Thursday, November 08, 2018

229. The late Chinese director Bo Hu’s debut and final film “Da xiang xi die er zuo ” (An Elephant Sitting Still) (2018) (China): A realistic film on the lives of the marginal urban population in China, a perspective rarely presented to foreigners, based on a novel written by the director

It is not easy to sit through any feature film that is nearly 4 hours long; more so if the characters in the film are dour, unexceptional, and behave like the dregs of society. An Elephant Sitting Still would challenge the average viewer to keep on watching the principal characters whose actions are abhorrent, whose views are negative, and whose reactions are slow. What keeps the fatigued viewer to persist in watching the long film is the unusual subject revealed in the initial few minutes of the film: an elephant that is sitting still in a city in China as part of a circus but eats the food offered to it. You keep watching the film trying to figure out the connection between the host of anti-heroes in the film and the elephant—which becomes clear only in the final sequence of the film. (The film is on show at the Denver Film Festival)

Two school kids, Bu and Ling, meet at a monkey-feeding cage,
where the monkeys keep a low profile

An Elephant Sitting Still belongs to a wave of Chinese films (e.g., Jia Zhang-ke’s  A Touch of Sin) in recent years  that deals with the lopsided growth of the Chinese economy which leads to isolated violent actions by those who feel  deprived of any hope for a change in their life, however much they aspire and dream for a better deal . The temperament of the film is nihilistic to the core—wives cheat on their husbands; friends betray friends; sons value their offspring more than their parents; dogs run off from their caring human families and seek refuge with strangers; teachers/deans have sex with their students; grown-up men kill dogs that have done them no harm; touts sell fake railway tickets; when you possess valid rail tickets, the  trains get cancelled; people burn garbage in the open, close to tall, residential buildings; violent acts in schools are not reported to the police as the consequences are worse... The list goes on. It is the myth of the Sisyphus—trying to climb a mountain that you will never be able surmount.

“I don’t like anybody. The world is quite disgusting. They are afraid of you, if you kill.”--Words of a schoolboy in the film after shooting a thug and before committing suicide

Exploited school girl Ling turns violent 

It is not surprising that the director Bo Hu committed suicide soon after completing his debut film and the publishing of his novel on which the film is based. The film "reads" like a suicide note.

Bo Hu had written the original script of the film based on his own book Huge Crack  (written under his pen name Hu Qian and published in 2017, a year before the film was made) evidently noticing the myriad problems of the lower middle class in modern day China. A well-meaning bright student has to deal with bullies in school and parents who do not encourage or appreciate him at home. Most young people look at their parents for inspiration; but what can you do, when you find out that one of your parents was caught taking bribes? The late Bo Hu had studied filmmaking and this debut magnum opus seems to have been stuffed with his perceptions of things wrong in his world in the 29 years that he lived on this planet.

Dogs seek shelter with strangers like Wang (above): not expecting
strange behaviour from them

In the film An Elephant Sitting Still there is two suicides, a killing of a dog, a mortal accident caused by a push, and several killings of human beings by individuals driven to the edge of despair. The varied age groups involved in the bleak and dark narrative range from teenage school kids, to young men and women starting their lives by investing in an apartment, an elderly man being pushed into a retirement home where even retired army generals are not happy, and an elderly grandmother lying dead in her tenement because her family does not visit her.

If you are standing on a tall building’s balcony, what would come to your head?"
--Words spoken by a thug, Chen, whose best friend jumped off a tall building’s balcony
“I would think what else can I do?” --Response from a school kid Bu, who has unintentionally killed Chen's brother (who in turn was bullying him) by pushing him backwards at the top of the stairs of his school, echoing the very advice given to Chen earlier by the woman he loves

The importance of the film rests solely on Bo Hu’s intentions to discuss the social problems of China today without making it look like an overt criticism of the Government. It is clearly inferred in the film that the police is more feared rather than serving as a source of protection from evil forces. The people who kill are mostly aware that the law will ultimately catch up with them. But An Elephant Sitting Still is not a film that deals with the wages of killing; it is a film that wonders if there is a way out of this juggernaut of negative socio-political matrix for someone who wants to live a new life, turn a new page, irrespective of their physical age.  It is a film of people who wonder “what else they can do.

So who are trying to witness the strange elephant with an unusual behaviour? A retired man with his school-going granddaughter and two teenage school kids, possibly in love, with human blood on their hands make their pilgrimage to the metaphorical elephant that eats without moving. Any intelligent viewer will grasp what the pachyderm stands for.  Nietzsche would have smiled at this film, if he was alive. Perhaps so would have Soren Kierkegaard (recalling his concepts of 'levelling' when compared to the gradual leveling of the hubris of the alpha-male Cheng in An Elephant Sitting Still) and the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev in finding a soulmate in Bo Hu. It is not the film that is important, it is what the film tries to communicate to the viewer that is important.

P.S. The film won the FIPRESCI award at the Berlin Film Festival and a special mention for a debut film at the festival.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

228. Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film “Ahlat agaci” (The Wild Pear Tree) (2018) (Turkey): A slow-paced, contemplative stunner, yet another Ceylan tale of an adult male member within a traditional family, touching on several contemporary problems in Turkey

Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan is one of the most distinguished filmmakers alive and The Wild Pear Tree is arguably one of his best works to date, currently on show at the Denver Film Festival after its premiere at Cannes in the competition section earlier this year. If the viewer is patient to absorb a 3-hour film with lots of loaded conversations and meaningful visuals, the hours spent would be well compensated.  More so, if the viewer is well read and perceptive. It is a film that encompasses social, political and theological thoughts without being too obvious. Remarks made in passing are not easy to ignore in any Ceylan film, less so in this one.

