Sunday, July 29, 2007

40. Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Dekalog, siedem (Decalogue 7)" (1989): Stealing as a metaphor


The brilliant Polish director--whom I had the good fortune to meet in Bangalore at an International Film Festival in 1982--made a series of ten 1-hour long short films, each dedicated to one of the Ten Commandments, handed down to Moses from God. These are commandments given to a man venerated by Christians, Muslims and Jews. Decalogue 7 naturally deals with the Seventh Commandment--"Thou shall not steal." (This is often listed as the Seventh commandment for Roman Catholics and Lutherans, while it is listed as the Eighth commandment for the Jews and Orthodox Christians). Kieslowski and his co-scriptwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz (both Roman Catholics, and hence Decalogue 7, not 8) weave a modern day story that entertains, while asking disturbing and provoking questions--theological, social and psychological--of the viewer.

The film can be evaluated at several levels. It offers several layers of meaning, teasing the viewer as it progresses.

Kidnapping your own daughter from the ownership of your mother is a bizarre situation. Two women want to own a young child--the biological mother and the grandmother who yearned to "suckle" another. Interestingly the script looks at three generations of the same sex. The males seem to be the outsiders, yet balanced in comparison to the females in the movie.

"Thou shall not steal" is the commandment that is apparently broken. The film leads you to believe that the mother has "kidnapped" her own child. The film seems to argue quite elegantly that the real thief is the grandparent not the "kidnapping" mother. The "kidnapping" is symbolic--the police is mentioned not seen. The law presented in the film is moral one, not a civil one. In the end, it is the natural affection the child yearns for that is stolen, not by an individual but by circumstances (the state?).Is this a veiled criticism of Poland, the effect of communism on the young emerging democracy? What would have happened if the "stealing" within and without the movie did not take place? The film begins with the sound of the child crying that can be heard outside the walls of the house; the film ends with the silent cry of the child in the open, without walls and yet the cry cannot be heard, only seen (harking back to Rod Steiger's silent cry at the end of The Pawnbroker). Is fleeing to Canada (read: Western capitalism) a better option than staying back in the overgrown, ummowed gardens (with dilapidated merry-go-rounds) of Poland? Is making teddy bears a better life than taking care of your child? Is he making an argument for "stealing" becoming honorable for the cause of freedom?

The film leaves you with more questions than answers, yet providing a mature level of entertainment for the intelligent viewer. Having met Kieslowski in Bangalore, India, in 1982, soon after he made Camera Buff, a film that did not have the sparkle and maturity of his later works, I could never guess that he would go on to make the Three colors trilogy and Decalogue. These later works make you wonder at the ambiguity of his later work--the beguiling smile of a Mona Lisa as he deals with religion, politics, morals with a twinkle in his eye.This episode may be seem to present an unusual story but what a masterful way to present it. Innocence is limited to one character in the entire film: the child. Just one word describes the episode, brilliant in philosophy and in cinema, thanks partly to cinematographer Dariusz Kuc.

Theologically analyzed, the film offers more for reflection. The subject of stealing goods is arguably covered by the 10th commandment "thou shalt not covet thy neighbours goods" and the seventh commandment is often subtly interepreted as "thou shalt not kidnap" (read Wikepedia on "Ten Commandments" quoting a Jewish Rabbi, Rashi). This is probably the reason why the film is all about kidnapping and not about stealing goods which is dealt by the director and screenplay writer in Decalogue 10--which is all about stealing goods and about "coveting thy neighbor's goods"--confusing many critics who missed the distinction being made on screen. This is a fine example of cinema that invites you to read more after seeing the film (and revise your own judgement). Pieseiewicz and Kiesolwski had done their homework!

P.S. Decalogue 2 and 5 has been reviewed on this blog.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

39. US director Richard Brook's "Lord Jim" (1965): Conrad's treatise on fear, heroism, cowardice and death

Imagine a movie where the hero turns into a coward and switches back to a hero. You begin to question your own yardsticks of what makes a hero and what makes a coward.

I have seen this US-British co-produced film three times over the past 30 years and each time I loved it and wanted to see it once again. What has attracted me each time are the spoken words and depth of the subject (you could say it was the screenplay) more than the direction. The subject of the film must have attracted director Richard Brooks who was essentially a screenplay writer who later became a director. He knew the merits of a strong script with philosophical lines taken from Joseph Conrad's book Lord Jim. Coppola was to use the related original material (Conrad's Heart of Darkness, another related tale narrated by Conrad's fictional character Marlow) in his Apocalypse Now for the Brando scenes several decades after this film was made and mostly forgotten.

