Monday, December 24, 2007

51. Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev's second film "Izgnanie (The Banishment)" (2007): A director challenges the intelligent viewer

Andrei Zvyagintsev's second film The Banishment, if evaluated closely, could arguably be as interesting as his first film The Return, if not better. Both relate to related concepts "Father" and "Love/Absence of Love." In both films, there are few words spoken. In both films nature plays a major role as any of the characters on screen--streams that dry up come back into life, winds lap the tree leaves to a sing a song of their own making, mists and rain provide graphic punctuation to the tale. Towards the end of the film, again we find nature providing a harvest of grain. In The Banishment, the camera constantly captures the wedding rings of Alex and Vera, husband and wife, but shows brother Mark does not wear one. The photographs and the conversations bring Alex's father into perspective. Thus, the film introduces three crucial relationships--husband and wife, brother and brother, father and son (Alex/Kir and Alex/Alex's father).

Evaluating The Banishment is akin to completing a challenging crossword puzzle. You would agree with this unusual comparison if you have seen The Return. To begin with, The Return was not based on a novel. This one is. That, too, a William Saroyan novel—The Laughing Matter. Yet the director is not presenting us with Saroyan's novel on the screen. He develops the wife as a woman "more sinn'd against than sinning," while in the novel she is mentally unstable. Understandably, the director decides to drop the Saroyan title. Thus the words "I am going to have a child. It's not yours" provides two utterly distinct scenarios depending on whether the woman who speaks those words to her husband is a saintly person or a mentally unhinged woman. The change in the character of the wife by the director opens a totally new perspective to the Saroyan story—a tool that contemporary filmmakers frequently use, not to wreck literary works, but creatively revive interest in the possibilities a change in the original work provides.

Viewers, familiar with the plethora of Christian symbolism in The Return, will in The Banishment spot the painting on which the children play jigsaw is one of an angel visiting Mary, mother of Jesus, to reveal that she will give birth even if she is a virgin. This shot is followed by a black kitten walking across the painting. Soon the forced abortion operation at the behest of the husband begins on Vera, the wife in Zvyagintsev's film. By the end of the film, the viewer will realize that the director had left a clue for the viewer—not through conventional character development using long conversations. The Banishment is representative of contemporary cinema provoking viewers to enjoy cinema beyond the story by deciphering symbols strewn around amongst layers of meaning structured within the screenplay.

As usual, the cinema of director Zvyagintsev is full of allusions to the Bible. This is the third famous film that refers to a single abstract chapter in the Bible on love: 1 Corinthians Chapter 13. In The Banishment the chapter is read by the neighbors' daughters. In Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blue, the musical score is linked at the end of the film to a choral musical piece that uses the words "If I have not love, I am nothing" from the same Biblical chapter commenting indirectly on communication breakdown between husband and wife and the slow and painful reconciliation with the husband's lover. Ingmar Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly is a phrase on taken from the same chapter of the Bible, a film also on lack of communication and love between father and son, husbands and wives. The banishment alludes to the banishment of Adam from the Garden of Eden represented in the film by the anti-hero's tranquil family house, far from the inferred socio-political turbulence elsewhere. The jigsaw puzzle depicting an angel appearing to Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, alludes that both Vera's child and Virgin Mary's child are not born out of sin. It indicates to the viewer that wife was innocent. Even to the selection of classical music Bach's Magnificat or the Song of Virgin Mary is not out of context.

While the story and structure of The Return is easier to comprehend, The Banishment is more complex. The first half of the film entices the viewer to reach the wrong conclusions. The Father is correct, the wife is wrong. The second half of the film surprises the viewer as all assumptions of the viewer made from the preceding episodes are turned topsy-turvy. Men are arrogant, egotistical and father children without love. There is no love in the silent train journey of the family while the wife is looking at her husband with love. Like Kieslowski's Blue, the woman, though having less screen time in the movie, appears stronger than the man—and in an apt epilogue it shows women (harvesting a field), who are singing a song of hope and regeneration.

A supposed major flaw noted by critics is the lack of character development. In this film, Zvyagintsev progresses from the earlier film to develop characters using silent journeys (lack of communication) and misconstruing reality ("child is not ours"), recalling the basic structure of the storyline of the director's first film. Actually Zvyagintsev progresses in this second film by extending the relationship of "Father and children" in the first film, to "Father and Mother" in the second. In the first film, children do not understand the father; in the second, the father does not understand his wife. When he does it is too late, just as the kids in the first film of the director. This is a film that requires several viewings to savor its many ingredients of photography, music (of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt) , and screenplay writing. Zvyagintsev is not merely copying legendary directors Tarkovsky (sudden rains, the winds, and the similar choice of music), Bergman and Kieslowski (theological inquiries)—he is exploring new territories by teasing his viewer to "suspend his/her belief" and constantly re-evaluate what was shown.

The lead actor, Konstantin Lavronenko, playing the role of Alex deservedly won the Best Actor award at Cannes Film Festival in The Banishment. Director Zvyagintsev's fans will recall the same actor had played the father of the two young boys in Zvyagintsev's first film The Return. This Russian director has proven that he is one of the finest living filmmakers with a modest tally of just two films that has won him over 20 international awards, including the Golden Lion at Venice, already. What an achievement!

P.S. The films The Return, Blue, and Through a Glass Darkly were reviewed earlier on this blog.

Friday, December 21, 2007

50. Iranian director Hana Makhmalbaf 's "Buda as sharm foru rikht/Buddha Collapsed out of Shame" (2007): Using kids to discuss adults' shameful acts

This is an unusual film, though not one that can be considered a major work of cinema. It gains importance because it shows how children can be used as a tool to discuss serious social and political issues. The film is about a young Afghan girl who yearns to read and write as the boys of her age. The film provides a chilling account of the Taliban’s intolerance of girls attending school, of women using lipstick and stoning of women to death for trivial reasons—all reprised through games of children imitating the disturbing adult actions.

The Iranian film is shot on Afghan locations very close to the spot where the fundamentalist Muslim Taliban destroyed the centuries-old rock hewn gigantic statue of Buddha. Had it existed today, it could have been a modern wonder of the world. Hence the title--Buddha collapsed from shame. The film's location, Bamyan, probably does not have not a single Buddhist--at least officially. It is habited by gentle, peace loving Muslims terrorized by fundamentalist Muslims. Women are forced to wear burkhas--to cover their hair. If the women use lipstick, they are brutally punished, even stoned to death, after being given water to drink before they die! Girls are not allowed to attend school, while boys are. The film begins with the documentary footage of the destruction of the Buddha statue.The film is an interesting film for several reasons.

