Saturday, April 22, 2023

279. Iranian film director Mohammad Rasoulof’s second feature film “Jazireh Ahani “ (Iron Island) (2005), based on his original screenplay: Brave cinema focusing on the travails faced by the common citizen, using allegory to bypass hawkish national censors

ohammad Rasoulof is different from most filmmakers. He does not adapt written works—he writes his own original screenplays stitched together from what he observes and hears from Iranian compatriots. He has made a modest tally of seven fictional feature films to date and these have picked up a Golden Bear at Berlin, a Golden Peacock in India, a Gold and a Silver Hugo at Chicago and three major awards at Cannes’ important  Un Certain Regard section, among 36 prestigious awards and prizes won globally. The seven feature films do not include his two feature-length docu-dramas/documentaries—Intentional Crime (2022) and Head Wind (2008).

Rasoulof loves to encapsulate the human condition of present day life in Iran and the aspirations of its population in realistic tales that avoids direct criticism of the Iranian government. Unlike the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, who never made a film that was obviously critical of the government, Jafar Panahi  (once Kiarostami’s assistant) has evolved into an Iranian filmmaker winning praise, on his own merit, making feature films in which couched criticism of the lack of freedom in contemporary Iran is comparably more forthright. Rasoulof, in turn worked with Panahi on Panahi’s films initially, until Rasoulof, too, became an equally world-renowned filmmaker winning awards worldwide. The Iranian government has not been happy with  Rasoulof ever since he made made his second film Iron Island. Today, both Panahi and Rasoulof are in prison because of the contents of the films they made and their social activism. While Rasoulof’s first film Gagooman (2002) did not ruffle feathers, in spite of the fact that its two principal characters are prisoners serving time in an Iranian jail for minor crimes. That film was widely appreciated within Iran went on to win the Best First Film award at the Fajr Film Festival in Iran. Then came Iron Island (2005) and the spate of problems for the director from the Iranian government sprouted for each subsequent film he made.

The Captain (Ali Nasirian) warns the lad, Ahmad,
not to pursue the unmarried lass on the ship

The unmarried lass, with her face partially covered,
as per certain Muslim traditions, is living on the tanker
and shows interest in Ahmad

The film Iron Island is not about a real island; it is merely a description of a disused oil tanker anchored off-shore, a vessel that is gradually sinking. Rasoulof transforms the disused tanker, awaiting eventual shipbreaking, into a contemporary Noah's ark, providing refuge for homeless poor Iranians, young and old, under the care of a seemingly benevolent "Captain," who is able to provide food and medicines for the refugees her brings on board. He is able to buy provisions and medicines by gradually selling off metal parts and oil on the ship that the young men are made to identify and rip off the ship each day. The Captain is a veiled representation of the Iranian Government, which is dictatorial and brutal to those who step out of line, while appearing to be benevolent to others. The same benevolent Captain, in the film, also mercilessly tortures a lad, who escapes the ship when his beloved, an unmarried girl with a partly masked face, is given away in marriage by the Captain to someone else living on the mainland (a process that makes the 'Captain' richer). The lad is caught and brought back to the “iron island” all tied up in a boat.  The 'Captain' teaches the errant lad a tortorous lesson that leaves him almost dead.  The motley refugee group on the “iron island” represents the innocent folk with little or no income, who accept their fate without being able to question their benefactor’s (the Captain’s) motives or actions out of a combination of fear and gratitude. 

The boy called Fish, ultimately is made to leave the tanker for the shore but resumes his pastime, searching for small fishes, this time trapped on the sandy beach. He picks one and throws them back into the sea as he used to while on the tanker, little realizing that there are fishermen’s  nets set up in the water to catch such fish. 

The lovers on the tanker who were forcibly separated by the Captain are brought together by fate even though the lad is lying in a mosque recovering from his recent torture ordeal and his beloved is married to a rich person who owns a car and employs a chauffeur. The viewer is left to figure out the outcome of that possible meeting which is never shown on screen. Similarly, the viewer has to figure out the allegory of the Captain’s angry action of throwing out the working TV the boys had painstakingly made to work.

The "Captain" intervenes in a skirmish between
two lads as an elder and peace prevails

The "Captain" collects passports of all adults on the tanker
as precursor to collecting their signatures,
the purpose of which is never revealed, even when questioned.
The viewer has to conjecture the purpose. 

Rasoulof’s films provide punches but the endings of each film are deliberately left open-ended. He does it intentionally; his films have to pass the national censors. It is unclear how many of his films have actually been released in Iran and, if released, how much is censored. Iron Island may not be as sophisticated as Rasoulof's later films but it makes you think beyond the obvious tale. Rasoulof is definitely one of the finest and the boldest filmmakers in Iran, if not the world, now languishing in prison. His crime--he made films that were indirectly critical of lack of freedom in Iran in recent decades and his social activism. The bravery and the acclaim of his films cannot be equalled by most other filmmakers, currently alive and making films. 