Sinan, the graduate, reads at home rather than look for work

On a very simplistic level, a young man Sinan returns home after graduating in a distant college to his home town after some years.  He realizes his school-teacher father Idris has slid into a compulsive gambler, accumulating debts. His mother Asuman keeps the home running with a combination of tact, practicality and help from her neighbours.  Asuman wants Sinan to earn a living now that he has graduated. Sinan slowly distances himself from his parents. Sinan, who has neither a definite career goal nor a life partner in mind, wishes to first publish his book that he describes as “quirky, auto-fiction, meta-novel, free of faith, ideology or agendas.”  As an unknown author without any money to spare, he has to find financial support to get it printed.   The title of the film The Wild Pear Tree is the title of the book Sinan wants to publish and he does get published eventually.  As the film progresses the symbolic importance of trees is underlined at crucial places within the film visually by the Ceylan’s constant trusted cinematographer GokhanTiryaki. A wild pear tree growing in isolation, bears fruits, just as Sinan has earned a graduate degree. It is still a gnarled tree unlike popular pear trees, just as Sinan struggles for fuller acceptance within his family and community. 

Sinan finally understands his father Idris, who he acknowledges never beat him 
Sinan gives a copy of his book to his mother Asuman, acknowledging
her role in his life

Sinan with his girlfriend minus her head scarf and her tresses blowing
behind a tree

Those who have been exposed to Ceylan’s previous works will spot the common structures of Ceylan’s tales: the father, mother, and son trio in The Three Monkeys (2008); the several husbands and wives recalled by male characters in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) including an unforgettable comment in that film,   “You don’t know how boys suffer here, without a father. It’s the kids who suffer most in the end, doctor, it’s the kids who pay for the sins of adults..”;  and the see-sawing  relationship of a husband and wife in Winter Sleep  (2014) overtly caring and respectful to each other, taking great care not to tread on each other’s toes. All the films are  based on original scripts written by Ceylan and his wife Ebru Ceylan, sometimes working with a third co-scriptwriter; in the case of The Wild Pear Tree it is Akin Aksu,  who additionally acts as one of the two debating Imams in the film. (When this critic had asked director Ceylan on his wife’s contribution to his films, soon after the release of Winter Sleep in a film festival “question and answer” session, Ceylan indicated that he was doubtful if his wife would work on his next film as she felt Winter Sleep was way too lengthy. Evidently, as in the case of all the wives in Ceylan’s films, luckily for us, she has continued to work with her husband in this equally long film: The Wild Pear Tree).

The Wild Pear Tree is structured around Sinan’s one-to-one interactions with several men (the town’s mayor, a wealthy sand merchant, a local author of repute, a former classmate,  two Imams, and his father Idris) and  two women (his mother and his girl friend). The town’s mayor, in his encounter with Sinan, emphasizes that his office is open and has no door and yet his actions seem to be contrary to his speech (an indirect comment on Turkish administrators). In the interaction with the sand merchant, the businessman acknowledges that he has indeed supported cultural causes, if it helps him in indirectly in his business. Conversations reveal a lot. Jobs for graduates are not easy to come by, “Education is great, but this is Turkey” . The film includes a conversation between Sinan and his former classmate who had no option but chose a career in the police, where he has to brutally beat up a friend who is rounded up as a protestor.  

Scene of despondency in Ceylan's The Wild Pear Tree
Similar scene in Ceylan's earlier work  The Three Monkeys

But Sinan does publish his book and present copies to his parents. But the film is not about this accomplishment—it is only a turning point to the bigger story of the film: Sinan’s gradual appreciation of his parents and their love towards him.

The high point of the film is Sinan’s accidental interaction with two Imams (Islamic priests).  Sinan encounters the worthies stealing apples from a tree that does not belong to them and cheekily throws stones at them without revealing his presence to see their reaction.  The tree here is not a pear tree, but the roles of trees in the film are not merely decorative. While you wonder about the possible connection to the tree in the Garden of Eden, the conversation between the Imams and Sinan (who has by now revealed himself) move on to free will in Islamic theology. In negation of the free will concept, most conservative Muslims constantly use the phrase ”Insah Allah” (if Allah wills) just as conservative Jews and Christians say “if it be Thy will” or Hindus refer to the role of  “Karma” and “Atma.”  The long conversation as the trio walks towards the town after picking of the apples can be heard clearly without interruption and the same sound level while the camera of Tiryaki captures the entire walk from varied distances and perspectives. Often the dense script of The Wild Pear Tree can be linked to works of the Turkish Sufi mystic Yusuf Emre and Russian literary masters Chekov and Dostoevsky.  Director Ceylan is considerably influenced by Chekov, as per his own admission to this critic, during a public question and answer session.

Has Sinan's father committed suicide?

There are three occasions when trees make their presence felt in The Wild Pear Tree: once when the Imams pluck the apples that do not belong to them; once when Sinan sees his father had fallen under a tree with a cut rope dangling from it, a perfect suicide scenario; and once when Sinan kisses his girlfriend using the tree trunk for privacy. And all of them are important structural points in the film.

Ceylan, his wife Ebru and cinematographer Tiryaki are a constant talented team who add on other members as key crew members in each film. In The Wild Pear Tree, Ceylan uses a short segment of the 14 minute Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor repeatedly with very good effect--a work with religious implications that has been used by Coppola in The Godfather in the baptism sequence and even by Jimi Hendrix in Lift Off.

Without a doubt, The Wild Pear Tree is one of the most important films of 2018, it also happens to be Turkey’s submission for the Oscars.  The only caveat: it requires from the viewer considerable patience and attention to savor the tasteful details.

P.S. Detailed reviews of three earlier works of Ceylan:  The Three Monkeys (2008), Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) and Winter Sleep (2014) appear on this blog. (Click on the names of the film in the post script to read those reviews). 

