Sunday, September 16, 2018

225. British director Peter Brook’s film “Meetings with Remarkable Men” (1979) (UK): George Gurdjieff’s philosophical quest for life's answers presented on screen using snakes, sandstorms, and musical competitions conducted on open hillsides as metaphors.

“When I realized that (ancient wisdom)... had been handed down...from generation to generation for thousands of years, and yet had reached our day almost unchanged...I...regretted having begun too late to give the legends of antiquity the immense significance that I now understand that they really have” --- George Ivanovich Gurdjieff  (  (1876/7-1949)

Director Peter Brook’s film is an adaptation of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff’s multi-volume book of the same name Meetings with Remarkable Men, specifically focussing on the second volume . For those who have not come across the author of the book, Gurdjieff was a spiritual teacher, originally from Armenia, born to a Christian family, exposed to a “multi-ethnic, multi-confessional” population that respected mystics and holy men. In a life seeking philosophical quest for answers, Gurdjieff travelled to several parts of Central Asia, Egypt, India, Tibet and Italy. His significant interactions were with dervishes, fakirs, the Yazidis (of Iraq and Syria who bore the brunt of the ISIS onslaught in recent times) and finally with the Surmoung Brotherhood, which in turn was influenced by the Naqshbandi Sufi tradition of Islam. Gurdjieff propounded “the Fourth Way” blending the fakir, the monk and the yogi. Various intellectuals, such as P D Ouspensky, artist Alexandre de Salzmann, photographer Rene Zuber, writer/philosopher Colin Wilson, editor Alfred Orage (The New Age), mathematician John Bennett and the eminent New Zealander short-story writer Katherine Mansfield  found solace in his distilled knowledge. His funeral took place in the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Paris and is buried there.

Peter Brook made the film after he was approached by Jeanne de Salzmann (wife of artist Alexandre de Salzmann, and mother of one of the six Gurdjieff offspring) and there is evidence that Brook himself is a follower of Gurdjieff.   Brook and his production manager Jean Claude Lubtchansky chose to film in Afghanistan before Taliban and other fundamentalist force crippled it. The result is an interesting product that promotes Gurdjieff’s writings and his life’s quest for spiritual wisdom.

Now Peter Brook may not be a major filmmaker comparable to the likes of Tarkovsky, Malick or Welles but he is awesome as a director dealing with dramatic situations, possibly because of his extensive experience with British stage theatre and handling major stage actors. This comes through in spurts throughout his film Meetings with Remarkable Men with some fascinating sequences that unfortunately seem disconnected in time but appear as beads of an unusual necklace.

A strange musical competition on the hills of  Central Asia,
where the judge is not a human being but the hills around the venue

Who are the remarkable men? One could be Gurdjieff’s father who wishes his son could become a Christian priest, but young Gurdjieff expresses interest in science. His father counsels him to study medicine as “body and soul depend on one another.”  He even sagaciously advises “Become yourself—then God and Devil don’t matter” A snake is found indoors and Gurdjieff’s father asks his scared son to buckle up courage and to pick it up, which he does. Those familiar with Christian and Jewish religious texts will see the connection of the snake and the Devil; others might not. Anecdotes like this, pepper the film.  For those inclined towards philosophy, this film is indeed an important film—not for others. It all distils into a single quest for Gurdjieff—“I want to know why I am here.

An early episode in the film has young witnessing a competition of musicians with only one winner being able to get the hilly environs to respond unlike others with echoes that defeat logic. But music does become important to Gurdjieff as he grows up and encounters sages and religious personalities of varied hues across Central Asia, Iran, Egypt, India, and the Gobi Desert.  The Sufi dances and chants are indeed uplifting for any viewer (provided by Laurence Rosenthal adapting the compositions of Thomas de Hartmann, a student of Gurdjieff).

Sufi dances and music (composed by de Hartmann,
adapted by Rosenthal)

Not all of the film is heavy spirituality and metaphysics. Consider this interesting truism spoken by Gurdjieff partly in jest to a young friend intending to be a priest “My father used to say, if you want to lose your faith, make friends with a priest.

There are sequences in the film that provoke the viewer to sift belief in religion from sham—such as the Yazidi child who seems imprisoned in a chalk circle with an invisible cage above it. It takes a rationalist Gurdjieff to erase a section of the circle and child walks out free of the imaginary bars. In another sequence, a village population is unnerved when they find a dead man who they thought was dead and buried, lying on a cot in the centre of the village. A village elder emerges, slits the throat of the dead body, and the village population is subsequently shown relieved and happy.  Is the village elder, one of the remarkable men in Gurdjieff’s life?

What the film does definitely indicates as remarkable men include the Prince Lubovedsky (Terrence Stamp), dervishes, a certain Father Giovanni, and a spiritual stranger who tells the Prince in the company of Gurdjieff “I advise you to die, consciously, of the life you led up to now and go where I shall indicate.” Gurdjieff does interact again with the Prince much later in time who by then has apparently found his spiritual answers in a secluded monastery with Sufi life-styles, dances, and strict regimen.

Brook’s film includes a sandstorm from which Gurdjieff and his friends survive by standing on stilts while animals and all life forms below their feet are swept away.  More than a sandstorm it is a metaphor for a contemplative viewer to absorb all the rich symbols in the film. Towards the end of the film, there is a risky high-elevation bridge crossing—another metaphor captured by Brook with some theatrical elan.

Mind games: A risky high-elevation rope-bridge crossing by Gurdjieff
(Dragan Maksimovic), with no barriers of support on the sides

A character called Father Giovanni (played by Tom Fleming, who had played a similar priest in the 1971 film Mary, Queen of Scots) counsels Gurdjieff thus “Faith cannot be given to me. Faith is not the result of thinking. It comes with direct knowledge. Thinking and knowing are quite different.”

