Thursday, May 21, 2015

177. Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s “Force Majeure” (Turist) (2014), based on his original story/script: Cowardice (and heroism) of an ideal father figure in a modern family

What is force majeure? Force majeure — or vis major — meaning "superior force,” is also known as cas fortuit or casus fortuitus or a "chance occurrence, unavoidable accident.” Director Ruben Östlund’s film uses this legal term Force Majeure as the title of his film, released in some countries under the less meaningful, alternate title Tourist. The term force majeure is used to describe an unusual situation that prevents one or both parties under a contract from fulfilling their obligations. In practice, most force majeure clauses do not excuse a party's non-performance entirely, but only suspends it for the duration of the force majeure. Some understanding of the legal term will enhance a viewer’s appreciation of this remarkable film.

Tomas with his cellphone--an item that matters in the "Lord Jim" moment

Why then is Force Majeure, the film, worthy of being termed as a remarkable one?

First, director Östlund conceived and scripted the film all by himself.  Few directors are able to do this. Ingmar Bergman and Naomi Kawase, are prominent among the select band of directors who often did/do this. American director Damien Chazelle accomplished a similar feat with the Oscar-winning Whiplash in 2014. Most viewers do not differentiate a film adapting another work from another medium from a film that is the director’s own original conceptualization. Most viewers do not differentiate directors standing on the shoulders of very competent and gifted co-scriptwriters from those directors who sculpt original films based on their own imagination and acumen. Östlund is one of the latter breed. He is able to conceive and develop a tale of a small, young Swedish family enjoying a brief costly vacation in the Alps into a complex, compressed  tale of 5 days of conflict, self realization, and ultimate reconciliation, of not one but two sets of families that could have taken years, if not decades, in real time for other families.

Developing the script from the ideal tourist family on holiday
to present a complex tale of 5 days of conflict and resolution

Second, Östlund in Force Majeure deals with cowardice of principled “heroes” of society. The famous novelist Polish novelist Joseph Conrad dealt with the precise subject in his novel Lord Jim, made into a lovely film in 1965 by Richard Brooks with Peter O’Toole in the leading role. O’Toole played a ship’s captain, who in a rare moment of cowardice jumps off his sinking ship into a lifeboat, not caring for the fate of his devout Muslim passengers for whom there were no lifeboats, when by tradition the captain ought to have been the last person to leave his sinking ship. In Force Majeure, Östlund is not discussing seafarers (though the script does include mention of a recent Estonian tragedy with similar trappings) but instead focuses on the bulwark of a good Swedish family—a hardworking, successful 30-something male called Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuehnke), with a devoted wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their daughter Vera and son Harry. Director/scriptwriter Östlund creates a convincing ‘Lord Jim’ situation for his devoted family as they enjoy their second day of a 5-day holiday in a plush hotel cum ski resort in the French segment of the Alps mountain range. The US director Brooks adapting Conrad’s tale had a beautiful line in his film: “It only takes a split second to make a coward a hero or to turn a hero into a coward.” There is a huge difference between an American director and a Scandinavian one—the latter is less obsessed with words and more with visuals, sound and silence. The cowardice (and heroism) is more to be perceived than heard in the Swedish film.

Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuehnke) accepting his cowardice

Third, Östlund uses the scenario to make an indirect commentary on male heads of families and their ability to care for the members of the family, in contrast to women like Ebba whose maternal instinct to care for the family at a moment of insecurity comes to the fore. In Force Majeure, the interesting script deals with two male heads of families Tomas and Mats, and a contrasting mother (Charlotte) they meet at the hotel , who like Ebba, is a mother of two but unlike Ebba wants her free time, in which she is not distracted by her responsibilities to her husband or children. (Interestingly the script, as in Kieselowski’s masterpiece Dekalog, where a strange silent individual transects most tales, in Force Majeure too, a silent hotel cleaning staff watches the various developments between the couples with interest).  All three, Tomas, Mats, and Charlotte admit their lapses, big or small, directly and indirectly, at various stages of the film in being a responsible part of their respective family units. Charlotte indirectly admits her guilt by deferring to converse further on the observations of Ebba on the subject.

Even half asleep, the ringing phone is more important for Tomas
(the male bread winner) than all else

Fourth, Östlund uses unusual methods of filmmaking that will upset the purist. Sometimes, in Force Majeure, the speaker’s head is out of the frame; the camera is more interested in the listeners rather than the speaker. In a particular scene, the speaker, Ebba, walks around and sits with her back to the camera, and the viewer gets to see only the listeners. The Swedish director is breaking the cinematic conventions deliberately. Then there are static exterior shots that end each day, or punctuate “acts” in the film as in a play.

Static camera captures a mirror shot of all four members of the family
brushing their teeth

Fifth, Östlund uses the ‘Summer’ segment of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in a manner reminiscent of the curtain falling on a proscenium stage at the end of each act. While one is befuddled by the choice of the Summer segment, the effect is indeed staggering.  Most of the film does not depend on the music of Vivaldi as much as it does on the use of sound of ropeways or of creaking wooden floorboards.  The sound management in the Swedish film is top notch.

Finally, Östlund uses the time-tested Edward Albee technique of the play/film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by pitting the major husband and wife duos’ problem on another couple to extend the arguments of the film. And like Albee’s play there is certain resolution of the conflicts. Even the strong Ebba towards the end of the film shows the shades of a Don Quixote tilting at windmills, while Charlotte appears more composed and practical in comparison to her. As the film progresses, Tomas has occasion to redeem himself as a hero to his kids soon after admitting his folly to his family.  The best part is arguably the final innocuous conversation between son and father (Harry and Tomas). Harry asks Tomas “Do you smoke, Papa? on seeing his father smoke for the first time and the father replies “Yes, I do.” Tomas is finally honest and Harry appreciates it. That honest answer puts much of what has preceded in perspective and provides a final example of the director/scriptwriter’s maturity evident in Force Majeure. The very child that earlier asked its parents to leave the hotel room, now looks up at his father with trust.

One parent who never cared about his own kids carry another's kid,
while Harry learns from his father Tomas
about his father's smoking habit for the first time

Force Majeure is not in the same league as certain important and fascinating movies of 2014 such as Leviathan, Still the Water, and Winter Sleep. Force Majeure is nevertheless a remarkable work that will make any astute viewer to sit up and admire the fresh approach to cinematography, the excellent casting, and a thought provoking original script where saving one’s cell phone (the link to your job and office) is perhaps instinctively more important than saving members of your family.

P.S. Force Majeure won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film FestivalThe films mentioned in the above review Lord Jim, Dekalog, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Leviathan, Still the Water, and WinterSleep have all been reviewed earlier on this blog.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

176. Japanese director Naomi Kawase’s “Still the Water” (Futatsume no mado) (2014): A perspective on death, grief, and continuity for those alive and questioning their lives’ meaning

Naomi Kawase stated that she expected to win the Golden Palm at the 2014 Cannes film festival for her film Still the Water during a press conference but she was disappointed. All the awards and attention were instead grabbed by the Russian film Leviathan and the Turkish film Winter Sleep, both competing with the Japanese film for the honors. But a close evaluation proves there was very little differentiating the three awesome films, except for the cultural differences of the subjects in each of the three films.

