Tuesday, January 09, 2024

283. The Vietnamese director Thien An Pham’s debut feature film “Ben trong vo ken vang“ (Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell) (2023), based on his original screenplay: Searching for faith and meaning in life, following a recent personal tragedy





“Faith is what I am searching for --answers the film’s main character, Thien, to his toddler nephew’s question, on what is faith, soon after his dead mother is described publicly as someone who had strong faith  
Would you give your favorite toys to your friend and did you think he would to return them to you?” Thien asks his nephew  
He will return them to me because he is good,” answers the nephew  
Faith is a little bit like that,” Thien explains to his nephew

Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell is nearly 3-hours long, bereft of sex, violence, or crime. Further, it is slow-moving, philosophical, magical (literally and metaphorically) and charming--aspects missing in most contemporary American and British films. You don’t see fast cars in this Vietnamese film; instead you see mopeds that often breakdown, traversing dirt tracks more often than on proper paved roads. Much of what you see in the film is rural contemporary Vietnam with birds, animals and human beings sharing space and time. Cocks crow before dawn and humans wake early to trap wild, well-fed cocks that fight for fresh territory with others. This is not a film that could conventionally compete and win an Oscar. Yet, this film has won the coveted 2023 Golden Camera award at the Cannes international film festival , from amongst debut films competing in all the competitive sections of the 2023 festival. The Vietnamese film  was chosen in the ‘Director’s Fortnight’ section and won the coveted award that transcends the conventional borders of that particular section of the festival. A dream-start for a young, relatively unknown filmmaker’s career who scripted a mature screenplay with the lead character sharing the director’s name.

Thien and his toddler nephew accompany 
his sister-in-law Hanh's coffin to his village

What is remarkable about this work is the swathe of complex ideas that fill the film’s canvas as the young filmmaker Thien paints it. The film opens with a near-monologue over dinner for three in a small, crowded restaurant in Saigon over the opportunities offered in city life versus those in rural Vietnam. The ensuing film does discuss that in a meandering manner. What is equally remarkable is that the film’s cinematography and the diegetic soundtrack that could amaze perceptive viewers, who notice those aspects while watching a film over the more obvious narrative.   

Thein (back to the camera) listens to former soldier Lu'u
in his humble abode. There is no music, only diegetic sound. 

 As the film unspools, there are ordinary conversations between young and old, strangers and villagers who have known each other’s families over decades; small birds that enter the film’s narrative and then die, adding to the mosaic of lives offered in the film;  magic tricks to entrance kids (and even elder viewers of the film) with props such as a finger-sized bell that proves to have a tale of its own as the film progresses; and dialogs between different elders and Thien that reek of wisdom and philosophy rarely encountered in a film made by a young director. The connection between Thien and his elders are as mystical as varied encounters of Thien has with nature (rain, butterflies, sericulture cocoons, dreams of aggressive buffaloes that sense danger only to turn around, the soothing invitation of the flowing waters of a brook). 

Searching for his brother Tam,
Thien encounters the wise old lady who experienced
a near death event and has wisdom to impart for his search

After the conversation with the old lady, Thien falls asleep
at the same spot, and dreams of an encounter with buffaloes

On waking up, Thien has an urge to walk in the rain,
until encountering the shrub with white butterflies

Each character populating the film offers depth to the screenplay. Thiem’s brother Tam, who has suddenly left his wife and son, had wanted and to be a priest, until his theological teachers advised him to get married instead. Tam’s wife Hanh is described as a woman of “faith,” who wanted to give birth to her unborn child, even after doctors had warned her that the child would be born without arms. A former soldier who had fought in the Vietnam war and had once enjoyed war combats as a young man, explains to Thien that he no longer has interest in lucre even when it is offered to him by Thien and instead  prefers to live a humble life, preparing shrouds for the dead in his village. Then there is an old lady, who claims to have endured a near death experience, providing philosophical solace to Thien in his quest to locate his elder brother to inform him of his wife Hanh’s passing and of his son being admitted into a convent where Thien’s former sweetheart, now a nun, teaches the tiny tots.  

