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 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.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

232. Danish/Irish director David Noel Bourke’s third feature film “Bakerman” (2016) (Denmark) based on his original story: An interesting tale of a quiet and introspective Dane facing career threats from his employer who is an immigrant, and unprovoked and unconnected vandalism from other immigrants, sparking off an unusual chain reaction

Bakerman is an award-winning Danish film that has surprisingly not been picked up for screening by international festivals beyond western Europe and the American east coast. Few critics seem to have either seen the film or discussed it. Yet it is better than some of the films that do get screened at film festivals around the globe and get discussed.  It won the Best Foreign Film award at the Maryland International Film Festival and Best Actor award at New York’s Nordic International Film Festival, both in USA.

Director David Noel Bourke’s original script of Bakerman is quite engaging because it captures several feelings any economically fragile Dane would face in recent times.  Bourke presents a variant of the very subjects that the Belgian director brothers Dardenne or even the French director Stéphane Brizé usually work on. Bourke’s script injects a sinister psychological perspective to what the Dardenne brothers or Brizé would perhaps have preferred to skip while moulding their own scripts for their films.

Bakerman’s title character is Jens (Mikkel Vadsholt), an introverted middle-aged baker by profession. It might not be the best of careers in Denmark but Jens loves his work and is concerned about retaining the quality of his baked products. It is doubly interesting when the viewer realizes that he is just an employee and not the owner of the bakery.  Not many workers consider quality of the product they help produce to be important when they are not directly sharing the profits of the establishment or enjoying wide recognition for their inputs. Yet Jens is a quiet man worried about the drop in quality of the bakery’s products and chooses to voice it. The viewer begins to like Jens at this stage.

The introspective baker Jens (Mikkel Vadsholt) at home

In the film, when Jens asks his employer, an immigrant to Denmark who has acquired the bakery, for a salary raise because others in the bakery have been given one, he is rudely turned down with the argument that there are others who could replace him. One feels sorry for the good hard working Jens.

The viewer is slowly drawn closer to Jens, living alone in a house in the suburbs, waking up early before crack of dawn to have fresh baked bread and other baked products for customers in the morning. Compared to his colleague in the bakery, Jens is reticent but an observant gentle giant who referees football games.  However, women friends who drink with him in the pubs do not find him sexually attractive, while his male bakery colleague is successful on that front. The viewer begins to reassess Jens.

Jens alone by the sea, reflecting and planning

A wanton act of theft and another of vandalism by immigrants from a Muslim nation involving Jens’ car parked near Jens’ workplace sparks off a Batman-like transformation in the quiet baker. He travels in his modest “Batmobile” clearing lone immigrant drug peddlers off the streets, without a mask or a cape. On one such lone night vigilante trips, he rescues a Muslim immigrant girl being brutally beaten up on an empty street by her “brother.”  When Jens offers to drop the lady (Mozan) home, she explains in broken English that she has no place to stay. Our Batman takes her to his home and behaves like a gentleman towards her as Batman would.  The director Bourke intentionally makes the viewer more inquisitive about Jens with his contrasting actions: one a ruthless killer and the other a genuine good guy and a gentleman.

Mozan (Siir Tilif)  at the party hosted by Jens' sister

Bourke’s film grows in complexity as Jens is evidently not what he appears to be at the start of the film. The job insecurity and vandalism triggers off a set of a proactive deeds by him to set right "Jens’ world." Some of those actions reveal that quiet, boring people can be meticulous planners who can literally get away with murder.

Jens has a past not unlike that of Batman.  This is revealed by newspaper clippings secretly stored away in closed boxes, which explains his moody behaviour. Jens’ attitude towards religion suggests he is an atheist as he avoids attending his nephew’s confirmation, an important milestone for religious Christians.  These subtexts are important in the context of the film’s ending that clarifies that Jens’ vigilante-like behaviour against immigrants is not based on their religion but on their unprovoked, unacceptable actions.

Jens wearing  a superhero costume for a party
appears a frail human being searching for Mozan

Bourke’s film Bakerman is interesting on several fronts.  The main character Jens is revealed gradually, where the viewer is led to assess him and then reassess him continuously as the film progresses. It is a roller-coaster ride for the patient viewer right up to the end of the film to figure out the Danish Batman/Bakerman.  An example of Bourke’s remarkable ability is being able to compress a murder sequence to one without any scene of the actual murder itself by creative editing of shots.  More interestingly, Bakerman is a film that challenges the viewer’s judgements and luckily the dark, brooding, evil mid-section of the film gradually blends with the positive ending that Bourke provides us. 

