Wednesday, June 22, 2022

275. Italian director Paolo Taviani’s twenty-second feature film “Leonora addio” (2022), based on his original screenplay: A fitting, unique tribute to the Nobel Prize in Literature winner Luigi Pirandello and to the late film director Vittorio Taviani from the 91-year-old Paolo, younger brother of Vittorio









 



 

“Have any of you read Pirandello?” asks a senior priest in a Sicilian seminary to his junior priests 
“I read him in secret, then I confessed” replies a junior priest meekly, with penitence, “I have read one novel--The Old and The Young.” 
“Do you remember the inscription? It reads –To my children: young today, old tomorrow” adds the senior priest, a Pirandello admirer
--conversation between priests in a seminary within the film Leonora addio

Paolo Taviani collaborated with his late elder brother Vittorio on 20 feature films until Vittorio’s demise in 2018 at the age of 88. Their first feature film was released/made in 1962. The two brothers had a unique method of directing their films. Each directed alternate scenes with the other watching but never interfering. That formula worked. The Russian film maestro Aleksander Sukorov, in an interview given to this writer, said it was very rare and commendable for two creative persons to collaborate as directors on feature films for a long stretch of time (he was referring to Grigori Kozintsev and Leonard Trauberg of Russia who worked on a much shorter list of films than what the Tavianis made together.) Two of those Taviani collaborations won the highest award at the Cannes (Padre Padrone) and Berlin (Caesar Must Die) film festivals over the decades. Many of their films are geographically related to Sicily in Italy. All the Taviani films have either original or adapted screenplays written by the brothers. Paolo Taviani has made two feature films after the death of the Vittorio—the first of the two was based on the jointly written screenplay of both the brothers. Leonora Addio, the latest work of Paolo Taviani, made at the ripe age of 91 is the sole work where there is no official contribution of the late elder brother—but in the title credits, soon after the film’s title, are the words “...to my brother Vittorio.” 

Leonora addio is not a mere tip of the hat to Vittorio from Paolo. It is also an acknowledgement of the brothers’ admiration for the Italian playwright, novelist and poet Luigi Pirandello, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1934. Though controversial as a supporter of Mussolini’s Fascism for a while, he was admired and respected, not merely in Sicily but all of Italy and the world as people became increasingly aware of what he had written and published. The Taviani brothers had made a fascinating 1984 film titled Kaos (released as Chaos in USA) based on four short stories written by Pirandello. In Leonora addio, some scenes from Kaos are included, or rather, recreated. 

Years later in 1998, the brothers made another feature film You Laugh based on two Pirandello stories. Pirandello was indeed close to the hearts and minds of the two Sicilian brothers. 



While Sicilians respect Pirandello, they are superstitious
and refuse to fly on a flight with his ashes on board



Pirandello's ashes arrive in Sicily in a Greek urn
and are transferred to a white coffin meant for a dead child,
while Pirandello's admirers peek at the activity


The comedy of Pirandello rubbed off on films of the Taviani brothers. In Leonora addio, Pirandello’s ashes are carried in a white coffin of small size meant for a sinless child because “the town has run out of adult coffins.” A child who witnesses the stately procession of the coffin asks her father innocently, “Papa, has a child died?,” evoking spontaneous laughter from the grieving adults. 

In this dreamlike sequence, a nod to Kubrick's final sequence in
2001-A Space Odyssey, Paolo Taviani recreates
an old man (Pirandello?/Vittorio?) on his deathbed as the door opens
to reveal three children who emerge and age fast to elderly adulthood



Later in the film, when the final resting place for the ashes is decided after a 15-year search for an appropriate final resting place, there is a leaping leg-clap by the individual who located it, recalling Carol Reed’s musical film  Oliver!, where the leg-clap is beautifully executed by actors Ron Moody and Jack Wild walking into the sunset at end of the film! 

Leonora addio may not be appear to be a perfect film on a casual viewing but it provides perfect entertainment for those familiar with the works of Pirandello and of the Taviani brothers. Much of the film deals with the relocation of the jar containing Pirandello’s ashes to the area in Sicily where the writer was born and grew up. That process of relocation is described with considerable respect which mingles with wry humor, typical of most Taviani films. Most of all, one has to respect the effort of a 91-year-old director showing his love and respect for his elder brother and colleague, as also to a great Italian writer that both brothers admired. Implicit in  Leonora addio are the decisions taken by people in the evening of their lives and how those decisions are dealt with by those who survive the person who has died. The film constantly deals with children and the elderly--"young today, old tomorrow."


Leonora addio's second segment is Pirandello's The Nail,
where an affable Sicilian immigrant boy (in Brooklyn) who
can dance to music while working as a waiter. In Taviani's earlier work 
Kaos, Sicilian boys dreamt to emigrate to USA


The immigrant boy waiter who dances, later kills a girl who was
fighting another seemingly "without purpose." Taviani's earlier film
Good Morning, Babylon was about two Sicilian brothers who
emigrate to USA and find work with D W Griffith in Hollywood 


It is thus not without purpose that the first half of Leonora addio, dealing with the relocation of Pirandello’s ashes as per the writer's wishes, is shot in black and white, which is followed by a Pirandello story titled The Nail set in Brooklyn, USA, filmed in contrasting lush color, This segment also deals with death of a little girl with a large nail and her killer’s frequent trip to place flowers on her grave on a regular basis, after his release from prison. When the killer is asked why he killed the girl, he answers that he killed  the girl because she was was fighting with another “without purpose.” The viewer could reflect if the growth of Fascism under Mussolini was "without purpose" as well.