Thien gets closer to finding his brother Tam (a sericulturist) 
and holds Tam's child surrounded by yellow silk cocoons

Tam's new wife with Tam's child leads Thien to Tam's
work spot 

At Tam's work spot, Thien falls asleep, Tam's wife and child
disappear, and the farm owner (back to camera) states
that there is no Tam there. (For confused filmgoers. the
maroon bag on the moped is crucial to explain matters)

What is stunning is the long single shot of Thien holding Tam’s baby in his arms and the shot ending without cuts with Thien sleeping on his moped alone and being woken up by the farm owner who states that there is no person named Tam anywhere near his farm.  These are aspects (sleep, dreams, etc.) in Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell that any knowledgeable filmgoer will recall of the Thai  director Weerasethakul’s superb film  Memoria, another cinematic tale connecting death, history  and the present or the long takes of the Greek director Angelopoulos, drifting in time within a single shot. The sudden rains (common in Vietnam and other parts of Asia) is intentionally used as a stylistic device to blur time and space. Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell, as in Zvyaginstev’s The Return or Tarkovsky’s earth sequences in Solaris uses rain to invite Thien  on a dreamlike walk that offers images akin to Joycean epiphanies (white butterflies on a particular shrub in the rain). Could it be a mulberry shrub? The viewer is equally reminded of Theo Angelopoulos’ films (e.g., Eternity and a Day) of the historical connections of the Vietnam war and the present and the present through the memories of elders, such as the former soldier Lu’u, content making shrouds for the dead remarking that there will be no one else to do it, if he stopped doing it.

The last shot: Thien lies in the brook as the gently flowing
waters of the brook stroke his body
Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell may not appeal to the millions who love commercial cinema and believe the Oscars, the BAFTAs and the Golden Globes honor the best in world cinema, oblivious of good cinema of a different kind being made elsewhere on the globe. That is where the three big film festivals of the world (Cannes, Berlin, and Venice) step in to alert us to the fact such films do exist.  Knowledgeable folks know that even Hollywood’s best filmmakers compete in those festivals for early valuable recognition before the Oscar circus.  
Thien An Pham’s Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell has heralded the arrival of a new prodigy from Vietnam. This cinematic product amply proves that any young director with talent will get world recognition, if the film’s style and content are original and admirable, while specifically not spoon-feeding a lazy viewer on what the film is all about. A good film has to ultimately make the viewer think.     

P.S. Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell won the Golden Camera award at Cannes, the Roberto Rossellini award for the Best Film at the Pingyao (China) and the Best Asian feature film award at the Singapore international film festival. Three films, mentioned in passing in the above review—Memoria, The Return and Solaris have been reviewed on this blog earlier and those reviews can be accessed by clicking on their names in this postscript. Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell is listed by the author as one of  the Best Films of 2023.

Sunday, December 17, 2023

The Polish film maestro Krzysztof Zanussi converses with Jugu Abraham on 14 Dec 2023 on the occasion of receiving his lifetime achievement award at IFFK, Trivandrum

Krzysztof Zanussi (84) has won the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival for his film A Year of the Quiet Sun (1984), the Jury prize at the Cannes film festival for The Constant Factor (1980)., the Golden Leopard at Locarno film festival for Illumination (1973), among 69 international awards. The latest is his Lifetime Achievement Award bestowed by the International Film Festival of Kerala, India. He spoke to the author of this blog, Jugu Abraham. 

Mr Zanussi addressing the media at IFFK
on 14 Dec 2023 at Trivandrum, Kerala

Mr Zanussi listening to his interviewer, Mr Abraham

Jugu Abraham: Mr Zanussi, You have been always considered as one of the three major Polish film directors..The others being Wajda and Kieslowski. But there's a distinct difference between you and the other two that I have noticed. Almost all your screenplays are your own and not adapted from other sources, unlike Wajda or Kieslowski. 
Krzysztof Zanussi: Wajda, no. Kieslowski, yes. 

