Thursday, January 28, 2021

260. Côte d’Ivoire’s (Ivory Coast’s) film director Philippe Lacôte’s second feature film “La Nuit des Rois” (Night of the Kings) (2020), based on his original script: A significant prison film underscoring the power of storytelling and magic realism from the African Continent

 











 




“I don’t make a lot of films...I can only shoot what is essential to me” 

--Director Philippe Lacôte in an interview to CNN titled "Machetes and Microbes: Why Philippe Lacôte's Prison Drama Cuts Close to the Bone" (September 8, 2020) 

  

French-Ivorian filmmaker Philippe Lacôte has made two feature films Run (2014) and Night of the Kings (2020), both officially submitted to the Oscar’s foreign language category by Côte d’Ivoire (former name: Ivory Coast), in respective years. Both films provide a marriage of documentary and narrative fiction styles, and both have international actors of repute playing major roles. Run has Côte d’Ivoire-born Isaach de Bankole (Jim Jarmusch’s actor in The Limits of Control/Coffee and Cigarettes/Ghost Dog-The Way of the Samurai; Claire Denis’ actor in White Material/ Chocolat) and Night of the Kings has Denis Lavant (Leos Carax’s actor in Holy Motors/The Lovers on the Bridge); Claire Denis’ actor in Beau Travail) working alongside local non-professionals with elan.


The Roman viewing the MACA prison's
exteriors on arrival


Night of the Kings is a film about the first day and night of a new prisoner, whose real name is never revealed/mentioned in the entire film, in Côte d’Ivoire’s infamous prison called La MACA (Maison d'Arrêt et de Correction d'Abidjan). It is an unusual prison—it functions as an open prison, within a closed well-guarded perimeter walls. The prisoners are governed, not by the armed police stationed outside but by a prison inmate who is given the title of Dangoro by other prisoners. The Dangoro (Steve Tientcheu, who had a meaty role in 2019 film directed by Ladj Ly called Les Miserables, an Oscar nominated and Cannes Jury award-winning film) rules over other inmates in accordance with  internal rules, laws, and beliefs that one guesses evolved over time by the prisoners. The official prison warden/officials, armed with guns, merely keep watch through small slits in the wall at a vantage point. As the new prisoner is brought to the prison in an open truck with an armed guard seated next to him, the Dangoro assesses the young man who might be 20-years old or even less and announces the new prisoner is the “Roman.” The viewer gradually learns the import of the strange baptized name Roman. A Roman, in the prison, has to wear an impressive gown and narrate tales the entire night to all the Roman’s prison cohabitants just as Scheherazade did to survive in A Thousand and One Nights. In Roman’s case, he learns he has to keep his listeners transfixed overnight to see the sunrise the next day.



The ailing Blackbeard is the Dongoro, facing 
challenge to his leadership in the MACA



While many viewers will be enraptured by the Roman’s innovative ability to narrate interesting tales woven from his knowledge of Ivorian contemporary street conflicts and his ability to recall Ivorian oral history and tales narrated by his elders as he grew up, the original script of director Lacôte, mirrors more than its face value. What the Roman narrates is a close examination of the violence in Côte d’Ivoire after and between the two civil wars (2002-2007 and 2010-2011), the reasons for that violence, the historical seeds sown over centuries in the minds of Ivorian inhabitants that contribute to the recurring waves of violence, and the internal contemporary politics of the country stated with skill and some camouflage through the Roman’s seemingly innocent storytelling and the parallel events in the prison relating to politics to dethrone the ailing Dongoro and Dongoro’s own plans for his final end-game in line with the internal codes of MACA evolved over time by the prisoners. All this is observed by the warden and his officials and they act as traditional neo-colonial rulers do with knee-jerk reactions, seemingly unable to comprehend the ground complexities.


The Roman narrates his stories, wearing the
Roman's fine attire as other prisoners listen

To comprehend the full import of the film, an unusual external event preceding the release of the film, publicized by CNN news channel referred above, needs to be kept in perspective. In December 2019, the film’s director Philippe Lacôte was attacked in the night on the streets of Abidjan (capital of Côte d’Ivoire, by a youth gang armed with machetes referred to in the film as the “microbes,” one of which the Roman in Night of the Kings was purported to have been a member) leaving director Lacôte with injuries on head, hand, and leg that requiring three medical operations to recover somewhat and release the film. Mr Lacôte is an admirable filmmaker crafting his own screenplays. His screenplay for Night of the Kings is entrenched with Ivorian truths, history and folklore that could be allegorical as well.


Silence (Denis Lavant)
comes to Roman's rescue


Silence helps Roman with ideas to extend his tales


I
n order to survive, the Roman begins by narrating somewhat real events of Zama King, a contemporary leader of microbes, who he is supposed to have killed, when his real crime was mere pick-pocketing. In order to lengthen the story telling, the Roman goes back several years describing Zama King and his blind father in rural Côte d’Ivoire, attacked by armed groups. At the behest of a well wisher called Silence (Denis Lavant) walking with a hen on his shoulder in the MACA jail, the Roman adds new characters in Ivorian folklore, Barbe Noire, a queen with magical prowess, accompanied by soldiers set in a time zone several centuries prior to the present day. And while Roman is keeping the prisoners distracted with the stories, there are murders, suicides and power games among the prisoners to replace the ailing Dangoro on a full moon night with a new one. Perhaps the goings-on within MACA reflect the turmoil of Côte d’Ivoire’s socio-political scenario in recent years that forced the African Development Bank to move its headquarters from Abidjan to Tunisia in 2003 until its eventual return to Abidjan in 2014.

