Monday, January 20, 2020

246. Palestinian director Elia Suleiman’s fifth feature film “It Must Be Heaven” (2019): A marvellous visual treat and a film appropriately dedicated to John Berger and the director’s late parents

Elia Suleiman’s fifth feature film It Must Be Heaven is one of four important films made in 2019 with semi-autobiographical components from the life of the four respective filmmakers.  The three others films are  Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory, US/Italian director Abel Ferraro’s  Tommaso and the British director Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir.  Among the four films, only It Must Be Heaven has its director appearing in front of the camera and that too without hiding under a fictional name/alter ego.

Director Elia Suleiman as he appears in the film,
travelling in a Parisian metro train

Mr Suleiman’s film has the director appearing with a signature hat and wearing a dark jacket and spectacles. He does not speak a word while others talk to him. He is obviously absorbing activities physically close to him, sometimes perplexed, sometimes bemused, and sometimes immersed in thought.  The viewer would see parallels between his screen persona and Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot in Tati’s films Mr Hulot’s Vacation, My Uncle, Playtime and Traffic.  Unlike Tati’s four films with the fictional Hulot as an extension of Tati, Suleiman prefers to be identified by his real identity Elia Suleiman, the Palestinian film director, delicately comparing the no-win situation for Palestinians within Palestine with parallel situations for a Palestinian or any person of colour or limited means living (or visiting) in France and in USA.  Why France and the US? The director explained, in an interview, that he had lived in each of those two countries for 14 years apiece. For those viewers who are familiar with John Berger’s seminal book on art appreciation Ways of Seeing and the related TV series made in 1972 will see the connection between Berger’s work and  ways to approach (as a viewer) Suleiman’s It Must Be Heaven. Berger had maintained in his book that “photographs always need language and a narrative to make complete sense.” The visuals of It Must Be Heaven become richer with the spoken words and narrative structure of the film. Thus a viewer who misses out on the director’s dedication statement at the end of the film or one who does not know about John Berger and his book will only get a diluted taste of the film’s rich visual seemingly unconnected episodes that are actually strung like beads of an ornate necklace.

A Palestinian man drinking Scotch whiskey but upset that his sister
has been served food with wine as an ingredient, as women are not
supposed to imbibe wine or liquor

What is admirable about the film It Must Be Heaven is its ability to criticize Palestinians while making a film that is indirectly supporting their cause. The opening sequence is of a Greek Orthodox Easter ritual (in Bethlehem?) where a bishop, leading his flock of worshippers, knocks three times on the door of a holy crypt expecting it to be opened from inside by the church staff.  The inebriate person behind the door refuses to open the door, until the irate Bishop removes his religious headgear and physically forces the inebriate individual to open the crypt door by accessing the crypt through another entrance. The viewer can hear the distinct breaking of a bottle, possibly by the angry Bishop. Suleiman is criticizing both the church and the inebriate Palestinians. The director Suleiman is a Palestinian Christian. In another tableau, reminiscent of Roy Anderssons’ films, Suleiman while sitting in a restaurant in Palestine watches two Muslim male Palestinians sitting on another table and imbibing Scotch whiskey, while their sister is eating on the same table. Suddenly they complain about the food served to their sister to the restaurant owner about a change in the taste of the dish, which their sister had enjoyed in the past.  The restaurant owner explains that the dish has been prepared with a dash of wine for the first time to enhance the taste. The explanation only angers the men as their sister is not permitted to consume liquor (for religious reasons?) and their anger is doused by the restaurant owner who offers them free Scotch whiskey to make amends for having served a food preparation that contained wine. Then there are Palestinians who steal their neighbour’s lemons in the guise of tending the lemon trees, men who tell unbelievable  tales of snakes who fill air in a flat tire and repair it and a woman who trudges a distance multiple times because she is carrying two vessels of water, one vessel at a time.

Suleiman takes swipes at the callous attitudes of Israeli policemen in two separate vignettes. In one, Suleiman, driving his car, passes an Israeli police car with it two policemen switching their sunglasses playfully while a blindfolded Palestinian woman (arrested, one assumes) sits behind them quietly.  In another vignette, two Israeli policemen are busy with a set of binoculars, while close at hand a vagrant urinates on the street and smashes his liquor bottle, not attracting the attention of those cops.

Director Suleiman in Paris, in front of a shop appropriately
named "The Human Comedy"

All these delectable/critical views of “home” (Palestine + Israel) are contrasted and compared with Suleiman’s “homes away from home” (France + USA) in the latter part of It Must Be Heaven.

