coerce him to cough up his unpaid tax dues; and finally, Aurore, who has been also tracking him to get back a jacket and a computer he stole from her car, and some compensation for smashing its windows to steal those items.   

Antonin talks to his wife Eglantine

Antonin talks to Rose (note she wears pink),
the tax collector who can send him to prison




All the meetings with the five ladies are staged like a Samuel Beckett play with two or three characters (always including Antonin) in open grassy fields, often on the edges of forests. There is minimal movement from the characters often rooted to the same spot; only wordplay ensues with pregnant pauses between spoken lines. The only exceptionally active scene is Aurore dancing by herself in the forest to music, the source of which is never revealed. Why and what provokes Aurore, a theology student who works in a McDonald’s outlet, to suddenly dance or decide to take an interest in criminals is an amusing conundrum. To the casual viewer, the social criticism of Facebook, internet and taxes in the script may not be obvious. All the characters have lines to speak that refer to the ills of contemporary society and lifestyles.   

Antonin interacts with Solveig, his sister,
after she states that she found a lover at a restaurant
Note: She is still holding her wine glass 


Côté’s Antonin (mostly captured by the static camera in long shots, with a rare close-up towards the end of the film) is revealed as a filmmaker struggling to complete his script, and responds to Aurore’s revelation that she is a student of theology thus: “I believe in myself. I believe I can find the keys to my enigmas in my life by myself.”  

Antonin returns the jacket he stole from
Aurore's car to her. Note: Aurore's dress differs
 from those worn by other women



When asked about when and where he met his wife, Antonin wittily replies “I met my wife in a zoo, by the cage of the hyena. The rest is a long quiet river.” 

In Côté’s interesting script, the best lines are not invested with Antonin alone. Antonin’s love Cassiopée calls him a narcissist and says “You are 100 times dead. I love you as a zombie....Men are like mushrooms. The more handsome they are the more poison they contain.” The cocky Antonin pleads and buckles under Rose’s threat “I have the key to your prison cell at the edge of my pen,” to pay his taxes. To Aurore, Antonin agrees to return the jacket and computer. His sister, Solveig, finally finds a lover over tea and long tales, uttering the words “Carpe Diem.” His wife, too, leaves him for another lover. The once confident and witty Antonin is completely “socially distanced.” 

Antonin holds a flower he wishes to present to his love
Cassiopée (center, background) while his wife (left)
notes it all and decides to leave her philandering husband



Denis Côté, the filmmaker is essentially a charming, absurdist playwright, who stages his written work in natural open surroundings with clearly demarcated stage markings for his actors in grassy patches with distant bird, animal, and traffic sounds on the soundtrack. The rare body movements of most characters are in sharp contrast to Aurore flexible body movements during her dancing spell in the film. 

Aurore dances in the forest, the only character
in the film who moves a lot physically


While Côté presents verbal sparring that will interest most viewers, there are details that some could miss. The clothes worn by all actors are period costumes a century old, with the sole exception of Aurore’s clothes that are contemporary. Thus her clothes and her dance movements are in interesting contrast to all other characters. Is Côté suggesting that Antonin’s appropriate love interest should be Aurore, not the characters wearing century-old costumes? Antonin does confess he finds Aurore attractive. 

Antonin (Maxim Gaudette) levelled by all women:
The only close-up shot in the entire film


Then there is a deliberate smudge in the static vision to the left corner of the First Act in the countryside with Antonin sparring with his sister possibly to accentuate the picture postcard shot, because Solveig retains her hands-on-the-hips pose for a long while. When the static camera moves, there seems to be a purpose to intervene in the social distancing of the actors and the camera. Denis Côté’s film provides unusual entertainment for those who can appreciate good playwrights and a totally fresh approach to the medium that is visually and verbally witty. A very interesting filmmaker setting a new style! 

 P.S.  Social Hygiene won the Best Director award at the Berlin Film Festival’s “Encounters” section and the Best Director award at the Fajr Film Festival in Iran. 




Saturday, November 13, 2021

268. Iranian film directors Maryam Moghadam’s and Behtash Sanaeeha’s feature film “Ghasideh Gave Sefid” (Ballad of a White Cow) (2020) (Iran) in Farsi/Persian language, based on their original script: Fallouts of the miscarriage of justice when an innocent person is executed for a murder he did not commit

 
















 

And recall when Moses said to his people, “Allah commands you to slaughter a cow”

They answered, “Do you make a mockery of us?”

---“Surah of the Cow” in the Holy Quran (Opening quote in the film)


Iran continues to make interesting feature films, year after year, bereft of sex, nudity, escapist car chases and on-screen violence. Ballad of a White Cow is a tale of the bread-winner of small nuclear family found guilty of the killing of a known friend by a court, condemned to death by a three judge bench according to Iranian law and consequently executed for the crime. Later, the real killer confesses to the crime. A miscarriage of justice has unintentionally taken place.

While the wife of the hastily executed innocent man approaches the Iranian Supreme Court for justice for her and her mute daughter and retribution for the judges, one of the three judges is devastated by the revelations of the real killer and reaches out to help the wife and child of the executed prisoner, without revealing his own identity, and quits his job as a judge much to the amazement of the judiciary and officials, as he had merely applied existing laws of the land. That single judge, among the three judges who jointly  passed the hasty sentence, makes a laudable effort to make amends even before the Supreme Court surprisingly ruled that the wife and child had to be compensated and judges be held responsible in some way. The film is an implicit critique of capital punishment and of miscarriage of justice.

