Wednesday, August 09, 2023

281. German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 11th feature film “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant “(Die Bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant) (1972): A fascinating original script built on interactions of five German ladies captured on a limited spatial stage, with the overarching power of money influencing their actions past, present and future



“Of course, he took me seriously, respected my opinions.. but, nevertheless, he wanted to be the breadwinner. That way, oppression lies; that’s obvious. It’s like this, ‘I hear what you are saying and, of course I understand, but who brings home the bacon?’ So there you are—two sets of rules.” ---Petra von Kant on her professional success as a fashion designer breaking up her once perfect marriage 

“I may seem hard, but it is because I am using my head.  You’re evidently not used to women using their brains” -- Petra von Kant to her cousin, Sidonie   

 (Key lines spoken in the film)

My first viewing of Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant was some 40 years ago. The single take-away from that initial viewing was the awesome performance of Ms Margit Carstensen as Petra, who is on screen most of the time, expounding a varied range of emotions--smiling, crying, sniping, begging, recalling, feigning, lying, and even worrying. The range of emotions she exhibited is staggering. When I learnt of her passing in June 2023, I took considerable efforts to view the film a second time.   

The second viewing enabled me notice details other than Ms Carstensen’s performance and the obvious overarching bitterness of the break-up of a once perfect 15 to 18 year marriage that had resulted in the birth and development of her teenage daughter, Gabriele, now studying in an expensive boarding school and experiencing and acknowledging for the first time a pristine love for ”a tall, slim, boy with long hair and who looks like Mick Jagger.”   

The film does go beyond the very obvious effects of a marriage break-up and the need for emotional co-dependency (male and/or female) for four women in different situations, direct or indirectly linked to Petra. There are no men in the entire film though the ladies talk and discuss various men, real and possibly imaginary ones.  One of the five women, Marlene (Irm Hermann), who is Petra’s creative assistant and hostess at Petra’s residence, plays a major role silently, except to announce the names of Petra’s guests on their arrival at the apartment.

Fassbinder subtly introduces the power of money into the emotional equation, both visually and verbally. The verbal reinforcement is in the first quote, from the film, stated above. The visual reinforcement is achieved by a blown-up painting that covers an entire wall of Petra’s room that is often in the background of almost all the action in the film. That painting is important when one appreciates that it provides a stark allegory of this Fassbinder film (never referred directly in the film per se). The painting in question is artist Nicolas Poussin’s 1689 work  Midas and Bacchus. I had not heard of this artwork even when I was a student of aesthetics. What does it depict? King Midas of Greek mythology (when he was asked for any wish for having taken care of the inebriate satyr Silenius) was endowed with a gift by Dionysius (Bacchus) to turn anything he touched into gold. Midas’ happiness was short-lived—the boon had become a curse as food and family members turned to gold at his touch. The Poussin painting depicts King Midas, in blue garments, kneeling before Bacchus to remove the gift he gave him that turned anything he touched to gold. This visual comparison is deliberately introduced by Fassbinder and production designer Kurt Raab. Viewers who are unaware of the subject of the painting will miss the connection, just as I did on my first viewing.

Poussin's 1689 painting Midas and Bacchus with King Midas
on his knees imploring Bacchus to remove the gift of turning
anything to gold at his touch (courtesy: Web Gallery of Art,
Wikimedia Commons) 

Petra (Carstensen) dictates a letter to the Hollywood director 
Mankiewicz on being suddenly unable to support him
financially, with the Poussin painting in the background 

What is the connection of the painting to the Fassbinder film, one could well ask.  Petra, who was not the main bread-winner of her nuclear family, had for long enjoyed a perfect husband-wife relationship, while she gradually built her career as a successful dress designer. The marriage collapsed as her designing work gradually became world famous (unlike Petra’s mother Valerie, who Petra alleges never worked) and gradually became the main bread-winner of her family. Early in the film, we could infer that Petra had become so successful that she could bankroll Hollywood director Joseph Mankiewicz (of Cleopatra and The Barefoot Contessa fame).  She opts out of that commitment to Mankiewicz when her marriage breaks up and her mother Valerie asks her for considerable financial support as well.  Like Midas, success in the world of design caused the collapse of Petra’s marriage, as her husband  Frank wanted to continue to be the person who ‘brought home the bacon.’   

Petra recalls the good times with her former husband Frank

When the silent and ever subservient Marlene (foreground)
leaves the mean and self-centered Petra, Balhaus' camera
deliberately avoids the Poussin painting--the "Midas gift"
has allegorically been removed from Petra.

The connection with money and relationships continue. Petra wanted to “possess” her cousin Sidonie’s (Katrin Schaake) friend Karin (Hanna Schygulla), soon after her their first meeting, with the lure of money, asking her to work for her and later to move into her apartment instead of the expensive hotel, thus saving Karin money. Petra already has Marlene staying with her who is her butler, typist, and errand woman, again using her money power allowing Petra to treat her shabbily in the process. Petra provides money for her mother Valerie and her daughter Gabriele. Like Midas, who could turn everything to gold at his touch, Petra could achieve a lot of control of people with her money. Ultimately, her hubris, associated with growing wealth turns out to be her undoing. After 6 months with Petra, Karin decides to return to her husband who has moved to Zurich from Australia and asks Petra for money and air tickets. Petra gives Karin twice the sum asked, hoping that would lure her back her apartment. It does not. When Petra calls her a whore, Karin observes her time with Petra was easier than working the street –again an indirect reference to money.   