The film director returns to France and then to USA seeking financial support for his next film. The converse visuals in France and in USA, appear to be unconnected but are sending messages for perceptive viewers.  In a Parisian near-empty metro rail car a menacing young man glares at the docile Suleiman, and the viewer expects an ugly event, until you see him eventually playing with beer cans. The viewer has to put the sequence in perspective with another one earlier in the film  where Suleiman is walking on a lonely street in Palestine/Israel when he sees that he is followed by menacing youngsters with sticks. As in the Paris metro sequence, we soon realize that the scary youths have targets other than the lonely, apprehensive Suleiman. The John Berger elements come into play on both continents, in parallel situations, within the film.

Director Suleiman sitting in front of a bistro/restaurant,
while the policemen check the distance of the furniture from the road,
to see if it conforms to rules

Similarly Suleiman doesn’t merely poke fun at Israeli policemen; he draws parallels with Paris policemen measuring the seating area of French restaurants/bistros that spill on to the sidewalka with help of measuring tapes, cops riding Segways (electric scooters) as though they were ballerinas dancing on a road theatre  (touches of Tati?) pursuing a criminal on the run. In USA, too, airport police are very suspicious of foreigners like Suleiman and ask him step aside for a detailed physical check, while men and women openly carry guns into US supermarkets while doing their shopping. In New York’s Central Park, a woman dressed as an angel disrobes in public, while cops swoop in on her.

In Paris, the street cleaners are all blacks: in USA, the upmarket women’s wear boutique kept lit in the night to attract potential customers is cleaned by a black woman. who obviously cannot afford the clothes on display. 

Suleiman waiting outside a prospective producer's office
to seek funds for his next film 

In this Palestinian film, where spoken words from the protagonist (the director of the film) are totally missing, songs are carefully chosen to make-up for this silence. Surprisingly but fittingly it includes the song Darkness written and sung by Leonard Cohen, a Canadian secular Jew, who sings:

I got no future,
I know my days are few
The present's not that pleasant
Just a lot of things to do
I thought the past would last me
But the darkness got that too

When the famous Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal introduces Suleiman to a female producer in USA, the producer considers Suleiman as Palestinian from Israel when Garcia corrects her that he is a Palestinian from Palestine. When told that Suleiman is making a comedy film on peace in the Middle East, the quick, acerbic, negative response is “That is already funny. Yes, It Must Be Heaven, is an indirect comedy about Palestinians and their aspirations for a separate state distinct from Israel, which Suleiman firmly believes will eventually happen but perhaps not in his lifetime. Is heaven in USA or in France or is it in Palestine itself for the Palestinian people? That is the rhetorical question posed by the filmmaker. 

For me, this was the most rewarding film among the four 2019 autobiographical films mentioned earlier, not merely for its content but more for its humour and detailed observations of people and their behaviour.  John Berger would have approved, so would Suleiman’s dead parents.

P.S.  It Must Be Heaven is one of the author’s top 20 films on 2019. The film won the FIPRESCI  prize and a Special Mention from the competition jury at the Cannes Film Festival and the Eurimages Award at the Seville European film Festival. Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory and Abel Ferraro’s Tommaso are also on the author’s top 20 films on 2019.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

245. Swedish director Roy Andersson’s sixth feature film “Om det oändliga”(About Endlessness) (2019): Providing vignettes of modern life invoking memories, theatre, cinema, painting, religion and music to force us to look inwards and outwards, to the past, the present and the future

About Endlessness won the 2019 Best Director award at the Venice film festival and the European film award for the best visual effects supervisor. It is a film that offers value for a contemplative viewer rather than a casual one. It is not a film likely to be on the best film lists of most film reviewers. All his films are based on his own original screenplays, with a distinct style of his own.

Andersson’s films offer what a Scorsese or a Tarantino film almost never offers. He creates scenes often using a building structure to underscore ideas. In a typical Andersson film, you will have characters outside a building looking at people inside it and vice versa. His films have individuals who deliver monologues at the camera (the viewer), while others, bar a few, in earshot seem to ignore the spoken words as though they are in a tableaux. These are obvious touches of the theatre of the absurd.  Sometimes in Andersson’s films (e.g., You the Living) buildings seem to move as a moving train would!

A man exclaims "It is fantastic!" when most others don't react.
In the foreground, is a dentist,(still wearing his medical overcoat)
who can't treat his patient scared of needles.

In a bar, where all customers are nursing their drinks silently, one customer exclaims “It is fantastic!” No one responds. Then the bartender asks, “What is?  The customer looks at the snowfall outside the bar and exclaims, “Everything!” None of the other customers nursing their drinks silently with no evident sign of happiness seem to be lifted up by the snowfall outside. The elements and moods outside and inside a building are often contrasted in an Andersson film, which makes him different and yet interesting. He seems to love provoking the mind of a lazy, laidback film viewer.