It is directed by a 19-year-old girl--daughter of a famous Iranian director. For a teenaged Iranian Muslim woman to take on the powerful Taliban while living in a theocratic state of Iran is commendable. It is the first known Muslim filmmaker's attempt at criticising the Taliban. Like Sofia Coppola, her famous filmmaker father must have encouraged her at every step.

The most valuable part of the film is that the criticism is indirect as perceived from a child's perspective. A lovely, persistent, young girl child wanting to learn to read and attend school, makes intelligent use of her mother's lipstick and four eggs taken from her home to attain her aim in life. Her mother is away, working. (I guess here shades of director Hana Makhmalbaf's personal aspirations are mirrored, though she led a much better life than the Afghan girl.) The film is a wonderful example of use of kids in world cinema. What credible performances!

However, there are problems with the film. Many sequences seem to remind you of Lord of the Flies. Then there is a sequence where the girl child ties a baby with a rope and leaves for school--but this scene is never followed up. There is another scene where the girl rings the school bell, and no one in the school seems to be bothered by her action. Pleasant humour takes its toll on credibility. Yet Hana needs to be commended for her brave and intelligent work. The film was chosen to open the 12th edition of the International Film Festival of Kerala, India, to drive home the point that cinema today can be effective without sex and violence and be able to provoke a viewer to reflect on grave issues affecting lives today in remote places.

Young Hana's achievement in cinema makes you think about the increasing use of children to deal with adult issues. In this film, the story is almost entirely seen from a children's point of view--making the film agreeable to the viewer, instead of employing shrill adult views on the brutal and non-secular Taliban. Mark Twain did it, and we laughed and enjoyed his work. Some would say children ought to be left to Peter Pan type of stories...or should they be used to discuss what adults are afraid to discuss?

Late news 16 Feb 2008: The film won the Crystal Bear at the Berlin Film Festival 2008 in the Generation section.

Friday, December 14, 2007

49. Swiss filmmaker Stefan Haupt's "Ein Lied fur Argyris/A Song for Argyris" (2006): A thought-provoking documentary on grief and historical guilt

Here is a powerful 106 minute documentary all of us need to see and then reflect on dealing with grief and the touchy subject of historical guilt swayed by the waves of current European politics.

While most of the world believes that the horrors of the Nazis targeted only Jews, this documentary provides the viewer first hand narration from Greeks, some who now have Swiss citizenship, of the incredible sadistic acts of the German army as they mutilated and tortured hundreds living in a Greek village called Distomo before killing them. None of those killed were Jews, they were all Greek Orthodox Christians. Swiss director Stefen Haupt proves the incredible power of documentary cinema, with the use of old photographs, music, fine narration and seamless editing.

The main narrator is Argyris Sfountouris, who was a Greek child orphaned in the brutal massacre. His house was set on fire. Overnight he lost all. As he was found to be intelligent among the hundreds of other orphans he was picked by the Swiss Government along with few others to grow up in Switzerland. Today he is an astronomer and a scientist. One of his statements is "When will reconciliation begin and hate end? How can one forget what we experienced and forget those who died? When will we learn to forget our memories and move on?"

The strength of the pivotal narration is its low-key account, honest but sad. Argyris is confounded that a country that produced the soothing music of Beethoven could centuries later produce savage brutes.Another narrator is the famous Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis of Zorba the Greek fame. He recalls the German soldiers were interested in art and Parthenon. Yet the same soldiers would break the arms of hungry Greek children stealing bread. These are some of the contradictions in human behavior, the Swiss director Stefan Haupt highlights with remarkable effect.

Theodorakis also recounts a horrible account of the Greek Orthodox Priest and his family being stripped naked, mutilated in a horrible manner, forced to do unthinkable acts and then killed.

The more jarring facet is that when the Greek village survivors appealed for compensation from Germany, the German government refused to acknowledge guilt until a few years ago when the German Ambassador to Greece finally visited the village and apologized. Even today the German official stance is that Germany and Greece are now NATO allies and compensation is ruled out. Argyris tries to forget his loss and hate by working for the underprivileged in Somalia, Nepal and Indonesia. But can one forget what one remembers in childhood?

This film is powerful—only Hans Jurgen Syberberg's Hitler-A film from Germany (a 10 hour long documentary that provoked essayist Susan Sontag to write so many essays on it) was superior to this film on a linked subject. More people need to see the Stefan Haupt film so that similar horrors are not perpetrated elsewhere in the world. Haupt offers open-ended options to deal with grief, which makes you think how you ought to deal with personal grief. These are documenatries that offer more value than some feature films!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

48. US director and actor Billy Bob Thornton's "Sling Blade" (1996): A minor 'Citizen Kane'

It would be missing the forest for the trees to merely state that the story of Thornton's film and/or the performances were stunning.

No doubt the screenplay is good, if not captivating, in structure. The prologue before the credits balances the measured calmness that follows the remainder of the prologue of the film. Both segments have an uneasy and unreal muteness that is deafening to the viewers' sensibilities. The chair dragged by J.T. Walsh makes a noise that irritates you, while preparing you for the rest of the movie. The deliberately darkened room for the interview with the school girl seemed out-of-place for an inmate about to be released into the sunny world of freedom. The screenplay does seem to dig at a layer beyond the obvious—a corrections system that is far from perfect. The response of the lead character to J.T. Walsh at the end of the movie offers more for the viewer to re-evaluate what has preceded in the film. Having viewed Lars von Trier's Dogville, within hours of viewing Sling Blade, I could not but the see the parallels that emerge in both films—the vigilante element in the best among us and a critical appraisal of society we live in. Is it the sick person that takes the center stage or is the sick framework in our society taking the spotlight? Neither film is religious but both are asking humanistic and theological questions of the viewer.

