Saturday, September 14, 2019

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
















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

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

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

Ingrid Bergman as Karin

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



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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Karin finds the population of the island "horrible"


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



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

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

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

Karin escaping her life with husband Antonio and the erupting volcano 

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


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

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


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


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






Friday, June 28, 2019

237. Italian maestro Ermanno Olmi’s feature film “La Leggenda del Santo Bevitore” (The Legend of the Holy Drinker) (1988) (France/Italy): One of the finest examples of magic realism in film history and the importance of making the right choices of appropriate background music

















Ermanno Olmi (1931-2018) is not often discussed on the same plane as Orson Welles or Andrei Tarkovsky. Yet they have certain similarities in their body of film output.  Olmi made 20 feature films and bagged over 50 international awards. His best work The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978) is as awesome as Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941). Olmi’s film was based on his own original script, which he directed, cinematographed, edited and for which he personally picked an array of non-professional actors. For Citizen Kane, Welles had co-written an original script with Herman Mankiewicz, directed, produced, acted in the main role, and chosen his own cast of professional actors (most of them making their film debuts) and crew.  Olmi’s film won the Golden Palm at the Cannes film festival for the best feature film; Welles won a solitary Oscar for the co-written original screenplay. Olmi and Tarkovsky have common streaks, too; both are evidently theistic, Olmi a fervent Roman Catholic, Tarkovsky a resolute adherent of the Russian Orthodox Church. Both Olmi and Tarkovsky chose their music for their works with considerable deliberation, a fact missed out by many of their respective fans.

The scruffy vagrant Andreas (Rutger Hauer), living under a bridge

A stranger and benefactor (Anthony Quale) offers Andreas a "loan"


Olmi’s 12th feature film The Legend of the Holy Drinker,made 10 years after The Tree of Wooden Clogs, won the Golden Lion award for the best feature film and another minor award at the Venice film festival.  In this film, Olmi made a couple of departures from his usual trademark style—he chose to mix professional actors (Dutch actor Rutger Hauer of Blade Runner fame, British actor Anthony Quayle of Anne of the Thousand Days fame, Dominique Pinon of Delicatessen fame) with non-professional actors (the enigmatic Sophie Segalen who plays the Polish woman Karoline, and Jean-Maurice Chanet, who plays the Polish boxer) who never returned to the world of film. Olmi made another significant departure in this film: he chose to adapt a novel written by Austrian writer Joseph Roth, instead of writing his own original script as in most of his other films. Olmi co-wrote the adapted script based on Roth’s book with Tullio Kezich (who had earlier played the role of the psychologist in Olmi’s earlier film Il Posto).

Andreas can look somewhat distinguished when he can afford a shave
(and has a roving eye for women)

Sophie Segalen, who plays Karoline, a nonprofessional actress picked by
Olmi, who never returned to the world of film 


The tale is deceptively simple.  Andreas is an alcoholic, unemployed tramp with a Polish passport, living homeless under bridges along the river Seine in a rainy Paris. His passport bears a stamp stating that he has been expelled from France. For a vagrant, he is unusual. He wears a necktie and believes in looking respectable when he can afford a shave. His looks and demeanor indicate that he is a “gentleman” tramp, which is possibly why men and women trust him and are only eager to help him.  He is reluctant to accept money (a sum of 200 French Francs) from a stranger as a gift but agrees to take it when the generous stranger states that he could consider it as a loan. Andreas is resolute in his intent to repay the loan, when possible, not to the stranger but to the vicar of the church of St Therese of Lisieux in Paris, who the stranger had indicated will know what to do with the returned sum.

Andreas is not overtly religious—merely a gentleman tramp, with a roving eye, but always ready to help a friend in need.  As the film progresses, we learn that in school, Andreas would let his classmates, who were not as bright as he was, copy his answers in the examinations.  The film, if you examine it closely, is less about religion and more about being morally upright and being good to those less fortunate. The film propounds magic realism to underscore to the viewer that good deeds will eventually lead to amazing blessings from unexpected sources.  The film suggests in a fabulous magical sequence of epiphany involving a poor elderly couple who magically transform to Andreas’  recollection of his parents—a sublime sequence indicating that Andreas is indebted to his parents for inculcating fine traits in him that have held him in good stead. It is a sequence that has so many similarities with Tarkovsky’s Mirror where magic realism is employed to recall the role of parents and in his later work Stalker where a girl observes a glass on a table moving on its own accord, aided by external reverberations.