Friday, October 26, 2018

227. Italian director Valerio Zurlini’s last film “Il deserto dei tartari” (The Desert of the Tartars) (1976) (Italy), based on the Italian novel "The Tartar Steppe" by Dino Buzzati: An unforgettable film where cinema proves to be almost as effective as the novel

In life, everyone has to accept the role that was destined for him” 
–words spoken in the film The Desert of the Tartars, words that best describe the essence of the film
The film Desert of the Tartars, when released in 1976 did not win accolades at film festivals outside Italy, not even being nominated at the prestigious Italian Venice Film festival. Over the decades, it has gradually been recognized as a classic and, 37 years after it was made, it was restored and screened at the 2018 Cannes film festival as one.

One could argue that the importance of the film is primarily due to its adaptation of a major literary work The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati published in 1940 in Italian and subsequently translated into English.  Like the movie, the novel bloomed with time. In 1999, the prestigious French daily Le Monde, in its poll, ranked Buzzati’s book as the 29th best book of the century.  The book had become an iconic example of “magic realism” in literature. The book went on to influence the writings of major writers including the Nobel Prize winner J E M Coetzee, the Lebanese-American statistician and financial analyst turned author Nassim Nicolas Taleb (author of The Black Swan, described by The Sunday Times of UK as one of the 12 most-influential books since World War II) and the Booker Prize winner Yann Martel (author of Life of Pi).

The idealistic Lt Drago (Jacques Perrin) arrives on the outskirts of the
Fort Batiani where he will serve for years seeking glory that will elude him

Italian director Valerio Zurlini saw of the opportunity of adapting the novel on screen when its value was lesser known than it is now, realizing the potential of subtle visuals and music on screen to bring the magic realism of the words in the book. Actor Jacques Perrin had procured the film rights of the book from Buzzati. Zurlini corralled the talents of music composer Ennio Morricone, the elegant cinematographer Luciano Tavoli, and a stunning array of top-notch international actors (Max von Sydow, Jean- Louis Trintignant, Vittorio Gassman, Fernando Rey, Jacques Perrin, Helmut Griem, the spaghetti western hero Giuliano Gemma, Philippe Noiret, Francisco Rabal, etc). So were some important Iranian actors of the day included in the film such as Mohamad Ali Keshavarz, who is not listed in the IMdB credits for the film but this fact appears on the Wikipedia page of the Iranian actor.

Lt Drago introduces himself to the officers at Fort Bastiani. The empty chair
is for him.

The Desert of the Tartars, the film, is an almost all male film, save for the initial sequences of the film showing Lt. Drago at home with his mother as he wakes up from sleep to dress up into military uniform. He enthusiastically rides out of town on a Tartar horse, to report at a far away post of the Italian army in the year 1902. It is his first posting in the army.  The brief initial sequences reveal that the young man belongs to a rich and influential family and is respected by another horse-rider on the streets, who accompanies him up to the edge of the town, apparently knowing Lt. Drago’s intent. Not a single other human being or animal is shown in the town. Zurlini intentionally does away with unnecessary social farewells and family. The horse and its rider are the only objects that matter until the rider meets other military men on his journey. 

Lt Drago (right)  interacts with Lt Simeon (Helmut Griem) atop the fort 

Zurlini’s film shows Lt. Drago leaving his town early in the morning without food/provisions on horseback and arriving at the fortress with just a gulp of water/wine provided by Captain Ortiz (von Sydow) whom he meets en route possibly within a day. Drago’s horse drinks water from a stream once. Yet we realize the Bastiani Fort is very far from Lt Drago’s town or any town for that matter. Time is compressed—magic realism is at work.

Zurlini’s major winning decision was the choice of the location to film the story—a fort on the edges of a desert. It was not in Africa on the edges of the Sahara, or even in Ethiopia. The filming was done in Iran while the Shah of Iran was in power, in and around a real fort made of clay—the Bam citadel (Arg-e Bam)—built in the third century AD. The impressive structure—a UNESCO World Heritage site-- was almost totally destroyed by an earthquake in 2003, but the Islamic government of Iran rebuilt it to match its original grandeur. 

(See for the images of the fort as the Zurlini film captured it and how it appears now after restoration post the 2003 earthquake). 

Apparently, Zurlini chose this location after seeing the painting La Torre Rossa by an Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico. All those decisions taken by Zurlini contributed to make The Desert of the Tartars the film classic it is today.

One of the officers at the fort is Maj. Dr. Rovine (Jean- Louis Trintignant),
an enigma treating the maladies of the militia posted at the fort

Not unlike Franz Kafka’s books The Castle, the Buzzati tale is a quixotic look at human desire to achieve glory in life. Lt. Drago, born into a distinguished family, hopes to attain glory in military life, as he is chosen by fate to serve the Italian army at an obscure border station, a castle on the edge of the desert expecting invasion night and day by the Tartars.  Zurlini, who was a Communist, underscores the social divide by looking critically at the at the lives of officers living in luxury and riding horses, while foot soldiers drag heavy  material on command and are punished severely when they step out of line. Time is a critical element that does not seem to exist throughout the film. Only graves and death of soldiers bring time into focus. Officers and soldiers continue to be billeted at the fort for months and years for the sake of being promoted and hopefully gain honour in battle when it happens. There is almost no contact with their families. Any attempt to get a transfer is subtly thwarted, not unlike Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line that followed several decades later, The Desert of the Tartars is less a film about battles but more about battles of the mind and conscience. At the fort, the viewer learns that there was no battle fought so far. Yet as Lt. Drago arrives he sees graves of soldiers with reversed guns or sabres on top of them, according to their ranks. How then did so many die?

