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 the2019 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.


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. 

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 here.

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).

Sunday, September 22, 2019

239. US independent filmmaker Debra Granik’s third feature film “Leave No Trace” (2018): An unusual tale of a father and his teenage daughter duo, living in the woods in self-imposed exile, far removed from socially acceptable elements of modern living











Director Debra Granik is an independent filmmaker in USA who works outside the Hollywood studio system.  Leave No Trace is her third feature film as a director without support from the influential studio producers and mainstream distributors.  Ms Granik often works with US scriptwriter Anne Rosellini. Their collaboration has resulted in two notable independent feature films: Ms Granik’s second feature film Winter’s Bone (2010) and Leave No Trace. 

The duo picked  up two novels on individuals living on the fringes of society (one on the family of a drug addict, another of a traumatized war veteran), and transformed those into  the scripts of unusually magnetic feature films with very striking performances from carefully chosen actresses, propelling them from near obscurity to world attention. This happened with all three feature films directed by Ms Granik: Vera Farmiga in Down to the Bone (2004), Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone (based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell) and the trend follows with Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie in Leave No Trace.  Ms Granik won top honors as a director at the Sundance Film Festival for her first two feature films and several minor awards at Berlin, Venice, Stockholm and Hong Kong film festivals.

Will (Ben Foster) an Iraq war veteran who becomes a recluse, preferring a life,
with what is left oh his family,  in the woods


The film Leave No Trace is based on a novel My Abandonment written by Peter Rock. The book won an Alex Award, instituted by the American Library Association, for outstanding books “for adults that have special appeal to young adults aged 12 to 18.” The film pivots on a clean father-daughter relationship in the absence of the mother of the girl. As the film progresses, the viewer learns that the father Will (Ben Foster) is a war veteran who served in Iraq and that his daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) has not known her mother for a long, long while. A newspaper clipping tells us that many of Will’s veteran compatriots committed suicide on their return. Evidently the unusual behaviour of Will to live with his daughter in the forest, devoid of social interaction, is part of a post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) behaviour pattern.  As an army veteran, Will knows the basics of survival and camouflage in the forest. He teaches his daughter techniques of survival and hiding/camouflage and most importantly, good manners.  He even teaches her to play chess and use nonverbal communication.

Will's teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) etching a
remarkable performance
The daughter reads a clipping carried by her father,
revealing the effect of  PSTD


An arrest by the police and the resulting evaluation of the duo reveal several interesting facts: their relationship is not sexual, the father Will has taught his daughter Tom sufficiently that she is better than other school-going kids of her age and that Will was once a team player and is no longer one.  Attempts by social groups to re-integrate the duo into mainstream society have different effects on Will and Tom. While Will can communicate silently with horses, Tom communicates with rabbits and dogs.  The sight of a helicopter above a Christmas-tree farm triggers a PSTD urge in Will to return to the seclusion of the forest. 

The subtext of the film that honey bees don't sting bare hands if they recognize
the hand of the beekeeper


Ms Granik’s film presents a forest scenario without reptiles, insects or wild animals, which contrasts with reality.  While the film is beautifully made and provides a plethora of comments on society, evaluation of behaviour, interesting techniques to re-integrate people on the fringes of society into the mainstream, honeybees’ relationships with humans, the ending of the film is credible and beautifully executed, much like the Alex award for books –a film “for adults that have special appeal to young adults aged 12 to 18.” It is indeed a great film that shows the respectful and loving behaviour of a teen towards a parent while making a responsible, resolute decision that affects her future.

Will educates his daughter Tom, informally (even in chess), to be as or better
educated than a formally student of her age

The final song Moon Boat, with music by Dickon Hinchliffe and sung by Kendra Smith, raises the level of the film. The words of the song reprise the philosophy of the tale/film and are evidently written specifically for the film.
I wander, this world green and wild, And the things in my mind are like A red sun gone down. 
And I, I know you must go And I think I know why But I don't know why.
Still I am thinking we both share a moon and a star. May you be safe may we both find a place with a heart. 
Here, where treasures abound In the things I have found, a leaf, a song come from above.
In the wood, where secrets crawl The earth so small, a place, a home, A dream my own. 
There'll be a tree that joins you and me from afar. And I am certain we all share a moon and a star.
Ms Granik’s films prove that independent films in the US can provide richer fare with lower budgets than Hollywood films. Of course, the lovely works of director John Cassavettes and Jim Jarmusch are ”indies” that rarely made the Oscar nominations but these are film superior or equal in quality to those that do eventually win Oscar nominations. Ms Granik and Ms Rosellini have proved their capability to transform novels into wonderful scripts that ultimately make their films stand out from the rest. Finally, Ms Granik has proven that she can extract remarkable performances from her actors, different lead actresses for each film, and choose the right team to embellish the soundtracks of her films.

