Sunday, January 16, 2022

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To the credit of Hamaguchi and Oe, their additions to the Murakami tale lifted up the story to a new level. Their stunning minimalist epilogue urges the viewer to figure out much of the tale that is left for the viewer to figure out and savour. For one, the epilogue is set in the pandemic—so the time has moved forward from the main portion of the film. Secondly, the concept of the experimental version of the play with characters speaking in different tongues, with a written script projected above the stage to help the audience, is in many ways reflects Chekov’s hope and dream when he wrote the play after visiting Siberia that ends with the words of Sonya to Uncle Vanya: “…We will live a good life. We will look back on it with a smile. My sweet uncle, we will hear angels, see the riches of heaven, and look down on earthly evil. All our suffering will become good that covers the earth. I believe it. I believe it.” The plain and physically unattractive driver Misaki, in the film and in the story, listens to the recording of the play as she drives Kafuku around and identifies herself with Sonya of the play, who like Misaki is not physically attractive. Thirdly and most importantly the epilogue is not set in Japan but in Korea. Misaki, the red Saab, and the dog that belongs to the Korean actress (who communicates through sign language) have moved to Korea. (If you can’t read the two different languages, you can note the side of the road they drive on has changed in the epilogue.) Hamaguchi forces the viewer to connect the dots and figure it all out the end of the film. This is undoubtedly one of the finest, complex and mature adapted screenplays in recent times. It’s a good example of a film that cajoles a lazy film viewer to read the original written work to appreciate and compare both mediums.


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


Sunday, December 26, 2021

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


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

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


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

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

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

Tom and Alma outdoors--Alma loves
the companionship

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

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

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

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

A key line spoken in the film

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

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

A key scene between Tom and Alma

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


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

Sunday, November 14, 2021

269. Canadian film director Denis Côté’s tenth feature film “Hygiène sociale” (Social Hygiene) (2021) in French, based on his original script: An unusual film that serves to entertain verbally and visually as a dark comedy, without sex or violence

he title of the film Social Hygiene will remind viewers of the Covid pandemic’s cardinal rule to avoid infection—maintain social distancing to avoid infection. In fact, no two characters make physical contact in the entire film and maintain at least a 12 feet distance between each other. There is no mention of Covid or even wearing of masks in the film. Simply put, though the film was made during the pandemic, the film has nothing to do with it. Further, the film’s original script was written by the director Denis Côté in 2015, much before the onset of the pandemic. 
Antonin (right) spars verbally with his love
Cassiopée, while her new admirer silently watches 
in the background

The film is built around the pivotal character, Antonin, married, but staying away from his wife, Eglantine. Where? In a friend’s Volkswagen! Antonin, we realize is prone to making up unreal stories, is well read, deft with language wordplay, and is a thief, vandalizing cars in the process. The director/screenplay-writer Denis Côté’s central character encounters four ladies apart from his wife Eglantine. He meets with his sister, Solveig; his secret love, Cassiopée; a lady named Rose from the Ministry of Revenue tracking him down to coerce him to cough up his unpaid tax dues; and finally, Aurore, who has been also tracking him to get back a jacket and a computer he stole from her car, and some compensation for smashing its windows to steal those items.   

Antonin talks to his wife Eglantine

Antonin talks to Rose (note she wears pink),
the tax collector who can send him to prison

All the meetings with the five ladies are staged like a Samuel Beckett play with two or three characters (always including Antonin) in open grassy fields, often on the edges of forests. There is minimal movement from the characters often rooted to the same spot; only wordplay ensues with pregnant pauses between spoken lines. The only exceptionally active scene is Aurore dancing by herself in the forest to music, the source of which is never revealed. Why and what provokes Aurore, a theology student who works in a McDonald’s outlet, to suddenly dance or decide to take an interest in criminals is an amusing conundrum. To the casual viewer, the social criticism of Facebook, internet and taxes in the script may not be obvious. All the characters have lines to speak that refer to the ills of contemporary society and lifestyles.   