Lt Drago is introduced to the General (Philippe Noiret)
by Col. Fillimore (Vittorio Gassman) (center)

The depth of both the book and the film The Desert of the Tartars emerges from the lack of action in a military setting .The questions the film throws up are existential in nature. The idealistic Lt Drago is an anti-hero joining a group of military men, all trying to prepare for battle against a perceived foe, an army that cannot be seen or even confirmed to exist. Buzzati was possibly making a veiled reference to Mussolini’s military campaign in Ethiopia in 1935.  A close examination of Buzzati’s book and Zurlini’s film reveal that the tale is not based on real events but is merely an allegorical and psychological tale.

Officers and soldiers on the look-out duty sometimes spot rider-less horses and riders on horseback. Are they real or imagined? Why are known soldiers killed if they do not know a critical password? Why is the camaraderie of foot soldiers not appreciated by the officers? The film is equally critical of the lives of army officials and their egos of differing nature.

Here are important excerpts of an Italian journalist’s interview with author Buzzati on the Zurlini film
Author Dino Buzzati: "If I were the director - for the soldiers of the Fortezza Bastiani I would not choose a single uniform, but all the most beautiful uniforms in history, as long as they were slightly worn, rather like old flags. I am thinking of the uniforms of the dragoons, the hussars, he musketeers encountered in the pages of Dumas, the Bengal Lancers, like the ones used in a film with Gary Cooper...Of course, together with the uniforms, also different helmets, caps and badges. In other words, a regiment that has never existed but which is universal."
Italian journalist Giulio Nascimbeni: "Which uniform would you have Lieutenant Drogo wear?"
Author Dino Buzzati: "I should dress him up like a Hapsburg officer because Drogo's life is pointless, but full of pride."
(courtesy : trad.Interpres-Giussano) (Ref:
What were the major departures that Zurlini made in the film from the book? The book discusses the ravages of time in the world outside the fort, the fate of Lt. Drago’s family and friends. While Lt Drago became Capt. Drago at the fort, some of his friends and family have died, some have married in his town. When an officer dies in the fort, his body is transported on a gun carriage and taken home to his family for burial. Time stands still within the fort and the film, while in the book the time takes its toll on the denizens of the Italian towns. 

It is well known that David Lean wanted to make the film but one doubts if he could have created the bleak, existential and lonely world of Lt Drago and chosen Bam for the main location. Zurlini made his perfect swan song.

P.S. This critic watched The Desert of the Tartars for the second time after a gap of more than 35 years and was convinced that it belonged to his top 100 films list. It is now listed there--a film that never won a major award outside the country of the director. It is a film that belongs to the world—to Italy, Iran, France and Germany in particular.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

226. Italian/US director Andrea Pallaoro’s film “Hannah” (2017) (Italy/France/Belgium): A film with minimal spoken words and yet providing a subtle, complex and visually informative narrative, aided by an award-winning performance, intelligently captured by the camera

Hannah is the second film of Italian director Andrea Pallaoro—and, according to him, it is the second film of a trilogy of films he is making which appear to be having a common  thread of  a woman  internally reassessing her relationship to her family members over time.  One would often expect a female director to grapple with such subjects but here is a male director getting inside the female mind.  All three films in the trilogy are original scripts, all co-scripted  by him and his friend Orlando Tirado, a team that has worked not only on the trilogy but also on an early short film called Wunderkammer (2008) again on that very theme.

His debut film and the first of the trilogy was Medeas (2013) which won him awards at Venice, Tbilisi, Marrakesh, Nashville, and Palm Spring international film festivals.  His cinematographer Canadian/American Chayse Irvin won the prestigious Cameraimage cinematography prize and a Special Jury prize at the Nashville film festival for his contribution in Medeas. Pallaoro’s direction of Colombian actress Catalina Sandino Moreno won her an acting award at Nashville. The third film has the title Monica and is under production.

Hannah (Rampling) alone and sad riding a public bus,
reflecting on her predicament

With an interesting recognition of his debut feature film Medeas, it is not surprising that Pallaoro’s second feature film Hannah almost replicates some of the remarkable achievements of his debut film.  Hannah’s lead actress Charlotte Rampling won the deserving Best Actress Award at the Venice film festival. Once again, cinematographer Canadian/American Chayse Irvin won an award for his work in another Pallaoro film, this time a Silver Hugo for Hannah from the Chicago film festival.  The citation for that honor is very appropriate and insightful and reads as follows:

"Hannah tells the story of a very guarded woman and is itself a guarded film, refusing to spell out the motives or contexts behind a lonely woman's behavior. The images, then, must convey feelings and ideas that the screenplay and character will not. Through meticulous composition, unexpected framing, and a finely calibrated color palette, they do just that."

The color captured by cinematographer Irvin,
for a shot where Hannah is briefly recalling her good times

Bleak, muted colours for an important sequence as Hannah walks to throw
an important incriminating item in the garbage, when apartments
appear to suggest prison cells 

The team of Andrea Pallaoro, Orlando Tirado and Chayse Irvin obviously constitute a talented trio and they are getting well-deserved international recognition. (That Hannah has got a low IMDB user rating is arguably not a fair indicator of its innate quality as good cinema.)

Hannah views a beached whale,
a metaphor of her own life at this juncture

The worth of Hannah as a mature work of cinema is apparent in its ability to unspool its tale by leaving bits and pieces of visuals (sometimes as understated reflected images) and few spoken words (sometimes of people you never see but only hear) peppered across the film. An aging husband is preparing to be incarcerated in a prison for unstated crimes, leaving behind a devoted and elderly wife, in an apartment where their only other companion is a pet dog.

The obvious questions for many viewers would be what was the crime that led to the prison sentence of an old and seemingly affable man?  Why are the director/ scriptwriters not revealing it up-front for the viewers? Don’t the old couple have any progeny? When they do not speak much or show emotions, what are they thinking?