Trees and the sea enveloping growing minds 

This critic had described Ms Kawase as the Terrence Malick of Japan on this blog in February 2012 while reviewing her previous work Hanezu, which had lost out to Malick’s The Tree of Life at Cannes for the top honor of 2011 at that festival. But if you ask a Japanese cineaste about Terrence Malick he or she is likely to call Malick the ‘Kawase of USA.’ And for good reason—Kawase’s 2007 film The Mourning Forest was about loss of loved ones, death and regeneration, while Malick’s 2011 film The Tree of Life also dealt with death and reconciliation with a larger cycle of life. Both dealt with the sun and the trees/forest. Only for Malick the loss is often of the young, while for Kawase, the loss is often of adults. For Malick, the references are Christian theology and scriptures; for Kawase it’s Buddhist scriptures and shamanism.  For both directors, nature teaches humans to live a better life by observing nature, not resisting it.

Kyoko swims in the sea wearing her school uniform

Still the Water begins with visuals and sounds of the wrath of the sea only to be followed by visuals of the quiet sea where a schoolgirl goes swimming in her school uniform. Yes, the waters can be stilled, philosophically. What matters is our attitude.

Like most Kawase's films, there is a death of an elder that provides the fulcrum of the film. Kawase’s choice of the beautiful Makiko Watanabe (who plays Kyoko’s dying mother in Still the Water and a minor role of Wakako in The Mourning Forest) is laudable and elevate the quality of both films. Preceding the death of the elder in Still the Water is a cruel, unsavory killing of a goat by an old man watched by a young person that almost makes you leave the auditorium unless you know Kawase’s visuals have a purpose beyond shock and gore. The old man pats with affection the goat that he has just killed.  (This is the second important film in recent times that begins with the graphic killing of an animal, the first being Emir Baigazin’s Kazhak film Harmony Lessons (2013), winner of a Silver Bear at the Berlin film festival,  only to be followed by a contrarian humanist story.)  While the gore repulses the viewer, the films use these scenes to prepare the viewer for deeper thought as the films unspool. The death of goat/sheep is contrasted with peaceful death of young Kyoko’s lovely mother dying in the company of her caring husband and daughter from an unspecified disease. The ‘waters’ of the film are metaphorically stilled. “Mother’s soul will be part of you,” Kyoko is told in consolation. A large banyan tree, occupies some space in the movie's script and visuals, with drooping branches and aerial prop roots that grows into thick woody trunks making it difficult to distinguish them from the main trunk.

Wisdom of the elders for the young

Much of Kawase’s films have autobiographical touches. Kawase’s father had abandoned her when she was young and she was brought up by her grandmother. In Still the Water, the young shy boy Kaito, is being raised by his mother after his father has left the village to live in the city blaming the circumstances on ‘fate’. Thus both the youngsters in the film suffer from a missing parent whom they love. The girl loves the sea, while the boy is afraid of water. Early in the film a wise old man comments:  “These kids don’t know what lies in the sea.”  Animate and inanimate objects have relevance in the films of Malick and Kawase in equal measure.  Both are visual poets of nature, life and death. 

Halcyon days: Father, daughter, and the sick mother during a light interlude

Kawase’s handling of Kyoko’s mother’s death is truly unforgettable. The mother, a shaman, dies holding her daughter’s hand s the villagers sing the mother’s favorite song. Friends come to sing and dance as the mother dies reminiscent of an Irish wake.

For Kawase, memory of successive generations lives in trees and forests (The Mourning Forest and Still the Water), and rocks (Hanezu) and life is eternal (the arachnids of Hanezu and roots of the banyan trees in Still the Water.)  The most interesting line Kawase provides in Still the Water is “Young people should be brave to leave us elders to pick up the pieces.” 

The banyan tree as a metaphor of life

The tale of life, death and love as it affects two young people in a Japanese village on the forlorn island of Amami is scripted by the Japanese director herself. The appeal of what she provides as cinematic visuals and storyline could be eclectic to Occidental viewers but it would appeal more to the Oriental mind that seeks spiritual connection with nature and respects the forces of nature.  She might not have won the admiration of Cannes with Still the Water but this work is her most engaging work since she made The Mourning Forest.  The love tale of the boy and the girl is submerged by the sea of philosophical thought the film attempts to provide. Most other directors would have been inclined to do just the opposite.  The unknown killer of Kyoko’s mother’s lover is never revealed.  The detail is peripheral for Kawase; instead the effect of the death on other characters is more important for her. That is where we need to admire Kawase, she is different from the regular filmmaker.  For this critic, Kawase is the finest living active filmmaker of Japan today.

P.S. Kawase’s earlier films Hanezu and The Mourning Forest have been reviewed in detail earlier on this blog.  Still the Water is one of the author’s top 10 films of 2014.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

175. Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Winter Sleep” (Kis Uykusu) (2014): Top-notch contemporary cinema that will satiate a patient, intelligent viewer

Winter Sleep is one of the outstanding cinematic works of 2014.

Winter Sleep is a daunting 196 minutes long movie and could put off an uninitiated, immature viewer craving for action, sex and thrills. The Turkish director Ceylan, speaking to a packed audience that had earlier stood in long, winding queues on a humid December morning in Trivandrum city in India to view the award winning cinematic work and glimpse the accomplished director, during the International Film Festival of Kerala, India, stated with a note of apprehension “I hope all of you slept well last night as my film is more than 3 hours long.”

Interior lighting that embellishes the film

Winter Sleep, as in the case of the director’s previous two films—Three Monkeys and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia—proved one fact, it was a work of a contemporary master of cinema, while requiring a viewer’s undivided concentration to savour all the multifaceted morsels of delectable cinematic treats the film offers in the form of amazing performances, cinematography, choice of classic western music, and last but not least impressive script and direction. Winter Sleep deserved the two awards it won at the Cannes film festival—the Golden Palm for the best film of the festival and FIPRESCI prize for the content.

Winter Sleep is a film about several subjects of conflict and their resolution moulded into one tale, constructed with immaculate care.

The Script and the Scriptwriters

The husband-wife team of Ebru and Nuri Bilge Ceylan has been responsible for the last three masterpieces of director Ceylan. In all the three films, they have developed and presented varied types of husband and wife relationships. (Their collaboration is quite like another notable contemporary screenplay collaboration team made up of the Russian film director Andrei Zvyagintsev and scriptwriter Oleg Negin on their respective last three Russian masterpieces that culminated in Leviathan, a film that competed with Winter Sleep at Cannes and had to settle for the Best Screenplay Award, losing out on the top award to the Turkish contender).
The fascinating bit about Winter Sleep is that a real life husband-wife duo have come together to write about the fictional see-sawing relationship of a husband and a wife, who in this film are not cheating on one another and on many counts can be well considered as admirable individuals and perhaps from certain perspectives even as a devoted couple.