Mina (Maryam Moghadam) with her brother-in-law
reacting to the information that her dead husband
was innocent and the real killer has confessed

The interesting original script treads more on the indirect punishment on the blameless wife Mina (played by the screenplay-writer and co-director Moghadam) and daughter, living in a rented apartment. If a strange man, Reza (Alireza Sani Far), visits her to pay back “a loan” he took from Mina’s husband, the owner of the rented apartment also hastily assumes his tenant is involved in some immoral activity and asks Mina to speedily vacate. In Iran, a single woman with a child and without a job, cannot easily find an alternate accommodation at short notice, even if she has the money. Thus, the film is not just about capital punishment and miscarriage of justice, it is a commentary on single women/mothers in Iran. However, women in Iran do enjoy a lot of freedom and respect compared to their counterparts in some other Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia.

Mina explains to her daughter Bita
that her father has gone far away 

Reza is a rare individual with a conscience. His life as a judge crumbles with a hasty judgement he made with two others on the basis of questionable evidence. Reza’s son, whose mother is either dead or divorced, is so alienated from his father after he learns of his father’s involvement in the miscarriage of justice that he rushes to join the army and soon commits suicide. Reza is twice broken. But the good man has no courage to inform Mina that he was one of the three judges who hastily condemned Mina’s husband to death.

The Judge Reza (Alireza Sani Far) arrives at Mina's
door without revealing his true identity, stating that
he has come to return a large sum of money
her husband had lent him

What follows has to be interpreted keeping in mind the opening quote about the cow. A white cow is shown in a mosque (the barbed wire on the walls resemble a prison) readied for slaughter early in the film to help the viewer with a visual connection to the opening quote. The script-writer Moghadam envisages Mina as a worker in a milk-packaging factory, a metaphoric connect to the innocent cow in the quotation. Mina does seem to eventually accept her husband’s execution as a submission to the will of Allah (God) as a good Muslim. When Mina realizes her husband was innocent she finds that she and her mute daughter seems to have been “mocked” by the judicial system. The “mockery” extends to Mina, already under stress from the judiciary, the owner of her initial apartment, and Mina’s father-in-law trying to grab the “blood money” or the financial compensation from the government, added up to Mina losing her job at the milk packaging factory, due to a strike. The finale of the film could confound an average viewer but if the viewer realizes Mina is intelligent, the ending is easy to decipher. The tale can be considered as a modern-day parable. The tale is a very interesting confrontation of the ethics of a remorseful judge and that of the eventual suffering victim’s ability or lack of ability to forgive. The viewer is left much to ruminate on.

Reza realizing Mina's problems of finding
a new apartment provides her an apartment he owns
that is lying unused at discounted rent

Mina and Bita prepare for an uncertain future

Ms Maryam Moghadam (spelled Moqaddam in Wikipedia) and Mr Behtash Sanaeeha are a rare husband-wife team making their first film Ballad of a White Cow as co-directors which won them the awards for the Best New Director at the 2021 Valladolid International Film Festival in Spain. The Uruguayan/Mexican couple of Rodrigo Plá and his wife Laura Santullo are another team who made their first film as co-directors. In both these husband-wife teams, the wife is the main original writer of award-winning screenplays. Unlike Ms Santullo who has never ventured to act, Ms Moghadam is an accomplished actress, having worked as actress in Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain (2013) and her husband’s debut film Risk of Acid Rain (2015) and several other feature and TV films. Ms Moghadam’s script refers to a film Bita (1972), made in Iran prior to the Ayatollah revolution, a favorite film of her daughter, Bita, named after the title character of that film. Bita, though mute, can hear and enjoy feature films and is a film addict. The film Ballad of a White Cow is dedicated to “Mina,” which some feel is the name of the screenplay-writer’s mother. If that is indeed true, young Bita’s love for films is an autobiographical trivia of the lady co-director.


P.S.  Ballad of a White Cow has won, apart from the Valladolid award mentioned above, the Best Film award at the Jerusalem Film Festival (Israel), an incredible honor in light of the fact that there is not much love lost between Israel and Iran. The film is currently competing for the Krzysztof Kieslowski award for the best film at the Denver film festival. Rodrigo Plá's and his wife Laura Santullo's first co-directed film The Other Tom was reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the film's name in this postscript to access that review) 

Friday, November 05, 2021

267. Uruguayan film director Rodrigo Plá’s sixth feature film “El Otro Tom” (The Other Tom) (2021) (Mexico) in English/Mexican, co-directed with his Mexican wife Laura Santullo based on her script: The single mother as a contemporary Brechtian Mother Courage variant

 















 

Although you don't attempt to show it, one has a point of view on things and it ends up emerging, whether you like it or not. Our films (with director/husband Rodrigo Plá) often turn on the limits of the public and the private, the individual confronting the state, and what happens when that individual is defenceless... The state of helplessness is one of the motors of what we write. Regarding why we often portray female characters, I think the question is really: Why don't other people portray them more?”

---Original screenplay-writer and co-director Laura Santullo, on her script for her husband’s earlier work  A Monster with a Thousand Heads (2015), a quotation equally applicable to  The Other Tom (2021), where finally she is not merely the scriptwriter for her husband’s six films but credited as the official co-director.

Rodrigo Plá (an Uruguayan) and Laura Santullo (a Mexican) are a rare husband-wife team making remarkable low-budget films, often with non-professional actors who give top notch performances, on subjects that matter for the ordinary, hardworking persons globally.  The Other Tom is their first work where Ms Santullo is credited as a co-director, even though she has been writing the scripts of all the previous films directed by her husband.  This film is officially a Mexican film, in which the characters speak in English, with the story taking place in some southern part of USA.