An Ivorian queen with an unusual head dress,
accompanied by her armed soldiers,
is one of the riveting tales of the Roman


D
irector Lacôte has written the script with intimate personal knowledge of the MACA prison. When he was a child, Lacôte’s mother was a political prisoner in MACA and he would travel in public vehicles to meet with her inside the “open prison” depicted in Night of the Kings. According to Lacôte, the ritual of a “Roman” telling stories is real but in reality the “Roman” is never killed. A quarter of the cast of Night of the Kings was made up of former MACA inmates to lend authenticity to the film. Lacôte’s screenplay and the film’s French title further suggests similarities with the Shakespearean play The Twelfth Night, where the servants play the masters in a flow of licensed disorder, just as the Roman holds court while narrating the tales in the MACA. Young Lacôte apparently noticed some of elements of power play within MACA on his visits to meet his imprisoned mother. The screenplay also uses the ancient Greek theatre elements of the chorus as groups of prisoners sing and chant elements of Roman’s tale in an impromptu fashion.   

The survivor


While director Lacôte’s film harks back to Middle Eastern roots of One Thousand and One Nights, another African film Sleepwalking Land made in 2007 in Mozambique, directed by Teresa Prata, adapted novelist Mia Couto’s novel of the same name adding Ms Prata’s personal nods to Melville’s Moby Dick and a distant alluded equivalent of Captain Ahab. So too did French director Claire Denis while cleverly adapting  Melville’s Billy Budd in her remarkable film Beau Travail (1999), set in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa. All the three films, by three different directors, deal with Africa and the colonial influences in that wonderful, diverse continent. Cinema is able to link them all together like beads in a necklace. Recent films from Africa that include This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection (2019) from Lesotho and Night of the Kings from Côte d’Ivoire signify that the continent is proudly exhibiting a resurgence in quality films from unexpected countries not often associated as sources of impressive indigenous cinema.

 

 

P.S.  Night of The Kings has won two Silver Hugo awards at the Chicago international festival, one for its cinematography and one for its sound, the Amplify Voices award at the Toronto international festival,  and the Artistic Achievement award at Thessaloniki (Greece) film festival. The films This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection (2019) and Sleepwalking Land (2007) have been reviewed on this blog earlier. (Click on the names of the films in the post-script to access the reviews.) This film is one of the author's top 15 films of 2020. The author is one of the contributors of The Directory of World Cinema: Africa (Intellect Books), The author has had the privilege of having visited Côte d’Ivoire in the Nineties, several times on official work to interact with African Development Bank officials.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

259. Lesotho’s film director Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s second feature film “This Is Not A Burial, It's A Resurrection”(2019), based on his original script: One of the most remarkable films from the African Continent

 



















“Let the dead bury the dead, you shall leave no trace. Bury your existence, lest they say there lived a sufferer. The soul-less march of time has surrounded you, like an old cloth turned into a dry beetle. The (church) bells speak when people can’t. Little children cheer up. The dead buried their own dead. You will do so in future. You can hear the church bells under the water”

---words of a song sung in the opening sequence, where the time stamp is revealed by the electricity that lights up the room (the rest of the film is lit by candles). The song is sung, aided by a Lesiba, “an unbraced mouth resonated bow,” by the film’s actor Jerry Mofokeng

 

Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese is one of the best directors from the African continent today, if not a wider geographical area, and his 2019 film This Is Not A Burial, It's A Resurrection testifies that fact. How original is the tale of the film depends on whether he had seen a remarkable US film Northfork (2003) directed by Mark Polish with an original script written by the brothers Mark and Michael Polish. The essential similarity between the two are limited to the impending acquisition of land to make way for a man-made lake, the shadow of forcible relocation of the inhabitants of a town/village, a Christian priest (Nick Nolte, in the Polish film; Makhaola Ndebele in Mosese’s film) who provides spiritual succor, and relocation of buried remains of the dead before the waters are released. Both are remarkable films. In both films, we have inhabitants resisting change. In both films, the villagers/townsfolk battle powerful wealthy capitalist groups who promise a better life if the inhabitants agree to move out.  Unlike Polish’s film that focused on diverse characters in a town, in Mosese’s film, the focus is on a single inhabitant--an 80-year-old  widow named Mantoa (Mary Twala Mlongo, who is stunning in this film) mourning currently her son’s death and his burial. Similar to the work of the Polish brothers, there is a priest in Mosese’s film to comfort her spiritually but Mosese goes a step beyond the American film, he brings in sheep as non-human mourners in a twist of magic realism to comfort a widow whose house was once burnt in a fire that consumed all her possessions and, possibly, her bedridden husband. To capture the movement of the animals from an overhead shot was a masterstroke, reminding one of Terrence Malick’s shot of grazing wild bison surrounding the lead actors in To The Wonder (2012).

Mantoa played by Mary Twala Mlongo, who won
5 Best Actress Awards at various international
film festivals for this role

The opening song sung with a Lesiba
(the room has electrical lights)


Death and burial are important elements of spiritual and social discussion in This Is Not A Burial, It's A Resurrection. The film begins with Mantoa mourning the death of her son who had been working in a mine in neighboring South Africa, that landlocks Lesotho. The script of Mosese reveals in fits and starts that Mantoa has lost her bedridden husband, her daughter and her granddaughter. Her cumulative grief is relieved for a while by the consoling words of the Christian priest quoting the Bible passages. Yet this only leads to a crisis of faith in the strong Mantoa, who merely impassively listens to the hymn “Abide with me” sung in the local language by members of another burial procession passing by her hut. Mantoa is preparing for her own death and burial in the background of the imminent “death and burial” of her “weeping” village called Nasarethe (a variant of Nazareth, the town Jesus grew up in the Bible) under the waters of the proposed lake.  Mantoa calls all the womenfolk of the village and gives guidelines on her own burial reminding one of Abbas Kiarostami’s quest for a suitable person to bury his fictional character Badil in the 1997 Golden Palm winner at Cannes, The Taste of Cherry. For Mantoa, her death is certain and around the corner and her burial wishes will be complied with; for Badil, his plan is dependent on future intangibles. Mosese presents Mantoa, a woman of strong will and character, a ‘Mother Courage,’ who pays a villager in advance to dig her grave next to her husband’s and son’s graves.