In a brilliant sequence, a well-mannered waiter in restaurant patiently waits at a table occupied by a single gentleman who seems engrossed reading a newspaper. He is aware of the patient waiter who is waiting silently to serve his wine after he has approved it.  When the gentleman finally takes his eyes off the newspaper and does approve of the wine, the waiter dutifully pours the wine but does not stop pouring it even after the glass is full and the wine spills on the spotless white tablecloth much to the surprise of the gentleman (and of the viewer). The sadness, the irony, and the inner viewpoints and the unusual behaviour of the two individuals are in stark contrast with the world’s happiest populations that reside in Scandinavia, of which Sweden is a nation that comprise it.

A surrealistic scene from the film...
..the connection to Marc Chagall's famous painting
"Over the town"

Andersson’s visuals have references within and without the film that can escape a casual viewer. In About Endlessness, there is the poster sequence of a man and woman flying (like an anti-hero version of Superman without a cape holding his lover) over a bombed city (Dresden? Cologne?).  Only art enthusiasts will pick up the connection of the visual with Marc Chagall’s famous painting “Over the town. Are the flying man and woman, characters from the film About Endlessness? Perhaps they are. Is the reference to bombed city connected to the vignette in About Endlessness showing Hitler in his last days in the bunker with his chosen Nazi army commanders barely in a state to acknowledge him with the mandatory “Hail Hitler/Sieg Heil”? Perhaps it is. Perhaps it is also connected to the visuals of a defeated column of soldiers marching dejectedly towards their prison camp.

One of the fascinating facets of Andersson’s script is that each individual in his films might appear unconnected to the rest of the characters. Yet they are connected (appearing in later sequences with identifiable clothes) and it is for the alert viewer to connect the dots and figure out Andersson’s cinematic crossword puzzle.

A woman, who loves champagne, seems
less interested in her lover than her drink

In About Endlessness, director/scriptwriter Andersson introduces a new element to his unique brand of cinema—a chorus-like invisible female narrator who keeps saying “I saw a man..,”I saw a woman..,” “I saw a young man...” etc. to demarcate different characters/segments in the film
The variety of subjects relating to love in any Andersson film is staggering. There are lovers, young and old.  A woman loves champagne more than her male lover doting over her. A young woman tries to attract a young man “who had not found love.”  A father kills his daughter because she has brought dishonour to his family. A set of parents with flowers seek out their progeny’s grave.

A priest who has lost his faith contemplates his predicament,
as his congregation waits for the Holy Communion

A man carries his allegorical cross (as Jesus did) in modern Sweden.

There are quaint, surreal situations in Andersson’s cinema. A prominent one in About Endlessness is of a priest who has lost his faith in his religion and seeks psychiatric help. But he refrains from quitting his vocation stating “...but it is my livelihood!” Much of Andersson’s films deal with financial stress. What does such a priest do? He gets drunk imbibing the wine he is supposed to serve to his religious flock as blessed wine in Holy Communion! Later in the film, the priest is shown carrying his wooden cross against his will re-enacting Jesus Christ path to crucifixion in modern Sweden, while some watch emotionless.

A grown-up man complains that his childhood classmate refuses to acknowledge him on the street. Has one man moved on in life with social contentment while the other has not and bogged down in pleasant age-old memories? An old couple stare at their Swedish city from a high point and comment about September, possibly the best part of the year.

The final sequence in each Andersson film is carefully chosen to reinforce the central idea of the entire film. In About Endlessness, a man drives his car that suddenly breaks down in the middle of nowhere. It does capture the human being’s lack of control on what happens to them and the quixotic attempts to salvage the situation. And the viewer gets to look at the man’s predicament from the sky (recall the final shot of Arthur Penn’s Night Moves). It is unfortunate that About Endlessness lost the Golden Lion award to Joker.

P.S.  About Endlessness is definitely a film that makes you think and a remarkable film of 2019 and deserving of the Venice Film Festival award bestowed on it. A very useful and informative video essay on Andersson's five films made before About Endlessness follows the trailerAbout Endlessness is one of  the author's top 20 films of 2019.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

244. Iranian director Reza Mirkarimi’s film “Ghasr-e Shirin” (Castle of Dreams) (2019) in Persian (Farsi) language: An amazing screenplay with a sophisticated ending embellishes a film with remarkable direction and performances

It is rare when a feature film competes in an international film festival and wins not just the top honour for the best film but two other major awards (one for best director and one for the best actor) as well. That’s the accomplishment of Reza Mirkarimi’s Iranian film Castle of Dreams at the 2019 Shanghai International Film Festival.

While Mirkarimi’s previous feature film Daughter (2016) dealt with a father-daughter protective relationship, Castle of Dreams also looks at another relationship within a family. The family relationship explored in Castle of Dreams is a more complex one, as it involves a broken family where the mostly absent father is forced by circumstances to realize that he has to take care of his two biological children whom he has neglected for long, when his wife passes away in a hospital after a sudden critical illness.