Elena (Julia Chavez) and her 9-year old
son Tom (Israel Rodriguez)


The tale is essentially of a single mother, Elena (a creditable debut performance from Julia Chavez) with Mexican roots, working hard to make ends meet with her 9-year old son, Tom. Tom (or Tommy as his mother calls him) has long hair, is intelligent and hyperactive. He troubles his teachers and sometimes his mother. Once again the directorial duo extract a lovely realistic performance from young Israel Rodriguez playing the role of Tom, evidently his first film role as well. Tom’s biological father always promises to send money to Elena but keeps reneging on his promises.  The educational costs of Tom in a school and monthly expenses force Elena to part-time prostitution.

As the film progresses, Tom is diagnosed to have Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). ADHD can be treated with medication. Elena is pleased to know that her son will improve with prescribed medication and is initially pleased to see the medicated Tom or the “other Tom.”  However, the medication can lead to side effects. One of the side effects is a tendency to commit suicide, which young Tom attempts. The mother Elena realizes the connection recalling that a well-meaning parent had warned her about the side-effects of ADHD medicines.

A conversation outside a hospital for a cigarette break,
with a well-meaning parent, on the side-effects
of ADHD medication. The reduced visual size of people 
compared to buildings is a favorite visual stamp
of director Plá

The intelligent script of co-director Ms Santullo braces the hard-working Elena trying to protect the original Tom from becoming the other Tom. She has to brace against teachers who disclose the medication that Tom takes to other kids and report her to Child Protection Services (CPS) when she decides to take Tom off the prescribed drugs, which as a “Catch 22” scenario, is an offence that can deprive her of Tom’s custody. At a CPS assessment hearing Elena is forced to take Tom to a distant children’s camp. While the CPS hearing progresses, Ms Santullo’s script has this evocative line spoken by Tom at a coffee-vending machine in a figurative response to an elderly lady who shows her concern as he opts for a strong coffee (for a lady friend of Elena accompanying him, who the good elderly lady did not notice): “I am getting sentenced today. I killed a Fourth Grade Teacher and didn’t mean it.” The viewer knows that Tom did not kill anyone, but merely disliked her.

Tom's art teacher at school notices Tom's talent
to paint and offers to help Tom improve
further in that area; the sole positive comment
 Elena receives from a school staff about Tom

The in-camera hearing about Tom with the over-zealous
CPS staff that the bright Tom describes as his "sentencing"

The film’s open-ended culmination helps the viewer to realize that some laws benefit big businesses (here, pharmaceutical industry). Some teachers are a treasure in the education system; an art teacher reveals to Elena that Tom is very talented as an artist. Some others may teach well but not protect the privacy of a student’s medical condition.

One of the defining statements of the film on the strong mother-son bonding is Tom’s statement to Elena towards the end of the film: “If I said I hate you, it is only because I am angry.”


Tom ends up with a bloody nose,
when one teacher reveals that one student
 is on medication, a fact that ought not be disclosed

Elena, the caring mother, looking
even at legal options to care for son 
without medication


While Ms Santullo’s contribution is obvious and commendable, her husband Rodrigo Plá is able to continue what he is good at—to tell a tale visually and dramatically by choosing non-professional actors who match the best of professional actors. In his most admirable work, The Delay shot in Uruguay, Mr Plá ends a film about elders dying with a shot of an old man struggling with the onset of dementia in the midst of tall buildings in Montevideo with one daughter with three kids and limited means trying to care for him while another married daughter does not help her sister. The Delay presents the reverse scenario of The Other Tom where a valiant mother struggles to care for her parent because old-age homes are over-populated and cannot admit her father. As in The Other Tom, the ending is open-ended but the message of the predicament of caring single mothers is loud and clear. But these mothers trudge on. This director duo are making films that matter on pertinent subjects relating to those who are not rich but work hard.

 

P.S.  The Other Tom has won the Best Film award at the Warsaw International Film Festival (Poland). The director’s earlier film The Delay (2012) has been reviewed earlier on this blog.  (Click on the colored names of the film in the post-script to access the review.) The Delay (2012) was included in the author's list of best films of 2012The Other Tom is participating in the ongoing Denver Film Festival.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

266. The late Chilean maestro Raoul Ruiz’ film in French “Les trois couronnes du matelot” (Three Crowns of the Sailor) (1983) (France/Portugal/Chile): An absorbing non-linear, surreal screenplay with stunning cinematography and loads of remarks that will make you ruminate

 


 



 













“You always need a living sailor on a ship full of the dead. That was me.” (Final spoken lines of the film)

“Never forget that memories, imagination and understanding must be used for an honest and productive life.”

--Two separate statements of the sailor, narrating the stories, reflecting Ruiz’ own life of self-imposed exile, moving from one country to the other, making extraordinary films


If there are two Raoul (Raul) Ruiz films that are extraordinary, these would be Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983) and Mysteries of Lisbon (2010). Both have absorbing, non-linear screenplays with stunning cinematography. Yet, the two films are different in one significant aspect: the former is based on Ruiz’ own original tale while the latter is based on a novel of Camilo Castelo Branco. Both films have lead characters mirroring Ruiz’ departure from and memories of his land of birth and incorporate biographical elements.

