Saturday, January 10, 2015

172. Argentine director Damián Szifrón’s “Wild Tales” (Relatos salvajes) (2014): Black comedy that entertains while making us introspect

The "wild" characters from the six segments

Wild Tales is a gem of an entertainer made up of six stand-alone, dark, comic tales. It is a portmanteau film with a difference; all the six tales are written and directed by one man--Damián Szifrón.  He is also the co-editor of this impressive work. Surprisingly, this Argentine director is only in his late thirties and he has made a film that belies his age. Most audiences will love it because there are elements in the six tales they will easily identify with, irrespective of where they live on this planet.  Interestingly, the film was co-produced by the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, who must be delighted that he has invested his money well.

It is “wild” because it depicts extreme reactions of ordinary individuals, who are frustrated by present urban societal pressures and the outcomes are quite plausible if the frustrated individuals are left with little or no choice to correct their predicaments, created often not by themselves but by others. Damián Szifrón may be zooming in on frustrations in urban Argentina but a global viewer would easily identify the situations as universal.

"Pasternak": Wild revenge of a snubbed creative mind

The opening segment “Pasternak” is a prologue to the main film before you see the film’s credits hilarious credit sequence. The prologue is essential for the viewer to appreciate the comic elements in the illustrated animals shown in the credits.  The humans in the film Wild Tales are not far removed from the colorful wild animals in the credit sequence. The humans are ordinary people who can indeed become wild.

Without providing spoilers for those who are yet to enjoy the film, it is important to note ’’Pasternak” is a tale relating to the frustrations of a budding music composer named Pasternak, who finds his creative output is trashed by critics/professors and his life is gradually ripped apart by several people in his life. And the brilliant part of this segment is that you never get to see Mr Pasternak—you only get to see those who have ruined him.

"The Rats:" How to deal with rats in a restaurant 

The next segment “The Rats” is set in a restaurant but the rodents are human.  The human rat is a social climber who has succeeded in life by trampling down on poorer sections of society, often wrecking their lives with impunity and killing the bread winners of marginal lower middle class families who cannot survive the economic pressures.  This segment also presents the flip side view of lower middle class family members driven to prison for offences created by economic strains and eventually preferring to remain behind bars with basic food and amenities rather than succumb to “human” rodents who wreck your life outside prison.

"The Strongest": Class wars on the road

The segment “The Strongest” is all about road rage of two individuals with a difference. Director-writer Damián Szifrón adds the element of social economic disparity—one is driving a high-end car, the other a jalopy, both using the same highway.  The rich look at the slow moving jalopy refusing to give way for fast moving cars with disdain. The poor look to avenge the cocky rich. Who is stronger? The best part is the finale of the segment where the policeman makes an ironical statement. Kudos to the writer Damián Szifrón! The audience anywhere will erupt when they hear that line. (This critic is intentionally not reproducing it as it would be spoiler!)

"Little Bomb": The expert demolisher (Ricardo Darin) demolished

Argentine actor Ricardo Darin is impressive in every role in every film that this critic recalls having seen him in and the segment “Little Bomb” in Wild Tales is no exception. Ricardo Darin plays a well-paid demolition expert, married and a father of a lovely girl. His well heeled life is slowly demolished by a private sector Buenos Aires traffic entity responsible for ensuring cars are parked only in designated places and having the authority to tow away those that do not comply to the rules.

But such entities can get high handed and citizens can get high strung, if they are convinced that they did not break any rules but have option but to pay the large fines. This segment also reveals writer Damián Szifrón’s empathy for the parking woes of car owners in Buenos Aires and how a “terrorist” can become a local hero. Damián Szifrón’s characters here and elsewhere act and react as ordinary individuals driven up against the wall by forces un-intentionally created by a well-meaning society.

The segment “The Proposal” reiterates Damián Szifrón’s interest in the class divide and how the rich try to use the poor to get out of nasty situations such as a rich family member causing a car accident leading to a death of a poor citizen.  As in the earlier segment “The Rats,” Szifrón’s script deals with corruption but in “The Proposal” that aspect is openly shown with amazing humor. The black comedy takes a U-turn when the righteous, scarred public avenges by “wildly” killing the wrong person.

"Till Death Do Us Part": The bride confirms the bridegroom's infidelity

The final segment titled “Till Death Do Us Part”—the famous wedding phrase used in Christian weddings--is about a wedding reception for the newlyweds in a hotel in Buenos Aires.  The bride stumbles on a hidden relationship the bridegroom has with one of the invited guests and what follows is best described by Shakespeare’s words “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” The resulting “wild” roller coaster events during the wedding reception constitute black comedy, sinister and yet hilarious.

While we laugh at all the six segments, there are pointers from the film to take home. Can critics destroy creative minds? Can the upwardly mobile successful citizens realize who they have trampled along the way? Can we project our road rage towards people who are indeed breaking rules without considering the consequences? Can the private and public sector perform with a heart towards society? Can public rage against corruption and the wrongdoings of the rich go sadly wrong?  Can spouses who fall deeply in love forgive each other’s weaknesses?

Wild Tales is a combination of intelligent original screenplay writing and good direction. This wild film is a social critique of Argentina today, entertaining the audiences in its stride. Intelligent comedy is not easy; Wild Tales makes it look easy. The numerous audience awards it has picked up at film festivals globally testify to its universal appeal and for Argentine cinema, rare indeed is a film that has won a staggering tally of 15 national awards. Damián Szifrón has arrived on the world cinema map.

P.S. Wild Tales  has won audience awards at the San Sebastian film festival, the Sao Paulo film festival, the Sarajevo film festival, and the Oslo Films of the South film festival. Its box office returns has already exceeded 7 times its cost. It is one of the 5 films that made the final  list of nominees for the Best Foreign Film Oscar 2015. Wild Tales is one of the author's top 10 films of 2014.