Beyond the role of Poussin's painting in the film, one has to split the excellent Fassbinder script into 5 Acts, in the vein of a Shakespearean play. Act I:  Petra meets Karin, introduced by Sidonie. Act II: Petra gets to know Karin and promises to transform her into a great fashion model. Act III: In spite of living with Petra for 6 months, Karin decides to return to her husband in Zurich.  Act IV: Petra, on her birthday, devastated by Karin’s absence, is lying on the carpet for the first time in the film as her daughter, her cousin and her mother drop in to see her on her birthday. Petra is uncharitable to all and asks them to leave. Act V: Petra now sees Marlene as a replacement for the absent Karin, and uses the same opening lines she used with Karin to snare Marlene as future lover. Marlene silently packs her bag and leaves Petra.  

Petra (with her back facing the camera) spews her outburst
(from left to right) at her mother Valerie,
her daughter Gabriele and her cousin Sidonie

There are no curtains to separate the Acts as when a play is performed in a theatre. Fassbinder uses Petra’s natural hair and four wigs to separate the Acts. In Act I, Petra wakes up with her natural hair and wears her first wig; in Act II she wears a second one; in Act III a third one; in Act IV a fourth one; and finally in Act V, she reverts to her natural hair, visually and structurally completing the Aristotelian unity proposed in his Poetics

Opening image of the film of the two cats on which the
opening credits are super-imposed. The cat with white fur moves
away from the black cat to a few steps below

If one recalls the opening shot of the two cats on the small stairs (the cats are never shown again); they are together initially. One of them moves away to sit on a separate step eventually. That is indeed the tale of each of the five characters shown later on screen in the film. 

What a wonderful screenplay conceived and written during a 12-hour flight from Berlin to Los Angeles by the director.  While Fassbinder and Carstensen drive the film, Kurt Raab’s production design and Michael Ballhaus’ indoor cinematography contribute considerably to the holistic effect, especially when you realize the entire film was shot in 10 days.   

As Petra's life and confidence unravels with the departure of Karin, Ballhaus'
camera captures the the activities from the carpet level, complete with 
the doll (presented to Petra on her birthday), the phone and the bottle of gin

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant offers a near flipside of Fassbinder’s final film, his adaption of Jean Genet’s play Querelle (1982), in which the male protagonist, not unlike Petra, manipulates his lovers for thrills and profit.   

 R.I.P. Ms Margit Carstensen, February 1940 to June 2023.

Sunday, June 11, 2023

280. Russian maestro Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s 24th feature film “Sin“ (Il Peccato) (2019), in Italian: A fascinating study on Michelangelo’s thoughts and actions while leading a near hermitic life and creating monumental works of art

Arrogance is sin” 

 I wanted to find God; I only found Man”   

 Money always rubs elbows with infamy”

              --key lines spoken in Sin--co-scripted by Andrei Konchalovsky and Elena Kisaleva

Andrei Konchalovskys Sin is a film more on the thoughts of the amazingly gifted painter, sculptor and writer Michelangelo (1465-1564) and less on his famous works and how he created those masterpieces of art. The film presents a frenetic individual at the time of his life when he was sculpting night and day, more than he was painting or writing, often in imaginary conversation with the dead poet Dante Alighieri whose works he knew by rote, even while walking alone. The more we delve into Konchalovsky’s film Sin, one appreciates the dogged research that went into the making of the film to connect the dots between Dante’s The Divine Comedy, the historical battles between two rich Roman families--the Della Povere and the Medicis--to install Popes, and the effect  of both Dante’s works and the two Roman families that controlled and influenced the creative outputs of Michelangelo, which included the final design of the existing St Peter’s Cathedral in Vatican City, apart from fresco paintings and sculptures admired to date. At a different level, the film is a perfect  example of  the importance of original co-scriptwriters—in this case, the gifted team of Konchalovsky and Elena Kiseleva-- in creating a feature film, than other facets, as is often perceived in good cinema. 

Alberto Testone, a dentist in real life, who resembles 
Michelangelo, plays the lead part in the film

It is therefore important to know some basic details about Konchalovsky and Kiseleva in order to appreciate Sin, the film, in its totality. 

Andrei Konchalovsky has been overlooked by many film critics and cinephiles for his outstanding contribution to the medium over several decades. As a Russian, the western world ignored him, possibly because his films were either not easily accessible nor well assessed by prominent western film critics. Most Tarkovsky fans do not realize that three of Tarkovsky’s early films (Andrei Rublev, Ivan’s Childhood, and The Steamroller and the Violin) were co-scripted by Konchalovsky  (who incidentally was Tarkovsky’s classmate at film school).   While Konchalovsky made a mark collaborating first with Tarkovsky, he later improved  his credibility of his own  worth by moving from scriptwriting to direction (five films he directed: Asya; The First Teacher; A Nest of the Gentry; Siberiade; and a superb film version of Uncle Vanya) in Russia during his pre-Hollywood phase, which  saw these films winning a Golden Lion award at Venice film festival (for Asya),  a Silver Lion for Best Actress at Venice (for The First Teacher), and the Grand Prize of the Jury at the Cannes festival  (for Siberiade). 