Pallaoro’s style is very close to Ingmar Bergman’s, with one major difference.  While Bergman would have tended to give considerable emphasis on spoken words in the screenplay, Pallaoro’s and Tirado’s style uses minimal spoken words and emphasizes communication through body language, visual clues, reaction of the title character to strangers and children (such as  Hannah’s sudden decision to stop swimming when children enter the public pool). Both directors use theatre as a secondary element in their film. Theatre rehearsals and mime are important in Pallaoro’s film as well as it is in many Bergman films.

Hannah (Rampling) breaks down in the closet toilet reprising
Bibi Andersson in Bergman's The Touch (1971) 

Hannah is like a mystery film, say an Agatha Christie detective tale, where clues are subtly revealed to the viewer without much dialogue. The viewer is forced to become the detective connecting the dots—mostly visual and a few spoken lines, often by characters that occupy only  fragments of screen time.  An astute viewer will be able to figure out the crime of Hannah’s husband without it being spoken. The viewer learns the aged couple do have a son and grandson.  The grandson wants to meet his grandmother but the son forbids that. The viewer has to figure out the reason by picking up the clues provided in the film. The viewer has to figure out why Hannah does not have any friends or why the film begins with a scream. There have been major films that ended with an anguished scream (Skolimowski’s 1978 film The Shout and Lumet’s 1964 film The Pawnbroker) but Hannah reverses the effect, introducing the viewer to the scream followed a rather quiet film in contrast to it. The scream, of course, is pivotal to understanding the film as is the long purposeful walk towards the end recalling the walk of Eddie Constantine in Godard’s Alphaville. The walk and the end of the walk state more than what Bergman would have achieved with long conversations. That’s the power of Hannah, the film.

On trains and buses, Hannah witnesses cameos of couples who are breaking up:
in one, the female openly accuses the male of only having interest in sex;
a reflection of what Hannah could have been in the past

If there is one film that Hannah could remind you of, it would be the 1971 French film director Pierre Granier-Deferre’s The Chat, another film about an elderly couple (played by Simone Signoret and Jean Gabin) where they hardly speak to each other in their small apartment they share with their cat. (In Hannah, by contrast it’s a dog,)

Hannah's only friend her pet dog--which she gives away to new owners.
Human friendship has been lost, possibly because of her past inactions

When the actors don’t speak much, the acting capabilities are naturally pronounced to the eye. In Hannah, Charlotte Rampling is awesome from the seminal scream captured in close-up to the final silent shot in the metro taken appropriately in a long shot. Her body language speaks a thousand words. Ms Rampling’s works on screen are varied but always stunning. Cavani’s The Night Porter, Visconti’s The Damned, Ozon’s The Swimming Pool, Andrew Haigh’s 45 years are unforgettable films considerably due to her contributions. Age certainly does not wither her, picking up best actress awards from Berlin and Venice within a couple of years, touching the grand age of 70. The scream in Hannah would have won her an award in most festivals.

Hannah is very European in style. While the film is likely to be remembered for Ms Rampling’s performance, the film belongs to the trio of Pallaoro, Tirado and Irvin. Watch out for them; they are indeed talented.

P.S. Pierre Granier-Deferre’s French film The Cat  (1971) discussed in the above review has been reviewed in detail earlier on this blog. That film won the Best Actor and Best Actress awards at the Berlin Film Festival, just as Rampling won for Hannah at the Venice film festival.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

225. British director Peter Brook’s film “Meetings with Remarkable Men” (1979) (UK): George Gurdjieff’s philosophical quest for life's answers presented on screen using snakes, sandstorms, and musical competitions conducted on open hillsides as metaphors.

“When I realized that (ancient wisdom)... had been handed down...from generation to generation for thousands of years, and yet had reached our day almost unchanged...I...regretted having begun too late to give the legends of antiquity the immense significance that I now understand that they really have” --- George Ivanovich Gurdjieff  (  (1876/7-1949)

Director Peter Brook’s film is an adaptation of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff’s multi-volume book of the same name Meetings with Remarkable Men, specifically focussing on the second volume . For those who have not come across the author of the book, Gurdjieff was a spiritual teacher, originally from Armenia, born to a Christian family, exposed to a “multi-ethnic, multi-confessional” population that respected mystics and holy men. In a life seeking philosophical quest for answers, Gurdjieff travelled to several parts of Central Asia, Egypt, India, Tibet and Italy. His significant interactions were with dervishes, fakirs, the Yazidis (of Iraq and Syria who bore the brunt of the ISIS onslaught in recent times) and finally with the Surmoung Brotherhood, which in turn was influenced by the Naqshbandi Sufi tradition of Islam. Gurdjieff propounded “the Fourth Way” blending the fakir, the monk and the yogi. Various intellectuals, such as P D Ouspensky, artist Alexandre de Salzmann, photographer Rene Zuber, writer/philosopher Colin Wilson, editor Alfred Orage (The New Age), mathematician John Bennett and the eminent New Zealander short-story writer Katherine Mansfield  found solace in his distilled knowledge. His funeral took place in the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Paris and is buried there.

Peter Brook made the film after he was approached by Jeanne de Salzmann (wife of artist Alexandre de Salzmann, and mother of one of the six Gurdjieff offspring) and there is evidence that Brook himself is a follower of Gurdjieff.   Brook and his production manager Jean Claude Lubtchansky chose to film in Afghanistan before Taliban and other fundamentalist force crippled it. The result is an interesting product that promotes Gurdjieff’s writings and his life’s quest for spiritual wisdom.

Now Peter Brook may not be a major filmmaker comparable to the likes of Tarkovsky, Malick or Welles but he is awesome as a director dealing with dramatic situations, possibly because of his extensive experience with British stage theatre and handling major stage actors. This comes through in spurts throughout his film Meetings with Remarkable Men with some fascinating sequences that unfortunately seem disconnected in time but appear as beads of an unusual necklace.