Friday, January 02, 2015

171. Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev’s film “Leviathan” (2014): A bold political film made with a superb aesthetic flourish

During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that conditions called war; and such a war, as if of every man, against every man.” Thomas Hobbes, in his political book on statecraft called Leviathan, published in 1651

“Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope? Can you put a cord through its nose or pierce its jaw with a hook? Will it keep begging you for mercy? Will it  speak to you with gentle words? Will it make an agreement with you for you to take it as your slave for life? Can you make a pet of it like a bird or put it on a leash for the young women in your house? Will traders barter for it? Will they divide it up among the merchants? Can you fill its hide with harpoons or its head with fishing spears? If you lay a hand on it, you will remember the struggle and never do it again! Any hope of subduing it is false; the mere sight of  it is overpowering." Book of Job, Chapter 41, 1-9 in the Holy Bible (Job is referred to as Ayub in the Holy Koran) (This quotation is recalled in part by the priest in Zvyagintsev's film Leviathan)

All the four Andrei Zvyagintsev feature films—The Return, The Banishment, Elena, and Leviathan  provide an unusual amalgam of family relationships, politics, religion, philosophy, literature, psychology, sociology,  visual metaphors  and music. Each element grips the viewer when recognized in each of the films. Each element provokes inward looking questions in the minds of the viewers. Zvyagintsev is one of the best filmmakers worldwide who consistently make awesome films for those who can appreciate serious cinema—alongside directors such as Terrence Malick (USA), Carlos Reygadas (Mexico), Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey), Paolo Sorrentino (Italy), and Naomi Kawase (Japan).

Each of Zvyagintsev’s four films have deservedly won major accolades at premier film festivals (the Golden Lion at Venice for The Return; the Best Actor award at Cannes for Banishment; the Un Certain Regard section Jury prize at Cannes, Silver Peacock for Best Actress at the Indian International Film Festival in Goa,  and the Grand Prize at the Ghent International festival for Elena;  Best Screenplay award at Cannes, the Golden Peacock for Best Film and the Silver Peacock for Best Actor at the Indian International Film Festival in Goa, and the Best Film at the London Film Festival for Leviathan).

Zvyagintsev's Job is the honest Nikolai (shortened to Kolya in the film) willing
to forgive an erring wife: A Silver-Peacock-winning performance
by Alexei Serebryakov 

At a very elementary level, Leviathan is a tale of an honest man resisting the wiles of a corrupt Mayor of his coastal town to grab the land on which he and his ancestors lived. The honest man Nikolai --shortened to Kolya-- (Alexei  Serebryakov) is on the verge of losing his house when even the courts go against him.  His former friend from his Army days Dimitri—shortened to Dimi--, now a high flying lawyer practicing in Moscow, arrives with powerful connections and documents to checkmate the corrupt Mayor. The tragedy that follows is not far removed from a Biblical character called Job (or Ayub, if you are a Muslim).

When critics like me discover and point out elements of politics and theology in Zvyagitsev’s entire oeuvvre, readers are sceptical if too much is ascribed to a film beyond the obvious narrative tale. In the earlier films of Zvyagintsev, politics and theology were partly hidden behind visual and aural symbols. Many viewers of the first three Zvyagintsev films would have discounted the theological elements unless they were well read in the scriptures and acquainted with the cinema of Andrei Tarkovksy. Both the late Russian maestro Andrei Tarkovsky and  Andrei Zvyagintsev (the latter is in his early fifties)  are intellectuals who have good knowledge of Christian scriptures and use them to enhance the depth of their cinema.  

The title of the film Leviathan comes from two interlinked sources:  the Biblical Book of Job (Chapter 41) and Thomas Hobbes’ political book Leviathan  (published in 1651) on statecraft linking politics and religion. Unlike Zvyagintsev’s preceding three films, where religion and politics remained partly hidden, in Leviathan Zvyagintsev openly discusses both elements. There is a scene in Leviathan where wall portraits of past Russian leaders Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, and Gorbachev are consciously used as targets for rifle shooting during a picnic and even Yeltsin is disparagingly referred in the dialogue.  (Putin is not included here, but a photograph of Putin is discretely on the wall in the Mayor's office, just as Tarkovsky added Trotsky’s photograph on the wall in a brief scene in Mirror.) Religion, too, comes to the fore in Leviathan, as the Book of Job passage is quoted by a priest in the film and the penultimate ironical sequence is a church sermon by a bishop with the villainous mayor and his family listening to it with piety.  Tarkovsky, who could never be bold to openly criticize the Russian politics, would have been delighted to see what Zvyagintsev has achieved in Leviathan. One guesses that Zvyagintsev realized that his political and religious statements through symbols used in his earlier works did not reach out to a wide audience and he had to be more explicit in Leviathan. Even the TV program shown briefly in Leviathan is discussing the Pussy Riot case. Ironically, Leviathan is Russia’s official entry to the 2015 Oscars.

It is therefore relevant to reproduce below  the director Andrei Zvyagintsev’s statement provided at Cannes film festival for the media on his film Leviathan

“When a man feels the tight grip of anxiety in the face of need and uncertainty, when he gets overwhelmed with hazy images of the future, scared for his loved ones, and fearful of death on the prowl, what can he do except give up his freedom and free will, and hand these treasures over willingly to a trustworthy person in exchange for deceptive guarantees of security, social protection, or even of an illusory community?”
 “Thomas Hobbes’ outlook on the state is that of a philosopher on man’s deal with the devil: he sees it as a monster created by man to prevent ‘the war of all against all’, and by the understandable will to achieve security in exchange for freedom, man’s sole true possession.”
 “Just like we are all, from birth, marked by the original sin, we are all born in a ‘state’. The spiritual power of the state over man knows no limit.”
“The arduous alliance between man and the state has been a theme of life in Russia for quite a long time. But if my film is rooted in the Russian land, it is only because I feel no kinship, no genetic link with anything else. Yet I am deeply convinced that, whatever society each and everyone of us lives in, from the most developed to the most archaic, we will all be faced one day with the following alternative: either live as a slave or live as a free man. And if we naively think that there must be a kind of state power that can free us from that choice, we are seriously  mistaken. In the life of every man, there comes a time when one is faced with the system, with the “world”, and must stand up for his sense of justice, his sense of God on Earth.”
“It is still possible today to ask these questions to the audience and to find a tragic hero in our land, a ‘son of God’, a character who has been tragic from time immemorial, and this is precisely the reason why my homeland isn’t lost yet to me, or to those who have made this film.

The predicament of the character Job of the Bible is not far removed from the pile of misfortunes heaped on a good man Nikolai or Kolya in Leviathan. Zvyagintsev, like Tarkovsky, is very familiar with the Bible and weave elements from it into his films.  Nikolai in Leviathan represents the average good Russian.  