The sailor (Guillard, left) who narrates the tales,
asks the student (Deplanche, right) for 3 Danish Crowns
 and his attention to his tales for passage on his ship


The sailor narrates and Ruiz leads the viewer not merely
into the tales but also the narrator's views on death and life


Three Crowns of the Sailor takes a leaf from the Chilean folklore of a ghost ship. The sailors die and reappear, as the film unspools. Ruiz himself was the son of a ship captain. The only likely real individual in the film is a Polish student (Philippe Deplanche) of theology who kills his tutor. We learn from the opening statement of the student that his victim had also taught him the art of “polishing diamonds” and leaves his future killer-student a long letter to leave the country, as though the tutor knew the events in advance. We also get to know that the murder took place in July 1958 from the soliloquy of the killer. When Ruiz incorporates a date, there is a purpose. This writer did some checking. In July 1958, the Polish state police broke into the Institute of the Lady of Czestochowa located in a monastery in Poland and took way all the books, mimeographed texts, correspondence and texts (ref: www.jstor/stable/25777621). Did the killing of the theological tutor and the student picking up the letter, a ring offered by the tutor to the student several times, and some currency notes mirror those historical events? It is quite possible.

The fleeing murderer/student meets a sailor (Jean-Bernard Guillard) who asks him for 3 Danish crowns (currency) and a promise to listen to his tale in exchange for a place on his ship called the “Funchalense” that will take him away from Poland. The ship, the student boards, is rusty but travels to Valparaiso, the main sea-port in Chile (not surprising!). There, as per the narration of the sailor, he looks for his family in his house which is boarded up by planks (suggestion to the actions of military junta regime that ousted President Allende, which in turn led to Ruiz’ self-exile, not stated explicitly in the film). His neighbors do not seem recognize him.

The main tale is a juxtaposition of several tales narrated by the sailor of unusual, bizarre persons he has met at every port of the ship’s journey—Singapore, Buenaventura (Colombia), Tangier (Morocco), Dakar (Senegal), and Tampico (Mexico). For example, there is a shy gum-chewing prostitute, who has a coffin kept in her room full of dolls and marks each customer’s encounter by depositing the chewed gum on the coffin. Then, in Singapore, there is a small boy who the sailor adopts as his son, because the boy is exceptionally intelligent and has already read all the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson.  He is boy who looks like a kid and does not grow old if he does not eat. He does not require light to read books because “he is the light” in the words of the Vice Consul of Singapore. Elsewhere, the sailor meets up with a beautiful singer who has only one orifice—her mouth (a suggestive symbol of scenarios in nations that are autocratic and singers sing only praises). In Dakar, he meets an African doctor who knows the Bible by heart, lives in poverty, philosophically claiming to discuss each minute of his life that would extend to days, and asks the sailor for three Danish Crowns if he is inclined to listen to him. This is the same proposition made by the sailor to the Polish student and the fee required to be paid for recounting the story.

The sailor in an angelic prostitute's room full of
dolls and a white coffin (white is often related
to the sinless dead, especially children).
Note the camera placement.


In Singapore, the sailor is introduced to a well-read
doctor who looks like a child
and can read books without light


Berenice Reynaude’s essay in “Fuse” (February/March 1985) and in “Rouge” (www.rouge.com.au/2/crowns/html) points out the several literary cinematic connections within the narrative—from Coleridge to Borges to Cortezar to Hans Christian Andersen to Selma Lagerloff. Raoul Ruiz could do that with considerable felicity rarely associated with any other director/writer worldwide. Ruiz’ ability to do this in Three Crowns of the Sailor (and in all his other films) would not be easily perceived by viewers unless they themselves are equally well-read and acquainted with works of great writers of different continents and languages to appreciate the full mastery of Ruiz’ craft. For instance, a character is reading the novel The Sea Rose by Paul Vialer, an obscure novel that was made into a French film called La maison sous la mer in 1947. Each Ruiz film is a crossword puzzle (in this film, the Vice Consul of Singapore informs the sailor that his Consulate was attacked by crossword fanatics!)  asking to be solved with clues that include love, money, religion, politics, sailors, perceived insanity, history, art (both paintings and cinematic visual perspectives), music, philosophy and literature thrown in. Three Crowns of the Sailor is no exception in this regard.

While knowledge of literature helped Ruiz carve out a niche among directors, he is also one who opted for surrealism in most of his films. In Three Crowns of the Sailor, Ruiz scripted a ghost tale where all the sailors of the ship, except for the narrator, did not defecate and had worms surfacing from their abscesses on their bodies. He has sailors committing suicide only to resurface alive next day attributing the suicide to someone else. A key spoken line in the film is “Art is barbarous.” Ruiz used surrealism to encourage the viewer to re-evaluate reality.

Surrealism vs reality

Ruiz and cinematographer Sacha Vierny:
The words spoken are neither by the person holding
the food nor the persons immediately behind the beer glass.
They are spoken by the sailor (Guillard)
at the extreme end of the room, also in focus. 


In Three Crowns of the Sailor, Ruiz is helped by the cinematographer Sacha Vierny (a regular for directors Peter Greenaway and Alain Resnais and for Bunuel’s Belle de Jour) to produce the unusual visual perspectives that bear the stamp of Ruiz in most of his films—an aspect that reached perfection in Ruiz’ Mysteries of Lisbon (decades later). The unusual camera angles and the switches from color to black-and-white and back might unnerve the regular filmgoer—but Ruiz does it with a purpose, to nudge the viewer to appreciate the unwritten script suggesting a reality that can be perceived if you distance yourself from the obvious and take in the wider world of the “political exile,” the “stranger,” the “thinker,” the “symbolic sailor striding from one geography to another,” etc.