Abraham: Yes, Kieslowski, did one (Blind Chance) that was entirely his own.

Zanussi: Even though Kieslowski wrote all the screenplays with his personal friends as co-scriptwriters, he was responsible for the stories. He was the leading writer. We were very close friends.

Abraham: In your case, most of the scripts are your own. 

Zanussi: Yes. 

Abraham:  That makes you the main person in spite of the characters in the film. Your mind comes through to us who are viewing your films because your mind is represented through those characters you have created. I see a lot of your interest in science, your interest in the books that you have read, those philosophies come through in the leading characters you have created in your films. Is that right?
Zanussi: I hope it is. It's up to you to judge. 

Abraham: One of your films that really made me your admirer was your early work made in collaboration with Germany, a film called Ways in the Night  (1979).

Zanussi: Wege in der Nacht  

Abraham: Yes, The way you structured it was fascinating for me, because your script split it into three parts. One on the love affair between a good Nazi and a Polish aristocratic lady; another on the past history of the Nazi officer, and the final segment of the Nazi’s daughter and her strange comments on the affair concluding the film, a segment that would force viewers to reassess the film altogether.  Several decades later, Russian director  Konchalovsky has done the same with his film  Paradise. Not many other directors have employed this radical structure.

Zanussi: Glad to hear that. And as this film is forgotten, I am very happy that you are one of my viewers.  I was inspired by some situation in my own family. So it is a very personal film. Of course, everything is remodeled. But the whole idea of a good German, a good enemy, is something very intriguing to me. And at the time, when I was writing this film, it was in the 70s . I  was very much afraid that being the subject, a citizen of a country in the Soviet bloc, I will be forced to take part in the war that they were announcing all the time. And we knew in Poland, the Polish army was supposed to go against Denmark. And that I could be some day, probably be an interpreter in the army, I will be soon be facing my acquaintances, my friends in Denmark, telling them get out of their house, because some Soviet officer would be staying there This was a frightening prospect. So I did identify with the German as much as with the Polish character. I thought each of them is in a tragic position. Culture is not enough to make peace between two people who are on opposite sides of a war.

Abraham: Probably you're aware of it that subconsciously you had created two well-educated personalities as the two lovers, and that they have read a lot more than the others.

Zanussi: Right.

Abraham: And that made the difference to the entire story. And this resurfaces in the rest of your work as well. It's the people who are well read, who are often good people listening to their conscience and making the right decisions..

Zanussi: I am not in a position to judge. That is my intention. You read my intention according to my expectation. I am very grateful.

Abraham:. And also, you are able to do something special with Maja Komorowska, one of your favorite actresses who has been with you.in so many later films of yours.  In this particular film, she stole my heart. I mean, even though later on, she has done so many works (A Year of the Quiet Sun; In Full Gallop), which were equally good. But this early work was remarkable.

Zanussi: I will definitely will tell her, Yes, because we're still friends, and still in touch. She's still active, even though she's even older than myself. And she is still active on stage, occasionally she does some some roles in films.

Abraham: We see her later on in your film A Year of the Quiet Sun, portraying a different character. There again, her character is almost similar to her character in Ways in the Night underscoring that people who have a good conscience, do the right thing. And I think that comes as a recurring theme that goes through all your films, that taking the right moral action is very important, in spite of everything else.

Zanussi: While trying to be right, there are some tragic situations where there is no good way out as in my film Camouflage. When if you don't quit, you're guilty, even if you have good intentions. That's a tragic situation that we know from Greek drama. Right. But that's what we try to avoid. In fact, whenever I'm confronted with India, I wonder how you manage to avoid tragic aspects because you have Sanskrit drama and I try to read some of them. But there is no tragedy but there is drama and conflicts but there is always a way out. And there is always an original order original harmony yes, that you can restore at the end. Right? I think there's a very big cultural difference between Europe and India.