The good working class Kolya is broken like Job in the Bible from all sides
as misfortunes pile up: yet he forgives his erring wife
Co-scriptwriter Oleg Negin worked on the last three Zvyagintsev films including Leviathan. Zvyagintsev and Negin weave in politics and religion with a rare felicity; they bring to mind the collaboration of the Polish Kieslowski and his co-scriptwriter Piesiewicz. However, Zvyagintsev’s collaboration with music composer Philip Glass is limited to Elena and Leviathan. Philip Glass’ music used in the film was Glass’ composition Akhnaten, the Pharaoh, who practiced monotheism in ancient Egypt. That operatic musical composition  also deals with power and religion, not far removed from the subject of Leviathan. The use of Glass’ music in the two Zvyagintsev films could serve as a master-class for some of the Hollywood’s currently feted directors because Zvyagintsev uses music only when it is essential and relevant and adjusts the volume with care. The rest is diagetic sound on his film soundtracks.  The third major Zvyagintsev collaborator is his cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, who continues to contribute richly to the visual canvas in all the four Zvyagintsev films. While most viewers will recall the fossilized bones of a blue whale in Leviathan, the most enigmatic shot in the film is the shot of a live whale in the distance at a key points\ in the film—the last scene of Kolya’s wife alive in the film as she contemplates the sea and her predicament. What Zvyagintsev and Krichman achieved in Leviathan in the final snowbound sequence was ironically close to the final shots of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep, the Turkish film that competed with Leviathan and won the top prize at the 2014 Cannes film festival. Though both are amazing films, Leviathan, for this critic had more plus points when comparing both. Most importantly, Leviathan was more original in content than the Golden Palm winning Winter Sleep, which was anchored to a Chekov story. Most of all, Zvyagintsev's Leviathan, though referring to Hobbes and the Bible, is extraordinarily brave in showcasing the corruption in contemporary non-Communist Russia. And like Ceylan's Winter Sleep, Leviathan also underscores the plight of the poor when the rich and powerful people, crush their lives. Even the motives behind an apparent good deed to adopt a friend's teenage son is questioned in the film.

Zvyagintsev’s cinema is not the run-of-the-mill cinema. Many crucial scenes of the tale are never shown on screen—he prefers to show the aftermath. The viewer is forced to imagine what could have happened. The fight between Nikolai and Dimitri is never shown; we only see Dimitri’s injured face. The death of Kolya’s wife is never shown; only her dead body is shown.  The evil antagonist forces are described in a reverse quixotic detail when the corrupt Mayor asks Dimitri, the lawyer, if he was baptized, when Dimitri confronts the Mayor with the evidence of his "sins." What a loaded question, and the irony is, who is asking! The Orthodox Bishop asks the corrupt Mayor "We are in God's house. Did you take communion?" and reminds him that both are doing God's work.  One of the final scenes is of the corrupt Mayor’s child looking up at the church’s ceiling after the sermon which includes the statement of the Bishop "Love dwells not in strength but in love". Nothing in Zvyagintsev’s cinema is without considered thought. An intelligent viewer has to pick up the details. And as in Elena, Leviathan too ends with squawking of a crow on the soundtrack, before the colorful and deep music of Philip Glass takes over for the finale.

Kolya's teenaged son Roma mopes over his stepmother's unethical actions: Zvyagintsev's
imagery of  a fossilized "Leviathan" is brought into perspective

Children and boys in particular played major roles in all the four Zvyagintsev feature films. In Elena and Leviathan, the young boys find alternate entertainment with their friends far away from home.  In Elena, the youngsters fight among themselves; in Leviathan, the youngsters are less boisterous and appear drugged/drunk, no longer fighting among themselves to achieve something. The boys gather in a broken-down unused church.  Zvyagintsev is evidently making a time-based sociological statement on Russian youth and the Russian Orthodox Church.  Young-boys-revolting-against-their-parents is a recurring theme for Zvyagintsev. In Leviathan, the son Roma is born from a first marriage of Kolya and his anger against his stepmother is understandable. When Dimitri is beaten up and threatened to be shot to death by the Mayor, Dimitri is asked if he has any thoughts for his daughter we never see. What Zvyagintsev shows us instead is a little girl on the train Dimitri is taking back to Moscow, possibly reminding Dimitri of his own.

In Leviathan, the wife is ambiguous embodying both the good and the evil, whom the
good Kolya forgives 

Wives in all Zvyagintsev’s films are interesting to study: some good, some evil, and some ambiguous in their actions. In Leviathan, the wife is ambiguous—we can only guess why she acted the way she did. She strays from the path of a good wife but chooses to return to her husband. In The Return, the viewer is never told why the father was absent for years. Zvyagintsev apparently believes that the jigsaw puzzles (a motif used in The Banishment) he presents in his films in varied ways can be completed by an intelligent viewer. He does not believe in spoon feeding his audience. Lilya, thw wife in Leviathan, asks her lover Dimitri "Do you believe in God?" Evidently she does.

To end this review, it might be more than relevant to again quote from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan“He that is taken and put into prison or chains is not conquered, though overcome; for he is still an enemy.” The enigmatic shot of the live whale in the distance towards the final minutes of the film exemplifies this last Hobbes quote.

P.S. All the three preceding Zvyagintsev films--The Return, The Banishment, and Elena--have been reviewed in detail earlier on this blog. Leviathan is the best of the 10 top films of 2014 for the author. It has subsequently won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

170. The late Chilean maestro Raúl Ruiz' Portuguese film “Mistérios de Lisboa” (Mysteries of Lisbon) (2010): A brilliant cinematic treatise on memories


     “My films are not fiction films but about fiction”---Raúl Ruiz

     “In today’s cinema there is too much light, it is time to return to the shadows”--- Raúl Ruiz in his book ‘Poetics of Cinema’

      “I chose to take refuge in the dramaturgy of dreams” ---Raúl Ruiz

These three quotations of Raúl Ruiz are important starting points for analyzing the penultimate cinematic work of the talented Raúl Ruiz-- Mysteries of Lisbon. Ruiz had already made over a hundred movies and he made Mysteries of Lisbon knowing well that his days were numbered after being diagnosed with a life threatening liver tumour.  He completed the film while recovering from a successful liver transplant, only to die soon after, ironically from a lung infection.  While one can sense the brilliance of this cinematic work, it is difficult to distinguish what credit ought to be attributed  to the Portuguese novelist Camilo Castillo Branco, who wrote the book in 1854, without having read the work (the English translation of the book is not easily available), and what needs to be actually credited to director Ruiz.  Despite that conundrum, there are obvious pointers to what was definitely the contribution of Ruiz. The following analysis pertains to those aspects of the movie that are predominantly attributable to Ruiz alone.