The "Captain" is attired more like an Arab rather than a typical Iranian
but speaks Farsi the language of Iran

We live in a world where filmmakers cannot tell the truth without offending the governments in power, even though the respective governments criticised are often "elected" democratically. There are brave filmmakers who present the truth using allegory and fables, to bypass hawk-eyed Government censors. In Russia, film directors Andrei  Zvyagintsev, Andrei Konchalovsky  and Alexei German ,Sr., have made allegorical films. Raul Ruiz made films made films in exile with despondent references to his native Chile. When they do make such films they often win major awards at reputed film festivals such as Cannes, Berlin, Venice and Locarno, among others. Contemporary Iranian filmmakers Jafar Panahi, Mohammad Rasoulof, and Mohsen Amiryousefi are three prominent talented filmmakers who have made films that made the Iranian government uncomfortable often banning their release within the country. Panahi and Rasoukof  have been sentenced to long jail terms and are released for short periods for medical or other reasons, after which they have to return to prison and complete their sentences. It is not clear how many citizens in Iran have seen the completed works of these filmmakers in public screenings and, if so, whether the films were shown without cuts by the censors. 

Iron Island is merely a harbinger to Rasoulof’s later films. His later film Goodbye is an extension of the young lad’s decision to leave the tanker and the oppressive environment in Iron Island. His film Man of Integrity, a film on corruption within Iran and on intolerance of minorities is glimpsed by the Iron Island’s Captain’s actions of collecting signatures of the refugees without adequate explanation and sale of the ship’s parts without the knowledge of the real owners, who innocently believe he is doing a good deed for the refugees. What is quite evident is that Rasoulof has improved further technically with each film, ultimately reaching world standards in There is No Evil, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin film festival. Panahi, Rasoulof and Amiryousefi need the support of cineastes who value filmmakers who use the medium creatively for improving the freedom within Iran and promote the aspirations of its citizens..


P.S.   Iron Island won the Golden Peacock award for the best film in competition at the International Film Festival of India (2005); the Cinema prize and the Script prize at the Avanca Film Festival (Portugal) (2007); the Special Jury prize at the Gijon International  Film Festival  (Spain) (2005); Screenplay award at the Montreal Festival of New Cinema (Canada) (2005; and the Critics prize at the Hamburg Film Festival (2005). Three of Rasoulof’s later films Goodbye (2011), A Man of Integrity (2017) and There is No Evil (2020) have been reviewed on this blog earlier. So are Zvyagintsev's The Return  and Leviathan; Konchalovsky's Shy People, The Postman's White Nights and Paradise; Ruiz'  That Day, all films with subtle bits of allegory on politics and its effects on the common citizens. (Please click on their names in this post-script to access those reviews) 

Saturday, December 17, 2022

278. US film director Todd Field’s third feature film “Tár” (2022), based on his original screenplay: An intelligent, well-crafted study of the decline, fall, and eventual survival of a gifted, renowned (possibly, partly fictional) maestro


Quotes from the film that provide glimpses of the thought-provoking script:
(Tár, being interviewed by Adam Gopnik in front of a live audience on Tár conducting  Mahler’s Adagietto Symphony no.5) 
Tár: And this piece was not born into aching tragedy. It was born into young love. 
Gopnik (real life writer of New Yorker magazine): And you chose...
Tár: Love
Gopnik: Right, but precisely how long?
Tár: Well, seven minutes.
(That conversation could go beyond face value, if the viewer is familiar with Irving Wallace)


(On conducting a philharmonic orchestra)
Tár: Time is the thing.
Tár: You want to dance the mask. You must service the composer, you have got to sublimate yourself, your ego, and yes, your identity. You must, in fact, stand in front of the public and God, and obliterate yourself.


Tár (Cate Blanchett) rehearses while her wife and first violinist
Sharon (Nina Hoss) is all attention  

Director and original screenplay writer Todd Field knows music well. He played the mysterious pianist Nick Nightingale in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. One of the undeniable strengths of the film’s script is the load of information and classical music trivia dumped through the engaging dialogs on why Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) wants Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto to be performed as a companion piece to Mahler’s 5th symphony and those enlightening conversations between Tár and her former mentor Andris Davis (Julian Glover). However, in the film Tár only one movement—Trauermarsch– of the 5th symphony is played again and again in the film, including the crucial scene where Eliot Kaplan (Mark Strong) is conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, replacing Tár as the conductor. Trauermarsch can be translated as Funeral March. It is a piece of music comparable to Beethoven's opening of his Fifth Symphony. One has to appreciate Todd Field, the screenplay writer and director for zeroing in on this piece of music that anticipates the tragedy of Lydia Tár's future with the fictional conductor ironically engrossed in Mahler's possible mood while recovering from near death in his real life. In the film, too, there is recovery for Lydia Tár's fall from hubris. 

Much of the film's music revolves around the first movement
of Mahler's Fifth symphony

Tár is evidently very good at her job and has earned her position as the chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and is presented to us by the screenplay as the first woman to be chief conductor of a major orchestra and thus constantly addressed as “maestro.”  All the members of her orchestra are in awe of her talents and respect her. As the film progresses, we are informed that she had humble beginnings but her talent and ear for classical music was only too evident and went on to win medals. As the film constantly provides examples of her ear for music and her talent for conducting, we continue to be fascinated by the successful and not-so-successful times of Tár's career.