Jalal (Hamed Behdad) with his sister-in-law

A simple subject, one could surmise.  But the amazing screenplay plays out from start to finish as a thriller forcing the viewer to stay riveted to the plot to see how the unusual social predicament would resolve itself.  There is no hero in this film, only an anti-hero Jalal (Hamed Behdad), who has separated from his wife, Shirin,  (never seen on screen) and has had minimal interaction with his two kids for a minimum of 3 years.

The early introduction of Jalal in Castle of Dreams presents many of his negative aspects of his character upfront making the viewer to abhor this lout. The events that follow let the viewer to perceive a gradual change in this individual as he is forced, much against his original plan, to take on himself the responsibilities of a father.  As the film progresses, the audience witnesses a gradual change in Jalal’s behaviour and attitudes, prompted by a series of events  involving peripheral characters and a series of short conversations with his own kids.  The viewer is able to glimpse what the late Shirin, evidently a smart lady, saw in this man Jalal to marry him after he had repaired her broken down car and continued to acknowledge his positive traits, long after  he had separated from her and continued to neglect their children. Shirin consciously painted fictional tales for her offspring to admire their absent father instead of exhibiting bitterness. Shirin tells her son that his father lives in a castle (hence. the title of the film) and that the bicycle that she has bought for him with her own savings had been gifted by his absent father Jalal.

Jalal with his cute little daughter

Jalal with his son and daughter on the road trip

The fascinating original script written by two little known scriptwriters (Mohammad Davoud and Mohsen Gharaie)  keeps the audience guessing how the tale would end, somewhat like a thriller, while characters seen (Jalal) and unseen (Shirin) are slowly revealed in depth as the film progresses.  It is not surprising the film won the best screenplay (Crystal Simorgh) award at the Fajr Film Festival in Iran. These character developments are facilitated by actions and spoken words of the two kids of the two principal characters.  The first child is a cute, innocent girl called Sara and the second is her elder brother, who is savvy enough to operate an electronic notebook, ride a cycle, and use a debit/credit card with ease.  The interactions of these young kids with their father, who they have not seen for years, are crucial vignettes in the film.

Facts tumble out as the film progresses. Jalal had come to Shirin’s house merely to pick up his car—not to interact with his kids or even visit his wife Shirin lying in a critical condition in a hospital. Shirin, we learn as the film progresses, is a smart woman who teamed up with an elderly rich man to grow flowers in a greenhouse and the resulting business model is thriving. The proceeds of her business are sufficient to support her financially as a single mother of two kids. We also learn from conversations that she is very much still in love with her estranged husband Jalal.  She possibly knew she was terminally ill and therefore left a loaded debit/credit card with her son, planning in advance for the eventual bleak scenario.

Jalal re-evaluates his relationship with his Azei lady fiend

Jalal, we learn is an Azeri (from the original Azerbaijan) not Persian and is planning to live with an Azeri lady. (Azeris are a significant minority in Iran who speak the Azeri language and even Ayatollah Khomeini who led the Iranian revolution was an Azeri Iranian).  When Jalal does not want his kids to hear conversations with his lady friend they speak in Azeri language as the kids can only comprehend Farsi.

Both the kids have been encouraged to love animals by their mother Shirin.  The small girl has a turtle as a pet and the elder boy is an animal lover.  These factors play a strategic part in the interesting script at crucial points to transform their father during a short road trip after their mother’s demise (evidently not revealed to the kids).

Director Mirkarimi (with cap) directs his lead
actor Hamed Behdad during the filming

The film is in some ways reminiscent of the Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev’s 2007 film The Banishment, where too the father of the nuclear family transforms after the death of his innocent wife and has to take care of his two kids, a boy and a girl. That film, of course, was an acknowledged adaptation of William Saroyan’s novel The Laughing Matter.   Both films Castle of Dreams and The Banishment have one common facet: the viewer is forced to re-evaluate the major male character as he transforms in attitudes and character.

Castle of Dreams presents one of the most sophisticated screenplays with an ending comparable to that of Arthur Penn’s existential thriller Night Moves (1975). Castle of Dreams is definitely one of the remarkable films of 2019 and possibly the best work of the Iranian director Reza Mirkarimi.

(The film is showcased at the on-going Denver Film Festival, USA.)

P.S.  Reza Mirkarimi’s film Daughter (2016), a film focussing on a father-daughter protective relationship within a patriarchal conservative Asian framework has been reviewed earlier on this blog. Andrei Zvyagintsev’s 2007 film The Banishment has been reviewed earlier on this blog.  (Click on the film’s titles within this postscript to access the review.) The author’s best Iranian films is listed here with rankings. Castle of Dreams is the best film among the top 20 films of 2019 for the author.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

243. Brazilian directors Juliano Dornelles’ and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s film “Bacurau” (2019): Structurally similar to Hollywood films but refreshingly different in presenting a realistic canvas of Brazilian characters and contemporary problems of that wonderful, diverse country

The first impression of a viewer of Bacurau would be that it is structured in many ways similar to any recent Tarantino film or the way a traditional Hollywood Western is assembled: the bad guys making the life of the good people a living hell until the good people get external help to rid the bad guys while the audience experiences a cathartic orgy of violence and gore towards the end of the film, when the good people emerge victorious over the evil characters. 