Abraham: Contemporary playwrights have taken up the aspect of tragedy in contrast to, as you point out, the original ancient ones. You might have heard of the late Girish Karnad as a playwright and filmmaker. He wrote Tughlaq, which is a very interesting tragic play,  I always wondered why nobody has picked up that play to make a film. And it's a historical character, which is a tragedy and a beautiful one. I've happened to have acted in that play when I was in college.

So, apart from that, I noticed that you have often reverted to casting some of the actors whom you worked with earlier on. An example is Scott Wilson.

Zanussi: Oh, yes. How do you go back as a human being? As a married man  I have only married once! Yes. So I have a natural tendency to be faithful and faithful to my friends, right. So when I have a good experience with an actor, I always invite these actors to my future works, like Leslie Caron, who worked three times with me, and really many others like Maja Komorowska  and Zbigniew Zapasiewiecz.. He is such a good example when we talk about well-educated and passionate people. Right. Sometimes education kills your passion. Then the education is not the right education. What it means is that it is the wrong education.

Abraham: Now, let me get back to your physics. Because that's interests me because I too studied physics initially in college. When you started your films career as a director and original screenplay-writer, you dealt with inorganic subjects, and then gradually moved on to organic subjects in films and used them as allegories, For instance, from Structure of Crystals, to mathematics and statistics (Imperative), to physics (Illumination) to even linguistics (Camouflage), and then you go on to inorganic examples in science as in the film Life as a Sexually Transmitted Disease.

Zanussi: One thing is stable, that all material world is interconnected.

Abraham: That’s true,

Zanussi: And there was a movement, the first half of the past century was half century of physics. The second is half a century of biology. So I travel with the development of the problems. Now the future of humanity depends very much on biology and genetic engineering, right? Are we going to improve our species or kill it? What’s going to happen?

Abraham: I was surprised that not many people in the US, UK and Latin America are aware of your films except when the early film Ways in the Night came out. The famous US film critic Roger Ebert gave it very high ratings and in his review and stated that you are “one of the best filmmakers in the world..“ Apart from that recognition, not many people are aware of your films in those parts of the world.

I still must be happy that somebody is aware like yourself. 

(The exclusive interview was curtailed by the IFFK organizers and I had to join the press conference where I could ask more questions to Zanussi)    My questions at the press conference follow:

Abraham: My question relates to my earlier conversation with you.  Were there chances for you to collaborate with some other co-scriptwriters on your films and what was the outcome?

Zanussi: Yes, at the beginning, with a colleague of mine from the film school, who was a writer. He was more advanced than I was. He joined me and we were writing scripts for television, which I made into films later. But once the scripts became more of a story for my first film, we could not agree, I had my vision and he had his. We had a friendly parting of ways. We remained friends for the rest of his life.

Abraham: So you felt that by doing things your own, you probably had a more rounded structure for your screenplays?

Zanussi: No. A different structure. The message was different.  My friend was far more negative than I was. So there was no compromise. Either there was hope or no hope.