Tár rehearses with the orchestra, which is often when she gets
her creative juices to flow 

In the film, Ms Blanchett switches from spoken English to spoken German and back with felicity as she rehearses with members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Blanchett possibly knew she could do a great job if cast in the main role. It is therefore not surprising that she took on the role of the executive producer of this film as well. She even writes the mocking lyrics of a song that she sings in the film about a middle-class neighbor next door who sells and moves out because of her constant musical activities often involving piano and other musical instruments.   

The sound of a far-away trumpet, played at a considerable distance
from the main orchestra,was a creative addition made by Tár
 to the 5th symphony during a rehearsal, and she fumes that someone
else instead of her is conducting what she had creatively tweaked
in the score 

Though the film’s tale is about LGBT characters there are few sexual encounters on screen save for  kisses between Tár and her wife Sharon (Nina Hoss, who made an major impact in the early films of the German filmmaker, Christian Petzold) and a hug with Krista Taylor. The LGBT elements might move forward the plot of the film Tár but they are not the mainstay of Todd Field’s film; instead, the film Tár focuses on music and the mental state of the maestro. When the carpet under Lydia Tár is pulled at the zenith of her career for her sexual appetite rather than her musical skills, screenplay-writer and director Todd Field dishes out elements of Eyes Wide Shut—recollection of past events, masks, mystery and fringe characters that are crucial (such as Krista Taylor) who we never get to study beyond  a rear-head shot listening to the opening interview or in a short dream sequence. The script leads us instead to study the effects such individuals eventually have on Lydia, an alleged sexual predator. Another such fringe character is Lydia/Linda Tár’s mother, who too, is never discussed at length—similar to the treatment Kubrick gave to several fringe characters in Eyes Wide Shut.  

The mysterious lady in the audience that the director highlights:
is it Krista Taylor,who later commits suicide?

The maestro Tár is shown as a top-notch conductor mentored in the past by an elderly famous conductor Andris Davis, who eventually avoids her, when she has lost her fame.  Another conductor who Tár evidently was influenced by is Leonard Bernstein (we are shown her replaying a video of Bernstein that has tips on conducting).  Tár is shown bullying an aspiring male music conductor called Max at a Julliard class where she is a guest teacher. Off and on screen we know she bullied and could even wreck the careers of female conductors who aspired to move up. Thankfully the movie is more about music than about sex. Interestingly, Todd Field’s screenplay includes Tár making a jibe at Jerry Goldsmith’s score of Planet of the Apes during the Julliard class. The script is indeed a delightful trivia trough for music lovers. 

A distinguished conductor, Andris Davis (Julian Glover)
often mentors Tár, until her rapid fall from grace

Tár, the human metronome. who prides in managing time is disturbed
at home by the mechanical metronome and rushes to stop it:
Field's script indicates that all is not well with the maestro's mind

Past lovers wonder if Tár has a conscience

Beyond music, the amazing script explores the mind of the talented maestro, who is introduced to us as a maestro, who gives the highest of importance to “time” in the musical pieces that she controls with her baton in the right hand, unlike the shapes of music controlled by her empty left hand. Tár's character is developed by director Field as a human metronome. When Blanchett’s life is unwinding, she is disturbed by a sound--seemingly marking rhythmic time, which she goes searching for in her apartment to get rid off, including searching her refrigerator, only to discover a regular metronome kept hidden in a shelf, which she stops. The metronome is symbolically crucial to the film because Tár, the ultimate alpha female, during the Julliard guest lecture called the aspiring conductors, like Max, who did not toe her line, “robots” while in the film's finale the once-perfect and creative Tár is reduced to be a robotic conductor in an unspecified Asian country, despite her innate creative talent. In the Julliard lecture (for those who notice editing details, the entire lecture is filmed in a single unstitched take) shown earlier in the film, Tár points out to Max that the sexual life of Bach (who apparently sired 20 or more kids) is not a barometer to judge a composer’s worth but by his creative work in the world of music. It is ironic, in the context of her own statements during the lecture, that the eventual downfall of Tár was her sexual life and its consequences, rather than her awesome ability to conduct music. 

In the words of Cate Blanchett (quoted on the IMDb website): "Tár speaks to a moment in a woman's life when she is moving inexorably, as we all are, towards death, and we try to outrun that very thing--we try to outrun that unpalatable side of ourselves. We try to hide." Now moving towards death is what the opening movement, Funeral March, of Mahler's 5th symphony is all about. So, too, is the reference of likely chance of losing your life (if you were enticed to swim) to the deadly crocodiles introduced into an Asian river for shooting of Apocalypse, Now--the Marlon Brando film alluded to in the screenplay.

Cineastes could compare and contrast Todd Field's Tár with the recent French film France (2021) directed by Bruno Dumont, based on Dumont's original screenplay, where Lea Seydoux plays a star TV personality also falling rapidly from her zenith of popularity. Lea Seydoux, like Cate Blanchett in Tár, gives one of her best performances in the French film. Similarly, the original scripts of Field and Dumont, and the original music in both the films, offer much to be compared and contrasted with each other.

The  masseur Tár chooses sits at the almost same position in
the orchestra as the last lover who rejected Tár's advances.
This shot aids the viewer to note the connection with the
maestro's conducting of the orchestra.
The film  is what it is because of the brilliance of Todd Field’s well-crafted screenplay; the cinematography of  Florian Hoffmeister and Todd Field; and last but not least Cate Blanchett’s best performance thus far in her career in myriad situations within the film. Bravo!

