Wednesday, February 15, 2017

202. Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s film “Bacalaureat” (Graduation) (2016) (Romania), based on his own original screenplay: Fallouts of a father-daughter protective relationship within a contemporary corrupt East European social framework

The year 2016 saw the release of three very interesting award-winning films from three countries on two continents—all films on the same theme.  All three films deal with the father-daughter protective relationship under different patriarchal scenarios.  Daughter is an Iranian film and presents an interesting tale set in a society where the male members of the family protect their wives and their daughters until they are married with a ferocity that might surprise many in Western developed countries. Graduation is a Romanian film with another interesting tale where the father travels the proverbial extra mile to ensure his daughter benefits from a prized graduate education in a prestigious English university that will help her in her future career, a chance he himself never got in Communist and post-Communist worlds. The third film is Toni Erdmann from Germany where the daughter is older and busy trying to climb the corporate ladder without much thought for her father whose only true companion is reduced to his dog. 

In all three films, the role of the mother is marginal. The two European films clearly indicate that the women in Romania and Germany enjoy a greater freedom of action compared to the male-dominated Iran.  In two of the three films, the women have the last word. How interesting it is to find parallel tales emerging from three different communities that grapple with the same concerns almost simultaneously! All three underline love of a father for a daughter.  Interestingly, in all the three films the father does not have a son and only has a single daughter, all old enough to make their own decisions!!!

The father's (back to camera) concern as the daughter drives off
with her boyfriend

The Romanian film Graduation offers the viewer much to mull over beyond the obvious father-daughter relationship. It reflects the statement made by the director Mungiu in an interview to the Los Angeles Times reporter Steven Zeitchik in May 2016, “We live in a world and society that is not very moral but is made up of people who believe they are moral. I come from a country where everyone talks about corruption but they blame someone else.”

It is useful to evaluate the father figure in this film with this comment from its director in perspective. The father figure is a respected doctor and honest in his profession. Yet he is not honest to his wife as he is having an adulterous affair with a single mother. His wife does not know this but suspects his infidelity. The couple seem to be leading a frosty relationship within the small apartment, while the doctor claims to be an idealist. The doctor’s smart daughter is clever enough to be aware of the affair. 

So when the viewer of the film is shown someone throwing a stone at the doctor’s closed windowpane and smashing it, we know there is a message that all is not well.  And this happens before the good doctor stoops to do a corrupt act to help his only daughter in her future life. All through the film we never get to know who threw the stone and why it was thrown.

Later in the film, doctor’s daughter is sexually attacked on a forlorn stretch of land on the way to her place of study and she is able to fend off the attacker but is naturally mentally disturbed by the incident. Despite the father’s clout with police and a police line-up of suspects, the daughter fails to identify the attacker. Once again the viewer is flummoxed. Who attacked the daughter? Who threw the stone? Who is attacking the family? Or is it all a mistaken coincidence of unrelated events?

The very concerned parents are sitting
symbolically apart after the daughter
 is attacked in the hospital

The father who loves his daughter wants to ensure that the daughter gets the required grades to get the scholarship to UK. He is worried that the recent attack on his daughter could affect his daughter’s grades and his dream roadmap for his daughter would go up in smoke. He uses his network of acquaintances who he can tap to ensure his daughter’s examination answer papers fetch the required marks for the UK education.  In the post-Communist “if you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours” scenario, the father ensures that his daughter would get the required marks if her papers are marked by his daughter with a symbol that the answer-paper evaluator will recognize as hers.

The father uses his contacts in the police force to identify
his daughter's (right)  attacker

Now if you have viewed the past works of director Mungiu you can expect an end that will surprise the viewer. That indeed is the case with Graduation. The end of the film surprise most viewers. Mungiu’s strength lies in how he ends his films. Graduation is no exception to that trend. It definitely jolted the Cannes film festival jury to bestow on him the Best Director award.  At the Chicago international film festival the jury again awarded the film the best screenplay award to Mungiu for “a narration that works with suspense as well as slice of life, creating a whodunit story structure while staying emotionally extremely close to the main character.”  And just as the father in the Iranian film Daughter won the best actor award at Moscow for the role of the father, the actor in the role of the father in Graduation won the Best Actor award at Chicago for the “ subtle yet hard-hitting impression he delivered of a father getting himself into corruption for which he pays a heavy price. His portrayal of his love for his daughter as well as his pushiness to control her future is extremely captivating” to quote the citation.

The police line-up does not help; the mysteries in the film remain unresolved

There are three exciting new/young directors making films in Romania: Cristian Mungiu, Calin Peter Netzer, and Cristi Puiu. None of them are likely to disappoint a discerning viewer as the power of each of their tales goes beyond boundaries of the stories. Each work will make you think.

P.S. Daughter and Graduation are both included in the author’s top 10 films of 2016. Mungiu’s previous work Beyond the Hills (2012), which won two major awards at Cannes, was reviewed earlier on this blog. Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005) is one of top 15 films of the 21st century for the author. Calin Peter Netzer’s Child’s Pose (2013) is one of top 10 films of 2013 for the author.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

201. Iranian director Reza Mirkarimi’s Farsi language film “Dokhtar” (Daughter) (2016) (Iran): Fallouts of a father-daughter protective relationship within a patriarchal, conservative Asian perspective

The year 2016 saw the release of two very interesting award-winning films from two countries from two continents.  Both films deal with the father-daughter protective relationship under different patriarchal scenarios.  Daughter is an Iranian film and presents an interesting tale set in a society where the male members of the family protect their wives and their daughters until they are married with a ferocity that might surprise many in Western developed countries. Graduation is a Romanian film with another interesting tale where the father travels the proverbial extra mile to ensure his daughter benefits from a prized graduate education outside his country that will help her in future life. 

The only basic difference between the two films is that the women in Romania enjoy a greater freedom of action compared to the male dominated Iran.  In both films, the women have the last word. How interesting it is to find parallel tales emerging from two different communities that grapple with the same concerns almost simultaneously!

