Monday, October 12, 2020

256. Italian director Mauro Mancini’s debut feature film “Non Odiare” (Thou Shalt Not Hate) (2020), based on an original script by Davide Lisino and Mauro Mancini: Fascinating tale on human contradictions, visually narrated, economizing on spoken words




“I wanted what the characters don’t say to each other to be more important than what they do say to each other”

---Director Mauro Mancini’s statement to interviewer Davide Abbatescianni, in Cineuropa, after the film competed in the International Critics’ Week at the 2020 Venice film festival

Debut feature films are, in most cases, interesting films because the directors invest a lot of fresh thought as in the prime examples of Welles, Melville, Chabrol, Ridley Scott, Mike Nichols, Spielberg and the Coen brothers. So too, Mauro Mancini’s first feature film Thou Shalt Not Hate makes an unusual impact where spoken words take a back seat and silent actions speak louder.

Alessandro Gassmann in the Venice award-winning
role of the reputed Jewish surgeon

The hate in the film refers to the continuing hatred over generations between the Nazis/the neo-Nazis and the survivors of the holocaust (and their progenies), surfacing in contemporary Italy. The strength of the film does not lie in the tale that unfolds but more in the way it is presented. The film stands out as a result of the combined creative abilities of the director/scriptwriter, his co-scriptwriter, and the lead actors that present a simple tale, intelligently told.

The film opens with a scene where a father asks his young son to drown several kittens of a brood but retain one. The film ends with an adult re-visiting the same spot alone. The two key sequences do not seem to have a direct connection with “hatred” depicted in the main tale of the film but it does connect up with ideas/prejudices passed on by one generation to another. While many viewers are likely to spot the obvious tensions and hatred between the neo-Nazis and the Jews in the film, viewers are less likely to note the contrasting relationships between father and son within the two groups, presented in Thou Shalt Not Hate. In one group (the neo-Nazis), the son idolizes the father and his views, in the other (the Jewish Italian) there is almost very little evidence of any close connection between father and son in spite of working in closely connected professions. Interestingly, the mother figures in both groups are almost absent in the film’s script. The tale is either intentionally or unintentionally patriarchal. The viewer is given the choice by the filmmakers to figure out where the hatred lies: whether is it between the Nazis/neo-Nazis and the Jews or between the evolving generational perspectives within each group, or perhaps both.

In terms of religion, the title of the film Thou Shalt Not Hate is not a Jewish/Christian commandment but mirrors the Commandment “Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself.” The film extends this view not just to human beings but to man-animal relationships as well. In contrast to the drowning of the innocent kittens that open the film, a fierce dog guarding the house of the dead dentist viciously snarls at his dentist’s son who had not met his father for a long while. Later sequences with few spoken words, explain the gradual bonding of the dog for his new owner. Another detail that may not be obvious is the burial of the neo-Nazi in a Christian cemetery without a priest, a prayer, or a Bible reading.

When a neo-Nazi dies, his daughter is the only
female mourner

The remarkable abilities of the director Mancini and his co-scriptwriter Lisino are apparent in scenes where no words are spoken and music is not used as a crutch to lift the emotions of the viewer. One such scene is the decision of the doctor to visit the police station to lodge a complaint (not a knee-jerk reaction) on being attacked as he first chose to go home and attend to his wounds and mulled over what to do next. He then turns back after pressing the door bell of the police station and almost opening the door that was remotely unlocked for him to enter. Another is a scene in a supermarket, where he chances to spot his housemaid at work from a distance. He departs discretely without interacting with her. The visuals and the editing speak more eloquently than spoken words. In another scene, the subtle ingrained reaction of the maid while travelling in a crowded bus towards an innocent black immigrant sitting close to her is delicately captured by the filmmakers. So is the subtle visual comparison of the old furniture stacked up in the Jewish father’s house along with clues to identify Nazis responsible for the holocaust meticulously being researched by the dead dentist, while his Jewish son lives in a clean and modern apartment without any clutter. The film studies attitudinal changes in families over a generation with love and forgiveness replacing intense hate. Even consensual sex between two evolved adult individuals from the two groups does not take place because they do not feel it is appropriate, indicating the maturity of the screenplay writers.  

While Thou Shalt Not Hate has an early sequence exhibiting the innate hateful action for neo-Nazis from a reserved, otherwise cool-headed Jewish doctor leading to the death of an “accident” victim, the rest of the film relates to the doctor going out of the way to procure public information on the victim and his family and attempt to discretely provide succor to the family of the deceased to compensate his hate-ridden, knee-jerk action on reaching the accident site.

The doctor seeks redemption for his hate
 in an empty synagogue 

The film recalls the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s sophisticated ten part Dekalog (Decalogue) on the ten Jewish/Christian commandments and Kieslowski’s incredible continuous collaboration with co-scriptwriter Krzysztof Piesciewicz that followed. It appears director Mancini is following in Kieslowski’s footsteps by continuing his collaboration with his co-scriptwriter Davide Lisino on his next film project.  

Sara Serraiocco, plays the housemaid
to the Jewish doctor

Apparently Mancini and Lisino developed the story after reading a news item about a surgeon who refused to surgically operate a neo-Nazi years ago and developed the film script keeping actor Alessandro Gassman in mind. Gassman appears as an Italian version of Hugh Laurie playing Dr House (minus the limp, of course) and his laconic performance won him the Venice acting award. (Alessandro is the famous Italian actor Vittorio Gassman’s son.) Mancini very aptly paired Alessandro with the equally talented actress Sara Serraiocco, who has been playing major roles in recent award winners at the Cannes and the Berlin film festivals. The casting choices added value to the film. The future collaborative works of Mancini and Lisino will indeed be worth waiting for.


P.S.  Thou Shalt Not Hate won the best actor (Pasinetti) award for Alessandro Gassmann and the award for the best Italian film at the 2020 Venice film festival. The film is participating in the 2020 Denver Film Festival, USA. Four segments of Kieslowski's Decalogue (Decalogue 1, Decalogue 2, Decalogue 5, and Decalogue 7) mentioned above have been reviewed in detail earlier on this blog. (Click on the names of the films in this post script to access the reviews.) 