For Brook and for Gurdjieff, remarkable men are quite diverse. Some are obvious, some are not. It is quite possible for viewers of Brook’s Meetings with Remarkable Men to wonder in retrospect, who the remarkable men could have been.  For this critic, they were all remarkable: a musician who could make hills respond, a village chieftain who could slit the throat of a dead man and a stranger who knew intimate facts of a Prince’s life.  A strange film with a stranger central figure.  Yet, a rewarding viewing for a reflective viewer.

P.S. The author saw the film at the 1980 Bangalore Filmotsav sitting next to the legendary former Indian Cricket Team Captain, the late Nawab of Pataudi, Jr (Mansour Ali Khan Pataudi), who to the best of the author’s knowledge only watched this particular film at the festival and apparently had prior knowledge of the subject of the film, having travelled from New Delhi to far away Bengaluru (former Bangalore). The author attended a lecture by Mr Brook on his views on theatre given to a select audience in Delhi in 1981, which resulted in a long article by the author, published in The Hindustan Times. The film Meetings with Remarkable Men competed at the 1979 Berlin Film Festival but did not win any award.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

224. Indian director Rahul Jain’s debut, long-documentary film “Machines” (2016): Hard-hitting and real perspective of modern India

India produces some of the world’s most attractive textiles that contribute to making lives in India and elsewhere colourful and comfortable-- whether it be the clothes one wears or the cloth-based furnishings in one’s dwellings. Few realize the oppressive conditions in which textile printing workers in India toil to make the lives of billions of diverse people across the world happy and content. Machines and human beings together contribute to those lovely printed textiles. The contribution of human beings in the process is rarely in the limelight. Toiling within dingy factories, these human beings gradually become dehumanized and mechanical in their actions in their sheer desperation to earn a regular income to keep themselves afloat above the abject line of hunger and poverty. They become machines not out of choice but more from a lack of choice.

Film director Rahul Jain’s honest perspective is not focussed on the machines that manufacture and print the textiles but more on the faceless tens of thousands of workers, exploited and dehumanized to work like machines for extended work hours, deprived of basic rights of hygiene, medical safety, statutory limitations of working hours and legal age and, of course, fair compensation for their time and toil. The film Machines underscores the no-win situation of migrant workers within India caught between poverty and survival, in the clutches of heartless contractors and factory owners, who spin profits for themselves sitting in contrasting distant cosy comfort.

Cinematography ( Rodrigo Villanueva) picked up two
important international awards

Machines has won several accolades worldwide.  Apart from winning the Golden Eye award at the Zurich Film Festival in 2017 for the Best International Documentary Film, it picked up the cinematography award at the Sundance film festival, the Silver Gateway award at the Mumbai film festival, the best cinematography award of the International Documentary Association and three awards/prizes at the Thessaloniki documentary festival.   What is it that makes Machines tick?

Diegetic sound recorded and mixed by the Indo-German crew
is laudable

Machines could have been made in diverse ways.  Mr Jain could have opted to make a film contrasting machines and human beings with music matching the visuals on the lines of the Dutch maestro Bert Haanstra’s 11-minute Oscar-winning wordless sublime film Glass (1958) on the Dutch glass factories. Jain’s film consciously does not use music—his attempt was not to capture the beauty, but the sweat and grime of the workers much in contrast with the workers in Europe. Machines could have been made without words to mirror the French director Louis Malle’s Humain, Trop Humain (Human, all too human) (1974), which is roughly the same length as Machines. That French film looked at the Citroen automobile factories in France and compared the human workers with the machines on the assembly line without words spoken except for brief pitches of the sales staff selling the cars.  There are commonalities between Jain’s and Malle’s film: same length, human workers who appear and work like machines, and no music. The big difference in Machines compared to the two European filmmakers is that the punch of the Indian film comes from the honest spoken lines of the workers captured by the camera replacing the silence of the European works. Malle probably thought that he conveyed a lot by choosing as the title of his film to be same as Nietzche’s last book which appeared to revise all his earlier written works. But little did Malle realize that all filmgoers need not be as well read as he was to make the bigger connection beyond what was obvious within the film’s visuals and sounds of the factory.

Spoken words matter in the film

Words when spoken in Machines sock you on the jaw. The workers have fled their villages because incomes from crops are undependable compared to grimy, sleep-deprived, and low-paid work that in sharp contrast can be depended on as steady income.   It is steady as long as you don’t upset the apple cart by protesting the raw deal meted out by the contractors and the factory owners.
The few spoken words are stronger than the visuals. The workers state they have never seen the factory’s owners—but the owners watch them on closed circuit TV in comfortable offices.  The workers can’t afford to buy cigarettes and instead ingest the cheaper semi-dry mix of raw tobacco and slaked lime locally called khaini while the factory owner ironically justifies the low wages as being more than double of what it was 10 years before, especially when workers were comparatively more committed to their work than today, casting a blind eye to the rising costs of living. (Khaini is proven to be injurious to health as much as it is to work with chemicals and dyes without adequate physical protection.) Equally disturbing is the logic of a teenage boy (it is illegal for children to work in factories in India) who claims that working at his age would develop him into a superior and sharper worker when he grows up compared to others who didn’t have his experience.  Or of another boy who reaches the gates of the factory each day and wishes soon after entering it that he could run out of the factory from another gate but chooses not to. More disturbing are the statements of a worker that any potential unionist seeking better compensation and hygienic conditions would be knocked off, while fearfully looking over his shoulder if someone heard him make that statement.

A factory worker reminiscent of a
Thomas Hardy novel

The critical decision that goes in the favour of Machines is that the spoken words are not preceded by questions.  Questions don’t matter.  Those have to be imagined.  When the workers do ask inconvenient questions of the filmmakers, the answers too are not heard.  The film as the finished product is the answer.  The brief silence before the end credits is loud and punchy.