Abraham: Would you like to say something about your work with Polish music composer  Wojciech Kilar, and the music of the composer with whom you have worked on so many of your films? Why did you pick him? And stay with him?
Zanussi:  We became friends. The beginning of the friendship was a disaster. And I was guilty of it. I had a crazy idea as young filmmakers have, when you're young, you have ideas that are totally insane. Because I have a good musical ear, no education, I thought I will make a revolution and I will ask music to be written before I make a film, not after. Two composers said it is impossible. And the third one said, I don't say that is reasonable. He wrote the music, I used his music as a playback. Everything was right. Once the film was edited, it looked ridiculous. It was really, really ludicrous. Because when you had a shadow, you had to have something that corresponded to it. So it was like animation. It was a very bad idea. Kilar said that now I will write the real appropriate music for your Structure of Crystals. He wrote it. And since then, I felt I had such depth from his music for my films. From my next film onwards, I wouldn't say a word to him to avoid confrontation. And since then, he wrote music for all my films with no exception. And I was never disappointed. Sometimes  I spoke with his wife, as an intermediary but never directly. Sometimes it was my wife who was speaking with his wife. That was the way how we survived without confronting each other.  But we were talking about theology, physics, and everything else but music. Well, unfortunately, he was working with other bigger directors than myself like Francis Ford Coppola (Bram Stoker’s Dracula), like Kiesolwski and Polansky and many others. And I reproached him and said you are my good friend. Why do you write such good music for my competitors? He simply answered “Makes good films as they do” and I will write you good music. So even this terrible answer didn't discourage me and our friendship survived. 

Abraham: A question on cinematographer Edward Klosinsky and his actress wife Krystyna Janda, both of whom collaborated who with you on several films.

Zanussi: You know so much about Polish cinema… 

Abraham: How did you find working with Klosinsky (Camouflage; Persona non grata)? 

Zanussi: Well, Janda is now a widow. Klosinsky, my friend and cameraman passed away. We had a good understanding as he was extremely intelligent and became famous making films abroad (Three Colors: White and Red; Europa) as well.  His wife Janda, now in her 70s, became famous in the films of Wajda (Man of Iron; Man of Marble; The Conductor) with Klosinski as the cinematographer. She is now very popular with feminists. 

Abraham: When you worked with Klosinski, was he giving you ideas or were you giving him ideas? What was the creative process between the two of you? 

Zanussi: As an intelligent man, he found it easy to tune into somebody’s tastes. When he was working with me he would bring me suggestions, and they were in my style of filmmaking. When he was working with Wajda, he would suggest to Wajda according to Wajda’s style. He understood the script; he understood the director.,

Abraham: When you made your film Imperative, you had named the main character as Augustine. What percentage of the audiences you feel recognized the connection? 

Zanussi: I didn’t make a survey to check. The name of the main character is not just coincidental. When we have children we choose their names according to our desire. We sometimes name them after saints to protect them later in life. St Augustine was the first writer of psychological perspective of one’s inner life. And he was a terrible character, a difficult man to deal with and yet a genius.. 

Abraham: Thank you, Mr Zanussi.   


Some interesting Zanussi quotes from the Press Conference in response to other media persons' questions: 

I believe in reason, but reason has its limits. We think, everything is already explained. And now we see mysteries are back. That's a great discovery of the 21st century, with the new modern physics, where everything is surprising and paradoxical. Because they use different logics. And I meet many scientists who say, we work but we don't have a step. That's a very humble approach. 

I have to refer to something that you all remember from school and maybe not yet. It is the Gauss curve (Gaussian distribution). You know, Gauss has made this camel-like curve  which shows that majority in every case is mediocre. because majority is always off as a mathematical principle, a statistical principle. And excellence is always in minority. So, in the past, when your maharajahs and our princes and kings and emperors were giving subsidies to support art, they were supporting great artists who were not popular with a large audience at all.

P.S. The author's review of  Zanussi's Persona non grata, written in 2006, on this blog can be accessed  by clicking on the name of the film in this postscript.  

Sunday, November 12, 2023

282. The talented indigenous Australian filmmaker Ivan Sen’s 11th feature film “Limbo“ (2023), based on his original screenplay: More than a crime investigation, a study on the plight of the indigenous people in Australia, and gaining significance after the recent national vote rejecting additional power for the disadvantaged community



"Limbo is the continuation of themes I explored in my previous films. Those earlier films dealt with indigenous perspective through the eyes of an indigenous police officer. Limbo explores the deeper impact of a crime on an indigenous family through the eyes of a white police officer. Some of these ideas have largely come from my own personal experience, from family members and friends.” 
--director, original screenplay-writer, music composer, editor and cinematographer Ivan Sen of Limbo