Monday, September 21, 2020

255. Japanese director Takashi Koizumi’s film “Hakase no aishita sushiki” (The Professor and His Beloved Equation) (2006), based on an award-winning Japanese novel by Yoko Ogawa: Melding the magical world of numbers and mathematics with invisible eternal truths existing in the universe, for adults and school-going students alike



To see a World in a Grain of Sand,

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the Palm of your Hand,

And Eternity in an Hour

                       ---opening lines from William Blake’s poem 

                           “Auguries of Innocence”

Some people don’t like numbers or mathematics but many do. Whether you belong to either category, the 2003 Yomiuri-prize-winning novel by the Japanese lady Yoko Ogawa called The Housekeeper and the Professor (the English translation has been published by Picador) and Takashi Koizumi’s film The Professor and His Beloved Equation based on that novel lead you gently into the mystical world of numbers that have captivated great minds like Pythagoras and Descartes over the centuries. What Ogawa and Koizumi achieve is to make an average person look at numbers with respect and realize that numbers were not created by human beings—they existed in the universe, we humans merely discovered them and are beginning to comprehend a small segment of the universe as we know it today. Both the book and the film motivate all and sundry to learn mathematics without being intimidated by numbers and equations. Ultimately, the film suggests a beautiful equation is like nirvana or the bliss of cosmic understanding described by the lines of the American poet William Blake at the end of the film.

                                 Schoolteacher 'Root' resembles the root sign

The mystical connection

The book and the film introduce a young male schoolteacher who is commonly known by the name “Root,” the mathematical symbol, ever since an elderly mathematics professor associated Root’s somewhat flat head and a stubborn tuft of hair to one side (when he was a lot younger) with that symbol. That professor’s memory was impaired following a brain damage caused by an accident, and subsequently could think clearly only for a slice of 80 minutes at a time before forgetting what had transpired before that. He, therefore, pins reminders on his jacket to jog his memory after each segment of clear recollection. For all practical purposes, the professor adopts Root as own child and gradually instils his love for numbers, mathematics, and baseball in the young boy. Root, in his turn on growing up, very gently infuses the same love for numbers and the mystical association between them to his school students.

                            The professor (Akira Terao) meets Root's mother

How does the film generate unusual interest in the viewer for numbers and mathematics? An introductory conversation between the Professor and his new housekeeper begins with a question about her shoe size, which she answers happens to be 24 centimeters. He happily informs the perplexed young lady that 24 is a “noble” number and a factorial of 4. He then explains how a factorial is calculated, which is in this case 1x2x3x4. He then asks her phone number and is overjoyed because that happens to be the precise total of “prime” numbers up to one billion. Then, as the film progresses, the viewer learns about "perfect" numbers and “amicable pairs” of numbers such as 220 and 284 and why they are called that. All this is not fiction but scientific facts to entertain and instill curiosity in minds to know more. And who discovered the first pair? It was Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician, who lived in the 6th century BC. Even this factoid is mentioned in the film. Then you learn about “transcendental” numbers and “imaginary” numbers later in the film. All facts, not fiction!

                                Young Root is 'adopted' by the professor

And what is the “favorite equation” forming the title of the film? It is a variant of Euler’s equation now called “Euler’s identity.” It is an amazing fact that even today famous contemporary mathematicians call that particular equation/theorem of the Swiss mathematician (1707-83) to be the most elegant or beautiful theorem ever conceived. That is the connection to Blake’s poem ending the uplifting Japanese  film.

While Ms Ogawa has published over 50 books of fiction and non-fiction, in 2006 the year Koizumi released the film, the author brought out a book entitled An Introduction to the World’s Most Elegant Mathematics, in collaboration with mathematician Mashiko Fujihara. But who are the persons responsible for the film The Professor and His Beloved Equation? Director Koizumi was the assistant director to the late Japanese maestro Akira Kurosawa on five of his final major films: Ran, Kagemusha, Dreams, Madadayo, and Rhapsody in August and was an uncredited assistant to the director on a sixth one Dersu Uzala. The Kurosawa connection to the Koizumi film continues. The cinematographer Shoji Ueda too was the cinematographer of five of those films, the actor Akira Terao (who plays the professor) was a lead actor in Ran and Madadayo, so too, actor Hisashi Ogawa (who plays the brief role of the housekeeper agent) is a stock Kurosawa actor. Even though Kurosawa had nothing to do with this film, his trusted collaborators were the principal contributors to The Professor and His Beloved Equation. Kurosawa would have been proud because the film apart from mathematics briefly introduces Japanese culture and the essentially Japanese Noh theatre to any uninitiated viewer as well.

                           " difficult as proving the beauty of a star"

While the film is essential viewing for those who love numbers (and their mystical attributes), mathematics, physics and metaphysics, it perpetuates a minor fallacy. While the film attributes the discovery of amicable numbers, after Pythagoras had discovered the first set, to the European mathematicians Fermat (1601-65) and Descartes (1596-1650). It now well known that the Iraqi mathematician Thabit ibn Qurra (826-901) had invented a method to discover them (ref: Wikipedia on Amicable Numbers). Several Arab mathematicians used that method between the 10th and 17th centuries to discover more amicable numbers but the popular Western belief attributes the findings to Fermat and Descartes.

                                The philosophy behind a straight line

The Professor and His Beloved Equation may not be widely known as an important film, which it is. When it does get further traction cineastes who don’t read books are likely to recall the film and not the book on which it is based. How many Andrei Tarkovsky fans attribute even a fraction of the brilliance of his films Solaris and Stalker to Stanislaw Lem and the Strugatsky brothers, respectively? Only a few demarcate a film and its source material.


P.S.  The Professor and His Beloved Equation won the best director award at Fajr film festival in Iran and an award for its music at the Mainichi Film Concours in Japan.

