Wednesday, February 26, 2020

248. French director Céline Sciamma’s fourth feature film “Portrait de la jeune fille en feu” (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) based on her original screenplay: An awesome film built on impeccable direction, intelligent screenplay, magnetic performances, cinematography and choice of music

Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire may be described by some as a feminist film that tells a tale of four women characters in 18th century France devoid of any significant male characters, and made by a female director and a female cinematographer.  At the end of this remarkable film, you tend to discount the female element. You are stunned by the sophisticated quality of cinema the film offers that makes you discount the overwhelming female gender quotient. 

The following two citations of awards bestowed on Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire amply describe the worth of the film.
"The Gold Hugo for Best Film goes to Portrait of a Lady on Fire by Céline Sciamma. The film portrays not only the exuberance of falling in love and the all-consuming nature that is love, but also the beauty of women's solidarity and the attempt to fit in a world that rarely seems to be made for them. The strength of the filmmaking combined with amazing acting, photography, and music set the jury on fire."
(Citation for the Best Film Award at Chicago International Film Festival.)

"This is a work, which excels in its audio-visual storytelling. Channelled through a strong female voice, it is at once narratively compelling and aesthetically striking. The film transports us to an age even more firmly in the grip of men than our own, to tell the tale of a handful of women. We follow their fascinating and deeply moving story, as they find intimacy and succour in one another, and a way to live out their dreams of freedom and fulfilment, to satisfy the longing to be a complete human being. In keeping with the best of period drama, our winner speaks to timeless human themes in a rich and stylistically self-assured visual register. With elegance, sophistication and courage, the film explores how love and vitality can - at least momentarily - throw off the shackles of an oppressive social order. Exquisite acting performances and cinematography, combined with a soupcon of mythological symbolism, add up to a work of serious artistic merit."
(Norwegian film critics award citation.)

Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) is an enigma in the early parts of the film,
not suicidal but enjoying her freedom to run to the  edge of the sea
after her long years in the nunnery

Sciamma’s original tale of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is of a female painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) contracted by a countess (Valeria Golino) to paint a portrait of her second daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) on an island in Brittany, France. The portrait is intended to be a wedding gift for Héloïse’s impending marriage to a wealthy man in Milan, who was earlier meant to marry Héloïse’s sister who suddenly died before the marriage could take place. Héloïse, we learn, was recently brought by her mother to the island from a nunnery where she was educated by the nuns. Héloïse, we further learn as the film progresses, is not looking forward to the prospect of her impending marriage and has deliberately disfigured an earlier portrait of her done by another painter for her impending wedding and has subsequently become a recluse with only Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), the maid, as her regular contact. Therefore, the countess briefs her newly hired painter Marianne that she has to paint her daughter Héloïse’s portrait without letting her know that her portrait is being painted and without revealing that Marianne is actually an artist commissioned to paint her portrait and not a mere hired companion for Héloïse, the official excuse for her  presence on the island.  Sciamma’s screenplay, in the early stages, focuses on Marianne’s intense creativity as a portrait painter in capturing the features of her subject first in her memory only to paint the portrait in secret, which she does in the absence of her subject. Héloïse. in turn. is surprised why Marianne is looking at her so attentively.  The entire process is cleverly captured on film by lady cinematographer Claire Mathon.  In this process, director and screenwriter Sciamma and cinematographer Mathon make the viewer fall in love with the duo on screen, with minimal dialogue spoken between the two characters. Sciamma and Mathon are the true “painters” in the film!

Marianne (Noémie Merlant) paints the portrait of Héloïse
from memory of the details she found while staring at her

The minimal dialogue in the film’s script can be assessed by the fact that Héloïse’s name in the film is revealed only halfway into the film. Early in the film, as Marianne is transported by boat to the island her crate of canvas sheets falls into the sea and Marianne jumps into the sea to retrieve it. Initially the viewer would tend to consider it as Sciamma’s design to introduce and develop Marianne’s character. On deeper reflection, Sciamma’s script and direction add another aspect to that scene: the fact that no male person on the boat bothered to jump into the sea to retrieve the floating crate.

Having introduced the psychological development of interest between Marianne and Héloïse, Sciamma moves on to introduce the physical and, ultimately, to the emotional interest that develops between the two ladies with time. A key element used by Sciamma to aid this development is music, carefully but sparingly used. Héloïse, in the nunnery, had been exposed to choir singing and organ music. Little else. Marianne introduces Héloïse to harpsichord and Vivaldi’s compositions.  Music is used in key sequences with elan. During the bonfire sequence, when Héloïse’s dress catches fire literally and figuratively, the women around the bonfire sing a cappella song. The final sequence in the film and definitely strongest in the entire film is that of the married Héloïse listening to Vivaldi’s second concert “Summer” in his famous four part concerti composition The Four Seasons. One can anticipate that over time that the ending will count as one of the most evocative film endings in the history of film, combining the effects of good scriptwriting, camerawork, direction and performances of the key actors without a word spoken.