Is Bacurau a film that offers much more than that? The Cannes film festival jury thought it was the second best film in competition, sharing the honour with Les Miserables (2019), a film that had little to do with Victor Hugo. Was Bacurau less impressive than the Korean film Parasite, a film that won the top honour at the Cannes festival in the same category, which also had a similar orgy of violence at its end? Debatable, indeed, because Parasite deals with economic disparity in urban life while Bacurau deals with much more: economics, politics, sociology, ecology, and even human hunting as a depraved sport for the rich.

Funeral procession for a dead matriarch.
(Coffins are constant reference points in the film.)

While Parasite is a clever reworking of Michael Haneke’s two film versions of Funny Games (1997, 2007) and Claude Chabrol’s  La ceremonie (1995), Bacurau presents a deeper sociological and economic canvas that is arguably more realistic and fascinating than the slick and glib Korean film, despite Bacurau’s ridiculous drone without helicopter blades or other conventional propulsion aids to make it fly.  The desolate town of Bacurau in Bacurau does not exist in reality. Yet Bacurau presents a very realistic future scenario where the rich and powerful can remove entire towns and villages from satellite images that can be accessed on the internet for a short time without the rest of the world noticing the difference.

Teresa (Barbara Colen) returns to Bacurau,
when her grandmother dies

Why did  the screenplay-writers call this fictional place Bacurau, which one learns is the Portuguese name of a bird—the night jar—found in southeast Brazil?  The nightjar is unique because of two rare factors—it can easily go into torpor, with reduced body temperature and metabolic rate, enabling it to survive periods of low food availability and it can naturally camouflage itself with tree branches and leaves for survival.  The allegory of the bird and the simple world of the fictional Bacurau’s population will be more apparent to those who have visited Brazil. In the film Bacurau, the town’s population battle the manmade decrease in water availability—in a country where some parts are blessed with the abundance of water from the mighty Amazon River.

Bacurau begins with visuals of a modest water truck that navigates ill maintained roads to a town that survives with a church, a school, a museum (where it records past denizens who revolted against injustice) , a whorehouse, a small hospital, a farm with horses and a diverse population that represents the varied races of human beings all living in harmony--a microcosm of Brazilian social reality today. Is the ecology sustainable without adequate drinking water? Can a remote town survive without adequate supply of food and medicines?

"Doctor" Domingas (Sonia Braga) with blood-splattered coat

The Brazilian co-directors (Filho had made the acclaimed recent film Aquarius with actress Sonia Braga, who also has a significant role in Bacurau) underscore the bias of Brazilian politicians who neglect fringe populations living in remote areas in preference to wealthier populations living in better endowed areas of the country to get re-elected.  They add to this scenario  the profile of the inconsiderate politicians who supply medicines that are either banned or beyond their expiry date and dump second hand books for the library transported in dumpsters all in the name of aid. Then there are politicians that divert canal water, protected by armed guards, which could have served the town of Bacurau that needed the water, to other projects that serve the politicians’ own narrow interests. When the local politician arrives with his gifts, the population of the town hide behind closed doors just as the nightjar bird is prone to hide by camouflaging itself.

Into this bleak scenario, co-directors Dornelles and Filho add another and more deadly and sinister element—the sport of rich individuals from Europe and USA to kill human beings in Bucarau and its surrounding areas targeting  those are not white (just as hunters used to kill wild animals) with the assent of local Brazilian politicians. Dornelles and Filho even add rich Brazilians (referred to in the credits as “Foresteiras”) who are in this group of bizarre, racist individuals who kill humans without remorse.  This group is led by a character named Michael (played by Udo Kier, who has worked with Lars von Trier in Breaking the Waves and Europa and has a cult following for his appearances in gory,  horror films). One would have expected actor Kier to have been stony faced at the Cannes premiere of Bacurau but according to IMdB trivia Kier cried for the first time in his 50 year career “because of the whole experience of filming (Bacurau)”

Domingas (Braga) offers Michael (Udo Kier)  soup

There are many details in Bacurau, which will ring a chord with Brazilian audiences as there are references to real life people in Brazilian history, people who fought against injustice n the past.  Bacurau brings back memories of great Brazilian filmmakers of the past who made films that are unforgettable such as Ruy Guerra (The Guns, 1964, winner of the Silver Bear at Berlin festival) and Glauber Rocha (Entranced Earth, 1967, winner of the Grand Prize at Locarno festival and FIPRESCI prize at Cannes festival). Bacurau might not boast of the high production qualities of Parasite, but it is a film that reminds you of the Brazilian films of Guerra and Rocha.