The brave educated daughter (Merila Zare'i) who makes a trip to the country's
capital Teheran against her father's wishes

All over Asia male members of a family fiercely protect their wives, sisters and daughters to the extent that some women are killed to protect the family honour if they choose to have a relationship with a man who is not acceptable to the family.  In the film Daughter, the Iranian family is an educated upper middle-class one. The father is a respected technocrat in a large factory in Esfahan (Isfahan) with lots of workers under his supervision. His daughter goes to college and is popular with her female classmates. One of her classmates who is leaving Iran invites her and other classmates to Teheran for a final get together. The daughter wants to attend, confides her wish with her mother, who in turn informs the father. The father turns down the request having concerns for her safety in a strange city. Without the permission of the father, she buys a return air ticket with the intention of returning the same day before her father notices her absence. The young lady attends the get together but despite her best intentions her flight that she boards in cancelled before take-off. The scared young lady has an asthmatic event and has to be treated at the airport.  This is mainly the prelude to the film.

The daughter on her own

Though the film is titled Daughter, the film is essentially about the father. The busy well-meaning technocrat is worried and offended—and has a temper to boot. His only daughter is in medical trouble in a strange city. Beyond the storyline, the director is presenting the world of women in Iran. Women in Iran are increasingly educated and wish to move freely within the country and interact with friends of their own sex. The patriarchal system restricts such activity to “protect” the women. The viewer learns, as the film progresses, that the father has a sister in Teheran, whose marriage he did not approve and had consequently cut off communication with her in anger.

The daughter (center) with her college friends
contemplating choices to make in life

Director Mirkarimi’s scriptwriter is another male Iranian Mehran Kashani , who wrote the script of Majid Majidi’s The Song of Sparrows (2008) and Hamid Rahmanian’s Daybreak (2005). Mirkarimi and Kashani take pains to show the world of the daughter’s aunt with care. The aunt loves her brother and niece. When in trouble the daughter takes refuge with her aunt. Emancipation of the Iranian ladies permeates through the film, while men are shown as the emotionally weaker sex despite their outward bravado. Director Mirkarimi is credited with an earlier feature film Under the Moonlight (2000) which created a lot of interest at Cannes for its social and religious content. Three of Mirkarimi’s feature films were official Oscar submissions from Iran. In 2017, instead of Daughter, Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman was the official submission.  (And the Farhadi film has made the final nomination for the Best Foreign film Oscar, as I write this review.)

The father (Farhad Aslani) looking at his sister's life empathetically
for a change
The father begins to empathize with the
women family members he controlled

Mirkarimi seems to be a director good at asking interesting questions through his films. Mirkarimi’s Daughter not so innocently makes a case for the women of Iran as its closed society evolves in a male dominated nation.  Its case for the ability of educated women to make informed choices in a patriarchal world is placed before the viewer. It is not a religious cleric who realizes his past mistakes but an educated technocrat who can run a factory efficiently, who stumbles when it comes managing his family. Daughter makes an environmental comment on pollution in Isfahan as a flight landing is stated as the reason for the cancellation of domestic flight. Mirkarimi and Kashani do not rock the boat and leave the film's closing open ended. That’s clever Iranian cinema. The direct and indirect messages come through, both for the Iranian and foreign audiences. The control the father has over the family has parallels with the control the country has or tries to have over its citizens.

Daughter is not just important for carrying a social message, it shows the maturity of Iranian cinema's screenplay writing and direction capabilities under strict censorship laws. 

P.S. Daughter and Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman are two outstanding Iranian works included in the author’s top 10 films of 2016—the only two films from Asia. Graduation, a Romanian film, mentioned in the above review is also on this list.  Daughter deservedly won the Golden Peacock for the best film at the International Film Festival of India-Goa, as other films competing were not of consequence. Daughter also won the best actor award for Farhad Aslani who played the role of the father at the Moscow International Film Festival.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

200. British director Ken Loach’s film “I, Daniel Blake” (2016) (UK): Portrait of an aging, honest, well meaning, elderly citizen forced to retire by a health condition, “nothing more, nothing less”

Several directors in Europe have in recent years made outstanding award-winning films on the subject of working class bread-winners losing their jobs and trying their best to claw back to a life of normalcy by finding another.  The processes are devastating in each case. Foremost award-winning examples are Stephen Brize’s Measure of a Man (2015, France) and the Dardennes bothers’ Two Days, One Night (2014, Belgium). I, Daniel Blake continues to lead the viewer along the same paths of the  films but with a difference—the film underscores the inhuman apathy of government employment systems for those suddenly forced out of work. All three films have a common thread—when you are out of work and cannot find another—a sudden camaraderie develops between the unemployed and others who have faced similar situations.

I, Daniel Blake is an outstanding film of 2016.  It is a film that combines good direction (by the 80 year old veteran filmmaker Ken Loach who returned from retirement to make this film), a marvellous and credible screenplay by Paul Laverty (Loach’s colleague for the past dozen films), good editing,  and two very creditable performances by the main players.  It is not surprising that the film was bestowed the Golden Palm (Palme d'Or), the top honour at the year’s Cannes film festival, to Loach for the second time in 10 years.

There no room for a missed appointment for a single mother, with two kids
and little or no money, at the Department of Work and Pensions, because she
boarded the wrong bus to get there. The emotions on all the faces are so real!

What makes I, Daniel Blake stand out among the three films is Paul Laverty’s ability to infuse wry humour in the carefully chosen words spoken by its characters. Words matter in this film. The film opens with a dark screen.  Then you hear a telephone conversation –a conversation between Daniel Blake, a 59-year-old carpenter who had a recent heart attack or a cardiac event, resulting in a near fall while working on a scaffolding and medically advised not to resume work, and an anonymous employee from the British Department of Work and Pensions quizzing him about all his physical conditions except his ailing heart condition only to file a report on Blake that is obviously and quixotically incomplete and misleading.  This conversation sets the mood of what follows—the apathetic world of bureaucracy that does not believe in empathy for those suffering from a medical condition that prohibits working in their chosen trade.

The good carpenter is good with his hands and quite literate. But he is not computer literate. The British Department of Work and Pensions works on-line, on telephone, and very rarely face to face.  How does Laverty put it into words? Here is a fine example. The British Department staff tells Blake “We are digital by default.” Blake, who has had a rough time posting his applications on-line answers the bureaucrat sardonically, “I am a pencil by default.” Carpenters work considerably with pencils. This is not flowery writing—the script is socially loaded beyond the obvious repartee.