Thornton's performance is interesting and in many ways comparable to Malkovich's performance in Of Mice and Men or Duvall's performance in To Kill a Mockingbird. Are the viewers mesmerized by the actor's performance or by the writer Thornton's character? In my view the character Karl in Sling Blade is more interesting than the performance of Thornton. The director Thornton exploits the physical imperfections of the actor Thornton. Unlike Giullieta Masina in La Strada or Sir John Mills in Ryan's Daughter, the rare examples the performances outdid the character, Thornton, Malkovich and Duvall have all presented powerful imperfect characters that interest the viewer more than the performers. Thornton was able to gain the viewer's attention with his gait (with crushed glass in his shoes), his voice, and his facial contortions. In my view, Thornton was more impressive as an actor in Monster's Ball because the character was less "attractive" to the viewer.

Thornton's cast weave a quilt of outstanding brief performances: J.T. Walsh in the hospital, Duvall as the father, and Ritter as the endearing gay character.

More than the performance or the screenplay, the finest part of the film was the music. Now Thornton himself is a drummer and musician. Thornton, the director, was able to get top-notch strains of music from Daniel Lanois that embellished the film. I think the film would have been a lot less impressive without the music which was evocative and yet not intrusive. This includes the singing during the baptism sequence. It is a film that cajoles a sensitive viewer to pay attention to the intelligent management of the soundtrack.

Thornton needs to be commended for his care in managing the sound throughout the movie. Apart from the dragging of the chair at the start of the film, the sound department did a marvelous job (you see this in films of Michael Mann, Terence Mallick and Julie Taymor among contemporary US filmmakers).

All in all, the movie belonged to Billy Bob Thornton—director, screenplay writer, and actor. An amazing effort indeed, almost recalling the more sophisticated effort of Orson Welles in Citizen Kane!

Friday, November 09, 2007

47. Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window" (1954): Opening new windows to reflect on the classic thriller

After viewing the film three times over a span of 20-odd years, the film urges a keen viewer to go beyond the appreciation of the cinematic challenges that Hitchcock sets for himself to overcome. For instance, one need not merely appreciate that this film is one of the rare instances in cinema where all the sounds are "diegetic"— recorded on the soundtrack are sounds from within the visual world captured by the camera. Further, one need no longer be intrigued by the amoral perspective of the voyeur, represented by L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart), the good, average American bachelor with a robust, modest, creative career and a rich doting girl friend, Lisa, trying to rope him into marriage. After three viewings you are no longer wide-eyed about the blending of the viewer's perspective with those of Jefferies' perspective, historically a major feat of Hitchcock.

Newer perspectives of the film crystallize if you have seen over 20 Hitchcock films as I fortunately have.

First, Rear Window is one of the rare films of Hitchcock where women emerge smarter and stronger than men—the last scene has the hero with two legs in a cast and his lady love switching reading material to what she prefers to read over what the hero would prefer her to read, even though for the first time she has switched to trousers to humor her future husband's vision of his kind of wife. Similar ends were obvious in Family Plot, Spellbound, Rebecca and, by inference of the final choice, in Marnie. The final shot in Rear Window is a sexual reversal of the final shot of Mr and Mrs Smith.

Second, Rear Window is yet another film on marriage—a recurring theme in the Hitchcock films. Jefferies and Lisa do not tie the knot but the end inferred this would eventually happen. But the switching of the reading material gives the viewer a clue who among the duo would rule the marriage. In another perspective on marriage, within the film a husband kills his wife. A wedding ring is stolen of all objects. Other perspectives in the film reflect on the sex in marriage and another looks at a woman dreaming of a virtual husband, a dream to which Jefferies involuntarily raises his own glass!

Third, this is a film on photographers, photography and voyeurs. Only the photographer looks out of the window, when all have windows open, except when a dog or housebreak is involved. Four decades after Hitchcock made the film, the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski in his Dekalog no. 6 /A short film about love explored the same theme with even more astonishing results. Recently, Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke's Cache presented videos of an anonymous voyeur as the pivotal essay on racial interaction. All the three films infer that the crime is in watching other people commit crime. The watcher and the watched emerge as flip sides of an individual or alter egos. The magic of Hitchcock enamors more and more later geniuses of cinema even today...

For a mature viewer, there is more entertainment in the film than the obvious story-line woven around a wheelchair-bound voyeur suspecting a murder has been committed close to his apartment.

P.S. Cache is reviewed earlier in this blog.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

46. Swedish maestro Ingmar Bergman's "Nattvardsgasterna" (Winter Light) (1963): Stunning cinema for some, dreary for others

Winter Light is simply stunning cinema. Ingmar Bergman realized this was the film (with the arguable exception of Fanny and Alexander) that satisfied him most among his entire body of work. And this was not a casual remark made by a director to promote his film soon after he made it, it was instead a written statement he made 25 years after the film was made. Viewing the black-and-white film a few days after Bergman died, I could not but agree with his view. It is a great film from a great director. It is a film that average audiences might never appreciate. Even Bergman’s wife (at that time) found it dreary. It would make sense to viewers familiar with theology (Bergman was the rebellious son of a Lutheran priest) and much of the gravity of the film will be lost to those unfamiliar with the issues presented in the film. Yet it is a film that would provide adequate material to atheists and believers alike in equal measure. It’s a thinking-person’s film.

If the rules of aesthetics of Aristotle’s Poetics were to be applied to cinema, Winter Light would be perfect cinema. It begins and ends in a church (though the churches are different ones close to each other with the same organist and the same sexton). It begins and ends within a 24-hour period. Much of the action can be correlated (mimesis) to Christ’s Last Supper leading up to his death on the cross. Catharsis abounds both for a believer and non-believer. The main character undergoes anagnorisis or self realization through the accusatory statements of his lover. There is arguable peripeteia (reversal of circumstances) as non-believing lover prays by kneeling with folded hands in the penultimate shot soon after the organist who also attends Free Mason rituals exhorts her to leave the Church and her love, the widower Priest.

Most critics bypass this particular work of Bergman for good reasons. It is totally devoid of music, if you discount the church bells and the organ played in the church. It does not have the hypnotic visual allure of The Seventh Seal or of Sawdust and Tinsel. It has unusually long sequences of actors speaking into the camera. Its actors are all ugly, anti-heroic, and stunted (even the beautiful blonde Ingrid Thulin appears here in major role as a homely brunette destined to remain a spinster). It’s a film about suicide, about physical suffering, and about cold Scandinavian winters. Like David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter and John Huston’s fascinating adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana, the film is populated with anti-heroes, cripples and losers. Finally, the film is overtly theological. All these are facets of cinema that rarely makes viewers sit up these days.

Why then is this movie stunning?

It has an absolutely flawless structure for its screenplay. It begins and ends with a church service. The number of worshippers seems to diminish towards the end of the movie but the few believers are stronger in faith. The scene after opening service and the scene before the final service are both in the vestry. The middle sections take the action out of the church. This structure would have pleased the ancient Greek playwrights and Shakespeare alike.

Every scene, every sequence is carefully created. You remove one and the whole film collapses. The use of light and shadows is awesome in each and every scene (see the scene above). Each scene provides fodder for reflection. Take the scene where the priest and his lover stop at a level crossing. The line spoken by the priest is that he entered priesthood because his father told him to become one. An innocent statement, if you do not know Bergman was the son of a priest and that Through a Glass Darkly the previous work in the trilogy ended with a crucial conversation on God between father and son. Through a Glass Darkly ended with the son (Minus) asking his father (David): “Give me a proof of God.” His father answered: “I can only give you an indication of my own hope. It’s knowing that love exists for real in the human world. . . . The highest and lowest, the most ridiculous and the most sublime. All kinds. . . . I don’t know whether love is proof of God’s existence, or if love is God. . . . Suddenly the emptiness turns into abundance, and hopelessness into life. It’s like a reprieve, Minus, from a sentence of death.” Visually, too, the stop at the railway crossing offers food for thought. Some critics aver that the railway wagons passing by the stopped car have remarkable similarity to coffins.

The spoken words throughout are intense and often interlink this film with Bergman’s previous film in the trilogy Through a Glass Darkly, where the leading lady having a nervous breakdown has visions of God as a spider. In Winter Light, the connection is made with the words of the priest: “Every time I confronted God with the realities I witnessed - he turned into something ugly and revolting. A spider god, a monster. So I fled from the light, clutching my image to myself in the dark.”

Similarly, the link to the next film in the trilogy The Silence, is made by the words: “When Jesus was nailed to the cross -and hung there in torment - he cried out -"God, my God!" "Why hast thou forsaken me?" He cried out as loud as he could. He thought that his heavenly father had abandoned him. He believed everything he'd ever preached was a lie. The moments before he died, Christ was seized by doubt. Surely that must have been his greatest hardship? God's silence.”

Doubt about the existence of God is the underlying theme of the Bergman trilogy. It is not a coincidence that the main character is called Rev. Tomas after Thomas the doubting Apostle who refused to believe in Jesus' resurrection until he put his finger in his Jesus’ nail wounds.

The film’s end offers both a comforting interpretation to non-believers and another one to believers. When Bergman wrote the script, he was rebelling against his father who was a devout believer. The end of the film was crafted by Bergman after he saw his old father insisting on all the prayers said in a church when the regular priest was too ill to say them.

Existential non-believers will argue that in the final scene of Winter Light, the priest who knew he could not honestly help a man about to commit suicide, lamely continues his vocation without conviction. Believers will interpret the same scene to mean that the wretched priest realizes that silence from God does not mean that God does not exist but that he has to toil and suffer with added conviction and begin once again with a single worshipper to populate the near empty church. We can surmise that the priest will marry again because his new wife will now not be struck by his “indifference to (his) Jesus Christ” and that the crippled sexton finds a new supporter for his viewpoint that physical pain is easier to bear than loneliness.
For those viewers familiar with an Indian/Malayalam national-award winning film Nirmalayam, (directed and written by M T Vasudevan Nair in 1973), the end of the two films are worthy of comparison. The major characters in both films suffer psychological stress. Both characters are priests and religious (though practising different religions). Yet the final action of both are interestingly different. Both are interesting screenplays and worthy films. Both movies give ample room to the viewer for thought.

Either way, the two films offer considerable options of interpretation for a sensitive, intelligent viewer.

P.S. Through a Glass Darkly was reviewed earlier on this blog. Winter Light is one of the 10 movies that director Andrei Tarkovsky listed before his death as the best works of world cinema.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

45. British director John Boorman's US film "Point Blank" (1967): Alienation at its best surfaces in a Hollywood action film

The toast of the Cannes festival awards ceremonies on three occasions, director John Boorman has made films best forgotten and films that are unforgettable. Point Blank belongs to the latter category. Many critics have dismissed it as a Hollywood B-grade action film. Evaluate it closely and you will spot a gem. Arguably Boorman has made three other major films--The General, Deliverance, and Hell in the Pacific, but this film had material--visual, aural and philosophical--that made it stand out among the Hollywood productions of its day. The film was remade recently as a Hollywood action film Payback, a version that did not urge the viewer to think beyond its gripping action.

I first saw this movie when I was in college in the Seventies. I viewed the film again in 2001. The power of the film was the same on my senses. Several reasons come up: British Director John Boorman was at his best trying to outdo Don Siegel's The Killers (1967)-which also stars Marvin and Angie Dickinson in somewhat similar roles, and was based on an Ernest Hemingway story. I will really be surprised if Boorman denies that he was not influenced by the Siegel/Hemingway movie.

Why did Point Blank make an impact on me? Was it Lee Marvin's raw machismo? No. It was Boorman, who gave cinema a brilliant essay on alienation. When Dickinson's Chris asks Marvin's Walker `What's my last name?' after a bout of sex and gets a repartee `What's my first name?' you can argue the alienation is embedded in the dialog. It goes beyond the dialog, it is present in the entire plot and the open ending that urges the viewer to think as he or she leaves the theater. The screenplay was developed on a novel by American Don Westlake (whose large body of work is not noteworthy), by three intriguing Englishmen who I suspect made the difference--Alexander Jacobs and two brothers Rafe and David Newhouse. The Newhouses' only other screenplay was Where's Jack? an impressive British musical that desperately needs to be appraised beyond the obvious. My guess is that Point Blank owes much to the team of British screenplay writers and the British director for the film blossomiing into a thought-provoking work in the in the garb of an action film. And probably the stony look of Lee Marvin helped even more. Further, this was one of the early works of Boorman made while the flow of his creative adrenalin was peaking.

But Boorman's cinema includes the loud footsteps of a determined Walker on the soundtrack, very similar to the effect Jean-Luc Godard achieved in his Alpahaville, contrasting bright wide open spaces for the exchange of money that goes according to plan and closed dimly lit confines of Alcatraz for those that go wrong. There is laconic humour without laughter, pumping bullets into an empty bed, guards who narrowly miss Marvin going up the lift, the car salesman's interest in an attractive customer than in his job, the sharpshooter's smug satisfaction not realizing that he has got the wrong man…The list is endless.

The camerawork of Philip Lathrop is inventive, but was it Lathrop or was it Boorman that made the visual appeal of the Panavision format of this film come alive? If you look at Lathrop's body of work, my hunch is that the unusually fascinating visuals were prompted by the director. The use of shadows, open spaces, stairs, almost deserted streets, enhances the isolation and alienation of the main character, Walker.

Viewing the film in 2001, after a gap of decades, many aspects of the film were underlined and reassessed. Getting back his $93,000 was important to Walker (Marvin), nothing more nothing less. But was it money he was after or was it the value of an agreement among thieves? The open-ended finale runs parallel to the end of an Arthur Penn film (also built on alienation) called Night Moves made some 10 years later. What surprises me is how a good movie like Point Blank never won an award or even an Oscar nomination.

There is a strand of despair that links all the major Boorman films. The main characters are somehow isolated from the larger crowd. This clever amalgamation of alienation, humor, action and intrigue makes Point Blank remarkable. Reflect on what the film states--you are alone, you have fight for what is yours, and options in life are open-ended for you to choose. There is no black and white, only grey.

Monday, August 27, 2007

44. Swedish maestro Ingmar Bergman's "Through a Glass Darkly" (1961): A truly remarkable, ageless film that makes you think

This film's title is taken from the Bible: "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known." (1 Cor 13:12).

The film is a major work of cinema and a major work of Bergman. If one looks at the body of Bergman's films he was probably approaching his peak of artistry, which he would achieve in his next work Winter light, a film that Bergman himself called perfect. The reason most viewers do not grasp the importance of the magnificent "Man-God trilogy" or "the Silence trilogy" or "the Dark/Faith trilogy" (three films: Through a glass darkly, Winter light, and the Silence) is that the trilogy deals with the theological question of God's existence. It is essentially a thinking person's film. If you can reflect on what you see, these three films are a treasure—a treasure that influenced major directors several decades later, specifically Kieslowski who made Three Colors: Blue also almost entirely based on 1 Corinthians Chapter 13, Tarkovsky who seems to have borrowed some ideas like the sudden baptismal rain from this film that he employs in Solyaris and Stalker and finally the exciting new talent from Russia Andrei Zvyagintsev (director of The Return, where the Russian director took a leaf from the Bergmanesque son–father relationship of this film). All these films seem to have been influenced by this seminal work of Bergman.

To those viewers, who are not spiritually inclined, the film could be reduced to the obvious action of Harriet Anderson's character Karin insisting on wearing goggles as she steps out of her home to live the rest of her life in a hospital. It could easily be interpreted as a study of mental illness, a film that gives credence to the theory that god does not exist. The film can equally be interpreted as a film on mad people who feel they are in communion with god, who at other times are slaves to dark forces (voices).

On the other hand one can argue the intensity of the light is a metaphor for a sign that God exists—the basic question that troubled Bergman, the son of a priest, in real life. Even the young Minus kneels down to pray to God as the rain (baptismal?) falls suddenly. A keen viewer will note that there is no sign of rain on the island or of rain drenching the two men in an open boat after the event. Only Karin's hair is wet. All three films seek an answer that God exists from a silent, "inscrutable" (to quote a word from this film) God to whom millions pray. The spiritual troubles of Bergman are not far removed from those of Mother Teresa, who according to her recently revealed letters to her confidant, a priest, was also troubled by a silent God for over the 40 years she spent working for the poor. Through a glass darkly opens with a shot of the almost still, dark waters of the sea mirroring the sky. The film ends with several references of light. For the cynical, Bergman was disillusioned and felt that God was a "spider" (the intriguing image for the DVD covers of the three films), a reference to Karin's outburst towards the end of the film. If Bergman, was truly disillusioned, would he have added the final epilogue where the father tells his son "God exists in love, in every sort of love, maybe God is love." These last words make the son say my father has "talked to me" the penultimate words of the film—a seemingly spiritual response even Jesus on the cross wanted ("Father, father, why hast thou forgotten me?") before he died.

It would be ridiculous to see this work merely as a film seeking answers to God's existence. Like Three colors: Blue, this is a film on love. There is the undiluted love of an atheist husband (shades of Bergman?) for his ailing wife (note the film is dedicated to Kabi, Bergman's wife at a point when divorce was looming large). There is love of a father for his daughter, son and son-in-law triggered by a failed suicide attempt (only recalled in the film). There is love between siblings.

The film is also about marriage (the film is dedicated to Bergman's wife Kabi, with whom he is supposed to have had a 'non-communicative' marriage and, more importantly, he adds two words "my wife" after Kabi in the dedication). Visually, the film emphasizes the wedding ring in the scenes involving husband (the camera captures the wedding ring on the finger several times) and wife (she puts it on after she washes her face). The son asks with an innocent cockiness of the father who has recently divorced his second wife Marianne (never shown on screen) if "he has lost all stability, spiritually"? Structurally Bergman doffs his cap to Shakespeare by adding a one act play within the film on the lines of Hamlet to drive home a point to the father and his illusion of love for his perfect work of art at the expense of depriving love for his near and dear.

In more ways than one, this is a thinking person's film. After viewing the film several times, one is in awe of this filmmaker so prolific, so perfect and so sensitive. What he has written for cinema can be compared to the output of great writers like Tolstoy and Shakespeare. He was truly a genius. I do agree with Bergman when he avers that the three films in the trilogy are not connected and are stand alone films. The only common link among the three films is Bergman's personal quest for a response from a silent God that his father believed in and in whom Bergman was brought up to believe in. These are not films of an atheist but works from a genius "flirting with God" to quote from the film itself.

Many years after he made the film, Bergman was uncomfortable with the final scene. The doubting Thomas in Bergman had resurfaced. Yet he never reworked on the film. The film has much to offer for a student of cinema: it is made of fine photography, art direction, acting, scriptwriting, editing and sound (Bach plus the horn of the lighthouse). Undoubtedly one of Bergman's finest works, it anticipates the perfect Winter light, the next film that Bergman wrote and directed.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

43. South African filmmaker Mark Dornford-May's "U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha" (2005): Different strokes of Bizet's opera 'Carmen,' and the best is....

There are examples of cinema when music can provide fodder for thought. Great directors have always chosen music to communicate viewpoints, not merely to soothe our aural cravings. Bizet's Carmen can be appreciated as a musical work without much thought. It can also be appreciated in the context in which the musical work is used on celluloid.

I had seen two of the most fascinating film versions of Carmen in the mid-Eighties: (a) Francesco Rosi's Italian version that won a Golden Globe and a BAFTA award with two of the most accomplished tenors (Placido Domingo and Ruggero Raimondi) playing leads roles that had spoken dialogs to punctuate the singing, and (b) Carlos Suara's Spanish version with flamingo dancers that won a Prize at Montreal film festival and a Bodil award for the Best European film. It was difficult to conceive that another production could be made to outshine either of these. Yet here was a South African director making a version of Carmen (his debut at that) in South Africa's tongue clicking Xhosa language capturing all the elements of accomplished filmmakers Rosi and Suara with a felicity of a veteran filmmaker to walk way with a Golden Bear at the Berlin Festival in 2005.

A bullfight in Cape Town shantytown suburbs? Director Mark Dornford-May suggests the bullfight with a single shot of a bull in a paddock, an actor holding a dagger, and the sound of an animal in pain—nothing else. Sex is suggested off-screen, never shown. The story and music of the opera Carmen is retained religiously with local color thrown in: a Bible-reading police sergeant who had earlier killed his own brother and glibly lied to his own mother and police about the incident, women who taunt men in almost equal terms, and the singing talent of black South Africans.

There are two ways to enjoy the film: (a) Imbibe the variation of presenting the famous musical work in an unusual setting and (b) savor the film as a documentary of modern-day urban South Africa without the music/operatic songs. Either way you will have a treat. I have been to South Africa and what is shown is very close to reality.

The film belongs to the lead actress Pauline Melafane who exudes sensuality, without having to take off her clothes and is the epitome of the opening line: " ..for every fault she had a quality that came out from the contrast…" Her screen presence is incredible and outshines all Carmens on screen to date that I have seen. She is able to blend tragedy and cocky image of a college going student (forget that she is playing an illiterate shantytown dweller!).

Director Dornford-May achieves two objectives with this work: he proves Bizet's Carmen is universal not a mere European work and that the opera can be well produced in obscure languages, if there was a will and talent. Bizet would have been proud of this film. The red (the primal color of bullfights) color comes to the fore only in the finale as the color worn by the women and the sheet covering the dead. To win a Golden Bear for a debut film is no mean achievement—more so when the experiment has been attempted by others in the past. The director injected realism in this film, not being limited to mere romance and gallantry—in fact Carmen's lover in this film is an anti-hero, a liar, and a modern-day Cain seeking forgiveness. Rosi and Suara need to take a back seat!

P.S. This powerful film overshadowed Fateless, the remarkable Hungarian film discussed earlier in this blog, at the same edition of the Berlin Film Festival. It shared honors with another remarkable film, the Chinese Kong que, also reviewed earlier.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

42. Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Trzy kolory: niebiesky" (Three colors: Blue/Trois couleurs: Bleu) (1993): Not merely an essay on grief

A film on I Corinthians Chapter 13, just as Kieslowski's Dekalog was based on The Ten Commandments of the Old Testament! The later works of Kieslowski never cease to amaze me. Here is a film that made me read more (this time, the Bible!) after seeing the film. A choral rendering of the chapter in Bible towards the end of the film and its link to the films entire musical score--provide the clue.

Here is a film so spiritual in content with no obvious markings of being a cinematic essay based on an entire abstract chapter in the New Testament—-a chapter that could fit into the holy books of any religion and is not strictly limited to Christian theology but universal philosophy that could find equal acceptance by, say, a Sufi scholar or a Hindu mystic.

But then Kieslowski made 10 marvelous short films called Dekalog each loosely based on one of the Ten Commandments. But if the viewer is not well versed with theology or philosophy, the film can be viewed as a story far removed from such lofty heights. Blue would be a mere story of grief and reconciliation to loss of kin (but then Ingmar Bergman did a better job of this subject in the little known 1971 film The Touch (Beroringen) with Bibi Andersson and Elliot Gould).

Kieslowski, was a product of Communist Poland but a Christian in spirit and upbringing. He is reputed to have professed atheism but his later works negate this. It is possible that his collaborator on the screenplay Krzysztof Piesiewicz was more religious than Kieslowski. Both of them knew that all of us had to make difficult moral choices in life constantly, more so in a once Communist environment. Interestingly, Ingmar Bergman made another film taking a leaf from the very same Biblical chapter—Through a glass darkly. In Blue, the moral choice the lead character makes is to love. Love whom, one may ask? Love the boy who makes a great effort to return the stolen necklace with a cross, the husband who cheated on her marriage, the mistress of her husband with his unborn son in her womb, the husband's colleague who seeks fame from adding final touches to another person's unfinished masterpiece, the unfinished musical work that needs a loving inspired end, love the neighbor who is a prostitute, the servants of the house, the mother in the old age home (most of the images are reinforced towards the end of the film, as excerpts from the Biblical chapter are sung). Ms. Binoche was able to allude to a faint smile at the last frame, the actor's contribution to the film after her understanding of the end of Anton Chekov's play The seagull. Kieslowski retained the contribution of the literate and sensitive actor.

Blue--one of the three colors of the French flag. It is the color that defines melancholy in the English language. Blue is the "untrue" reflective color of water in a swimming pool—a cathartic venue where the lead actor swims to rid her fear of rats, a venue that suggests purging of her past fears and marital shackles, a venue where she curls up like fetus in a womb to be reborn.

There were unresolved passages in the film—-the despondent face of the daughter staring out of the car, the lead actor's obsessive interest in her dead husband rather than the loss of the daughter and why the mattress was the only furniture left behind in an otherwise empty house. Wish Kieslowski was alive today to explain these loose ends! The film is a superb example of sound editing, music composition and camera-work—each technical department competing for top honors. Blue was made for Venice Festival just as White was made for Berlin and Red for Cannes—the three top film festivals. Venice Festival loves such subjects as Blue presented—Blue was designed for it, each shot from the dunking of the sugar cube to epiphany of the street flute player to the laceration of the hand (spiritual reference to shedding of blood?) on the stones in self mortification.

In the final evaluation it is product of teamwork—making a swansong triptych of a talented director who probably knew his time in this world was limited. If I had not seen Bergman's works mentioned earlier, I would have voted this film as the best of the trilogy. My vote therefore is for the later work White, as it is more original in style and more complex of the two. Yet each of the "three colors" is a work of a master of cinema. I consider it a privilege to have met Kiesolowski briefly and talked to him, through an interpreter, in 1982 in Bangalore, India, much before he had bloomed into a great filmmaker in the early Nineties. At that time he had only made Camera Buff with Jerzy Stuhr—a film that impressed me but clearly lacked the maturity of his later works. Poland should to be proud of its great son.

P.S. Three Colors: White and two episodes of Dekalog (5 and 7) have been discussed earlier on this blog.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

41. Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni's US film "Zabriskie Point" (1970): A film that lost its shine over the years

When I saw the film for the first time in the early 1970s, I was in awe of this film. Visually, it was stunning and the events on campuses in Europe and USA made you relate with what Antonioni was trying to say so well visually in the final 15 minutes of the movie: blowing up in your mind the "tyrannical" establishments and big business interests. It was a not so veiled comment on American values. Antonioni was probably affected by the popular French student uprising in the Sixties, led by Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

The repeated blowing up of the beautiful house in the middle of a desert, the lead female character enjoying the natural stream of cold water, painting an aircraft in psychedelic designs (even the staid British Airways did it a few years ago) are some of the images that were copied by advertising personnel all over the world for decades. Even Pink Floyd increased their fan following after the film was released.

You see this film some 30 years later and you begin to wonder why the same film has lost its sheen. Today, anti-establishment films have more substance--facts, documentation, fine performances, and superb screenplays. Antonioni seems to be out-of-date; a flawed genius. Even viewing Antonioni's Blow Up today gives you the similar feeling that this genius of the 60s and 70s is passe. Filmmakers have learnt a lot from his cinema over the years and brought forth more complex and mature works over past few decades.

Zabriski Point needs to be evaluated for what it was when it was released. It was a great film if you were to see it on a wide Panavision screen as opposed to the dwarfed TV screens. The visual and aural (Mick Jagger, Kieth Richards, Pink Floyd, et al.) allure of the film still remains. The lead pair were not great actors but they were cute and natural. One of them (Mark Frechette) died in prison in USA extending the reality of the non-conformist values he personified in the film. Today, Antonioni seems out of "sync." But watch carefully and you will appreciate the muted sounds of the regular actors--Rod Taylor, G.D. Spradling, the ladies at the swimming pool, the cops at the air-strip. The realistic sounds that you hear well, by contrast, are from the non-conformists. Antonioni was relevant 30 years ago but his grasp of the medium cannot be questioned even today. He knew what he was doing.

Antonioni's screenplays were laconic but loaded with meaning. In Zabriskie Point, his leading lady character Daria says these lines about a river: "There's a thousand sides to everything - not just heroes and villains. So any way... so any way... so any way... so "anyway" ought to be one word. Like a place or a river. So 'Anyway River.' " Interestingly in this film, US playwright and actor Sam Shepard and another interesting screenplay writer Clare Peploe (collaborator and spouse of director Bertolucci) contributed to Antonioni's screenplay.

He passed away this week. R.I.P, Mr Antonioni your contribution to cinema cannot be denied.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

40. Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Dekalog, siedem (Decalogue 7)" (1989): Stealing as a metaphor

The brilliant Polish director--whom I had the good fortune to meet in Bangalore at an International Film Festival in 1982--made a series of ten 1-hour long short films, each dedicated to one of the Ten Commandments, handed down to Moses from God. These are commandments given to a man venerated by Christians, Muslims and Jews. Decalogue 7 naturally deals with the Seventh Commandment--"Thou shall not steal." (This is often listed as the Seventh commandment for Roman Catholics and Lutherans, while it is listed as the Eighth commandment for the Jews and Orthodox Christians). Kieslowski and his co-scriptwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz (both Roman Catholics, and hence Decalogue 7, not 8) weave a modern day story that entertains, while asking disturbing and provoking questions--theological, social and psychological--of the viewer.

The film can be evaluated at several levels. It offers several layers of meaning, teasing the viewer as it progresses.

Kidnapping your own daughter from the ownership of your mother is a bizarre situation. Two women want to own a young child--the biological mother and the grandmother who yearned to "suckle" another. Interestingly the script looks at three generations of the same sex. The males seem to be the outsiders, yet balanced in comparison to the females in the movie.

"Thou shall not steal" is the commandment that is apparently broken. The film leads you to believe that the mother has "kidnapped" her own child. The film seems to argue quite elegantly that the real thief is the grandparent not the "kidnapping" mother. The "kidnapping" is symbolic--the police is mentioned not seen. The law presented in the film is moral one, not a civil one. In the end, it is the natural affection the child yearns for that is stolen, not by an individual but by circumstances (the state?).Is this a veiled criticism of Poland, the effect of communism on the young emerging democracy? What would have happened if the "stealing" within and without the movie did not take place? The film begins with the sound of the child crying that can be heard outside the walls of the house; the film ends with the silent cry of the child in the open, without walls and yet the cry cannot be heard, only seen (harking back to Rod Steiger's silent cry at the end of The Pawnbroker). Is fleeing to Canada (read: Western capitalism) a better option than staying back in the overgrown, ummowed gardens (with dilapidated merry-go-rounds) of Poland? Is making teddy bears a better life than taking care of your child? Is he making an argument for "stealing" becoming honorable for the cause of freedom?