Repaying the loan of 200 French francs, finally as agreed


Olmi and Kezich crafted the script of The Legend of the Holy Drinker where the spoken words are minimal. The tale is communicated with visuals (read cinematography of Dante Spinotti), editing, and musical score (the last of which is lost on most viewers because the other two elements dominate).  While other directors and scriptwriters would have wasted spoken lines on the inconsequential sexual encounters of Andreas, Olmi and Kezich reduce them in one sequence to mere furtive glances and the closing of curtains, without a word spoken.  When words are spoken in The Legend of the Holy Drinker  it is to indicate the integrity of the tramp:  when a stranger offers him a drink at a bar and a job, his acceptance is sealed with another round of drinks that the gentleman tramp insists on paying for with the meager possession of coins with him. That the tramp was not religious is indirectly inferred by a cryptic statement he makes to an old friend from Poland “These last few days I have started believing in miracles.” He should. He buys a wallet, and finds money in it.  Then a policeman returns him his wallet, with more money in it. Andreas believes in returning his “loaned” money several times in the film, but is distracted near the church each time by extraneous interventions.  He wishes to return the loan, but the goodness and grace that embody every little action of his seem to prevent his fervent desire to repay the loan. One can assume the connection between gracious actions and unexpected rewards are from Roth’s book.  

The reaction of Andreas on meeting "Therese" at the
restaurant near the Church where he has to repay the loan

Olmi’s distinct contributions are the visual complements of the cinematic craft at key points in the film: the smiling “Therese” in her third appearance in the film approving the repayment of his loan shown through a door slightly ajar edited into the film—a private communication between the two, another epiphany.

Olmi chose three pieces of music written by Stravinsky—not his famous Rites of Spring. The three pieces are Divertimento, Symphony in C, and Sinfonia di Salvi per Coro—Salmo 40 or Psalm 40. The last of the three Stravinsky pieces is very significant. Psalm 40 in the Bible is King David’s song of praise “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.  He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire. He set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand….” 

Tarkovsky’s choice of music in Solaris—Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in F minor and The Little Organ Book: Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ—are conscious decisions, too, to complement the visuals in specific sequences. That the film The Legend of the Holy Drinker won the Golden Lion at Venice from a jury headed by Sergio Leone whose films used music so eloquently is possibly a nod to Olmi’s musical selection in the film that Leone could perceive.


Olmi’s films always deal with deprived sections of society.  More so Olmi’s protagonists (e.g., Il Posto, The Tree of Wooden Clogs) are far removed from the reflecting, philosophizing intellectuals we encounter in Tarkovsky’s films—here they are honest, hardworking, principled individuals, often losing out to the machinations of the rich or unprincipled folks, akin to scenarios that we encounter in the films of Ken Loach and his scriptwriter Paul Laverty.  


A painting? Cinematography of Dante Spinotti,
capturing light and shadows


Olmi chose to work with Italian cinematographer Dante Spinotti for the first time in The Legend of the Holy Drinker and later in yet another film The Secret of the Old Woods (1993). Spinotti had a similar effect on Hollywood director Michael Mann, who was so impressed with his work on Manhunter that their collaboration extended to other more impressive films: Heat, The Last of the Mohicans, The Insider, and Public Enemies.

Few cineastes might be aware that The Legend of the Holy Drinker won several national awards in Italy for direction, cinematography and editing while competing with Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso. The Olmi film is a gem that can be appreciated beyond Joseph Roth’s tale.  It is a rare example where tools of filmmaking—direction, appropriate casting, music, cinematography and editing--prove their subtle prowess.


P.S. The Legend of the Holy Drinker is one of the author’s top 100 films. It won the best Golden Lion award for the best film and the OCIC award at the 1988 Venice Film Festival. Actor Rutger Hauer won the Best Actor award for this film at the Seattle International Film Festival. Several films mentioned in the above review, the Olmi film The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978) and Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) and Mirror (1975) have been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the name of the film in this post-script for a quick access to those reviews on this blog.)

Friday, April 19, 2019

236. Japanese director Naomi Kawase’s film “Vision” (2018) (Japan/France): Science fiction through the eyes of Japan’s Terrence Malick















Most directors yearn to make one film at least that deals with science fiction in their careers; some succeed in making amazing products, most fail to make a lasting impact. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey (1968), Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), and Godard’s Alphaville (1965) are memorable efforts by directors to deal with science fiction and come out trumps. They make a singular effort and rarely return to the genre.  Others like John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974), Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green (1973), Cornel Wilde’s No Blade of Grass (1970) or Robert Altman’s Quintet (1979) fumble in their attempts to make a lasting impact, while a host of other directors end up making make escapist, commercial, comic-book films like Star Wars or Back to the Future that will please the pop-corn eating audiences. Two major filmmakers whom I respect, attempted to make their latest films in the first category—Naomi Kawase with Vision (2018) and Claire Denis with High Life (2018), combining science fiction and philosophical food for thought.  Both films figure among my top 20 films of 2018.