The audience can only agree with Laverty and Loach when Blake calls the Department a “monumental farce.” One is reminded of the Cuban masterpiece Death of a Bureaucrat (1966) directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea, in which a widow of a dead bureaucrat cannot access her widow’s pension and benefits because a critical identity card was buried with her husband’s body in the coffin and the Communist bureaucrats refuse to process her benefits without it.

Both Laverty and Loach teams up film after film to present us individuals who struggle to survive in a social world that sweeps them away because of incidents that they cannot control or intended to face.  The Cannes’ Palme d’Or winner The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006) where the main character joins the IRA after he clearly made up his mind not to do that after witnessing a life changing incident involving British troops or the comedy The Angels’ Share (2012) where a young Glaswegian narrowly escapes prison sentencing and subsequent troubles by a chance visit to a Scotch whisky distillery which ultimately leads to a well paid permanent job. In Tickets (2005), a group of well-meaning football-crazy Glaswegians on a train journey in Europe find one of them have lost their ticket, possibly stolen and suddenly have to grapple with future consequences of that situation that makes them more socially responsible.  The dozen films of Loach and Laverty build on Loach’s Kes (1969) written not by Laverty but by a book by Barry Hines, where a young middle class school kid, given little sympathy at home and in school takes interest in training a pet kestrel by reading a book that he steals from a bookstore.  Pre-Laverty and with Laverty, Loach has dealt with characters whose lives change by events that were not planned.

What Laverty brought on Loach’s table was spoken language that seemed to have a visual power beyond that of the camera.  “A pencil by default” is not something that you capture by the camera; the viewer has to figure out the connection between a pencil and the world of the carpenter. Apparently the film's script was prepared with help on inputs from real jobless urban poor who had to seek financial and food assistance in the UK and their experiences. The brilliance of Laverty’s screenplay writing comes towards the end of the film, when the curriculum vitae that he was forced to learn to write for getting a Job-Seekers’ Allowance is read out at his “pauper’s funeral.” What is read out, are words that we never could have guessed were written on the pieces of paper Blake was handing out to prospective employers. And at least one did respond positively.  What is written by Blake is Laverty’s magic that no camera could have captured. Daniel Blake is, as stated in his own words in his CV read out at his funeral “a citizen—nothing more, nothing less.

Daniel Blake (Dave Jones) and Katie (Hayley Squires) during one of the most
gut-wrenching scenes set in a food bank for the urban poor:
"You have nothing to be ashamed of. You are all alone with two kids. You are amazing."

I, Daniel Blake does not belong exclusively to director Loach and scriptwriter Laverty. It belongs to two other talented individuals chosen by Loach—actor Dave Johns who plays the character Daniel Blake and actress Hayley Squires who plays who plays Katie, who accidently crosses the path of Daniel at the British Department of Work and Pensions facilities. Now Katie is single mother of two kids. She has been uprooted from London to Daniel’s town and arrives at the office late because she boarded the wrong bus. Laverty’s magic allows both these two wonderful human beings to meet when there being knocked around by the unfeeling bureaucrats, by a "Laverty" accident. It is not surprising that Ms Squires has been nominated for a BAFTA award but it is surprising that Dave Jones has not been nominated for the restrained power of the performance, his first in a feature film. But then one needs to congratulate Loach for picking these two main actors.

Director Loach has a team that he works with on his recent films beyond the talented Laverty. A major team member is film editor Jonathan Morris who has worked with Loach longer than Laverty.  The editing in I, Daniel Blake, does not grab your attention until the ultimate “pauper’s funeral.”  Another member of the Loach team is the cinematographer Robbie Ryan who worked on the three last Loach films I, Daniel Blake, Jimmy’s Hall, and The Angels’ Share. It only shows that the Loach team has constantly evolved but the best of them tried and tested stay with Loach.

I, Daniel Blake is undoubtedly the best work of Loach and deserved the Cannes honor. 

P.S. I, Daniel Blake and Paradise are two outstanding works included in the author’s top 10 films of 2016. Loach’s The Angel’s Share (2012) and Tickets (2005) were reviewed earlier on this blog and the former is one of the author’s top 10 films of 2012. Two other films mentioned in this review The Measure of a Man (2015, France) and Two Days,One Night (2014, Belgium) were also reviewed earlier on this blog.

Friday, December 23, 2016

199. Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky’s Russian film “Ray” (Paradise) (2016) (Russia): A very well-made and intelligent Holocaust film built on an outstanding original screenplay

“ A real director is not a director that makes films but who understands people. Or, in any case, tries to understand them because understanding people is, of course, impossible”–Andrei Konchalovsky (quote from his official website)

When Andrei Konchalovsky is in his elements, he can be amazing.  His latest work Paradise is one of his best works, carefully crafted and entertaining for attentive and astute viewers, a film in which difficult questions beyond the obvious horrors of the Holocaust are placed and answered by characters that we can possibly associate in our contemporary daily life.

Konchalovsky is not a filmmaker to be ignored or scoffed at—he studied cinema with Andrei Tarkovsky. The two classmates went on to be co-scriptwriters of Tarkovsky’s first three films The Steamroller and The Violin (1961), Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Andrei Rublyev (1966).  Tarkovsky made a film The First Day (1979), totally based on Konchalovsky’s script, which ran into problems with political censors of the day and was hidden (and now believed to be lost) but not actually destroyed as Tarkovsky publicly claimed. A well-known admirer of Akira Kurosawa, Konchalovsky got the nod of the Japanese maestro to make the film based on Kurosawa’s original script of Runaway Train, after Kurosawa gave up on the idea to make a film out of it. Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train (1985) was made in USA in English language with major Hollywood actors—a profound film that most viewers dismissed as a mere prison escape film. If one studies Paradise and compares it with Runaway Train, there are interesting parallels between the two films. More on that, later, in this review. According to IMDB, Paradise was also partially shot in USA.