The most intriguing trivia is that the title Leonora addio is indeed the title of a written work of Pirandello that surprisingly is not discussed within the film. So why did Paolo choose the title of that Pirandello work as the title of the film? There must be a reason and there is one that fits logically. There is a Pirandello play called Tonight We Improvise, which is part of the Pirandello trilogy of plays better known as ‘Theatre within Theatre.’ In this play, a famous opera singer describes the physical theater to her children, who have never seen it, while singing parts of the opera ending with the duet Leonara addio, she apparently dies from exhaustion only to get up later and seek the forgiveness of the audience. 

Time must pass and carry us away with all the scenarios of life” is a Pirandello quote spoken in Leonora addio. The film allows us to do the same recalling both Pirandello and the elder Taviani. All this adds to the details inter-mingling the memories of the works of Pirandello with the past works of the Taviani brothers and other works of Italian cinema shown in clips within the film. Leonora addio’s depth of communication will be lost on those viewers who are not sufficiently exposed to the films of the Taviani brothers or the written works of Pirandello, significantly his most famous play Six Characters in Search of an Author and its related concept of “theatre in the theatre.” It can argued that Pirandello’s “theatre in the theatre” laid the foundation for the more famous concept of “theatre of the absurd” of Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Arthur Adamov. However, for those who are familiar with all that, Leonora addio provides quality entertainment. If we look closely at the title credits, the title of the film followed immediately by the dedication, is a personal message from Paolo “Leonora addio.. to my brother Vittorio,” which a lover of good cinema and literature would relish and approve of. 

P.S. Leonora addio won the FIPRESCI prize at the Berlin international film festival in 2022 and was nominated for the Golden Bear. The Taviani brothers' film Caesar Must Die (2012) has been reviewed on this blog. (Click on the film's title in this post-script to access the review). Paolo Taviani is one of the author’s favorite 15 active filmmakers in the world. Two of the Taviani films are included in the author’s list of top 250 films: Padre Padrone and Kaos.


Sunday, June 12, 2022

274. Turkish director Semih Kaplanoglu’s eighth feature film “Baglilik Hasan” (Commitment Hasan) (2021) (Turkey), based on his original screenplay: An interesting study of a Turkish male farmer growing apples and tomatoes preparing for a Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca with his wife, a dream-come-true trip for her













"You think you can go on a pilgrimage and come back clean as a whistle? Only God can forgive you, sir." 

--Turgut, an honest former employee of Hasan, branded as a thief by Hasan, when Turgut procured less price from a buyer of Hasan's produce, a buyer who was only ready to pay that lesser sum

 

N
uri Bilge Ceylan and Semih Kaplanoglu are the two most important internationally recognized contemporary film directors who make films of very high standards. 

Commitment Hasan is the second film in a row from Semih Kaplanoglu (it follows the 2019 film Commitment or Baglilik Asli) with the key word “Baglilik” in Turkish language (or “Commitment” in English) in the titles of both films. Kaplanoglu watchers can assume this film is possibly a part of a second trilogy in the making–the first one being the Yusuf trilogy of “Yumurta” (Egg) (2007), “Sut” (Milk) (2008), and “Bal” (Honey) (2010), made in reverse chronology of Yusuf’s life. All the five films are original tales/screenplays of director Kaplanoglu, with Honey winning the prestigious Golden Bear for the Best Film at the Berlin Film Festival. After the Yusuf trilogy, Kaplanoglu made Grain (2017), a science fiction film in black and white in English language, which won the best film award at the Tokyo film festival, but faced a possible undercurrent of opposition from the pro-GMO lobbies that led to poor distribution in many developed countries. Kaplanoglu’s interest in farm life, agriculture, apiculture and horticulture is evident in his body of work—mainly written by him with a few exceptions. 


The farmer Hasan (Umut Karadag)  is a calculating man, ensuring
that he got the best part of his father's property by going to court,
while alienating his brother


The two “Baglilik” films are comparable studies to each other but not connected. The first is a character study on Asli (a Turkish affluent, working lady) being attitudinally transformed by the actions and life of her baby-sitter (from a lower-economic strata). The second film is a character study on Hasan, a calculating male farmer transformed by his wife Emina’s considered advice, who finally has her dream wish of a pilgrimage with her husband to Mecca looming on the horizon, after ensuring that there are no debts to be paid and seeking the blessings of Hasan’s near and dear ones before undertaking the pilgrimage. Both Emina and Hasan seem to be made for each other, squeezing money out of every little transaction they make. Emina, despite all her flaws, wants to make the perfect pilgrimage with her husband and be blessed.

Hasan's wife Emina (Filiz Bozok) drives hard bargains with
poorer folks than her, but wants her husband to seek forgiveness
from those he has wronged, before going on a Hajj pilgrimage



There are remarkable common elements in the two “Commitment” films. In both films, it is a female character that is the catalyst for change, not a male character. This is very significant within a male dominated scenario of Muslim Turkey. The second and the more trenchant element pronounced in Commitment Hasan is the importance of forgiveness in Islam, which was underscored in the recent Iranian film Ballad of a White Cow as well. In the Turkish film, it is a key male figure that has been wronged and refuses to forgive the wrong-doer; in the Iranian film it is a key female character that in a similar situation refuses to forgive those who request forgiveness. 