After hard labour, a brief nap in the factory

The crucial bit beyond making of the film was revealed by the young talented director—the film having won all the global awards is yet to be widely seen within India because it is awaiting a Censor Certificate from the Government.  Few can deal with truth, fewer with injustice. Economic growth for those who matter is the mantra of the day. If the film is indeed seen widely, the question asked by the workers at the end of the film would be answered. Nietzsche could be smiling in his grave.

P.S. Director Rahul Jain, who grew up near a family owned small textile mill in India  and studied in the US will soon be teaching at a prominent US University and hopefully continue to make hard hitting films. Terrence Malick used to teach at MIT. Both wear similar hats.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

223. Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 12th feature film “Sandome no satsujin” (The Third Murder) (2017): An amazing script and film less about a murder but more about why murders are committed and what is truth, presented by re-working the Rashomon principle.

ore than half a century ago the Japanese maestro Akira Kurosawa made a classic film Rashomon (1950) about a samurai’s death and the rape of the samurai’s wife.  Different versions of what transpired are narrated by different characters. Each version made the viewer ponder over which version indeed was the truth and why each personality concocted their own twisted perspective of the truth. Many filmgoers would be convinced the tale belonged to director Kurosawa but Kurosawa had merely adapted a tale written by the “father of the Japanese short story”—Ryunosuke Akutagawa for the screen, with considerable help from Kurosawa’s trusted scriptwriter Shinobu Hashimoto, who contributed significantly to six of Kurosawa’s most famous works, including the original story of Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952).

Nearly seven decades later, another Japanese director gives us a more complex film on similar lines to unravel the truth about a killing—with a major difference.  Unlike Kurosawa’s famous film that stood on the shoulders of a famous literary work, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s The Third Murder is based on Kore-eda’s own original tale and an evolved concept of filming.  The basic difference between the two outstanding Japanese directors is just that Kore-eda does not require the help of another co-scriptwriter and (with one exception) someone else’s story to make a film. He writes, edits, and even sometimes produces his own films—akin to the credentials of the late Italian director Ermanno Olmi, as in the case of his awesome The Tree of Wooden Clogs.

There are aspects of The Third Murder that can take a cinephile by surprise. First, the film shows a murder upfront. The viewer is shown the murderer and the victim.  Everything seems to be in place. The murderer is arrested and has apparently confessed to the crime, his third “murder.” A death sentence appears to be inevitable  As the film progresses, the motive, the event, and the players involved in the crime become fuzzy and less clear-cut as compared to the early part of the film. Why does the director/writer do that? Kore-eda reverses the conventional accepted narrative--the late Argentine director Fabian Bielinsky did achieve something similar in The Aura (2005).

The defence lawyer Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) (left)
meets his client Misumi (Koji Yakusho) (right) in prison
separated by glass

Some key lines spoken in the film are all laden with food for thought for any astute viewer of The Third Murder:
  1.    Some people in this world should never have been born”—stated by the ‘murderer’ Misumi  (Koji Yakusho)
  2.     Our legal strategy is the truth”—stated by the idealistic defence lawyer Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) and son of the very judge who had spared Misumi from a death sentence taking into account the murderer’s social and economic background and instead sent him to 30 years in prison
  3.    I am the one who should get judged”—stated by the murdered man’s daughter, Sakie (Suzu Hirose), school-girl, sexually molested by her father, who had gotten rich by intentionally mis-labelling the food product he sold
  4.   People’s lives get decided for them” —stated by the ‘murderer’ Misumi       
  5.  “He is an empty vessel”—lawyer Shigemori’s father and former judge view of the ‘murderer’ Misumi “Are you just a vessel?” —asked by lawyer Shigemori to his client the ‘murderer’ Misumi as his appreciation for Misumi grows, “What is a vessel?” –rhetorical question from the ‘murderer’ Misumi

Sakie (the murdered man's daughter) (Suzu Hiroze) notices the fake labelling
on her father's products

Let’s re-examine the above five quotes from the film.

Some people in this world should never have been born.” That statement could easily be applicable for a triple murderer.  In The Third Murder, the line is spoken by the murderer. He is referring to other types of low-life more despicable than murderers—fathers who rape their daughters, loan-sharks who lend money to the needy, women who pay money to have their husbands eliminated and live off the insurance money, businessmen who make money by intentionally mislabelling the product. But in case one thinks a murderer is indeed the more despicable person who should not have been born—do we study why the murder has happened? Was the murderer dispensing justice when there was none else to do so in the present society? Is the legal system perpetrating the third murder of the ‘murderer’ Misumi by sentencing him to death?  Or is Misumi or any economically deprived individual wishing he was never born in an unjust world where he cannot look after his own daughter for 30 years while he was incarcerated?

Our legal strategy is the truth.” The defence lawyer Shigemori believes that he can win cases by uncovering and presenting the truth. The film begins with Shigemori wanting to save his client from a death sentence by uncovering the truth. He first persuades his client to write a letter of apology to his victim’s family, which he does. Soon it is found out that the victim’s wife paid the murderer a large sum of money via a bank transfer in an incriminating email. Did Misumi kill for money? Did Misumi kill to avenge the violation of his victim’s daughter, who was as handicapped as his own? Was it murder for theft or a theft after murder? Was there someone else physically present during the murder? Any of these scenarios could save Misumi from the inevitable death penalty. He tells his lawyer that he is not guilty but refuses to say that in court as he possibly wants to protect his victim’s daughter. Is Misumi accepting a death sentence to protect someone?