Saturday, September 05, 2020

254. US director Abel Ferrara’s semi-autobiographical feature film “Tommaso” (2019), based on his own original script: Trying not to be himself, the director reveals more of himself

he year 2019 saw four directors from four different countries make semi-autobiographical feature films: Spanish director Pedro Almodovar made Pain and Glory, Palestinian director Elia Suleiman made It Must Be Heaven, US director Abel Ferrara living and working in Italy made Tommaso and rookie British director Joanna Hogg made The Souvenir. Each of them found different groups of cineastes being enamored by their creative products using distinctly different approaches to filming the problems they as filmmakers face in real life. Some hide their thinly veiled identity by choosing a nom de plume such as Tommaso (played by Willem Dafoe) in Abel Ferrara’s film which will not fool any astute viewer. Tommaso is a fictional name of a filmmaker resembling Mr Ferrara, developing his own original screenplays for future directorial projects, and he too lives in Italy and is learning Italian and teaching acting to potential actors as he has chosen to live and work in that country. Tommaso is married and has a young kid called Deedee. So does Mr Ferrara. The wife of Tommaso is actress Christina Chiriac, who happens to be Mr Ferrara’s wife in real life. Deedee is played by Anna Ferrara, the director’s own biological daughter. Yet, Mr Ferrara opts to use a nom de plume

Tommaso (Willem Dafoe) teaches acting to students in Rome

The approaches of the other three directors in their respective 2019 films are somewhat different. Spanish director Pedro Almodovar made his semi-autobiographical film Pain and Glory with the lead character, a fictional film director named Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas, winning the Cannes Best Actor award for the performance) with some obvious parallels to Mr Almodovar’s own life. According to journalist Sabrina Rojas Weiss, writing in Refinery29, Almodovar admitted to Los Angeles TimesThere is a lot of myself there, but somethings belong completely to my life and some do not but could have been.” Joanna Hogg’s film The Souvenir is again autobiographical, recalling her days in a film school through the eyes of a fictional film student called Julie. Only in the case of the Palestinian director  Elia Suleiman, in his admirable work It Must Be Heaven, the director chooses to play himself facing the camera without uttering a word but as a spectator of humorous, semi-fictional events and identifying himself with his initials ES. 

While Suleiman identifies himself and his thoughts in his film almost completely through visuals, Abel Ferrara chooses to identify his honest thoughts using the spoken words of his nom de plume Tommaso. When Tommaso is picked up by the secret police in Italy for making some comments in public and is forcibly made to confront a senior police official, Tommaso states with certain gravitas: “The temple of all laws must fall. A new temple of truth should be built. Don’t take me literally. What is truth? Truth is you are in pain, you have a terrible headache. You are thinking of suicide. You should take a walk in the park. The trouble is you lack empathy. You care for your dog.” The viewer would initially assume the rant is about Tommaso. You realize it isn’t only when the police official removes Tommaso’s handcuffs and responds to Tommaso with respect, “Are you a doctor?” Ferrara is merely emphasizing the importance of a film director to note details and gestures of people around them as an observant doctor would. 

Tommaso with his wife (Christina Chiriac, a.k.a. Mrs Ferrera)

Ferrara does not limit the film to the present. He reveals a bit of his tortured past in a group therapy session for drug addicts where he recalls he asked his 4-year-old adopted girl child “Are you leaving because I make too much noise?” (a likely scenario from his own life). The very same Tommaso ironically rushes out to quieten a drunk Pakistani shouting in the street outside his apartment in Rome at night because Tommaso’s (read Ferrara’s) real girl child born much later in life is likely getting disturbed by the noise of the drunkard’s rants. Mr Ferrara seems to indirectly state that he has matured over the years, being more responsible for his family. In another sequence in Tommaso, the character hallucinates that his daughter is run over by a car while crossing the street while rushing to hug him.  

Tommaso watches his daughter enjoy a cone of gelato 

If one looks at Ferrara’s move to Italy from the US to make films one of his films made in 2009 is a docudrama called Napoli, Napoli, Napoli (Naples, Naples, Naples). In Tommaso, towards the end, there is a scene of Sophia Loren dancing in her 1960 US film It Started in Naples playing on a video screen to which Tomasso’s daughter Deedee is dancing in tune. These visual connections would be lost on a viewer who does not know much about Ferrara’s life and career. In a very revealing interview to Eric Dahan in Numero, Ferrara states “All my films, alas, say something about me, one way or another. I try not to be me but in the end of course I cannot help it.” 

Ferrara reveals his own tortured creative life with simple actions in Tommaso. While Tommaso is trying to work on a screenplay for a film project in the night when all his family is asleep, a light bulb of a crucial lamp in his study fails and new bulb that he replaces it with in the lamp also fails as he switches on the electric current. The next morning, an angry Tommaso, is on screen walking down the pavement with the troublesome lamp in hand, leaving it on the sidewalk but not in the trash bin, as his wife and daughter watch his angry actions with concern from a safe distance. 

For Ferrara watchers, Tommaso is merely one of many films that the director has used Willem Dafoe as a lead actor of preference. Dafoe played the lead in the biopic Pasolini (2014), another Ferrara film set in Italy, 4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011), Go Go Tales (2007), New Rose Hotel (1998, sharing lead with actor Christopher Walken) and again in Siberia (2020). The close ties between the director and the actor increases in Tommaso where Ferrara depicts Dafoe playing Tommaso allegorically “crucified” in public in modern Rome creating a visual connect between Dafoe’s role as Christ in The Last Temptation of Christ. Next to the “crucified” Tommaso is a “crucified” African immigrant as a follow up to a sequence where Tommaso offered a group of African immigrants, sitting around an open fire in a garden the previous night, an allegorical “bloody heart” during a “last supper” while speaking the words “Take this. This is all I have.” 

To appreciate Tommaso, the viewer has to be essentially familiar with Ferrara’s work. If one is familiar with Ferraro’s life and work, Tommaso offers a lot for the viewer. Evidently Dafoe knows this well and gives fine performances in each Ferrara film. Tommaso is no exception. 

P.S. Tommaso is one of the author’s top 20 films of 2019. The film won the grand jury prize at the Lisbon and Estoril Film Festival. Elia Suleiman's film It Must Be Heaven mentioned above has been reviewed on this blog earlier (Click on the name of the film in this post-script to access it.)

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

253. Brazilian director Kleber Mendonca Filho’s debut feature film “O Soma o Redor” (Neighboring Sounds) (2012) in Portuguese, based on his original script: A lovely, innovative example of effective, judicious and discreet use of sound in film-making that complements the mood of the screenplay

Film directors often make amazing debut feature films. These debut films can be awesome if they are based on the director’s original scripts rather than an adapted one. Kleber Mendonca Filho’s debut feature film Neighboring Sounds as a director stands out as he has observed and reflected on the history of Brazil and created a tale that mirrors the race conflicts and the closely related economic and social disparity that has existed in recent decades of that wonderful, naturally well-endowed nation’s history.