Mantoa grieves her losses to a fire sitting on
a charred bed while sheep magically
surround her as co-mourners

After the fire, the rebuilt elegant hut of Mantoa
(note the art direction/production design)


Mosese’s film presents an unforgettable mix of script, visuals and sounds that are rarely captured so effectively and evocatively in a film. Almost every shot in the film, often wordless, express the affinity of Mantoa to her immediate surroundings that goes beyond the cemetery, the church with its well-described historic bell, and the dead bodies buried in the graves. The colorful attires of Mantoa indoors are regal and yet simple. The exterior shots silently describes the single individual swallowed up by the vast well-endowed land that produce useful flora for the humans and feed for the sheep, not to mention the rainwater that blesses the country.

Mantoa in mourning attire
(note the candles.)


Mantoa, in better times, (note the rich colors.)


 (In reality, not stated in the film, the multi-million dollar Lesotho Highlands Water Project, which commenced in 1986 with the help of the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and the European Investment Bank, captures stores and transfers water and generated electricity to South Africa, earning Lesotho hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue annually.)   

The typical cinematography of the film, accentuating
Mantoa's stature against larger forces,
of rainwater from the clouds that can bring
prosperity and the cemeteries that will go under water 
 

Director Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, as the director, screenplay writer and editor has made Lesotho and Africa proud with his second feature film winning plaudits all over the globe.  African cinema is on the march while showing indirectly the effect of development in the region.

P.S.  This Is Not A Burial, It's A Resurrection has won 19 awards worldwide at film festivals including Athens, Durban, Hong Kong, Montreal, Reykjavik, Sundance, and Taipei international festivals. Five of these awards were for Mary Twala Mlongo as the Best Actress at the respective events. The film participated at Denver film festival,  This Is Not A Burial, It's A Resurrection is one of the author's best films of 2020. Mark Polish’s film Northfork (2003) and Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder (2012), mentioned above, have been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the names of the films in the post-script to access the reviews.)

Saturday, November 07, 2020

258. US director Henry Butash’s debut feature film “The Atlantic City Story”(2020), based on an original script by the director: Charming and different, crystallizing the potential and power of independent, low-budget cinema

 



















There are films that begin to mesmerize a viewer when you watch the initial sequence closely. This is often the case when you view a debut film that is also built on an original script written by its director. The quiet sophisticated strength of the opening sequence of Henry Butash’s debut film The Atlantic City Story will grab the attention of any mature, attentive viewer and the viewer is likely to be hooked until the film ends. This critic recalls the same feeling while viewing the opening sequence of the British director Sir Ridley Scott’s debut film The Duellists which went on to win the Cannes film festival Best Debut Film award in 1977, Scott’s sole honor at Cannes to date.  Similar to The Duellists, Henry Butash’s film, too, has an opening sequence where the spoken conversation is minimal, and even the lead actress Jessica Hecht playing a middle-aged married woman called Jane (an appropriate name for the character) hardly moves from a table where she is sitting and drinking her morning hot beverage, as her husband greets her fleetingly and rushes off to work. Her posture, the lighting and the camera almost mimics a static shot providing some introductory information for what is to follow. A regular Hollywood studio film would never allow for such a minimalist opening sequence as in Butash’s The Atlantic City Story. These are aspects that regular filmgoers used to loud music and fast action sequences would perhaps discount.  This is probably why The Duellists is rarely discussed even today among Ridley Scott’s works even though Cannes spotted its value ignoring his blockbuster films that he made in his later career.


Taking a break from her cheating husband:
Jane (Jessica Hecht) at Atlantic City on 
the shores of the Atlantic Ocean


Those who have visited Atlantic City, New Jersey, USA, in recent decades could anticipate a socio-historic story of the gambling hub on the Atlantic coast especially in winter months when the numbers of visitors dwindle. The wooden boardwalk parallel to the ocean shore would be empty in winter and but crowded in summer. Butash’s film captures the winter scenario with the boardwalks almost empty though the casinos work quite in contrast without a break with sufficient numbers of customers gambling away night and day just as they do in Las Vegas. The only difference: Atlantic City, seems to be on the decline while Las Vegas appears to be unaffected with time.

However, Butash’s film is not about the City as it prefers to focus on the story of two lonely individuals, Jane and Arthur (Mike Faist), who accidently converge on the city for different reasons at almost the same time. Jane is a married woman with sufficient money to spend and wants to spend time anonymously away from her husband, who she suspects is having an affair with another woman. Arthur, the other individual, is a young bachelor, considerably younger than Jane, who has stolen money and an engagement ring from his family members and is possessed by an urge to compulsively gamble. Atlantic City offers the anonymity and escape that Jane briefly desires, and for Arthur the false hopes of becoming rich and hopefully returning the stolen money to the family he so loves. Jane and Arthur, total strangers, meet in that somewhat less-crowded-than-usual Atlantic City.


Arthur (Mike Faist) gambling with money
stolen from his family


Jane is initially attracted to Arthur by merely watching his hands on the roulette table. Jane notices that Arthur is losing money and is gradually becoming penniless. Jane follows and discovers him alone one night all wet on the seashore and suspects that he has no place to go and as a kind soul brings him to her room. A bond forges between the two as they spend time in the empty exteriors of Atlantic City over the next few days.  Director Butash had worked on three recent films of Terrence Malick (as post-production assistant in Knight of Cups and Song to Song and as an additional editor for his Voyage of Time). It is therefore not surprising that certain exterior sequences of Jane and Arthur in Atlantic City remind the viewer of Malick’s style of the ballet-like camera movements capturing the almost silent duo (bereft of Malick’s usual voice overs and religious philosophy) conversing only briefly. Butash invests considerable screen time focusing on their body language and that results in better dividends than films that rely on lengthy spoken dialogues.  That’s what makes Butash’s film stand out from most other films.