Lawyer and client, after the verdict

I am the one who should get judged.” That’s a statement from the victim’s daughter, Sakie, an individual viewed by all as an indirect victim. Kore-eda even provides shots of blood on her face. The role of Sakie and her mother, remain open-ended and never fully revealed. As cinema evolves there is less spoon feeding of the viewer--the viewer has to join the dots.

The site of the opening murder sequence appears to be marked
by a visual cross marking where the charred murdered body lay 

The birds killed by Misumi are metaphorically
buried with a cross

People’s lives get decided for them.”  Kore-eda introduces the birds and the empty birdcage for metaphoric purpose.  Misumi had a lot of birds in his birdcage within his rented flat taken after his release from prison.  He killed all of them except one and buried the dead ones in a grave marked with a cross. He gave freedom to one bird and was hoping that the released bird would return to his cell window. Kore-eda appears to be indirectly questioning the existence of the theological “free will.”

Misumi hopes that the bird he released will return to his 
outstretched palm stuck out of  his prison window to eat the grains he is offering 

The obvious and enigmatic visual cross marks the position of the lawyer on the road
looking upwards--there is not an iota of religious matter spoken in the entire film

“Are you just a vessel?” The good defence lawyer is shaken by the client’s statements and actions. His client is gifted.  By bringing their palms together, with thick glass separating them, Misumi can find out that his lawyer has a daughter with whom he has not met.  The lawyer realizes that his client has much that deserves respect rather face execution.  Is he a vessel to teach us higher values than legal ones? Kore-eda’s film suggests many profound ideas without appearing to be ham-handed.

The lawyer Shigemuri meets up with his daughter,
whom he has neglected, after separating from his wife,
 in a restaurant

The Third Murder is an incredibly well-crafted tale seeking to divulge the truth but the viewer gets to realize how fuzzy and complicated the truth is—in a modern Rashomon twist. Kore-eda’s writing craft may be missed by many casual viewers.  The “murderer” Misumi has a daughter with a bad leg who he could not take care of during the 30 years he spent in jail. The murdered man also has a daughter with a bad leg. Finally, the defence lawyer Shigemori also has a daughter (with no deformities) but also lacking a caring father, as he is more interested in his career than in her after he has separated from her mother.  The visuals of  interaction between the prisoner and lawyer that are edited delectably and the music add to the quality of the strong screenplay, acting, and direction. Fascinating stuff, Mr Kore-eda! One of best Japanese films in recent years. 

P.S. The two films referred to within the above review--Olmi's The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978) and Bielinsky's The Aura (2005)--have been reviewed earlier on this blog. The film The Third Murder won six awards at the Japanese Academy in 2018, including awards for the best film, the best direction, the best screenplay and the best editing. The Third Murder is now included among the author's top 100 films ever made and the author's 15 most important films of the 21st century.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

222. Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky’s US film “Shy People” (1987): An original story/screenplay by the film’s director with notable performances and cinematography, all worthy of greater recognition than bestowed

To appreciate the nuanced merits of Shy People, the viewer would be better advised to know a bit about its Russian director and story-writer Andrei Konchalovsky. 

First, Konchalovsky is equally renowned as an original scriptwriter as he is as a director. Few are aware that Konchalovsky and Andrei Tarkovsky (who is now accepted worldwide as a cinematic maestro) were classmates in film school. Fewer are aware that three of Tarkovsky’s films (Tarkovsky’s diploma film made for his film school and two later celebrated feature films Andrei Rublyev and Ivan’s Childhood) were coscripted by Konchalovsky. Both these Russian directors are equally well-versed in Christian theology, a fact that most viewers not sufficiently exposed to that aspect will miss out on, in almost all their works. Konchalovsky, more than Tarkovsky, is more exposed and devoted to great writers (playwrights Chekov, Turgenev, Pushkin, Shakespeare and contemporary ones such as Tom Kempinsky, and novelist Dostoyevsky) and scripts and writings of the Japanese master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa (The Runaway Train) as is evident from his cinematic and dramatic output.  His interests and knowledge are staggering—music, sociology, politics, to mention a few but often Russia-centric.

Drugs and sex: the young girl from Manhattan, Grace (Martha Plimpton) woos
her "jailed" cousin Tommy (John Philbin)

There are three phases in his career—his pre-US output in film and theatre within Russia, his short-lived US career, and his current post-US work on his return to his native land. By any evaluation, his career in USA had its highs and its lows. Shy People is one of the three remarkable films made in this period, the other two being The Runaway Train and Maria’s Lovers. The weaker works of this period included the film version of Kempinsky’s play Duet for One, Homer and Eddie and the very commercial Tango and Cash (which Konchalovsky did not write but merely co-directed under intense interference by studio executives). A major contributing factor for the low popularity of Shy People was the demise of the Cannon film company, which coincided with that film’s completion and release. Shy People, after winning the Best Actress Award at Cannes, suffered a limited release within USA and no Oscar nomination. This is in sharp contrast with the success of The Runaway Train (a film that won a Golden Globe for Jon Voight as Best Actor and three Oscar nominations, and a nomination at Cannes), Duet for One (a Golden Globe nomination for actress Julie Andrews), and Homer and Eddie (winner of the best film award at the San Sebastian International Film festival). Thus even the bad films of the uneven US period actually resulted in critical recognition, with the exception of Tango and Cash.

The post-US phase that began in 1991 has resulted in higher international acclaim for Konchalovsky.  Two of his films in this phase (The Postman’s White Nights and Paradise) have won the Best Director award and a third (House of Fools) a Grand Jury Prize at the Venice film festival.