Antonin interacts with Solveig, his sister,
after she states that she found a lover at a restaurant
Note: She is still holding her wine glass 

Côté’s Antonin (mostly captured by the static camera in long shots, with a rare close-up towards the end of the film) is revealed as a filmmaker struggling to complete his script, and responds to Aurore’s revelation that she is a student of theology thus: “I believe in myself. I believe I can find the keys to my enigmas in my life by myself.”  

Antonin returns the jacket he stole from
Aurore's car to her. Note: Aurore's dress differs
 from those worn by other women

When asked about when and where he met his wife, Antonin wittily replies “I met my wife in a zoo, by the cage of the hyena. The rest is a long quiet river.” 

In Côté’s interesting script, the best lines are not invested with Antonin alone. Antonin’s love Cassiopée calls him a narcissist and says “You are 100 times dead. I love you as a zombie....Men are like mushrooms. The more handsome they are the more poison they contain.” The cocky Antonin pleads and buckles under Rose’s threat “I have the key to your prison cell at the edge of my pen,” to pay his taxes. To Aurore, Antonin agrees to return the jacket and computer. His sister, Solveig, finally finds a lover over tea and long tales, uttering the words “Carpe Diem.” His wife, too, leaves him for another lover. The once confident and witty Antonin is completely “socially distanced.” 

Antonin holds a flower he wishes to present to his love
Cassiopée (center, background) while his wife (left)
notes it all and decides to leave her philandering husband

Denis Côté, the filmmaker is essentially a charming, absurdist playwright, who stages his written work in natural open surroundings with clearly demarcated stage markings for his actors in grassy patches with distant bird, animal, and traffic sounds on the soundtrack. The rare body movements of most characters are in sharp contrast to Aurore flexible body movements during her dancing spell in the film. 

Aurore dances in the forest, the only character
in the film who moves a lot physically

While Côté presents verbal sparring that will interest most viewers, there are details that some could miss. The clothes worn by all actors are period costumes a century old, with the sole exception of Aurore’s clothes that are contemporary. Thus her clothes and her dance movements are in interesting contrast to all other characters. Is Côté suggesting that Antonin’s appropriate love interest should be Aurore, not the characters wearing century-old costumes? Antonin does confess he finds Aurore attractive. 

Antonin (Maxim Gaudette) levelled by all women:
The only close-up shot in the entire film

Then there is a deliberate smudge in the static vision to the left corner of the First Act in the countryside with Antonin sparring with his sister possibly to accentuate the picture postcard shot, because Solveig retains her hands-on-the-hips pose for a long while. When the static camera moves, there seems to be a purpose to intervene in the social distancing of the actors and the camera. Denis Côté’s film provides unusual entertainment for those who can appreciate good playwrights and a totally fresh approach to the medium that is visually and verbally witty. A very interesting filmmaker setting a new style! 

 P.S.  Social Hygiene won the Best Director award at the Berlin Film Festival’s “Encounters” section and the Best Director award at the Fajr Film Festival in Iran. 

Saturday, November 13, 2021

268. Iranian film directors Maryam Moghadam’s and Behtash Sanaeeha’s feature film “Ghasideh Gave Sefid” (Ballad of a White Cow) (2020) (Iran) in Farsi/Persian language, based on their original script: Fallouts of the miscarriage of justice when an innocent person is executed for a murder he did not commit



And recall when Moses said to his people, “Allah commands you to slaughter a cow”

They answered, “Do you make a mockery of us?”

---“Surah of the Cow” in the Holy Quran (Opening quote in the film)

Iran continues to make interesting feature films, year after year, bereft of sex, nudity, escapist car chases and on-screen violence. Ballad of a White Cow is a tale of the bread-winner of small nuclear family found guilty of the killing of a known friend by a court, condemned to death by a three judge bench according to Iranian law and consequently executed for the crime. Later, the real killer confesses to the crime. A miscarriage of justice has unintentionally taken place.

While the wife of the hastily executed innocent man approaches the Iranian Supreme Court for justice for her and her mute daughter and retribution for the judges, one of the three judges is devastated by the revelations of the real killer and reaches out to help the wife and child of the executed prisoner, without revealing his own identity, and quits his job as a judge much to the amazement of the judiciary and officials, as he had merely applied existing laws of the land. That single judge, among the three judges who jointly  passed the hasty sentence, makes a laudable effort to make amends even before the Supreme Court surprisingly ruled that the wife and child had to be compensated and judges be held responsible in some way. The film is an implicit critique of capital punishment and of miscarriage of justice.