“Every single negative can lead to a positive” 
---from the Evangelist broadcast station heard on the police officer  Travis’ car radio, early in the film, after discussing the travails of the Biblical Joseph who was sold off

Australian cinema’s contribution to world cinema was phenomenal in the Seventies. It produced talented directors such as Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock; The Last Wave, etc); Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant; Getting of Wisdom, ), George Miller (Mad Max), Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career; Mrs Soffel), and Paul Cox (A Woman’s Tale: Vincent), indigenous actor David Gulpilil, cinematographer Russell Boyd and editor William Anderson (contributing to many of the aforementioned films). Unfortunately, for Australian cinema, many of them ‘migrated’ to Hollywood and are now associated with their work out there. After the glorious Seventies, there was a lull favoring more commercial cinema (e.g., Crocodile Dundee) save for occasional good cinema (e.g., Babe; Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale). In recent years, the very talented actors Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Hugo Weaving and Geoffrey Rush are rarely recognized as essentially Australians.

In this bleak scenario, a 2023 Australian film Limbo could make any discerning filmgoer sit up.  It is a crime film that provides a fascinating screenplay, mesmerizing black and white cinematography, hypnotic direction and music (used mostly towards the end, recalling the effect of Antonioni’s film Zabriskie Point,  with a top-notch performance by lead actor Simon Baker (another Australian making waves in recent decades in Hollywood films The Devil Wears Prada and  L. A . Confidential).
Ivan Sen is an unusual name. As an Indian, I would associate “Sen” with persons from Bengal in eastern India (e.g., Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen or filmmaker Mrinal Sen). However, I was surprised to find Ivan Sen has no Indian connection. He is an indigenous Australian and had already made 10 feature films, often in color, in Australia. Even more surprising is that director Sen writes his own original scripts. In Limbo, a 20 year-old cold case is solved by a heroin-addicted Caucasian Australian police officer in a non-orthodox manner and the outcome is equally unconventional but pleasing (connecting up with the Biblical Joseph), again recalling the end of John Sayles' lovely film of the same name Limbo (1999).

Police officer Travis (Simon Baker) in casual clothes
arrives in Limbo

The unusual aspect of Sen’s Limbo is the economy of the spoken words and the emphasis on body language and lazy action, or rather inaction, which results strangely in growing trust between the indigenous folk and the white police officer that apparently never existed in the past. One of the indigenous persons, Charlie,  who the police officer Travis (Simon Baker) encounters for the first time, candidly states “I don’t talk to cops, especially white ones.”  We learn from the few conversations in the film that in the original investigation of the missing woman, indigenous witnesses were roughed up by police officers 20 years ago if they gave any information that the white police officers did not want to hear.   

Soon after Travis' arrival in Limbo his swanky car gets vandalized
while parked outside his motel and Travis has to make do
with a Sixties Dodge replacement (above) that serves him well;
reminding one of the Japanese film Drive My Car

The camera of Sen ‘speaks’ a lot. It connects visually shoe-marks near the officer’s car that has been vandalized and resulting in damaging a critical computer chip that makes the car run, and a boy, a blood relation of the missing woman being investigated, wearing two shoes that do not match. It again connects the indigenous art work inferred to have been the product of the missing person and the presence of the artwork in Leon’s dwelling. It connects the retrieval of the registration details retrieved from a missing burnt car wreck that provides possible clues to the missing girl.  In a regular Hollywood script, the details of how a police officer accesses and reconfirms by talking to colleagues or checking old data are concepts thrown out of the window by Ivan Sen.   He expects the viewer to be smart enough to connect the images and the brief spoken words subsequently. That is mature cinema and a more realistic approach to detective work than mere spoon-feeding of details in the typical Hollywood noir fare. 