When he left Russia in 1980 to make films in Hollywood, one of his films (Runaway Train) got nominated for an Oscar and the Golden Palm at the Cannes film festival; another (Duet for One) got nominated for a Golden Globe;  another (Maria’s Lovers) got nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival; another (Homer and Eddie) won the Golden Seashell  for the best film at the San Sebastian Film Festival  in Spain, while yet another of his films from his Hollywood period (Shy People) won the Best  Actress award for Barbara Hershey at Cannes.  These accolades strung together are more impressive global honors than the works of most other directors working in Hollywood and would make any one of them envious.   

After he returned to Russia, disillusioned with the Hollywood studio system disagreeing with his artistic non-commercial concepts and eventually ending up being fired midway while trying to make Tango and Cash the way he conceived it, Konchalovsky struck gold by teaming up with co-scriptwriter Elena Kiseleva. His four films with her have won even better accolades than ever before in his career—The Postman’s White Nights (2014, Silver Lion For Best Director at Venice film festival); Paradise (2016, Silver Lion For Best Director at Venice film festival 2017, once again; Best Actor (Actress) award at the Munich film Festival,2017); Sin (2019, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design and Best Costume Design at the Nika awards, 2020); and Dear Comrades (2020, Special Jury Prize at the Venice film festival, Best Director at the Chicago international film festival, Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Sound  awards at the Nika awards). The magic weaved by the duo is comparable to the similar director-scriptwriter magic woven by Kieslowski and Piesiewicz in Poland, by Loach and Laverty, by Lean and Bolt, and by Losey and Pinter in UK-- all fine examples of directors peaking at the evening of their careers by teaming up with the right co-scriptwriter. The more you know of Konchalovsky's films you realize the director is a thinker and immensely well read compared to his peers globally and can arguably be only compared to Orson Welles or Raul Ruiz, not even Andrei Tarkovsky or Ingmar Bergman.

A Joycean epiphany perceived by Michelangelo woken up from slumber
at dawn in Florence. His statue of David is erected in the streets 
but behind it is a man who has been hanged.
Konchalovsky's vision of Michelangelo's quatrain
" this age of crime and shame/not to live, not to feel-an enviable destiny/
it is gratifying to sleep/ it is more gratifying to be stone"

Konchalovsky’s initial interest in making a film about the Italian artistic genius Michelangelo has an amazing connection with Andrei Rublev, which he co-scripted with Tarkovsky. This writer stumbled upon journalist/critic Valery Kichin’s revealing interview in Russian with Konchalovsky in 2018, in which Konchalovsky recalls noticing visitors to an Italian cathedral kissing a laminated A4-size Rublev’s painting called Trinity, ignoring the luxurious Italian frescoes in the vicinity. That incident sparked off the idea in Konchalovsky's mind of making a film on Michelangelo since his script on Rublev had struck gold nearly half a century earlier. 

The well-read Konchalovsky recalled that Michelangelo in a response to a historian and aristocrat Giovanni Strozzi (who had written a quatrain admiring Michelangelo’s sculpture Night with the words …she was sculpted from stone by an angel/if he sleeps then he is full of life/just wake up/ he will talk to you”  to which Michelangelo had replied to Strozzi with a witty quatrain “Be quiet please, don’t you dare wake me/oh, in this age of crime and shame/not to live, not to feel-an enviable destiny/it is gratifying to sleep/ it is more gratifying to be stone.   

Konchalovsky connects that response of Michelangelo with why he decided to make Sin. He reveals to Kichin: “’In a shameful age I want to be stone.’ What did he mean by that about his life? ..If this statement is taken as an analysis of his life, an artist and a person?  More precisely a person…An artist sculpts something from stone, writes notes, paints,..all this is in external form something secondary. There is a great play on Salieri’s envy of a genius (Mozart) but not about how the genius writes music. Michelangelo lives in the center of European culture, in Florence, and it so happens that he is brilliantly gifted. Hence, the theme and the conflict of my movie Sin. Michelangelo was a fan of Dante. Michelangelo in his sculptures expressed the idea of martyrdom, created images that were equal in expression to the images of Dante ” (Ref: 

In the same interview with Kichin, Konchalovsky reveals that even Leonardo da Vinci regarded Michelangelo as an expert on Dante’s writings and would refer him as such to Leonardo’s students.  “Dante wrote in the genre of “visione”—using religious phantasmogoric visions” says Konchalovsky, who researched Michelangelo’s life for some 10 years before Sin was made. 

The repentant Michelangelo in conversation with Dante (in red),
after he finds the newly married couple,
 whose marriage he had financially supported
inexplicably killed and...

... the conversation with Dante continues, edited and transported 
from the room to the mountains, with their positions unchanged. 
"I know my creations are beautiful. People admire
 them but nobody prays in front of them

Thus, the differences between Carol Reed’s film The Agony and The Ecstasy (based on Irving Stone’s novel of the same name) made in 1965 and Michelangelo’s Sin are considerable. The former is an adaptation of a novel, while the latter is based on the director’s personal  research. Konchalovsky’s film emphasizes the connections with Dante, which is not discussed by Reed and Stone.  Reed’s film delves more on the Sistine Chapel paintings, while Konchalovsky’s film begins with the near completion of the Sistine Chapel paintings and is devoted more to Michelangelo working on later sculptures of Michelangelo, with the statue of David already erected on a street, in a dream sequence. And unlike Reed’s film where Contessina de Medici  (played by Diane Cilento) is a major female personality close to Michelangelo, Konchalovsky’s  film presents a hermit-like Michelangelo whose interest in women is clinical, to use visible aspects of their bodies as mere sources of inspiration for his sculptures and not sexual attraction. 