Beyond the interesting tale that director Filho wrote for his debut as a feature filmmaker, he evidently decided to build his tale aided by the importance of sounds in a film that most viewers neglect to notice. It is no coincidence that he chose to title the film as Neighboring Sounds. If a viewer approaches the film casually, the story of the film will be more overpowering than the diegetic sounds captured on the film’s soundtrack. Filho divides his film into three chapters (i) Guard Dogs, (ii) Night Guard, and (iii) Body Guards. The common phrase for all three is “guard.” At the end of the film, a perceptive viewer will mull over the emerging necessity of guards for certain sections of Brazilian society.

A view from an empty apartment in the condominium,
 where a past resident committed suicide

A swimming pool would make way for another upscale
apartment as the demand increases.

The film opens with the camera capturing historical sepia images of dark skinned workers of a plantation in Brazil with a huge imposing mansion in the background. The film then brings us back in full color to the modern-day crowded urban Brazil where fair-skinned Brazilians live in varied levels of upper middle-class comfort, with household help, dogs to guard some households and limited common areas with high walls for children to play and recreate with protection. Some of the inhabitants in the condominium and the locality are very rich, some are comparatively less affluent. In an early sequence of the feature film the viewer is introduced to calm locality in the city of Recife, where the calm exterior is shattered visually and aurally by a car suddenly speeding into view, hitting another car. That is the first taste that Filho gives the viewer that all is not well as it appears. A questioning viewer would wonder what that initial sequence was all about—but it would make sense as you absorb various such later incidents that dot the film.  Most of the inhabitants are rich enough to employ maids and an old security guard that some inhabitants are not satisfied with and want replaced. Perhaps that is why one family in the condominium has a dog and the dog’s barking is a nuisance for another inhabitant who tries to kill the dog for the sake of a quiet night. One gets the impression that there is no crime in the area, only to realize that vehicles parked overnight are targets for thieves who find a market for stolen car music systems. 

Some residents of the apartments are not as rich as others;
the lady above is a single mother of two kids, irritated by a
neighbor's dog barking at night and gets her kids to massage her 

In the very first chapter, Filho’s script introduces the fact there is a very rich family with many close relatives residing in the neighborhood and even the old guard is a trusted man of this rich family’s current patriarch and therefore retained as a guard. Whether he is effective in his work or not, can be indirectly associated with the theft of a car music system. Filho’s film never spoon feeds the viewer. The viewer has to appreciate the mosaic of seemingly unrelated details to appreciate what the tale leads up to. The method employed by Filho brings to mind Lars von Trier’s amazing revenge tragedy Dogville (which also had a dog on the fringes of its tale), another remarkable film where the characters could be extrapolated beyond the limited geographical area presented that film to an entire country. Filho’s urban pocket of Recife (Brazil’s sixth largest city) is an encapsulated world of Brazil today that appears calm but is full of seething anger towards exploiters, past and present.  

In the second chapter, when “professional” guards seem to have replaced the old guard and the barking dog, the viewer is introduced to images and sounds of less privileged kids seeming to attack the well-to-do neighborhood residents using the cover of trees and terraces at night. Was that the reason for the guard dog to bark in the night? Filho’s film first suggests the sounds and visuals of these kids scurrying on tree-tops  and roofs in the night as a dream of some residents, until the so-called new guards on duty catch hold of one of the kids hiding on a tree, only to let him go with a warning. The attitude of the guards towards the waif provides an interesting and unusual way to project the later events in the film that the viewer does not anticipate. 

At day time, Filho introduces a sexual escapade between a guard and a maid in an apartment when the owner has stepped out and alerted the guard of his brief absence merely to guard the apartment. Filho surprises the viewer with a shot of a kid hurriedly departing from the supposedly empty apartment through the open doorway. The kid was evidently disturbed by the sounds of the activity of the guard and the maid who has never been inside that particular apartment. 

Sounds matter in varied and surprising ways, in Neighboring Sounds, often contrasting the silence that reveal an important detail. Who was the kid? How come the guard was not aware that the empty house had a silent occupant? As the film progresses, those details make sense in the larger canvas offered by the film. In another sequence, the viewer glimpses the elderly don of the complex walking alone in the quiet night, evidently for a swim in the ocean, going past signs warning people of the sharks in the water. The guards watch their new employer with interest going for the swim alone and returning safely. All is calm but the uneasy calm grows on the viewer.

A new guard offers professional protection to residents,
who have experienced small crimes in the neighborhood

The night guards are recruited and on the job

Filho briefly takes the viewer and some of his characters away from Recife to the more interior areas of Brazil where the elderly don, his son, and the son’s girlfriend go for a swim near a waterfall and Filho gives the fresh water drenching them to surrealistically turn to the symbolic color of blood. Filho keeps the viewer guessing. the location of the waterfall is close to the large house shown in sepia color at the start of the film  and a sugar plantation that the elderly patriarch's family owns.  And right up to the very end of the film, the film discusses and insinuates bloody events that had happened and are likely to take place, without ever showing them on screen. The bloody waterfall, which is not real, is the closest Filho comes to “violence” shown in the film. there is also a passing mention of a recent suicide by a past inhabitant of the Recife condominium. And yet the film suggests violence in a very discreet way! That is what makes Neighboring Sounds stand out among contemporary films. It presents the simmering anger that results from social inequality over decades, with the “guards” displaying similar intolerant behavior they have  experienced in the past from others. A single mother’s irritation towards barking dogs that is only alerting the denizens to dangers in the night is another subtext of the film offered by the screenplay.

The family patriarch (center) shares a meal with his son
and the likely future daughter-in-law

The three visit locations near the patriarch's sugar plantation,
and shower at a nearby waterfall

The water surrealistically turns to the color of blood 

Filho’s film Neighboring Sounds anticipates his co-directed Bacurau (2019). Neighboring Sounds offers more style and sophistication than the later work. The use of sound in Neighboring Sounds does not predict events as most films tend to do—the lack of sound and the abrupt use of sound to aid the script are unusual and remarkable. In some ways, the film  reminds you of the end sequence of Steven Spielberg’s debut film Duel (1971), in which a menacing truck falls off a cliff with a loud metallic groan, as though the inanimate truck had a life of its own. Filho is talented and this Brazilian film is a lot more sophisticated than Bacurau—the latter film having more mass appeal of a modern Western, while the former is more subtle in its message and linkages of disparate events. 