Is it dementia or is it more than that? 
Hasan is not recognized by his brother Muzaffar, on meeting
him after 2 years

The two brothers, one seeming to not recognize the other,
captured in silhouette by cinematographer Ozgur Eken, as he
had done in certain scenes in Kaplanoglu's earlier film, Milk



One can note the influence of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films in those of Semih Kaplanoglu (the shot of rear head profile of Tarkovsky’s mother sitting on the fence in Mirror reprised in Kaplanoglu’s Milk) or the sudden rains in Tarkovsky’s/Zvyaginstsev’s films reprised as an unreal rain of rotten apples in Commitment Hasan. A shepherd, who Hasan encounters for the second time, this time on the road, tells him that Tugrut, Hasan's former diligent worker, who Hasan is hoping to meet is waiting for Hasan at the coffee-shop. Earlier in the film, Hasan had been rude to the shepherd for letting his sheep graze on his land without permission. Surprisingly for Hasan, the shepherd knows Hasan is preparing to go on a Hajj pilgrimage and possibly even conjectured the reason Hasan wants to meet his former worker. Kaplanoglu thus infuses elements of magic realism and unusual abilities in personalities poorer than Hasan to read Hasan’s mind and purpose. There are extra-ordinary aspects of Kaplanoglu’s original screenplay that connects the chopped tree in Hasan’s dream, the shepherd’s comments while sitting under the tree that is not chopped as dreamt by Hasan, and the chain of events that follow. Kaplanoglu expects the viewer to connect the dots and get the larger picture of repentance and its importance before seeking a blessed outcome of a costly pilgrimage. 

The differences between the films of Ceylan and Kaplanoglu are very thin. Kaplanoglu’s religious commentary is obvious for the viewer, while Ceylan prefers to discuss religion obliquely (e.g., the concept of free will discussed by two imams in The Wild Pear Tree). 

Kaplanoglu’s films have slightly more interesting performances than those of Ceylan. Both directors take great care with the cinematography (the giant tree in Commitment Hasan and Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree image are remarkably similar as are the water-well sequences in both films). The final sequences of Commitment Hasan with the two brothers are visually not far removed from the end sequence visuals of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life—but one film ends in silhouette shadows, the other in light. Kaplanoglu’s Milk had employed the silhouette effect (see my review on this blog) which is not surprising as the cinematographer of the two Kaplanoglu films is the same person: Ozgur Eken. 

Finally and very importantly, both directors do not use music on the soundtrack of their films, which make their filming so refreshing compared to most other films from other parts of the world. There is heightened use of natural sounds but their films are almost bereft of composed music, unless the script requires it.

P.S. The film Commitment Hasan won the Best Foreign film at Sao Paulo International Film Festival; the Best Cinematography Award at the Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival; and Audience Awards for the Best International Film and the Best Actor at the Golden Rooster Awards, China. Kaplanoglu's earlier films Milk; Honey; Grain; and Commitment have been reviewed earlier on this blog. The other films referred in the above review: the Iranian film Ballad of a White Cow; Tarkovsky's Mirror;  Malick's The Tree of Life; and Ceylan' The Wild Pear Tree have also been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the names of the films in the post-script to access the reviews of that particular film.) 

Monday, March 07, 2022

273. Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s tenth complete feature film, “Memoria” (2021), shot in Colombia, based on his original screenplay: Metaphysics of awakening human memory through sound and sight, rather than words

 

















 

A sound like a rumble from the core of the earth” 

—Jessica (Tilda Swinton), a Scotswoman and a scientist, describing the sound that woke her up one day from slumber  in Colombia, a sound that she wishes to identify and understand (words spoken in the early part of the film)

 

Why are you crying, when they are not of your memories?” 

—Jessica’s new-found acquaintance Hernan (the metaphoric “hard disk," as he describes himself”) says to her, after Jessica (the metaphoric “antenna”, in Hernan’s words) physically connects with Hernan by Jessica placing his palm on her arm (words spoken towards the end of the film)

Memoria is a film that recalls Carlos Reygadas’ opening and closing sequences of his Silent Light (2007), approaching metaphysical mysteries using sounds and visuals. It was not surprising for this critic that Reygadas was one of the many thanked by the filmmakers in the film’s credits. Memoria equally recalls sequences from Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris (Kris’ sequences on earth outside his home before travelling into space and Kris viewing the liquid world of Solaris from his spaceship window) and Stalker (the child watching the glass tumbler moving off the table, aided by external vibrations). Viewers, who found Silent Light, Solaris and Stalker boring, would find Memoria exasperating with almost negligible spoken words compared to those films and mysteries deliberately left partially explained. However, for a viewer who loves the films of Reygadas and Tarkovsky—Memoria would be a strangely rewarding and exhilarating experience to view, mixing science and the history of Colombia, where director Weerasethakul detects parallels in recent times with his native Thailand. Those parallels become more apparent if the viewer has watched two of the director’s films Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) and Cemetery of Splendor (2018).

Jessica (Tilda Swinton) becomes the antenna
of "hard disk" Hernan (Elkin Diaz) by placing his palm on her hand


The archeologist Agnes (Jeanne Balibar) encourages Jessica
to touch the manmade hole in the head of a skull of a girl who 
lived in Colombia 6000 years ago.

Director Weerasethakul had spent time in Colombia to research and grapple with the parallel histories of Colombia and his native Thailand before he decided to write the original script of Memoria as an extension of ideas he had developed in his earlier films Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Cemetery of Splendor. His fictional character Uncle Boonmee could recall the past lives, so too in Memoria can the mysterious elder Hernan, who claims he never left that village, as he removes the scales of fishes to salt and dry them. In Memoria, there are several references to the dead being excavated in tunnels by road builders possibly referring to the dead bodies of the battles between Marxist Leninist FARC activists and the Colombian militia as well as the skeleton of a girl who had lived 6000 years ago in Colombia with a manmade hole in her skull indicating the way she died. In Cemetery of Splendor, comatose Thai soldiers were kept in hospital wards (over lands where Thai kings were buried) with bright colorful lights to induce good dreams in the still alive but comatose soldiers. None of these facts are mentioned in Memoria explicitly. It is left for an intelligent filmgoer, familiar with the director’s past works to figure out why Jessica’s eyes well with tears when she connects with “hard disk” Hernan, who knows all the past lives of the people of Colombia.