Konchalovsky’s and Kiseleva’s original screenplay projects Michelangelo’s growing popularity with the rich and the poor alike as a maestro while he was still alive which led him to an artistic hubris, understandably with three Popes in succession asking Michelangelo to work for them when they became Popes: Pope Julius II (belonging to the Della Rovere family) and Popes Clemens VII and Paul III (belonging to the Medici family). Michelangelo had only contempt for his contemporary artist Raphael’s abilities (shown in Sin) unlike Raphael, who in admiration of Michelangelo, drew the portrait of Michelangelo as Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher in one of his paintings for the Pope’s apartments. That pride of Michelangelo is the “arrogance” stated in one of the spoken lines in Sin.  He did not allow even allow his assistants to work on his paintings and sculptures.  

Michelangelo negotiates with one of the successive Popes
on assignments, payments and deadlines

In one of the memorable sequences in Sin, another painter is asked by the Pope to undertake a sculpture and design assignment that Michelangelo was initially asked to do and discusses the project with Michelangelo to gain some insights in a pub. In a nod to Dante’s Inferno in The Divine Comedy, while the Michelangelo and the other painter discuss the project, Michelangelo sees a reptile/snake in a pile of clothes in a corner. He goes to the pile to investigate and finds no snake. He returns to the table and tears up the design of the other painter. That’s another sin (envy) in the proximity of the devil (read, snake).  Greed, pride and anger overtake Michelangelo, becoming richer by the day but living like hermit in tattered clothes on salted cod fish and forcing his apprentices to eat likewise. He began to imagine he was being poisoned when that was not true. An inexplicable murder of a bridal couple (married with the finances that Michelangelo provided)  with their blood dripping on his table wakes up Michelangelo from slumber to acknowledge his sins of greed, pride and anger with Michelangelo  asking forgiveness from God and seeking help from the long dead Dante Alighieri. 

The Konchalovsky-Kiseleva duo extends the realistically unreal “purgatory” interview in their earlier award-winning work Paradise to insert several Joyce-like epiphanies of Michelangelo in the course of the film, with a final meeting with the dead Dante, who when asked for help, replies with single word “Listen” in response.

The interview with Kichin provides more fascinating insights. Konchalovsky began to see the finished collaborative script of Sin as an extension Andrei Rublev, there with a bell, here with a large chunk of marble. The 10-ton marble block in the film was transported with the help of 50 odd descendants of Carrara workers who speak the local dialect (of Michelangelo’s time) who extract marble to this day and was transported with oxen brought from different parts of Italy—not unlike Herzog making his Fitzcarraldo, transporting a steamship over hills of Peru.  The actor Alberto Testone, chosen to play Michelangelo, is a dentist in real life and resembles Michelangelo (unlike Charlton Heston in Reed’s film) and gives a very impressive performance. But Konchalovsky has a knack to make his actors give outstanding performances (Barbara Hershey in Shy People, Julie Andrews in Duet for One, Jon Voight in Runaway Train, and, last but not least, his own wife Yulia Vysotskaya in Paradise and Dear Comrades). 

Transporting the 10-ton marble block from Carrera mountains to
the city reminiscent of Herzog's Fitzcarraldo 

One wonders if Dante’s Divine Comedy, which is divided into three sections Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise, fits well with a possible completed Konchalovsky trilogy made up with  Sin and Paradise as being possible components with a possible third film being conceptualized. That said, Konchalovsky is one of the best filmmakers actively making award winning films over several decades and continues to work with some of the original team that worked with Tarkovsky such as Eduard Artemyev who composed and arranged music for most films of directors Tarkovsky, Konchalovsky and Konchalovsky’s half-brother Nikita Mikhalkov. The film is a treat for students of cinema, of the Bible, of the arts and of  literature.

A silent cameo of Mrs Konchalovsky (actress Yulia Vyotskaya)
in Sin

P.S.  A first cut of  Sin was personally presented by President Putin of Russia to Pope Francis at the suggestion of Konchalovsky. It won Nika awards for cinematography, production design, and costume design. Several of Konchalovsky’s earlier films Runaway Train (1985), Shy People (1987), House of Fools (2002), The Postman’s White Nights (2014), and Paradise (2016) have been reviewed on this blog earlier (Please click on their names in this post-script to access those reviews)


Saturday, April 22, 2023

279. Iranian film director Mohammad Rasoulof’s second feature film “Jazireh Ahani “ (Iron Island) (2005), based on his original screenplay: Brave cinema focusing on the travails faced by the common citizen, using allegory to bypass hawkish national censors

ohammad Rasoulof is different from most filmmakers. He does not adapt written works—he writes his own original screenplays stitched together from what he observes and hears from Iranian compatriots. He has made a modest tally of seven fictional feature films to date and these have picked up a Golden Bear at Berlin, a Golden Peacock in India, a Gold and a Silver Hugo at Chicago and three major awards at Cannes’ important  Un Certain Regard section, among 36 prestigious awards and prizes won globally. The seven feature films do not include his two feature-length docu-dramas/documentaries—Intentional Crime (2022) and Head Wind (2008).