Neighboring Sounds is an important film of the past decade, especially on the technical front, and is a treat for those who seek well made films. The film indirectly seems to ask if Brazilians today have learnt from the lessons of their history. The viewer can decide that.

P.S.  Neighboring Sounds (2012) and The Fever (2019) are two remarkable debut films from Brazil in the last decade. The two films might not boast of the wider appeal of Bacurau (2019) with its violence and some nudity. Quite evidently, Brazilian cinema is on the march long after the days of Cinema Nuovo, mostly in the 1950s up to the 1970s (Glauber Rocha’s Black God, White Devil; Ruy Guerra’s The Guns; Leon Hirschzman’s The Girl from Ipanema; and Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ How Tasty was My Little Frenchman). The two films The Fever and Bacurau have been reviewed on this blog and both are among the author's Twenty Best Films of 2019. Neighboring Sounds has won 38 awards worldwide.

Thursday, May 07, 2020

252. Russian director Ilya Khrzhanovskiy’s debut feature film “Chetyre” (4) (2004), based on a script by post-modern author/dramatist Vladimir Sorokin: A perplexing, absurdist, and depressing study of contemporary, post-glasnost Russia

“Exhausted by hunger, he ate in secret. He thought he was stealing food; but that was better than stealing from strangers”  
-- Narrator of a TV program on dogs, viewed by Oleg in the film 4
The film 4 was made in 2004 and won 11 major film awards across Europe, the Americas and Asia.

Khrzhanovskiy’s  debut film 4 is no ordinary feature film. Four stray dogs on a Moscow street at night open the film. Four persons (3 customers and a bartender) accidentally meet at a bar late night. The three drinkers (Marina, a female prostitute; Vladimir, a male piano tuner/musician; and Oleg, a male wholesale-meat supplier) construct their alternate fictional professions as they consume alcohol and attempt connecting with each other. 

Bar scene: (left to right) Vladimir, Marina and Oleg

As the film progresses, we realize Marina is one of 4 sisters. Marina (played by actress Marina Vovchenko) meets up with two of her other sisters (possibly played by her real life sisters, if we go by their surnames and physical similarity) in her village. The fourth sister has just passed away. Marina travels with three strangers in a train compartment (they too add up to four). Asked by one of her co-passengers about where she is heading, she responds “To shoot a grenade launcher—my psychiatrist’s advice to clear the head. It helps against suicide.” More allegories, more symbols, more absurd connections. The person who asked her the question returns much later in the film as a thief stealing a watch from a car-accident site.

At the early bar sequence, the conversation among the three drinkers are about dogs and humans, after Marina curses a man who has run over a dog at night. “A dog’s life is shit,” says one. “Man’s life is shit” is the terse response. “A dog’s life is comfortable, actually” is a follow-up comment from Oleg, the wholesale-meat seller. “Hit a dog on the road and bad luck follows you; hit a man and good luck follows,’’ adds Oleg. “Dogs are closer to God,” says Vladimir, implying thereby that humans are comparatively less close to God.

"Dogs are closer to God"
Four stray dogs on a Moscow street open the film

Dogs are everywhere, following all the characters--at the meat factory, at the village to eat up the dolls (made up of chewed bread!), following the thief who robs a watch off the hand of Oleg, who has just minutes ago crashed his car in an effort to save a stray dog crossing the road (Oleg, at the bar scene earlierin the film, had professed his love for dogs, constituting an Aristotelian structural balance to end the meandering script of 4).

There is a Muslim, who sells meat of bizarre round piglets (genetically modified?) and kicks a dog (both animals that devout Muslims avoid dealing with) and is promptly reprimanded for his action by the non-Muslim Oleg, who loves dogs and watches dog programs on TV at home, surrounded by spic and span dog statues and stuffed dogs,.

Four planes take off with prisoners (including Valdimir) forcibly trained to be soldiers to fight at some unknown frontier. What’s this strange fascination with the number 4? In one of the comments made at the bar, Vladimir ironically states that 4 legs lend stability to a table.

Old women of the village mourn at the fresh grave
of Marina's sister

Marina’s village reminds one of the derelict world of Tarkovsky's film Stalker. The population of the village is strange. It is surrounded by barbed wires and caution notices warning trespassers of high-tension electrical cables. But Marina knows how to navigate those barriers. The village seems to have survived in a time warp, complete with imposing but closed Russian orthodox churches and where the poor aged inhabitants sing hymns at burials and sell weird dolls to survive. There is just one male in the village, otherwise populated by females. Most of the women are toothless and old. Even in their advanced age, they talk of sex and continue to be proud of their breasts, when inebriate with vodka. The only two young female inhabitants of the village are Marina’s siblings and one of them has just died and had been adept at making the dolls.  En route to her village, Marina passes a truck/shop storing the genetically modified round piglets. (Everything in the film script is connected, if you are observant!) The odd male in the all-female village commits suicide after perfecting the faces of the last four dolls, using up all his savings. 

There is a strange connect between the muddy exteriors of Marina’s village and the mysterious mud that gathers on Moscow streets as though there has been a recent flood that require truck-based bulldozers to clear the detritus.

The sole male inhabitant of the village
carry four unfinished dolls (note the mud)

Thus the film 4 presents you with animals who behave like humans and human beings who behave like animals. Some of the animals are alive, others are now dead carcasses. And some of the carcasses are possibly the result of banned/mad/state-supported scientific experiments to be sold as prized meat to high-end restaurants that exist but do not seem to have much patronage/clientele.

Just a few minutes into the film and any intelligent viewer will know that the tale is a political allegory of Russia today. 

As this writer reviews the film 4 during the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic, the shrill video messages of Wuhan residents pleading for global help are recalled. In 4, stray dogs are suddenly disturbed by sudden arrival of earth-moving equipment to redo a Moscow street at night that did not seem to require major repairs or reconstruction. The dogs and humans in Russia (and now in Wuhan, China) are at the mercy of forces that are incomprehensible to the respective denizens. And yet life trudges on, in an absurdist reality that reminds you of Ionesco's plays.