Aki (Mari Natsuki) the charming 1000-year-old, blind,
untrained, genetic resource collector


Ms Kawase’s latest two works Radiance (2017) and Vision (2018) deal with blindness and sight, physical and metaphorical.  While Radiance dealt with a creative person losing his eyesight, Vision furthers the connection by Kawase first introducing a symbolic, metaphysical, fictional 1000-year-old blind woman who collects herbs—an endearing untrained “plant geneticist”( who can see the past and the future of the flora and humankind) named Aki (Mari Natsuki).  Kawase’s original scripts are always amazing works in parts but she often fumbles when she tries to knit these concepts together. 

Kawase goes on the same path further into science fiction by introducing a medicinal herb appropriately named Vision that blooms every 997 years (just 3 years short of Aki’s purported age) bringing forth spores that can heal pain and sadness in humans.  The number 997 is a prime number adding to the mystique associated with numbers in mathematics. Radiance and Vision share the same lead male actor Masatoshi Nagase, a Kawase regular pick in recent years, adding to the connection between the afore-mentioned two films. The two films could form a diptych on human ability to see, connect and come to terms with nature during our life span.

Satoshi (Masatoshi Nagase) and his dog

In her film script, Kawase extends facets in science that are indeed true. There is indeed a flowering herb called Neela Kurinji  (Strobilanthes  kunthianus) that produces purple-blue flowers every 12 years on the grassy hills near Munnar, Kerala, India, catapulting the sleepy  Munnar as the top destination in Asia for global nature lovers in 2018 when its hill slopes turned purple-blue. Interestingly, poets and literary works have also alluded to the connection of the Kurinji flower as a symbol of self awakening in a woman.  The honey produced by bees feeding on this rare flowers’ nectar is supposed to be very healthy and tasty. Did Kawase pick an idea or two from these scientific facts? Kawase’s Japanese effort also recalls the notable 2017 Turkish film Turkey—Semih Kaplanoglu’s Grain, which won the Best Film award at the Tokyo film festival, another film on plant genetics.

The Neela Kurinji flower that blooms every 12 years on the hills
near Munnar, Kerala, India, much like the fictional Vision flower
that blooms every 997 years (The photograph is not from Kawase's film)

Kawase’s Vision deals with the past, present and future. It deals with association of nature and humankind. There are forests (recall Kawase’s The Mourning Forest made in 2007), trees and wind to help uplift the story-line to philosophical levels as in many Terrence Malick films. Vision has sequences that recall the creation process in Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). Kawase’s films are often geographically anchored to Nara prefecture (where the director grew up) in Japan, similar to Malick’s references to Waco and Texas in most of his films.

Jeanne (Juliette Binoche) absorbing the forest's beauty

In Kawase’s Vision, characters are introduced into the script and they exit the script without much of explanation.  Frenchwoman Jeanne (Juliette Binoche) travels to Nara from France after stumbling on the rare herb Vision in her plant genetic studies.  She connects with Satoshi (Masatoshi Nagase) and the blind woman Aki through a Japanese girl Hana (Minami) who leaves the tale/film abruptly. Aki seems to be expecting the arrival of Jeanne. Satoshi has a dog that has a role that evokes a mythical similarity to the dog in Tarkovsky’s Stalker and that dog dies enigmatically in Vision. A young man Rin enters the tale abruptly and the ensuing chemistry between the trio would bewilder most viewers. Satoshi has been living alone in the forest for the past 20 years with Aki living nearby. As the film progresses, Kawase gradually reveals that Jeanne has been in Japan, interestingly 20 years ago. Kawase switches between science fiction and drama with a rare felicity. How then does Vision make sense to the viewer?