Rasoulof loves to encapsulate the human condition of present day life in Iran and the aspirations of its population in realistic tales that avoids direct criticism of the Iranian government. Unlike the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, who never made a film that was obviously critical of the government, Jafar Panahi  (once Kiarostami’s assistant) has evolved into an Iranian filmmaker winning praise, on his own merit, making feature films in which couched criticism of the lack of freedom in contemporary Iran is comparably more forthright. Rasoulof, in turn worked with Panahi on Panahi’s films initially, until Rasoulof, too, became an equally world-renowned filmmaker winning awards worldwide. The Iranian government has not been happy with  Rasoulof ever since he made made his second film Iron Island. Today, both Panahi and Rasoulof are in prison because of the contents of the films they made and their social activism. While Rasoulof’s first film Gagooman (2002) did not ruffle feathers, in spite of the fact that its two principal characters are prisoners serving time in an Iranian jail for minor crimes. That film was widely appreciated within Iran went on to win the Best First Film award at the Fajr Film Festival in Iran. Then came Iron Island (2005) and the spate of problems for the director from the Iranian government sprouted for each subsequent film he made.

The Captain (Ali Nasirian) warns the lad, Ahmad,
not to pursue the unmarried lass on the ship

The unmarried lass, with her face partially covered,
as per certain Muslim traditions, is living on the tanker
and shows interest in Ahmad

The film Iron Island is not about a real island; it is merely a description of a disused oil tanker anchored off-shore, a vessel that is gradually sinking. Rasoulof transforms the disused tanker, awaiting eventual shipbreaking, into a contemporary Noah's ark, providing refuge for homeless poor Iranians, young and old, under the care of a seemingly benevolent "Captain," who is able to provide food and medicines for the refugees her brings on board. He is able to buy provisions and medicines by gradually selling off metal parts and oil on the ship that the young men are made to identify and rip off the ship each day. The Captain is a veiled representation of the Iranian Government, which is dictatorial and brutal to those who step out of line, while appearing to be benevolent to others. The same benevolent Captain, in the film, also mercilessly tortures a lad, who escapes the ship when his beloved, an unmarried girl with a partly masked face, is given away in marriage by the Captain to someone else living on the mainland (a process that makes the 'Captain' richer). The lad is caught and brought back to the “iron island” all tied up in a boat.  The 'Captain' teaches the errant lad a tortorous lesson that leaves him almost dead.  The motley refugee group on the “iron island” represents the innocent folk with little or no income, who accept their fate without being able to question their benefactor’s (the Captain’s) motives or actions out of a combination of fear and gratitude. 

The boy called Fish, ultimately is made to leave the tanker for the shore but resumes his pastime, searching for small fishes, this time trapped on the sandy beach. He picks one and throws them back into the sea as he used to while on the tanker, little realizing that there are fishermen’s  nets set up in the water to catch such fish. 

The lovers on the tanker who were forcibly separated by the Captain are brought together by fate even though the lad is lying in a mosque recovering from his recent torture ordeal and his beloved is married to a rich person who owns a car and employs a chauffeur. The viewer is left to figure out the outcome of that possible meeting which is never shown on screen. Similarly, the viewer has to figure out the allegory of the Captain’s angry action of throwing out the working TV the boys had painstakingly made to work.

The "Captain" intervenes in a skirmish between
two lads as an elder and peace prevails

The "Captain" collects passports of all adults on the tanker
as precursor to collecting their signatures,
the purpose of which is never revealed, even when questioned.
The viewer has to conjecture the purpose. 

Rasoulof’s films provide punches but the endings of each film are deliberately left open-ended. He does it intentionally; his films have to pass the national censors. It is unclear how many of his films have actually been released in Iran and, if released, how much is censored. Iron Island may not be as sophisticated as Rasoulof's later films but it makes you think beyond the obvious tale. Rasoulof is definitely one of the finest and the boldest filmmakers in Iran, if not the world, now languishing in prison. His crime--he made films that were indirectly critical of lack of freedom in Iran in recent decades and his social activism. The bravery and the acclaim of his films cannot be equalled by most other filmmakers, currently alive and making films. 

The "Captain" is attired more like an Arab rather than a typical Iranian
but speaks Farsi the language of Iran

We live in a world where filmmakers cannot tell the truth without offending the governments in power, even though the respective governments criticised are often "elected" democratically. There are brave filmmakers who present the truth using allegory and fables, to bypass hawk-eyed Government censors. In Russia, film directors Andrei  Zvyagintsev, Andrei Konchalovsky  and Alexei German ,Sr., have made allegorical films. Raul Ruiz made films made films in exile with despondent references to his native Chile. When they do make such films they often win major awards at reputed film festivals such as Cannes, Berlin, Venice and Locarno, among others. Contemporary Iranian filmmakers Jafar Panahi, Mohammad Rasoulof, and Mohsen Amiryousefi are three prominent talented filmmakers who have made films that made the Iranian government uncomfortable often banning their release within the country. Panahi and Rasoukof  have been sentenced to long jail terms and are released for short periods for medical or other reasons, after which they have to return to prison and complete their sentences. It is not clear how many citizens in Iran have seen the completed works of these filmmakers in public screenings and, if so, whether the films were shown without cuts by the censors. 