Jessica with young sound engineer Hernan
(Juan Pablo Urrego),who was never real,
presenting her the precise recorded sound


Memoria is a film on sleep, dreams, death and life. Jessica is woken from “sleep” by the strange sound and is eager to know how the elder Hernan can “sleep” without memories and watches him sleep for a while. Dreams play a part in the film as Jessica’s sister Karen claims she was affected by a strange illness after she did not feed and take care of a stray dog that had come to her doorstep. When Jessica recounts the dog story back to Karen who has been cured of her illness she does not recollect it. Who is dreaming--Jessica or Karen? The viewer learns from the sparse conversations that dot the film that Jessica has lost her husband in the recent past. Whose death certificate is Jessica asked to sign by Karen’s partner?  When Jessica connects with “hard disk“ Hernan,  Jessica’s ”antenna” allows Jessica to “recognize” her past childhood items “visible” in the room. However, earlier Jessica dreams that her dentist has died but her sister Karen and her partner assure her that he is alive and well.

Memoria communicates with its viewers using sound, silence and a visual magnetism rare in cinema. That sound that Jessica and the viewer hears for the first time, which is central to the film hits one after a long period of silence.  That thud is recreated with amazing sound engineering of the young Herman with inputs from Jessica and his studio equipment. Later on in the film, Jessica and the viewer accost other denizens of the same building where the sound engineer had worked who convince Jessica that no such person as the young Hernan ever worked there or is known to them when Jessica describes his physique. When Jessica hears the same sound on the street, one Colombian, is startled and runs for his life while others are not affected. In open areas in Colombia, the strange thud also scares a bird but no other human seem to have heard it or is affected. The strange sound switches on a wave of alarms in parked cars that subside as it started indicating it is not a human action.

Jessica had come to Colombia to study the effect of a fungus on orchids and eventually the strange sound opens her eyes to hidden histories of the land and extra-terrestrial communication. When Jessica goes to a doctor seeking a cure for her “affliction” by the strange sounds, she is refused medication but instead advised to take an interest in either art or God to cure her current state.

The cinematography of Mukdeeprom, capturing still life,
as in a painting, with birds in the far background,
uninterested in the fish, even when the characters stop speaking

Jessica recalls objects in the room
as parts of her childhood memory

In Memoria, director and original scriptwriter Weerasethakul comes close to the world of Tarkovsky and the Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem whose ideas were distilled in Solaris.


Weerasethakul is aided once again by the cinematography of Sayembhu Mukdeeprom, who captures the beauty of Colombia’s natural resources as though the scenes were still life paintings recalling the cinematography in Terence Malick’s films: The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven, and the bison sequence in To the Wonder. Those who care to note the details of the exterior sequence of Jessica and “hard disk” Hernan, will note crow-like birds in the distance, birds that surprisingly do not seem to be attracted by the fish being dried out in the sun. Therein lies clues to the film’s narrative that unfolds in the last 15 minutes of the film.

Memoria, which won the Gold Hugo at the Chicago film festival, was given the following citation for the award: “.. for its sense of cinematic poetry and humanism. In this profound and meditative film, the director creates a story that emphasizes the connection people have to the places that they live, to the past and the present, and to the terrestrial and beyond. Tilda Swinton’s note perfect performance embodies Weerasethakul’s faith in cinema, in science, in secular mysticism, and in the possibilities of cross-cultural empathy and understanding.” The comprehensive citation captures it all. Memoria is a film that will exasperate many but be treasured by those who can pick up details in a reflective narrative and string them all together.

 

P.S.  Memoria won the Jury Prize at Cannes film Festival in 2021 and the Gold Hugo for the Best Film at the Chicago film festival. Weerasethakul’s film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), Reygadas Silent Light (2007); Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972); and Malick’s  The Thin Red Line (1998), Days of Heaven (1978), and To the Wonder (2012) have been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the names of the films in this post script to access each of the reviews.) Memoria is one of the author's best films of 2021

Monday, February 14, 2022

272. Russian director Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s fifteenth feature film “Dom Durakov” (House of Fools) (2002), based on his original screenplay: An assessment of a film trashed soon after its release by most critics














A majority of film critics and viewers tend to dismiss Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s films in their initial assessments, especially in recent decades. Why is that? To answer that question, one needs to know some key facts about Konchalovsky and the three phases of his career.

Who is Konchalovsky?

Few know or recall that Konchalovsky was partly responsible for the early masterpieces of Andrei Tarkovsky—The Steamroller and The Violin; Ivan’s Childhood; and Andrei Rublyev. As a screenplay-writer, Konchalovsky collaborated with Tarkovsky (his film school classmate) as a co-scriptwriter on these films as well as for other directors’ films: Shaken Ajmanov’s The End of the Ataman (1971) and Tolomush Okeev’s The Fierce One (1974). He also contributed, as a screenplay-writer, to his half-brother Nikita Mikhalkov’s film A Slave of Love (1976). Many of these films dealt with children and childhood. This was the specifically highlighted in his own debut film as a director and co-scriptwriter, The First Teacher (1965), a film that won the best actress award at the Venice film festival. Then he directed Siberiade (1979), which won the Cannes Grand Prize of the Jury (essentially, the second-best film in competition at that event in 1979). These accomplishments mark his first phase evolving from an important screenplay-writer into a notable film director, winning international recognition at major film festivals.

Then his second phase begins when he moves to Hollywood directing a string of  impressive films in USA: Maria’s Lovers (1984), with his screenplay, nominated for the Venice Golden Lion; Runaway Train (1985), based on a re-worked screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, winner of the best actor Golden Globe, and nominated for the Cannes Golden Palm and three Oscars; Duet for One (1986), based on his co-scripted screenplay and nominated for a Golden Globe; Shy People (1987), based on his original story and screenplay, winner of the best actress award at Cannes, and nominated for the Golden Palm at that festival; and Homer and Eddie (1989) winner of the Golden Seashell award for the best film at the San Sebastian film festival in Spain. This was followed by a critical and commercial disaster called Tango and Cash, made the same year. It was a disaster primarily due to the studio’s (and possibly actor Sylvester Stallone’s) interference with the director’s plans at every stage triggering the exasperated director’s return to Russia. This second phase re-emphasized Konchalovsky’s talents as a director (when there was no studio interference), a screenplay-writer (in three films in this phase) and, more importantly, as a director who could extract award-winning performances from his actors.