Butash and cinematographer Derry creating images 
akin to works of Malick and cinematographer Lubezki


If the viewer is familiar with a particular work of the Russian playwright and short story writer Anton Chekov, The Atlantic City Story would recall elements of Chekov’s short story The Lady with a Dog. That short story dealt with an unhappily married woman, on a vacation (alone with a dog and without her husband) walking up and down a walkway on the shores of the Black Sea meeting up with a lonely married banker for the first time, while passing each other. The Chekov story was adapted into a wonderful 1960 Russian film directed by Iosif Kheifits with the same title as the story and had officially participated in the Cannes Film Festival that year. Cineastes who have watched the Kheifits film will note the common strains with Butash’s film. The boardwalk of Atlantic City parallel to the Atlantic Ocean shore is similar to the walkway in Kheifits film next to the Black Sea shore. The main characters of both films include married persons who indulge in a brief extra-marital tryst before departing to their respective homes. But the common elements of the two films end there.

Butash’s script does not adapt Chekov’s story any further but instead looks at the brief tryst of Jane and Arthur as a medicine to heal their personal psychological wounds. The ending of Butash’s tale is considerably different from Chekov’s tale. Jane being elder to Arthur notices Arthur’s dangerous gambling addiction and proactively comes up with a solution to help him on the right path and return to his family. Jane is able to reflect on her own life and marriage and resolve that fracture too in an interesting way.

Jane: Escaping a fractured marriage,
or repairing it with a short absence?


The admirable aspect of Butash’s original script is in contrasting Atlantic City as a haven for tourists and compulsive gamblers, against those rare well-meaning visitors who could go out of the way to help a compulsive gambler to seek a new productive life and even encourage that person to consider joining Gamblers Anonymous. The script is also admirable because the director/scriptwriter positively focused on saving crumbling marriages and broken family ties set against a bleak backdrop of empty stores and almost empty sandwich outlets that had attracted Arthur’s parents in the past when they visited Atlantic City decades ago enabling Arthur to recall the sumptuous sandwiches of the outlet from memory. The images of Butash's film are starkly in contrast with the well-populated boardwalks of the City during high-tourist periods of the year captured in Louis Malle's film Atlantic City (1980).

Arthur's life is changed by
a well-intentioned stranger


Pivotal to The Atlantic City Story is actress Jessica Hecht, who has very few lines to speak and yet dominates the screen fleshing out the character that Butash had created. Butash cleverly zeroed in on Ms Hecht possibly to extract a credible low-key but mature performance required of the character. Similarly, cinematographer Justin Derry’s outdoor cinematography is magical at times and quite possibly influenced by the work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki in several of Terrence Malick’s later films.

Henry Butash has made a commendable debut film that offers restrained entertainment and thoughtful and positive outcomes with a difference that independent cinema can offer in USA. One hopes the debut film of Mr Butash will sow the seeds for a similar growth trajectory as the debut film of Sir Ridley Scott did for Sir Ridley.  


P.S.  The Atlantic City Story is making its debut at the 2020 Denver Film Festival, USA, and is nominated for the Best American Independent Film Award. This critic had visited Atlantic City in November 1996 and experienced first hand the lack of crowds on the famous boardwalk at that time of the year depicted in the film.  Ridley Scott’s debut film The Duellists and Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups mentioned above have been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the names of the films in the post-script to access the reviews.) The Atlantic City Story is one of the author's best films of 2020.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

257. Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof’s seventh feature film “Shetan vojud nadarad” (There is No Evil) (2020), based on an original script by the director: Distinct tales of four Iranian men (three of whom were soldiers) who either chose to actively participate or conscientiously refuse to hang condemned men and the consequences of their actions on their family life

 
















The film is “about people taking responsibility” for their actions and “each story is based on my own experience”

---Director Mohammad Rasoulof, quoted from BBC News on the Wikipedia page on the film There Is No Evil

 

Most filmgoers around the world might not have heard of Mohammad Rasoulof, an Iranian film director. He is one of most courageous filmmakers in the world today making amazing, well-crafted, award-winning films on morality within Iranian society, governed by rules that wreck the lives of its conscientious citizens. The seven feature films he made have upset the Iranian government authorities who do not appreciate dissenting views while his films gathered plaudits and awards worldwide. Both he and another relatively more famous film director Jafar Panahi are facing jail terms, currently in suspension, for highlighting some of the ills within the country. While the Damocles’ sword of prison time has cowed down Mr Panahi, Mr Rasoulof has come out with his most hard-hitting film yet-- There Is No Evil--which is arguably one of the best films of 2020 worldwide, in terms of content and quality and one of the best films from Iran over the decades. That it won top honors at the Berlin Film Festival is no surprise.

Director Rasoulof's daughter Baran plays an
interesting role in the fourth segment--"Kiss her"
The actor: Mohammad Seddighimehr


What is the film about? The four segments of this portmanteau film deal with four male characters who either hanged prisoners or objected to hanging condemned prisoners, often during their forced conscription for military duty or for economic necessity of bringing “home the bacon” in one case or, in the case of a tertiary character in the film, for covering the medical bills of a family member. None of the four enjoy their activity. In some segments, their close family are well aware of the decisions they make; in some, their dark activity is never fully revealed to their loved ones. And what are the crimes of the prisoners who are executed? Some are murderers, some are drug peddlers, some are political activists or believers in other faiths than those allowed to be practiced in the country by rigid Islamists.