Iron Island is merely a harbinger to Rasoulof’s later films. His later film Goodbye is an extension of the young lad’s decision to leave the tanker and the oppressive environment in Iron Island. His film Man of Integrity, a film on corruption within Iran and on intolerance of minorities is glimpsed by the Iron Island’s Captain’s actions of collecting signatures of the refugees without adequate explanation and sale of the ship’s parts without the knowledge of the real owners, who innocently believe he is doing a good deed for the refugees. What is quite evident is that Rasoulof has improved further technically with each film, ultimately reaching world standards in There is No Evil, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin film festival. Panahi, Rasoulof and Amiryousefi need the support of cineastes who value filmmakers who use the medium creatively for improving the freedom within Iran and promote the aspirations of its citizens..


P.S.   Iron Island won the Golden Peacock award for the best film in competition at the International Film Festival of India (2005); the Cinema prize and the Script prize at the Avanca Film Festival (Portugal) (2007); the Special Jury prize at the Gijon International  Film Festival  (Spain) (2005); Screenplay award at the Montreal Festival of New Cinema (Canada) (2005; and the Critics prize at the Hamburg Film Festival (2005). Three of Rasoulof’s later films Goodbye (2011), A Man of Integrity (2017) and There is No Evil (2020) have been reviewed on this blog earlier. So are Zvyagintsev's The Return  and Leviathan; Konchalovsky's Shy People, The Postman's White Nights and Paradise; Ruiz'  That Day, all films with subtle bits of allegory on politics and its effects on the common citizens. (Please click on their names in this post-script to access those reviews) 

Saturday, December 17, 2022

278. US film director Todd Field’s third feature film “Tár” (2022), based on his original screenplay: An intelligent, well-crafted study of the decline, fall, and eventual survival of a gifted, renowned (possibly, partly fictional) maestro


Quotes from the film that provide glimpses of the thought-provoking script:
(Tár, being interviewed by Adam Gopnik in front of a live audience on Tár conducting  Mahler’s Adagietto Symphony no.5) 
Tár: And this piece was not born into aching tragedy. It was born into young love. 
Gopnik (real life writer of New Yorker magazine): And you chose...
Tár: Love
Gopnik: Right, but precisely how long?
Tár: Well, seven minutes.
(That conversation could go beyond face value, if the viewer is familiar with Irving Wallace)


(On conducting a philharmonic orchestra)
Tár: Time is the thing.
Tár: You want to dance the mask. You must service the composer, you have got to sublimate yourself, your ego, and yes, your identity. You must, in fact, stand in front of the public and God, and obliterate yourself.


Tár (Cate Blanchett) rehearses while her wife and first violinist
Sharon (Nina Hoss) is all attention  

Director and original screenplay writer Todd Field knows music well. He played the mysterious pianist Nick Nightingale in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. One of the undeniable strengths of the film’s script is the load of information and classical music trivia dumped through the engaging dialogs on why Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) wants Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto to be performed as a companion piece to Mahler’s 5th symphony and those enlightening conversations between Tár and her former mentor Andris Davis (Julian Glover). However, in the film Tár only one movement—Trauermarsch– of the 5th symphony is played again and again in the film, including the crucial scene where Eliot Kaplan (Mark Strong) is conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, replacing Tár as the conductor. Trauermarsch can be translated as Funeral March. It is a piece of music comparable to Beethoven's opening of his Fifth Symphony. One has to appreciate Todd Field, the screenplay writer and director for zeroing in on this piece of music that anticipates the tragedy of Lydia Tár's future with the fictional conductor ironically engrossed in Mahler's possible mood while recovering from near death in his real life. In the film, too, there is recovery for Lydia Tár's fall from hubris. 

Much of the film's music revolves around the first movement
of Mahler's Fifth symphony

Tár is evidently very good at her job and has earned her position as the chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and is presented to us by the screenplay as the first woman to be chief conductor of a major orchestra and thus constantly addressed as “maestro.”  All the members of her orchestra are in awe of her talents and respect her. As the film progresses, we are informed that she had humble beginnings but her talent and ear for classical music was only too evident and went on to win medals. As the film constantly provides examples of her ear for music and her talent for conducting, we continue to be fascinated by the successful and not-so-successful times of Tár's career.

Tár rehearses with the orchestra, which is often when she gets
her creative juices to flow 

In the film, Ms Blanchett switches from spoken English to spoken German and back with felicity as she rehearses with members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Blanchett possibly knew she could do a great job if cast in the main role. It is therefore not surprising that she took on the role of the executive producer of this film as well. She even writes the mocking lyrics of a song that she sings in the film about a middle-class neighbor next door who sells and moves out because of her constant musical activities often involving piano and other musical instruments.   

The sound of a far-away trumpet, played at a considerable distance
from the main orchestra,was a creative addition made by Tár
 to the 5th symphony during a rehearsal, and she fumes that someone
else instead of her is conducting what she had creatively tweaked
in the score 

Though the film’s tale is about LGBT characters there are few sexual encounters on screen save for  kisses between Tár and her wife Sharon (Nina Hoss, who made an major impact in the early films of the German filmmaker, Christian Petzold) and a hug with Krista Taylor. The LGBT elements might move forward the plot of the film Tár but they are not the mainstay of Todd Field’s film; instead, the film Tár focuses on music and the mental state of the maestro. When the carpet under Lydia Tár is pulled at the zenith of her career for her sexual appetite rather than her musical skills, screenplay-writer and director Todd Field dishes out elements of Eyes Wide Shut—recollection of past events, masks, mystery and fringe characters that are crucial (such as Krista Taylor) who we never get to study beyond  a rear-head shot listening to the opening interview or in a short dream sequence. The script leads us instead to study the effects such individuals eventually have on Lydia, an alleged sexual predator. Another such fringe character is Lydia/Linda Tár’s mother, who too, is never discussed at length—similar to the treatment Kubrick gave to several fringe characters in Eyes Wide Shut.  