Husband Aydin (Bilginer) and wife Nihal (Sozen)
in delicate hues of light and shade

The husband in Winter Sleep is a retired actor named Aydin of certain national repute. He has co-inherited, with his sister, a boutique hotel in a fascinating natural rocky setting of Cappadocia in Turkey attracting international tourists.  Aydin’s wife is Nihal, an attractive young lady, who is evidently not as financially secure as her husband, whom she had admired in the past as an actor of repute and has been married to for a while.  Nihal now finds Aydin to be “an unbearable man.” They have no offspring.  Apart from helping run the small hotel, Nihal takes a proactive interest in the improvement of a local school and its affairs. Her husband has apparently never shown interest or an inclination to help improve the functioning of that school, which has caught the attention of his wife. He is busy writing a column for a small newspaper with limited readership, cocooned in his study filled with books and memorabilia of plays and films that he was associated with or liked and dreams of writing a book on the history of Turkish theatre.  He has even named his hotel “Hotel Othello.” The script of the film shifts gears with the arrival of an electronic mail from a female reader of Aydin’s column. She respectfully requests Aydin’s help in improving the deplorable conditions of a school in a not-so-distant village by either providing direct monetary help or by Aydin, as a respected citizen, contacting influential government officials to provide more financial resources for the school.  Aydin, who has never been interested in supporting Nihal’s pet school, suddenly wonders if he should respond positively to this distant admirer of his column.  What follows in the film, provide sufficient details to show the cracks in the marriage of two otherwise admirable educated Muslims, Aydin and Nihal, both having diverse social acceptance by different sets of people. Unlike George and Martha of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? where the husband and wife spewed venom at each other, in Winter Sleep, Aydin and Nihal are overtly caring and respectful to each other, taking great care not to tread on each other’s toes.  Even the most hurtful comments made by Aydin’s sister Nacla towards her brother are gently-spoken, well-chosen words though sharp as knives. One unforgettable line from Nacla to her brother is “I wish my level of self deception was as low as yours.”   So, too, are those of Nihal addressed to her recently divorced sister-in-law---subtle words and inflections of speech that drive home the intended critical message, without seeming to be ugly, even to the ears of the hotel‘s main employee who was in earshot. And like the Albee play (made into a memorable Hollywood film by Mike NIchols) there is reconciliation at the end, but in a quite unusual manner  for the average Muslim male ego one often associates with the contemporary Middle East.

Mature performances are the mainstay of the film

This critic, who was able to throw a couple of questions at the director, during a post-screening public interaction, specifically asked Ceylan about his three film long collaboration with his wife Ebru in scriptwriting--all of which resulted in three consecutive major award-winning films at Cannes. The response was revealing and startling. Ceylan stressed the fact that Ebru an accomplished Turkish actress (she also acted in Ceylan’s early films Distant and Climates) and filmmaker had taken to scriptwriting very well. Ceylan explained that he himself was influenced by literature, specifically Russian literature and that Winter Sleep is very similar to Anton Chekhov’s short story The Wife. Ceylan, who was influenced by Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence when he was a young man, evidently continues to develop and construct scenes reminiscent of the Swedish maestro. While developing the script, Ebru kept reminding her husband Nuri Bilge that the script was way too long and the length needed to be reduced.  Nuri Bilge Ceylan finally decided not to reduce the length as all the small details were important for him. As a jury member at Cannes, Ceylan recalled he wished Michael Haneke’s lengthy Austrian film White Ribbon could go on and on as it was great cinema just as he wishes certain badly made 80 minute long films would end quicker than their intended full duration. With remorse, he added to this critic, Ebru, his wife, might not work on a film script with him again after this decision to retain the film’s length and its myriad details. He added that he found women were stronger than men intellectually.

This critic decided to read the Chekhov story and compare it with Winter Sleep.  In the Russian story there are similar characters and a parallel ending, when you compare it with the film. In the Russian story, the lead character wished to write a book on the history of railways, while in the movie the lead character Aydin wishes to write a book on the history of Turkish theatre, which both pursue in the separate creative works. But more importantly, both works look closely at the social divide, in Russia (in the short story) and in Turkey (in the film). The social divide leverages the emergence of the fissure in the husband-wife relationship in both the movie and short story and therefore serves as an important sub-plot in both tales.

Social Commentary of Chekhov and of the Ceylans

In Winter Sleep, as in the Russian short story, the social divide is all pervasive. The landed gentry live in comfort concerned only whether their tenants pay their rents on time and do not hesitate to take corrective action if they are not paid, blind to the financial conditions of their tenants. The Ceylans, in their script, weave in the reactions of children and old women in the family of the tenants (an aspect Chekhov never dealt with) deprived of their TV by the owners because the rents have not been paid. For Chekhov, the peasants were hit by famine; for the Ceylans, it is a population who sought refuge after calamities decades ago. The Ceylans’ script even details the reaction of the landed gentry to the smelly socks of a tenant, oblivious of the fact that the poor tenant has walked miles to make a token payment.  Even the employees of hotel treat the less financially supported  tenant with disdain by bringing small female slippers for a male adult tenant, who has left his muddy shoes outside, when Aydin asks the employee to bring slippers to protect the visitor’s feet from the cold floor.  The boiling anger of the socially deprived folks towards the well-heeled landowners reminds one of Dostoevsky’s literary works, just as a swooning young boy in Winter Sleep reminds one of passages describing an epileptic in The Idiot. In Winter Sleep, the husband Aydin passing value judgements on the lack of cleanliness of the poor is contrasted with his wife Nihal who is a naive do-gooder who senses the pain of poorer sections of society. Both have differing attitudes and perspectives of the poor. Nihal does painfully realize that “hell is paved with good intentions.”

Aydin writes his column while sister Necla (background) provides bitter criticism

Shakespeare in Winter Sleep

There is no Shakespeare in Chekhov’s story but Ceylan’s love for Shakespeare goes beyond the name of the hotel in Winter Sleep.  There are two references to Richard III in the movie. The title itself connects with the famous line of the play “Now is the winter of discontent...” and towards the end one of the minor characters verbally attack Aydin with the quotation from the same play “Conscience is but a word that cowards use devised at first to keep the strong in awe; our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law.”

Winter Sleep may not be an obvious treatise on conscience of the rich and powerful but on some reflection the film is indeed on this subject.  It is not without reason that the Ceylans have called the film by that name and introduced Richard III’s lines into the script.

The ambiguous, reflective visage of Nihal (Melisa Sozen), the wife,
 at the end of the film

Religion in Winter Sleep

Turkey is a Muslim country and it is inconceivable to make a realistic feature film without touching on religion.  In answer to another pointed question from this critic on the references to religion in the film, Ceylan noted that intellectuals worldwide are not worried about religion. In the film Winter Sleep,   the rent defaulting tenant is an Imam, a religious figure, who curses the inconsiderate rich landlord under his breath, while literally going the extra mile to grovel and appease his landlord. The Ceylans’ script makes Aydin realize that his roles on stage as an imam were all wrong after his brief interactions with his tenant imam. The former actor Aydin is taunted by his acerbic sister Necla as she describes him as a Muslim who never goes to a mosque to pray and yet writes about the importance of cleanliness by the devout.  Another taunt by Necla that deeply hurts Aydin is “Philanthropy isn't tossing a bone to a hungry dog. It’s sharing when you are equally hungry.”  And by stark contrast, the Chekhov short story has no mention of religion.

Ceylan, the Director, and Animals as Allegories

The cinema of Nuri Bilge Ceylan has increasingly used animals—the role of dogs in Once Upon a Time in Anotolia is easily recalled.  In Winter Sleep, horses, a dead dog and a hare get attention. And interestingly, this is purely the Ceylans’ contribution, not Chekhov’s.  Aydin, the retired-actor-cum-hotel-owner, never owned a horse. Since a hotel guest points out to him that the hotel’s website shows horses, Aydin is persuaded to purchase a wild horse, which is subdued and kept in the hotel’s makeshift stable. It does not require the brains of a rocket scientist to see the parallels between the horse and Nihal as what happens to the horse is related to the husband-wife relationship. So do the allegories of the dead dog’s carcass and the waiting carrion birds on the tree branches connect up with the film’s plot.  And the final quixotic proof of ability to hunt game by killing a hare and showing the trophy to his wife Nihal provides considerable visual treats for the viewer to mull over the ambiguous ending.