Interrogation of Olga by Jules, interrupted by a tortured
resistance fighter being dragged to another room for further questioning

What is Paradise all about? Many films have been made on the horrors of the Holocaust that show the brutality and lack of pity for the prisoners by the German Nazi militia. Very few works of cinema have looked at the situation from the point of view of the Germans [a glorious exception being Hans Jurgen Syberberg’s Hitler--a film from Germany (1977)] and other nationalities involved closely with the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. Paradise is less about the Jews that perished and more about the mindset and self-evaluation of three distinct fictional personalities carved out of the Russians, the Germans and the French communities by co-scriptwriters Elena Kiseleva and Andrei Konchalovsky on their second feature film together.  Their first collaboration The Postman’s White Nights (2014) and their second Paradise went on to win the Best Director awards at the Venice film festival in 2014 and again in 2016. Their craft was also recognized by the Mar del Plata international film festival by honouring it with the Best Screenplay award.  The magic these two individuals are able to weave are reminiscent of the Kieslowski and Piesiewicz collaboration in the evening of the famous Polish director’s career.

Kiselava and Konchalovsky, being Russians, built the tale around Olga, a Russian émigré in Paris, an aristocrat, and an editor of the Vogue fashion magazine. The Nazi Germany had occupied Paris and Olga is close to the French resistance and hides two Jewish kids only to be arrested for the good deed. The co-scriptwriters then create Jules, a French upper middle class “collaborator,” a senior police official, who serves the Nazis by identifying the members of the French resistance using torture and sending off Jews to concentration camps while leading a comfortable life with his wife and son. Finally,  the scriptwriter duo sculpt a well-read, well-appointed  German aristocrat named Helmut, who admires the Russian works of Chekov and who had once contemplated doing a thesis on the Russian writer, and yet surprisingly believes in Aryan superiority concepts of Hitler and Himmler.

The comfortable family world of Jules in Paris

The amazing script also sculpts the contradictions in the three well-to-do characters.  The attractive Olga (Yulia Vysotskaya, wife of director Konchalovsky), who is not a Jewess, offers sex to Jules, her interrogator to avoid torture and free her friends in the Resistance. Jules (Phillipe Duquesne) who has no compunction in torturing his own countrymen lives with his wife and son as respectable Parisian family man. Helmut, (Christian Clauss/Kristian Klauss) who believes in the extermination of Jews, saves many from being sent to the concentration camps if they were only a quarter Jew by their family tree and would shoot German officers to death if found to be corrupt. The lives and death of the fascinating trio intersect as the film progresses. Olga could have escaped and lived with a man, who she once knew as a benign cultured person and unfortunately had transformed into an evil man. She chooses not to escape death by helping another live in her place.

Helmut (back to the camera) is recruited by Himmler (looking out of the window)
because of Helmut's perfect Aryan credentials, with Hitler's bust
between them--a shot reminiscent of  Syberberg's film
Hitler--a film from Germany (1977) 

Add to the interesting trio of characters developed by the scriptwriters, an interrogation of the trio, each separately done, as if they themselves are inmates of the concentration camps wearing prisoner outfits by an interrogator you never see.  Yes, Olga was an inmate. But the other two were not inmates but safe outsiders. These interrogations are intelligently spliced within the films main narrative. Jules is shown making statements to his interrogator after the film shows he is killed. Only the interesting end scene put all what has preceded in the film in full perspective.  That is when you realize how different and creative the script and direction of Paradise is compared to other popular Holocaust films such as Schindler’s List and Son of Saul. The master stroke of Paradise is that the interrogator is only heard on screen, never discussed beyond that for obvious reasons.

Olga in the concentration camp fighting for a personal bar of soap
...and Olga (extreme right) enjoying her soup after recovering
 the shoes of a dead inmate to cover her bare feet

Olga and Helmut--reality and cinema--enjoying a brief interlude
of comfort and love

Konchalovsky and Kiseleva provide two parallel ways for the viewer to evaluate the film. One is the obvious actions of the trio and the resulting feelings for the viewer. The second is the self assessment of the trio of their actions. The self appraisal transcends the obvious actions and therefore provides the viewer an opportunity to contemplate the power of good cinema over the conventional film narrative. In a larger context, the film assesses the role of three nations in the world war and the complex attitudes of individuals to the Holocaust.

Konchalovsky, either intentionally or unintentionally, has developed the tale of Paradise on the basic structure of his earlier Runaway Train. In Runaway Train, there were two male escapees (Manny/Jon Voight and Buck/Eric Roberts) and one unwitting female passenger (Sara/de Mornay). The first two were convicts, while the innocent third was on the train by happenstance. In Paradise, two men and a woman are being interrogated.  The two men have committed war crimes of different hues, while the woman is essentially a good individual who helped two Jewish children hide from the Nazis initially and helps two Jewish children and their mother at the end of the film. In Runaway Train, the relentless warden does not dispense justice but gets his moral due. In Paradise, the mysterious interrogator dispenses justice.

The title Paradise is very interesting as nothing in the film except for the finale has any relevance to the word. What happens in the film is far from any concept of paradise. Is it the idyllic Aryan dream that Helmut believed in that title refers to? Only the last few minutes of the film reveal Konchalovsky’s key to understanding the film and its purpose to the full extent. Konchalovsky, like Tarkovsky, is deeply religious and influenced by the Russian Orthodox Church. There is no overt religious symbol in the entire film and yet it is a religious film. The end of the film gives the truer meaning of the title. That is the capability of Konchalovsky who made Jon Voight’s final posture in Runaway Train atop the hurtling train engine unmistakably religious without a word spoken in the film that was religious. You learn a lot when you have to bypass censors in Stalinist Russia that Tarkovsky and Konchalovsky endured.

There is another common strand between Tarkovsky and Konchalovsky.  Both were born into aristocratic families that gave importance to literature. Tarkovsky’s father was a poet. Konchalovsky’s family (the Mikhlakovs) can be traced back to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Andrei Konchalovsky is the half bother of another important Russian filmmaker, Nikita Mikhalkov.
Perhaps this element of aristocracy has something to do with Konchalovsky’s interest in Chekov and Turgenev, rather than Dostoevesky or Tolstoy. Two of Konchalovsky’s previous films are adaptations of the former pair—Uncle Vanya and The Nest of the Gentry. Helmut’s character in Paradise, who loves Russian literature, refers more than once to Chekov rather than Dostoevesky or Tolstoy.