Mina (Maryam Moghadam) with her brother-in-law
reacting to the information that her dead husband
was innocent and the real killer has confessed

The interesting original script treads more on the indirect punishment on the blameless wife Mina (played by the screenplay-writer and co-director Moghadam) and daughter, living in a rented apartment. If a strange man, Reza (Alireza Sani Far), visits her to pay back “a loan” he took from Mina’s husband, the owner of the rented apartment also hastily assumes his tenant is involved in some immoral activity and asks Mina to speedily vacate. In Iran, a single woman with a child and without a job, cannot easily find an alternate accommodation at short notice, even if she has the money. Thus, the film is not just about capital punishment and miscarriage of justice, it is a commentary on single women/mothers in Iran. However, women in Iran do enjoy a lot of freedom and respect compared to their counterparts in some other Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia.

Mina explains to her daughter Bita
that her father has gone far away 

Reza is a rare individual with a conscience. His life as a judge crumbles with a hasty judgement he made with two others on the basis of questionable evidence. Reza’s son, whose mother is either dead or divorced, is so alienated from his father after he learns of his father’s involvement in the miscarriage of justice that he rushes to join the army and soon commits suicide. Reza is twice broken. But the good man has no courage to inform Mina that he was one of the three judges who hastily condemned Mina’s husband to death.

The Judge Reza (Alireza Sani Far) arrives at Mina's
door without revealing his true identity, stating that
he has come to return a large sum of money
her husband had lent him

What follows has to be interpreted keeping in mind the opening quote about the cow. A white cow is shown in a mosque (the barbed wire on the walls resemble a prison) readied for slaughter early in the film to help the viewer with a visual connection to the opening quote. The script-writer Moghadam envisages Mina as a worker in a milk-packaging factory, a metaphoric connect to the innocent cow in the quotation. Mina does seem to eventually accept her husband’s execution as a submission to the will of Allah (God) as a good Muslim. When Mina realizes her husband was innocent she finds that she and her mute daughter seems to have been “mocked” by the judicial system. The “mockery” extends to Mina, already under stress from the judiciary, the owner of her initial apartment, and Mina’s father-in-law trying to grab the “blood money” or the financial compensation from the government, added up to Mina losing her job at the milk packaging factory, due to a strike. The finale of the film could confound an average viewer but if the viewer realizes Mina is intelligent, the ending is easy to decipher. The tale can be considered as a modern-day parable. The tale is a very interesting confrontation of the ethics of a remorseful judge and that of the eventual suffering victim’s ability or lack of ability to forgive. The viewer is left much to ruminate on.

Reza realizing Mina's problems of finding
a new apartment provides her an apartment he owns
that is lying unused at discounted rent

Mina and Bita prepare for an uncertain future

Ms Maryam Moghadam (spelled Moqaddam in Wikipedia) and Mr Behtash Sanaeeha are a rare husband-wife team making their first film Ballad of a White Cow as co-directors which won them the awards for the Best New Director at the 2021 Valladolid International Film Festival in Spain. The Uruguayan/Mexican couple of Rodrigo Plá and his wife Laura Santullo are another team who made their first film as co-directors. In both these husband-wife teams, the wife is the main original writer of award-winning screenplays. Unlike Ms Santullo who has never ventured to act, Ms Moghadam is an accomplished actress, having worked as actress in Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain (2013) and her husband’s debut film Risk of Acid Rain (2015) and several other feature and TV films. Ms Moghadam’s script refers to a film Bita (1972), made in Iran prior to the Ayatollah revolution, a favorite film of her daughter, Bita, named after the title character of that film. Bita, though mute, can hear and enjoy feature films and is a film addict. The film Ballad of a White Cow is dedicated to “Mina,” which some feel is the name of the screenplay-writer’s mother. If that is indeed true, young Bita’s love for films is an autobiographical trivia of the lady co-director.