Profile of Aydin in reverse before he spots the dead dog

Ceylan’s Actors

Winter Sleep is a tale of a retired actor Aydin and his wife. It was imperative that Aydin’s character be played by an able performer. Ceylan achieves this by casting Haluk Bilginer, a Turkish actor with considerable experience on the British stage and TV, who is a delight to watch as he interprets Aydin on screen. So are Melisa Sozen as Nihal and Nejat Isler (who was equally impressive in Semih Kaplanoglu’s Egg) as Ismail, the elder brother of the Imam.  While these three performers are top-notch, the other minor characters such as the Imam Hamdi, his nephew Ilyas, and Aydin’s sister Necla will not fail to impress a perceptive viewer. Winter Sleep is not a film held together by one actor, it is held together by an ensemble of quality actors well chosen by the director.

Cinematography in Winter Sleep

No discussion on this remarkable film would be complete without praising the cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki, who has been a regular collaborator of Ceylan and has been responsible for capturing effective external and indoor scenes with dramatic effect, more so in the latter. His use of light and shadows in interior shots will remain in a viewer’s memory, film after film.  In Winter Sleep, his reverse angle shots of Aydin and slow zoom in on Aydin’s head at key junctures in the film are remarkable.  The rock thrown at Aydin’s Landrover can be seen in flight before the ultimate impact and one doubts if special effects were employed.

Reverse shot of  Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) in light and shadows

Lastly, the final shots of both Winter Sleep and Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (cinematographer Mikhail Krichman) are almost identical wordless shots of rocky snowy landscapes. Both films are outstanding and comparable. Winter Sleep won the top award at Cannes but failed to reach even the final nomination stage at the Oscars.  Leviathan won the Golden Globe, an Oscar nomination, and the Cameraimage Golden Frog award, the most prestigious award for cinematographers.

Music in Winter Sleep

The choice of music in a film by the director is often missed out by viewers. In Winter Sleep, music is sparsely used, but when it is utilized it embellishes the cinematic work. The piece of music Ceylan uses is Schubert’s Sonata no. 20 in A major the very same piece of music used by Robert Bresson in his French classic Au Hazard Balthazar. By a coincidence, the French classic is one of Ceylan’s favourite films.

Concluding Remarks

Though this critic is a great votary of Nuri Bilge Ceylan and considers him to be one of the finest directors alive and making films, the best work of Ceylan remains Three Monkeys, the first movie the director collaborated with his wife on the script. Both Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Semih Kaplanoglu, two remarkable Turkish directors, have injected a new life into Turkish cinema to take it new highs in world cinema.

P.S.  Winter Sleep is one of the top 10 films of the author in 2014. Three Monkeys (2008) and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) have being reviewed on this blog earlier. Three Monkeys is the lone Ceylan work on his top 100 films list. A report of a brief interaction between the author and Nuri Bilge Ceylan in December 2014 at Trivandrum’s International Film Festival of Kerala published on the Dear Cinema website can be accessed at Zvyagintsev's Leviathan (2014) and Nichol's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), mentioned in the above analysis, have been also earlier reviewed in detail on this blog.

Friday, February 13, 2015

174. Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s francophone film “Two Days, One Night” (Deux jours, une nuit) (2014): Ethics and self-interest in a job-insecure world

The Dardenne brothers’ work Two Days, One Night is typical of a movie that makes you think beyond its apparent light-hearted positive ending that closes a tense and bleak scenario of sudden impending unemployment. It is a film that makes the viewer ponder if a positive ending is indeed so beyond what the film’s official ending suggests for the viewer’s benefit. More importantly, the film presents a grim situation that could be universal in democratic environs.

The facts are stacked against the film’s protagonist Sandra (Marion Cotillard) in Two Days, One Night. Sandra, a factory worker, has been hospitalized for depression and has now been discharged to resume work. While she is on leave getting treated, her employer who runs a solar panel manufacturing plant, realizes that his company needs to tweak its workforce to stay profitable and a sick employee like Sandra is not helping matters. One way out for the employer would be lay-off Sandra and ask the other employers to work more hours and compensate them with an attractive bonus for their additional sweat. The small company could then stay afloat and make profits and share some of it with the employees.

Now the Dardenne brothers, who write their own original scripts, when presenting the tale of a mentally fragile lady worker in Two Days, One Night, are also presenting the fragile Belgian economy (or for that matter, the world’s). That’s the charm of the directors who are in their sixties and perceptible of changes in their own neighbourhood. What you see is a lot more than what you think you are viewing. The film is more than the depiction of 2 critical days and 1 night in Sandra’s life. The larger perspective the film offers is the dilemma of Belgian industries that have to trim their costs to remain competitive in a global economy. And in a democracy, it ought to “appear” that the workers are increasingly a part of the decision-making process. And the decision the workers make is to bring in more money for their own stretched monetary household budgets by working more hours. That decision results in the employer giving the pink slip to the worker Sandra recently hospitalized for depression. Thus 16 families stand to gain from the promised bonus; the employer presumably spends less on the gross salary outgo for his healthy 16 employees; and his factory remains financially viable. Only the 17th family, the family of Sandra with her caring husband and two school-going kids are to face a financial tsunami, with Sandra unemployed. The ethical question is whether a sick employee, vulnerable on several fronts, physical, financial, and isolated by her guilty co-workers, can be shown the door.  At the same time a sick employee reduces the profits of the company, which in turn cannot be expected pay bonuses to its healthy workers due to decreasing profits.

The Dardenne brothers seem to be attracted to the subject of unemployment and its ripple effect on society, both social and psychological.  An early Dardenne brothers’ work Rosetta (1999), which also dealt with unemployment, not merely won the director-scriptwriter duo the coveted Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival but the film had the honour of being associated by the Belgian Government to a bill already in Parliament which ultimately became the Rosetta law (after the movie’s name), a labour law protecting young workers similar to the movie’s protagonist Rosetta. Two Days, One Night, is yet another delectable film that looks at unemployment in Belgium or rather the fear of unemployment for employed workers universally.

Absence of solidarity: A scene that captures it all--the sadness, the guilt,
the empathy, and the self interest

While the script and direction of the Dardenne brothers lead the viewer to gently slip into the viewpoint of Sandra (so often in the film the camera is either behind Ms Cotillard or facing her) so that we are led to empathize with Sandra, a sick lady who is almost forced to beg her 16 work compatriots to forgo the bonus that has been assured, which understandably would make a big difference in their quality of lives with Sandra’s exit and their extra hours of labour at the plant. While the viewer is cajoled to see 16 different views to the options before the workers, ethical issues are cleverly reversed on the victim. Sandra is forced to see a dozen or so viewpoints of her co-workers about the choice she would have make if she were in their shoes.  The overall brilliance of the film again rests with the scriptwriting-director duo who are able to bring on the table differing reactions. One reaction is of fear of losing his/her job if Sandra is retained in the plant. Another interesting reaction is the nagging emergence of guilty conscience of voting against Sandra when she had hid a co-worker’s mistake to help him retain his job and covered it up by saying she was responsible instead for the mistake.  Yet another reaction comes from another co-worker who wants to flee a spouse who forces her to make decisions as he wants them made. Subtleties of the Dardenne brothers’ cinema are many: parents don’t want their children to hear as the adults make their unethical decisions, employers like to pass on the brunt of their unethical decisions on the most vulnerable of their workforce at each given time.