Young Joao looks at his 'mother' in the company of Father Dinis

Father Dinis and Joao's "mother" (Maria Joao Bastos) after she becomes a nun

Mysteries of Lisbon is a 272 minute film unfolding a convoluted and yet interesting tale narrated by a tormented epileptic orphan Joao under the care of a priest named Father Dinis and some nuns. The tale is mostly set in the early 19th century Portugal. Priests and nuns there often have led colourful lives, preceding their final vocation. For author Branco, who was by all accounts a religious person, the Church in Portugal at that time provided sanctuary for orphans, widows, and those in trouble. Either Branco or Ruiz, or both together, use the puppet paper theatre as a prop and as a narrative punctuation device for the epileptic Joao to imagine vivid tales of grown-ups in aristocratic Portugal, who are all somehow connected to Father Dinis (Adriano Luz) and a lady who claims to be his mother, who has gifted him the puppet paper theatre while recovering from an epileptic attack. It is thus not surprising that characters in Joao ‘s world are closely interrelated.  (For example, Joao’s “mother’s“  husband’s mistress turns up later in the tale as the wife of Albert de Magalhaes, another important person in Joao’s life story.) In that process, Branco examines the social importance Portuguese gave to the firstborn in a family, how paternal titles made or unmade individuals, how fathers wreck the love lives of their daughters for personal benefit only to rue their actions much later in life and the lack of fidelity of abusive husbands.

Any approach to appreciate Ruiz’ cinema cannot dissociate it from  Ruiz’ life--a Chilean director who chose self-exile in the early Seventies following the US-supported coup that removed the democratically elected Salvador Allende while installing the Chilean armed forces Commander Augusto Pinochet in power instead.  Today, the world knows the late Pinochet was implicated on over 300 charges of human rights violations. The multi-talented Ruiz fled from Chile under Pinochet hopping from one European country to another, frenetically writing plays and books and making over a 100 films. Each of these works reflected his distaste for the armed forces that took power in Chile and his wistful love of Chile, a country he could not return to work as before.  Even though Mysteries of Lisbon is predominantly set in Portugal and France, there is a sequence where the ‘orphan’ Joao ‘appears’ to end his last days in Brazil, not far from Ruiz’ homeland Chile. Ruiz forever dreamt of returning to Chile. As per his wishes, Ruiz was buried in Chile. Such indirect references abound in each work of Ruiz. While Mysteries of Lisbon is essentially about dreams, the final sequence reiterates the importance of dreams.  At the end, the colours of the screen fade to merge with empty white light. The film of shadows comes to a close. Ruiz transcends Branco’s words using cinematic effects.

Shadows and perspectives: Ruiz upstaging Branco
(the shadow is of  Father Dinis) 
A casual viewer of Mysteries of Lisbon would not associate the work with surrealism and magic realism more obvious in Ruiz’ works, such as, That Day (Ce jour-la) (2003) and Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983). Early into Mysteries of Lisbon, there is a short sequence where another kid of Joao’s age leads Joao to a spot behind the hedges of the orphanage where some men have been hanged in public view. The kid claims that one of the hanged men is a thief and his father. The viewer can see the hanged individuals. Joao is crestfallen as he has been accused of being the son of a thief and confused but does not respond as one would expect.  Father Dinis, who accompanies young Joao and the kid who is showing Joao the hanging, is merely studying Joao’s face  rather than the hanged persons, and he leads Joao back impassively after Joao has taken in the scene of  the hanged individuals. Where is the surrealism or magic realism?  Could this be a real hanging, so close to the orphanage? If it was real, why is Father Dinis not appearing to be concerned with the hanging? Why is he only concerned about Joao? Why do doors open and close by themselves in the film? Why do certain paintings come alive for Joao? Why does an important transaction between two friends take place in a room with two massive religious frescoes on the walls and just two chairs, devoid of any other furniture? Why does Ruiz employ two Joaos during the duel scene, one committing suicide after pensively walking in the background, and another active Joao who partook in the duel going on to live another day with honour? The answers to each of those questions are “mysteries” that contribute to the richness of the film and help the viewer to unravel Ruiz’ complex movie Mysteries of Lisbon with its unusual ending.

Towards the end of Ruiz’ Mysteries of Lisbon, the grown up Joao encounters Elisa de Montfort (Clotilde Hesme). She pauses in her walk and comes to Joao to state, “You lacked courage, my dear.”  This is a sequence which could have been typical of Ruiz’ cinema referring to Ruiz’ political courage or it could also have been Branco’s idea. While the lack of identity is a problem for Joao the orphan, the lack of citizenship of Ruiz is perhaps one reason for the director to choose to make this film, which mirrors his own life.

Riches to rags: The teenaged Joao encountering a once proud Marquis
reduced to beggary searching for the 'mausoleum' of his daughter
Throughout Mysteries of Lisbon, the peripheral non-aristocratic characters listen to conversations of the aristocrats and seniors openly. Servants not just bring in chairs and messages for their masters, but serve as silent and sometimes expressive external commentators within the film.  Even in an abbey, junior priests eavesdrop on the colourful tales of senior priests. Money transforms people of lesser social stature into aristocrats in Mysteries of Lisbon and a proud Marquise is transformed into a blind beggar in the course of the tale.

Torn shreds of an unread letter captured by the camera
placed below the resting pieces

The cinematography (André Szankowski ) of the film is stunning. The camera teases the viewer. The camera goes under a glass table to capture the torn pieces of a letter that is never read. Stories within a story deliberately show individuals with unreal beards and make-up, while the main story in contrast never compromises on quality. Dreams within dreams are treated differently by Ruiz.

Using the paper puppet theater to punctuate Acts

Mysteries of Lisbon is essentially a brilliant treatise on memories. At the end of the movie the viewer is shown a tired and graying Joao who needs a walking stick, but no taller than a teenager, narrating his tale to a scribe. He says “I was 15 years old and I didn’t know who I was. I went on no outings or holidays. I received no presents. I don’t know how long it has been since I lost consciousness. And the moment I opened my eyes. I thought I dreamt it all“, while lying down on a cot broad enough for a kid. Doors close by themselves and the screen brightens gradually to be covered by pure white light.

This film won the San Sebastian Festival Silver Seashell for Best Director and the Sao Paulo Festival Critics award for best film. The film was carved out by Ruiz from several episodes he made for the Portuguese TV.

