Thursday, August 31, 2006

2. Andrei Zvyagenitsev's "Vozvrashcheniye" (The Return) A brilliant Russian film made in 2003

Russia, (or rather, in the purist sense, the erstwhile USSR), has produced some of the finest filmmakers of the century--Andrei Tarkovsky, Sergei Eisenstein, Grigory Kozintsev, and Sergei Paradjanov. Hollywood (with the exception of Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Mallick) is dwarfed in the company of these giants. Andrei Zvyagintsev follows in the footsteps of these giants. The opening shots remind you of Tarkovsky and the bleak, barren landscapes of Kozintsev.

At the most easy level, the film can be interpreted as a chronicle of two children recording (with a help of a diary written by two male siblings) the events of a week with their father that facilitates their transformation from childhood to manhood metaphorically.

At a more complex level, the film can also be interpreted as a political film--with the father figure representing the strong Communist USSR and the death of that state. The two sons can be interpreted as one representing the section that accepted subjugation by the state and the other that rebelled against the state and demanded freedom and democracy. Today both kinds of former-USSR citizens yearn for the "FATHERland" of the past for different reasons.

At yet another level, the film provides the option of being interpreted in religious terms. Is the father figure any different from Christ coming to the world to help the world, and die in the process to be accepted by those who believe and don't believe. The film is scattered with clues that afford this interpretation: the fish symbol, the storm in the sea, the walking on water (by the boys on a stone below the water line), the week ends on Sunday (the day of Resurrection), the late return by the boys and the rebukes that follow (Jesus admonishing disciples for falling asleep), acceptance through death, the first sight of the father lying asleep resembling a crucified and dead Jesus, the last supper (at home), the baptism by rain, is Andrei (the elder boy) named after apostle Andrew, the leaves under the car as palm leaves for Jesus entry into Jerusalem... the list could go on. One reason is that most Russians are deeply religious individuals. At the same time one could argue that all these were coincidences and there is no Biblical reference in the film.

The brilliance of The return and the films of the other four Russian directors are outstanding because they too could be entertaining at different levels and thus appeal to you 50 to 80 years after they were made. Like Tarkovsky used Bach's Requiem in Solyaris, Zvyagintsev also uses Mozart's Requiem in The Return. The Requiems afford to highlight somber spirit of the tales and add divinity. The sudden rains, the sound of trains are not new--Tarkovsky used these effects in Stalker. The Return seems to hark back to Tarkovsky and Kozintsev's Christian Marxian imagery.

The film is in color--yet the colors are muted with only the red car standing out. Kozintsev refused to film Hamlet and King Lear in color; Tarkovsky also used muted colors and sepia tints often.

The most jarring fact is that the young actor who played the elder brother died in the very lake, months after the film was made.

The stark, spartan, evocative film deserved the Golden Lion at Venice film festival awarded this year. By a coincidence, precisely 40 years ago Venice had honored Kozintsev's Hamlet! The brilliance of The Return is all pervasive--acting, direction, photography, editing, screenplay and yet the film is not as great as a Tarkovsky or a Kozintsev.

P.S. The Return is one of top 15 films of the 21st Century for the author. Director Zvyagintsev's subsequent works--The Banishment (2007),  Elena (2011),  and Leviathan (2014) have been extensively reviewed on this blog.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

1. Michael Haneke's "Cache" (Hidden): A French film made by an Austrian in 2005

Beginning as a clinical, psychological and social study of a respectable European, it ends as a study of a larger segment of contemporary Europe. It reminds you of the early works of Fassbinder—-only Hanneke's production values are more sophisticated. The camera becomes a character—-a major one at that--reminding the viewer that s/he is watching cinema at several junctures and that s/he is part of the entertainment process. You constantly ponder if the movie is providing truth or lies (or something in-between) 24 frames-per-second. The fixed-medium range shots that open and close the film indicate the stand of the director--clinical and distanced from the story he unfolds. We notice that what we are seeing, might not be true. Antonioni did this in Blow up decades ago.

The director carefully distances himself from a situation where he could resolve the issues for the viewer—-he prefers to leave the job to the viewer. The entertainment continues after the screening.

Cache is a study of European colonial guilt and race relations. It probes complacency of the financially secure classes. Escape from reality comes from closing curtains, shutting off the outside world and consuming sleeping tablets. At another level, the film explores the attitudes of three distinct generations towards social relationships.

Haneke uses graphic shocking violent scenes to jolt the audiences when they least expect it. He seems to enjoy the process. His strength is not in his cinema (Kubrick, in comparison, was brilliant at this game). Hanneke's strength lies elsewhere—eliciting fascinating performances from his cast. Daniel Auteuil, Julliette Binoche, Maurice Benichou and Annie Girardot are simply fascinating to watch.

The film's strength lies in the disturbing subject. Many of us have something in our past that we wish to hide. It is conscience that nags us to believe that there was a witness to a wrongdoing--a witness who cannot be buttonholed. This makes the film tick.