Birds in flight, an appropriate metaphor
for the happy Jens at the end

Bakerman is not a perfect film (e.g., how could a woman who cannot speak Danish figure out the headline of a Danish newspaper clipping?) Yet, its strengths are the performance of Mikkel Vadsholt who brings out the complex yet vulnerable character of Jens and the ability of Bourke to reconstruct the script into a shorter film at several stages due to budgetary constraints that an independent filmmaker faces. Both Mikkel Vadsholt and director Bourke are talented individuals and one hopes that they contribute even further to good filmmaking in the future and be more widely accepted. 

P.S. Three films of the Dardenne brothers (Rosetta, The kid with the bike, and Two days, one night) and director Stéphane Brizé’s Measure of a man were reviewed earlier on this blog. (Please click on the coloured titles of the films within this post-script to access the reviews.)

Sunday, December 02, 2018

231. Indian director Praveen Morchhale’s third feature film “Widow of Silence” (2018) (India), based on his original story: A lovely tale woven by the director’s observations on the no-win situation for the women in Kashmir

There is always an unusual distinct flavour when a director makes a film on a tale that he or she has written from scratch. Praveen Morchhale’s three films are such films and have shown an ability to highlight positive bonding of people in ordinary situations and as well as in extraordinary situations.

In his debut film, Barefoot to Goa (2013), Morchhale highlighted two unusual bonding situations. The first was the love of two kids for their lonely grandparents, a wistful look at the large Indian family being gradually replaced by a more impersonal nuclear family due to economic compulsions. 
The second was contrasting the humane attitude of poor rural folks towards kids and strangers compared with the uncaring attitudes of the urban rich.

In his second film, Walking with the Wind (2017), Morchhale chose to write a film on a school boy of modest means living in the high elevations of Ladakh, in Kashmir, trying to repair his chair in his school classroom that he inadvertently broke and desperately attempting to procure a bottle of ink critical for his sister to write her forthcoming school examinations. Nobody tells the young kid to do these acts: these are conscientious decisions taken by the school kid to act proactively without the knowledge of the school authorities or parents.  Morchhale’s ability to magnify the maturity of the kid in taking responsibilities without being told to do so and ensuring his microscopic school-centred world of writing examinations remains Utopian is commendable. The family in the second film was essentially reduced further from the first film to a caring brother-sister relationship, with the parents/grandparents having much lesser roles. Morchhale’s second film recalls the early works of the late Iranian maestro Abbas Kiarostami such as The Bread and Alley.  (The film was formally dedicated to the maestro in the film’s credits.) Walking with the Wind has been subsequently rewarded with recognition in India and elsewhere. 

The pensive "widow" silently washing clothes.

In Widow of Silence, the third film, the writer/director further reduces the family size under the cinematic microscope, either intentionally or unintentionally. Here unlike small kids of the earlier films, there is only a single major figure—a married woman making a living working as a nurse. Her husband is missing for 7 years, and is therefore called a half-widow, as he is technically missing and not dead. She supports, from her meagre earnings as a nurse, two other members in her family: her 11-year-old school-going daughter and a semi-paralysed mother-in-law who can’t speak. As in Morchhale’s first film there is a bond between granddaughter and grandmother but the communication in this film is one way. The daughter’s presence is minimal uttering a few lines to express her loss of paternal presence and that classmates taunt her for being the daughter of a “half-widow”, who cannot pay her school fees.

The "widow's" 11-year-old daughter returns home from school

The "widow's" mute and semi-paralyzed mother-in-law has
to be tied up to a chair when she is alone in the locked house

The main story of Widow of Silence deals with the plight of half-widows where husbands go missing after they are abducted by security forces or militant groups. The lack of a death certificate creates economic and social distress for the wives. If they are attractive and young, they have to fend off suitors and predatory men. The film ends with a stunning and thought provoking action that might surprise the usual Morchhale watchers. To the director's credit, the ending is well executed and credible..

The 7-year "absence" of of the widow's husband (in the torn photograph)
causes anguish to the widow's daughter

Morchhale’s film Widow of Silence rings true in the context of the #Metoo social upheaval unsettling the rich and the powerful.  It rings true of the problems faced by the average peace loving Kashmir denizen who is not taking political stands. Who can give succour to the families who are bereft of male members to protect them and earn sufficient, steady income for the family in a unjust male-dominated Islamic society?