Vladimir, who was observing fishes, turtles and strange water eels in glass water-tanks, in the film 4 is picked up by the police off the street and later interned in a prison camp and forcibly re-trained to be a soldier to be packed off like hundreds of others to fight an unknown national enemy in 4 huge aircrafts.

The well-to-do Oleg has a father Misha who was/is a scientist constantly worried about dangerous microbes and is a fanatic for health safety to the extent of washing his garbage cans each day. Misha loves his dead wife and wants to visit his wife’s grave with his son Oleg. Misha is a scientist who firmly believes in the power of hell. This is where Vladimir Sorokin’s contribution surfaces as the novelist/playwright/scriptwriter is apparently a devout Christian, getting baptized at 25 and refusing to join the Komsomol, the youth communist cadre. Sorokin subsequently won the People’s Booker prize and other international prizes with his works translated from Russian into more than 20 languages. Sorokin’s tongue-in-cheek aside in 4 that perhaps only die-hard chess enthusiasts will spot includes the names of famous Russian chess players Bronstein and Lukin, dropped nonchalantly by Vladmir at the bar scene as the names of famous genetic engineering scientists in the tale he fabricates.

There are visuals of streets getting cleaned in 4 by water-spraying trucks and bulldozers clearing mud. At the end of the film, you do see a cleaned-up road. But ironically who is using this clean facility? A dirty thief and a stray dog. No detail in this film is non-allegorical. When the village women eat and relish the meat of a dead pig, there is food for thought. When the pig’s head is thrown into a pig sty for other pigs to hog, there is food for thought. When dolls made of chewed bread are eaten by stray dogs, there is food for thought.

These are just some fascinating elements of the film (script by Vladimir Sorokin). Does the film belong to the director Ilya Khrzhanovskiy (his debut feature film) or to Sorokin or to both? The film is audacious and critical of modern Russia, reminding one at times of Joseph Heller's book Catch 22, subsequently made into a feature film by director Mike Nichols. Somewhere, the mad script of 4 comes together. It reminds one of another nihilistic recent debut film--this time from China—Bo Hu's An Elephant Sitting Still (2018). Only Bo Hu committed suicide soon after making his film, while Khrzhanovskiy has finally made his second film. The film 4 could well have had an alternate fitting title “4 dogs not sitting still," on the lines of Bo Hu’s film.

P.S.  Bo Hu’s debut film An Elephant Sitting Still (2018), a film critical of modern China was reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the name of the Chinese film in this post-script to access the review.). The film 4 won awards at the Antalya Golden Orange film festival in Turkey (Best Director), the Athens international film festival in Greece (City of Athens award), the Buenos Aires international film festival of independent cinema in Argentina (Best Director), the Golden Apricot Yerevan international film festival in Armenia (Jury Special Prize), Rotterdam international film festival in the Netherlands (Golden Cactus and Tiger awards), Seattle international film festival in USA (New Directors Showcase award), Sochi Open Russian film festival in Russia (Jury Special Prize), Titanic international film festival in Budapest, Hungary (Breaking Waves award), Transilvania international film festival in Romania (Transilvania trophy and Best Cinematography) and Valdiva international film festival in Chile (Best Soundtrack). Some 15 years later, the film’s director Khrzhanovskiy has made his second ambitious and controversial feature film DAU in 2019. The DAU film project also has writer Sorokin of 4 to prop up Khrzhanovskiy.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

251. Turkish director Semih Kaplanoglu’s seventh feature film “Baglilik Asli” (Commitment) (2019): An interesting study of the modern educated woman, motherhood, and family ties in a fast developing Turkish economy

The poster captures the essence of the film--
the child is the fulcrum of the tale,
with the mother almost absent in the frame

Film directors and screenplay writers Semih Kaplanoglu and Nuri Bilge Ceylan are the leading lights of Turkish cinema today. Their contributions have understandably resulted in Turkish films being considered among the very best in the world in recent decades. Unfortunately, Kaplanoglu’s previous film Grain made in 2017 has been totally neglected by most cineastes, even though the film won the top honor at the 2017 Tokyo film festival and was made in English on a subject that ought to interest a larger educated film-going global public. It possibly antagonized the powerful lobby of private sector involved with agricultural genetic engineering that effectively curtailed the film’s distribution and publicity worldwide, similar to the case of the Cannes-award winning European film Little Joe (2019). Grain was a departure for Kaplanoglu, not just for venturing into the world of science fiction but for leaving the recognizable Turkish geographical territory for an indistinguishable one, set in a near-future time frame.

Asli (Kubra Kip) has a happy marriage, financial security
and a child--but wants more

Semih Kaplanoglu’s film Commitment marks a u-turn for the director from Grain. In Commitment, he returns to a very identifiable Turkey, its contemporary status, and the Turkish language. Five of his earlier feature films (he had made six)  focused on male figures, markedly in his Yusuf trilogy comprising the films Honey, Milk, and Egg, though women had secondary but important roles in those films.  Only his second film, Angel’s Fall, primarily focused on a woman. In Commitment, too, he returns, after four films, to focus once again on women.

Turkey, like Russia, is largely located in Asia and less in Europe. Both countries, however, prefer to be identified as European than Asian (e.g., the denizens of the city of Vladivostok situated in Asia). Turkey, in recent years, has been making a bid to be a part of the European Union, disregarding its Asian connection and heritage.  The richer sections of Turkey’s population are rapidly moving closer to European life styles, while the poorer sections still retain the Asian traditions in their social lifestyles. 

Asli (right) hires Gulnihal (Ece Yuksel).to take care of her baby
while she returns to her job as a banker

In Commitment, Asli (actress Kubra Kip) is a well-to-do banker in her late twenties or early thirties, who has given birth to her first child and wants to return to job at the earliest, and attempts to regain her pre-childbirth physical allure. She is not always able to take care of her child, dislikes breast feeding her child, neglects the indoor flowers in her house, and cannot cook well enough to please her husband (she serves cold potato salad of the previous day to her husband when he returns from work). For Asli, her career and her looks are more important than her family responsibilities.  Even her gynecologist doctor does not approve her returning to work soon after childbirth and dislikes her requests for medication to reduce her lactation for the sake of maintaining her appearance.  Asli represents the richer middle class of Turkey yearning to mimic European lifestyles and objectives. Kaplanoglu’s Commitment underscores the fact that despite the wealth of the nouveau-riche, the upper middle-class nuclear families in Turkey are clearly missing self-fulfillment.