P.S. Mysteries of Lisbon is the first film of Ruiz to be included in the author’s top 100 films. It was also one of the top 10 films of 2011 for the author.  Ruiz’ earlier work, That Day (Ce jour-la) (2003) was reviewed earlier on this blog. Ruiz’ last film that he completed before his death, La Noche de Efrente (Night Across the Street) (2012), was one of the top 10 films of 2012 for the author.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

169. French director François Ozon’s French film “Dans la maison” (In the House) (2012): Second Ozon film on creative writing, this time adapting a superb Spanish play

François Ozon seems to be fascinated by what makes writers tick. And he loves to prod the viewer to reconsider his/her mental evaluation of fiction and reality as they watch his later films.

Many viewers are likely to initially consider the superb tale of In the House to be solely Ozon’s creative work; it is not. In the House appears to be almost totally leaning on the product of a contemporary Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga titled The Boy in the Last Row, if one goes by the reviews of the play. It is, thus, not a coincidence that the French film went on to win the well-deserved Golden Shell (the grand prize) and the Jury prize for Best Screenplay at the San Sebastian film Festival in Spain. Then why is the film important, if almost all the credit rests with the play on which the film is built? This is because Ozon forces any intelligent viewer to evaluate himself/herself as they progress with the viewing of his film beyond the film’s tale. Is the viewer being cajoled to infer more than what the movie actually informs us?  Is the viewer a voyeur, wanting to see more than what the film offers? Those are Ozon’s questions thrown at us by cinematically adapting the play.

However, the Spanish play proved to be a perfect extension of the very ideas director Ozon presented in his previous movie The Swimming Pool (2003).  In The Swimming Pool, a film based on a story written by Emmanuèle Bernheim, director Ozon presented a riveting thriller, complete with dashes of murder and sex, which was essentially an essay on how a creative fiction writer (Charlotte Rampling)  gets and develops ideas to write her novels, while jolting the viewer to realize at the end of the film that what they read in books (or see and hear on screen) need not be true and that a clever writer can manipulate your mind to make you believe it is indeed true until the end, when you comprehend the real truth.

It is to the credit of director Ozon that he chose to film Mayorga’s play, which logically extends the cinematic argument presented by director Ozon in The Swimming Pool. Mayorga’s play is also about the creative writing process, laid out in a greater and more entertaining detail than in the previous film; with an important additional question relating to morality asked of the viewer. Does the creative process need to be merely smart or does it have to combine moral/social values?  Ozon never dealt with morality in The Swimming Pool but he does that to a certain extent in In the House.

Creative writing: Teacher Germaine Germaine (Luchini)
and student Claude (Umhauer)
In the House is a tale of a young, intelligent male school student, Claude already good at mathematics, who occupies the last rows in his class (the detail referenced in the title of the play), trying out his skills in creative writing in a literature class. Playwright Mayorga is erudite and one assumes is familiar with Vladimir Nabokov’s book Lolita, which has a literature professor double-named Humbert Humbert, who gets obsessed with his step-daughter nicknamed Lolita.  Playwright Mayorga alludes to Nabokov’s work by creating a literary teacher named Germaine Germaine (the viewer gets to see the teacher’s full double name on the cover of his very unsuccessful published book, in the Ozon movie). It’s not just Ozon and Mayorga who are taken in by Nabokov’s novel, even the maestro Stanley Kubrick decided to film Nabokov’s Lolita. Germaine Germaine  is not the only oblique literary reference in this film. They are scattered all over. The name of the French school in the movie is Lycee Gustave Flaubert and the teacher Germaine Germaine (Fabrice Luchini) refers to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a novel that prevails on the reader not to quickly judge characters presented in it, while introducing the work to his students. (Madame Bovary was also the inspiration for Robert Bolt’s script of David Lean’s film Ryan’s Daughter, made in 1970, initially trashed by critics who were ironically too quick to judge what it offered.) The school-teacher’s wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) knocks down her husband in the film with a hardbound copy of Celine’s novel Journey to the End of the Night, quoted at the start of Sorrentino’s recent movie The Great Beauty (2013). The choice of the book is not an accident. Knowledge of international literature can provide additional entertainment for the viewer by enjoying the trenchant remarks of various characters in the movie/play.

The teacher (Luchini) and his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas),
who reads and comments on student Claude's creative writing

The film/play, like Nabokov’s character's name Humbert Humbert, presents and discusses on screen two fathers, two wives, two mothers (one on screen, the other off-screen). and a pair of twins, who own an art gallery, The position the young schoolboy Claude (Ernst Umhauer) occupies in his class is the last row—and visually ironically enough his teacher Germaine Germaine also occupies the last row during an internal teachers’ meeting in the school to discuss school uniforms. Both pupil and teacher are astute observers and thinkers at their individual levels, both sitting on benches in classrooms/schools or in open parks. Both are critical of the middle class to which they themselves belong. The last shot of the film is of both teacher and pupil sitting on the same bench, observing lives of people they have never met.  Ozon’s cinematic rhetorical unspoken question at the end of movie is who is the teacher? Ozon dissects the creative process of writing and storytelling for the viewer. The answers do not lie in the film; the resolution of the conflicts rests with us the viewers. Is the sharing of an apple by a woman and a boy symbolically innocent or not so innocent?

The film/play is a tongue in cheek look at the growing power of TV soap operas which keep viewers dangling on the edge at the end of each episode, convinced and reassured the tale is to be continued in the next, and thus ensnaring the viewer to watch the next episode.  People need stories like the ones Scheherazade narrated keeping her Sultan asking for more tales for 1001 Arabian nights. The creative writing process not merely ensnares the reader/viewer but also involves the creation of a good ending. The teacher of creative literary writing explains to his pupil that a good ending is one that is “necessary, unpredictable, inevitable and surprising.”  Director Ozon does just that by providing such endings in both his films: The Swimming Pool and In the House.

Real or unreal 'barbaric invasion:" Claude (Umhauer) appears to sleep
 between his classmate's parents.
Claude appears to look at the camera/viewer. while
his shadow seems to be looking at his classmate's mother
 (Emmanuelle Seigner)

In the House is ironically about the beguiling”barbaric invasion” of smart students in the school classrooms taking on unsuspecting teachers and extending that invasion to unsuspecting middle class-households with the knowledge of a well-meaning teacher who stokes the embers of creativity in his student not able to decide if his student’s entry into another student’s house is “like an angel or a vampire.” The play/film goes on to compare the allure of mathematics (that “never disappoints”) with that of creative writing (or literature).