P.S.  Ballad of a White Cow has won, apart from the Valladolid award mentioned above, the Best Film award at the Jerusalem Film Festival (Israel), an incredible honor in light of the fact that there is not much love lost between Israel and Iran. The film is currently competing for the Krzysztof Kieslowski award for the best film at the Denver film festival. Rodrigo Plá's and his wife Laura Santullo's first co-directed film The Other Tom was reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the film's name in this postscript to access that review) 

Friday, November 05, 2021

267. Uruguayan film director Rodrigo Plá’s sixth feature film “El Otro Tom” (The Other Tom) (2021) (Mexico) in English/Mexican, co-directed with his Mexican wife Laura Santullo based on her script: The single mother as a contemporary Brechtian Mother Courage variant



Although you don't attempt to show it, one has a point of view on things and it ends up emerging, whether you like it or not. Our films (with director/husband Rodrigo Plá) often turn on the limits of the public and the private, the individual confronting the state, and what happens when that individual is defenceless... The state of helplessness is one of the motors of what we write. Regarding why we often portray female characters, I think the question is really: Why don't other people portray them more?”

---Original screenplay-writer and co-director Laura Santullo, on her script for her husband’s earlier work  A Monster with a Thousand Heads (2015), a quotation equally applicable to  The Other Tom (2021), where finally she is not merely the scriptwriter for her husband’s six films but credited as the official co-director.

Rodrigo Plá (an Uruguayan) and Laura Santullo (a Mexican) are a rare husband-wife team making remarkable low-budget films, often with non-professional actors who give top notch performances, on subjects that matter for the ordinary, hardworking persons globally.  The Other Tom is their first work where Ms Santullo is credited as a co-director, even though she has been writing the scripts of all the previous films directed by her husband.  This film is officially a Mexican film, in which the characters speak in English, with the story taking place in some southern part of USA.

Elena (Julia Chavez) and her 9-year old
son Tom (Israel Rodriguez)

The tale is essentially of a single mother, Elena (a creditable debut performance from Julia Chavez) with Mexican roots, working hard to make ends meet with her 9-year old son, Tom. Tom (or Tommy as his mother calls him) has long hair, is intelligent and hyperactive. He troubles his teachers and sometimes his mother. Once again the directorial duo extract a lovely realistic performance from young Israel Rodriguez playing the role of Tom, evidently his first film role as well. Tom’s biological father always promises to send money to Elena but keeps reneging on his promises.  The educational costs of Tom in a school and monthly expenses force Elena to part-time prostitution.

As the film progresses, Tom is diagnosed to have Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). ADHD can be treated with medication. Elena is pleased to know that her son will improve with prescribed medication and is initially pleased to see the medicated Tom or the “other Tom.”  However, the medication can lead to side effects. One of the side effects is a tendency to commit suicide, which young Tom attempts. The mother Elena realizes the connection recalling that a well-meaning parent had warned her about the side-effects of ADHD medicines.

A conversation outside a hospital for a cigarette break,
with a well-meaning parent, on the side-effects
of ADHD medication. The reduced visual size of people 
compared to buildings is a favorite visual stamp
of director Plá

The intelligent script of co-director Ms Santullo braces the hard-working Elena trying to protect the original Tom from becoming the other Tom. She has to brace against teachers who disclose the medication that Tom takes to other kids and report her to Child Protection Services (CPS) when she decides to take Tom off the prescribed drugs, which as a “Catch 22” scenario, is an offence that can deprive her of Tom’s custody. At a CPS assessment hearing Elena is forced to take Tom to a distant children’s camp. While the CPS hearing progresses, Ms Santullo’s script has this evocative line spoken by Tom at a coffee-vending machine in a figurative response to an elderly lady who shows her concern as he opts for a strong coffee (for a lady friend of Elena accompanying him, who the good elderly lady did not notice): “I am getting sentenced today. I killed a Fourth Grade Teacher and didn’t mean it.” The viewer knows that Tom did not kill anyone, but merely disliked her.