Apparently if a conscripted soldier refuses to hang a condemned prisoner in Iran, you are punished by being given other tough and distasteful tasks, additional time to serve in the military, refusal of a driving license and a required permit to travel abroad. Your life becomes a living hell if you abide by your conscience.

To be involved in hanging a condemned man
or not is the question


The awesome aspect of Rasoulof’s scriptwriting lies in the contrasting details of thought that gets weaved into it. Those who hang condemned prisoners, even if it is for the sake of their family’s economic survival, and after regularly collecting their salaries and their rationed rice for their apparent remorseless activity, reveal a kind heart while discussing upset school girls from broken families or saving kittens stuck in unlikely places. On the flip side, conscientious objectors to hanging convicted human beings in the film refuse to kill foxes that harm their own livestock and choose instead to feed them with food enabling them to survive. One of Rasoulof’s hangmen who is quiet about the work he does also exhibits silent remorse as he stops his car at a red light and doesn’t move on when the lights turn green, on his way to work. The camera merely captures the unmoving car which does ultimately move after a while. What an imaginative way to capture the mind of a sullen, seemingly unperturbed individual!

The car scenes like this one
can be found in all the four segments. 


There is a strange common denominator in the films of Abbas Kiarostami (Certified Copy; A Taste of Cherry; Ten), Jafar Panahi (Taxi; 3 Faces), Reza Mirkarimi (Castle of Dreams) and Mohammad Rasoulof (There Is No Evil) in their propensity to film actors sitting in front seats of moving cars often, if not always, in non-studio shots. It is possible that these directors look at economics of filmmaking, ability to get reactions in real time of two or more actors in a single shot, or both. Yet this method of filming has only raised the distinct stamp of creativity of these directors in some of their important and celebrated recent works.

An evocative shot beautifully composed
and balanced by the cinematographer and the director.
That shot visually encapsulates an entire segment 
The actress is Mehtab Servati

If we go by information available on the IMdB website, it is quite possible that many of the male actors in There Is No Evil are either non-professionals making their debut or they have never acted in films sufficiently famous to be included on that website. It is indeed a remarkable achievement for Rasoulof to cast them and get fascinating outcomes.  

While Rasoulof’s personal views on death penalty is obvious, the film's strength lies in his astute development of interactions of various major characters, often within their family or a family of a close friend. The infusion of unusual details in the screenplay clearly surpasses his efforts in his past films, such as Good Bye and A Man of Integrity. Here he uses cats, foxes and even honey bees to add value to the conversation of the main characters in the four segments (There is no evil; She said ”You can do it; Birthday; Kiss me) of  the film There Is No Evil. If there is an element where the viewers have to suspend their disbelief in what they are watching, it would be portions of the second segment. But to the credit of the director/screenplay writer that weak segment is also the most entertaining amongst the four. But who cares? The somber value of the other segments more than makes up for it. The film is essentially about moral strength of its four characters not one providing popular entertainment.

Rasoulof and his contemporaries among Iranian directors are blessed with a range of beautiful and talented actresses—and this film is a testament to that factor. Rasoulof considerably depends on them. While his male protagonists may appear to have lead roles, their female counterparts in each segment have equally demanding and more commanding roles in his films and in this one in particular.

This film is in many ways close to Christian, Buddhist, Jainist, and humanist tenets though it is made by an Islamic cast and crew. It is essentially a film about respect for human life and that of animals.

The strength of There Is No Evil is based on several unusual elements—the ability of Rasoulof to make yet another film that could upset many in the Iranian government and judiciary while having a suspended jail term to serve out; writing a fascinating original script based on his own experience; wonderful casting of actors that include Rasoulof’s daughter in a major role in the final segment; and the intelligent cinematography by Askhan Askhani (who also worked on Rasoulof’s A Man of Integrity). While it is quite predictable that Iran will never nominate There Is No Evil to the Oscars, one hopes it gets nominated in the categories of direction and screenplay by the Oscar authorities, rules permitting.   


P.S.  There Is No Evil won the Golden Bear for the best film, the Prize of the Ecumenical film Jury, and the Guild Prize for director Rasoulof at the 2020 Berlin film festival. It has also won the Grand Prize at the Heartland international film festival, Indiana (USA), Best Narrative Feature Film award at Montclair festival, New Jersey (USA), and the Special Jury Prize of the Crested Butte Festival (USA) for “courage in filmmaking.”  The film is participating in the 2020 Denver Film Festival, USA. There Is No Evil is one of the author's best films of 2020 Rasoulof's earlier films Good Bye (2011) and A Man of Integrity (2017), Kiarostami's Certified Copy (2010), Panahi's Taxi (2015) and Mirkarimi's Castle of Dreams (2019) have been reviewed on this blog earlier as also Kieslowski's Dekalog 5 (1988), a major cinematic statement on capital punishment from Poland. (Click on the names of the films in this post script to access the reviews) 

Monday, October 12, 2020

256. Italian director Mauro Mancini’s debut feature film “Non Odiare” (Thou Shalt Not Hate) (2020), based on an original script by Davide Lisino and Mauro Mancini: Fascinating tale on human contradictions, visually narrated, economizing on spoken words

 






 








 

“I wanted what the characters don’t say to each other to be more important than what they do say to each other”

---Director Mauro Mancini’s statement to interviewer Davide Abbatescianni, in Cineuropa, after the film competed in the International Critics’ Week at the 2020 Venice film festival


Debut feature films are, in most cases, interesting films because the directors invest a lot of fresh thought as in the prime examples of Welles, Melville, Chabrol, Ridley Scott, Mike Nichols, Spielberg and the Coen brothers. So too, Mauro Mancini’s first feature film Thou Shalt Not Hate makes an unusual impact where spoken words take a back seat and silent actions speak louder.