If there is another filmmaker to match Ruiz in knowledge and surreal filmmaking it is Orson Welles (in particular, Welles’ films The Immortal Story--based on Isaak Denisen’s novel complete with a sailor as a key character as in Three Crowns of the Sailor—and F for Fake on paintings and visual tricks). Ruiz and Welles were an evolved set of directors who have few equivalent peers and have yet to be appreciated sufficiently by a broad swath of the film-going public.

Finally, another quote from the film Three Crowns of the Sailor encapsulates the film for reflection “Our presence here is gratuitous, like most things in life.” The final sequence of the film is appropriately presented in black and white as in the early segment where the sailor asks the student “Do you believe in the hereafter?” and gets the reply “I am an atheist.”

The sailor tells the student: "If all the jerks
 spread their wings, we will never see the sun"
in the final sequence



P.S.  Three Crowns of the Sailor was bestowed the rare “Perspectives du cinema“ award even though it was not a participant in any of the official sections of the 1983 Cannes film festival. The author has reviewed the following films of Ruiz on this blog earlier: Mysteries of Lisbon (2010); Klimt (2006) and That Day (2006). Orson Welles' F for Fake was also reviewed earlier on this blog. Three Crowns of the Sailor has been included among the author’s Best 100 Films which already included Mysteries of Lisbon. (Click on the names of the films in this postscript to access the author's review)


Saturday, August 28, 2021

265. Italian film director Uberto Pasolini’s third feature film “Nowhere Special” (2020) in English, based on his original script: The rare intent and ability to care for the future needs of others when you can do so







 







 



“I wanted to make a film with this title for a long time. The title is from a dialogue at the end of Mel Brooks' film  Blazing Saddles; one character asks the other, "Where are you going to go?" and the other replies,"Nowhere special", and the first person replies, "I always wanted to go there." The idea behind this choice is that there is no perfection, that you just have to live, find a place where it is good to live, simply.”

---Director Uberto Pasolini, speaking  on how he chose the title of this film for his own fictional script, written after he read a newspaper story on a similar adoption, with the adoption agency refusing to divulge details of that case to him, due to confidentiality clauses (a rough translation of his interview given to Malik Berkati at the Zurich film festival, quoted in J:Ma. Lifestyle and Citizenship) 


Film director Uberto Pasolini makes small budget films with great care and thought that demand respect of mature filmgoers worldwide. His last two films Still Life (2013) and his latest work Nowhere Special (2020) focus on realistic characters who belong to the middle class but are sensitive to the world around them, lending a helping hand to people who require help in a low-key and admirable manner. Both his works stand out among so many others because he writes original stories/screenplays alone—a very creditable distinction separating him from the bulk of other filmmakers, relying on someone else’s tale to direct.

Nowhere Special is a tale of a single father, John, who has brought up his 3 year-old-son, Michael, with earnings from his work as an independent window cleaner in Northern Ireland. John dotes on his single offspring and takes care of him as a mother would. As the film progresses, we learn that John is in advanced stages of a life-threatening illness and Michael can’t be in his care for long. He approaches an adoption agency and they arrange for John and Michael to meet prospective foster parents for Michael in order for John to decide on Michael’s future family.

The single father John (James Norton)
goes shopping with his son
Michael (Daniel Lamont) 

Pasolini’s amazing ability is in presenting the relationship of father and son in the absence of a mother. John provides all he can, within his financial limitations, which include providing toys and trips to fairs for his intelligent, responsive son. The conversations are minimal and the performances of the first-time child actor Daniel Lamont under the tutelage of Pasolini reminds you of Charles Chaplin directing Jackie Coogan in The Kid (1921) and perhaps even of Vittorio de Sica directing a relatively older Enzo Staiola in Bicycle Thieves (1948). Pasolini’s direction of James Norton as the father John, repressing anger, and alternating frustration with patience in Nowhere Special results in an amazingly controlled outcome. Pasolini had achieved a similar feat with Eddie Marsan in his earlier remarkable film, Still Life.

Are there similar patterns between Nowhere Special and Still Life? Both films study men’s actions in this life and the events after death. Death is the fulcrum of both films, philosophically. In Nowhere Special, John introduces the concept of death to his 3-year-old son by getting him to read about death of dinosaurs. The audience sees some manifestation of his son’s understanding that his father is tired/sick when the boy covers his sleeping father with the blanket that has partially fallen, possibly mimicking what his father would have done for him. Both films of Pasolini are a treat to study for colorful details that the director infuses into the narrative, one example being of John looking at the side mirror of his car to observe an older schoolboy with his bag walking back home, to imagine what Michael would be like when he grows up.  

The single father's treasure notices the tattoo,
which he tries to copy on his own hand

In bits and pieces of conversation in the film, we learn that John was an orphan and therefore is all the more interested that Michael has a good family to take care of him. In Still Life, the colorless bureaucrat, Mr. May, goes the extra mile to contact dead persons' relatives and friends and informs them of the death of their forgotten kith and kin. In Nowhere Special, it is a dying father worried about the future of his son if he hands him over to the wrong foster parents. “This is the most important decision of my life. How will I know if I got it right?” John bursts out his frustration at the quiet adoption agency staffer, who reminds him that the clock is ticking for him to make a decision about Michael. There is no obvious manifestation of his deteriorating health except for a bout of vomiting  (thankfully less repulsive realism than John Cassavetes’ 1970 film Husbands) and a sudden decision to stop working after having climbed a tall ladder to clean a window. I admire Pasolini’s ability to add small details in both his films that say a lot without spoken words. One example is saving John’s wife’s/spouse’s mitten left in the dashboard of his car (which he is now selling to evidently augment his purse as he has decided to stop working) to be included in a box of memorabilia for Michael, when he grows up, along with John’s photographs with Michael.  