Tom's art teacher at school notices Tom's talent
to paint and offers to help Tom improve
further in that area; the sole positive comment
 Elena receives from a school staff about Tom

The in-camera hearing about Tom with the over-zealous
CPS staff that the bright Tom describes as his "sentencing"

The film’s open-ended culmination helps the viewer to realize that some laws benefit big businesses (here, pharmaceutical industry). Some teachers are a treasure in the education system; an art teacher reveals to Elena that Tom is very talented as an artist. Some others may teach well but not protect the privacy of a student’s medical condition.

One of the defining statements of the film on the strong mother-son bonding is Tom’s statement to Elena towards the end of the film: “If I said I hate you, it is only because I am angry.”

Tom ends up with a bloody nose,
when one teacher reveals that one student
 is on medication, a fact that ought not be disclosed

Elena, the caring mother, looking
even at legal options to care for son 
without medication

While Ms Santullo’s contribution is obvious and commendable, her husband Rodrigo Plá is able to continue what he is good at—to tell a tale visually and dramatically by choosing non-professional actors who match the best of professional actors. In his most admirable work, The Delay shot in Uruguay, Mr Plá ends a film about elders dying with a shot of an old man struggling with the onset of dementia in the midst of tall buildings in Montevideo with one daughter with three kids and limited means trying to care for him while another married daughter does not help her sister. The Delay presents the reverse scenario of The Other Tom where a valiant mother struggles to care for her parent because old-age homes are over-populated and cannot admit her father. As in The Other Tom, the ending is open-ended but the message of the predicament of caring single mothers is loud and clear. But these mothers trudge on. This director duo are making films that matter on pertinent subjects relating to those who are not rich but work hard.


P.S.  The Other Tom has won the Best Film award at the Warsaw International Film Festival (Poland). The director’s earlier film The Delay (2012) has been reviewed earlier on this blog.  (Click on the colored names of the film in the post-script to access the review.) The Delay (2012) was included in the author's list of best films of 2012The Other Tom is participating in the ongoing Denver Film Festival.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

266. The late Chilean maestro Raoul Ruiz’ film in French “Les trois couronnes du matelot” (Three Crowns of the Sailor) (1983) (France/Portugal/Chile): An absorbing non-linear, surreal screenplay with stunning cinematography and loads of remarks that will make you ruminate




“You always need a living sailor on a ship full of the dead. That was me.” (Final spoken lines of the film)

“Never forget that memories, imagination and understanding must be used for an honest and productive life.”

--Two separate statements of the sailor, narrating the stories, reflecting Ruiz’ own life of self-imposed exile, moving from one country to the other, making extraordinary films

If there are two Raoul (Raul) Ruiz films that are extraordinary, these would be Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983) and Mysteries of Lisbon (2010). Both have absorbing, non-linear screenplays with stunning cinematography. Yet, the two films are different in one significant aspect: the former is based on Ruiz’ own original tale while the latter is based on a novel of Camilo Castelo Branco. Both films have lead characters mirroring Ruiz’ departure from and memories of his land of birth and incorporate biographical elements.

The sailor (Guillard, left) who narrates the tales,
asks the student (Deplanche, right) for 3 Danish Crowns
 and his attention to his tales for passage on his ship

The sailor narrates and Ruiz leads the viewer not merely
into the tales but also the narrator's views on death and life

Three Crowns of the Sailor takes a leaf from the Chilean folklore of a ghost ship. The sailors die and reappear, as the film unspools. Ruiz himself was the son of a ship captain. The only likely real individual in the film is a Polish student (Philippe Deplanche) of theology who kills his tutor. We learn from the opening statement of the student that his victim had also taught him the art of “polishing diamonds” and leaves his future killer-student a long letter to leave the country, as though the tutor knew the events in advance. We also get to know that the murder took place in July 1958 from the soliloquy of the killer. When Ruiz incorporates a date, there is a purpose. This writer did some checking. In July 1958, the Polish state police broke into the Institute of the Lady of Czestochowa located in a monastery in Poland and took way all the books, mimeographed texts, correspondence and texts (ref: www.jstor/stable/25777621). Did the killing of the theological tutor and the student picking up the letter, a ring offered by the tutor to the student several times, and some currency notes mirror those historical events? It is quite possible.