Alessandro Gassmann in the Venice award-winning
role of the reputed Jewish surgeon



The hate in the film refers to the continuing hatred over generations between the Nazis/the neo-Nazis and the survivors of the holocaust (and their progenies), surfacing in contemporary Italy. The strength of the film does not lie in the tale that unfolds but more in the way it is presented. The film stands out as a result of the combined creative abilities of the director/scriptwriter, his co-scriptwriter, and the lead actors that present a simple tale, intelligently told.

The film opens with a scene where a father asks his young son to drown several kittens of a brood but retain one. The film ends with an adult re-visiting the same spot alone. The two key sequences do not seem to have a direct connection with “hatred” depicted in the main tale of the film but it does connect up with ideas/prejudices passed on by one generation to another. While many viewers are likely to spot the obvious tensions and hatred between the neo-Nazis and the Jews in the film, viewers are less likely to note the contrasting relationships between father and son within the two groups, presented in Thou Shalt Not Hate. In one group (the neo-Nazis), the son idolizes the father and his views, in the other (the Jewish Italian) there is almost very little evidence of any close connection between father and son in spite of working in closely connected professions. Interestingly, the mother figures in both groups are almost absent in the film’s script. The tale is either intentionally or unintentionally patriarchal. The viewer is given the choice by the filmmakers to figure out where the hatred lies: whether is it between the Nazis/neo-Nazis and the Jews or between the evolving generational perspectives within each group, or perhaps both.

In terms of religion, the title of the film Thou Shalt Not Hate is not a Jewish/Christian commandment but mirrors the Commandment “Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself.” The film extends this view not just to human beings but to man-animal relationships as well. In contrast to the drowning of the innocent kittens that open the film, a fierce dog guarding the house of the dead dentist viciously snarls at his dentist’s son who had not met his father for a long while. Later sequences with few spoken words, explain the gradual bonding of the dog for his new owner. Another detail that may not be obvious is the burial of the neo-Nazi in a Christian cemetery without a priest, a prayer, or a Bible reading.

When a neo-Nazi dies, his daughter is the only
female mourner

The remarkable abilities of the director Mancini and his co-scriptwriter Lisino are apparent in scenes where no words are spoken and music is not used as a crutch to lift the emotions of the viewer. One such scene is the decision of the doctor to visit the police station to lodge a complaint (not a knee-jerk reaction) on being attacked as he first chose to go home and attend to his wounds and mulled over what to do next. He then turns back after pressing the door bell of the police station and almost opening the door that was remotely unlocked for him to enter. Another is a scene in a supermarket, where he chances to spot his housemaid at work from a distance. He departs discretely without interacting with her. The visuals and the editing speak more eloquently than spoken words. In another scene, the subtle ingrained reaction of the maid while travelling in a crowded bus towards an innocent black immigrant sitting close to her is delicately captured by the filmmakers. So is the subtle visual comparison of the old furniture stacked up in the Jewish father’s house along with clues to identify Nazis responsible for the holocaust meticulously being researched by the dead dentist, while his Jewish son lives in a clean and modern apartment without any clutter. The film studies attitudinal changes in families over a generation with love and forgiveness replacing intense hate. Even consensual sex between two evolved adult individuals from the two groups does not take place because they do not feel it is appropriate, indicating the maturity of the screenplay writers.  

While Thou Shalt Not Hate has an early sequence exhibiting the innate hateful action for neo-Nazis from a reserved, otherwise cool-headed Jewish doctor leading to the death of an “accident” victim, the rest of the film relates to the doctor going out of the way to procure public information on the victim and his family and attempt to discretely provide succor to the family of the deceased to compensate his hate-ridden, knee-jerk action on reaching the accident site.

The doctor seeks redemption for his hate
 in an empty synagogue 

The film recalls the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s sophisticated ten part Dekalog (Decalogue) on the ten Jewish/Christian commandments and Kieslowski’s incredible continuous collaboration with co-scriptwriter Krzysztof Piesciewicz that followed. It appears director Mancini is following in Kieslowski’s footsteps by continuing his collaboration with his co-scriptwriter Davide Lisino on his next film project.  

Sara Serraiocco, plays the housemaid
to the Jewish doctor

Apparently Mancini and Lisino developed the story after reading a news item about a surgeon who refused to surgically operate a neo-Nazi years ago and developed the film script keeping actor Alessandro Gassman in mind. Gassman appears as an Italian version of Hugh Laurie playing Dr House (minus the limp, of course) and his laconic performance won him the Venice acting award. (Alessandro is the famous Italian actor Vittorio Gassman’s son.) Mancini very aptly paired Alessandro with the equally talented actress Sara Serraiocco, who has been playing major roles in recent award winners at the Cannes and the Berlin film festivals. The casting choices added value to the film. The future collaborative works of Mancini and Lisino will indeed be worth waiting for.

 

P.S.  Thou Shalt Not Hate won the best actor (Pasinetti) award for Alessandro Gassmann and the award for the best Italian film at the 2020 Venice film festival. The film is participating in the 2020 Denver Film Festival, USA. Thou Shalt Not Hate is one of the author's best films of 2020 Four segments of Kieslowski's Decalogue (Decalogue 1, Decalogue 2, Decalogue 5, and Decalogue 7) mentioned above have been reviewed in detail earlier on this blog. (Click on the names of the films in this post script to access the reviews.) 

