Monday, December 24, 2007
51. Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev's second film "Izgnanie (The Banishment)" (2007): A director challenges the intelligent viewer
Andrei Zvyagintsev's second film The Banishment, if evaluated closely, could arguably be as interesting as his first film The Return, if not better. Both relate to related concepts "Father" and "Love/Absence of Love." In both films, there are few words spoken. In both films nature plays a major role as any of the characters on screen--streams that dry up come back into life, winds lap the tree leaves to a sing a song of their own making, mists and rain provide graphic punctuation to the tale. Towards the end of the film, again we nature providing harvest of grain. In The Banishment, the camera constantly capture the wedding rings of Alex and Vera, husband and wife, but shows brother Mark does not wear one. The photographs and the conversations bring Alex's father into perspective. Thus, the film introduces three crucial relationships--husband and wife, brother and brother, father and son (Alex/Kir and Alex/Alex's father).
Evaluating The Banishment is akin to completing a challenging crossword puzzle. You would agree with this unusual comparison if you have seen The Return. To begin The Return was not based on a novel. This one is. That, too, a William Saroyan novel—The Laughing Matter. Yet the director is not presenting us with Saroyan's novel on the screen. He develops the wife as a woman "more sinn'd against than sinning," while in the novel she is mentally unstable. Understandably, the director decides to drop the Saroyan title. Thus the words "I am going to have a child. It's not yours" provides two utterly distinct scenarios depending on whether the woman who speaks those words to her husband is a saintly person or a mentally unhinged woman. The change in the character of the wife by the director opens a totally new perspective to the Saroyan story—a tool that contemporary filmmakers frequently use, not to wreck literary works, but creatively revive interest in the possibilities a change in the original work provides.
Viewers, familiar with the plethora of Christian symbolism in The Return, will in The Banishment spot the painting on which the children play jigsaw is one of an angel visiting Mary, mother of Jesus, to reveal that she will give birth even if she is a virgin. This shot is followed by a black kitten walking across the painting. Soon the forced abortion operation at the behest of the husband begins on Vera, the wife in Zvyagintsev's film. By the end of the film, the viewer will realize that the director had left a clue for the viewer—not through conventional character development using long conversations. The Banishment is representative of contemporary cinema provoking viewers to enjoy cinema beyond the story by deciphering symbols strewn around amongst layers of meaning structured within the screenplay.
As usual, the cinema of director Zvyagintsev is full of allusions to the Bible. This is the third famous film that refers to a single abstract chapter in the Bible on love: 1 Corinthians Chapter 13. In The Banishment the chapter is read by the neighbors' daughters. In Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blue, the musical score is linked at the end of the film to a choral musical piece that uses the words "If I have not love, I am nothing" from the same Biblical chapter commenting indirectly on communication breakdown between husband and wife and the slow and painful reconciliation with the husband's lover. Ingmar Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly is a phrase on taken from the same chapter of the Bible, a film also on lack of communication and love between father and son, husbands and wives. The banishment alludes to the banishment of Adam from the Garden of Eden represented in the film by the anti-hero's tranquil family house, far from the inferred socio-political turbulence elsewhere. The jigsaw puzzle depicting an angel appearing to Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, alludes that both Vera's child and Virgin Mary's child are not born out of sin. It indicates to the viewer that wife was innocent. Even to the selection of classical music Bach's Magnificat or the Song of Virgin Mary is not out of context.
While the story and structure of The Return is easier to comprehend, The Banishment is more complex. The first half of the film entices the viewer to reach the wrong conclusions. The Father is correct, the wife is wrong. The second half of the film surprises the viewer as all assumptions of the viewer made from the preceding episodes are turned topsy-turvy. Men are arrogant, egotistical and father children without love. There is no love in the silent train journey of the family while the wife is looking at her husband with love. Like Kieslowski's Blue, the woman, though having less screen time in the movie, appears stronger than the man—and in an apt epilogue it shows women (harvesting a field), who are singing a song of hope and regeneration.
A supposed major flaw noted by critics is the lack of character development. In this film, Zvyagintsev progresses from the earlier film to develop characters using silent journeys (lack of communication) and misconstruing reality ("child is not ours"), recalling the basic structure of the storyline of the director's first film. Actually Zvyagintsev progresses in this second film by extending the relationship of "Father and children" in the first film, to "Father and Mother" in the second. In the first film, children do not understand the father; in the second, the father does not understand his wife. When he does it is too late, just as the kids in the first film of the director. This is a film that requires several viewings to savor its many ingredients of photography, music (of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt) , and screenplay writing. Zvyagintsev is not merely copying legendary directors Tarkovsky (sudden rains, the winds, and the similar choice of music), Bergman and Kieslowski (theological inquiries)—he is exploring new territories by teasing his viewer to "suspend his/her belief" and constantly re-evaluate what was shown.
The lead actor, Konstantin Lavronenko, playing the role of Alex deservedly won the Best Actor award at Cannes Film Festival in The Banishment. Director Zvyagintsev's fans will recall the same actor had played the father of the two young boys in Zvyagintsev's first film The Return. This Russian director has proven that he is one of the finest living filmmakers with a modest tally of just two films that has won him over 20 international awards, including the Golden Lion at Venice, already. What an achievement!
P.S. The films The Return, Blue, and Through a Glass Darkly were reviewed earlier on this blog.