P.S.  Tár  won the Best Actress award for Ms Cate Blanchett at the Venice international film festival in 2022, BAFTA Awards (UK) and at the Golden Globes 2023 (USA). Ms Blanchett has collected similar awards at two US international film festivals. Tár won the prestigious Camerimage’s Golden Frog  award for cinematography for the contributions of Florian Hoffmeister and Todd Field. Director Todd Field also won the Gotham Independent Film Award for Best Screenplay. Actresses Cate Blanchett and Nina Hoss are among the author’s favorite 14 actresses of the 21st century.  Tár tops the author's list of best films of 2022.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

277. Japanese film director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s fifteenth feature film “Broker” (2022), based on his original screenplay, set in South Korea and made in the Korean language: “Finding ourselves and each other”



"'Thank you for being born.' - A single sentence that touches the audience in such a way that entire films rarely can. When every character, no matter how small or large, is intricately layered, simultaneously fractured and in the end so lovingly developed, that's cinema. Great cinema. This film is a journey. One filled with longings, with decisions, with detours. Sometimes it is precisely these detours that we must take in life to find ourselves and each other. And we found a bit of ourselves in this film."

--Citation of the Best International film award for Broker at the Munich film festival

Two contemporary Japanese directors Hirokazu Kore-eda and Naomi Kawase are fascinating filmmakers because both make wonderful, distinctive films, both write their own original screenplays and most of their tales revolve around relationships involving parents and children, orphans and adoption. Sometimes the parents are old and dying, sometimes they are young and experiencing parenthood for the first time; sometimes they are yearning to be part of a family. (Kawase, of course, adds nature into the equation, while Kore-eda adds heart-warming humour.) That is why their films are so appealing when you reflect on what they offer in their films.

Young mother So-young (acted by IU, the stage name of
singer-songwriter-actress Lee Ji-eun)
preparing to deposit her child in the box
for adoption late in the night

So-young depositing her child in the Church's adoption box

Kore-eda has shifted gears in the last two films; his tales have moved beyond Japan. In The Truth (2019) the tale was set in France with three generations of a family in focus and the ethics or lack of ethics in their behaviour, developing the tale, with the help of outstanding French actresses (Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche, playing the major roles of mother and daughter, respectively). In Broker (2022), the Kore-eda tale is set in South Korea with Korean actors, one of whom won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his performance in this very film. Almost every character in Broker is significant. Each character is an orphan, or has given birth to a child that she cannot care for, or is a character hoping to have a foster child to care for. Thus, the tale is once again about orphans and families, a recurring Kore-eda theme. To this basic framework in Broker, Kore-eda adds the element of illegal, unethical and criminal commerce into the mix.

Kore-eda's criminal family: like the one in his Shoplifters.
Three, if not four (including the baby), are orphans. The man
holding the child is the main 'broker' (Song Kang-ho, who won
the Cannes Best Actor award for the role)

The two lady Korean police officers shadowing the brokers
in an unmarked car to catch them the act of human-trafficking 

The mother So-young entrapped by the shadow police

Kore-eda’s forte is to present diverse characters and to link them all in a single central concept as directors Robert Altman or John Cassavetes would do in their films. In Broker, as stated in the above award citation, the overarching theme is about being born into this world and appreciating the support from another person to live and form essential relationships for the future. Those who have been deprived of such fulsome life try to ensure that others they notice to be deprived of that privilege do get to enjoy that missing bonding. In Kore-eda’s Shoplifters  (2018) the film dwelt on the fact that we don’t choose our family—it could have helped if we could. In Kore-eda’s most complex and rewarding film, The Third Murder (2017), the director extended the human bonding among human beings, to visual metaphors of man and birds. Kore-eda’s recent geographical moves to France and Korea, remind you of another contemporary Japanese filmmaker Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car (2021), consciously shifting the tale of the film from Japan to Korea. Kore-eda and Hamaguchi are both asking us to view the world as a global village, where human concerns remain the same, irrespective of geographies.

The mother joins the 'brokers' to negotiate with 
likely foster parents

In Broker, Kore-eda’s move from Japan to Korea is possibly prompted by Korea allowing unwanted children to be anonymously dropped off in a box at a church, which is not so common a practice in Japan. Whilst most such children are taken good care of by the church, there is a grown-up orphan who has infiltrated the staff of that church to steal new drop-offs before the church authorities get to record its arrival. The “brokers” delete footage recorded in the surveillance footage recorded by the church. The stolen children get good care by the human traffickers described by the director’s chosen title as ”brokers” who look for foster parents in the black market.  There are always eager childless couples ready to pay good money for adopting a child bypassing the red tape of legal adoption that the church and the country insist on before the adoption is legally formalized. Two Korean police-women in an unmarked vehicle, have tip-off of the brokers’ activities and are shadowing them to catch the brokers red-handed making an illegal deal with foster parents. Director and writer Kore-eda loves to add spice to the basic framework—here he throws in a murder, a rich-widow of the murdered person with no real love for a child but shows an interest in raising the child because it her murdered husband’s offspring, and finally one of the shadowing policewomen‘s personal interest in adoption. It may seem too convoluted and unreal but it works as it did in Shoplifters.  Both Kore-eda and Kawase, as original scriptwriters/directors, are amazing in their abilities making film after film on subjects that are essentially on children, orphans and family.