Satoshi, Jeanne and Rin

Clues to answer the questions come from Kawase herself on the importance of connection: “It occurred to me when I was driving a car one day. Contemporary society may be perfecting a world in which we can live alone. In movies made on the theme of the Destruction of Humanity, a sudden explosion occurs or a virus arrives that causes the destruction. But what if that destruction takes place with our full acquiescence? It’s a bother to get involved with people. Life is easier without marriage or children. Rather than being attached to a company, there’s more freedom in working freelance, responsible only to yourself. Without contributing to your community, you can pay money and get all the extravagant services you desire. Thus the era has begun where people can live without seeking connections to others. But... Is that what humanity has been striving toward? Is this the “abundant future” promised by the accumulation of wisdom? I wonder. The exclusion of connection, refusing to pass on one’s genes, sharing none of your neighbour’s pain, a faceless society begins to be taken for granted, and beyond one’s life, nothing more is required. Isn’t this evidence that we have already quietly entered the Age of Destruction? If life forms exist elsewhere in the universe, why hasn’t a developed life form come to Earth to encounter our likewise developed humanity? There is only one answer. When a civilization develops too far, destruction begins. The phenomena mentioned above fit this theory. What influence does art have on humanity? Artists across the spectrum of genres have pursued this question through the centuries, but they have yet to guide us to an answer. No matter what exceptional art is employed, war has not been eliminated, while inequality and poverty rooted in the idea of stratification have not been wiped off from the Earth. However, when I place my hope in that potential and engage in creative activity that explores the role of art, I make discoveries within the realm of that film, and I share the doors that lead toward “true abundance”. This film spotlights the “discomfort” that emerges within contemporary society, while embracing our differences and suggesting the next moment that humanity should welcome.” (Source: Press kit for the film Vision)

By a weird coincidence, in the very year Vision was made, an exceptionally well-made, delicate small-budget film was made in USA on the Japanese diaspora in the US state of Hawaii called August at Akiko’s directed by Christopher  Makoto Yogi, making his debut as a feature filmmaker. Both films deal with Japanese culture, and both deal with interactions between the young and the old to live a connected life with humans, nature and the metaphysical world. Kawase’s film is, of course, the superior of the two, though convoluted in narration.

Vision might not be Kawase’s best work, yet it is one the best films of 2018. Her flawless works remain Shara, The Mourning Forest, Still the Water and Sweet Red Bean Paste. But few will dispute the awesome cinematography of Arata Dodo and the charming music of Makoto Ozone that lift the quality of this Kawase film above her other works. Both are teaming up with Kawase for the first time. That combination offers pure delight for the senses.


P.S.  Kawase’s earlier films Shara (2003), The Mourning Forest(2007), Hanezu (2011), Still the Water (2014), and Sweet Red Bean Paste (2015) have been reviewed earlier on this blog. So too, Kaplanoglu’s Grain (2017) and Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) (Click on the names of the films in this postscript to access the reviews.) Vision is one of the author’s top 10 films of 2018.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

235. US director and scriptwriter Paul Schrader’s film “First Reformed” (2017) (USA): Schrader’s best work, drawing on Bergman’s “Winter Light” and Tarkovsky’s “Sacrifice”




























Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind, simultaneously.  Hope and despair.  A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.”  
“How easily they talk about prayer, those who have never really prayed.” 
----- thoughts written in the diary of Rev Ernest Toller, via “voice over”,  in First Reformed, scripted by Paul Schrader



Any evaluation of the film First Reformed would be considerably enhanced by some knowledge about the American Trappist monk, theologian, social activist Thomas Merton (1915-68), who had interacted with Buddhist monks, and  studied Hinduism, Jainism, Sufism, Sikhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and published his thoughts in his bestselling  autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain and other works. In the film First Reformed, the principal figure Rev Ernest Toller (Ethan Hawke) writes a diary (read by "voice over") on his thoughts just as Merton had put his thoughts on paper that eventually became a best seller. Director and original scriptwriter Paul Schrader makes the connection visually by showing us the stack of Merton’s published works in Toller’s room and at least two references to Merton verbally in the film.

Rev Toller (Ethan Hawke)  delivers his sermon in his church


The writing of the diary and the “voice-over” reading of the written lines are not just a connection to Merton’s and Tolller’s habits in Schrader’s film but an important device employed in the script that becomes critical to unravel the ending of the film.  At the end of the film, there is no voice over, there is silence.

Toller and Esther (Victoria Hill): Esther expresses
concern for Toller's health

Schrader’s script revolves around Rev Toller, the pastor of a historical church that once had served as a refuge for runaway slaves in USA. Toller was once married and had a son he lost in the Iraq war as a US soldier. Toller himself served in the US army as a chaplain, and had encouraged his son to enlist. The eventual death of his son wrecked his marriage.  Early in Schrader’s film there is a shot of the near empty church with one bespectacled lady, Esther (a very convincing Victoria Hill), sitting prominently in one of the nearly empty benches. Any viewer of Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1963) will recall Rev Tomas looking at the bespectacled Marta in that film in a similar situation. As First Reformed progresses, the viewer learns that Esther is in love with Toller with fervent hopes that he would marry her just as Marta and Tomas in the Swedish classic. Much later in the film First Reformed, Toller is introduced to a troubled environmental activist Michael who wishes to abort his wife’s foetus because he does not want his child to be born in a polluted world run on business interests. Michael’s worries are not far removed from those of Jonas’ (Max von Sydow) worries of China developing nuclear capability that he confides with Rev Tomas in Winter Light. Both films’ priests are concerned with Christianity they preach and forced to look at external realities.