The stares for a professional cause that kick off a vibrant relationship
The fire is real, but the fire in the film's title is metaphorical.
Cinematographer Claire Mathon captures the rare moment
as the painter Marianne will recall the magical moment 

Sciamma’s intelligent script suggests parallels with the mythological tale of Orpheus using music to lure his wife Eurydice back from the dead (the nether world of Hades) with a condition made by the gods that the Orpheus does not look at his wife. In the film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the married Héloïse does not appear to look at Marianne while listening to a Vivaldi concert, music that Marianne had  made Héloïse appreciate prior to her marriage.

Héloïse discovering new aspects of life from Marianne: music.
love, painted images, impending 

There is a sub-plot of the maid Sophie finding out she is pregnant out of wedlock and the subsequent secret abortion conducted by Marianne and Héloïse, when abortion was illegal in the 18th century France.  The role of the countess stresses another typical type of strong-willed woman in those times in France.  Portrait of a Lady on Fire uses the four female characters developed and presented by a predominantly women crew, each of the four characters contrasting and complementing the other. Whether one likes the subject of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is personal choice but most viewers would appreciate the high quality of filmmaking on display.  It is a film that distantly recalls Peter Greenaway’s 1982 film The Draughtsman’s Contract.

Trust and love blossoms between painter and subject
The countess (Valeria Golino) (facing camera) presents
the typical 18th century lady, a lesser developed character of the quartet

Céline Sciamma’s ability as an original script-writer and director brings her in the august company of two other top-notch contemporary female directors: Claire Denis from France (Beau Travail and L’intrus) and Anne Fontaine from Luxembourg (Dry Cleaning). The entire trio have consistently made remarkable films independent of each other.

P.S.  Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one the author’s top 20 films of 2019. The film won the Best Screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival; the Gold Hugo Award for the best feature film at the Chicago International Film Festival; the Rare Pearl  award at the Denver International Film Festival; the Best European Screenwriter Award at the European Film Awards; Art Cinema Award at the Hamburg Film Festival: and the Felix Award for the best fiction film at the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival. Claire Denis’ film L’intrus (The Intruder) (2004) has been reviewed on this blog earlier.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

247. Russian director Kantemir Balagov’s second feature film “Dylda” (Beanpole) (2019): A Russian Nobel Prize winning work of literature inspires a complex film on the varied tribulations of an unmarried woman

Three very interesting and complex films on women with screenplays written by the film’s own directors are those made by male directors. One of those three would be Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole.  Balagov has admitted that his main source of inspiration was Nobel Prize for Literature winner Svetlana Alexandrovna Alexeivich’s 1983 book War doesn’t have a woman’s face. The other two films of similar artistic strengths and flavour about unmarried women are the American films: Joseph L. Manckiewicz’ The Barefoot Contessa (1954) with Ava Gardner (in arguably her best role) and Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (1978) with Jill Clayburgh (in one of her best roles). Balagov, unlike the two US director-cum-screenplay writers, co-scripted his film with another male scriptwriter, Aleksandr Terekhov. Both Balagov and Mazursky present a quixotic emancipation for their lead characters, while in Manckiewicz’ case the liberation, unfortunately, leads to tragedy.

Iya (Victoria Miroshnichenko) the Beanpole  (Note the use of white in this shot)

Iya, the Beanpole, in another contrasting shot. (Note the use of green
and the deliberate camera angle to capture it)

Balagov’s film Beanpole is not a war film though it is indeed a tale of soldiers just as Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) is not a typical war film but rather a film on the “war” within the soldiers’ minds in a war setting. Likewise, Beanpole is an exquisite film on the psychological, social and medical “wars” female soldiers fight, on their return from the frontline for their aspirations for a emotionally fulfilled life.  Balagov is a self-confessed admirer of Russian film maestro Alexander Sokurov and the deft use of the camera, lighting, and visual composition in Beanpole will recall the typical Sokurov touches. (The use of colour and lighting in Beanpole is far superior and intelligently chosen compared to the Oscar nominees of 2020.)