In contrast to Asli, the contrasting socio-economic elements of Turkey are embodied in Gulnihal (actress Ece Yuksel), essentially from a village background. Gulnihal is hired by Asli as a babysitter-cum-domestic help to look after her child as she returns to her life as a city banker. On her return to work, Asli finds that she has been given a less important position in the bank following her return from maternity leave than the one she held before. Yet Asli hangs on to the less-attractive job, despite being downgraded. On the other hand, Gulnihal also works for Asli’s family as she needs the money though she would rather be with her own child, almost the same age as Asli’s. Gulnihal knows her child is in good hands—her mother-in-law.  Gulnihal, a young mother herself, dotes on Asli’s child as her own and even breastfeeds Asli’s child without seeking permission.  Gulnihal brings to the Asli household food prepared by her mother-in-law (a typical Asian family gesture of goodwill transcending economic barriers) that Asli’s husband appreciates assuming it was prepared by his wife. Evidently, Gulnihal is relatively a happy individual unlike Asli who is a lot wealthier than her.

Asli's life lacks the true joy of being a mother,
enjoying a good marriage, a child, and a job as a banker

The film is also a study in family relationships.  The film presents multiple subplots relating to the family members of Asli (her parents and siblings and their feelings towards her), the family of Asli’s husband (his parents and their relationship towards him) and finally Gulnihal’s relationship to her husband, mother-in-law and her own child.

Asli gifts Gulnihal a jacket--the economic ploy
of gaining affection of her employee

Add to all this there are political commentaries relating to Turkey’s recent past history (a newspaper or journal that continues to publish despite its dwindling readership, is one example) that Turkish viewers might comprehend better.

Commitment is a film based on an original script written by Kaplanoglu himself. The strengths of the film lie in the script (a male scriptwriter dealing with so many female viewpoints) that is complex and yet a delight for astute viewers, the direction of a very talented filmmaker, the crisp cinematography of Andreas Sinanos and finally a very good ensemble cast. The initial visual of the film (which would perplex the viewer) is replicated at the end where the significance falls into place. 

This critic viewed the film in a packed auditorium at the International Film Festival of Kerala which possibly did not have a single Turk in the audience. That audience loved the film and was clapping away after the film ended. (The director and crew were not present and, therefore, the reaction of the audience was spontaneous and genuine.)

Asli and her husband have a meal at home--the food
becomes an important tool of non-verbal communication

Commitment was Turkey’s submission for the 2019 Oscars in the foreign language category. But it did not earn the nomination even though the film’s screenplay and direction are commendable. Nuri Bilge Ceylan pips Kaplanoglu in international stature because the former has succeeded in infusing internationally accepted literary connections, while Kaplanoglu (with the exceptions of Grain and perhaps Honey) has made films that Turkish audiences would relate to more than international ones. Despite this, Kaplanoglu and Ceylan are filmmakers, whose every new film is well worth the wait.

P.S.  Commitment is one of the author's top 20 films of 2019. It won the Best Director award at the Bosporus (Bosphorus)  Film Festival. Kaplanoglu’s three films Grain (2017), Honey (2010), and Milk (2008) have been reviewed earlier on this blog. Significantly, two other major women-centered films made in 2019, Vitalina Varela and Beanpole were made by male directors/screenplay writers and have been reviewed on this blog. (Click on the names of the films in this post script to access the reviews.)

Sunday, April 05, 2020

The late Hungarian film director Zoltan Fabri speaks to the Indian film critic Jugu Abraham in Budapest, Hungary, in 1982

Zoltan Fabri, 1917-94 (Courtesy: MUBI)

Transcript of the interview published in the daily newspaper The Telegraph, (Kolkata, India) on 15 August 1982 

Zoltan Fabri is not an unknown name in India. His films have been widely shown in screenings in India, courtesy NFDC, and he holds the distinction of winning two awards at the Delhi International Film Festival of India (IFFI). In 1979, Hungarians won the Golden Peacock for the Best Film and in 1981 his film Balint Fabian meets God was awarded the Silver Peacock for the Best Actor. Fabri is one of three great Hungarian filmmakers—Miklos Jancso and Istvan Szabo completing the trio. Jugu Abraham, who interviewed him in Hungary, found him to be ‘a lovely old man’ with impeccable manners and forthright views. The interview: 

Q. In India, we see a lot of your films but we hardly know anything of the person behind the camera. I would like to ask you something of your personal life. Your films have shown the protagonists playing very tragic and sombre roles, full of strife and sadness, in Hungary of the Second World War and before. Was your personal life as tragic, as difficult and as sombre as the heroes of your films?

A. My parents were relatively poor. My father worked in a bank as a clerk. In the summer, I lived with the peasants. And the reason peasants recur in my films is that I learned very much about their lifestyles. I went to school in town. I went to the College of Fine Arts. I wanted to be a painter. At that time film was not taught in college. I was born a weak child. I had problems with my tonsils which were removed, and I was beset by recurring illness of a weak heart.

Q. How much of your life was affected by the World Wars?

A.I was born during the First World War I have very few memories of that World War. We lived in misery. I was living in a big house with lots of people living in it. During the Second World War, I was in college, on a scholarship. In college, I would win at poetry recitals and wonder what I would do later in life. I had to choose between painting and directing plays. In my sixth form, I put up Julius Caesar and played Antony. But am I boring you?

Q. No, please continue.

A. So I joined the School of Fine Arts. At the end of the third year my father tried to find a job for me. He found me a job as a drawing teacher in one of the plush schools. But I decided to leave college.

One afternoon, I went to my father, who was shaving, and told him I am going to quit the School of Fine Arts and I intended to join the Theatre College. My father chased me like a mad man with a razor in his hand for 10 minutes. But after a lot of pleading, he agreed to let me try out theatre studies for a year at college. At the end of the year, my father went to the school to find out how I was doing. I was allowed to stay on. I need not elaborate why.