After those common threads, Schrader’s script grows on its own merit—the development of the thinly attended First Reformed Church of Toller under the umbrage of the Abundant Life Church with Rev Joel Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer a.k.a.  Cedric Kyles) who functions as a big brother senior priest towards Toller—mainly because Jeffers’s church is flushed with “abundant” money and members that include a successful businessman who own industries that pollute the countryside. The troubled Michael commits suicide, while Toller realizes that the Abundant Life Church is run by the very forces that the late Michael had hated and feared.  This Abundant Life Church in turn supports the First Reformed Church of Toller.

Toller and Mary (Amanda Seyfried): Mary wants to resist aborting her foetus,
an action her husband Michael wants her to take

Rev Toller, the viewer soon realizes, is suffering from a serious ailment (he is urinating blood) but continues to consume significant quantities of liquor in private. He is also consulting a doctor. Toller’s church member and admirer Esther too is concerned about his health but he rebukes her for it. Jeffers too is worried that Toller is spending too much time in the figurative Garden (the biblical Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed to God to remove the cup of suffering/wrath if He willed it).  Toller simultaneously gets psychologically and emotionally closer to the pregnant  Mary (Amanda Seyfried), the wife of the late Michael. Mary plans to leave town to be with her sister. In spite of an Andrei Tarkovsky-like levitation sequence [The Sacrifice (1986); The Mirror(1975)] there is no suggestion of a carnal relationship between the two.

Toller and Mary: at the funeral of  Michael


Schrader’s script emphasizes that First Reformed is less about Mary, Michael, Esther or Jeffers—it is more about Toller and his diary, which is essentially spiritual. Toller knows that he is about to die from a serious medical condition. Influenced by Michael’s suicide, Toller is tempted to blow up the enemy of Michael with Michael’s own devices but changes his mind when he sees Mary with her unborn child in his church. What is debatable is whether Toller is more concerned about the unborn child of Michael that he had wanted to be born into this world earlier in the film or his platonic affection for Mary suffering from depression in her recent widowhood. Perhaps, both.

Toller wears his "crown of thorns"

Where Schrader scores most is his diligent effort to weave in biblical quotations that reflect Merton’s and Toller’s views into the script. The loaded final conversation between Jeffers and Toller is punctuated with such quotes. While one wondered why Schrader showed Toller picking up the barbed wire fencing near the church’s graveyard which had killed a hare, the ultimate use of the barbed wire in the film is visually reminiscent of the crown of thorns worn by Jesus.

Schrader’s true winner is the ending which a keen viewer would not accept at face value.  There are several clues to decipher what actually happened: the replacement of the alcohol in the glass with a chemical liquid, Toller changing into a white cassock (throughout the film he wears a black one) with fresh blood stains, the embrace of Mary who does not seem to be affected by the barbed wire under the cassock, and the sudden silence. The film’s initial sequence outside the church is also silent. Toller's final action can be connected to the initial words scribbled in his diary: A life without despair is a life without hope.

First Reformed has won 55 awards already.

P.S. Thomas Merton was in Darjeeling in the late 60s and early 70s interacting with Buddhist monks and Jesuits, the very years this author was a student there in a Jesuit high school. What a coincidence!  Could we have passed each other on some street or corridor? Bergman’s Winter Light is one of the author’s top 10 films ever made and has been reviewed on this blog. Tarkovsky’s The Mirror has also been reviewed in detail on this blog. (Click on the names of the films in this postscript to access the reviews)

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

234. Russian director Aleksei German, Jr.’s sixth feature film “Dovlatov” (2018) (Russia): A soulful reduction of the travails of a Russian writer of repute, intelligently collapsed into six interesting, representative days in 1971 of Brezhnev-era USSR, providing the viewer a mirror image of what director Aleksei German, Sr., endured as a creative filmmaker battling censors in that same timeframe.