Then comes his third phase when he returns to Russia and films The Inner Circle (1991), with his screenplay, and wins a nomination for the Golden Bear at Berlin; Ryaba, My Chicken (1994) with his original screenplay, and wins a nomination for the Golden Palm at Cannes that year; and follows those two films by directing  House of Fools  (2002) this time again with his original screenplay, which gets nominated  for the Golden Lion at Venice, winning the Grand Special Jury Prize and the UNICEF award. Konchalovsky followed these three major nominations at the big three festivals with another set of three top-notch films that have actually won him better and more significant laurels: The Postman’s White Nights (2014), Paradise (2016), and Dear Comrades (2020).  The first two were winners of the Silver Lion for the Best Director and the third a winner of Jury’s Special Prize all at the Venice film festival, with all the three screenplays co-scripted by Konchalovsky and his new collaborator, Elena Kiseleva.

The third phase, thus, marks the amazing contributions of Konchalovsky as director and screenplay-writer while collaborating on many films with his actress wife Vysostkaya and his new found co-scriptwriter Kiseleva—a wonderful, winning combination.  

What is most exciting is that Konchalovsky is currently working on rebuilding afresh the Tarkovsky film The First Day, destroyed in 1979 by the Russian Censors, which was based on the script written by Konchalovsky. Both Konchalovsky and Tarkovsky have a close affinity with the Russian Orthodox Church and evidently Tarkovsky’s last film project in the USSR, The First Day, upset the atheist doctrines of USSR in 1979, and contributed in part to the destruction of the completed footage of the film project. That ill-fated Tarkovsky-Konchalovsky film project had followed Konchalovsky’s collaboration on Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublyev. The destruction of that Tarkovsky film resulted in the self-exile of the director. The timing of the destruction of the film coincides with the year Siberiade was made--the last film of Konchalovsky in the first phase, before he makes films in USA instead of his homeland. 

The numerous nominations and accolades of Konchalovsky over the decades at the big three film festivals of the world—Cannes, Venice and Berlin--are rare feathers in the cap for any film director from any country. Thus, it is rather odd when an awarded work such as House of Fools is hastily dismissed by many..

Assessment of House of Fools

“Why is man happy when he kills another? What is there to be happy about?"—Leo Tolstoy, recalled by a Russian army officer (played by a famous Russian actor, Evginiy Mironov) in the film

Several critics, who assessed this work of Konchalovsky, compared House of Fools with Milos Forman’s famous US film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and found the Konchalovsky film to be a disjointed and unimpressive work. Yet the only common factor between the two films is that both revolve around inmates of a mental asylum.


Yulia Vysotskaya plays an asylum inmate, Zhanna,
who adores Bryan Adams, and dreams that he drives the train
that crosses the bridge each evening, near the asylum


There are major differences between the two films. Forman’s film is an adaptation of novel by Ken Kesey about a criminal who hides in a mental asylum.  Konchalovsky’s film is based on real events and the screenplay is original.

House of Fools is a film on good humans with mental problems. These patients are incarcerated in a mental asylum, run by an efficient doctor, who is dedicated to the well-being of his patients and caring. On the not-so-obvious side--it is based on true incidents in Chechnya (Russia) during the Second Chechen War of 1999-2000. For those unfamiliar with Chechnya, it is a constituent republic of Russia with a predominant Muslim population. Russians predominantly belong to the Russian Orthodox Church. Konchalovsky has proven his Russian orthodox credentials in all his cinematic works.

In this film, the inmates of the asylum include patients of both faiths living in harmony. Outside the asylum, there is war (between the Muslim Chechens and the Christian Russians). Konchalovsky's script underscores the camaraderie between the warring factions when they fought side by side in Afghanistan saving each others lives. During the Chechen war, some soldiers of both sides recall that they were once friends and show respect for each other.

When the asylum is bombed by the Russians, many of the inmates “cross” themselves out of fear of impending death--indicating the majority of the inmates are Christian. Ahmed, a Muslim Chechen and a pacifist, incarcerates himself with this motley group of inmates as he finds safety, anonymity, and friendship among the "crazies" who accept him as one of their own.

Zhanna assumes the actor-turned-Chechen soldier, Ahmed
(Sultan Islamov), intends to marry and dresses in white attire,
contributed by various inmates for the bride-to-be 


During the war, many of the support staff flee to save their lives. The good doctor, who alone has to care for some twenty-odd patients, is worried for the safety of his patients and goes out of the hospital to find a bus to transport the inmates to a safer zone, Significantly, even then, they do not wish to leave the hospital, quite unlike the Milos Forman’s film and Ken Kesey’s novel, where troublemaking patients are not sensitively cared for but lobotomized.  In Konchalovsky’s film, the doctor in charge of the hospital listens to and cares for his wards, in contrast to the Hollywood film. House of Fools is a humanist film where a Chechen ultimately seeks the solace of the asylum compared to the world outside. Most importantly, the film is secular, where the doctor and his patients help and love one another irrespective of their religions. This is where House of Fools is considerably different from the Forman film.

Another facet of the film that will surprise many viewers is that many of the patients in the mental hospital are real mental patients who were working alongside professional actors. Not many directors would attempt such a feat; Konchalovsky did it, with elan.