The Dardenne brothers have stated that they always wanted to make this film but the global economic upheaval that began in 2008 spurred them on. According to their interview given to Larry Rohter in the New York Times, the seed of movie germinated when they read a sociological book called The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society edited by Pierre Bourdieu. Apparently one case study in that book dealt with a non-productive worker. The idea of the managers influencing the workers to push such a worker aside with the carrot of bonuses for the productive workers in Two Days, One Night comes from that case study. To have built the complex tale of Two Days, One Night from a sociological case study is a creditable feat, especially when the viewer is privy to the interesting twist the employer provides Sandra in confidence towards the end of the film. It reverses Sandra’s position so dramatically.

The vulnerable and the more vulnerable worker

The importance of Two Days, One Night lies in two distinct departments of the movie: the scriptwriting and the acting. The scriptwriting reveals the importance the brothers give to psychology of the personalities in the film. The honest conversations are always in the open space. The unethical conversations are in closed environments, with no witnesses. The Dardenne brothers allows for the discussion on the lack of sex between Sandra and her husband to be discussed in the open areas but in stark contrast Sandra’s employer makes his final deal with Sandra in closed space.  In the final moments of the film, there is an awkward optimism. But is it real? We always tend to believe the employer is a villain but in the evolving management scenario the co-worker can be an equal villain--all for self-interest and self-preservation.

The best and most effective role of the script is pushing the viewer to make choice at each stage of the film as what he or she would do in that particular situation when Sandra meets up with each of her 16 co-workers rather than the viewer making value judgements on each character. That is what makes this film remarkable.

A sleepless night spent to seek support from co-workers

It appears that Ms Cotillard was approached by the Dardenne brothers for this role while they were produces of Ms Cotillard’s earlier work Rust and Bone and she agreed. Her work in Two Days, One Night is amazing as she is deglamorized and has to combine mental fragility and resilience. The complex emotions required of her are truly phenomenal. She richly deserves her Oscar nomination for this demanding role.

The effect of unemployment on caring spouses

The Dardenne brothers ought to have been recognized for their admirable script. The film may be bleak, but it throws up important and relevant questions applicable to all of us. It is good to have directors like the Dardenne brothers making such rich thought-provoking cinema offering catharsis for the viewer just as the Greek playwrights of the distant past.

P.S. The film won the best film award at the Sidney film festival. The film is one of the author's top 10 films of 2014. Marion Cotillard, nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her role in this film, did not win the award.

Friday, January 30, 2015

173. US director Damien Chazelle’s second feature film “Whiplash” (2014): The ultimate Svengali levelled

I saw a drive in him” —Terence Fletcher in Whiplash, referring to his former student Sean Casey 
The next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged” —Terence Fletcher in Whiplash

A quick assessment of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash would be that the film is about a music student carving out a drumming career in a jazz band. Another would be classifying the film as a tale of a musician’s long and winding journey to acquire recognition by the critics who matter.  Others would only remember the film as one that forces the viewer to hate and cringe at the actions of an inhuman mentor, a perfectionist, who wrecks the lives of young creative diligent minds by physical and verbal abuse, all for his own goal in life. While all these are justifiable perceptions of the film, young Damien Chazelle’s script and film offers more than the obvious.

The film’s opening sequence is of the camera (the viewer’s point of view) entering a darkened corridor at the end of which the student Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) is religiously practicing on a drum and cymbal set.  Concentrating on his music, he is oblivious of all else around him.  The lighting and camera movement innocuously provide the prologue for what is to follow without a word spoken. Chazelle’s poster of the film too captures that very mood. The spotlight is on the drummer.  And that is what could mislead the viewer. The film is equally about what is not under the spotlight, the shadowy part of the space, surrounding the drummer.The film is as much about the various characters (the teacher, the father and the lover) in the film who directly and indirectly shapes Andrew to what he becomes ultimately.

Fletcher (Simmons) (right) exacting what he wants from the drummer

The prologue over, from the darkened closed doors emerge a man in black Terence Fletcher (J K Simmons) like a cat’s stealthy entrance, followed  by a defining staccato conversation and the removal of his jacket (denoting that he is at work), and an equally dramatic exit slamming the doors only to reappear again apologetically to retrieve his jacket. Most viewers will be transfixed by the overpowering presence of the man in black (Simmons), but a keen viewer will note the effect is totally orchestrated by the scriptwriter and director Chazelle. It is not Simmons who has grabbed your attention; it is Chazelle who is really shaking up the viewer, with the lighting, Fletcher’s clothes, the quiet entry and the loud exit. Chazelle by getting Fletcher to remove his jacket for such a short time has told the viewer that the man takes his job very, very seriously.

Whiplash is more than a movie about music; it is a lovely work exploring the ultimate Svengali bringing out the best of drumming in a wannabe using insults, intimidation, skulduggery and psychological manipulation. While Andrew takes the spotlight, Fletcher is the less assessed ogre lurking in the shadows.

Developing the Charlie Parker in a first year student with  'a drive"

The viewer is manipulated by Chazelle to hate Terence Fletcher, who does everything to ensure his jazz ensemble is the best of the best. He spots the “drive” in a former trumpet player Sean Casey when the rest of the Schaefer School of Music faculty was telling him “Maybe this isn’t for you “ (who the viewer never gets to see on screen), picks him for his ensemble just as he does Andrew the drummer, to push them to the limits psychologically and physically to bring out the best. Sean Casey ultimately becomes the first trumpet at Lincoln Center.  Only Casey dies shortly after “in a car accident” according to Fletcher.  Casey’s Svengali—Terrence Fletcher (Simmons)—is sorry and provides a eulogy for the departed in a touching manner by making his entire ensemble listen to a CD of Casey, with the name Sean scribbled on it, playing. Evidently, Fletcher had recorded Casey’s musical output and kept the recording with him. There is a human side to the beast, who spits out venom at his students, and yet spots the real potential talent, shapes that, and makes them famous. Much later in the film, we learn that Sean Casey did not die in a car accident but hanged himself. Fletcher can lie as well. The spacing and timing of the two differing bits of information about Casey's death provided to the viewer is clever. The original details that Chezelle provides work as an antidote to the evil sketch of Fletcher elsewhere in the film.  The revised information on Casey’s death makes the viewer to reappraise Fletcher and his tactics. So are the innocuous yet brilliant lines written by Chezelle and mouthed by Fletcher “I never really had a Charlie Parker.  But I tried. I actually fucking tried. And that’s more than most people ever do.” The man in black is not all black. He too has a talent to spot the Charlie Parkers of the future and chisel them into a live Charlie Parker. And he does transform Andrew into a Charlie Parker, Andrew’s ideal musician.

Who is this Charlie Parker mentioned again and again in this movie? Charlie Parker is a legendary jazz saxophonist who often combined jazz with blues, Latin and Classical music. The recurring references to Parker in Whiplash relate to a real incident involving Parker, the jazz saxophonist. Apparently a real drummer colleague of the teenage Charlie Parker named Jo Jones threw a cymbal at the floor near Parker’s feet because Parker didn’t change key with the rest of the band (according to Wikipedia) , just as Fletcher threw a cymbal close to Andrew’s head in Whiplash. In real life that incident apparently inspired Charlie Parker to practice inordinately until he became a legend in music. In Whiplash, Charlie Parker is first mentioned over dinner by Andrew. Then you hear Fletcher wishing he had a Charlie Parker to mentor. And finally you see Andrew transform into a Charlie Parker not with a saxophone, bit with the drums. Again, if one looks at the film closely it is the brilliant screenplay that comes out trumps.