Michael (Kier),  the lead remorseless human hunter

Like the nightjar, the people of Bacurau prove that can “eat” human insects. And it offers more food for thought than a Tarantino film or a regular Western. 

(The film is showcased at the 2019 Denver Film Festival, USA, opening shortly, which has a major focus on Brazilian cinema.)

P.S.  Bacurau won the Best Film and the Best Director awards at the Lima Latin America Film Festival., the ARRI /OSRAM Award for the Best International Film at the Munich Film Festival, and the Best Director Award, the Carnet Cove Jury Award, and the Critics’ award  at the Sitges Catalonian International  Film Festival.  Lars  von Triers’s Breaking the Waves (with Udo Kier and mentioned in the above review) has been reviewed earlier on this blog (click on the name of the film in this postscript to access the review)  and is one of the author’s best 100 filmsThe author has visited Brazil and interacted with its senior government officials who were planning and managing national agricultural projects in the late Nineties. Bacurau is one of the author's best 20 films of 2019.

Monday, October 21, 2019

242. Israeli director Nadav Lapid’s French/Israeli film “Synonymes” (Synonyms) (2019): A disturbing tale of extreme alienation and nihilism, contrasting the social realities of Israel with that of France

Synonyms’ protagonist Yoav (Tom Mercier) is an Israeli Jew who grew up with his parents in Israel and has been through the mandatory military training and perfected his skills to the extent he can shoot with his sophisticated automatic machine gun to rhyme with musical pieces just for the fun of it and even claims to have perforated Arab terrorists with his shooting skills. That was Yoav’s past, glimpses of which are briefly shown in the film. The Yoav you see for most of the 2 hour-long  Synonyms is a young man so disillusioned with his native land, his parents, his native tongues (Yiddish and Hebrew), and  the Israeli armed forces that he has chosen flee his country and start a new life in France by mastering the French language with the aid of a dictionary.

Yoav robbed of all his belongings
almost freezes to death in an empty apartment

While the original script, co-written by director Nadav Lapid and another individual named Haim Lapid (who might or might not be related), stresses Yoav’s alienation from Israel, Israelis expatriates in Paris seem to be able contact him and help him get a job to survive, after he is robbed of all his possessions. In spite of his professed hatred of anything Israeli, the job offered is ironically as a security guard at the Israel embassy in Paris, where Yoav responds in French, when spoken to in Yiddish by his colleagues. Yoav’s alienation is extended to his family as well. He tells his new French benefactors that his father is dead (when he is actually alive) and that his mother laughed loudly during his military service graduation ceremony. When his father travels to Paris to meet him and help him with monetary assistance, Yoav is rude towards him and refuses to speak with him.

Yoav (Tom Mercier) in a yellow coat with his French benefactors,
Emile and Caroline

Yoav clearly wants to be assimilated into the French society while he rejects his own Israeli roots, even though he thinks singer Celine Dion is French, when she is Canadian.  The clever script presents a French unmarried couple, Emile and Caroline,  who revive him when he is nearly frozen in his bath tub having been robbed of all his clothes and money. The French duo extends money, clothes, and friendship without asking anything in return. They do not exhibit any racism, in contrast to what Yoav experienced and was indoctrinated in Israel. Yoav is clearly not a religious Jew either.

The script moves gradually to existential nihilism with Yoav who once loved music to rebuke orchestra members, revoke friendship with an extraordinary and selfless French friend by asking him to return Yoav’s writings that Yoav had himself generously gifted earlier, and insult Yoav’s French wife who too had been his admirer (she even referred to him as ‘the monk’) and lover.

The silver lining of the bleak original screenplay is perhaps the symbolic references to the Greek epic poem by Homer called Illiad, specifically the final encounter between Hector and Achilles outside the ramparts of Troy besieged by the Greek army.  Yoav tells his French benefactors that his parents used to read to him the story of Hector when he was four years old, making Yoav to become increasingly fond of the Trojan hero who challenged Achilles to a single mortal combat. But Yoav’s parents refused to reveal the outcome of that encounter. It is well known that Achilles defeated Hector and killed him and then dragged his body around the ramparts of Troy. In the disturbing film Synonyms, we are shown a vehicle dragging a man in the empty streets of a modern city at night, much like Hector’s body was dragged to prove some bizarre point.

Emile arranges the marriage of Yoav and Caroline,
so that Yoav can become a French citizen

Perhaps director Nadav Lapid wants to project Yoav who leaves Israel as being somewhat similar to Hector who went out of the secure fortress of Troy, much against the wishes of his wife, only to be killed and humiliated in death.

The film Synonyms reminds you of the 2018 Chinese film An Elephant Sitting Still.  Both the films won the FIPRESCI prize at the Berlin film festival in successive years, and Synonyms went on to win the Golden Bear for the Best Film in competition at Berlin. Both films are nihilistic. Both films indirectly criticize the country of the respective director’s birth. Synonyms won the best cinematography award in Israel and understandably was not bestowed any major award. Synonyms is being screened at the Denver Film Festival kicking off soon.