The caring doctor (Vladas Bagdonas) who returns after his
unsuccessful trip to get a bus to evacuate the asylum patients,
is worried that the Chechen soldiers have harmed the innocent Zhanna


The participation of rock singer Bryan Adams as an actor and singer in the film is Konchalovsky's masterstroke along with the soothing words of the song Have you ever really loved a woman? sung by the singer.  The crash of a helicopter and it bursting into flames within the hospital’s grounds during the war show the intensity of the conflict while the innocent Zhanna plays her accordion oblivious of the gangers with a a few feet of her.

Other important trivia, the lead actress Yulia Vysotskaya is the director's wife of over 20 years. Her acting capability is showcased in a wide variety of roles she has subsequently played in her husband's films--most importantly in Paradise and Dear Comrades.

The film is further strengthened on the aural front beyond Bryan Adams by the music of composer Eduard Artemyev. Artemyev's contribution is often bypassed by the fans of Tarkovsky (in Solaris, Stalker, Mirror), of Konchalovsky (in Siberiade, The Inner Circle, Homer and Eddie),of  Mikhalkov (in The Barber of Siberia, A Few Days in the Life of I. I. Oblomov), etc.

The crux of the film lies in the quotation of Tolstoy "Why is man happy when he kills another? What is there to be happy about?" recalled by a Russian army officer (played by a famous Russian actor, Evginiy Mironov,) in the film towards the end.


The Chechen soldier Ahmed acts as if he has fallen for
the accordion-playing Zhanna and blurts out that he will
 marry her, little realizing the consequences 

Conclusion

When Konchalovsky writes his own original screenplays (as opposed to when he is adapting an existing written work) few aspects emerge: his firm Christian roots, his wide reading, and his love for Russia. While each tale could be set in different locations--a remote marshy forest in USA (as in Shy People), a mental asylum (as in House of Fools), or a remote village in Russia (as in The Postman’s White Nights)--step back from the obvious tale and you will spot a metaphor that is critical of the current state of  the director's homeland.  Those are his unique strengths.

 

P.S.  House of Fools won the Grand Special Jury Prize and the UNICEF award at the Venice film Festival in 2002. Konchalovsky’s films Runaway Train, Shy People, The Postman’s White Nights, and Paradise, have been reviewed on this blog. (Click on the names of the films in this post-script to access each of the reviews.) Konchalovsky is one of the author's top 15 active filmmakers.



 

Sunday, January 16, 2022

271. Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s ninth feature film “Doraibu mai ka” (Drive My Car) (2021), based on his co-scripted screenplay, adapting a fascinating short story written by the celebrated contemporary Japanese writer Haruki Murakami: An unusual script structure comprising a 39-minute prologue, followed by the main tale, and tying it all up with a stunning, minimalist, micro-epilogue

 

















Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car will appeal to different folks for totally different reasons. Those familiar with Haruki Murakami’s written work flock to watch cinematic adaptations of his written works such as the Korean director Chang-dong Lee’s Burning (2018), Japanese director Anh Hung Tran’s Norwegian Wood (2010) or the Japanese director Jun Ichikawa’s Toni Takitani (2004), among the nine such feature films already released.  Drive My Car is the latest cinematic adaptation of the nine films and is based on a short story with the same title as the film. 

The film Drive My Car is equally interesting for readers who love Anton Chekov’s famous play Uncle Vanya. They will be pleasantly surprised that it still can be staged in myriad ways, though purists will find Andrei Konchalovsky’s 1970 film version of Uncle Vanya with Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy, Sergei Bondarchuk and Irina Kupchenko, as the definitive cinematic adaptation.

However, director Hamaguchi leaps beyond the original tales of Murakami and Chekov with a stunning screenplay melding both the literary works. Those who have read Murakami’s short story will easily spot that Chekov’s play is barely discussed in the short story, while the film discusses the casting, the rehearsals and the staging of the play in considerable detail. There is a reason for it. More on that later.


Kafuku's wife Oto (Reika Kirishima),
an actress-turned-playwright,
 who appears only in the prologue


Evidently Hamaguchi had the tacit approval of Murakami (who is credited as the second among the three co-scriptwriters, the third being Takamasa Oe). Murakami’s tale is essentially of the happily married middle-aged couple, Kafuku (a stage actor who eventually becomes a stage director) and his wife Oto (an attractive stage actress flowering into a playwright over the decades). The couple have an active sex life and Oto gets her creative ideas as a playwright post-coitus, narrating it to her husband before writing it on paper. (This aspect of the tale is incorporated by the scriptwriters from another Murakami short story called Scheherazade.) Both thespians are in love with each other. Some 20 years before, a child was born to Kafuku and Oto, that did not survive beyond 3 days after birth. Both grieved and mutually decided not to procreate another child. In spite of their mutual love, the wife has trysts with other actors on the sly, which the husband had sensed and discovered to be true. As the uxorial love between the couple was not affected, the husband opted to never confront his wife with his knowledge of his wife’s infidelity. One day, his beloved wife of 20 years dies. In the film, Drive My Car, Oto’s death is unexpected. In the short story, the husband and wife knew Oto had cancer; Oto was hospitalized and only allowed Kafuku, Oto’s mother and Oto’s sister to visit her—no one else.