The fleeing murderer/student meets a sailor (Jean-Bernard Guillard) who asks him for 3 Danish crowns (currency) and a promise to listen to his tale in exchange for a place on his ship called the “Funchalense” that will take him away from Poland. The ship, the student boards, is rusty but travels to Valparaiso, the main sea-port in Chile (not surprising!). There, as per the narration of the sailor, he looks for his family in his house which is boarded up by planks (suggestion to the actions of military junta regime that ousted President Allende, which in turn led to Ruiz’ self-exile, not stated explicitly in the film). His neighbors do not seem recognize him.

The main tale is a juxtaposition of several tales narrated by the sailor of unusual, bizarre persons he has met at every port of the ship’s journey—Singapore, Buenaventura (Colombia), Tangier (Morocco), Dakar (Senegal), and Tampico (Mexico). For example, there is a shy gum-chewing prostitute, who has a coffin kept in her room full of dolls and marks each customer’s encounter by depositing the chewed gum on the coffin. Then, in Singapore, there is a small boy who the sailor adopts as his son, because the boy is exceptionally intelligent and has already read all the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson.  He is boy who looks like a kid and does not grow old if he does not eat. He does not require light to read books because “he is the light” in the words of the Vice Consul of Singapore. Elsewhere, the sailor meets up with a beautiful singer who has only one orifice—her mouth (a suggestive symbol of scenarios in nations that are autocratic and singers sing only praises). In Dakar, he meets an African doctor who knows the Bible by heart, lives in poverty, philosophically claiming to discuss each minute of his life that would extend to days, and asks the sailor for three Danish Crowns if he is inclined to listen to him. This is the same proposition made by the sailor to the Polish student and the fee required to be paid for recounting the story.

The sailor in an angelic prostitute's room full of
dolls and a white coffin (white is often related
to the sinless dead, especially children).
Note the camera placement.

In Singapore, the sailor is introduced to a well-read
doctor who looks like a child
and can read books without light

Berenice Reynaude’s essay in “Fuse” (February/March 1985) and in “Rouge” ( points out the several literary cinematic connections within the narrative—from Coleridge to Borges to Cortezar to Hans Christian Andersen to Selma Lagerloff. Raoul Ruiz could do that with considerable felicity rarely associated with any other director/writer worldwide. Ruiz’ ability to do this in Three Crowns of the Sailor (and in all his other films) would not be easily perceived by viewers unless they themselves are equally well-read and acquainted with works of great writers of different continents and languages to appreciate the full mastery of Ruiz’ craft. For instance, a character is reading the novel The Sea Rose by Paul Vialer, an obscure novel that was made into a French film called La maison sous la mer in 1947. Each Ruiz film is a crossword puzzle (in this film, the Vice Consul of Singapore informs the sailor that his Consulate was attacked by crossword fanatics!)  asking to be solved with clues that include love, money, religion, politics, sailors, perceived insanity, history, art (both paintings and cinematic visual perspectives), music, philosophy and literature thrown in. Three Crowns of the Sailor is no exception in this regard.

While knowledge of literature helped Ruiz carve out a niche among directors, he is also one who opted for surrealism in most of his films. In Three Crowns of the Sailor, Ruiz scripted a ghost tale where all the sailors of the ship, except for the narrator, did not defecate and had worms surfacing from their abscesses on their bodies. He has sailors committing suicide only to resurface alive next day attributing the suicide to someone else. A key spoken line in the film is “Art is barbarous.” Ruiz used surrealism to encourage the viewer to re-evaluate reality.

Surrealism vs reality

Ruiz and cinematographer Sacha Vierny:
The words spoken are neither by the person holding
the food nor the persons immediately behind the beer glass.
They are spoken by the sailor (Guillard)
at the extreme end of the room, also in focus. 