A strange musical competition on the hills of  Central Asia,
where the judge is not a human being but the hills around the venue

Who are the remarkable men? One could be Gurdjieff’s father who wishes his son could become a Christian priest, but young Gurdjieff expresses interest in science. His father counsels him to study medicine as “body and soul depend on one another.”  He even sagaciously advises “Become yourself—then God and Devil don’t matter” A snake is found indoors and Gurdjieff’s father asks his scared son to buckle up courage and to pick it up, which he does. Those familiar with Christian and Jewish religious texts will see the connection of the snake and the Devil; others might not. Anecdotes like this, pepper the film.  For those inclined towards philosophy, this film is indeed an important film—not for others. It all distils into a single quest for Gurdjieff—“I want to know why I am here.

An early episode in the film has young witnessing a competition of musicians with only one winner being able to get the hilly environs to respond unlike others with echoes that defeat logic. But music does become important to Gurdjieff as he grows up and encounters sages and religious personalities of varied hues across Central Asia, Iran, Egypt, India, and the Gobi Desert.  The Sufi dances and chants are indeed uplifting for any viewer (provided by Laurence Rosenthal adapting the compositions of Thomas de Hartmann, a student of Gurdjieff).

Sufi dances and music (composed by de Hartmann,
adapted by Rosenthal)

Not all of the film is heavy spirituality and metaphysics. Consider this interesting truism spoken by Gurdjieff partly in jest to a young friend intending to be a priest “My father used to say, if you want to lose your faith, make friends with a priest.

There are sequences in the film that provoke the viewer to sift belief in religion from sham—such as the Yazidi child who seems imprisoned in a chalk circle with an invisible cage above it. It takes a rationalist Gurdjieff to erase a section of the circle and child walks out free of the imaginary bars. In another sequence, a village population is unnerved when they find a dead man who they thought was dead and buried, lying on a cot in the centre of the village. A village elder emerges, slits the throat of the dead body, and the village population is subsequently shown relieved and happy.  Is the village elder, one of the remarkable men in Gurdjieff’s life?

What the film does definitely indicates as remarkable men include the Prince Lubovedsky (Terrence Stamp), dervishes, a certain Father Giovanni, and a spiritual stranger who tells the Prince in the company of Gurdjieff “I advise you to die, consciously, of the life you led up to now and go where I shall indicate.” Gurdjieff does interact again with the Prince much later in time who by then has apparently found his spiritual answers in a secluded monastery with Sufi life-styles, dances, and strict regimen.

Brook’s film includes a sandstorm from which Gurdjieff and his friends survive by standing on stilts while animals and all life forms below their feet are swept away.  More than a sandstorm it is a metaphor for a contemplative viewer to absorb all the rich symbols in the film. Towards the end of the film, there is a risky high-elevation bridge crossing—another metaphor captured by Brook with some theatrical elan.

Mind games: A risky high-elevation rope-bridge crossing by Gurdjieff
(Dragan Maksimovic), with no barriers of support on the sides

A character called Father Giovanni (played by Tom Fleming, who had played a similar priest in the 1971 film Mary, Queen of Scots) counsels Gurdjieff thus “Faith cannot be given to me. Faith is not the result of thinking. It comes with direct knowledge. Thinking and knowing are quite different.”

For Brook and for Gurdjieff, remarkable men are quite diverse. Some are obvious, some are not. It is quite possible for viewers of Brook’s Meetings with Remarkable Men to wonder in retrospect, who the remarkable men could have been.  For this critic, they were all remarkable: a musician who could make hills respond, a village chieftain who could slit the throat of a dead man and a stranger who knew intimate facts of a Prince’s life.  A strange film with a stranger central figure.  Yet, a rewarding viewing for a reflective viewer.

P.S. The author saw the film at the 1980 Bangalore Filmotsav sitting next to the legendary former Indian Cricket Team Captain, the late Nawab of Pataudi, Jr (Mansour Ali Khan Pataudi), who to the best of the author’s knowledge only watched this particular film at the festival and apparently had prior knowledge of the subject of the film, having travelled from New Delhi to far away Bengaluru (former Bangalore). The author attended a lecture by Mr Brook on his views on theatre given to a select audience in Delhi in 1981, which resulted in a long article by the author, published in The Hindustan Times. The film Meetings with Remarkable Men competed at the 1979 Berlin Film Festival but did not win any award.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

224. Indian director Rahul Jain’s debut, long-documentary film “Machines” (2016): Hard-hitting and real perspective of modern India

India produces some of the world’s most attractive textiles that contribute to making lives in India and elsewhere colourful and comfortable-- whether it be the clothes one wears or the cloth-based furnishings in one’s dwellings. Few realize the oppressive conditions in which textile printing workers in India toil to make the lives of billions of diverse people across the world happy and content. Machines and human beings together contribute to those lovely printed textiles. The contribution of human beings in the process is rarely in the limelight. Toiling within dingy factories, these human beings gradually become dehumanized and mechanical in their actions in their sheer desperation to earn a regular income to keep themselves afloat above the abject line of hunger and poverty. They become machines not out of choice but more from a lack of choice.

Film director Rahul Jain’s honest perspective is not focussed on the machines that manufacture and print the textiles but more on the faceless tens of thousands of workers, exploited and dehumanized to work like machines for extended work hours, deprived of basic rights of hygiene, medical safety, statutory limitations of working hours and legal age and, of course, fair compensation for their time and toil. The film Machines underscores the no-win situation of migrant workers within India caught between poverty and survival, in the clutches of heartless contractors and factory owners, who spin profits for themselves sitting in contrasting distant cosy comfort.