The carefully chosen visual frame: two plant stalks in the forest,
one withering and old,
another green and in good health, encapsulating the film


Any future works from team Granik-Rosellini-Hinchliffe-Smith would undoubtedly be worth waiting for. This team has an unusual winner with  a carefully crafted signature closing ballad that has proved to be  be more powerful that than all the elements of cinema that preceded it. Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider (1969) was one film that came close to the achievement of this film decades ago.

P.S. Leave No Trace has already won 17 awards. Recommended reading--an interview of Ms Kristy Strouse with Ms Debra Granik, which includes her thoughts on Ms Kendra Smith, singer of the closing song discussed above, published in Film Inquiry  https://www.filminquiry.com/interview-debra-granik/

Saturday, September 14, 2019

238. Italian maestro Roberto Rossellini’s film “Stromboli, terra di Dio” (Stromboli) (1950) (Italy) (Italian, English): A slightly different perspective of the classic nearly 70 years after the film was made--atheism vs. theism
















Many cineastes are aware of Roberto Rossellini’s famous work called Stromboli. But how many are aware of its complete title Stromboli, terra di Dio, which translates as Stromboli, land of God? The full title is essential to grasp what Rossellini as its director and its original story writer wanted to state through the film he conceived and made for us to enjoy and appreciate.

The bulk of the critical analyses of the film considers the story outside of the film’s narrative—the extramarital affair between Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman and Rossellini, which led to the birth of three offspring and a brief self-enforced exile of Ms Bergman from Hollywood. Ms Bergman, while working in Hollywood, had expressed her desire to work with Rossellini after viewing his two films prior to StromboliPaisan and Rome Open City—by writing this brief and famous letter to him without having met him.

Dear Mr Rossellini,
I saw your films Open City and Paisan, and enjoyed them very much. If you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well,who has not forgotten her German, who is not very understandable in French, and who in Italian knows only "ti amo," I am ready to come and make a film with you.
Ingrid Bergman

Ingrid Bergman as Karin

It is quite conceivable that Rossellini wrote the story of Stromboli, terra di Dio with Ms Bergman in his mind to play the role of a Lithuanian prisoner-of-war who had an affair with a German army officer during World War II. In contrast to Alfred Hitchcock, who made films (three of those with Bergman in the lead roles) with detailed scripts and precise words to be learnt by rote and spoken by the actors, Rossellini merely wrote a story sketch and developed the spoken lines as he went along, just as Terrence Malick made films many decades later.  The volcano on the island of Stromboli was not expected to erupt during the filming and the entire volcanic activity captured in the film is real and not faked or recreated artificially. The denizens of the island knew what to do if and when the volcano erupted and knew the procedure of taking shelter in boats cast out to sea but well within view of the island.



The simple, hard-working fisherman Antonio (Mario Vitale),
husband of Karin

Antonio falls in love with Karin, a Lithuanian prisoner of war,
exchanging few words with barbed wire separating them 


Rossellini wrote the story/script that tossed the lives of the main characters against a very unpredictable and life threatening natural calamity. Being an Italian, Rossellini was influenced by the Catholic Church and evidently he was quite familiar with the Bible and consciously included the character of a Catholic priest with a significant role within the film’s tale.

Rossellini’s familiarity with the Bible is evident when the film opens with a quote chosen from the Bible—The Book of Romans, Chapter 10, verse 20, which reads “I was found by those who did not seek me. I was made manifest to those who did not ask for me. ” The passage is attributed to Apostle Paul writing to the Romans in the New Testament where the “I“ refers to God. Interestingly, the passage itself is a cross reference to the precise words of the prophet Isaiah stated earlier in the Old Testament within the Book of Isaiah Chapter 65, verse 1. 

It is immaterial whether director Rossellini and actress Bergman were staunch believers in God—what matters is that the title of the film Stromboli, terra di Dio includes the word “Dio” (God) and the film begins with an important quotation in the Bible, which incidentally appears twice in the Bible.

Karin is found lacking in modesty by the elder womenfolk of the island

The biblical start of the film gains importance towards the end of the film when Ms Bergman’s character Karin in the film utters the final words of the film “God..my God..help me,  give me the strength.. the understanding .. and the courage.  God, God, God, merciful  God. God, God. God.” Prior to those words are Karin’s words of epiphany “Oh God! Oh God! What mystery, what beauty!”  after the volcano settles down, and the smoke withdraws to show birds flying against a clear sky.

The last words and the ending of the film are in stark contrast to the words spoken earlier by Bergman’s Karin to the priest on the island that God had not been merciful to her and had left her desolate. (“With me, God has never been merciful” ..“These black rocks, this desolation, that...that ‘terror,’ the island drives me mad, Father!”)