Morchhale’s first two films were on love and innocence; his third is on an anguished cry from the upright and marginal individual for justice and protection from predators in a democratic republic. The creation and introduction of the poetic taxi driver (Bilal Ahmad) serves as a chorus in a Greek tragedy mourning the lack of humanity and love in the once beautiful and tranquil Kashmir. It is very interesting to note that the very credible adult performers in the film are not Muslims (if one goes by their names), except for the very charming actor who plays the taxi driver.

The three films of Morchhale prove a few undeniable facts.  Directors and screenplay writers don’t have to look far for good ideas; the best subjects for a film can come from a keen sense of observation. Morchhale’s gambit of following the style of Kiarostami’s cinema and seeking the collaboration of the Iranian cinematographer Mohammad Reza Jahapanah for both Walking with the Wind and Widow of Silence have paid off. Jahapanah has worked for Iranian directors of repute such as Jafar Panahi as the cinematographer in his film Closed Curtain. Jahapanah recreates the Kiarostami-like visuals in the two Morchhale films shot in Ladakh and in Kashmir—the exterior long winding road shots reminding the viewer of Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry and the driver and co-passenger in an automobile's front seats recreating images of Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, while one of them is talking.

A long shot of the taxi in which the widow travels:
a visual touch reminiscent of Taste of Cherry

The widow sits in a taxi with flowers grown in her garden:
a visual touch reminiscent  of Certified Copy

Morchhale’s gambit in investing on a talented crew for sound management and editing has made a difference. He is able to make low-cost films of international quality which his contemporary filmmakers in India have not been able to do because those directors prefer invest on famous actors instead of compact and talented production crews. Morchhale brought a breath of fresh air to Indian cinema just as Anand Gandhi did by investing on a Hungarian sound designer for his remarkable Indian debut film Ship of Theseus (2012). Indian directors have lagged behind their international peers because they never saw value in acquiring talented production crews with their modest budgets. Morchhale and Gandhi did see the value and they reaped their rewards with national and international recognition. Both have made films with titles in English.  Both these young directors are likely to gain further recognition in future if they trudge on the same trodden path and not deviate. Widow of Silence is a film that will count as one of the major Indian films of 2018.

P.S. The film Widow of Silence has already won the Best Indian feature film at the Kolkata International Film Festival. Morchhale’s earlier films Barefoot to Goa and Walking with the Wind were earlier reviewed on this blog. So also were other films mentioned in this review:  Certified Copy and Ship of Theseus. (Click on the coloured names of the films in this postscript to access the individual reviews.)

Sunday, November 25, 2018

230. Vietnamese director Ash Mayfair’s debut feature film “The Third Wife” (2018) (Vietnam) based on her original story: Gorgeous cinematography, interesting visual allegory, female characters and actresses add value to a film that ought to make Vietnam proud!

Debut films of several directors worldwide have often been unforgettable, even when compared to their later works:  Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), Ridley Scott’s The Duellists, Steven Spielberg’s Duel, Jean-Pierre Melville’s The Silence of the Sea, Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Claude Chabrol’s Handsome Serge, Bertrand Tavernier’s The Watchmaker of St Paul...the list goes on.  That stamp of unmistakable awesome standards of filmmaking is apparent in Ash Mayfair’s debut feature film The Third Wife.

Within minutes of the film’s opening credits an observant viewer gets a clue of the quality of the film that follows—intelligent use of visual editing in presenting the title of the film and the aesthetic and delicate balance between silence and music on the soundtrack. The Third Wife is an original tale written by the film’s director. It is set in the 19th century Vietnam involving a rich nobleman living comfortably far away from the towns, with a retinue of servants, three wives of different ages, their progeny, and his father. The nobleman’s writ is the law in this remote household.  The film is set in a time frame in which men made the rules, when child marriages were acceptable, and when the birth of a boy was held at a premium for the parents over that of the birth of a girl.

May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) as the 14-year old third wife

The title character of the film, May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My), is a 14-year-old child bride who has to travel by boat to reach her future husband’s abode.  She is welcomed by the entire family and household staff with pomp and feasting. The first wife Ha (Tran Nu Yen-Khe, who had earlier graced two significant Vietnamese films Cyclo and Scent of the Green Papaya) and the second wife Xuan (Mai Thu Huay Maya) welcome May with genuine warmth. The film narrates the tale economizing on spoken words but revealing much more visually by the brilliant camerawork of the lady cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj, twice a winner of the Nestor Almendros (of Days of Heaven fame) award for cinematography. If the Spanish/Cuban maestro was alive today, he would have been delighted with the mastery of the visual elements from start to finish in The Third Wife.