Cinematography ( Rodrigo Villanueva) picked up two
important international awards

Machines has won several accolades worldwide.  Apart from winning the Golden Eye award at the Zurich Film Festival in 2017 for the Best International Documentary Film, it picked up the cinematography award at the Sundance film festival, the Silver Gateway award at the Mumbai film festival, the best cinematography award of the International Documentary Association and three awards/prizes at the Thessaloniki documentary festival.   What is it that makes Machines tick?

Diegetic sound recorded and mixed by the Indo-German crew
is laudable

Machines could have been made in diverse ways.  Mr Jain could have opted to make a film contrasting machines and human beings with music matching the visuals on the lines of the Dutch maestro Bert Haanstra’s 11-minute Oscar-winning wordless sublime film Glass (1958) on the Dutch glass factories. Jain’s film consciously does not use music—his attempt was not to capture the beauty, but the sweat and grime of the workers much in contrast with the workers in Europe. Machines could have been made without words to mirror the French director Louis Malle’s Humain, Trop Humain (Human, all too human) (1974), which is roughly the same length as Machines. That French film looked at the Citroen automobile factories in France and compared the human workers with the machines on the assembly line without words spoken except for brief pitches of the sales staff selling the cars.  There are commonalities between Jain’s and Malle’s film: same length, human workers who appear and work like machines, and no music. The big difference in Machines compared to the two European filmmakers is that the punch of the Indian film comes from the honest spoken lines of the workers captured by the camera replacing the silence of the European works. Malle probably thought that he conveyed a lot by choosing as the title of his film to be same as Nietzche’s last book which appeared to revise all his earlier written works. But little did Malle realize that all filmgoers need not be as well read as he was to make the bigger connection beyond what was obvious within the film’s visuals and sounds of the factory.

Spoken words matter in the film

Words when spoken in Machines sock you on the jaw. The workers have fled their villages because incomes from crops are undependable compared to grimy, sleep-deprived, and low-paid work that in sharp contrast can be depended on as steady income.   It is steady as long as you don’t upset the apple cart by protesting the raw deal meted out by the contractors and the factory owners.
The few spoken words are stronger than the visuals. The workers state they have never seen the factory’s owners—but the owners watch them on closed circuit TV in comfortable offices.  The workers can’t afford to buy cigarettes and instead ingest the cheaper semi-dry mix of raw tobacco and slaked lime locally called khaini while the factory owner ironically justifies the low wages as being more than double of what it was 10 years before, especially when workers were comparatively more committed to their work than today, casting a blind eye to the rising costs of living. (Khaini is proven to be injurious to health as much as it is to work with chemicals and dyes without adequate physical protection.) Equally disturbing is the logic of a teenage boy (it is illegal for children to work in factories in India) who claims that working at his age would develop him into a superior and sharper worker when he grows up compared to others who didn’t have his experience.  Or of another boy who reaches the gates of the factory each day and wishes soon after entering it that he could run out of the factory from another gate but chooses not to. More disturbing are the statements of a worker that any potential unionist seeking better compensation and hygienic conditions would be knocked off, while fearfully looking over his shoulder if someone heard him make that statement.

A factory worker reminiscent of a
Thomas Hardy novel

The critical decision that goes in the favour of Machines is that the spoken words are not preceded by questions.  Questions don’t matter.  Those have to be imagined.  When the workers do ask inconvenient questions of the filmmakers, the answers too are not heard.  The film as the finished product is the answer.  The brief silence before the end credits is loud and punchy.

After hard labour, a brief nap in the factory

The crucial bit beyond making of the film was revealed by the young talented director—the film having won all the global awards is yet to be widely seen within India because it is awaiting a Censor Certificate from the Government.  Few can deal with truth, fewer with injustice. Economic growth for those who matter is the mantra of the day. If the film is indeed seen widely, the question asked by the workers at the end of the film would be answered. Nietzsche could be smiling in his grave.

P.S. Director Rahul Jain, who grew up near a family owned small textile mill in India  and studied in the US will soon be teaching at a prominent US University and hopefully continue to make hard hitting films. Terrence Malick used to teach at MIT. Both wear similar hats.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

223. Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 12th feature film “Sandome no satsujin” (The Third Murder) (2017): An amazing script and film less about a murder but more about why murders are committed and what is truth, presented by re-working the Rashomon principle.

ore than half a century ago the Japanese maestro Akira Kurosawa made a classic film Rashomon (1950) about a samurai’s death and the rape of the samurai’s wife.  Different versions of what transpired are narrated by different characters. Each version made the viewer ponder over which version indeed was the truth and why each personality concocted their own twisted perspective of the truth. Many filmgoers would be convinced the tale belonged to director Kurosawa but Kurosawa had merely adapted a tale written by the “father of the Japanese short story”—Ryunosuke Akutagawa for the screen, with considerable help from Kurosawa’s trusted scriptwriter Shinobu Hashimoto, who contributed significantly to six of Kurosawa’s most famous works, including the original story of Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952).

Nearly seven decades later, another Japanese director gives us a more complex film on similar lines to unravel the truth about a killing—with a major difference.  Unlike Kurosawa’s famous film that stood on the shoulders of a famous literary work, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s The Third Murder is based on Kore-eda’s own original tale and an evolved concept of filming.  The basic difference between the two outstanding Japanese directors is just that Kore-eda does not require the help of another co-scriptwriter and (with one exception) someone else’s story to make a film. He writes, edits, and even sometimes produces his own films—akin to the credentials of the late Italian director Ermanno Olmi, as in the case of his awesome The Tree of Wooden Clogs.

There are aspects of The Third Murder that can take a cinephile by surprise. First, the film shows a murder upfront. The viewer is shown the murderer and the victim.  Everything seems to be in place. The murderer is arrested and has apparently confessed to the crime, his third “murder.” A death sentence appears to be inevitable  As the film progresses, the motive, the event, and the players involved in the crime become fuzzy and less clear-cut as compared to the early part of the film. Why does the director/writer do that? Kore-eda reverses the conventional accepted narrative--the late Argentine director Fabian Bielinsky did achieve something similar in The Aura (2005).