“Dovlatov was a sex symbol, an Elvis Presley, a legend (in Russia)” – director Aleksei German, Jr., on the writer Dovlatov,  in an interview published in Sight and Sound

“I saw Brezhnev in my dream. We drank pina coladas and discussed socialism. He promised to help (me get published).” Dovlatov to his mother, waking up in the morning on the first of the “6 days of 1971” shown in the film




Dovlatov is an exceptional film and one of the most mature cinematic works made in 2018. Why is it exceptional?  It encapsulates the world and travails of Russian writer Sergei  Dovlatov (1941-90), friend and contemporary of eventual Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky  and their interactions in Leningrad (now St Petersberg) preceding the decision of Brodsky to emigrate to the United States within a part-realistic, part-fictional representative 6 days of 1971. The year 1971 is typical of a particular Soviet mindset within former USSR (now primarily Russia, having subsequently divested off several Republics as independent countries) when Leonid Brezhnev was its leader and its budding writers and filmmakers had to be included in official Unions (thus toeing official points of view) to flourish in their respective creative fields. Dovlatov was forced to work on a shipyard’s newsletter as a journalist and write on subjects that pleased his employers (the government) while all his 300 odd creative pieces of writing would get rejected by publishers of books and journals.

Dovlatov (Milan Maric), his wife and his daughter stare at the hopelessness
of Dovlatov's future with a miserly income as a journalist
 and no scope of acceptance as a writer

When director Aleksei German, Jr., makes a film on writer Dovlatov and his travails to get his writings published, the filmmaker is merely mirroring the troubles of his own father Aleksei German, Sr. to make his own films in the same time period in USSR.  It was in 1971, the year underlined and projected in the movie Dovlatov, that Aleksei German, Sr., made his film Trial on the Road, a film banned by the Brezhnev regime and one that made the film director famous worldwide when it was released in 1986, when Gorbachev came to power. The film had argued that heroes and traitors were the same, only a matter of differing perspectives.

The wry humour/irony of the Trial on the Road and the problems of his famous father in getting his film released are recast by German, Jr. in Dovlatov through the frustrations of the writer Sergei Dovlatov using a 6-day period of 1971. In that short period, the script includes a bizarre group of actors dressed up as the famous  Russian writers Tolstoy, Gogol, and Dostoyevsky, who evidently know little of the writings of these worthies they represent and mouth inane praises of current political views that are opposite of what those writers had stood for.  The script includes a suicide of an intellectual, black marketing of books, and a sequence where Dovlatov pretends to be a government official arm-twisting the black-market bookseller to divulge the names of the buyers “who are enemies of the state.” While it is humorous to the viewer, the bookseller is none the wiser.  During that short period, the viewer gets a glimpse of how the official book publishers/censors function, how dissidents are picked up by secret police in open restaurants and even an event in a prison camp that Dovlatov witnesses. There is also Dovlatov separated from his wife due to his financial situation and teetering on the edge of divorce proceedings and doting on his loving daughter for whom he hopes to procure a German (a reference to the director’s name, perhaps?) doll from the black market.

Doting father Dovlatov and daughter. The bag contains
yet another rejected manuscript.



An "enemy of the State"  picked up by the police in public while eating a meal

The film Dovlatov has two contrarian aspects: the moody, depressive world of artists who cannot find freedom of expression and the hilarious, wry comedy that involves names of writers and contents of their works contrasted with live realistic situations in 1971 Leningrad.  The soulful, contemplative world is captured visually with fog and snow (the cinematographer is the talented Lukasz Zal of Cold War, Ida, and Loving Vincent fame) and visual compositions of soldiers marching by as a dejected Dovlatov walks by staring at his bleak future while refusing to compromise on the content of his writings with the demands of the State.  The acerbic comedy alternately lifts up the viewer (assuming of course that the viewer is well acquainted with literature).  When a woman is attracted to Dovlatov, who appears to be single, he introduces himself as Franz Kafka and the lady does not blink an eyelid! (The film audience in which I was seated did not react either!)

"Franz Kafka" interacts with one of his many lady admirers


There is a major problem with Dovlatov, the film. The screenplay will only make sense if the viewer is well-exposed to European literature. Brodsky would be another Russian name to many who watch the film, unless they were aware that Dovlatov’s friend went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature soon after he immigrated to USA.

This critic too has yet to read Dovlatov’s famous books The Suitcase: a novel and Pushkin Hills (published long after Dovlatov followed Brodsky and immigrated to USA) but had been  lucky to have read a couple of Dovlatov’s written pieces in English  in the New Yorker magazine published in the 80s. American author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, had praised some of those New Yorker pieces written by Dovlatov . Hopefully the lovely film Dovlatov will prod some viewers to make an effort to read those books and articles in the New Yorker and discover the brilliance of written works. If Russians today idolize him the way Americans idolize Elvis Presley the singer, Dovlatov’s writings must be exceptional.