The mysterious lady in the audience that the director highlights:
is it Krista Taylor,who later commits suicide?

The maestro Tár is shown as a top-notch conductor mentored in the past by an elderly famous conductor Andris Davis, who eventually avoids her, when she has lost her fame.  Another conductor who Tár evidently was influenced by is Leonard Bernstein (we are shown her replaying a video of Bernstein that has tips on conducting).  Tár is shown bullying an aspiring male music conductor called Max at a Julliard class where she is a guest teacher. Off and on screen we know she bullied and could even wreck the careers of female conductors who aspired to move up. Thankfully the movie is more about music than about sex. Interestingly, Todd Field’s screenplay includes Tár making a jibe at Jerry Goldsmith’s score of Planet of the Apes during the Julliard class. The script is indeed a delightful trivia trough for music lovers. 

A distinguished conductor, Andris Davis (Julian Glover)
often mentors Tár, until her rapid fall from grace

Tár, the human metronome. who prides in managing time is disturbed
at home by the mechanical metronome and rushes to stop it:
Field's script indicates that all is not well with the maestro's mind

Past lovers wonder if Tár has a conscience

Beyond music, the amazing script explores the mind of the talented maestro, who is introduced to us as a maestro, who gives the highest of importance to “time” in the musical pieces that she controls with her baton in the right hand, unlike the shapes of music controlled by her empty left hand. Tár's character is developed by director Field as a human metronome. When Blanchett’s life is unwinding, she is disturbed by a sound--seemingly marking rhythmic time, which she goes searching for in her apartment to get rid off, including searching her refrigerator, only to discover a regular metronome kept hidden in a shelf, which she stops. The metronome is symbolically crucial to the film because Tár, the ultimate alpha female, during the Julliard guest lecture called the aspiring conductors, like Max, who did not toe her line, “robots” while in the film's finale the once-perfect and creative Tár is reduced to be a robotic conductor in an unspecified Asian country, despite her innate creative talent. In the Julliard lecture (for those who notice editing details, the entire lecture is filmed in a single unstitched take) shown earlier in the film, Tár points out to Max that the sexual life of Bach (who apparently sired 20 or more kids) is not a barometer to judge a composer’s worth but by his creative work in the world of music. It is ironic, in the context of her own statements during the lecture, that the eventual downfall of Tár was her sexual life and its consequences, rather than her awesome ability to conduct music. 

In the words of Cate Blanchett (quoted on the IMDb website): "Tár speaks to a moment in a woman's life when she is moving inexorably, as we all are, towards death, and we try to outrun that very thing--we try to outrun that unpalatable side of ourselves. We try to hide." Now moving towards death is what the opening movement, Funeral March, of Mahler's 5th symphony is all about. So, too, is the reference of likely chance of losing your life (if you were enticed to swim) to the deadly crocodiles introduced into an Asian river for shooting of Apocalypse, Now--the Marlon Brando film alluded to in the screenplay.

Cineastes could compare and contrast Todd Field's Tár with the recent French film France (2021) directed by Bruno Dumont, based on Dumont's original screenplay, where Lea Seydoux plays a star TV personality also falling rapidly from her zenith of popularity. Lea Seydoux, like Cate Blanchett in Tár, gives one of her best performances in the French film. Similarly, the original scripts of Field and Dumont, and the original music in both the films, offer much to be compared and contrasted with each other.

The  masseur Tár chooses sits at the almost same position in
the orchestra as the last lover who rejected Tár's advances.
This shot aids the viewer to note the connection with the
maestro's conducting of the orchestra.
The film  is what it is because of the brilliance of Todd Field’s well-crafted screenplay; the cinematography of  Florian Hoffmeister and Todd Field; and last but not least Cate Blanchett’s best performance thus far in her career in myriad situations within the film. Bravo!

P.S.  Tár  won the Best Actress award for Ms Cate Blanchett at the Venice international film festival in 2022, BAFTA Awards (UK) and at the Golden Globes 2023 (USA). Ms Blanchett has collected similar awards at two US international film festivals. Tár won the prestigious Camerimage’s Golden Frog  award for cinematography for the contributions of Florian Hoffmeister and Todd Field. Director Todd Field also won the Gotham Independent Film Award for Best Screenplay. Actresses Cate Blanchett and Nina Hoss are among the author’s favorite 14 actresses of the 21st century.  Tár tops the author's list of best films of 2022.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

277. Japanese film director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s fifteenth feature film “Broker” (2022), based on his original screenplay, set in South Korea and made in the Korean language: “Finding ourselves and each other”



"'Thank you for being born.' - A single sentence that touches the audience in such a way that entire films rarely can. When every character, no matter how small or large, is intricately layered, simultaneously fractured and in the end so lovingly developed, that's cinema. Great cinema. This film is a journey. One filled with longings, with decisions, with detours. Sometimes it is precisely these detours that we must take in life to find ourselves and each other. And we found a bit of ourselves in this film."