The defence lawyer Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) (left)
meets his client Misumi (Koji Yakusho) (right) in prison
separated by glass

Some key lines spoken in the film are all laden with food for thought for any astute viewer of The Third Murder:
  1.    Some people in this world should never have been born”—stated by the ‘murderer’ Misumi  (Koji Yakusho)
  2.     Our legal strategy is the truth”—stated by the idealistic defence lawyer Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) and son of the very judge who had spared Misumi from a death sentence taking into account the murderer’s social and economic background and instead sent him to 30 years in prison
  3.    I am the one who should get judged”—stated by the murdered man’s daughter, Sakie (Suzu Hirose), school-girl, sexually molested by her father, who had gotten rich by intentionally mis-labelling the food product he sold
  4.   People’s lives get decided for them” —stated by the ‘murderer’ Misumi       
  5.  “He is an empty vessel”—lawyer Shigemori’s father and former judge view of the ‘murderer’ Misumi “Are you just a vessel?” —asked by lawyer Shigemori to his client the ‘murderer’ Misumi as his appreciation for Misumi grows, “What is a vessel?” –rhetorical question from the ‘murderer’ Misumi

Sakie (the murdered man's daughter) (Suzu Hiroze) notices the fake labelling
on her father's products

Let’s re-examine the above five quotes from the film.

Some people in this world should never have been born.” That statement could easily be applicable for a triple murderer.  In The Third Murder, the line is spoken by the murderer. He is referring to other types of low-life more despicable than murderers—fathers who rape their daughters, loan-sharks who lend money to the needy, women who pay money to have their husbands eliminated and live off the insurance money, businessmen who make money by intentionally mislabelling the product. But in case one thinks a murderer is indeed the more despicable person who should not have been born—do we study why the murder has happened? Was the murderer dispensing justice when there was none else to do so in the present society? Is the legal system perpetrating the third murder of the ‘murderer’ Misumi by sentencing him to death?  Or is Misumi or any economically deprived individual wishing he was never born in an unjust world where he cannot look after his own daughter for 30 years while he was incarcerated?

Our legal strategy is the truth.” The defence lawyer Shigemori believes that he can win cases by uncovering and presenting the truth. The film begins with Shigemori wanting to save his client from a death sentence by uncovering the truth. He first persuades his client to write a letter of apology to his victim’s family, which he does. Soon it is found out that the victim’s wife paid the murderer a large sum of money via a bank transfer in an incriminating email. Did Misumi kill for money? Did Misumi kill to avenge the violation of his victim’s daughter, who was as handicapped as his own? Was it murder for theft or a theft after murder? Was there someone else physically present during the murder? Any of these scenarios could save Misumi from the inevitable death penalty. He tells his lawyer that he is not guilty but refuses to say that in court as he possibly wants to protect his victim’s daughter. Is Misumi accepting a death sentence to protect someone?

Lawyer and client, after the verdict

I am the one who should get judged.” That’s a statement from the victim’s daughter, Sakie, an individual viewed by all as an indirect victim. Kore-eda even provides shots of blood on her face. The role of Sakie and her mother, remain open-ended and never fully revealed. As cinema evolves there is less spoon feeding of the viewer--the viewer has to join the dots.

The site of the opening murder sequence appears to be marked
by a visual cross marking where the charred murdered body lay 

The birds killed by Misumi are metaphorically
buried with a cross

People’s lives get decided for them.”  Kore-eda introduces the birds and the empty birdcage for metaphoric purpose.  Misumi had a lot of birds in his birdcage within his rented flat taken after his release from prison.  He killed all of them except one and buried the dead ones in a grave marked with a cross. He gave freedom to one bird and was hoping that the released bird would return to his cell window. Kore-eda appears to be indirectly questioning the existence of the theological “free will.”

Misumi hopes that the bird he released will return to his 
outstretched palm stuck out of  his prison window to eat the grains he is offering 

The obvious and enigmatic visual cross marks the position of the lawyer on the road
looking upwards--there is not an iota of religious matter spoken in the entire film

“Are you just a vessel?” The good defence lawyer is shaken by the client’s statements and actions. His client is gifted.  By bringing their palms together, with thick glass separating them, Misumi can find out that his lawyer has a daughter with whom he has not met.  The lawyer realizes that his client has much that deserves respect rather face execution.  Is he a vessel to teach us higher values than legal ones? Kore-eda’s film suggests many profound ideas without appearing to be ham-handed.

The lawyer Shigemuri meets up with his daughter,
whom he has neglected, after separating from his wife,
 in a restaurant

The Third Murder is an incredibly well-crafted tale seeking to divulge the truth but the viewer gets to realize how fuzzy and complicated the truth is—in a modern Rashomon twist. Kore-eda’s writing craft may be missed by many casual viewers.  The “murderer” Misumi has a daughter with a bad leg who he could not take care of during the 30 years he spent in jail. The murdered man also has a daughter with a bad leg. Finally, the defence lawyer Shigemori also has a daughter (with no deformities) but also lacking a caring father, as he is more interested in his career than in her after he has separated from her mother.  The visuals of  interaction between the prisoner and lawyer that are edited delectably and the music add to the quality of the strong screenplay, acting, and direction. Fascinating stuff, Mr Kore-eda! One of best Japanese films in recent years. 

P.S. The two films referred to within the above review--Olmi's The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978) and Bielinsky's The Aura (2005)--have been reviewed earlier on this blog. The film The Third Murder won six awards at the Japanese Academy in 2018, including awards for the best film, the best direction, the best screenplay and the best editing. The Third Murder is now included among the author's top 100 films ever made and the author's 15 most important films of the 21st century.