A prison within a house, created by a mother for a son Tommy (John Philbin),
while his mentally challenged brother Paul (Pruitt Taylor Vince) is free to roam 

Thus, Shy People, which was to be his final film of his US phase, uncannily anticipates his eventual return to Russia, because there are several elements in the film that are very Russian for a keen observer. What is Russian in Shy People, one might ask? If you knew the basic information on the director and a little bit of Stalin’s Russia, the huge portrait in the living room of the Sullivans has an unmistakable resemblance to Joseph Stalin. Joseph and Joe (the film’s character) are other hints.  The fictional character of Joe closely resembles the famed brutality of the Russian dictator. The isolation of the fictional Louisiana family in the bayou devoid of friends and technological progress complete with a prison within the compound of the house would bring back memories of Stalinist Soviet Union with its penal colonies in Serbia. A Konchalovsky devotee who has seen his much later work The Postman’s White Nights (2014) made in the post-Stalinist, post-Glasnost Russia that reprises the lonely and sometimes scary boat rides of the Louisiana bayou after a 30-year gap will wonder at how his mind was focused on life in his homeland while he filmed in USA and how he transposes the filmed imagery in USA to modern Russia.  The basic statement in both films remain the same—some people live in a time warp removed from scientific progress rubbing shoulders with good people and bad people, essentially carbon copies in both countries. Both films give a lot of importance to memories, metaphorically presented as photographs of the past—the 2014 film begins with such a sequence, while Shy People includes it in the middle. In Shy People there are townsfolk in smaller US towns living in awe of color TV programs, while in The Postman’s White Nights there are isolated rural communities, the inhabitants of which are ironically penalized for fishing in their nearby waterbodies while influential military personnel can do that without restraint and Russia continues to send vehicles into space in a facility not far removed from them.

  Barabara Hershey as Ruth (left) and Jill Clayburgh as Diana (right) are cousins
meeting for the first time. The jewelry, hats, clothes and demenor are
contrasting. Looking on is Ruth's mentally challenged son Paul (Vince).

Shy People is a lovely essay on family relationships contrasting the stronger binding forces in rural, isolated communities to the weaker, cosmopolitan urban communities—here Louisiana’s bayou versus the freedom of the upper crust living in Manhattan in New York. Two mothers are contrasted from the two different represented geographies, both dealing with wayward offspring.  One mother is religious and indirectly quotes a passage from the Bible’s book of Revelations on being “lukewarm and not being hot or cold.” There is no mention of religion in the spoken passage, but the director is able put it in context by adding the end-quote at the end of the film, soon after the urban mother decides to be “hot” (taking assertive control) about influencing her wayward but intelligent daughter on the flight back home to New York

The end-quote appearing in the night sky through the
aircraft window on the return flight

  “I know thy work, and thou art neither cold nor hot; I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth” Revelations 3: 15-16
The choice of names by scriptwriter Konchalovsky seems to be deliberate and alludes to Biblical characters, e.g., Ruth in the film and the Bible, while Diana is very Greek and non-Biblical. The three sons of Ruth have Biblical names. Both Tarkovsky and Konchalovsky reflect their spiritual beliefs in their films, often deliberately.

For those who are familiar with Russian films, the importance of the bonding between mother and her offspring recurs with poetic flourish in Aleksandr Sokurov’s masterpiece Mother and Son (1997) and way back in the silent era with Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother (1926). Sokurov explored connected subjects—grandmother and grandson in Aleksandra (2007) and father and son in Father and Son (2003). A recent Cannes award-winning film Closeness (2017) deals with the reverse—the bonding between a daughter and her parents.

A casual viewer of Shy People is likely to dismiss the film for being unrealistic—which it is, in some ways. Can a writer of Cosmopolitan magazine throw her weight around in a small town in Louisiana and influence the local police? Can a woman injure a man in public with a gun wound and get away with it? Is it a ghost story or is it not?

Repeated viewings of the film will reveal the depths of the film and magical combination of inspired acting (Barbara Hershey and Jill Clayburgh, in particular), the cinematography of Chris Menges, the art direction/production design of Leslie McDonald, the music of Tangerine Dream,  and the director’s script. This is a masterpiece of American cinema, crying to be discovered and acknowledged as such and definitely a Konchalovsky gem ranking alongside his The Runaway Train made two years earlier.


P.S. Shy People is one of the author’s top 100 films. It won the best actress award for Barbara Hershey at the Cannes Film Festival. Several films mentioned in the above review, the US film The Runaway Train (1985) and the Russian films The Postman’s White Nights (2014) and Paradise (2016) have been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the name of the film in this post-script for a quick access to those reviews on this blog.) Thankfully, the film has been uploaded on Youtube by a kind soul making it available for wider viewing.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

221. Bulgarian director Stephan Komandarev’s film “Posoki” (Directions) (2017): Has God indeed left Bulgaria along with a third of its population, to quote a character in the film?

Directions could be described as Central Europe’s companion piece to the celebrated Argentine 2014 black comedy and film anthology Wild Tales. Both are portmanteau films that deal with contemporary economic and social concerns of the middle class in their respective global geographies. Both films make you laugh at times, only to present a more somber appraisal of reality. 

There is a virtual bond between Stephen Komandarev and Argentine director Damian Szifron, even though they might not have met each other or even seen each other’s works. While Szifron’s film gave us six stand-alone original tales written by the film director himself, Komandarev’s film is about six taxi drivers’ diverse actions as they drive their taxis in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia, also original tales co-scripted by the Bulgarian director with Simeon Ventsislavov.  Szifron’s Argentine film, in the director own words, was about “law abiding citizens who face difficulty in making money and do so many things we are not interested in…a lot of people get depressed and some explode and this is a film about those who explode.” Komandarev’s film, too, is about some people who “explode” and some others who choose alternate solutions, when faced with economic and social difficulties in leading an honest life, by helping those who need help, whether it is humans or animals, and even undertaking a second unrelated occupation to make ends meet.