After the screen credits, the substantive main tale of the film is presented. The Saab car is an interesting subject for both the film and the short story. In Murakami’s tale, the Saab car is yellow; in the film, it’s red. In the prologue, Kafuku’s fondness for this vehicle recalls novelist Robert Pirsig’s hero and his philosophical fondness for his motorbike in his famous autobiographical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an inquiry into values. Kafuku, who loves his car and is a careful driver, involuntarily involves it in an accident due to a blind spot in his vision (real and metaphorical), soon after discovering his wife in bed with a lover. It is the red Saab that links the prologue, the main tale and the epilogue—hence the Pirsig connection. Not even Kafuku. In fact, Kafuku is “physically absent” in the epilogue. Kafuku’s love for his Saab is as strong as his love for his dead wife Oto. When Kafuku, is invited to a Japanese city of Hiroshima to direct and present an experimental Uncle Vanya, with performers speaking different languages, we are indirectly made to realize that considerable time has passed after Oto’s death as Kafuku has evolved from a famous actor playing Uncle Vanya in the play to be respected at that point of time as a famous director of the Chekov play. Thus, it is in the main portion of Hamaguchi’s film that we encounter for the first time Kafuku’s female driver Misaki, suggested by the drama company funding and contracting Kafuku to stage the play. As per their rules of that company, all major creative figures are not allowed to drive cars, during period the play is being rehearsed and performed publicly. This would not seem out of place for a viewer who has not read Murakami’s short story.  However, Murakami’s short story begins with Misaki being employed by Kafuku soon after Oto’s death and the Saab accident, at the behest of the garage owner who repaired the Saab, following the accident.


The Saab car flanked by its owner Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) (left) and his personal
driver Misaki (Toko Miura) (right)


Hamaguchi’s film now reintroduces Oto’s final illicit lover, Takatsuki, briefly shown in the prologue twice, once having sex with Oto and then at Oto’s funeral where Takatsuki condoles Kafuku. Takatsuki is picked by Kafuku in the film to play Uncle Vanya, a role Kafuku had perfected as an actor in earlier stage productions in Japan—despite Takatsuki being too young to play the role. Kafuku’s ulterior design is to get to befriend Takatsuki to figure out what attracted Oto to Takatsuki for a brief period.

Kafuku (right) engages Takatsuki (Oto's lover, left)
in conversations relating to Oto


The deliberate switching of chronology and changes in the introduction of the driver Misaki serves a bigger role in Hamaguchi’s film than in the short story—he introduces two new characters that are not part of the Murakami story. They are a male official of the drama company and his Korean wife who is an actress, who cannot speak but communicates in the sign language. These two important characters are not part of Murakami’s story.  The Korean actress is cast by Kafuku in an important role in the experimental production accentuating that the world is a global village. These additional characters are creations of co-scriptwriters Hamaguchi and Oe, without tampering much with Murakami’s original creations of Kafuku, his wife Oto, his driver Misaki and Oto’s last lover Takatsuki.

Further, the unusual rehearsals and performances of Uncle Vanya in the film Drive My Car that take up considerable screen time of the 3-hour film are not even a part of the Murakami short story. In the short story, there is no mention of Takatsuki’s arrest by the police midway for crimes barely discussed in the film during a rehearsal of the Chekov play—all these are creations of Hamaguchi and Oe. So is the entire trip of Kafuko and his driver Misaki to Misaki’s house where she and her mother lived, before her mother’s death, opening up parallels in their lonely lives. The lonely Misaki and the widower Kafuko realize the difficult years of their past and that like Sonya and her Uncle Vanya need to move on with positive ideals. Both love driving the Saab car with its manual gear shifts, without literal or  metaphorical jerks.

To the credit of Hamaguchi and Oe, their additions to the Murakami tale lifted up the story to a new level. Their stunning minimalist epilogue urges the viewer to figure out much of the tale that is left for the viewer to figure out and savour. For one, the epilogue is set in the pandemic—so the time has moved forward from the main portion of the film. Secondly, the concept of the experimental version of the play with characters speaking in different tongues, with a written script projected above the stage to help the audience, in many ways reflects Chekov’s hope and dream when he wrote the play after visiting Siberia that ends with the words of Sonya to Uncle Vanya: “…We will live a good life. We will look back on it with a smile. My sweet uncle, we will hear angels, see the riches of heaven, and look down on earthly evil. All our suffering will become good that covers the earth. I believe it. I believe it.

 The plain and physically unattractive driver Misaki, in the film and in the story, listens to the recording of the play as she drives Kafuku around and identifies herself with Sonya of the play, who like Misaki is not physically attractive. Thirdly, and most importantly. the epilogue is not set in Japan but in Korea. Misaki, the red Saab, and the dog that belongs to the Korean actress (who communicates through sign language) have moved on to Korea. (If you can’t read the two different languages, you will note the side of the road they drive on has changed in the epilogue from the main film) Hamaguchi forces the viewer to connect the dots and figure it all out at the end of the film. A reflective viewer would note the wider connection between a play performed in different languages and the Corona virus  pandemic that affected all parts of the world (indicated by the masks worn in the epilogue). This is undoubtedly one of the finest, complex, and mature adapted screenplays in recent times. It’s a also a good example of a film that cajoles a lazy film viewer to read the original written work to appreciate and compare both mediums. If one reads Murakami's short story, any intelligent viewer will be able to grasp the importance of a creative and well-adapted screenplay, which leaves the original tale, to the extent shown in the film, almost intact. Thus both Murakami and Hamaguchi would be pleased with their distinct products in two different mediums.

 

P.S.  Drive My Car is one of the author's best films of 2021. The film won the Best Screenplay award, the FIPRESCI prize and the Ecumenical Jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival; the Silver Hugo jury prize at the Chicago International Film Festival; the Kieslowski award for the best feature film at the Denver International Film Festival; the Golden Globe for the Best Motion Picture in a non-English language at the Golden Globe Awards and the Oscar for Best International Film. It is expected to win more accolades. Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s Uncle Vanya (1970) can be accessed with English subtitles on YouTube free of cost.

 

Sunday, December 26, 2021

270. German film director Maria Schrader’s third feature film “Ich bin dein Mensch” (I am Your Man) (2021) (Germany) in German, based on a short story by Emma Braslavsky: Can artificial intelligence and robotics find your perfect spouse in the near future?



 














Your pain is pathetic. It is pathetic because it is relative. It is also not pathetic because it is part of you, and that’s why I love it.” 

---The android Tom created by algorithms and constantly capable of processing new information and thus evolving and responding constantly to be the designed perfect partner of Alma, a human archaeologist, ironically studying how people have changed over 4000 years by studying cuneiform scripts.