In Three Crowns of the Sailor, Ruiz is helped by the cinematographer Sacha Vierny (a regular for directors Peter Greenaway and Alain Resnais and for Bunuel’s Belle de Jour) to produce the unusual visual perspectives that bear the stamp of Ruiz in most of his films—an aspect that reached perfection in Ruiz’ Mysteries of Lisbon (decades later). The unusual camera angles and the switches from color to black-and-white and back might unnerve the regular filmgoer—but Ruiz does it with a purpose, to nudge the viewer to appreciate the unwritten script suggesting a reality that can be perceived if you distance yourself from the obvious and take in the wider world of the “political exile,” the “stranger,” the “thinker,” the “symbolic sailor striding from one geography to another,” etc.

If there is another filmmaker to match Ruiz in knowledge and surreal filmmaking it is Orson Welles (in particular, Welles’ films The Immortal Story--based on Isaak Denisen’s novel complete with a sailor as a key character as in Three Crowns of the Sailor—and F for Fake on paintings and visual tricks). Ruiz and Welles were an evolved set of directors who have few equivalent peers and have yet to be appreciated sufficiently by a broad swath of the film-going public.

Finally, another quote from the film Three Crowns of the Sailor encapsulates the film for reflection “Our presence here is gratuitous, like most things in life.” The final sequence of the film is appropriately presented in black and white as in the early segment where the sailor asks the student “Do you believe in the hereafter?” and gets the reply “I am an atheist.”

The sailor tells the student: "If all the jerks
 spread their wings, we will never see the sun"
in the final sequence

P.S.  Three Crowns of the Sailor was bestowed the rare “Perspectives du cinema“ award even though it was not a participant in any of the official sections of the 1983 Cannes film festival. The author has reviewed the following films of Ruiz on this blog earlier: Mysteries of Lisbon (2010); Klimt (2006) and That Day (2006). Orson Welles' F for Fake was also reviewed earlier on this blog. Three Crowns of the Sailor has been included among the author’s Best 100 Films which already included Mysteries of Lisbon. (Click on the names of the films in this postscript to access the author's review)

Saturday, August 28, 2021

265. Italian film director Uberto Pasolini’s third feature film “Nowhere Special” (2020) in English, based on his original script: The rare intent and ability to care for the future needs of others when you can do so



“I wanted to make a film with this title for a long time. The title is from a dialogue at the end of Mel Brooks' film  Blazing Saddles; one character asks the other, "Where are you going to go?" and the other replies,"Nowhere special", and the first person replies, "I always wanted to go there." The idea behind this choice is that there is no perfection, that you just have to live, find a place where it is good to live, simply.”

---Director Uberto Pasolini, speaking  on how he chose the title of this film for his own fictional script, written after he read a newspaper story on a similar adoption, with the adoption agency refusing to divulge details of that case to him, due to confidentiality clauses (a rough translation of his interview given to Malik Berkati at the Zurich film festival, quoted in J:Ma. Lifestyle and Citizenship) 

Film director Uberto Pasolini makes small budget films with great care and thought that demand respect of mature filmgoers worldwide. His last two films Still Life (2013) and his latest work Nowhere Special (2020) focus on realistic characters who belong to the middle class but are sensitive to the world around them, lending a helping hand to people who require help in a low-key and admirable manner. Both his works stand out among so many others because he writes original stories/screenplays alone—a very creditable distinction separating him from the bulk of other filmmakers, relying on someone else’s tale to direct.

Nowhere Special is a tale of a single father, John, who has brought up his 3 year-old-son, Michael, with earnings from his work as an independent window cleaner in Northern Ireland. John dotes on his single offspring and takes care of him as a mother would. As the film progresses, we learn that John is in advanced stages of a life-threatening illness and Michael can’t be in his care for long. He approaches an adoption agency and they arrange for John and Michael to meet prospective foster parents for Michael in order for John to decide on Michael’s future family.

The single father John (James Norton)
goes shopping with his son
Michael (Daniel Lamont) 

Pasolini’s amazing ability is in presenting the relationship of father and son in the absence of a mother. John provides all he can, within his financial limitations, which include providing toys and trips to fairs for his intelligent, responsive son. The conversations are minimal and the performances of the first-time child actor Daniel Lamont under the tutelage of Pasolini reminds you of Charles Chaplin directing Jackie Coogan in The Kid (1921) and perhaps even of Vittorio de Sica directing a relatively older Enzo Staiola in Bicycle Thieves (1948). Pasolini’s direction of James Norton as the father John, repressing anger, and alternating frustration with patience in Nowhere Special results in an amazingly controlled outcome. Pasolini had achieved a similar feat with Eddie Marsan in his earlier remarkable film, Still Life.