Light and shadows effectively used by Chezelle

There are aspects of the Svengali’s manipulation that one has to conjecture from what is not shown in screen.  One of them relates to the mysterious disappearance of the musical notes folder of the drummer Fletcher decides is better than Andrew. Fletcher tells the band never to lose the notes.  Then director/scriptwriter shows Fletcher noticing Andrew sitting by the drummer turning pages for the drummer. This is followed by the mysterious disappearance of the folder. One can only surmise that it was Fletcher who ensured the disappearance so that Andrew could play without the notes.  If the viewer takes the incident to be happenstance, one is missing out on the brilliance of the screenplay (Chezelle) and editing (Tom Cross) in Whiplash.

It would be short-sighted to view Whiplash as a duel of egos between the mentor and the mentored. Whiplash is more about levelling of the egos between the two. A keen viewer will note the camera perspective that allowed Fletcher to tower over ensemble players throughout the film  making a defining change in the  point of view  at the end when drummer  seems to be looking down at the conductor Fletcher, and finally having both Fletcher and Andrew  appear at the same visual level, each appreciating the other. So much is said in the film without the spoken word—in a movie where spoken word seems to be overarching at key moments. Are the words of Fletcher, “Not my tempo” more memorable in the film or the door opening precisely when second hand of the clock moves to 9 o’clock? There are invisible aspects of Fletcher the Terrible not so subtly brought on screen by the scriptwriter/director. The reconciliation between the tormentor and the tormented, the mutual admiration of each others talent and the manner in which the unusual ending shows the gains of the lies, torture, and manipulation that helps another Charlie Parker arrive on the music scene are laudable.

The Svengali in black merges with the shadows

Ironically Whiplash is competing with one another film at the Oscars that deals with another obsession of another character, that of the real life Alan Turing the mathematician turned inventor of the world’s first computer in The Imitation Game. In both films, a flat tyre delays two different characters to make the films interesting. In both films, the love interests are peripheral to the tale but add considerably to the character development. In both films, the protagonists are loners in school with no friends. Only Whiplash does it all with subtlety, an aspect bereft in the competing film. But then most audiences do not appreciate subtlety.

The shadows/lack of lighting gains importance in the final drum sequence as in the prologue as lights seems to go off before Andrews drum solo takes centre stage.  Fletcher is shadowed out, the ensemble is not lit, and slowly the drums are lit by the spotlight.  Then follows the amazing solo by Andrew which at times are not heard (by the human ear but heard by the mind’s ear) but only seen (a brilliant exhibition of sound mixing in the history of cinema and deserving of the Oscar nomination). First, Chezelle shows us the sweat drops on the cymbals and later a few drops of blood.  Fletcher is shown lending a helping hand to set Andrew's cymbals right. Fletcher takes off his jacket during the solo as in the first scene of Fletcher in Whiplash.  Fletcher is in business again, he has spotted the real Charlie Parker.  Such importance to details make Chezelle’s work truly amazing. The final body language between Fletcher and Andrew is one of mutual appreciation. A Svengali is sometimes needed. Somewhere in the shadows, Andrew’s dad’s visage changes from concern for his son’s physical agony to one of celebration. What a film! It is one of the finest films from USA in a long while with incredible attention to scriptwriting, editing, sound mixing (that includes patches of near silence) and cinematography.  The contribution of Simmons as Fletcher is overarching in this lovely film. Chezelle deserved a nomination for direction as well, despite the Oscar snub.  One wishes the 30 year old Chezelle, with just two feature films behind him, proves to be a Charlie Parker of cinema.

P.S. Whiplash is one of the author's best ten movies of 2014 and the only one from USA.  The film won 3 Oscars-- Best Editing, Best Supporting Actor (for J K Simmons) and Best Sound Mixing. It has won the Golden Globe award and the BAFTA award for Best Supporting Actor for J.K.Simmons who plays Fletcher. At BAFTA, it picked up awards also for editing and sound. At Sundance Film Festival it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience award. 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

172. Argentine director Damián Szifrón’s “Wild Tales” (Relatos salvajes) (2014): Black comedy that entertains while making us introspect

The "wild" characters from the six segments

Wild Tales is a gem of an entertainer made up of six stand-alone, dark, comic tales. It is a portmanteau film with a difference; all the six tales are written and directed by one man--Damián Szifrón.  He is also the co-editor of this impressive work. Surprisingly, this Argentine director is only in his late thirties and he has made a film that belies his age. Most audiences will love it because there are elements in the six tales they will easily identify with, irrespective of where they live on this planet.  Interestingly, the film was co-produced by the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, who must be delighted that he has invested his money well.

It is “wild” because it depicts extreme reactions of ordinary individuals, who are frustrated by present urban societal pressures and the outcomes are quite plausible if the frustrated individuals are left with little or no choice to correct their predicaments, created often not by themselves but by others. Damián Szifrón may be zooming in on frustrations in urban Argentina but a global viewer would easily identify the situations as universal.

"Pasternak": Wild revenge of a snubbed creative mind

The opening segment “Pasternak” is a prologue to the main film before you see the film’s credits hilarious credit sequence. The prologue is essential for the viewer to appreciate the comic elements in the illustrated animals shown in the credits.  The humans in the film Wild Tales are not far removed from the colorful wild animals in the credit sequence. The humans are ordinary people who can indeed become wild.

Without providing spoilers for those who are yet to enjoy the film, it is important to note ’’Pasternak” is a tale relating to the frustrations of a budding music composer named Pasternak, who finds his creative output is trashed by critics/professors and his life is gradually ripped apart by several people in his life. And the brilliant part of this segment is that you never get to see Mr Pasternak—you only get to see those who have ruined him.

"The Rats:" How to deal with rats in a restaurant 

The next segment “The Rats” is set in a restaurant but the rodents are human.  The human rat is a social climber who has succeeded in life by trampling down on poorer sections of society, often wrecking their lives with impunity and killing the bread winners of marginal lower middle class families who cannot survive the economic pressures.  This segment also presents the flip side view of lower middle class family members driven to prison for offences created by economic strains and eventually preferring to remain behind bars with basic food and amenities rather than succumb to “human” rodents who wreck your life outside prison.

"The Strongest": Class wars on the road

The segment “The Strongest” is all about road rage of two individuals with a difference. Director-writer Damián Szifrón adds the element of social economic disparity—one is driving a high-end car, the other a jalopy, both using the same highway.  The rich look at the slow moving jalopy refusing to give way for fast moving cars with disdain. The poor look to avenge the cocky rich. Who is stronger? The best part is the finale of the segment where the policeman makes an ironical statement. Kudos to the writer Damián Szifrón! The audience anywhere will erupt when they hear that line. (This critic is intentionally not reproducing it as it would be spoiler!)

"Little Bomb": The expert demolisher (Ricardo Darin) demolished

Argentine actor Ricardo Darin is impressive in every role in every film that this critic recalls having seen him in and the segment “Little Bomb” in Wild Tales is no exception. Ricardo Darin plays a well-paid demolition expert, married and a father of a lovely girl. His well heeled life is slowly demolished by a private sector Buenos Aires traffic entity responsible for ensuring cars are parked only in designated places and having the authority to tow away those that do not comply to the rules.