I finished the school in 3 years, making it clear that I did not want to be an actor but a director. I wrote scripts for an Ibsen play and even made sets for it. And the play was a great success. The production went through all the Budapest theatres in one year.

Two days after getting my degree, I got a letter from the National Theatre that I should go and discuss my contract. In my first play at the National Theatre, there were actors who had been my teachers at the college.

Q. Was your private life greatly affected during the Second World War?

A. In 1943, I was taken prisoner till 1945. I had no contact with my family at that time. I was single then. I wasn’t married. I returned to find Budapest totally bombed. As I approached my house, I found all our neighbouring houses were bombed but my parents’ flat had survived.  I found them safe. It was a horrible memory to reconstruct things.  I went back to theatre and worked in all Budapest theatres as a director, as a set director and sometimes as an actor.

Q. Today if you were to choose between film and theatre which would you choose?

A. I would choose film.

Q. Which films have been close to your personal life?

A. Twenty hours perhaps was one. Unfinished Sentence was almost as if it was written for me. I didn’t come from an aristocratic family but what happens in the family almost happened to me.

Q. Do you feel the characters in your films are reflections of your trials?

A. in my films, I am speaking about people who somehow have to get to the battlefield of history and they have to pass a trial of human conduct, a probe, a search.

Q. What do you feel about your black and white films like Merry Go Round visually?

A. In spite of the fact that I never became a painter, one cannot totally bring oneself to reconcile to making films in colour after making films in black and white.

Q. Why is it that you delve in the past? Doesn’t speculation of the recent past of your country or its future interest you? Science fiction, for instance.

A. I do not think I am suitable for science fiction or the like but I do think of the future. In Unfinished Sentence, I spoke about the future, in a way.  The future became the past in the film. The past and the present are in a very close relationship. You cannot for instance understand the present day Hungary without understanding the past. Consequently, when I make a film on the past, I want to communicate to the present viewer.

A still from the Golden Peacock (IFFI) winner "Hungarians"

Q. Would you like to comment on the fact that you made Balint Fabian meets God after you made Hungarians?  Hungarians chronologically should have come after Balint Fabian meets God.

A. It wasn’t my decision. Studios who wanted me to make Hungarians knew very well I wanted to make a film of Balint Fabian. I told them that chronologically it should be Balint Fabian meets God that should come first. But they considered Hungarians to have a more universal message. So they said “How do you know if you will ever get to finish Balint Fabian? So why not make Hungarians first? “ They were right in saying Hungarians contained the fate of a nation in a delicate and miserable situation, with a limited spectrum of thought and communication. At the same time, the characters in the film thought and expressed in a very universal way without being conscious of it.

A defining moment in The Fifth Seal; filming
"the most important question of our life" for Fabri

Q. Why did you pick up the book The Fifth Seal for a film?

A. I picked it up in 1965. But there were cultural-political reasons, which were against my plans to film it. First, they said it was an existentialist work.  I said that was not true at all. But they won. I could only make it in 1975-76. It was a great message for me to put on screen. First, I was challenged by the stage-like story—it is almost anti-film. The second part was more appropriate for cinema.

What basically attracted me were the four or five petty bourgeoisie characters talking of survival and the extent one can go to survive. As a counterpoint, there is a Fascist who is educating the younger person to emulate the other persons to achieve his own aims. The third part is how neither of the theories will work—neither of the petty bourgeoisie nor of the Fascist.

Q. What made you pick up the book? Did you like what was said in the story?

A. This thesis anti-thesis leading to synthesis formula I found most intriguing. And the most important question of our life is there.

Q. Are you religious?

A. I cannot make dogmatic religion acceptable for myself in spite of the fact that I went to a religious school when I was young. I believe in the moral content of religion; for me it is very significant to assess a person’s moral values. At the same time I am not bothered about a person’s religion or whether he practices it.  Morality is most important.

Crucial scene from Balint Fabian Meets God

Q. In India, after viewing your films, we get an idea that you are ambiguous in your treatment of religion. What is your personal attitude towards religion?

A. In Balint Fabian meets God, it is true that Balint Fabian’s relationship with religion is ambiguous. You can see it as self-sacrifice of a person deeply in love with his wife to meet God. Isn’t that true?

Q. Why are Russians kept out of your films?

A. I have no idea.

Q. Has any filmmaker influenced you other than Marcel Carne and Orson Welles?

A. The French directors, of course but Orson Welles influenced me most. Welles could not surpass what he did at 25—Citizen Kane—which can be appreciated and enjoyed even today.

Q. Children hardly occupy any place in your films. If they come in, they are only fringe characters. Is there any reason for it?

A. Basically, I don’t know why.

Q. Why have you specialized in tragedy? Is it something to do with your theatre experience?

A. Most probably because my view of life attracts me more to tragedy than to comedy. My mentality of daily life style is serious, not comic. However, in Two Half Times in Hell and in The Tot Family, I approach the tragicomic border.

Q. You have worked with Georgy Vukan as the music composer for the last five or six films. Would you like to tell us something about this man who has intrigued me with his music?

A. It is a personal relationship I have with him. He is an artist whom I like. He was a discovery of mine, you can say. I used his music when he was 21 years old. Now he is 30 or about that age.

Q. What do you feel about Boys on Paul Street made for Hollywood?

A. I liked the message of the book. It was not my best film. It was a “noble” film.

Q. What then was your best film?

A. You can pick between Prof Hannibal, Twenty Hours, The Fifth Seal and Hungarians.

P.S. The author's detailed review of Zoltan Fabri's film The Fifth Seal was published earlier on this blog. The Fifth Seal is one of the author's top 100  films ever made. (To access the review, click on the name of the film in this post-script.) The author, who was a staff film critic of the Hindustan Times group of publications in New Delhi, was invited to Budapest to interview Zoltan Fabri and Miklos Jancso in 1982. During the interactions, Fabri expressed his disappointment that US director John Huston's film Victory, in its credits, did not mention Fabri's earlier film Two Half Times In Hell, which was evidently a major source for the US director, a film personality who Fabri always admired.

The opening title sequence of Fabri's "The Fifth Seal" with the music of Georgy Vukan: