Tuesday, December 19, 2006

29. Iranian director Amir Naderi's evocative "Aab, baad, khaak" (Water, Wind, Dust) (1989): Evocative and uplifting film on human values

This is an unusual film of exceptional values--75 minutes long in color, with hardly any spoken dialogs. I saw this Iranian film in Farsi without English subtitles at the Early Iranian cinema retrospective at the recent International Film Festival of Kerala, India. That I was watching a print without subtitles did not make a difference as there were very few lines of spoken dialogs.

This is a very accessible film for any audience to enjoy--its story and values are not merely Iranian; it's universal.

The film is set in rural Iran that had not tasted petro-dollar prosperity. The setting is on fringes of desert land, where water is scarce, rainfall scanty and hardly any blade of grass is green. Add to it wind and dust that buffets and whips man and animal and you can imagine plight of the people who live on the fringes of society.

The film is moving tale of a young teenager returning to his village with a goat--only to find his family and villagers have moved on to escape natures vagaries and that one old man remains. He gives the goat to him and goes in search of his family. Water is scarce and well water it treated with reverence and never wasted. The boy is infuriated when he sees the water being used to cool the engine of a truck. A toddler is left behind by some family that cannot tend it. The boy takes care of the child but finds it tough going and asks other families to take care. Nobody wants another mouth to feed. A bucket of water left by the boy is more useful for passing families than the child. Finally, the child is picked up by one large family and the boy is happy.

He is so caring that he saves two fishes that would have died without water by throwing them in the well. He trudges on surviving on a watermelon left behind by someone.

The boy tries to get some water for a person who was accidentally buried under sand but there is no water in the well. He digs another but there is no water. He is tired and prays for water. He digs again at another site, wishing that the dead fishes that appear in his dream can survive. Metaphorically the earth opens up and a sea of water gushes out to strains of Beethoven's 5th symphony.

If the Iranian government publicizes such works of artistic merit, Iran would be better appreciated elsewhere. The film won a top award at the Nantes Film Festival.

P.S. Amir Naderi's earlier neo-realist work The Runner (1985) has been reviewed on this blog.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

28. Mexican film "El Violin" (2005) by director Francisco Vargas: Riveting debut performance by an elderly actor and impressive photography

Imagine that you look like a grandfather in real life. Imagine that your right palm has been amputated but you play a violin with a bow strapped to the maimed arm. Imagine a director wanting to use you as a lead actor in a feature film. Imagine you win a Cannes Film Festival Best Actor prize for the Un Certain Regard section of the festival for the role. It's not a dream--it happened to Mexican actor Don Angel Tavira in the Mexican film El Violin or The Violin, directed by Francisco Vargas.

I caught up with this film at the on-going International Film Festival of Kerala, India, where it won the Silver Crow Pheasant award, the best film award bestowed on a film among the 14 competing entries by the 6200 delegates attending the festival.

I do not know how Tavira lost his palm but I learned that the director made the film keeping the future actor in mind. Tavira looks like Charles Vanel in his later years. He exudes a sincerity that touches the viewer and is not easily forgettable. He mixes sincerity with the wizened touch of an old fox.

The film is similar to Irish filmmaker Ken Loach's The wind that shakes the barley in many ways. Only The Violin is shot in black and white while Ken Loach shot his lush color. The photography is in no way amateurish. Both films are about the poor fighting mighty oppressors--in the case of El Violin poor villagers fighting a cruel Mexican army.

Finer points of the film include a marvelous dialog between grandfather and grandson that speaks highly of the director screenplay writer's Vargas' writing capability. Yet he has only made four films.

As one might have guessed the violin case and violin player are key to the development of the film. Music is a great leveler--the brutes and the aesthetes both appreciate good music.

Vargas choice to film in black and white is commendable. The violence and rape that launches the film is not extended into the film as other directors would have been tempted to do. Interestingly the strength of the film is that it does not show violence at later stages--something that Ken Loach could not restrain himself from. Violence for Vargas is not gratuitous--it is to provide the focal point. The rest of the violence is only for the viewer to imagine. Now that's good cinema.

This time Vargas had a great actor. Can he make equally good films without such innate talent of Don Tavira? My guess is that he can repeat this feat with others too. Vargas has an eye for talent, for good photography and a flair for good scriptwriting.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

27. Canadian Sarah Polley's "Away from Her" (2006): Remarkable debut film and a superb performance by Julie Christie

Julie Christie's combination of talent, beauty and brains has enthralled me over four decades. Nearly a decade ago, her Oscar nominated performance in "Afterglow" established that she was not a spent force while playing a gracefully aging wife of a handyman in the US. One thought that would be her best turn at geriatric impersonations.

Less than a decade later, Christie comes up with an even better performance of a woman coping with Alzheimer's disease in a debut directorial effort Away from Her of Canadian actress Sarah Polley. I saw the film yesterday at the ongoing International Film Festival of Kerala, India, where Ms Christie, serving on the jury for the competition section, introduced her film thus: "It is immaterial whether you are rich or poor--we cannot predict what can happen to us. Enjoy the film with this thought." Ms Christie probably put in her best effort because the young director considers Ms Christie to be her "adoptive" mother, having worked together on three significant movie projects in five years. The film's subject brings memories of two similar films: Pierre Granier-Deferre' film Le Chat that won a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for both Jean Gabin and Simone Signoret in 1971 and Paul Mazursky's Harry and Tonto which won an Oscar for the lead actor Art Carney in 1974. This performance of Julie Christie ranks alongside those winners.

Today geriatric care is a growing problem. This film is a sensitive look at parting of married couples when one of them needs institutional care. Ms Polley's choice of the actor Gordon Pinsent is an intelligent one as the film relies on his narration and Mr Pinsent's deep voice provides the right measure of gravitas. Olympia Dukakis is another fine actor playing a lady who has "quit quitting". So is Michael Murphy doing a long role without saying a word.

The strengths of the film are the subject, the direction, the performances and the seamless editing by the director's spouse. It is not a film that will attract young audiences who are insensitive. Yet the film has a evocative scene where a young teenager with several part of her body pierced by rings is totally amazed by the devotion of the aging husband for his wife. So in a way the film reaches out to different age groups. Though it talks about sex, it can be safe family viewing material.

Chances are that most viewers will love the film if they are interested in films that are different from "the American films that get shown in multiplexes" to quote a character in the film. More importantly this film advertises the problem of Alzheimer's disease eloquently and artistically. It prepares you for future shocks.

Monday, December 11, 2006

26. Polish film "Persona non grata" (2005): One of the finest films of Polish director Krzyzstof Zanussi

Director Krzyzstof Zanussi has made 75 distinguished films and is one of the three best filmmakers from Poland--the others being Wajda and Kieslowski (the latter only peaked towards the end of his career). I consider Persona non grata to be one of Zanussi's three best efforts--one being his structurally fascinating German TV film Wege in der Nacht ("Ways in the night" or "Nightwatch") made in 1979 and the other being Imperative made in 1982. Interestingly the first two films featured the brilliant music of Wojciech Kilar, the actor Zbigniew Zapasiewicz, and original scripts of physicist turned philosophy student Krzyzstof Zanussi.

At the elementary level, Persona non grata is about diplomats and their lives. At a more complex level, Zanussi explores the relationship between Poland and post-Glasnost Russia and the denizens of both nations. At an even more complex level, Zanussi introduces the subtle differences between the orthodox Christians and Catholics--a facet that I suspect interested both Zanussi and the late Kieslowski, both close associates. There are more Catholics in Poland while Orthodox Christians dominate Russia. Zanussi differentiates the spirituality of the two in the rich verbal sparring that the film unfolds between a Polish and a Soviet diplomat. Finally, Zanussi teases the film viewer by leading the audience to suspend disbelief in the main character. For a long while, even an astute viewer is led astray. The viewer is reduced to the level of a "persona non grata" believing initially that the film is all about a diplomat about to lose his diplomatic powers at the embassy and has become a "persona non grata." This is superb cinema, supported by Kilar's "music of the spheres." The film offers rich humor and at times a biblical sermon on a New Testament passage from 2 Corinthians 1:17 "Do I say yes, when I mean no?" However, taking the context of diplomacy, around which the film revolves, the discussion takes on a different hue. But the clever Zanussi throws light and shadows on the subjects in the film (the opening credits plays with light and shadows, too).

It is a story of love, suspicion, and principles--that go beyond mere individuals. It is a story of reconciliation. It is a film that a filmmaker can make in the evening of his career. It reminds you of works like Kurosawa's Dersu Uzala or Ermanno Olmi's Tree of Wooden Clogs. It is a work of maturity. Savor it like fine cognac!

Just as it is major work of Zanussi, I believe this to be a milestone for the music composer Kilar. Poland should be proud of Zanussi and Kilar.

The film is a veritable feast for an intelligent viewer. Great performances from three great Polish actors--Zbigniew Zapasiewicz (Zanussi's favorite), Jerzy Stuhr (Kieslowski's favorite), and Daniel Olbryschsky (Wajda's favorite) adorn the film but the most striking is the acting performance of Russian actor-director Nikita Mikhalkov, who can do a great turn as a restrained comic (for example his performance in his half-brother Mikhalkov Konchalovsky's Siberiade).

But in this film a dog plays a major actor's role within a web of friendship and distrust. So does a torn photograph--Zanussi does not seem to believe that photographs can lie.

Persona non grata could easily have been named "Suspicion". The film is an ode to friendships--friends who remain loyal, friends who are not recognized as friends at best of times but are recognized as friends when tragedy strikes, and friends who dislike being insulted even by mistake. The film was screened during the on-going 11th International Film Festival of Kerala, India.

What this film proves is that Polish cinema is alive and well! It also proves Zanussi is back at his best form.

25. Iranian director Dariush Mehrjui's "Gaav" (The Cow, 1969): Stunning in simplicity but providing fodder for thought

This is a major work of cinema. It might not be well known but this film ranks with Fellini's La Strada, De Sica's The Bicycle Thief, or Mrinal Sen's Oka Oori Katha based on Premchand's story--Coffin. Why is it a major work? A UCLA graduate makes a film far removed from Hollywood approaches to cinema in Iran during the Shah's regime. The film was made 10 years before Shah quit Iran and was promptly banned. It was smuggled out of Iran to be shown at the Venice Film Festival to win an award, even without subtitles.

The film does not require subtitles. It's visual. It's simple. The story is set in a remote Iranian village, where owning a cow for subsistence is a sign of prosperity. The barren landscape (true of a large part of Iran) reminds you of Grigory Kozintsev's film landscapes as in Korol Lir (the Russian King Lear) where the landscape becomes a character of the story.

The sudden unnatural death of the cow unsettles the village. Hassan, the owner of the cow, who nursed it as his own child, is away and would be shocked on his return. Eslam, the smartest among the villagers, devise a plan to bury the cow and not tell the poor man the truth. Hassan returns home and is soon so shocked that he loses his senses. He first imagines that the cow is still there and ultimately his sickness deteriorates as he imagines himself to be the cow, eats hay, and says "Hassan" his master will protect him from marauding Bolouris (bandits from another village). Eslam realizes that Hassan needs medical attention and decides to take him to the nearest hospital. He is dragged out like a cow. "Hassan" is beaten as an animal as he is not cooperative to the shock of some humanistic villagers. The demented Hassan, with the force of an animal breaks free, to seek his only freedom from reality--death.

The film stuns you. Forget Iran, forget the cow. Replace the scenario with any person close to his earthly possessions and what happens when that person is suddenly deprived of them and you will get inside the characters as Fellini, De Sica or Sen demonstrated in their cinema.

Every frame of the film is carefully chosen. The realism afforded by the story will grip any sensitive viewer. There is a visually arresting use of a small window in the wall of the cowshed through which the villagers watch the goings on within the cowshed. The directors use of the window serves two purposes--it gives the villagers a perspective of the cowshed and the viewer a perspective of the cowshed watchers.

The film is also a great essay on the effects of hiding truth from society and the cascading fallouts of such actions.

But there is more. Director Mehrjui affords layers of meaning to his "simplistic" cinema. There is veiled criticism of blind aspects religious rituals (Shia Islam), a critical look of stupid villagers dealing with their village idiots, the jealous neighbors, the indifferent neighbors, the village thief--all elements of life around us, not limited to a village in Iran. The political layering is not merely limited to the poverty but the politics of hiding truth and the long term effect it has on society. Ironically, there are values among the poorest of the poor--the hide of a "poisoned?" animal cannot be sold!

I was lucky to catch up with the rare screening of this film at the on-going International Film Festival of Kerala, India, that devoted a retrospective section of early Iranian cinema.

This is a film that should make Iran proud. It is truly a gift to world cinema.

P.S. The Cow is one of the author's top 100 films

Thursday, December 07, 2006

24. US director Julie Taymor's "Titus" (1999): One of the most striking adaptations of Shakespeare on screen

Why did I like the film? I applaud any director making his or her initial film who chooses to film a complex subject like Shakespeare's least known tragedy, probably the mother of all his well-known tragic plays King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Julius Caesar that literature critics have dubbed a "problem play." It is true that each of the later Shakespeare tragedies borrowed strands from Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare staging Titus Andronicus was in a way similar to Julie Taymor's effort to film the play. Shakespeare wanted to establish his name. Some even suggest that Shakespeare did not write it but borrowed the source material. Yet no one can dispute that even in Elizabethan times, the play went down well with audiences. And Shakespeare went on to write and stage more plays. But for years the play was a problem to put on stage and it is well-known that few directors chose to stage or film it, due to its gory and dark contents.

I applaud Julie Taymor's decision to pick up the play to film. Titus, the play, is relevant today even more than it was in Elizabethan days. Titus is replayed almost each day in the Middle East, in Darfur, and till recently in former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, and in Ireland. I am delighted that Taymor chose to rework the play mixing the past Roman glory with those of Mussolini's Italy, which underlines the relevance of the play today—irrespective of whether the conquering heroes ride horses or Rolls Royces.

I congratulate Taymor's decision to create a modern "chorus" distilled in the personality of a young boy, who plays like an adult but is "shaken and stirred" by events outside, who seems to realize as the play unfolds the importance of forgiveness, tolerance and love for all. For the Greeks and even for Shakespeare, the chorus had to be old and blind (as in Macbeth) but for Taymor it's the young who have eyes to see the dawn after the dark night.

There are more facets to the film that make the film extraordinary. Jessica Lange's Tamora presents a range of emotions—crying for pity, yelling for revenge, smiling to seduce and aroused by a kiss of her mortal foe Titus. The short kiss of the aging Titus and Tamora is a highlight of the film, the kiss between conqueror and former slave, a kiss between a queen and a demented subject—all highlighted by the facial expression of Ms Lange choreographed by Taymor. This brief shot cries for our attention, as throughout the film (and play) Titus seems to be celibate. (There is no mention of Titus's wife or lover). I thought Taymor brought out the best in Ms Lange, even exceeding her range of emotion in Frances. While Anthony Hopkins might not have enjoyed making this film, Taymor brought out his finest performance to date here in this film. It was almost like watching a mellow Richard Burton rendering the lines of the Bard. Taymor and cinematographer Luciano Tavoli, who is often arresting, are able to obtain a shot of Titus crying on the stony paths, with his face and eyes inches from the stones, signifying the lowest of the low the character has been hewn down to the terra firma.

A third commanding performance was that of Alan Cumming as Saturinus, second only to his mesmerizing role in Eyes Wide Shut as a gay front office clerk. If you reflect on the film, the casting was superb.

The only flaw in the "absurdist" treatment was the introduction of the Royal Bengal tiger—which could have been replaced by a leopard or a lioness. This I thought was taking the theater of the "absurd" too far. Perhaps Taymor wanted to glamorize Tamara to be more attractive as the tiger than any other great cat. That was one decision I thought did not work well in the movie.

The film's strengths are not restricted to the screenplay, the direction and acting. The film grips you with the music and choreographed title sequence and the overall production design. You want more. You get more, if the viewer is able to think while watching the film and think laterally. This is not Gladiator or Spartacus. It challenges the senses, beyond the gore and sex. Why do people behave as they do? Is the bias of many of us limited to race and color? These are questions that Terence Mallick asked in The Thin Red Line. To appreciate Taymor's Titus multiple viewings will help, preferably with a thinking cap. I rate this film as third best Shakespeare film ever made—the first two being the Russian black and white films Korol Lir (King Lear) and Gamlet (Hamlet) directed by Grigory Kozintsev, some 40 years ago.

Finally, like Orson Welles and Terrence Mallick, Julie Taymor appears to be little appreciated within the US but more lauded elsewhere. But that should not dampen the brilliance of this talented lady and her spouse the music composer Elliot Goldenthal.

P.S. Kozintsev's King Lear (Korol Lir) is reviewed elsewhere on this blog. Titus is one of the author's top 100 films.