But such entities can get high handed and citizens can get high strung, if they are convinced that they did not break any rules but have option but to pay the large fines. This segment also reveals writer Damián Szifrón’s empathy for the parking woes of car owners in Buenos Aires and how a “terrorist” can become a local hero. Damián Szifrón’s characters here and elsewhere act and react as ordinary individuals driven up against the wall by forces un-intentionally created by a well-meaning society.

The segment “The Proposal” reiterates Damián Szifrón’s interest in the class divide and how the rich try to use the poor to get out of nasty situations such as a rich family member causing a car accident leading to a death of a poor citizen.  As in the earlier segment “The Rats,” Szifrón’s script deals with corruption but in “The Proposal” that aspect is openly shown with amazing humor. The black comedy takes a U-turn when the righteous, scarred public avenges by “wildly” killing the wrong person.

"Till Death Do Us Part": The bride confirms the bridegroom's infidelity

The final segment titled “Till Death Do Us Part”—the famous wedding phrase used in Christian weddings--is about a wedding reception for the newlyweds in a hotel in Buenos Aires.  The bride stumbles on a hidden relationship the bridegroom has with one of the invited guests and what follows is best described by Shakespeare’s words “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” The resulting “wild” roller coaster events during the wedding reception constitute black comedy, sinister and yet hilarious.

While we laugh at all the six segments, there are pointers from the film to take home. Can critics destroy creative minds? Can the upwardly mobile successful citizens realize who they have trampled along the way? Can we project our road rage towards people who are indeed breaking rules without considering the consequences? Can the private and public sector perform with a heart towards society? Can public rage against corruption and the wrongdoings of the rich go sadly wrong?  Can spouses who fall deeply in love forgive each other’s weaknesses?

Wild Tales is a combination of intelligent original screenplay writing and good direction. This wild film is a social critique of Argentina today, entertaining the audiences in its stride. Intelligent comedy is not easy; Wild Tales makes it look easy. The numerous audience awards it has picked up at film festivals globally testify to its universal appeal and for Argentine cinema, rare indeed is a film that has won a staggering tally of 15 national awards. Damián Szifrón has arrived on the world cinema map.

P.S. Wild Tales  has won audience awards at the San Sebastian film festival, the Sao Paulo film festival, the Sarajevo film festival, and the Oslo Films of the South film festival. Its box office returns have already exceeded 7 times its production cost. It is one of the 5 films that made the final  list of nominees for the Best Foreign Film Oscar 2015 but did not win it. Wild Tales is one of the author's top 10 films of 2014.

Friday, January 02, 2015

171. Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev’s film “Leviathan” (2014): A bold political film made with a superb aesthetic flourish

During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that conditions called war; and such a war, as if of every man, against every man.” Thomas Hobbes, in his political book on statecraft called Leviathan, published in 1651

“Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope? Can you put a cord through its nose or pierce its jaw with a hook? Will it keep begging you for mercy? Will it  speak to you with gentle words? Will it make an agreement with you for you to take it as your slave for life? Can you make a pet of it like a bird or put it on a leash for the young women in your house? Will traders barter for it? Will they divide it up among the merchants? Can you fill its hide with harpoons or its head with fishing spears? If you lay a hand on it, you will remember the struggle and never do it again! Any hope of subduing it is false; the mere sight of  it is overpowering." Book of Job, Chapter 41, 1-9 in the Holy Bible (Job is referred to as Ayub in the Holy Koran) (This quotation is recalled in part by the priest in Zvyagintsev's film Leviathan)

All the four Andrei Zvyagintsev feature films—The Return, The Banishment, Elena, and Leviathan  provide an unusual amalgam of family relationships, politics, religion, philosophy, literature, psychology, sociology,  visual metaphors  and music. Each element grips the viewer when recognized in each of the films. Each element provokes inward looking questions in the minds of the viewers. Zvyagintsev is one of the best filmmakers worldwide who consistently make awesome films for those who can appreciate serious cinema—alongside directors such as Terrence Malick (USA), Carlos Reygadas (Mexico), Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey), Paolo Sorrentino (Italy), and Naomi Kawase (Japan).

Each of Zvyagintsev’s four films have deservedly won major accolades at premier film festivals (the Golden Lion at Venice for The Return; the Best Actor award at Cannes for Banishment; the Un Certain Regard section Jury prize at Cannes, Silver Peacock for Best Actress at the Indian International Film Festival in Goa,  and the Grand Prize at the Ghent International festival for Elena;  Best Screenplay award at Cannes, the Golden Peacock for Best Film and the Silver Peacock for Best Actor at the Indian International Film Festival in Goa, and the Best Film at the London Film Festival for Leviathan).

Zvyagintsev's Job is the honest Nikolai (shortened to Kolya in the film) willing
to forgive an erring wife: A Silver-Peacock-winning performance
by Alexei Serebryakov 

At a very elementary level, Leviathan is a tale of an honest man resisting the wiles of a corrupt Mayor of his coastal town to grab the land on which he and his ancestors lived. The honest man Nikolai --shortened to Kolya-- (Alexei  Serebryakov) is on the verge of losing his house when even the courts go against him.  His former friend from his Army days Dimitri—shortened to Dimi--, now a high flying lawyer practicing in Moscow, arrives with powerful connections and documents to checkmate the corrupt Mayor. The tragedy that follows is not far removed from a Biblical character called Job (or Ayub, if you are a Muslim).

When critics like me discover and point out elements of politics and theology in Zvyagitsev’s entire oeuvvre, readers are sceptical if too much is ascribed to a film beyond the obvious narrative tale. In the earlier films of Zvyagintsev, politics and theology were partly hidden behind visual and aural symbols. Many viewers of the first three Zvyagintsev films would have discounted the theological elements unless they were well read in the scriptures and acquainted with the cinema of Andrei Tarkovksy. Both the late Russian maestro Andrei Tarkovsky and  Andrei Zvyagintsev (the latter is in his early fifties)  are intellectuals who have good knowledge of Christian scriptures and use them to enhance the depth of their cinema.  

The title of the film Leviathan comes from two interlinked sources:  the Biblical Book of Job (Chapter 41) and Thomas Hobbes’ political book Leviathan  (published in 1651) on statecraft linking politics and religion. Unlike Zvyagintsev’s preceding three films, where religion and politics remained partly hidden, in Leviathan Zvyagintsev openly discusses both elements. There is a scene in Leviathan where wall portraits of past Russian leaders Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, and Gorbachev are consciously used as targets for rifle shooting during a picnic and even Yeltsin is disparagingly referred in the dialogue.  (Putin is not included here, but a photograph of Putin is discretely on the wall in the Mayor's office, just as Tarkovsky added Trotsky’s photograph on the wall in a brief scene in Mirror.) Religion, too, comes to the fore in Leviathan, as the Book of Job passage is quoted by a priest in the film and the penultimate ironical sequence is a church sermon by a bishop with the villainous mayor and his family listening to it with piety.  Tarkovsky, who could never be bold to openly criticize the Russian politics, would have been delighted to see what Zvyagintsev has achieved in Leviathan. One guesses that Zvyagintsev realized that his political and religious statements through symbols used in his earlier works did not reach out to a wide audience and he had to be more explicit in Leviathan. Even the TV program shown briefly in Leviathan is discussing the Pussy Riot case. Ironically, Leviathan is Russia’s official entry to the 2015 Oscars.