Monday, September 21, 2020

255. Japanese director Takashi Koizumi’s film “Hakase no aishita sushiki” (The Professor and His Beloved Equation) (2006), based on an award-winning Japanese novel by Yoko Ogawa: Melding the magical world of numbers and mathematics with invisible eternal truths existing in the universe, for adults and school-going students alike


 










 




To see a World in a Grain of Sand,

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the Palm of your Hand,

And Eternity in an Hour

                       ---opening lines from William Blake’s poem 

                           “Auguries of Innocence”


Some people don’t like numbers or mathematics but many do. Whether you belong to either category, the 2003 Yomiuri-prize-winning novel by the Japanese lady Yoko Ogawa called The Housekeeper and the Professor (the English translation has been published by Picador) and Takashi Koizumi’s film The Professor and His Beloved Equation based on that novel lead you gently into the mystical world of numbers that have captivated great minds like Pythagoras and Descartes over the centuries. What Ogawa and Koizumi achieve is to make an average person look at numbers with respect and realize that numbers were not created by human beings—they existed in the universe, we humans merely discovered them and are beginning to comprehend a small segment of the universe as we know it today. Both the book and the film motivate all and sundry to learn mathematics without being intimidated by numbers and equations. Ultimately, the film suggests a beautiful equation is like nirvana or the bliss of cosmic understanding described by the lines of the American poet William Blake at the end of the film.


Schoolteacher 'Root' resembles the root sign
                                 


The mystical connection



The book and the film introduce a young male schoolteacher who is commonly known by the name “Root,” the mathematical symbol, ever since an elderly mathematics professor associated Root’s somewhat flat head and a stubborn tuft of hair to one side (when he was a lot younger) with that symbol. That professor’s memory was impaired following a brain damage caused by an accident, and subsequently could think clearly only for a slice of 80 minutes at a time before forgetting what had transpired before that. He, therefore, pins reminders on his jacket to jog his memory after each segment of clear recollection. For all practical purposes, the professor adopts Root as own child and gradually instils his love for numbers, mathematics, and baseball in the young boy. Root, in his turn on growing up, very gently infuses the same love for numbers and the mystical association between them to his school students.


The professor (Akira Terao) meets Root's mother

                            

How does the film generate unusual interest in the viewer for numbers and mathematics? An introductory conversation between the Professor and his new housekeeper begins with a question about her shoe size, which she answers happens to be 24 centimeters. He happily informs the perplexed young lady that 24 is a “noble” number and a factorial of 4. He then explains how a factorial is calculated, which is in this case 1x2x3x4. He then asks her phone number and is overjoyed because that happens to be the precise total of “prime” numbers up to one billion. Then, as the film progresses, the viewer learns about "perfect" numbers and “amicable pairs” of numbers such as 220 and 284 and why they are called that. All this is not fiction but scientific facts to entertain and instill curiosity in minds to know more. And who discovered the first pair? It was Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician, who lived in the 6th century BC. Even this factoid is mentioned in the film. Then you learn about “transcendental” numbers and “imaginary” numbers later in the film. All facts, not fiction!


Young Root is 'adopted' by the professor

                                

And what is the “favorite equation” forming the title of the film? It is a variant of Euler’s equation now called “Euler’s identity.” It is an amazing fact that even today famous contemporary mathematicians call that particular equation/theorem of the Swiss mathematician (1707-83) to be the most elegant or beautiful theorem ever conceived. That is the connection to Blake’s poem ending the uplifting Japanese  film.

While Ms Ogawa has published over 50 books of fiction and non-fiction, in 2006 the year Koizumi released the film, the author brought out a book entitled An Introduction to the World’s Most Elegant Mathematics, in collaboration with mathematician Mashiko Fujihara. But who are the persons responsible for the film The Professor and His Beloved Equation? Director Koizumi was the assistant director to the late Japanese maestro Akira Kurosawa on five of his final major films: Ran, Kagemusha, Dreams, Madadayo, and Rhapsody in August and was an uncredited assistant to the director on a sixth one Dersu Uzala. The Kurosawa connection to the Koizumi film continues. The cinematographer Shoji Ueda too was the cinematographer of five of those films, the actor Akira Terao (who plays the professor) was a lead actor in Ran and Madadayo, so too, actor Hisashi Ogawa (who plays the brief role of the housekeeper agent) is a stock Kurosawa actor. Even though Kurosawa had nothing to do with this film, his trusted collaborators were the principal contributors to The Professor and His Beloved Equation. Kurosawa would have been proud because the film apart from mathematics briefly introduces Japanese culture and the essentially Japanese Noh theatre to any uninitiated viewer as well.

 "...as difficult as proving the beauty of a star"

                          

While the film is essential viewing for those who love numbers (and their mystical attributes), mathematics, physics and metaphysics, it perpetuates a minor fallacy. While the film attributes the discovery of amicable numbers, after Pythagoras had discovered the first set, to the European mathematicians Fermat (1601-65) and Descartes (1596-1650). It now well known that the Iraqi mathematician Thabit ibn Qurra (826-901) had invented a method to discover them (ref: Wikipedia on Amicable Numbers). Several Arab mathematicians used that method between the 10th and 17th centuries to discover more amicable numbers but the popular Western belief attributes the findings to Fermat and Descartes.

The philosophy behind a straight line

                                

The Professor and His Beloved Equation may not be widely known as an important film, which it is. When it does get further traction cineastes who don’t read books are likely to recall the film and not the book on which it is based. How many Andrei Tarkovsky fans attribute even a fraction of the brilliance of his films Solaris and Stalker to Stanislaw Lem and the Strugatsky brothers, respectively? Only a few demarcate a film and its source material.

 

P.S.  The Professor and His Beloved Equation won the best director award at Fajr film festival in Iran and an award for its music at the Mainichi Film Concours in Japan.