The closing shot of the teacher and his pupil

Director Ozon presents a very entertaining and complex film that even prompts Germaine Germaine to wonder if his student Claude’s literary work that keeps his readers transfixed and amazed is close to an imaginary Pier Paolo Pasolini film when Claude is kissed by his male classmate Rapha Jr., while Claude is actually attracted instead to Rapha’s mother (Emmanuele Seigner), in whom he sees his own physically absent mother.  On the flip side, Germaine Germaine’s wife Jeanne wonders if her husband is turning homosexual with his increasing interest in his male student, while her husband actually sees in Claude a son he never had with his wife Jeanne.  Perception and reality are compared at every stage in the film. Who is the Svengali, the literature teacher who is a failed author or his bright student with real raw talent?

It is a film that explores the world of academia recalling Joseph Losey’s and Harold Pinter’s acerbic treatment of the middle class in Accident (1967).  Ozon’s In the House is a film like Accident, which makes a viewer evaluate himself/herself, while presenting a delightful and a surprising ending with endearing performances from an ensemble cast.

For keen Ozon watchers, it would be interesting if he does go on to make a third feature film on the subject to complete a triptych that began with The Swimming Pool and followed up with In the House.

(This review was earlier published on 5 Nov 2014 at )

P.S. Losey's Accident and Lean's Ryan's Daughter were reviewed earlier on this blog.

P.P.S. The two lead actresses Kristin Scott Thomas and Emmanuele Seigner had previously worked together in Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon (1992), coincidentally a tale about a failed author narrating a tale that could have made a great book. Polanski's film was an adaptation of a novel by the celebrated French 'New Philosopher' Pascal Bruckner. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

168. British film director Steven Knight’s film “Locke” (2013) based on his original script/story: Amazing script forged from what could also have been a suberb one act play with a great performance

There is something special when a director writes his own original script. And Steven Knight’s Locke is special, if an astute viewer evaluates what it offers.

The title reminds one of the 17th century British philosophers, John Locke.  John Locke postulated his ‘theory of mind’ that built the early concepts of ‘identity’ and ‘self.’ Locke felt that our minds at birth were without ideas or blank slates (or tabula rasa) and that our mind’s subsequent knowledge was derived from experience through sense perception.

Knight’s film Locke is about another unrelated, contemporary fictional Locke, whose full name is Ivan Locke. This Ivan Locke, the only person the viewer gets to see in the entire film, is an unusual human being.  Ivan Locke is a successful technocrat—a senior civil engineer responsible for overseeing the construction of skyscrapers.  Ivan Locke is a principled, devoted family man who is on the verge of laying the concrete foundation of the tallest skyscraper he has ever built within the next 24 hours.  However, the good man’s enviable life dramatically changes.

One night’s indiscretion after drinking two bottles of wine, brings all his family and career crashing down at the pinnacle of his 9 year career when he could own a state-of-the-art BMW X5 car. Knight’s development of the Ivan Locke character begins when you see the man removing his work boots before entering his car and putting it in a bag meant for them.  Ivan Locke might not be an aristocrat, but he evidently knows and plans ahead to maintain a rich man’s car. Ivan, we soon find out, is dedicated to his job, and, even after he is fired, insists on completing what he was doing professionally without any scope for mistakes. And when he does make a mistake he is willing to do everything to correct it and admit it was a mistake to all who matter to him. 

He is a modern day Jean Valjean of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, caring for those who are weak and lonely, who believes in ensuring his new progeny knows he /she has a caring father, unlike Ivan’s own father.

Tom Hardy as a fictional Welshman Ivan Locke:
aiming to reproduce
the "gravitas and integrity of Richard Burton's performances"
But what holds Ivan Locke’s life together are the principles and experience that he has acquired from his career, his life and, most of all, his father’s actions towards him. Those are the common denominators for technocrat Ivan Locke and the ideas of philosopher John Locke presented indirectly by director Knight for the thinking, discerning viewer. 

Director Knight has stated in an interview “He is called (Ivan) Locke because he is the John Locke philosopher of rationality and he is trying to do stuff logically.” (Huffington Post interview with Erin Whiney, 24 Apr 2014). Much of Ivan Locke’s actions in the movie have a bearing on the lack of communication and interest Ivan’s dad had with Ivan, which we learn from Ivan’s monologue addressing his dead father, as though he were sitting in the rear seat of the car.  It is important to note that the references to the distant past life of Ivan are brought up in “conversations” with his dead father or rather a monologue using the rear view mirror. (Appropriately, the rear view is for the past; the details of the concreting is in the file beside him in the car; and the GPS screen indicates his possible chosen future, with all its options. The confined space of the driver seat, is not confined to the obvious physical limitations.)

Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy)  speaking to his invisible dead father
 in the rear seat

The manner in which the 85-minute film was made is remarkable. The filming of the original script apparently evolved during a tight schedule, not unlike films of Terrence Malick evolving during the film-making process . Director Knight’s script was captured on film after mere eight nights of shooting, with two versions of the film being recorded each night. The final film was apparently a cut and paste of the 16 accumulated versions.  Except for the immensely talented Tom Hardy, the rest of the cast are only heard but not seen. The film is thus a close relative of a radio play with visuals.

It is visuals that inform the viewer, thanks to Bluetooth, that Ivan has keyed in ‘Bastard’ as the eponym for Gareth who is Ivan’s boss on his mobile phone. It is the GPS visuals on his car’s dashboard that indicate the straight road Ivan is taking to be with Bethan,  the mother of his soon to be born child. It is visuals that inform the viewer that Ivan is not over speeding on the highway. It is visuals that show you that there is further chaos outside the car on the highway as police cars/ambulance with sirens overtake Ivan’s car while Ivan is dealing with and getting on top of each crisis in his life that particular night. And if you are paying attention, you are not likely to turn off the radio (if you were to consider it as a radio play) or walk of the movie.  And it is visuals that inform you that Ivan’s BMW also has an ironic number plate “ADIOS,” Spanish for goodbye.

It is not important how the movie ends. The movie is more about how a viewer can identify with Ivan Locke, a successful working class British man who has made one mistake.  On a drunken night the married man slept with his secretary while on work away from home. He does not love his secretary but has sympathy for her apparent solitary life. Ivan seeks forgiveness from his wife for his one and only occasion when he has been unfaithful. Her trite answer to Ivan’s protestation is “The difference between never and once is the difference between good and bad.”  The viewer has to choose between the wrongdoer and the wronged, and decide whether Ivan is the hero or the anti-hero of Locke.