Breaking the concept of time to his toddler
with 34 candles on John's birthday cake
It is important to compare and contrast Nowhere Special with Naomi Kawase’s Japanese film True Mothers—both films about adoption made the same year in different parts of the world. True Mothers is a film made by a lady director about real mothers and foster mothers of orphans in the contemporary world. In both films, the single parent is giving up their biological child for foster care out of extreme necessity. Both are remarkably well-made films. While religion is absent in the Japanese film, for Pasolini this is important in Nowhere Special as it was in Still Life. John teaches Michael to pray before he goes to sleep and John has a silent thought of his impending future as he stops his car at a red signal, and he  views a closed church with a cemetery, ending the short car halt with a smile, possibly indicating that he is now well prepared for the inevitable. Compared to Still Life, Nowhere Special has a muted dose of religion. 

John looking at the closed church and cemetery


John drives on with a telling smile



The final incredibly mature goodbye of a 3-year old

Unfortunately, compared to Still Life, Nowhere Special lacks the musical contribution of Pasolini’s wife, composer Rachel Portman, which had enriched the earlier work. Even without Ms Portman’s musical flourishes, Nowhere Special is a very rewarding viewing experience for viewers who are not mesmerized by escapist and unreal tales. Mr Pasolini, the late film maestro Luchino Visconti will be proud of you as his nephew putting so much care and thought into the films you make to entertain discerning viewers!


 

 

P.S.  Nowhere Special has won the Best Film award at the Pula (Croatia) film festival, and the Audience awards at the Warsaw (Poland) and the Valladolid (Spain) international film festivals. The director’s earlier film Still Life (2013), winner of the Best Film award in the Venice film festival’s Horizons section, and 18 other awards worldwide, has been reviewed earlier on this blog.  The other  Japanese film by director Naomi Kawase’s True Mothers discussed in the above review also has been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the colored names of the films in the post-script to access the reviews.) Both Nowhere Special (2020) and True Mothers (2020) are included in the author’s list of best films of 2020.  




Wednesday, June 23, 2021

264. Japanese film director Naomi Kawase’s fourteenth feature film “Asa ga kuru” (True Mothers) (2020), based on a novel by Mizuki Tsujimura: A contemplative cinematic essay on mothers of various hues and ages

 










Director and co-scriptwriter Naomi Kawase, co-scriptwriter Izumi Takahashi and novelist Mizuki Tsujimura present a diversity of candidates in the film True Mothers who could fit the title of the film.

Confrontation between the biological mother
 (left) and the foster parents (right)


First, there is a biological mother, Hikari, a young teen in school, who accidentally becomes 24-weeks pregnant following a tryst with a teenager.

Second, Hikari’s own mother is another type of elderly mother, who is embarrassed by her teenage school-going daughter’s motherhood and wants to hide those facts from friends, neighbors and Hikari’s school. She obviously wants to protect her daughter’s and her family’s image in society for the future.

Asami (Miyoki Asada) (center) runs the Baby Baton,
 
showering happiness to so many
  

Third, there is Shizue Asami, who runs an adoption organization called “Baby Baton,” located in a secluded resort helping young mothers-to-be prepare for the birth of their children and arranging for their adoption by couples yearning to be parents. The elderly and kind Asami (Miyoki Asada who played the role of the shopkeeper’s wife in Kawase’s An/Sweet Bean) is another kind of “mother”-figure for the young mothers-in-distress awaiting the birth of their unwanted offspring and process the eventual adoption of the newborns. It is interesting to note that Hikari, much after the birth of her son, seeks help from (and refuge with) the elderly Asami rather than her own biological mother. 

Fourth, much later, in the film young Hikari herself, exhibits motherly love for another girl, close to her own age, she had met at Baby Baton extending limited financial, moral and emotional support in her time of need. 

The foster-mother Satoko and her husband
take the child Asato to school

Fifth and a strong candidate for  the “true mother” title in the foster-mother (Satoko) who adopts the child Asato (through Baby Baton) with her husband showering love and care, because they are unable to have a biological child of their own due to sterility issues, long after their marriage.

Finally, there is another kind of mother, whose son suffers a fall in the school and holds Satoko’s son Asato  responsible for the mishap and aggressively demands financial compensation from Satoko, who is relatively affluent and can afford to pay the medical expenses.

If King Solomon of the Bible were to sit in judgement over who among the above six exhibits values of a “true” mother in this Japanese film, it doubtful if he would have found a clear and satisfactory clue to make a non-controversial judgement. In the Biblical tale, after hearing the pleas of two ladies each claiming to be the mother of the child, Solomon said he would cut the child in half and give an equal part to each claimant. The true mother in the tale gives up her claim so that the child would live and Solomon realized she indeed was the true mother among the two claimants. That is the rhetorical question Ms Kawase is posing at the viewer of the film to figure out like King Solomon: who among the six “mothers” has the best attributes to be called a true mother.

There is a reason for Naomi Kawase to be interested in making the film on mothers and their offspring. Ms Kawase was brought up by her grandmother, not her mother. Her father, too, was absent as she grew up under the care of her grandmother.