The film Synonyms is not a film that extends universal appeal; yet it has won the hearts of the jury members at Berlin and members of Israel's film academy. What the film does indeed present positively is the French spirit of equality, liberty and fraternity.

P.S.  An Elephant Sitting Still (2018) was reviewed earlier on this blog. Note the inverted Eiffel Tower in Synonyms' poster above!

Thursday, October 17, 2019

241. Japanese filmmaker and screenplay writer Hirokazu Kore-eda’s French/English feature film “Le vérité” (The Truth) (2019): Impressive, yet not as fascinating as a few of his earlier feature films

Hirokazu Kore-eda is undoubtedly one of the most interesting film-directors alive and making films today.  His talent to write an original script is just awesome. His scripts are so diverse in subject matter and yet linked by two common threads:  family ties and importance of ethics in life. Only a few of his films have original scripts written by someone else. He is remarkably close in his treatments of varied chosen subjects to the works of Naomi Kawase, another contemporary Japanese filmmaker, who also prefers to write her own original scripts. Perhaps it is more than a coincidence that French actress Juliette Binoche is the star of both their latest films: Kore-eda’s The Truth and Kawase’s Vision (2018).

 Fabienne (Deneuve, left) is the mother and Lumir (Binoche, right)
is her daughter

The Truth presents a tale of an aging and reputed French actress Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve) who is rich enough to spend decades in outer space to counteract natural aging and return to Earth to continue her acting career looking younger than her age. This obviously means her relationship with her biological daughter Lumir (Binoche), who is now a film scriptwriter, is punctuated by 10 year gaps for the sake of her own vanity. The preposterous 10 year “sojourn” in “outer space” idea is a typical fantasy of Kore-eda that one encounters in his films occasionally. The Truth is another original screenplay of Kore-eda making his first non-Japanese language feature film with Lea Le Dimna, providing him with the French and English translation of his written script. The Truth is showcased at the Denver International Film Festival, USA, that kicks off later this month.  American audiences at the festival will be delighted to find Ethan Hawke in The Truth playing the role of Lumir’s American husband Hank, a TV actor getting good reviews in a recently completed TV series back home.

Three generations of the family:
Lumir (Binoche) and Fabienne (Deneuve, foreground) as daughter and mother;
Hank the son-in-law (Ethan Hawke) and granddaughter
Charlotte (Clementine Greniere) seated behind

In the film, The Truth, Kore-eda focuses once again on family ties, predominantly on the mother-daughter relationship taking centre stage. Ethics are also discussed in passing (Fabienne’s destruction of a rival actress’ career using unethical means) but those small details discussed in passing could easily be missed out by casual viewers.  

What is disturbing in this film is not its content but the parallels from other major works of cinema which make you scratch you head to recall whether you had seen it all before. The tale of a daughter returning with her new husband after a long hiatus to her house where she grew up, only to unravel bits and pieces of past and present in her family are remarkably close to Luchino Visconti’s Venice Golden Lion winning film Sandra (1965). The apprehensions of an aging famous actress not being able to impress in front of the camera and being increasingly forgetful of her lines while shooting is remarkably close to the story of John Cassavetes’  Berlin’s Silver Bear winner  Opening Night  (1977) with his wife Gena  Rowlands  impressing us just as much as Ms Deneuve  does in The Truth.  On the other hand, Ms Deneuve gives us a magnificent performance in The Truth, to the extent we are constantly hypnotized by the two wonderful lead actresses, Deneuve and Binoche facing off their turbulent mother-daughter relationships.  Kore-eda also introduces within the film the filming of Fabienne’s recently published autobiography as added fodder to make the screenplay richer and provide yet another dimension for Deneuve to project herself with subtle differences in the film within the film.

A rare scene of the city of Paris in the film
detailing the relationship between the second and third generations
(left to right: Binoche, Greniere and Hawke)

The hairdo of Fabienne,
a likely homage to Tarkovsky's Mirror

In the middle of The Truth the viewer’s attention is led by the clever script to Fabienne’s hair and how it’s combed differently by daughter and granddaughter.  Then the camera captures Fabienne’s hairdo taken from behind her head that will remind any cineaste of Andrei Tarkovsky's mother’s hairdo while sitting on a fence in Mirror (1975), a sequence which was recreated in homage much later by Turkish director Semih  Kaplanoglu in his film Milk (2008). In both the Russian and the Turkish films the subject is the son’s (director’s) view of their mothers.  In The Truth, too, it is a perspective of the relationship between mother and daughter and granddaughter, using hair as a visual focal point.