What Brooks does not realize is that lines like "it only takes a split second to make a coward a hero or turn a hero into a coward" and "every sinner wants a second chance at redemption, without realizing he is damned for ever" are philosophical lines that one expects to hear from very literate individuals. Here, in Lord Jim, the lines are often spoken by the dregs of society. Jim, of course, we are told by the narrator (Jack Hawkins' Marlow) was philosophical, dreamed of heroism, and was a gentleman.

The film is made up of three distinct segments: 1. The "sinking" of SS Patna 2. The liberation of Patusan ("Patna" + "us" make up the name Patusan, remarks Jim to his love) and 3. The battle with a group of scoundrels (led by James Mason's 'Gentleman' Brown) with some fine speeches on honor, death, and fear.

Each segment could stand alone but together the film adds considerable worthiness that exceeds the action and plot, the elements that most viewers use to judge a movie. The lesser characters in the film add color and counterpoints to the script. Christian Marquand's French Captain who defends Jim's "cowardice" with the words "fear can make us do strange things" or Paul Lukas' Stern who compares his dead butterfly collection with the "wonderful, perfect human beings that God created" or the native who wonders why some pray to one god instead of a host of Gods are a few examples of dialogs that force you to reflect on what you heard.

The film's subject covers several religions. The fervent Muslims on the way to Haj survive the storm. The Christian Jim prays to his God. The Buddhists pray to Buddha. And the natives pray to their array of gods (a touch of Hinduism?). Yet, the film is not a religious film. But faith in God is underlined at every stage.

Conrad was Polish and a seaman before he became a writer. Brooks is an American. O'Toole leads a cast that is predominantly British. Daliah Lavi is Israeli, Marquand is French, Jurgens is German...The film is truly international.



Brooks not only wrote and directed the film but this was the first film that he produced. The film proved to be ideal for O'Toole reprising his roles of Lawrence of Arabia and Becket, roles that draw thin lines between cowardice and heroism and consequent attempts to redeem oneself. The film is not great cinema--but will remain for me a major literary work (Lord Jim, with many ties to Heart of Darkness, both works of Joseph Conrad) adapted for the screen with some delightful performances from O'Toole, Mason, Wallach, and Marquand and commendable photography by Freddie Young.

Monday, July 09, 2007

38. Spain's Alejandro Amenabar's "Mar Adentro" (The Sea Within) (2004): The depths to explore within the film and varied human relationships


I have seen Whose life is it anyway? (1981) and now Mar adentro (2004). I loved both films while they unspooled their entertaining sexist jokes in the morbid background of a male quadriplegic requesting euthanasia. Evaluated for their witty content, the American film wins outright over the other. Evaluated for philosophical content, the Spanish film is an outright winner in contrast to the Hollywood product. The American film entertained for the duration of the film; the Spanish film entertains you by requiring you to reflect on the various segments of the film, long after the film ends.

People who know Spanish aver that the correct translation of the title would be “Into the sea”. If you have seen the film, the deep philosophical, theological and social undercurrents of the screenplay make the less accurate title “The sea within,” more appropriate.

What were the aspects of the film that made me reflect on it?

The unflinching support of a small family to care for a cripple for 27 years is unusual in Western society. This is powerfully understated throughout the film. The viewer is witness to mute actions of love from the family for the quadriplegic but only on a few occasions is the subject discussed.

This brings up the strengths of the awesome screenplay (Amenabar and Mateo Gil) that reverts time and time again to the hills visible from the quadriplegic’s bed while the memories of the quadriplegic are those of the sea. The sea is within the mind of the quadriplegic—and quite appropriately the first shot is of the sea, which is soon replaced by the hills.

Suicide is theologically a no-no for many. A repentant Judas is not forgiven by the Church because he commits suicide, while all other repenting sinners the world over are supposed to be absolved if they repent. The film, set in Catholic Spain, takes a bold step in including the loud debate between two quadriplegics—one a priest who wants to live and another, a lay man, who does not—separated literally and figuratively by a floor.

The power of media is underlined: the role of TV programs and publishing of books. Yet the real outcome is nurtured through love between individuals through direct contact. The end of the film would not be the same in the absence of love. The bonding between the sick and the crippled (physically with Julia and psychologically with Rosa) are contrasted with bonding of the physically whole near family—Manuela and Gene.

This is my second Amenabar film—the first was The others. While Mar adentro deals with a thought provoking subject, the brilliance of the young director is underlined in The others--a fabulous ghost story, elegantly told. Amenabar and Andrei Zvygintsev (The Return, discussed in this blog earlier) are the most promising and talented young filmmakers (both Europeans) today. Amenabar has proven that he can direct great movies, elicit great performances from his actors (Javier Bardem, here. and Nicole Kidman in The Others), write good music and pick fine appropriate music of established composers (Puccini, Beethoven, Mozart and Richard Wagner). Like good cognac, the film is best appreciated by reflecting on all its attributes after the repast of the film viewing.
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