Questions from the police officer Travis elicit icy responses

Equally confounding, initially are the words spoken by Charlie to the suspect Leon’s dog (in a local indigenous language, used infrequently in the film, the rest being English). The dog understands what is said but not the viewer. I guess the director wants the viewer to turn detective and connect that the dog knows Charlie, the brother of the victim, while the initial suspect Leon, now dead, owned the dog and is now cared for by Joseph, Leon’s buddy . It is typical of the filmmaking method of Ivan Sen, evident throughout the film. Joseph’s character can be fleshed out in an unconventional manner (by an attentive viewer) by connecting the dots: his concern for the dog, the flowers regularly placed at the last known location of the missing person, Joseph in the small church speaking to the priest, Joseph’s condolences 20 years late to the missing person’s family, etc.
Travis persists and wins over the key persons
related to the cold case

Limbo is unusual because it presents a police officer who is a heroin addict and yet solves the case with persistence. We realize the man had gone undercover with a body full of tattoos to bust a drug traffic case and got addicted in the process. Yet he can still do his job—and how! His addiction could also have been because his wife has left him for another man and his son with her. He quietly steps out of that cosmos to help another family come together, even though when requested initially to help the fractured family he feels he is not qualified for that specific intervention.

Indigenous residents, including children, survive by
scrounging for opal stones in the soil near the old opal mines

 Ariel view of the unused opal mines in South Australia in twilight

Beyond the ‘outback’ noir, the film uses spirituality. First, there are the radio broadcasts that Travis listens to in the car. Then there is a seemingly unconnected visit by Travis to the Limbo church where he observes Joseph and the priest from a distance. You don’t hear the spoken words, you “see” the body language. Most importantly, the film like the Joseph story in the Bible reunites a family thanks to the police officer’s kind intervention.  The viewer is seemingly urged by the director to superimpose the Biblical tale of Joseph on Travis’ difficulty in solving the crime as much as the missing girl’s family’s defeatist feeling that they will never get justice or closure in the social and physical wasteland of Coober Pedy in South Australia, where once opal stone was mined commercially.  It is still sparsely inhabited with a few police cars, a church, a few pubs and diners, an opal trader, and an automobile technician who needs to order spare parts from a distant town to get them. 

Entry to one of the opal caves, exterior view, with Travis's car
parked outside

Metaphoric entry of Travis into the caves of Limbo,
dug to mine opal stones, to crack the cold case
he is investigating

Add all this cinematic craft of Sen to the breath-taking aerial view of the deserted man-made opal cave mines that still have some opal in the rubble with Sen’s own music. Further, the decision that Sen made to film Limbo in black-and-white was astute—a departure from his earlier work Mystery Road. It all works. Congratulations, Mr Ivan Sen, you are lifting up a sagging Australian cinema cherry picking fine cinematic concepts from world cinema and adapting those to benefit a better global understanding of the indigenous community. The funding for the film is well-conceptualized: Limbo will possibly attract tourism to the South Australian outback with opal to pick up if you have a keen eye, just as some parks near former gold-mining hotspots in USA do reward visitors with keen eyes who spot gold nuggets.       

P.S. Limbo won the Grand Prize at the 2023 Brussels International Film festival. It was nominated for the Golden Bear at the 2023 Berlin Film festival. It is one of best films of 2023 for this critic. Ivan Sen’s work in this film reminds you of the late Ermanno Olmi, whose Golden Palm winning film The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978) was also directed, written, edited, and cinematographed by Olmi himself. Sen goes one step further than Olmi—he contributes the music of his own film as well! Another Australian film that took an empathetic view of the indigenous people was Peter Weir’s The Last Wave (1977). Reviews of the two films by this author, published on this blog, mentioned earlier in this postscript can be accessed by clicking on their colored titles here. 

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
"..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’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: https://rg.ru/2018/10/24/andrej-konchalovskij-moj-film-eto-moe-videnie-zhizni-mikelandzhelo.html) 

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)