If we discount the similarities to the two earlier films, The Truth offers awesome performances (Deneuve, Binoche, and  Hawke, in particular) and a very intelligent script that dissects relationships within families. As in most Kore-eda feature films, the subject of The Truth is not limited to a single generation but presents interactions between three generations—which is why the film offers much fodder for thought than is obvious. Even as this writer is a Kore-eda fan who has watched 13 of his 14 feature films, The Truth is not his most rewarding film—three other films The Third Murder (2017), Shoplifters (2018) and Maborosi (1995), are far superior.  But The Truth is well worth your time, if you like Kore-eda, Visconti or Cassavetes.

P.S. Kore-eda’s The Third Murder and Kawase’s Vision (2018) have earlier been reviewed on this blog. The reviews of Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1975) and Kaplanoglu’s Milk (2008.) can also be accessed on this blog by clicking on the names of the films on this post-script. The author’s list of the best 15 active filmmakers includes Kore-eda. The author's ranking of the 13 Kore-eda films can be viewed hereThe Truth is among the author's top 20 films of 2019.

Monday, October 14, 2019

240. French filmmaker and screenplay writer Stéphane Brizé’s French feature film “En Guerre” (At War) (2018): France’s equivalent of Ken Loach never fails to impress

Those who fight might lose but those who don’t fight have already lost. 
                                       -- Bertolt Brecht (opening quote of the film)

At War will pale in comparison to Stéphane Brizé’s 2015 film The Measure of a Man, another film on sudden layoffs and its effect on individuals and families of workers.  Both films have the team of Brizé and Oliver Gorce as co-scriptwriters.  Both films have the same the same lead actor Vincent Lindon who can be subtle at times and be realistically bursting with raw emotions at others. However, the knockout punch at the end of the 2018 film makes the entire later film worth your time.

Strike or war at a miniscule level?

Stéphane Brizé’s 2018 film At War creates an incredible documentary feel for much of the early part of the film—a tale of angry factory workers facing unemployment for the rest of their lives, in spite of an assurance from the multinational company made several years before to the workers that their jobs would be protected. Compounding the jolt to the workers is the fact that there are no comparable jobs available in that region that the laid off workers can opt for.  The stand-off leads to a lock-out at the factory with striking workers demanding a face-off with the German Chief Executive Officer of the multi-national company who had earlier assured the workers in writing that this would not happen and who initially refuses to personally confront the striking workers. The strikers at the factory are led by Laurent (Vincent Lindon).

While the management is armed with data to show that they went back on the agreed arrangement of no job cuts before they had realized the factory was no longer competitive in the rapidly changing economic global scenario, the striking employees note the contrasting  higher dividends paid to shareholders and increased salaries to senior employees in the same time period when the factory was supposedly  becoming non-competitive. Brizé’s film comes alive with credible arguments from a very informed workforce. With the help of the French government, the workers are confident of the factory returning to profit, if they are allowed to run it rather than by the overpaid senior staff. But do corporates handover their so-called loss-making factories to smart workers? The subject of the film may appear to be French but the subject is universal and contemporary in reality, in an  increasingly global economy.

Laurent (Vincent Lindon) the enigmatic strike leader

While The Measure of a Man dealt with the fallout of economic stress of joblessness on an upright individual, At War is an interesting study of various types of individuals reacting differently in the shadow of an upright leader in those conditions. British director Ken Loach explored similar social themes in his Cannes Golden Palm winning film I, Daniel Blake (2016) and the talented Belgian directorial team of the Dardennes brothers in their film Two Days, One Night (2014). Of course, the best work on the subject will remain Sergei Eisenstein’s first full length Russian silent feature film Strike (1925) made nearly a century ago. All these films are fascinating films on the same subject--an evergreen subject over decades. Yet each of these films are so different and thought provoking.

The remarkable difference of At War with these films is that the co-scriptwriters and the director put the actions of the heroic and upright strike leader in parallel perspective of Laurent turning a grandparent.  The socialistic symbolism of the childbirth within the script will not be lost on perceptive viewers. The screenplay and direction of film are creditable as is the range of emotions displayed by actor Vincent Lindon. One of the best scenes in the film is of a staid faced and silent Laurent (Lindon) driving his car alone, visually captured by a profile shot, with a tear running down his face, at a critical point in the film's narrative.

Different faces, different attitudes

The most appropriate description of the film is provided by the citation of the Silver Hugo bestowed on the film’s co-scriptwriters.  The citation reads that the award is for 

articulating and bringing light to an important political issue which reflects the anxiety of our contemporary society and the precariousness of our livelihood."

P.S. At War won the Silver Hugo at the Chicago Film Festival for the Best Screenplay for the co-scriptwriters Stéphane Brizé and Olivier Gorce. The film also won the FIPRESCI Prize at the Palic Film Festival, Serbia and Montenegro. Director Brizés The Measure of a Man (2015) has been reviewed earlier on this blog as also Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake (2016) and the Dardennes brothers’ film Two Days, One Night (2014).