The decision to adopt a child can be painful
before enjoying the rewards

The film is indeed sentimental. Childless couples do dream of a child of their own. In Japan, however, same-sex couples are not allowed to adopt. In Japan, as in most countries, a pregnant school girl would inevitably face social trauma and boycott, not support. The film’s fictional Baby Baton enterprise serves an important social function but, in the film, it ultimately closes shop, for reasons never stated.

Water and trees in a concrete jungle, provide 
natural succor for the troubled mind

A
Kawase film offers sophistication beyond the presentation of interesting human characters; True Mothers is no exception. Trees are silent characters as in The Mourning Forest and Still the Water. The sea and waterfronts provide solace to the troubled characters. The birds do bring messages of the stork. Kawase, like Terence Malick, brings to the fore connections between humans and nature in each of their works and it is for the perceptive viewer to pick up those threads. Kawase’s films try to connect normal human beings with those living on the margins of society and try to construct bridges of connection between generations. In The Mourning Forest there is reversal of the roles of the nurse and the nursed, both grieving for personal losses, one of a dead wife, another of a dead child with a forest supporting the two characters, “sometimes gently, sometimes strictly” in Kawase’s own words. In Sweet Bean, a trio of social misfits without a family meld into a virtual family. In Hanezu, Kawase presents the unfulfilled love triangle of grandparents of lovers, mirrored in the present day love triangle, with spiders and arachnids as nature’s metaphors to the tale. In Still the Water, the mother of the lead character dies and her boyfriend’s father is physically absent. Yet the connections between generations are made visually with banyan trees and the waters of the sea. A Kawase film always offers more than the obvious and True Mothers is no exception, with contemplative sequences, without spoken words, accentuated by birds, trees and waterfronts.

All types of "mothers" in True Mothers are very credibly presented and all the actors are a treat to watch. True Mothers is a rare Kawase film that is not based on an original script written by the director. Kawase and her co-scriptwriter  Izumi Takahashi adapted the Japanese “mystery” novel by Mizuki Tsujimura. However, there is an additional  personal touch here, Kawase herself was brought up by her grandparents in the Nara region of Japan, which is where the biological mother in True Mothers is originally from. In Kawase’s films, the little details add more value than the obvious tale.

P.S.  True Mothers won the 2021 Best Director award for Ms Kawase at the Mainichi Film Concours, Tokyo, Japan. Ms Kawase’s earlier feature films Shara (2003), The Mourning Forest (2007), Hanezu (2011), Still the Water (2014), Sweet Bean (2015), and Vision (2018) have been reviewed earlier on this blog. True Mothers is one of the author's best films of 2020 Ms Kawase is one of the author's favorite 15 active film directors from all over the world.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

263. Mexican film director Carlos Reygadas’ debut film “Japón” (Japan) (2002), based on his original screenplay: Fascinating debut of the talented duo of film director Reygadas and his Argentine cinematographer Diego Martinez Vignatti

 








 









My goal is to observe life and not to mystify it. What I film is simply matter that exists in the world. A person or object may have a particular meaning within the context of the film but I don’t see them as having an inherent conceptual identity. If I say the word ‘tree’, you don’t necessarily need to see the tree because you have learned since you were a child how to conceptualize the tree. In most narrative films, things—whether it’s a bird, a human body, a cloud, a car or a sound—exist as devices that only serve to tell a story. This is true for the actors as well. These types of films do not allow the viewer to see the actors as people existing in the world. Instead, the viewer sees a mask moving around in a costume and wearing lots of make-up. My goal is to bring out the individuality of each person or object and to capture something of their essence. I’m not interested in filming the mask. This is why you see the particular bodies in the films. If they are not ‘conventional’ —if they are considered old, ugly or fat—I couldn’t care less; they are all people and they are all equally beautiful. Filming people as they are is my way of showing them respect.
—Carlos Reygadas, interviewed by Paul Dallas, in Extra Extra Magazine (https://extraextramagazine.com/talk/carlos-reygadas-on-existence-the-flow-of-perception-and-the-feeling-of-being-embraced/)



As the above quote reveals, Carlos Reygadas’ film Japón is different from the films of his contemporary Mexican directors such as Guillermo del Toro (who made The Shape of Water and Pan’s Labyrinth), Alfonso Cuaron (who made Roma and Gravity), and Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu (who made Birdman and The Revenant), who have won Oscars and wide public acceptance globally. They are as different as chalk and cheese. Not just Japón but all the feature films of Reygadas, have ultra-real characters, some with physical characteristics or appearances that one would not normally associate with the typical actors and actresses in commercial films. Reygadas’ choice of actors resembles the casting choices of the famous Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini (who made The Gospel According to Saint Mathew with non-actors, in contrast to the Hollywood Biblicals). Again unlike his Mexican counterparts, Reygadas’ films are minimalistic in terms of dialogues, accentuating instead on sounds and visuals to communicate with the viewer, fusing the internal thoughts of characters with external visuals of nature, animals and the innocence of children.  The entire film used first time actors and it is unlikely that a viewer will easily forget their faces. It was shot on 16 mm anamorphic film stock using 2.88:1 screen aspect ratio and blown up. The outcome is amazing for such a modest technical investment.