Trying to resolve financial problems in ways he knows best

US film director Jim Jarmusch had made a somewhat parallel film in 1991 presenting five taxi drivers in five cities in a film called Night on Earth. Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi used the same template in his 2015 film Taxi with a single taxi driver (Panahi himself) interacting with various customers in Teheran.

Directions is a film that presents the sad reality of Bulgaria’s post-Communist, post-Glasnost society, where the pessimists have fled the country for greener pastures and the optimists have stayed on, despite growing corruption, rising costs of living and persistent  Communist mentality of the past. People work hard to earn honest wages–yet they suffer heart attacks and end up leading lonely lives. Prostitution is rampant as young girls want to live on the fast lane despite elders advising them to change.

A schoolgirl takes a ride

All the taxi drivers in Directions drive their taxis due to their economic and social compulsions.  One of the taxi drivers is a middle-aged woman whose economic plight might have hinged on an event during her university days when she refused the sexual advances of a man who a decade later is wealthy and based in Austria but fails to recognize her in the present avatar of the taxi driver. Another is an Orthodox priest driving a taxi in the night to augment his income, an unusual scenario elsewhere in the world. One might laugh at certain situations the film’s script offers but overall the film is pessimistic with a dash of religion thrown in. Even the dead drive taxis in this film, in the epilogue.

From start to finish, the underlying commentary is on earning money to survive in modern Bulgaria. A taxi driver uses his wiles to stop a man who has called his taxi for a ride before attempting  to jump off a bridge, ostensibly to get his precious fare that would be lost if the man does jump off.  But the segment reveals other unusual contemporary social problems—the man is a philosophy teacher living alone whose students have made fun of him on Facebook that leads him to think of ending his life.  What follows are uplifting and witty interactions between him and the taxi driver. The film Directions proves that the Bulgarian taxi drivers have a heart of gold and are not merely focused on making money.

Loneliness, poverty, Facebook and a taxi driver make an interesting cocktail
in this suicide attempt

Unlike most European films, Bulgarian cinema gives a lot of importance to family ties. A father lives for his daughter’s future. One episode of the film is on a father bemoaning the loss of his son, a loss he cannot tide over. He projects his love for his dead son by feeding a stray dog each night.

...and taxi drivers who take revenge for what led them to a life of a taxi driver

There are suicidal characters. There are characters who commit adultery. There are others who take revenge on those who have made their life miserable in the distant past (as in the opening segment of Wild Tales).  Opposing the negativism are the generous individuals who drive taxis in Sofia not merely for money but extending a helping hand when required to those in trouble—young school girls, old and sick bachelors who need medical and financial help, and suicidal teachers with little or no family to fall back on during stress.

Taxi drivers who help the sick and lonely to reach their destinations

Komandarev’s film strings the beads of the stand-alone episodes in a commendable manner to give us a lovely Bulgarian necklace, unlike its Argentine counterpart. The first episode ends with a taxi driver that is brain dead. Many of the later episodes have other taxi drivers listening to the news of that unfortunate incident. Another middle episode has a taxi driver taking a famous heart surgeon rushing to undertake a last operation in Bulgaria before he emigrates to greener pastures. Later in the film, you have a unemployed and lonely baker having to call a taxi to take him to hospital where he has been told they have a heart available for transplant that would suit him. The viewer has to string the not-so-obvious beads of the necklace.

Taxi drivers who care about stray animals as much as their own family

Where does religion fit into all this? At the obvious level, there is an Orthodox priest moonlighting as a taxi driver with a cross dangling on his chest.  The epilogue of the dead taxi driver continuing his trade and caring for his daughter after death is another. The interesting philosophical conversation between the priest-turned-taxi-driver and his passenger on the way to get a new heart at the hospital is a highlight of the film.

An Orthodox priest moonlights as a taxi driver

More than religion, it is the sad state of Bulgarian family life that is laid bare. Husbands cheat on wives. Many men lead lonely lives of bachelorhood. School girls grow up in the absence of their biological mothers and some take to prostitution. And yet unlike other parts of Europe, Directions seem to be a soulful cry from those who have stayed put in Bulgaria wistfully harking back to their social and religious traditions of old, amidst the ruins.

P.S. Directions is one of the author’s top 10 films of 2017. It won the best screenplay award at the Gijon International Film Festival and was picked to participate in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival. Two films mentioned in the above review, the Argentine film Wild Tales (2014) and the Iranian film Taxi (2015) have been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the name of the film in this post-script for a quick access to those reviews on this blog.)

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Russian maestro Aleksandr Sokurov speaks to Jugu Abraham on Grigori Kozintsev and Andrei Tarkovsky, titans of Russian cinema

Background note on Russian filmmakers Sokurov and Kozintsev

Russian film director Aleksandr Sokurov (66) is famous for diverse reasons. Some recall his experimental feature film Russian Ark (2002) filmed in a single, unedited 90-minute shot with over 2000 actors in elaborate costumes and 3 live orchestras exploring several sections of the Hermitage museum in Saint Petersburg (Leningrad). Some recall his more recent feature film Faust (2011), honoured with the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The late film critic Susan Sontag, while including two Sokurov feature films among her 10 favorite films of the 1990s, stated “There is no director active today whose films I admire so much.” Musician Nick Cave, in an interview published in the British newspaper “The Independent,” revealed “I wept and wept from start to finish” on viewing Sokurov’s Mother and Son (1997), a poetic experimental feature film with minimal spoken lines.