Saturday, September 05, 2020

254. US director Abel Ferrara’s semi-autobiographical feature film “Tommaso” (2019), based on his own original script: Trying not to be himself, the director reveals more of himself
















T
he year 2019 saw four directors from four different countries make semi-autobiographical feature films: Spanish director Pedro Almodovar made Pain and Glory, Palestinian director Elia Suleiman made It Must Be Heaven, US director Abel Ferrara living and working in Italy made Tommaso and rookie British director Joanna Hogg made The Souvenir. Each of them found different groups of cineastes being enamored by their creative products using distinctly different approaches to filming the problems they as filmmakers face in real life. Some hide their thinly veiled identity by choosing a nom de plume such as Tommaso (played by Willem Dafoe) in Abel Ferrara’s film which will not fool any astute viewer. Tommaso is a fictional name of a filmmaker resembling Mr Ferrara, developing his own original screenplays for future directorial projects, and he too lives in Italy and is learning Italian and teaching acting to potential actors as he has chosen to live and work in that country. Tommaso is married and has a young kid called Deedee. So does Mr Ferrara. The wife of Tommaso is actress Christina Chiriac, who happens to be Mr Ferrara’s wife in real life. Deedee is played by Anna Ferrara, the director’s own biological daughter. Yet, Mr Ferrara opts to use a nom de plume

Tommaso (Willem Dafoe) teaches acting to students in Rome




The approaches of the other three directors in their respective 2019 films are somewhat different. Spanish director Pedro Almodovar made his semi-autobiographical film Pain and Glory with the lead character, a fictional film director named Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas, winning the Cannes Best Actor award for the performance) with some obvious parallels to Mr Almodovar’s own life. According to journalist Sabrina Rojas Weiss, writing in Refinery29, Almodovar admitted to Los Angeles TimesThere is a lot of myself there, but somethings belong completely to my life and some do not but could have been.” Joanna Hogg’s film The Souvenir is again autobiographical, recalling her days in a film school through the eyes of a fictional film student called Julie. Only in the case of the Palestinian director  Elia Suleiman, in his admirable work It Must Be Heaven, the director chooses to play himself facing the camera without uttering a word but as a spectator of humorous, semi-fictional events and identifying himself with his initials ES. 

While Suleiman identifies himself and his thoughts in his film almost completely through visuals, Abel Ferrara chooses to identify his honest thoughts using the spoken words of his nom de plume Tommaso. When Tommaso is picked up by the secret police in Italy for making some comments in public and is forcibly made to confront a senior police official, Tommaso states with certain gravitas: “The temple of all laws must fall. A new temple of truth should be built. Don’t take me literally. What is truth? Truth is you are in pain, you have a terrible headache. You are thinking of suicide. You should take a walk in the park. The trouble is you lack empathy. You care for your dog.” The viewer would initially assume the rant is about Tommaso. You realize it isn’t only when the police official removes Tommaso’s handcuffs and responds to Tommaso with respect, “Are you a doctor?” Ferrara is merely emphasizing the importance of a film director to note details and gestures of people around them as an observant doctor would. 

Tommaso with his wife (Christina Chiriac, a.k.a. Mrs Ferrera)



Ferrara does not limit the film to the present. He reveals a bit of his tortured past in a group therapy session for drug addicts where he recalls he asked his 4-year-old adopted girl child “Are you leaving because I make too much noise?” (a likely scenario from his own life). The very same Tommaso ironically rushes out to quieten a drunk Pakistani shouting in the street outside his apartment in Rome at night because Tommaso’s (read Ferrara’s) real girl child born much later in life is likely getting disturbed by the noise of the drunkard’s rants. Mr Ferrara seems to indirectly state that he has matured over the years, being more responsible for his family. In another sequence in Tommaso, the character hallucinates that his daughter is run over by a car while crossing the street while rushing to hug him.  

Tommaso watches his daughter enjoy a cone of gelato 


If one looks at Ferrara’s move to Italy from the US to make films one of his films made in 2009 is a docudrama called Napoli, Napoli, Napoli (Naples, Naples, Naples). In Tommaso, towards the end, there is a scene of Sophia Loren dancing in her 1960 US film It Started in Naples playing on a video screen to which Tomasso’s daughter Deedee is dancing in tune. These visual connections would be lost on a viewer who does not know much about Ferrara’s life and career. In a very revealing interview to Eric Dahan in Numero, Ferrara states “All my films, alas, say something about me, one way or another. I try not to be me but in the end of course I cannot help it.” 

Ferrara reveals his own tortured creative life with simple actions in Tommaso. While Tommaso is trying to work on a screenplay for a film project in the night when all his family is asleep, a light bulb of a crucial lamp in his study fails and new bulb that he replaces it with in the lamp also fails as he switches on the electric current. The next morning, an angry Tommaso, is on screen walking down the pavement with the troublesome lamp in hand, leaving it on the sidewalk but not in the trash bin, as his wife and daughter watch his angry actions with concern from a safe distance. 


For Ferrara watchers, Tommaso is merely one of many films that the director has used Willem Dafoe as a lead actor of preference. Dafoe played the lead in the biopic Pasolini (2014), another Ferrara film set in Italy, 4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011), Go Go Tales (2007), New Rose Hotel (1998, sharing lead with actor Christopher Walken) and again in Siberia (2020). The close ties between the director and the actor increases in Tommaso where Ferrara depicts Dafoe playing Tommaso allegorically “crucified” in public in modern Rome creating a visual connect between Dafoe’s role as Christ in The Last Temptation of Christ. Next to the “crucified” Tommaso is a “crucified” African immigrant as a follow up to a sequence where Tommaso offered a group of African immigrants, sitting around an open fire in a garden the previous night, an allegorical “bloody heart” during a “last supper” while speaking the words “Take this. This is all I have.” 

To appreciate Tommaso, the viewer has to be essentially familiar with Ferrara’s work. If one is familiar with Ferraro’s life and work, Tommaso offers a lot for the viewer. Evidently Dafoe knows this well and gives fine performances in each Ferrara film. Tommaso is no exception. 

P.S. Tommaso is one of the author’s top 20 films of 2019. The film won the grand jury prize at the Lisbon and Estoril Film Festival. Elia Suleiman's film It Must Be Heaven mentioned above has been reviewed on this blog earlier (Click on the name of the film in this post-script to access it.)