It is therefore relevant to reproduce below  the director Andrei Zvyagintsev’s statement provided at the Cannes film festival for the media on his film Leviathan

“When a man feels the tight grip of anxiety in the face of need and uncertainty, when he gets overwhelmed with hazy images of the future, scared for his loved ones, and fearful of death on the prowl, what can he do except give up his freedom and free will, and hand these treasures over willingly to a trustworthy person in exchange for deceptive guarantees of security, social protection, or even of an illusory community?”
 “Thomas Hobbes’ outlook on the state is that of a philosopher on man’s deal with the devil: he sees it as a monster created by man to prevent ‘the war of all against all’, and by the understandable will to achieve security in exchange for freedom, man’s sole true possession.”
 “Just like we are all, from birth, marked by the original sin, we are all born in a ‘state’. The spiritual power of the state over man knows no limit.”
“The arduous alliance between man and the state has been a theme of life in Russia for quite a long time. But if my film is rooted in the Russian land, it is only because I feel no kinship, no genetic link with anything else. Yet I am deeply convinced that, whatever society each and everyone of us lives in, from the most developed to the most archaic, we will all be faced one day with the following alternative: either live as a slave or live as a free man. And if we naively think that there must be a kind of state power that can free us from that choice, we are seriously  mistaken. In the life of every man, there comes a time when one is faced with the system, with the “world”, and must stand up for his sense of justice, his sense of God on Earth.”
“It is still possible today to ask these questions to the audience and to find a tragic hero in our land, a ‘son of God’, a character who has been tragic from time immemorial, and this is precisely the reason why my homeland isn’t lost yet to me, or to those who have made this film.

The predicament of the character Job of the Bible is not far removed from the pile of misfortunes heaped on a good man Nikolai or Kolya in Leviathan. Zvyagintsev, like Tarkovsky, is very familiar with the Bible and weave elements from it into his films.  Nikolai in Leviathan represents the average good Russian.  

The good working class Kolya is broken like Job in the Bible from all sides
as misfortunes pile up: yet he forgives his erring wife
Co-scriptwriter Oleg Negin worked on the last three Zvyagintsev films including Leviathan. Zvyagintsev and Negin weave in politics and religion with a rare felicity; they bring to mind the collaboration of the Polish Kieslowski and his co-scriptwriter Piesiewicz. However, Zvyagintsev’s collaboration with music composer Philip Glass is limited to Elena and Leviathan. Philip Glass’ music used in the film was Glass’ composition Akhnaten, the Pharaoh, who practiced monotheism in ancient Egypt. That operatic musical composition  also deals with power and religion, not far removed from the subject of Leviathan. The use of Glass’ music in the two Zvyagintsev films could serve as a master-class for some of the Hollywood’s currently feted directors because Zvyagintsev uses music only when it is essential and relevant and adjusts the volume with care. The rest is diagetic sound on his film soundtracks.  The third major Zvyagintsev collaborator is his cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, who continues to contribute richly to the visual canvas in all the four Zvyagintsev films. While most viewers will recall the fossilized bones of a blue whale in Leviathan, the most enigmatic shot in the film is the shot of a live whale in the distance at a key points\ in the film—the last scene of Kolya’s wife alive in the film as she contemplates the sea and her predicament. What Zvyagintsev and Krichman achieved in Leviathan in the final snowbound sequence was ironically close to the final shots of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep, the Turkish film that competed with Leviathan and won the top prize at the 2014 Cannes film festival. Though both are amazing films, Leviathan, for this critic had more plus points when comparing both. Most importantly, Leviathan was more original in content than the Golden Palm winning Winter Sleep, which was anchored to a Chekov story. Most of all, Zvyagintsev's Leviathan, though referring to Hobbes and the Bible, is extraordinarily brave in showcasing the corruption in contemporary non-Communist Russia. And like Ceylan's Winter Sleep, Leviathan also underscores the plight of the poor when the rich and powerful people, crush their lives. Even the motives behind an apparent good deed to adopt a friend's teenage son is questioned in the film.

Zvyagintsev’s cinema is not the run-of-the-mill cinema. Many crucial scenes of the tale are never shown on screen—he prefers to show the aftermath. The viewer is forced to imagine what could have happened. The fight between Nikolai and Dimitri is never shown; we only see Dimitri’s injured face. The death of Kolya’s wife is never shown; only her dead body is shown.  The evil antagonist forces are described in a reverse quixotic detail when the corrupt Mayor asks Dimitri, the lawyer, if he was baptized, when Dimitri confronts the Mayor with the evidence of his "sins." What a loaded question, and the irony is, who is asking! The Orthodox Bishop asks the corrupt Mayor "We are in God's house. Did you take communion?" and reminds him that both are doing God's work.  One of the final scenes is of the corrupt Mayor’s child looking up at the church’s ceiling after the sermon which includes the statement of the Bishop "Love dwells not in strength but in love". Nothing in Zvyagintsev’s cinema is without considered thought. An intelligent viewer has to pick up the details. And as in Elena, Leviathan too ends with squawking of a crow on the soundtrack, before the colorful and deep music of Philip Glass takes over for the finale.

Kolya's teenaged son Roma mopes over his stepmother's unethical actions: Zvyagintsev's
imagery of  a fossilized "Leviathan" is brought into perspective

Children and boys in particular played major roles in all the four Zvyagintsev feature films. In Elena and Leviathan, the young boys find alternate entertainment with their friends far away from home.  In Elena, the youngsters fight among themselves; in Leviathan, the youngsters are less boisterous and appear drugged/drunk, no longer fighting among themselves to achieve something. The boys gather in a broken-down unused church.  Zvyagintsev is evidently making a time-based sociological statement on Russian youth and the Russian Orthodox Church.  Young-boys-revolting-against-their-parents is a recurring theme for Zvyagintsev. In Leviathan, the son Roma is born from a first marriage of Kolya and his anger against his stepmother is understandable. When Dimitri is beaten up and threatened to be shot to death by the Mayor, Dimitri is asked if he has any thoughts for his daughter we never see. What Zvyagintsev shows us instead is a little girl on the train Dimitri is taking back to Moscow, possibly reminding Dimitri of his own.

In Leviathan, the wife is ambiguous embodying both the good and the evil, whom the
good Kolya forgives 

Wives in all Zvyagintsev’s films are interesting to study: some good, some evil, and some ambiguous in their actions. In Leviathan, the wife is ambiguous—we can only guess why she acted the way she did. She strays from the path of a good wife but chooses to return to her husband. In The Return, the viewer is never told why the father was absent for years. Zvyagintsev apparently believes that the jigsaw puzzles (a motif used in The Banishment) he presents in his films in varied ways can be completed by an intelligent viewer. He does not believe in spoon feeding his audience. Lilya, thw wife in Leviathan, asks her lover Dimitri "Do you believe in God?" Evidently she does.

To end this review, it might be more than relevant to again quote from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan“He that is taken and put into prison or chains is not conquered, though overcome; for he is still an enemy.” The enigmatic shot of the live whale in the distance towards the final minutes of the film exemplifies this last Hobbes quote.

P.S. All the three preceding Zvyagintsev films--The Return, The Banishment, and Elena--have been reviewed in detail earlier on this blog. Leviathan is the best of the 10 top films of 2014 for the author. It has subsequently won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film.

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