In 1998, Sokurov made a documentary called Saint Petersburg Diary: Kozintsev’s Flat. It is indeed rare that a famous filmmaker makes a film on another filmmaker’s lodgings. Russian film maestro Grigori Kozintsev’s (1905-73) directorial career spanned both the silent and the sound era of film. Kozintsev is renowned for his two black-and-white Shakespeare films Hamlet (1964) and King Lear (1971)--his last films--made in collaboration with friend and composer Dimitri Shostakovich and Nobel Prize winning novelist Boris Pasternak.  The silent 1929 Kozintsev film, The New Babylon, co-directed by Leonid Trauberg, had Soviet film directors Vsevolod Pudovkin and Sergei Gerasimov as actors, and composer Shostakovich providing music. The film and the intended music for the silent film ran into problems with the Soviet censors who demanded over 20% cuts before its domestic release, as the film was an obvious avant garde, anti-war film.  A slightly longer version was released in 1983 in Russia without Shostakovich’s music. However, the restored “original length” version became available in 2010, long after the filmmakers and the composer  had died. This was because a nitrate print of the film’s uncut length was found intact with Cinematheque Suisse (Switzerland) to which the Shostakovich’s music was finally added as originally intended.  (Shostakovich had apparently refused to add his music to the earlier truncated versions of the film approved by the censors.)

The neglected and hungry soldier in Kozintsev's The New Babylon (1929)

Cordelia and Lear interact towards the end of Kozintsev's King Lear (1971)

Subsequent to his travails with The New Babylon, Kozintsev made his Maxim trilogy during Stalin’s regime. The police commissioner of Detroit, Michigan, USA acting as censor, banned Kozintsev's Youth of Maxim (1935)—the first part of the Maxim trilogy--in the Thirties as being "pure Soviet propaganda and likely to instil class hatred of the existing government and social order of the United States." That ban was short-lived.

The Sokurov interview with Jugu Abraham, author of the blog Movies that Make You Think,  Dec 2017

Sokurov was not merely an admirer of Kozintsev but equally of the later film maestro Andrei Tarkovsky. Intriguingly, Tarkovsky never discussed Kozintsev in his writings on filmmaking. Indian film critic Jugu Abraham interviewed Sokurov with the aid of an interpreter in Trivandrum, India, where Sokurov was being honoured in December 2017 with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the International Film Festival of Kerala. The resulting interview revealed a lot about Kozintsev, Sokurov and Tarkovsky, three major filmmakers, active in different decades of Russian film history, with unusual linkages.

Alexandr Sokurov (right) with Jugu Abraham,
after the interview (December 2017)

The interview:

Q.  I was intrigued that you made a documentary film on director Grigori Kozintsev’s flat. What made you pick up the subject?  Was it your interest in Kozintsev as a filmmaker? Did he have an influence on you? Did you like his way of filmmaking?

A. I was much, much younger than Kozintsev, so I never met him. But I was a very good friend of his widow. I visited her house many times.  When I used to visit her there, often there were routine problems in the flat like repairing a leaking pipe and I would help her with the repairs. So we had a very good heart-warming relationship. For the most part, all the Soviet directors liked Kozintsev because he was a truly honest person. He would never betray anyone. He was a moral authority for Soviet filmmakers. Kozintsev was the only person who truly defended Andrei Tarkovsky when he was under fire from the Soviet Government. Kozintsev’s film adaptations of Shakespeare were outstanding. Nobody in the world ever made films that way. 

Q.  You knew Andrei Tarkovsky very well.  I noted that Tarkovsky never mentions Kozintsev in his extensive writings on cinema. Do you know why?

A. That is too bad that Andrei forgot to mention this great director in his writings, a man who was always helping him. It happens with many great filmmakers. They forget to mention the most important person who helped them. It is very bad, that’s too bad.

Q. Did Kozintsev’s filmmaking influence you?

A. I can’t say he influenced me directly because he had his own style and I have my own style. But everyone appreciated his level of professionalism.  There were many directors in the world at that level at that time. What is important is that Kozintsev was able to adapt western and historical concepts in Soviet cinema, and in that sense, outstanding.  Unfortunately, he was in so many ways controlled by Soviet censors. It was a big obstacle for him and this prevented him from creating many films he wanted to make.

Q. Do you have any opinions about Kozintsev’s directorial partner on his early silent films, Leonid Trauberg?

A. Kozintsev worked with Trauberg when he was very young. For me, Kozintsev’s best films were made when he worked alone, when he was older. With Trauberg, we can only connect with the beginnings of his career. Kozintsev’s collaboration with Trauberg speaks a lot about the director; that he was able to cooperate with and be in continuous dialogue with another important director, film after film. Not many directors are able to do that.

Q. Just like Kozintsev, you have taken a lot of interest in literature and in photography. Do you see that as a commonality?

A. The difference is that Kozintsev’s interest in literature and photography was evident towards the end of his life, while for me literature and photography was important from the very beginning. Kozintsev started as a revolutionary. He believed in radical art connected with socialism. This affected his earlier career. When he got rid of his childish diseases, he started to think differently.

Q. He is the only Soviet director who had his films banned briefly both in Soviet Russia and in USA ...

A. No, his films were not banned in Soviet Russia.. I don’t know about USA.

Q. I am referring to his silent film The New Babylon (1929).

A. Ah, yes. But that film was allowed to be shown later. Kozintsev was always among the top five Soviet directors like Eisenstein, Pudovkin and others. He was always considered as a classic director during his life-time. As film students, we all knew about this great director who lived in Leningrad (St. Petersburg). He had a good salary and quite a big apartment. He was never forgotten.

Q.  You had once stated that cinema cannot achieve what a novel or a painting can achieve. Could you elaborate?

A. Cinema is too concerned, too worried about showing everything, every detail. Unlike literature where there is an element of absence of the author in the work, everything is never totally said; there is always a mystery until the very, very end. In cinema, even though we try to present details, we are never able to show a person in the way a writer can.