--Citation of the Best International film award for Broker at the Munich film festival

Two contemporary Japanese directors Hirokazu Kore-eda and Naomi Kawase are fascinating filmmakers because both make wonderful, distinctive films, both write their own original screenplays and most of their tales revolve around relationships involving parents and children, orphans and adoption. Sometimes the parents are old and dying, sometimes they are young and experiencing parenthood for the first time; sometimes they are yearning to be part of a family. (Kawase, of course, adds nature into the equation, while Kore-eda adds heart-warming humour.) That is why their films are so appealing when you reflect on what they offer in their films.

Young mother So-young (acted by IU, the stage name of
singer-songwriter-actress Lee Ji-eun)
preparing to deposit her child in the box
for adoption late in the night

So-young depositing her child in the Church's adoption box

Kore-eda has shifted gears in the last two films; his tales have moved beyond Japan. In The Truth (2019) the tale was set in France with three generations of a family in focus and the ethics or lack of ethics in their behaviour, developing the tale, with the help of outstanding French actresses (Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche, playing the major roles of mother and daughter, respectively). In Broker (2022), the Kore-eda tale is set in South Korea with Korean actors, one of whom won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his performance in this very film. Almost every character in Broker is significant. Each character is an orphan, or has given birth to a child that she cannot care for, or is a character hoping to have a foster child to care for. Thus, the tale is once again about orphans and families, a recurring Kore-eda theme. To this basic framework in Broker, Kore-eda adds the element of illegal, unethical and criminal commerce into the mix.

Kore-eda's criminal family: like the one in his Shoplifters.
Three, if not four (including the baby), are orphans. The man
holding the child is the main 'broker' (Song Kang-ho, who won
the Cannes Best Actor award for the role)

The two lady Korean police officers shadowing the brokers
in an unmarked car to catch them the act of human-trafficking 

The mother So-young entrapped by the shadow police

Kore-eda’s forte is to present diverse characters and to link them all in a single central concept as directors Robert Altman or John Cassavetes would do in their films. In Broker, as stated in the above award citation, the overarching theme is about being born into this world and appreciating the support from another person to live and form essential relationships for the future. Those who have been deprived of such fulsome life try to ensure that others they notice to be deprived of that privilege do get to enjoy that missing bonding. In Kore-eda’s Shoplifters  (2018) the film dwelt on the fact that we don’t choose our family—it could have helped if we could. In Kore-eda’s most complex and rewarding film, The Third Murder (2017), the director extended the human bonding among human beings, to visual metaphors of man and birds. Kore-eda’s recent geographical moves to France and Korea, remind you of another contemporary Japanese filmmaker Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car (2021), consciously shifting the tale of the film from Japan to Korea. Kore-eda and Hamaguchi are both asking us to view the world as a global village, where human concerns remain the same, irrespective of geographies.

The mother joins the 'brokers' to negotiate with 
likely foster parents

In Broker, Kore-eda’s move from Japan to Korea is possibly prompted by Korea allowing unwanted children to be anonymously dropped off in a box at a church, which is not so common a practice in Japan. Whilst most such children are taken good care of by the church, there is a grown-up orphan who has infiltrated the staff of that church to steal new drop-offs before the church authorities get to record its arrival. The “brokers” delete footage recorded in the surveillance footage recorded by the church. The stolen children get good care by the human traffickers described by the director’s chosen title as ”brokers” who look for foster parents in the black market.  There are always eager childless couples ready to pay good money for adopting a child bypassing the red tape of legal adoption that the church and the country insist on before the adoption is legally formalized. Two Korean police-women in an unmarked vehicle, have tip-off of the brokers’ activities and are shadowing them to catch the brokers red-handed making an illegal deal with foster parents. Director and writer Kore-eda loves to add spice to the basic framework—here he throws in a murder, a rich-widow of the murdered person with no real love for a child but shows an interest in raising the child because it her murdered husband’s offspring, and finally one of the shadowing policewomen‘s personal interest in adoption. It may seem too convoluted and unreal but it works as it did in Shoplifters.  Both Kore-eda and Kawase, as original scriptwriters/directors, are amazing in their abilities making film after film on subjects that are essentially on children, orphans and family.

Kore-eda’s nod to US director P. T. Anderson’s film Magnolia (1999), with the policewoman listening to the song Wise Up, used in the US film and discussing it over the phone while shadowing the human-traffickers is another element to reinforce the global village concept of Kore-eda’s vision.  

Broker is definitely one of the best films of 2022 and of the director’s oeuvre. The last five minutes of the film wraps up the tale on a positive note, bringing to mind the similarities and the contrasts of the two films Broker and Shoplifters. Once again Kore-eda makes the thin line between the good guys (Korean cops, caring parents) and the bad guys (brokers of all hues, murderers, vengeful wives, bad son born to a good family getting involved with thugs) almost disappear. The Third Murder, however,  remains the more sophisticated and philosophical work of Kore-eda.

P.S.   Broker won the Best Actor award and the Ecumenical Jury prize at the Cannes international film festival in 2022. It won the Best International Film award at the 2022 Munich film festival. Two earlier works of director Kore-eda The Third Murder (2017) and The Truth (2019) have been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Please click on their names in this post-script to access those reviews.) My ranked list of Kore-eda's films is on Letterboxd. Broker is one of the author's best films of 2022.