Dovlatov (back to the camera) is a witness to an escape attempt
at a forced labour camp


There are several praiseworthy aspects to the film. One of those is the ability of script to compact the stifling atmosphere of censorship and its effect on creative people’s lives using Dovlatov, the writer, as a prime example. When Dovlatov encounters an actress dressed as Natasha Rostova (the main female character in Tolstoy’s War and Peace) Dovlatov comments dryly to her “You are very real. And better,” alluding to the state of the character towards the end of the novel.  What Dovlatov acerbically implies here in the script will only make sense to those familiar with the state of the character towards the end in Tolstoy’s novel. The film deserved recognition for its screenplay by film combines talents of Russia, Serbia and Poland.

Manuscripts/pages of books on the floor: a seminal shot of the film,
with Dovlatov dolefully inspecting one of the sheets 

It is sad that this film attracted barely 30 odd viewers at its screening during the International Film Festival of Kerala in Trivandrum (in contrast to other films at the festival that attracted large audiences) and that motley crowd evidently did not react to the humour offered by the script, possibly because they were not familiar with Russian and European literature. While Dovlatov, the film, might not appear as obviously politically critical of Russia as German, Jr.'s earlier work Under Electric Clouds (2015), the former is a more mature work, assuming of course the viewer is able to pick up the subtleties of the film. This critic is confident that Dovlatov, the film, will gain recognition with time and that in turn will lead more people to read the writings of the author Dovlatov.

In the Sight and Sound interview director Aleksei German, Jr., makes it clear that though the film is obviously critical of the Brezhnev regime, he had full support from the current government officials in Russia.


P.S. Dovlatov is one of the top 10 films of 2018 for the author.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

233. Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s third feature film “Capernaum” (a.k.a. Caphernaum; and Chaos)(2018) (Lebanon): A film that puts Lebanon on the world cinema map by presenting truth, humanism, and issues often swept under the carpet, in many parts of the globe





“Why are you attacking your parents in court?”—Lebanese judge/magistrate to Zain, a 12-year-old Lebanese, already behind bars for a crime he has committed 
For giving me life”—Zain’s response

The year 2018 has seen the release of three interesting films from three distinct parts of the globe. Each of the three  are very interesting, have several common themes and have and will be competing against each other for major honours at different awards nights and film festivals. The three films are directors Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum (from Lebanon), Hirokazu  Kore’eda’s Shoplifters (from Japan) and Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (from Mexico).
 
Zain (Zain al Rafaeea) pondering on ways to feed and take care of
someone younger and more helpless


All three films deal with multiple children and their families into which they are born-- for no fault of theirs.  All three films are original tales conceived and developed by the directors from their own experiences and imaginations. All three films deal with poverty, though in Roma the effect of poverty is limited to the servants and not the children of their masters who are luckily born into a world of financial security. All the three films have already won major awards either at Cannes or at Venice film festivals and are/were competing for the Golden Globes and the Oscars.  Though Capernaum is the weakest of the three in production quality, it offers much more to the viewer to reflect on and appreciate than the other two films.

Perhaps, to relegate all the production aspects of in Capernaum as less stunning than Shoplifters and Roma would be quite inaccurate.  An early aerial drone shot in Capernaum of the shantytown districts of Beirut, thanks to its cinematographer Christopher Aoun, stuns you. What you see is a mosaic of tin sheets that act as roofs of human habitation held in place by old rubber tires of all sorts of vehicles.  

A 12-year-old Zain takes care of a 1-year-old with
responsibility and love he never got from his own parents



Zain carrying Yonas around Beirut to find food and shelter

Assuming this low-cost camera shot in Capernaum is real and not a computer generated perspective, that simple astounding shot deserves more credit than the comparatively awesome beach rescue scene and the hospital delivery scene in Roma captured by the able Mexican cinematographer/director Cuaron with the relative high costs involved, the mainstay of the Mexican film Roma’s technical finesse. Now why would that one shot in Capernaum be so important? Beyond the humour and surreal perspective of Beirut that shot offers, it encapsulates the chaos implied in the title of the film. And to place that stunning shot at the start of the film is a master stroke of co-writer and director Labaki.

Capernaum is a film close to the neorealist film traditions of Vittorio de Sica (Italy) and the contemporary works of Ken Loach (UK) and the Dardenne brothers (Belgium) using non-professional actors to etch realistic tales of poverty in an engaging, intelligent manner. On the other hand, Kore’eda’s Shoplifters is a film that has used experienced actors who have appeared in films before, often in earlier works of the director.  If the viewer of Capernaum dissects each scene with the 12-year-old Zain (Zain al Rafaeea, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon  who has never acted before playing the role of a Lebanese kid) and the one-year-old Ethiopian child Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) who is not old enough to walk but can crawl, one can glimpse the mammoth effort taken by director Labaki to capture the right emotions of the two kids and the amount of time spent  and footage the filmmakers shot to get the final edited version of Capernaum. And it looks so real!