The lame painter takes in the rural Mexico's
beauty: cacti, trees, hills and river


Japón is different from all the films mentioned above for other reasons as well. One, the name of the principal character of Japón is never revealed. The viewers of the film only get to know visually that he is lame and needs a walking stick at all times. They get to learn gradually that he is a painter, that his backpack contains painting material, that he intends to commit suicide with a gun that he carries with him and that he loves music of Shostakovich (particularly the composer’s 15th symphony) because you can hear it and that he is not religious, at least in the conventional sense, because he states as much. He has evidently travelled from an urban part of Mexico (first sequence of the film) to a carefully chosen distant rural spot of the country, where he is a stranger and has no relations. How and why he chose that village is never revealed in the film. The viewer soon realizes that the painter is a man of few words, observing more than speaking, even when spoken to. Reygadas’ use of Shostakovich’s 15th symphony, which the painter in his film shares with his benefactor widow, using earplugs, suggesting to her that he could explain the music to her but eventually does not, made this critic to delve into what was left unexplained. 

The history of this piece of music is a story by itself. The composer Shostakovich (film director Grigory Kozintsev’s close friend and his collaborator on his King Lear and Hamlet) wrote the music—his last symphony--keeping in mind the Russian intellectual and film director Yevgeny Yuvtuschenko’s poem on the suicide of another Russian intellectual Marina Tsvetaeva. Suicide and tragedy serve as the background of this Shostakovich composition, the painter listens to in JapónThe painter himself is contemplating suicide while listening to this music. 

Shostakovich's music is not the only music that adorns this beautiful film that finds beauty in what most people would consider ugly (wrinkled faces), mundane (the poor and the dirty, smelly, unhygienic persons travelling in a vehicle together in Japón), or even profane (the extreme lack of comprehension and respect for anything another person considers worth worshipping), Reygadas uses two other composers and specific works of theirs to drive home his point of view. One is Johann Sebastian Bach's Passion of St. Mathew and the other is the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt's two works Miserere and Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. (The second composition of Pärt is used for the final sequences with the camera of cinematographer Vignatti circling the rail tracks capturing urban Mexico in the far distance and the flowing river to one side, with dead bodies and stones from the barn strewn around blending in a bizarre and sad way into the landscape.) Reygadas thanks Pärt in the end credits. Pärt's music is often incorporated in the films of Andrei Zvyagintsev, Terrence Malick, Michael Mann, Paolo Sorrentino, Pablo Larrain, and Leos Carax, among others.


The painter, skeptical of religion..


...and Ascen the intensely religious widow,
who believes in caring for others and loving all


Finally, why title the film as “Japan,” most viewers would ask when there is no apparent connection to that country. Would it be hara-kiri? Or is it that the landscape of this far away non-descript Mexican village offers a transcendental beauty with all its stones, trees and cacti connects with Japan in some obscure manner for one to commit suicide? When the painter does attempt suicide, it is on a cliff where a horse lies dead. Is the painter a famous one? Is the book of paintings that he carries in his backpack related to him? There is no clue offered in the film except that he is excited that his benefactor widow found one painting in the book to be very nice and he wanted her to reveal that particular painting to him.


Assimilating the stones and the trees,
the inanimate and the animate

The painter and a child--children are important
in Reygadas' films 

The suicide attempt triggers off a latent sexual urge and a possible desire to continue living. His benefactor, Ascen, is  a much older widow than the painter and she offers him food and shelter in her stone barn where her dead husband used to sleep. Ascen is a devout Catholic and explains to the painter that her name is related to the ascension of St Mary as distinct from ascension of Jesus Christ and even offers to pray for the painter, when he indicates that he is not religious. But a bond grows and a particular scene shows her physical trust in the painter as she extends her hand to him and offers to wash his clothes. That gesture of relationship gradually grows into a physical one with the painter.


Post suicide attempt, the painter lies next to 
a dead horse

The dead Ascen wearing the painter's jacket,
a "suicide" with a cosmic, religious tinge


A subplot of a devious nephew of Ascen to deprive her ownership of the stone barn so that he could sell the stones, leads to the painter pointing out that that the barn legally belongs to her. Ascen does not resist the nephew’s wiles. Her visit to the village church service/mass and her body language would appear as distant parallels to Jesus’ final days on earth. 

Japón starts as a man wanting to end his life.  Japón ends with amazing actions of love and a heavenly design of ascension of the pure in heart. Ascen, in the film, is developed as an individual with characteristics close to the Martha of the Gospels, for viewers familiar with the scriptures, providing food with love to workers who are demolishing her barn and food for a stranger staying under her roof, without being asked. Reygadas might not be religious, overtly. Yet his films show a depth of religious comprehension (biblical names of his films' characters and the term "post tenebras lux" used as a film's title are examples) that few other film directors exude. 

Reygadas can and will unsettle the purist, with his unorthodox content. Reygadas does it for a reason. When crockery falls off a table suddenly, a viewer will recall Tarkovsky's Stalker where a glass of water falls off a table--but here Reygadas relates it to the demolition of the barn, drawing the viewer's attention to the evil designs of those who only think of themselves while amassing lucre. Reygadas infuses philosophy, politics, racial harmony and uplifting innocence of children in his films, recalling the works of Tarkovsky, Paradjanov, Kozintsev, Kiesolwski, Olmi, Ruiz, Malick, and Kawase. 

 

P.S.  Japón only won a Cannes film festival special mention but won significant awards elsewhere: Grand Prize at the Bratislava international film festival, the Best Director awards at the Thessaloniki and the Edinburgh international film festivals, and the Best First Work award at the Havana international film festival and the Audience award at the Stockholm film festival. Reygadas’ later feature films Silent Light and Post Tenebras Lux have been reviewed earlier on my blog. The film Japón replaces Reygadas' Post Tenebras Lux on the author’s top 100 films list. Reygadas, for this author, is one of the 15 best living-and-active film directors today.