One would be intrigued by the choice of black and white and the Academy format aspect ratio of 11:8 used in Paradise. These concepts, the static camera placement during interviews and the recurring suggestion of film rolls running out has been obviously introduced to give the feeling of an interrogation where those interviewed have to tell the truth often from their own volition. All that makes sense, if the viewer is patient right up to the end and all what had preceded up to that point falls into place.  And what an ending!

Olga and the two Jewish kids in the concentration camps--
a throwback to the two kids
she tried to save earlier that got her into her current plight

Paradise is definitely one of the most intelligent films made in 2016 with a remarkable screenplay and three lead actors chosen carefully from three countries: Russia, Germany and France, to provide veracity few directors care to indulge in these days.

P.S. Paradise is one of the author’s top 10 films of 2016. Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train (1985) was reviewed earlier on this blog and is one of the author’s top 100 films. This film, for those interested in Christian theology, provides an interesting insight on the Russian Orthodox Church's view on the concept of purgatory. In that context, note the hair growth on the recently shaven head of the lead actress--a detail that says a lot about the filmmakers.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

198. Italian maestro Luchino Visconti’s “Gruppo di famiglia in un interno” (Conversation Piece) (1974) (Italy): “Grief is as precarious as anything else”

Conversation Piece-- the penultimate feature film of Luchino Visconti--is a complex, often confusing and yet ultimately a very rewarding film. It is so complex with a variety of distractions that could make a serious viewer of cinema dismiss it as a minor work of the maestro only to change that opinion after multiple viewings and re-consider it as a major accomplishment of Visconti, almost autobiographical in parts. Autobiographical, one might ask? Yes, even though the original story is the work of another important Visconti collaborator Enrico Medioli, there are bits of the real life relationship between actor Helmut Berger and director Visconti that is infused into the film, not too obviously.  Similarly, the tale of a retired science professor is not far removed from the world of the Italian film director who is realizing much like the professor, he too is in the evening of his film career. The author of the original story Medioli had worked on the screenplays of three  other major Visconti films—Rocco and his Brothers, The Leopard and The Damned—and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. Medioli won an Oscar for his screenplay adaptation of Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968).

This is also one of those rare films in the history of film an actor--Burt Lancaster--helped a director at a vital stage of the filmmaking process. (One recalls Kirk Douglas prevailing on Stanley Kubrick to change the ending of the original Kubrick script of Paths of Glory, and transform it into a major work of cinema that we now can enjoy.)  In Conversation Piece, actor Burt Lancaster, staked his own money to complete the film as producers were backing out noticing the director was ill and could die before the film was completed.

The cloistered world of the professor (Lancaster),
 surrounded by books, paintings and vases

The film’s tale is essentially the world of a professor who had taught in a university in USA, returning to live a cloistered life in Italy surrounded by books and paintings. He was once married. He does not seem to have had any progeny.  His wife is either dead, divorced or separated. He is looked after in large multi-floored apartment in the city by a faithful old housekeeper. The film reveals that though he knows all about art and the value of paintings, he does not know how to bargain with those selling the paintings. Into his life of peaceful solitude barge in a rich lady (Sylvano Mangano) with her daughter and the daughter’s boyfriend to see if they could lease the empty upper floor of the apartment building. She wants the apartment for her gigolo boyfriend Konrad (Berger), a well-educated, once politically involved, now an amoral drug abuser.  One would then assume the story would unfold into a clash of the classical sedate cloistered life of the professor versus the loud decadent world of the younger generations. Slowly the film peels away the layers of these individuals’ outward characteristics to reveal the real personalities. The rich lady’s behaviour is a result of a shameful marriage with an unscrupulous politician husband and his unsavoury friends. The gigolo boyfriend turns out to be not just well educated but a person of great political ideals, fighting the new age Fascists. The professor, living alone and clutching to semblance of seclusion, seems to be ruing a lost marriage, recalling his wife in her wedding gown (a cameo by Claudia Cardinale) and possible past where he could have opposed different Fascist forces in Italy when he was young.

The rich lady (Mangano) married to a corrupt industrialist

A major fact that many viewers could miss is the title of the film does not directly relate to conversations in the movie but was a well known (in the world of paintings) title for a series of paintings of an 18th century British painter, Arthur Devis.  Conversation pieces were paintings of activities that could lead to conversations of art lovers and other intellectuals. Another artist, William Hogarth, a contemporary of Devis, drew a painting called A midnight modern conversation depicting men conversing in drunken incoherence. That makes you to reassess the entire film.  The only direct connection of the series of paintings is a brief conversation between two major characters in the movie—the professor (Lancaster) and Konrad (Berger)—giving clear evidence that both were well acquainted with the series of paintings. Once you evaluate the film on the basis of the painter's decision to change the very trees and objects in his painting compared to the photograph taken of the same scene, the movie's stature itself changes. The film is a study of Italy through the eyes of three generations and their varied values on social interactions, art, politics, architectural design, music, et al. The viewer is thus gently nudged to make the metaphorical connection.

An attentive viewer will note the film begins with a loud gunshot. You don’t see anyone being killed until the end of the film. The opening credits follow the blast as the camera captures the electrocardiogram graph roll streaming out unattended is a Visconti masterstroke. The patient is apparently dead.

The professor and the newly acquired 'family'

The professor (Lancaster) and the gigolo (Berger);
both are equally amazingly knowledgeable about art 

The film is even more complex for the viewer because the gunshot and the person whose electrocardiogram is being taken are not directly connected. The person killed by the gunshot is another. What is even more complex is that the individual shown in the film filled by the gunshot is supposed to have committed suicide. Yet there is statement made by the rich lady (Mangano) the lover of Konrad killed by the gun shot: “He did not kill himself. They murdered him.” Whether it is a statement of reality or mere hyperbole is for the viewer to decide. But that statement grievously hurts the old ailing professor, the only among all the characters in film who had faith in him (Konrad) as he closes his eyes in the final shot. The film slowly drifts to the point it makes –grief. A statement made in the film towards the end “Grief is as precarious as anything else” encapsulates much of the film—grief of broken marriages, grief of not having faith in persons who deserve it, grief of not fighting Fascist forces by either becoming a recluse or taking to drugs. Visconti’s broader statement is of Italy over decades.