Capernaum offers an unusual tale—a 12-year-old boy so frustrated with his miserable life on earth which led him to commit a crime out of rage that results in imprisonment with other kids of his age. From the jail, he is ingenuous enough to contact a live TV show host on a cell phone to start the process of suing his biological parents with an unusual demand that his mother abort the foetus that she is carrying. He does not want yet another child to be born into his family of illiterate and incompetent parents, who neither have money or time for their offspring but continue to breed.

Zain in court speaks to the judge with his lawyer (director and co-scriptwriter
Nadine Labaki) standing next to him



While Capernaum is a plea to parents worldwide who cannot afford to have another mouth to feed and to stop procreating further, it is equally an unsettling plea against child marriages, where a girl child (Zain’s younger sister Sahar) can be given off in marriage in exchange of five chickens to feed the family for a few days.  It is a plea by a child who has never been to school on behalf of the children of the world for a right to education and their right to the joys of childhood.  In stark contrast to the children in Shoplifters, who experience love of parents, grandparents and foster-parents, the children in Capernaum are pushed by poverty to survive from day to day employing ingenious methods of drug peddling and their incredible transmission of opioid medication routes to survive and generate income to help other kids, more fragile than themselves, live another day.

The illegal Ethiopian migrant Rahil in Lebanon
 in search of a better life for herself and her son Yonas

Capernaum prods the viewer to spread the word on the importance of sterilizing illiterate parents already burdened with kids, blind to the travails of their progeny present and future. It is a film that underscores the importance of registering the births of children in today’s global village to have their own identity and rights in their own country that will help them in their life. It is also about paperless emigrants: an Ethiopian single mother Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) ekes out a living in Lebanon, evidently because Lebanon offers her a better life than in Ethiopia and in a similar flip-side scenario to escape poverty the Lebanese Zain goes scrounging for his identity papers (that never existed because his parents never bothered) so that he and Yonas could be transported to Turkey and/or Europe as immigrants also seeking a better life. The film’s unspoken message is that immigration problem starts at home, with parents who are responsible for the upbringing of the family rather than curse their own financial predicament. It is thus not unusual to find brothers being more responsible for the fate of their sisters than the parents in the Middle East. The many Zains of Lebanon do manual child labor to survive each day while more privileged children head to school in small vans covered with their schoolbags.

In Biblical terms, Capernaum in Galilee was where Jesus began his ministry, performing miracles, and  a town cursed by Jesus unless the people repented. In Labaki’s Capernaum, there is scope for the parents to repent after hearing Zain’s plea from behind bars and sterilize themselves or adopt other temporary birth control methods so that other Zains are not brought forth into the world.  Labaki’s Capernaum might be focusing on a small portion of Beirut—but the message of her film is universal.  One is again reminded of the iconic shot from the sky of Beirut’s shacks with tin sheet ceilings held in place with old tires.

Zain and his younger sister Sahar who will be given away in
marriage by his parents for the price of five chickens

Though Labaki’s Capernaum lacks the financial and acting prowess of Roma and Shoplifters, the strength of the film is in the message and the ability of the filmmaker to work with a 9-year-old Syrian Zain playing a 12-year-old Lebanese with the same name.  The fictional character Zain cares for those weaker than himself and, in jail, shows a maturity beyond his physical age to envisage a similar fate as his that awaits his future brothers and sisters unless he acted quickly against his parents. Director Labaki plays the role of Zain’s lawyer in the film. Step back and the viewer will realize that Labaki is the “lawyer” making an impassioned plea for a better deal for children of poor illiterate parents who disregard sterilization and beget children deprived of food, education and love and plead innocence without taking responsibility as production of children is equated with currency. 

The more economically stable film viewers of Capernaum can scoff at the concept of a child suing his parents, but it is a viewpoint few filmmakers would have dared to address till now.

Capernaum is the film of 2018 and arguably the best film from the Middle East in a long, long while.


P.S. The lovable Zain al Rafaeea, who is the main actor, is now a legal immigrant in a Scandinavian country with his parents.  Capernaum is the winner of the Jury Prize and two other awards at the Cannes film festival; award for direction at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards; best screenplay award at the Stockholm Film Festival, audience awards at Calgary, Acadie, Ghent, Melbourne, Mill Valley, Norway, Sarajevo, St Louis, Sao Paulo, and Toronto international film festivals.  The author's ranked list of the top 20 films of 2018 includes Capernaum.