Karin finds the population of the island "horrible"


Karin, as Rossellini etched her character, is able to comprehend that she has sinned in the past by having an affair with an officer of the invading Nazi German army (“I was trapped like all the rest .I..I have sinned but I have paid”) Karin is also a woman who threw out an image of Virgin Mary that Antonio’s (Mario Vitale) dead mother had kept in the house  while renovating  the meagre dwelling, much to the chagrin of Antonio, when he realizes what his wife Karin had done. Even if Karin has no respect for images of Virgin Mary in the house, Karin who calls the villagers of Stromboli “horrible,” for  describing her to be lacking in modesty, self realizes with magnanimity during the volcanic eruption that she, Karin, is worse than them.“They don’t know what they are doing. I am even worse.” Some of the theology in the film can be attributed to Father Felix Morlion, who was consulted by Rossellini while writing the script.



Now, if the viewer accepts the theological undercurrent of the film, it is most amusing that in USA the film was released as an 81 minute version (in contrast to the restored 107 minute version) bowing to the call of church groups, women’s organizations and US legislators who wanted the film to be banned solely because of the publicity of the extra-marital affair of Ms Bergman with Rossellini and the birth of their illegitimate child rather than the contents of the film. A Colorado Senator called Ms Bergman “a powerful influence for evil” (Ref. Stromboli film on Wikipedia). The  81-minute US version that did not have Rossellini’s approval had an ending that implied Karin was returning to her husband Antonio, which is never assumed in the restored 107 minute version. (Ironically, Ms Bergman was re-accepted and lauded by Hollywood years later for her role in Anastasia.)  In contrast to the negative reception of the film Stromboli, terra di Dio in USA, the longer Rossellini film version won the Rome Prize for Cinema (the best Italian film award) in 1950.

Now, if the viewer were to be an atheist, the film can be appreciated differently. Karin is obviously a woman who is not respectful of the religious artefacts kept by husband Antonio’s dead mother and throws them away to renovate and redecorate the house. She is an attractive woman who wants and enjoys attention from male personalities that she encounters—including a Catholic priest who tries to help her adjust to her husband but resolutely rebuffs her advances.

Karin is an opportunist wanting a life more interesting than what she had in Lithuania (her hope there was the German army officer), more interesting than Italy (she wanted to emigrate to Argentina), escape the life of a POW in Italy (she succeeds in marrying an Italian) and after being in Stromboli for a while, she yearns for a better life by leaving her devout, simple husband and escaping to the other side of the island. But the protective woman in Karin emerges briefly in the film when she is upset viewing a trapped rabbit being killed by a ferret.  Visually it is clear that Karin, after the volcano has stopped erupting, is as concerned about the child in her womb as she was with the rabbit. She aspires for a better deal for herself and her unborn child, in another geographical location, even though she is penniless and without a change of clothes (reminiscent of the final pages of John Bunyan's book The Pilgrim's Progress written in 1678) .  What she does or rather what she intends to do is never clearly stated.

Karin escaping her life with husband Antonio and the erupting volcano 

Rossellini leaves the ending open ended for the viewer to interpret–a treatment rarely accepted in commercial cinema worldwide.


The greatness of this work is the depiction of conflicts of man and nature without employing special effects or cinematic tricks which flood cinema today. Rossellini’s filming recalls the world of Robert Flaherty and his classics Man of Aran (1934), shot in Ireland, and Nanook of the North (1922), shot in USA. Like Flaherty, Rossellini used the real population of Stromboli, except those employed for the major roles. Thus, the real tuna fishing sequences can be termed docu-fiction taking a leaf out of Flaherty.

The exhausted Karin falls asleep as the violent eruptions
of the volcano subside, the profile of Karin seemingly mimicked
by the now quiet volcano, while the moon shines at both


The effort of Rossellini to craft the final half hour of Stromboli, terra di Dio is commendable while some detractors will fault the film’s details such as the lack of grime on Ms Bergman's body. This film is truly one of the best works of neo-realism ranking alongside Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs, made without professional actors decades later.


P.S.  Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978), reviewed earlier on this blog, is a neo-realist classic that won the top honour at Cannes film festival and one of the author’s top 10 films. Few are aware that the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was so impressed by Rossellini's work that he invited him to come to India and invigorate the state-run Films Division's documentaries. Rossellini accepted the invitation only to fall in love with another married woman, this time a Bengali lady, Sonali Dasgupta, create another controversy, and eventually marry her! The influential journal of film Sight and Sound's Critics Poll lists Stromboli, terra di Dio as one of 250 greatest films of all time.