Kore-eda’s nod to US director P. T. Anderson’s film Magnolia (1999), with the policewoman listening to the song Wise Up, used in the US film and discussing it over the phone while shadowing the human-traffickers is another element to reinforce the global village concept of Kore-eda’s vision.  

Broker is definitely one of the best films of 2022 and of the director’s oeuvre. The last five minutes of the film wraps up the tale on a positive note, bringing to mind the similarities and the contrasts of the two films Broker and Shoplifters. Once again Kore-eda makes the thin line between the good guys (Korean cops, caring parents) and the bad guys (brokers of all hues, murderers, vengeful wives, bad son born to a good family getting involved with thugs) almost disappear. The Third Murder, however,  remains the more sophisticated and philosophical work of Kore-eda.

P.S.   Broker won the Best Actor award and the Ecumenical Jury prize at the Cannes international film festival in 2022. It won the Best International Film award at the 2022 Munich film festival. Two earlier works of director Kore-eda The Third Murder (2017) and The Truth (2019) have been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Please click on their names in this post-script to access those reviews.) My ranked list of Kore-eda's films is on Letterboxd. Broker is one of the author's best films of 2022.


Monday, August 22, 2022

276. The late French director Bertrand Tavernier’s feature film “Ça commence aujourd'hui” (It All Starts Today) (1999), based on a commendable screenplay co-written by the director, his daughter Tiffany, and Dominique Sampiero: A primary school teacher who walks the extra mile to serve and speak for the tiny tots raised by parents with marginal incomes



"For its commitment to everyday heroism, its multi-layered approach to an array of social problems, and for the visual force of the storytelling.”

--Citation of the FIPRESCI award bestowed on the film It All Starts Today at the Berlin International Film Festival

There have been several films made on uplifting student-teacher relationships. These include To Sir, With Love (1967) a film on boisterous white high school students from slums of London eventually admiring and respecting their black rookie teacher;  Dead Poet’s Society (1989) on another rookie teacher kindling creative self-expression through poetry in  a US boarding school for senior US students from wealthy  backgrounds resulting in their unwavering respect and love for him; Goodbye, Mr Chips (1969), a remake of a film made 30 years before, where a stodgy Latin teacher after his marriage transforms  himself into an endearing school headmaster winning the hearts of his students;  Not One Less (1999), a neorealist Chinese film with real life characters playing their real roles directed by Yimou Zhang, focusing on a real life 13-year-old substitute teacher bringing to the fore the urban-rural education divide and the earnest desire of the teacher to teach and care for all her wards equally well;  and The Class (2008), a French film on the true experiences of a French language and literature middle-school teacher dealing with his foreign-born students disciplining them and gradually gaining their confidence--yet, not all students feel they ‘learned’ anything in his class.

It is Bertrand Tavernier’s two feature films on related subjects that discuss matters more substantive in the teacher-pupil interactivity, namely his films A Week’s Vacation (1980) and It All Starts Today (1999). In both films, the teachers are not rookies they have some credible experience in their jobs. The former discusses the importance of a female teacher observing and "listening" to her pupils in their early teens in a school in Lyons, France. The film underscores the fact that a reflective teacher could gain from the interactions with the pupils. However, Tavernier’s  It All Starts Today inverts the teaching role further to a teacher taking proactive steps to get the local government and the student’s parents to get involved in helping the teachers to impart education as they wish they could with limited resources provided by the local government.

Daniel (Philippe Torreton) truly cares for his students
and they love him for it

It All Starts Today has actor Philippe Torreton playing the role of Daniel, a head teacher of a primary school in a small mining town in France where former miners Daniel’s father survive with an oxygen cylinder strapped to his back. Miners not only battle pollution of particulate matter affecting tem while they worked in the mines, they have few other options of re-employment. Some are not clever enough to look for sustainable options for livelihood and slip into despair. Most are not sufficiently educated to move out and nor do they have any plans to start a new life and hence spend their days and nights in front of the TV sets. Their offspring are named after characters like “Starsky” and “Hutch”  from popular US TV serials. Some of the families cannot pay their utility bills and send their kids where they can get some education and mingle with others of their age. Worse still it is these cash-strapped families who are expected to support Daniel’s school through funds provided by the local civil council.

Daniel is the angry young man who is livid when the council cuts the lunch program for the kids and the parents are supposed to provide each kid with their lunches. When Daniel confronts the chief of the civic body, he is told the council has no money and Daniel, the underpaid teacher, offers a small contribution from his purse so that they make efforts to garner more funds to restart the scheme.

Daniel takes food on a personal initiative to the home of a
child whose parents are struggling to survive;
the other kids on the street are only marginally better off

Tavernier and his co-scriptwriters keep the viewer cleverly engaged to the bleak tale of the film using two tools. The first is Daniel’s demanding parallel personal life where his father is sick and his girlfriend wants him to father her next child while he pleases every student  (including his girlfriend's son from an earlier relationship with another man) with care and empathy. The second is Daniel's and his girlfriend’s out-of-the-box ideas to keep the young students happy and educated. One such innovative idea is to ask a parent, who is a truck driver, to bring his heavy duty truck to the school for the students to see what it could do—which proves to be a real treat for the kids who have never seen such a huge vehicle up-close.