Iya and Masha and the subtle use of contrasting colours in their garments

Victoria Miroshnichenko plays the gangly, former Russian World War II soldier Iya, euphemistically called “Beanpole” because of her lanky height and simplicity. More importantly most characters in the film are aware that Iya is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).   As the film progresses, the viewer will note that “Beanpole” in the film is quite the opposite of the intelligent PTSD afflicted Will (Ben Foster) in the interesting US film Leave No Trace (2018). The PTSD afflicted Iya, who dotes on her military colleague and friend Maya’s toddler son Pashka, unwittingly suffocates the child during a seizure, a fascinating sequence in Beanpole.

Two inseparable friends: Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) (left)  and Iya the Beanpole

Going by the title of the film Beanpole, one would assume the tale is on Iya’s life. But co-scriptwriters Balagov and Terekhov have scripted a tale of two military women, the simple-minded Iya (Beanpole) afflicted with PTSD and her close street-smart friend and colleague Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who has lost her son Pashka while he was in the care of Iya and cannot conceive another child due to war injuries.  The film ignores Masha’s past as it concentrates on her two current objectives: one, to get married to a loving husband, and two, to bring up another child to replace the dead Pashka to fulfil her motherly instincts.

A fascinating and powerful interaction: Sasha's mother
meets Masha, her aspiring future daughter-in-law over a formal meal

Masha does find her ideal “future” husband in another military man Sasha, who is smitten by Masha and intends to marry her.  But Masha’s dream of marriage is short-lived following a fascinating encounter with Sasha’s mother over a formal dinner.  That dinner sequence depicts a war without bullets fired or tantrums exhibited by either woman. The iciness in the conversation and camera positioning will probably not be forgotten in a long while by any astute film viewer. Sasha’s mother was simply magnetic in delicately underscoring the social differences between her son and her future daughter-in-law. The build-up and the eventual break-up of Masha and Sasha are not of two individuals in love but indicative of the differences between the artificial social equality in the military with its uniforms and the real world where money and class matters either in Leningrad (now St Petersburg, where Bolagov and Sokurov have spent most of their lives).

Masha identifies the possible sperm donor for Iya's future child,
as a replacement for Masha's dead child Pashka
(Note the colour of clothes and the background in the shot)

Balagov’s Beanpole trudges onward to grapple with Masha’s second objective of bringing up a child that she can call her own to replace her dead child Pashka. The film then presents a new complex scenario. Masha cannot conceive a second child due to a war injury. Masha gets her close friend Iya, who is not interested in having sex with men, to conceive a child to fulfil Masha’s emotional needs following the death of Pashka. The outcome is not as important as are the effects of war on men and women alike off the battlefield that Beanpole presents as a larger picture.

Beanpole mirrors Alexeivich’s 1983 Nobel-prize-winning literary work that explored the myriad problems faced by women soldiers after a war concludes.  There is hardly any political undercurrent in Beanpole except when 6 year old Pashka is asked to bark like a dog by friendly elders and is stupefied and unable o respond.  An elder comments that there are no dogs left in Leningrad for Pahka to know how they bark because they have all been eaten—a rare indirect political comment of the food situation within the film.  Beanpole is thus essentially a social and psychological commentary on the plight of women soldiers after a war, either traumatised or injured for life.

The camera accentuates white in this shot by intentionally
incorporating the floor to add white colour to the shot

Beanpole is a significant film as it introduces a major new talent among contemporary Russian filmmakers in Kantemir Balagov, who writes his own original screenplays, and deserved his Best director award at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section.  The various honours at other film festivals for its cinematography (Kseniya Sereda) and the performances of the two female leads confirm the intrinsic worth of this film. A remarkable cinematic work of 2019 from a promising 29-year-old man making his second feature film!

P.S.  Beanpole is one the author’s top 20 films of 2019. The film won the Best Director award and the FIPRESCI prize in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival; the Silver Apricot Award at the Yeravan Film Festival of Armenia; the Best Film award at the Montreal Festival of New Cinema; the Impact Award at the Stockholm Film Festival; Achievement in Cinematography and Best Screenplay awards at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards; the Special Jury Prize at the Lisbon and Estoril Film Festival;  the FIPRESCI prize at the Palm Springs International Film Festival (USA); and the Best Actress award at both the Antalya Golden Orange Festival (Turkey) and the Sakhalin International Film Festival (Russia). Two films mentioned in this review The Thin Red Line and Leave No Trace have been reviewed earlier on this blog (click the names of the films to access the reviews).

Monday, January 20, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 21, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 02, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jalal with his cute little daughter

Jalal with his son and daughter on the road trip

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

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

Jalal re-evaluates his relationship with his Azei lady fiend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 27, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Domingas (Braga) offers Michael (Udo Kier)  soup

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

Michael (Kier),  the lead remorseless human hunter

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

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

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