That the film was made by the director sitting on a wheel chair is impressive. Is it a film about acquiring possessions or about understanding people? It is about both. At the beginning of the film the retired professor is acquiring paintings, by the end of the film he has acquired a family he initially did not want or approve of. The professor wistfully states in the film “It could have been my family.”  Thus, the Italian title of the film which translates roughly as “internal family group” makes equal sense as the English title. One realizes the importance of understanding human behaviour of strangers, as one educated professor was withdrawing into solitude surrounded by books, works of art and great music. And his life changes for arguably richer and yet tragic experience in his sunset years. The endearing performances of the aging Burt Lancaster and of Silvana Mangano as the haughty rich lady are remarkable. Burt Lancaster’s three performances in Italian films are the highlights of his career—Visconti’s The Leopard  and Conversation Piece and Bertolucci’s 1900.The cameos of Claudia Cardinale as the professor’s wife, the smiling and enchanting Dominique Sanda (as the professor’s mother) do not contribute much except in providing insights into the character of the professor for the viewer.  In two films, Conversation Piece and in Death in Venice (1971), the director Visconti and cinematographer Pasqualino de Santis together have captured images of a person dying that are impossible to forget.

Visconti, Lancaster and Medioli are the significant contributors to this grossly underrated work.

P.S. Two films-- Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America  and Kubrick’s  Paths of Glory--mentioned in the above review have been reviewed earlier on this blog. Conversation Piece won the Golden Spike award at the Valladolid International Film Festival. 

Sunday, October 02, 2016

197. US director Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups” (2016) (USA): A personal and intense theological statement pushing the envelope of theism

Not many films would end with the enigmatic word “Begin.” Knight of Cups ends that way. That gives one a clue of the feature film.

Terrence Malick is amazingly well read and spiritual. He expects his viewers to be able to comprehend his personal views distilled in his films, laced with stunning visuals and an amazing choice of music.  Knight of Cups will be fascinating for those with an inclination to scurry to the nearest library and read up on the nuggets of  literary works spread over centuries that the film refers to—but how many will do that? This is why this beautiful, intriguing work-- perhaps Malick’s most audacious work to date--is likely to be dismissed by the lazy viewer as an indulgent, pointless exercise in filmmaking. Yet, this work is one of the most rewarding films of 2016 for those who would care to read the literary sources after seeing the movie.  Knight of Cups reveals much of the views of the director’s mind that was not so evident in his earlier works.

The brooding Rick (Christian Bale) and one of his female distractions

There are several keys to unlock the treasure chest of theological ideas packed into Knight of Cups. The opening lines of the film (and opening shots are important for any Malick film) provide the clue that the film is related to Paul Bunyan’s 1678 literary allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress (from This World to That Which is to Come Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream) though the film has directly very few but important overt connections to that literary work. But if you have read it, the personal spiritual  ”progress” of the Hollywood scriptwriter, Rick (Christian Bale) is akin to the travels of Christian, the lead character, in Bunyan’s work. As the character Christian in Paul Bunyan’s work loses the load on his back that he was carrying on his journey towards the end of the book, so too does Rick seem to get over his meaningless life as a womanizing and successful Hollywood screen-writer. The entire film is a dream of Rick, where he is talking to several people in his life—his father, his brother, his former wife, his sexual interests, et al., as was Christian dreaming in Bunyan’s work.

If you have figured that much of Knight of Cups, you would assume the film to be an intensely Christian treatise on the lines of The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, the two earlier Malick films. The well-read Malick introduces in Knight of Cups ideas that would upset some of the traditional Christian believers—passages from the apocrypha Acts of Thomas, which is not part of the Holy Bible. Apocryphal texts are some 60 odd books that ought to have been included in the New Testament of the Bible, but were excluded from the “public use of the Church.” Acts of Thomas is one of those 60 odd books that are not considered as part of the Bible. In the Knight of Cups the tale of a son sent by his father to Egypt to retrieve a pearl is narrated in the early part of the film and again towards the end of the film. This tale comes from a section called the “Hymn of the Pearl” in Acts of Thomas. The purists among Christians would wonder what Malick is up to.  Knight of Cups is the first work of Malick since he made The Thin Red Line, which quoted from non-Christian scriptures such as the Hindu scriptures of Bhagavad Gita. (Ref: Paper titled Rhetorical Transcendence Revisited: “The Thin Red Line” as Perennial Philosophy; Education Resources Information Center [ERIC] ED458649.) Malick goes beyond apocryphas in Knight of Cups. The quest for the pearl could also be a part of A Tale of the Western Exile by the Iranian mystic Suhrawardi (1154-91), the founder of Illuminationism, a school of Islamic philosophy. Then if you look closely at the end credits the film, Malick uses Charles Laughton’s renditions of Psalm 104 from the Old Testament and Plato’s Phaedrus.  Malick’s literary and theological cosmos is simply mind boggling. This is literally casting pearls (pun intended) before the swine. It is not surprising that many found this work of cinema to be below average when it actually offers cinema of a quality that transcends the conventional Hollywood or American cinema.

Two brothers--men are important in this Malick film

Unlike The Tree of Life, where Malick underscored the role of the mother in the “graceful” development of the son, The Tree of Life flips to decode the role of the father (Brian Dennehy), exasperated by his lack of influence in the spiritual growth of his son.  The characters are different; however, the relationships mirror each film. A careful viewer will pick up the brief sequence of the Texas childhood shot from The Tree of Life in Knight of Cups. There are two fathers in Knight of Cups—a theological one you never see and a physical one. Rick even calls his physical father “an old fool” during a soliloquy.  The physical father says “I stumbled down the road like a clown..That doesn’t mean that it is a wrong one. I turned you upside down. Womanizer. Cut off...I gave up my life for you kids. ” In contrast, the spiritual father talks of Rick’s time on Earth, reminding him of the future. “You think when you reach a certain age, things will start making sense. Then you realize that you were as lost as before. I suppose that is what damnation is. Pieces of your life never come together.”