The tale weaved by writer/ director Ash Mayfair, deals with the child bride’s interactions with the family members of various age groups over a period of approximately a year, learning quickly that to gain favour of her husband she has to bear a son and not a girl. Ms Mayfair’s tale is often visually edited to link her tale with the allegorical of life cycle of the silkworm—caterpillar, cocooning, fresh cocoon, cocoon with pupae, and finally a silk moth.  Why the silkworm? Evidently nobles of 19th century Vietnam saw silk as a valuable income source. And lots of silkworm pupae are killed while preparing the cocoons for making the silk threads. The tale of the film has obvious parallels between the mute silkworms and the human characters.

The pregnant third wife spends cordial time with the first and second wives

...and cordial interactions in the evening indoors.

The film has a predominantly a female production crew (writer/director, cinematographer, editor, etc.) and naturally the perspective is from a female viewpoint. Yet the feminism in the film is subtle, only making a silent but powerful statement towards the end.  Bereft of spoken words, the last ten minutes of the film is a fascinating recounting of critical past images from the film as recollected by the third wife May, who has matured over a year witnessing incest, patriarchal preferences to indulge boys over girls, the fate of children born out of wedlock among the servants, and the humiliation of a bride not accepted by her future husband.  The casting of May’s cute female child and the facial expressions of the infant captured by the film crew are highlights of the film. 

May's cute baby girl looking at her mother holding the
the yellow flowers, very significant to the tale

Though the ending of the film is ethically unacceptable, one gets a premonition that the last ten minutes of the film will be slowly accepted as one of the most powerful and sophisticated endings ever devised to end a feature film in recent years.

When director Ash Mayfair dispenses with spoken lines, she has two other tools beyond the camera. The music and wordless vocals (used for the end credits) composed by Ton That An (a Vietnamese male composer), and sound mixing (by Roman Dymny) that are ethereal. In a crucial point within the film, prior to a tragic development, the sound department introduces the sound of crows cawing though you don’t see them on screen (Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev has employed this effectively in his 2011 film Elena). To Ms Mayfair’s credit, at no point in the film does the soundtrack seem overpowering—when you hear sound/music, it is soothing and calming to the viewer’s senses complementing the incredible camerawork.

Even interior shots are elegantly captured: a pregnant May,
 with the second wife's daughter

If there is a loser in this lovely film it would be the lack of emphases for details of realism. The film is a picture postcard view of Vietnam in the 19th Century.  Everything you see in the film is picture perfect, every detail of exteriors and interiors are dust free, polished and colourful.  The silk linen clothes hung out to dry in the sun are the whitest of white, the absence of mud and dirt on the feet of women walking in the night is unbelievable in a tropical country. So too are the absence of insects and reptiles beyond the silkworms and a single lizard on a mosquito net. Are there no snakes and other insects/ reptiles found in vegetated tropical Asian countries then and now?  Especially near bamboo groves at night?

Arrival of the third wife, May, by boat, to her husband's house

Ms Mayfair has thanked American director Spike Lee (of The BlackKkKlansman fame) among many others in the film's closing credits for the Spike Lee Fellowship she won as a student of New York University which enabled the development of the film.  Ash Mayfair has thanked the Government of Vietnam that lent a helping hand in making this high quality film in that country. The film’s highly talented cinematographer Ms Chananun Chotrungroj is also an alumnus of New York University and a recipient of the Ang Lee Fellowship. This film ought to encourage successful film directors to invest a part of their life’s earnings to develop new talents in filmmaking who otherwise would have never made a mark. Finally, Ms Mayfair choice of the actresses who played the three wives and their performances and her choice of the music composer also contributed to the incredibly well-made debut film. Even the poster of the film says a lot of the care taken to communicate the tale of the film intelligently.

The citation for the Gold Hugo for The Third Wife at the Chicago Film Festival reads:
"The Gold Hugo goes to The Third Wife. Ash Mayfair's lush, assured debut feature which follows a 14-year-old girl as she enters a wealthy household. Mayfair's unshakeable vision grants the women of this world an individuality their society rejects, treating them as creations as wondrous as the natural world that surrounds them, as the film builds to a staggering climax that devastates and thrills in equal measure."
P.S. The film has already won the Gold Hugo award at the Chicago Film Festival and the Royal Bengal Tiger Award for the best international feature film at the Kolkata International Film Festival. It won minor awards at Toronto and San Sebastian Film Festivals. The film was also part of the recent Denver Film Festival. The film is one of the best 10 films of 2018 for the author.