It is also a movie where the lead actor has contributed considerably to the making of the film as was revealed at the Venice Film Festival press conference, just as actor Kirk Douglas made director Stanley Kubrick make the all important change to the ending of Paths of Glory (1957). It is a movie that is more than an advertisement for a great car. It is a movie that will make you recall what Steven Spielberg achieved in his similar (and outstanding) film Duel (1971), in which unlike Steven Knight emphasizing character development through spoken dialogues, Spielberg emphasized the effect of faceless and illogical terror through images and sound rather than spoken words.  Tom Hardy’s personal interest in developing an unusual accent keeping the late Welsh actor Richard Burton on his mind’s radar while enacting the role in a confined space is truly commendable. It is a fascinating performance that complements a lovely script.

The film belongs to both Steven Knight and Tom Hardy in equal measure.  It is surprising that the Venice Film Festival chose it to be included in its official major line-up but kept it “out of competition.”  If it were in competition, it might have won an award or two.  The film is recommended for viewers who can appreciate good script-writing and actors committed to perfecting their skills.

P.SThis film is one of the author's best 10 films of 2014

Sunday, October 12, 2014

167. Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s film “Certified Copy” (Copie conforme) (2010) in English/Italian/French languages: Love and marriage and their respective true copies

Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami can be fascinating because of his audacity to toy around with the minds of intelligent, discerning viewers. 

His Shirin was a feature film exclusively capturing the mosaic of varied emotions of several female viewers watching a movie with a narration in Farsi (the language of Iran) about a popular fable/tale of love and valor, without showing Shirin’s viewers what those members of the audience within the film were watching but merely providing the soundtrack of the “watched” film.

The puzzle begins: Who is the woman who can take up a reserved seat
at a book release ceremony

Kiarostami’s  Certified Copy is equally abstract and demanding of its audience but in a different way. Certified Copy proves to be a fascinating work because it is a film with an open ending and a narrative full of ambiguities, while succeeding in retaining the attention of any viewer, who can sense and appreciate a high level of intellectual discourse presented within the film. Despite the physical and thespian allure of Juliette Binoche (presenting one of her most complex and commendable performances that deservedly won her the Best Actress award at the Cannes film festival in 2010), the film a perceptible viewer will soon realize is not about works of art or beauty (which is what the bulk of the film discusses) but merely uses that platform to discuss love between two adults and the institution of marriage which is the result of love. The film presents an extension of Plato’s critical discussions on the Greek terms mimesis (imitation) and contrasting it with diegesis (narrative). The film indirectly asks the viewer what is real love and what is real marriage as opposed to the general perception of love and marriage. Stanley Kubrick toyed with the subject in a different manner in his swansong Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Ingmar Bergman dealt with the subject in a parallel manner in several films, most notably in The Touch (1971).

Kiarostami is unintentionally mimicking Ingmar Bergman, both in style and content. At least this is increasingly evident in the recent Kiarostami phase of filmmaking outside Iran (first Shirin that utilized non-Iranian actors, then Tickets made in Italy, followed by Certified Copy and the latest being Like Someone in Love, made in Japan) all mirroring the interests of the Swedish maestro—and both directors wrote their own screenplays/stories. And like Bergman, Kiarostami’s films increasingly tend to linger on the actors’ faces that communicate emotions beyond spoken words or their other physical activity. And the conversations for directors rarely abate.

Kiarostami uses his favorite visual idea--a moving vehicle;
and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi captures the duo (Shimmel and Binoche)
with Italian exteriors in reflection

Certified Copy begins with a book release in Italy by its British author, James Miller (played by William Shimmel, an opera singer of some repute). The book is also titled Certified Copy and discusses the value of copies of art, not unlike the subject of Orson Welles’ delightful F for Fake (1973). The book release is attended by a young mother (Binoche) and her son briefly. Before leaving hurriedly (as her son is hungry), she leaves behind her address for Miller so that he could sign the many copies of his book that she has bought. Throughout the film, the lady’s name is never revealed or spoken.

Miller does respond by visiting her studio populated with copes of art and he obliges the good lady by signing the copies of her book, one of which is for her son addressed by Miller by the first name. And there begins the puzzles for the viewer to ponder over. The son notices that his surname has been left out by Miller. The lady recalls her sister used to stammer and addresses James Miller as “J-J-J-J-James.” Is there a familiarity between the two that has not been revealed? Miller states that he wrote his book after watching a mother and her son in Italy, after the son stopped to admire a statue that was probably a copy “some 15 or 5 years ago.” And the lady played by Binoche seems to be aware of that incident. The viewer is cleverly sucked into a complex puzzle to figure out if the two knew each other in the past and whether the author, Miller, is somehow related to the boy.

Miller is married to someone (similar to the unseen film-within-film in Shirin, and the young man’s past lover in Tickets) the viewer never sees but evidently exists. Third parties viewing the duo traveling in Italy assume Miller and the woman to be married, following which they begin to “act” as if they are married. Perceived actions appear more real than reality. The couple’s individual reactions to newly-weds in churches asking them to join them in their celebrations are markedly different. Miller comments "I didn't mean to sound so cynical, but when I saw all their hopes and dreams in their eyes, I just couldn't support their illusion." Is Miller's real marriage having a downturn as to be considered an illusion?

Do the "married" couple spend the night together?

Church bells ring as if a marriage is taking place (possibly real, possibly “copied” in memory).  The “acting” couple asks for a room at the same small hotel they had apparently stayed ages ago and the lady (Binoche) expects Miller to spend the night with her, when the bell tolls 8 o’clock and Miller has a train to catch in an hour.   A perceptive viewer will recall the lady’s son commenting, “You are trying to fall in love with him.” And that she does by going to the rest room and wearing costume jewelry earrings and trying to look more attractive for Miller, which he does not seem to notice. She, on the other hand, has noticed his change of perfume. Whose is the real love and whose is the certified copy of love?

Shimmel and Binoche: reprising Bergman's techniques?

Kiarostami seems to be toying with real love, perceived/certified copy of love, real marriages, and perceived/certified copy of marriages. The film offers the viewer several options. None is cast in stone.    

Carriere's and Shimmel's respective characters
 discuss the copy of Michelangelo's statue David  in Florence,
a subject discussed ironically by two "married" couples

Somewhere in the middle of the film Kiarostami shows the conversing couple passing by a copy of the statue of David by Michelangelo publicly admired at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, while the original is in Florence’s Gallery of Fine Arts. And the couple discusses this subject with a tourist (played by Jean-Claude Carriere the co-screenplay writer of so many of maestro Luis Bunuel’s classic films and Peter Brook’s Mahabharata) and his fictional tourist wife. The discussion of the original (diegesis) and the certified copy (mimesis) continues to the end of the film as marriage and love gradually replace works of art in the discussion.