The physical father tries to get his son Rick back on a spiritual mode: “There is so much love inside us that never gets out. According to your unfailing love, great compassion, blot out my transgressions. My son, I know you. I know you have a soul. Seems you are alone. You are not. Even now he is taking your hand and guiding you. By a way you can’t see. If you are unhappy you should not see it as a mark of God’s disfavour

Who speaks the final lines of the film is ambiguous. Is it the physical father or the theological father of Rick? The words are ponderous “Find the light you know in the east. As a child. The moon. The stars. They serve you. They guide you on your way. The light in the eyes of others. The pearl. Wake up. Turn. Look. Come out. My son. Remember. Begin

The Tarot cards are a distraction unless you know a lot about that subject. Each Tarot card has one different female personality connected with Rick. Knowing Malick's wide knowledge there are definitely linkages that eludes one on the deliberate segmentation that he has made with the cards.

Unlike The Tree of Life, Knight of Cups seems to be more focussed on male relationships with Rick—his father and two brothers, including Billy, the dead brother, who never appears but is merely discussed. Much of this is autobiographical with names changed.

Visually stunning metaphors from Malick and Lubezki

The main allures of the film for those viewers who are not concerned with the theology are the visual and aural ones. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki works wonders with the camera when he is with Malick. As a Malick follower, every sequence shot underwater might appear spectacular but it reminds you of late Nestor Almendros’ shot of Richard Gere falling face down on the water surface in Malick’s Days of Heaven. Almendros paved the way for Lubezki. The fluid camera movements are in tune with the dream concept of Bunyan and Malick. Interestingly, the camera of Lubezki lingers on the night sky with the moon in focus at the final word—“Begin.”

The true majesty of any Malick film lies squarely in the director’s outstanding talent to pick amazing pieces of music.  Music-wise the mainstay of Knight of Cups is Wojciech Kilar’s “Exodus” used with aplomb, while the works of the main composer New Zealander Hanan Townshend and the Estonian composer Arvo Part are used with considerable care and intelligence.

Do actors matter in a Terrence Malick film? Some are indeed a delight to watch—especially Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman. However, the standout performance was possibly that of Armin Mueller –Stahl’s brief appearance as the priest and the narration of Ben Kingsley. Actors do not matter in a Malick film for two reasons. One, Malick does not have a screenplay cast in stone. The screenplay changes in major ways during the production stages. Two, actors rarely speak lines directly for the camera. Perhaps, the director gives more importance to dogs—the credits mentions “Accounting Dog—Stevie.” That’s Malick.

A minor point that nags me—why are the colored people in Malick’s films always either sick or possible criminals?

A wife (Cate Blanchett) who leaves Rick

Malick is slowly being recognized as one of the best living directors on the planet. This slow recognition is partly due to Malick’s depth of knowledge that eludes a majority of his films’ viewers. These often require a critic to explain and point out the not-so-obvious details to flummoxed viewers. Now, consider this, how many films end with the audacious end word/sentence: “Begin’? Malick is constantly raising the bar of quality cinema.

P.S. Knight of Cups is included in the author’s best 10 films of 2016. Reviews of Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, TheTree of Life and To the Wonder have appeared on this blog earlier.

Monday, September 19, 2016

196. Russian director-duo Grigory Kozintsev’s and Leonid Trauberg’s silent film “Novyy Vavilon” (The New Babylon) (1929) (former USSR/France), with music by Dimitri Shostakovich: One of the most laudable silent films ever made that has surfaced recently

The exaggeration of the film's actors... fundamental to the film

The New Babylon is a Russian silent film, made in 1929, centred on the events related to the rise and brutal suppression of the 1871 Paris Commune.  As the Germanic Prussian army defeated the French army and advanced to conquer Paris, the rich in the city went on with their escapist lives without caring to protect the city. On the other hand, the working class of the city refused to capitulate and set up a Paris Commune with a socialist fervour to protect the city of Paris from the Prussian army. The Paris Commune achieved its primary aim of protecting the city but was in turn crushed by the French Government working from Versailles with financial and moral support of middle class in Paris. Thousands of members of the Paris commune were killed by the French Government instead of being grateful to the brave hearts. These events deeply influenced the writings of Karl Marx. Very few moviegoers are aware of this laudable film’s very existence and hence, The New Babylon rarely, if ever, gets mentioned on lists of important films of the silent era.

Graffiti of the movement scribbled by a dying member of the Commune  

There are several reasons for the lack of awareness about this film.

Louise selling clothes to the rich with a mannequin next to her

First, it was made by two Soviet Russian filmmakers who ran into problems with the Russian censors. The released version did not have the full approval of its principal filmmakers: directors Kozintsev, and Trauberg and composer Shostakovich.  Some versions of the original 2 hour film were chopped down to a ridiculous 84 minutes and 93 minutes when shown in Russia and abroad post-censoring.  The film was considered by the Soviet censors to be an anti-war and not a communist film. Both charges were essentially correct, in retrospect. It was merely a film made in the wrong country at the wrong time.  The New Babylon incorporated composer Shostakovich’s first explicit work for cinema, written when he was only 23 years old, and his friendship and subsequent rich collaboration with director Kozintsev continued up to the final Kozintsev film King Lear (1971). (Shostakovich’s music, not written specifically for cinema, was used in Sergei Eisenstein’s October, released a year earlier in 1928.)

The rich of Paris captured in an interesting perspective,
 aided by an interesting camera angle

The second reason was the political climate that slowly disintegrated the interesting theatre movement called the” Factory of the Eccentric Actor” (FEX) developed and headed by Kozintsev and Trauberg that led to the making of several silent films, including a comedy called The Adventures of an Octoberite (1923) (now lost), Shinel (1926), based on Gogol’s The Overcoat , which many consider to be best cinematic adaptation of the literary work, The Devil’s Wheel (1926) and The Club of the Big Deed  (1927), which the Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky considers “the most elegant film of the Soviet Union.” The Russian director duo tried to infuse futurism, surrealism and Dadaism in their creative outputs. The satirical elements in the film The New Babylon and the music in the film (“The Marseillaise” being diluted with Can-Can music) did not go down well with the Soviet censors. Shostakovich increasingly fell foul in the eyes of Josef Stalin from then onwards. He was denounced twice politically: once in 1936 for being “coarse, primitive and vulgar,” and later in 1946 for being “formalist and non-Russian.”   Shostakovich’s friends and relatives were either deliberately killed or imprisoned.  After the death of Stalin, the world recognized Shostakovich as a major composer of the 20th century.