(Though Sokurov would have been happy to answer more questions, his accompanying Russian managers insisted he had other commitments.  For those interested, the restored uncut 2010 version of Kozintsev’s The New Babylon is available free to view on "Youtube.")

The unforgettable sequence from the restored
version of Kozintsev's  The New Babylon (1929)

P.S. The author's in-depth reviews of Kozintsev's King Lear (1971) and The New Babylon (1929), Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972) and Mirror (1975), and Sokurov's Faust (2011) were posted on this blog earlier.. (Click on the name of the film in this postscript to access the specific review.)

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

220. Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof’s “Lerd” (A Man of Integrity) (2017), based on his original story/script: A very critical and philosophical look at corruption and religious intolerance in Iran today

 "Early on, this film introduces us to many different facets of its main character's life that barely seem to relate. Gradually and powerfully, the script teases out the connections, all of which culminate in a haunting finale. This structure requires patience and discipline from its writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof. In a festival full of modern spins on film noir, he gives us one of the best, set in an unlikely place."
---Citation for the film’s Silver Hugo award for its screenplay at the Chicago Film Festival 2017

Director Mohammad Rasoulof’s A Man of Integrity is a laudable film from Iran, describing corruption and religious intolerance in the Islamic Republic. It deservedly won the 2017 Cannes Film Festival’s  Un certain regard award. While both Rasoulof and his contemporary Jafar Panahi have been found guilty of anti-regime propaganda and jailed for 5 years in 2011, they continue to make films within Iran that end up as international award winning films.  How do they make films when they are supposed to be jailed or having a jail sentence looming over them? How is this famous duo able to film in the open streets of Iranian towns and cities so frequently, unless the Republic implicitly approves the fame the duo gets for their country?  Whatever be the reason, films such as A Man of Integrity are truly courageous. Several prominent and award-winning films made in 2017 deal with corruption in various parts of the world; this is one of the very best in that category.

The idyllic world of an educated hardworking Iranian family:
Hadis (Soudabeh Beizaee), Reza (Reza Akhlaghirad), and their son at home

A Man of Integrity is a fictional film about an educated couple from Tehran who decide to live away from the city, buy land and a house on mortgage in a small town and make a clean living by hard work. Reza, the husband, envisages a career of growing and harvesting goldfish on a fish farm while his wife Hadis works as a principal of a girls’ secondary school. They have a school-going son. Hadis has close relatives who live nearby.  Their idyllic dream is slowly wrecked by a “company” run by well-placed goons who wants them evicted to acquire their land at very low price by creating escalating problems for Reza.  The viewer learns that Reza is not the only one bullied by the “company” who have the law and local administration supporting their misdeeds. They even have motorcycle riders wearing black jackets who ride ominously after conducting acts of arson. Those affected by the company’s strong arm tactics are scared, remain mute, and suffer. The details of the “company” and its activities are never revealed; it does not matter. The only problem for the “company’s” long-term plan is that Reza is educated, smart, and resolute in his will to survive and live as he had originally dreamt of living with his family.  The events that transpire in the film are similar to the events of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film Leviathan—only the outcome is remarkably different. In both films, evictions of a family to acquire land by the corrupt form the basic tale.  The connection between the corrupt administration and religious forces also figure in both films.

Reza mulls over future steps to take as he waits for his wife Hadis

The original script of Rasoulof is not just about corruption in Iran but equally about principled folks using corruption to fight the bigger evil forces in a battle for survival. It provides interesting twists where the man who stands for principles cleverly uses bribes and tricks to get back at the corrupt forces. Similarly, his wife Hadis uses her wiles and power within her school to hit back at the corrupt forces encircling her husband’s life.  There are sequences in the film where the man who is principled surreptitiously creates hooch by fermenting watermelon juice in a country where liquor is forbidden to be produced by or imbibed by orthodox Muslims.

A Man of Integrity is a film that presents the world of corruption in Iran. Foisting of false cases on innocent individuals for economic gain by the corrupt is not new.  House searches by hoodlums stating they have complaints by the local religious bodies are a new twist, though such psychological pressure tactics occur beyond Iran. That dead members of non-Islamic families are not allowed to be buried in designated cemeteries is another form of persecution. School kids of families of non-Islamic faiths are not allowed to continue their studies, forcing families to relocate. Bribing the corrupt somehow works in Iran at all levels.

Dead goldfish--more than a fish, a metaphor of the socio-political scenario 

Many casual viewers will miss out on the importance of goldfish in Iranian films. Panahi’s debut film The White Balloon and his later work Taxi deal with characters engrossed with this species of fish. In Iran, on their New Year's Day (Navruz/Novroze) a live goldfish is an important facet to the celebrations, just as a turkey is for Thanksgiving Day in USA. It is not a mere home aquarium attraction. Even Majid Majidi’s Song of Sparrows have goldfish as an important part of the film. Goldfish for Iranians is a symbol of good luck and/or an indicator of better times.

But the film A Man of Integrity, like the Russian film Leviathan, is not about corruption but how corruption affects men of integrity, whether they win or lose their fight.  The Iranian film presents an ending that will make any sensible viewer about whether men of integrity, boldness and cleverness actually win.  The interesting end of A Man of Integrity will provide the viewer a philosophical question on integrity for the astute viewer. That is where Rasoulof scores over compatriot Panahi—his films ask you the viewer to step back from the obvious story and look at the larger universal question—can you ultimately win?

P.S. The film A Man of Integrity  won the best film award within the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival; and the Silver Hugo for the best screenplay at the Chicago Film festival. Rasoulof’s earlier feature film Good Bye (2011) has been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the name of the film in this post script to access that review.) A Man of Integrity is one of the top 10 films of 2017 for the author. Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film Leviathan (2014), referred to in this review, has been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the name of the film in this post-script to access its review on this blog.)