"Costume jewelry is as good as real jewelry" quote from the film 

While there is no sex or nudity in the film, it is quite understandable Certified Copy could not have been made in Iran with that country's prevalent official conservative social attitudes. Having seen all the recent four films made by Kiarostami, Certified Copy proves to be the most cerebral, with his episode in Tickets proving to be the most delectable among the four. In comparison, Like Someone in Love, was not remarkable cinema even though no Kiarostami movie can ever be considered pedestrian.

Certified Copy remains essential viewing for viewers who love good cinema and have a penchant for philosophy and aesthetics.

P.S. Kiarostami’s earlier works Shirin and Tickets and Orson Welles’ F for Fake have been reviewed earlier on this blog.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

166. Indian filmmaker Sudevan's debut film "CR no.89" (India) (2013): A micro-budget Malayalam language movie that is different and refreshing

Malayalam language movies have won prestigious Indian national film awards in recent years but they are rarely ones that stand out as some did, three or four decades ago. 

At last, there is an innocuous debut film from a young director that would make a sleepy cineaste sit up to savour its whiff of freshness. That’s director Sudevan’s CR No.89--a little, big film which premiered in 2013 at the Intentional Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK). It is “little” because it is an 80 minute film made with an incredible shoestring budget of Rs 700,000 (about US$11,000) pooled by the director’s well wishers (read “non-internet” crowd funding).

It is “big” because the film, with its odd title, devoid of sex or participation of mainstream actors, and with minimal violence, has scooped up a slew of regional Indian awards including Best Film of 2013 at the 2014 Kerala State Film Awards, the NETPAC award for the best Malayalam film at the 2013 IFFK, the Aravindan award for the best debut film by an Indian director from the Chalachitra Film Society, the John Abraham award (in memory of the talented late Malayalam film director, not the living Bollywood actor) for the best debut director from the Federation of Film Societies of India (FFSI), the Padamarajan Puraskaram (award) for the best film of 2013 from the Padmarajan Memorial Trust and an acting award for Asok Kumar (for the role of the automobile mechanic)  from the Kerala state film awards. Unfortunately, the only international film festival this film has been invited to, thus far, is the minor Colombo International Film Festival.  Marketing remains the bane of quality Indian regional cinema while what does get showcased in countries  outside India are the semi-commercial films.

What is the odd title of this movie? The title ought to be expanded to Crime (or Criminal) Report no. 89. “CR no.89” is the jargon used in a regular Indian police station.  The title has a subscript as written in Indian police files “under section 323, 324, 379 of the Indian Penal Code, read with 25(1)(b) of the Arms Act.”  It refers to an unsolved criminal report relating to an illicit transportation of deadly weapons in a stolen jeep and other felonies. The weapons, transported in a jeep, are hidden in crates under heaps of tomatoes.  When the law does catch up with such consignments as depicted in this movie, the transporters are rarely caught or brought to justice. Further, the haul of the weapons by the law enforcers is merely reported in the news and subsequently buried in dusty files as a ‘cold case.’

The brevity of the title inadvertently describes the young director Sudevan, who has evidently not considered how a different and more attractive title could have marketed his debut film beyond the confines of Kerala state, but is more concerned about the reality of frequent illicit arms transportation in Kerala, the violence such weapons inflict on innocent rural folk, and the apathy of the law and order machinery to resolve such cold cases.

Interactions and reactions of rural Indian characters

However, the film is not about arms transportation. It begins with a focus on engines in hardly roadworthy vehicles that ply on Indian roads. The movies then gradually explores how five or six Indian rural characters interact with or react to the shady arms transporters by happenstance or when they stumble on the abandoned  vehicle, because the jeep carrying the illicit consignment has broken down on an unpaved, rarely used road, cutting through a hardly inhabited rubber plantation. The illegal arms transporters chose that odd route to avoid detection. What follows is a credible edge of the seat entertainment for the viewers with an unusual ending as a bonus. 

What Sudevan has accomplished, with the help of three cameramen utilizing very basic camera equipment simultaneously, is to realistically depict varied reactions of average Indians to the goons in distress. How Sudevan has achieved this is truly praiseworthy, especially in creating the final sequence, in which the bad guys are absent. The entire concept is Sudevan‘s own, including an interesting credit sequence. The end-product is a delectable mosaic of how Indians behave.
There is wry humor sprinkled throughout the film—a game of rural checkers played with nuts and bolts, odd hairstyles, attitudes towards work by a not-so-busy small-time automobile mechanic, who is quite skilled in his trade, and the intricacies of social etiquettes of distribution of marriage invitations for middle-class Keralites. There are interesting shots of chameleons cleverly edited into the narrative to allude to social parallels. Sudevan ducks the popular lure of spoon-feeding his audience with unnecessary details in the narrative—he forces the linear details to be assembled by the intelligent viewer. That is rare in Indian cinema.

CR No.89 opened a week-long FILCA international film festival in Trivandrum a week ago. Even the noted Indian filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan stayed through the screening to watch the film that he had heard about but not seen. Young Sudevan had a history of persistently following up with film societies, such as FILCA, to enter his short films in competitions and in film society screenings. The quality of his short films and the resulting sales of the DVDs of his short films helped fund each subsequent Sudevan film, culminating in the award-winning low-budget feature film CR No.89. The success of Sudevan is partly due to the role of film societies in encouraging young film makers, an unusual scenario that is alive and laudable in pockets of India, such as Kerala.

CR No. 89 is a film, with English subtitles, that deserves to be widely seen and appreciated by film-goers who hanker for good Indian cinema in India and abroad. Most of all it is amazing that a lovely, quality film could be made with Rs 700,000 by a young man committed to cinema without any compromises or a political subtext. Most importantly, the film makes the viewer reflect on the varied reactions of ordinary citizens to a similar situation. And it is a movie relying considerably on diagetic sounds picked from the natural environment, something quite unusual for soundtrack management in Indian cinema. Sudevan is able to capture rural Kerala milieu without the unrealistic but popular dramatic inflection of tones used by professional actors, often associated with the better Malayalam cinema.

While quality Malayalam films enjoy widespread viewership within Kerala, it is truly sad to note that well-made small-budget films, such as CR No. 89, and major works of Malayalam cinema, such as M T Vasudevan Nair’s Nirmalayam (The Offering) (1973) and Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Anantaram (Monologues) (1987), are rarely seen or discussed beyond the borders of Kerala, either nationally or internationally.

(This review was first published at at

P.S. This film is one of the author's best 10 films of 2014

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