 

Maria Schrader’s film I am Your Man is a fascinating sci-fi (science fiction) film. The film progresses from the milestones set by the talking and scheming computer HAL of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A space odyssey (1968), to the crafty gynoid (a female android) of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014), to the algorithm-oriented holographic spouses of the sci-fi play by Jordan Harrison and its adapted movie version of Michael Almeyreda’s Marjorie Prime (2017) to eventually introduce us to director Maria Schrader’s Tom—a perfect android, very smart, handsome, affable and totally benevolent to humans. In Kubrick’s 2001: A space odyssey, HAL the computer had become so smart that it began to give malevolent advice to misguide humans and even went to the extent of turning off the life-support system of three crewmen surviving in animated suspension, killing them instantly, in an effort to control the human crew of the space ship. In Garland’s Oscar-winning Ex Machina the near-perfect gynoid Ava locks up her human friend and leaves her mortally wounded human creator’s scientific facility to blend with the outside world of humans—yet another but more sophisticated variant of HAL. In Harrison’s/Almeyreda’s Marjorie Prime, while the holographic spouses cannot be touched they provide psychological and benevolent comfort to humans suffering from Alzheimer’s disease but can recall the memories of those suffering from the disease and thus provide succor. But one of the holograms does trip up to upset the near perfect scenario. Thus both Maria Schrader’s I am Your Man and Almeyreda’s Marjorie Prime take the viewer to the distinct possibility of recreating memories of past love in humans with the intelligent use of artificial intelligence in the not-so-distant future.  Schrader’s film scores over Almeyreda’s film because the android Tom in I am Your Man is physical, protective, affable with all humans, and good looking. Screenplay writers Jan Schomburg and Maria Schrader reveal towards the end of the film that even the name Tom is connected with Thomas, a childhood sweetheart of Alma, the archaeologist—evidently information sourced by the company that manufactured Tom by delving deep into the memory of Alma aided by her brain scans. (Actress Maren Eggert, won the Best Actress award at the Berlin International Film Festival, 2021, for her performance as Alma in I am your Man.)

The android Tom (Dan Stevens) observing Alma 
(Maren Eggert) to pick up minute details to please
her, in her apartment

In the film I am your Man, Alma the archaeologist, faces a fund crunch for her scientific project and to augment her depleting financial resources she agrees to participate in a 3-week evaluation of an android boyfriend developed by a company by assimilating her past memories with the aid of a brain scan among other sources of information to suit her dream spouse--intelligent, handsome and somewhat exotic. The evaluation period of Tom includes a 3-day live-in period when the pair does have a sexual encounter that satisfies the needs of Alma. 

Tom and Alma outdoors--Alma loves
the companionship

Alma is touched by Tom waiting the rain to meet
her as agreed earlier


Tom and the android company's 
representative (Sandra Huller)

Alma is single, middle aged and successful in her field of archaeology. She has had a recent affair with her boyfriend that unfortunately resulted in a miscarriage. Soon he starts dating another woman and that woman is now pregnant. Alma is pushed into a fragile psychological state: her ability to conceive is in doubt and her boyfriend has found a new flame. Her father is battling dementia. Evidently, Alma does not want to die alone. When she asks Tom what is the saddest thing he can think of, Tom responds as Alma would have done in an honest moment: "Dying alone." Tom, the android watching Alma work in the lab, is able to absorb the basics of her work, search the internet and warn her that another set of scientists in another part of the world is ahead of her and on the verge of publishing their results before Alma’s team would be able to do the same. Tears well up in Alma’s eyes, while confronting these facts. The reaction of Tom to that situation is his profound analytical response: “So the tears in your eyes only relate to you yourself and your career? They are egotistical tears.”  Tom even graciously suggests an alternate paper that Alma could put together with the work she has put in thus far. Alma is hurt and packs him off to the android factory that manufactured him.

Wild animals may be wary of humans;
not so of androids

A key line spoken in the film


Today, we tend to assume that human beings have better feelings than machines/programmed androids. Schrader’s film contradicts that notion. Tom sits next to a customer in a cafĂ©, while both watch a TV clip showing people failing to implement a plan. The customers sitting next to Tom laugh as they fail. Tom asks the customer seated next to him: “Could you explain to me what is funny about it?” He is answered “It looks so silly. I don’t know. I can’t explain it.” Tom continues, “The fact that no one dies?” He gets this answer, “That definitely would not be funny. Dying is definitely not funny, right?” Schrader and short-story writer Braslavsky thus project a future scenario when programmed androids could be more humane than humans in their gut reactions that sift good from the bad/insensitive ones.

After dispatching Tom off back to the factory that made him in egotistical anger, Alma writes up her evaluation of Tom, who is “not human” and is “not flawed in any conventional sense” during the 3-week period. Lines from her negative evaluation include “Are humans intended to have all their needs met with a push of a button? It will create a society of addicts who decide to not challenge themselves and endure conflicts.

A key scene between Tom and Alma


The delightful end of this unusual film is quite unpredictable providing the viewer with a cocktail of light entertainment, science, and thought-provoking questions about humans and machines programmed to improve themselves in a positive way, quite unlike “HAL”, “Eva”, and “Marjorie Prime” who preceded “Tom,” in cinematic chronology. Congratulations to the filmmakers and the short-story writer!

 

P.S.  I am Your Man won the Silver Bear Award at the Berlin International Film Festival for Ms Maren Eggert who plays Alma. It has also won the best fiction film and the best director awards at the German national awards and is Germany’s submission to the Oscars in the foreign language category.. It is one of the best films of 2021 for the author. The sci-fi film Marjorie Prime (2017) has been reviewed earlier on this blog.  (Click on the colored name of the film in the post-script to access the review.)