Daniel, the angry multi-tasking primary school teacher,
is not just good at his job, he is loved by his students

When a financially struggling parent commits suicide with the children, the community that had preferred to look the other way comes out in full strength providing a flower-decked hearse.  Tavernier’s strength has been his choice of credible actors in minor roles such as the lady—Mrs Henry--who is driven to suicide because she does not see any hope to improve her lot.

Daniel talks to a child to figure out if he is 
being ill-treated at home, a role uncommon in a usual
teacher-student relationship

Daniel is concerned and takes proactive steps to stop a student from being brutalized at home by an abusive step-parent. The film is not merely a tale of an angry teacher forced to multi-task; it is a film about an individual being proactive to make the economically depressed society of a mining town to realize that change in their attitudes will go a long way to help their progenies to prepare for the future. The FIPRESCI award citation for the film (mentioned above) captured the strengths of the film well.


P.S.   It All Starts Today won the FIPRESCI prize at the Berlin international film festival in 1999 and was nominated for the Golden Bear. It won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and an Honorable Mention from the main Competition Jury for “the specialty of the topic;” the Best Film awards at the ASECAN, Sant Jordi  and the Fotogramas de Plata film festivals, all  three in Spain; the Audience Award at the San Sebastian International Film Festival, Spain; the Best Actor award at the Lumiere Awards, France; and  the Ecumenical Film Award at the Norwegian Film Festival. The other 1999 film mentioned above Not One Less, made in China, was reviewed earlier on this blog. (Please click on that name in this post-script to access the review)


Wednesday, June 22, 2022

275. Italian director Paolo Taviani’s twenty-second feature film “Leonora addio” (2022), based on his original screenplay: A fitting, unique tribute to the Nobel Prize in Literature winner Luigi Pirandello and to the late film director Vittorio Taviani from the 91-year-old Paolo, younger brother of Vittorio



“Have any of you read Pirandello?” asks a senior priest in a Sicilian seminary to his junior priests 
“I read him in secret, then I confessed” replies a junior priest meekly, with penitence, “I have read one novel--The Old and The Young.” 
“Do you remember the inscription? It reads –To my children: young today, old tomorrow” adds the senior priest, a Pirandello admirer
--conversation between priests in a seminary within the film Leonora addio

Paolo Taviani collaborated with his late elder brother Vittorio on 20 feature films until Vittorio’s demise in 2018 at the age of 88. Their first feature film was released/made in 1962. The two brothers had a unique method of directing their films. Each directed alternate scenes with the other watching but never interfering. That formula worked. The Russian film maestro Aleksander Sukorov, in an interview given to this writer, said it was very rare and commendable for two creative persons to collaborate as directors on feature films for a long stretch of time (he was referring to Grigori Kozintsev and Leonard Trauberg of Russia who worked on a much shorter list of films than what the Tavianis made together.) Two of those Taviani collaborations won the highest award at the Cannes (Padre Padrone) and Berlin (Caesar Must Die) film festivals over the decades. Many of their films are geographically related to Sicily in Italy. All the Taviani films have either original or adapted screenplays written by the brothers. Paolo Taviani has made two feature films after the death of the Vittorio—the first of the two was based on the jointly written screenplay of both the brothers. Leonora Addio, the latest work of Paolo Taviani, made at the ripe age of 91 is the sole work where there is no official contribution of the late elder brother—but in the title credits, soon after the film’s title, are the words “ my brother Vittorio.” 

Leonora addio is not a mere tip of the hat to Vittorio from Paolo. It is also an acknowledgement of the brothers’ admiration for the Italian playwright, novelist and poet Luigi Pirandello, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1934. Though controversial as a supporter of Mussolini’s Fascism for a while, he was admired and respected, not merely in Sicily but all of Italy and the world as people became increasingly aware of what he had written and published. The Taviani brothers had made a fascinating 1984 film titled Kaos (released as Chaos in USA) based on four short stories written by Pirandello. In Leonora addio, some scenes from Kaos are included, or rather, recreated. 

Years later in 1998, the brothers made another feature film You Laugh based on two Pirandello stories. Pirandello was indeed close to the hearts and minds of the two Sicilian brothers. 

While Sicilians respect Pirandello, they are superstitious
and refuse to fly on a flight with his ashes on board

Pirandello's ashes arrive in Sicily in a Greek urn
and are transferred to a white coffin meant for a dead child,
while Pirandello's admirers peek at the activity

The comedy of Pirandello rubbed off on films of the Taviani brothers. In Leonora addio, Pirandello’s ashes are carried in a white coffin of small size meant for a sinless child because “the town has run out of adult coffins.” A child who witnesses the stately procession of the coffin asks her father innocently, “Papa, has a child died?,” evoking spontaneous laughter from the grieving adults. 

In this dreamlike sequence, a nod to Kubrick's final sequence in
2001-A Space Odyssey, Paolo Taviani recreates
an old man (Pirandello?/Vittorio?) on his deathbed as the door opens
to reveal three children who emerge and age fast to elderly adulthood

Later in the film, when the final resting place for the ashes is decided after a 15-year search for an appropriate final resting place, there is a leaping leg-clap by the individual who located it, recalling Carol Reed’s musical film  Oliver!, where the leg-clap is beautifully executed by actors Ron Moody and Jack Wild walking into the sunset at end of the film! 