Are there similar patterns between Nowhere Special and Still Life? Both films study men’s actions in this life and the events after death. Death is the fulcrum of both films, philosophically. In Nowhere Special, John introduces the concept of death to his 3-year-old son by getting him to read about death of dinosaurs. The audience sees some manifestation of his son’s understanding that his father is tired/sick when the boy covers his sleeping father with the blanket that has partially fallen, possibly mimicking what his father would have done for him. Both films of Pasolini are a treat to study for colorful details that the director infuses into the narrative, one example being of John looking at the side mirror of his car to observe an older schoolboy with his bag walking back home, to imagine what Michael would be like when he grows up.  

The single father's treasure notices the tattoo,
which he tries to copy on his own hand

In bits and pieces of conversation in the film, we learn that John was an orphan and therefore is all the more interested that Michael has a good family to take care of him. In Still Life, the colorless bureaucrat, Mr. May, goes the extra mile to contact dead persons' relatives and friends and informs them of the death of their forgotten kith and kin. In Nowhere Special, it is a dying father worried about the future of his son if he hands him over to the wrong foster parents. “This is the most important decision of my life. How will I know if I got it right?” John bursts out his frustration at the quiet adoption agency staffer, who reminds him that the clock is ticking for him to make a decision about Michael. There is no obvious manifestation of his deteriorating health except for a bout of vomiting  (thankfully less repulsive realism than John Cassavetes’ 1970 film Husbands) and a sudden decision to stop working after having climbed a tall ladder to clean a window. I admire Pasolini’s ability to add small details in both his films that say a lot without spoken words. One example is saving John’s wife’s/spouse’s mitten left in the dashboard of his car (which he is now selling to evidently augment his purse as he has decided to stop working) to be included in a box of memorabilia for Michael, when he grows up, along with John’s photographs with Michael.  

Breaking the concept of time to his toddler
with 34 candles on John's birthday cake
It is important to compare and contrast Nowhere Special with Naomi Kawase’s Japanese film True Mothers—both films about adoption made the same year in different parts of the world. True Mothers is a film made by a lady director about real mothers and foster mothers of orphans in the contemporary world. In both films, the single parent is giving up their biological child for foster care out of extreme necessity. Both are remarkably well-made films. While religion is absent in the Japanese film, for Pasolini this is important in Nowhere Special as it was in Still Life. John teaches Michael to pray before he goes to sleep and John has a silent thought of his impending future as he stops his car at a red signal, and he  views a closed church with a cemetery, ending the short car halt with a smile, possibly indicating that he is now well prepared for the inevitable. Compared to Still Life, Nowhere Special has a muted dose of religion. 

John looking at the closed church and cemetery

John drives on with a telling smile

The final incredibly mature goodbye of a 3-year old

Unfortunately, compared to Still Life, Nowhere Special lacks the musical contribution of Pasolini’s wife, composer Rachel Portman, which had enriched the earlier work. Even without Ms Portman’s musical flourishes, Nowhere Special is a very rewarding viewing experience for viewers who are not mesmerized by escapist and unreal tales. Mr Pasolini, the late film maestro Luchino Visconti will be proud of you as his nephew putting so much care and thought into the films you make to entertain discerning viewers!



P.S.  Nowhere Special has won the Best Film award at the Pula (Croatia) film festival, and the Audience awards at the Warsaw (Poland) and the Valladolid (Spain) international film festivals. The director’s earlier film Still Life (2013), winner of the Best Film award in the Venice film festival’s Horizons section, and 18 other awards worldwide, has been reviewed earlier on this blog.  The other  Japanese film by director Naomi Kawase’s True Mothers discussed in the above review also has been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the colored names of the films in the post-script to access the reviews.) Both Nowhere Special (2020) and True Mothers (2020) are included in the author’s list of best films of 2020.