The situation with the Jewish director duo Kozintsev and Trauberg (in today’s political geography they would have been Ukrainians) was not very different from that of Shostakovich.  The duo continued to work together until 1947, after which they began making their own individual films. One of Trauberg's celebrated works is a 1960 film Dead Souls based on Gogol’s literary work of the same name. Trauberg was again attacked by Soviet authorities for being a Jewish intellectual, post-World-War II. 

Ironically all the three individuals were recognized by the country that almost demolished their creative talent at their peak. In 1964, Grigori Kozintsev was named as the “People’s Artist of the USSR.”   Leonid Trauberg, initially in trouble for his early works, was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1941 only to be attacked once again by the Soviet Authorities post-World -War II. Dimitri Shostakovich, was denounced twice during the Stalin years and yet was honoured with the Lenin prize, three times with the Order of Lenin, the Hero of Socialist Labour, etc. Outside his own country, he was honoured in UK, Denmark, Finland and Austria.

Trauberg thought his early work with Kozintsev-- the full version The New Babylon--was lost until the film was re-released in 1982. Kozintsev had died in 1973. Both filmmakers were not alive when the film was restored fully and re-released in 2010.

Thus, the third reason for the obscurity of The New Babylon was that its re-release and restoration only occurred some 80 years after it was made, and this was done outside Russia. Its relevance seemed to have been diluted by time. It is now freely available on You Tube for cineastes to enjoy.
It is with this background, one ought to evaluate the film The New Babylon. Why is the film important beyond the “The Marseillaise” and Can-Can mix of music that irked the Stalinist censors? What did it offer beyond the silent films of Eisenstein and Pudovkin?

Jean, the simple, starving soldier

...and Louise, the happy, idealist salesgirl 

Evaluating the film The New Babylon, one will realize the directors were directly projecting their views on socialism through the sad love tale between Louise, a working class shop assistant in Paris and Jean, an army deserter begging for food with tattered shoes meeting for the first time who had joined the army for a better life than what he had in his village.  Louise’s character is developed by the directors as a feisty woman who dislikes her employer but needs the job to make ends meet. Louise’s interest in Jean is a mix of charity and disgust as he has deserted. She feeds him and as he in turn is repelled by her overt dislike tries to leave the place while another elder male is repairing his tattered shoes. Louise cautions him that he needs to wait and wear the shoes that are being repaired before he leaves. The idealist Louise asks Jean to fight the Prussians but the disillusioned Jean is not interested.  Eventually Jean re-joins the French Government armed forces again as a lowly worker who is ironically commandeered to dig the grave of Louise, now condemned to death.  Kozintsev and Trauberg were evidently giving their own take on socialism—the idealism, the poverty and the irony of fate of two individuals who could probably have loved and led a peaceful and happy life in an ideal world.

The directors achieve this irony by an unforgettable sequence of light and shade (or black and white, if you will) as Louise’s face is illuminated with light as she contemplates her imminent death after being condemned to death by a kangaroo court, and watches the once–hungry man she had fed bread digging her own grave because he too has few options but do as he is told.  The smart lady laughs as she understands the irony of it all and shouts at Jean, a man whom she had come to love and understand, the words “We will meet again, Jean.” The film connects with the viewer both with the melodramatic story that unfolds and the use of visuals, editing, and music.

Women wearing aprons fire guns to protect the city,
only to be given death sentences 

A British librarian turned film critic Matt Bailey, writing in  (posted on 11 July 2004) pointed out the eloquence of the editing of The New Babylon thus “While the film is a rather unsurprising parable of revolutionary fervor and the tyrannical efforts of the bourgeoisie to suppress it, the visual style of the film is anything but conventional. While perhaps not quite as radical in form as the work of Eisenstein or Vertov, the two directors of the film, along with their gifted cast and crew, used the tools of cinema in a lively and invigorating fashion that still gets the blood flowing even today. Multiple storylines and locations are cut between with brisk fluidity; the camera is tossed, spun, raised lowered, and put in places you would never expect; the visual references to French painters of the fin-de-siècle come at a rapid pace and quite out of nowhere; and the performances of the cast are, as the school would have it, eccentric, yet never out of place or out of keeping with the tone of the picture. The film has all of the vigor and pure cinematic originality of Abel Gance’s Napoleon without all the pretensions to greatness shouldered by that film.”

There is more to the editing in this film. The directors give the viewer the impression that characters in the film are aware of incidents in real time by their reactions, when that could not be possible if you look at each sequence carefully.  

Visually the sequence of the columns of the Prussian army advancing on Paris is terrifying.

Everything in the film is visually exaggerated, not real. And that was the directors’ intention. But the satirical effect is profound even today where computer graphics hold the sway. Similarly the visuals of Jacques Demy’s celebrated 1964 film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg possibly took an idea or two from the early sequences in The New Babylon.

If one assumes the film is to be assessed by the revolutionary content of the words in the film “We are working for us, not for the owners.We do not work more night. Our children are not cannon fodder for the rich.. " this would only be partly true. The film is essentially a satire--a typical product of FEX--what the directors had set out to do, which understandably did not find favour with politicians of the day. Even the title of the film is cleverly chosen to represent the big shopping store, where Louise works, catering to the rich of Paris.

Does God care for the conditions of the poor and oppressed
(a rare but important shot in the film bringing into focus
the rich Catholic community of Paris/France)?

It is unfortunate that Soviet Russia never appreciated their greatest filmmakers Kozintsev, Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov during their lifetime just as the US film institutions refused to acknowledge Orson Welles, Abraham Polonsky and Terrence Malick. Malick is, of course, still alive and making films.

P.S. Kozintsev’s King Lear made with the collaboration of Shostakovich remains the author’s favourite film and one of his top 10 films of all time and is reviewed on this blog.

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