Leonora addio may not be appear to be a perfect film on a casual viewing but it provides perfect entertainment for those familiar with the works of Pirandello and of the Taviani brothers. Much of the film deals with the relocation of the jar containing Pirandello’s ashes to the area in Sicily where the writer was born and grew up. That process of relocation is described with considerable respect which mingles with wry humor, typical of most Taviani films. Most of all, one has to respect the effort of a 91-year-old director showing his love and respect for his elder brother and colleague, as also to a great Italian writer that both brothers admired. Implicit in  Leonora addio are the decisions taken by people in the evening of their lives and how those decisions are dealt with by those who survive the person who has died. The film constantly deals with children and the elderly--"young today, old tomorrow."

Leonora addio's second segment is Pirandello's The Nail,
where an affable Sicilian immigrant boy (in Brooklyn) who
can dance to music while working as a waiter. In Taviani's earlier work 
Kaos, Sicilian boys dreamt to emigrate to USA

The immigrant boy waiter who dances, later kills a girl who was
fighting another seemingly "without purpose." Taviani's earlier film
Good Morning, Babylon was about two Sicilian brothers who
emigrate to USA and find work with D W Griffith in Hollywood 

It is thus not without purpose that the first half of Leonora addio, dealing with the relocation of Pirandello’s ashes as per the writer's wishes, is shot in black and white, which is followed by a Pirandello story titled The Nail set in Brooklyn, USA, filmed in contrasting lush color, This segment also deals with death of a little girl with a large nail and her killer’s frequent trip to place flowers on her grave on a regular basis, after his release from prison. When the killer is asked why he killed the girl, he answers that he killed  the girl because she was was fighting with another “without purpose.” The viewer could reflect if the growth of Fascism under Mussolini was "without purpose" as well.

The most intriguing trivia is that the title Leonora addio is indeed the title of a written work of Pirandello that surprisingly is not discussed within the film. So why did Paolo choose the title of that Pirandello work as the title of the film? There must be a reason and there is one that fits logically. There is a Pirandello play called Tonight We Improvise, which is part of the Pirandello trilogy of plays better known as ‘Theatre within Theatre.’ In this play, a famous opera singer describes the physical theater to her children, who have never seen it, while singing parts of the opera ending with the duet Leonara addio, she apparently dies from exhaustion only to get up later and seek the forgiveness of the audience. 

Time must pass and carry us away with all the scenarios of life” is a Pirandello quote spoken in Leonora addio. The film allows us to do the same recalling both Pirandello and the elder Taviani. All this adds to the details inter-mingling the memories of the works of Pirandello with the past works of the Taviani brothers and other works of Italian cinema shown in clips within the film. Leonora addio’s depth of communication will be lost on those viewers who are not sufficiently exposed to the films of the Taviani brothers or the written works of Pirandello, significantly his most famous play Six Characters in Search of an Author and its related concept of “theatre in the theatre.” It can argued that Pirandello’s “theatre in the theatre” laid the foundation for the more famous concept of “theatre of the absurd” of Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Arthur Adamov. However, for those who are familiar with all that, Leonora addio provides quality entertainment. If we look closely at the title credits, the title of the film followed immediately by the dedication, is a personal message from Paolo “Leonora addio.. to my brother Vittorio,” which a lover of good cinema and literature would relish and approve of. 

P.S. Leonora addio won the FIPRESCI prize at the Berlin international film festival in 2022 and was nominated for the Golden Bear. The Taviani brothers' film Caesar Must Die (2012) has been reviewed on this blog. (Click on the film's title in this post-script to access the review). Paolo Taviani is one of the author’s favorite 15 active filmmakers in the world. Two of the Taviani films are included in the author’s list of top 250 films: Padre Padrone and Kaos. Leonora addio is one of the author's best films of the year 2022.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

274. Turkish director Semih Kaplanoglu’s eighth feature film “Baglilik Hasan” (Commitment Hasan) (2021) (Turkey), based on his original screenplay: An interesting study of a Turkish male farmer growing apples and tomatoes preparing for a Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca with his wife, a dream-come-true trip for her

"You think you can go on a pilgrimage and come back clean as a whistle? Only God can forgive you, sir." 

--Turgut, an honest former employee of Hasan, branded as a thief by Hasan, when Turgut procured less price from a buyer of Hasan's produce, a buyer who was only ready to pay that lesser sum


uri Bilge Ceylan and Semih Kaplanoglu are the two most important internationally recognized contemporary film directors who make films of very high standards. 

Commitment Hasan is the second film in a row from Semih Kaplanoglu (it follows the 2019 film Commitment or Baglilik Asli) with the key word “Baglilik” in Turkish language (or “Commitment” in English) in the titles of both films. Kaplanoglu watchers can assume this film is possibly a part of a second trilogy in the making–the first one being the Yusuf trilogy of “Yumurta” (Egg) (2007), “Sut” (Milk) (2008), and “Bal” (Honey) (2010), made in reverse chronology of Yusuf’s life. All the five films are original tales/screenplays of director Kaplanoglu, with Honey winning the prestigious Golden Bear for the Best Film at the Berlin Film Festival. After the Yusuf trilogy, Kaplanoglu made Grain (2017), a science fiction film in black and white in English language, which won the best film award at the Tokyo film festival, but faced a possible undercurrent of opposition from the pro-GMO lobbies that led to poor distribution in many developed countries. Kaplanoglu’s interest in farm life, agriculture, apiculture and horticulture is evident in his body of work—mainly written by him with a few exceptions. 

The farmer Hasan (Umut Karadag)  is a calculating man, ensuring
that he got the best part of his father's property by going to court,
while alienating his brother

The two “Baglilik” films are comparable studies to each other but not connected. The first is a character study on Asli (a Turkish affluent, working lady) being attitudinally transformed by the actions and life of her baby-sitter (from a lower-economic strata). The second film is a character study on Hasan, a calculating male farmer transformed by his wife Emina’s considered advice, who finally has her dream wish of a pilgrimage with her husband to Mecca looming on the horizon, after ensuring that there are no debts to be paid and seeking the blessings of Hasan’s near and dear ones before undertaking the pilgrimage. Both Emina and Hasan seem to be made for each other, squeezing money out of every little transaction they make. Emina, despite all her flaws, wants to make the perfect pilgrimage with her husband and be blessed.

Hasan's wife Emina (Filiz Bozok) drives hard bargains with
poorer folks than her, but wants her husband to seek forgiveness
from those he has wronged, before going on a Hajj pilgrimage

There are remarkable common elements in the two “Commitment” films. In both films, it is a female character that is the catalyst for change, not a male character. This is very significant within a male dominated scenario of Muslim Turkey. The second and the more trenchant element pronounced in Commitment Hasan is the importance of forgiveness in Islam, which was underscored in the recent Iranian film Ballad of a White Cow as well. In the Turkish film, it is a key male figure that has been wronged and refuses to forgive the wrong-doer; in the Iranian film it is a key female character that in a similar situation refuses to forgive those who request forgiveness. 

Is it dementia or is it more than that? 
Hasan is not recognized by his brother Muzaffar, on meeting
him after 2 years

The two brothers, one seeming to not recognize the other,
captured in silhouette by cinematographer Ozgur Eken, as he
had done in certain scenes in Kaplanoglu's earlier film, Milk

One can note the influence of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films in those of Semih Kaplanoglu (the shot of rear head profile of Tarkovsky’s mother sitting on the fence in Mirror reprised in Kaplanoglu’s Milk) or the sudden rains in Tarkovsky’s/Zvyaginstsev’s films reprised as an unreal rain of rotten apples in Commitment Hasan. A shepherd, who Hasan encounters for the second time, this time on the road, tells him that Tugrut, Hasan's former diligent worker, who Hasan is hoping to meet is waiting for Hasan at the coffee-shop. Earlier in the film, Hasan had been rude to the shepherd for letting his sheep graze on his land without permission. Surprisingly for Hasan, the shepherd knows Hasan is preparing to go on a Hajj pilgrimage and possibly even conjectured the reason Hasan wants to meet his former worker. Kaplanoglu thus infuses elements of magic realism and unusual abilities in personalities poorer than Hasan to read Hasan’s mind and purpose. There are extra-ordinary aspects of Kaplanoglu’s original screenplay that connects the chopped tree in Hasan’s dream, the shepherd’s comments while sitting under the tree that is not chopped as dreamt by Hasan, and the chain of events that follow. Kaplanoglu expects the viewer to connect the dots and get the larger picture of repentance and its importance before seeking a blessed outcome of a costly pilgrimage. 

The differences between the films of Ceylan and Kaplanoglu are very thin. Kaplanoglu’s religious commentary is obvious for the viewer, while Ceylan prefers to discuss religion obliquely (e.g., the concept of free will discussed by two imams in The Wild Pear Tree). 

Kaplanoglu’s films have slightly more interesting performances than those of Ceylan. Both directors take great care with the cinematography (the giant tree in Commitment Hasan and Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree image are remarkably similar as are the water-well sequences in both films). The final sequences of Commitment Hasan with the two brothers are visually not far removed from the end sequence visuals of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life—but one film ends in silhouette shadows, the other in light. Kaplanoglu’s Milk had employed the silhouette effect (see my review on this blog) which is not surprising as the cinematographer of the two Kaplanoglu films is the same person: Ozgur Eken. 

Finally and very importantly, both directors do not use music on the soundtrack of their films, which make their filming so refreshing compared to most other films from other parts of the world. There is heightened use of natural sounds but their films are almost bereft of composed music, unless the script requires it.

P.S. The film Commitment Hasan won the Best Foreign film at Sao Paulo International Film Festival; the Best Cinematography Award at the Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival; and Audience Awards for the Best International Film and the Best Actor at the Golden Rooster Awards, China. Kaplanoglu's earlier films Milk; Honey; Grain; and Commitment have been reviewed earlier on this blog. The other films referred in the above review: the Iranian film Ballad of a White Cow; Tarkovsky's Mirror;  Malick's The Tree of Life; and Ceylan' The Wild Pear Tree have also been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the names of the films in the post-script to access the reviews of that particular film.)