The film leaves you with more questions than answers, yet providing a mature level of entertainment for the intelligent viewer. Having met Kieslowski in Bangalore, India, in 1982, soon after he made Camera Buff, a film that did not have the sparkle and maturity of his later works, I could never guess that he would go on to make the Three colors trilogy and Decalogue. These later works make you wonder at the ambiguity of his later work--the beguiling smile of a Mona Lisa as he deals with religion, politics, morals with a twinkle in his eye.This episode may be seem to present an unusual story but what a masterful way to present it. Innocence is limited to one character in the entire film: the child. Just one word describes the episode, brilliant in philosophy and in cinema, thanks partly to cinematographer Dariusz Kuc.

Theologically analyzed, the film offers more for reflection. The subject of stealing goods is arguably covered by the 10th commandment "thou shalt not covet thy neighbours goods" and the seventh commandment is often subtly interepreted as "thou shalt not kidnap" (read Wikepedia on "Ten Commandments" quoting a Jewish Rabbi, Rashi). This is probably the reason why the film is all about kidnapping and not about stealing goods which is dealt by the director and screenplay writer in Decalogue 10--which is all about stealing goods and about "coveting thy neighbor's goods"--confusing many critics who missed the distinction being made on screen. This is a fine example of cinema that invites you to read more after seeing the film (and revise your own judgement). Pieseiewicz and Kiesolwski had done their homework!

P.S. Decalogue 2 and 5 has been reviewed on this blog.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

39. US director Richard Brook's "Lord Jim" (1965): Conrad's treatise on fear, heroism, cowardice and death

Imagine a movie where the hero turns into a coward and switches back to a hero. You begin to question your own yardsticks of what makes a hero and what makes a coward.

I have seen this US-British co-produced film three times over the past 30 years and each time I loved it and wanted to see it once again. What has attracted me each time are the spoken words and depth of the subject (you could say it was the screenplay) more than the direction. The subject of the film must have attracted director Richard Brooks who was essentially a screenplay writer who later became a director. He knew the merits of a strong script with philosophical lines taken from Joseph Conrad's book Lord Jim. Coppola was to use the related original material (Conrad's Heart of Darkness, another related tale narrated by Conrad's fictional character Marlow) in his Apocalypse Now for the Brando scenes several decades after this film was made and mostly forgotten.

What Brooks does not realize is that lines like "it only takes a split second to make a coward a hero or turn a hero into a coward" and "every sinner wants a second chance at redemption, without realizing he is damned for ever" are philosophical lines that one expects to hear from very literate individuals. Here, in Lord Jim, the lines are often spoken by the dregs of society. Jim, of course, we are told by the narrator (Jack Hawkins' Marlow) was philosophical, dreamed of heroism, and was a gentleman.

The film is made up of three distinct segments: 1. The "sinking" of SS Patna 2. The liberation of Patusan ("Patna" + "us" make up the name Patusan, remarks Jim to his love) and 3. The battle with a group of scoundrels (led by James Mason's 'Gentleman' Brown) with some fine speeches on honor, death, and fear.

Each segment could stand alone but together the film adds considerable worthiness that exceeds the action and plot, the elements that most viewers use to judge a movie. The lesser characters in the film add color and counterpoints to the script. Christian Marquand's French Captain who defends Jim's "cowardice" with the words "fear can make us do strange things" or Paul Lukas' Stern who compares his dead butterfly collection with the "wonderful, perfect human beings that God created" or the native who wonders why some pray to one god instead of a host of Gods are a few examples of dialogs that force you to reflect on what you heard.

The film's subject covers several religions. The fervent Muslims on the way to Haj survive the storm. The Christian Jim prays to his God. The Buddhists pray to Buddha. And the natives pray to their array of gods (a touch of Hinduism?). Yet, the film is not a religious film. But faith in God is underlined at every stage.

Conrad was Polish and a seaman before he became a writer. Brooks is an American. O'Toole leads a cast that is predominantly British. Daliah Lavi is Israeli, Marquand is French, Jurgens is German...The film is truly international.

Brooks not only wrote and directed the film but this was the first film that he produced. The film proved to be ideal for O'Toole reprising his roles of Lawrence of Arabia and Becket, roles that draw thin lines between cowardice and heroism and consequent attempts to redeem oneself. The film is not great cinema--but will remain for me a major literary work (Lord Jim, with many ties to Heart of Darkness, both works of Joseph Conrad) adapted for the screen with some delightful performances from O'Toole, Mason, Wallach, and Marquand and commendable photography by Freddie Young.

Monday, July 09, 2007

38. Spain's Alejandro Amenabar's "Mar Adentro" (The Sea Within) (2004): The depths to explore within the film and varied human relationships

I have seen Whose life is it anyway? (1981) and now Mar adentro (2004). I loved both films while they unspooled their entertaining sexist jokes in the morbid background of a male quadriplegic requesting euthanasia. Evaluated for their witty content, the American film wins outright over the other. Evaluated for philosophical content, the Spanish film is an outright winner in contrast to the Hollywood product. The American film entertained for the duration of the film; the Spanish film entertains you by requiring you to reflect on the various segments of the film, long after the film ends.

People who know Spanish aver that the correct translation of the title would be “Into the sea”. If you have seen the film, the deep philosophical, theological and social undercurrents of the screenplay make the less accurate title “The sea within,” more appropriate.

What were the aspects of the film that made me reflect on it?

The unflinching support of a small family to care for a cripple for 27 years is unusual in Western society. This is powerfully understated throughout the film. The viewer is witness to mute actions of love from the family for the quadriplegic but only on a few occasions is the subject discussed.

This brings up the strengths of the awesome screenplay (Amenabar and Mateo Gil) that reverts time and time again to the hills visible from the quadriplegic’s bed while the memories of the quadriplegic are those of the sea. The sea is within the mind of the quadriplegic—and quite appropriately the first shot is of the sea, which is soon replaced by the hills.

Suicide is theologically a no-no for many. A repentant Judas is not forgiven by the Church because he commits suicide, while all other repenting sinners the world over are supposed to be absolved if they repent. The film, set in Catholic Spain, takes a bold step in including the loud debate between two quadriplegics—one a priest who wants to live and another, a lay man, who does not—separated literally and figuratively by a floor.

The power of media is underlined: the role of TV programs and publishing of books. Yet the real outcome is nurtured through love between individuals through direct contact. The end of the film would not be the same in the absence of love. The bonding between the sick and the crippled (physically with Julia and psychologically with Rosa) are contrasted with bonding of the physically whole near family—Manuela and Gene.

This is my second Amenabar film—the first was The others. While Mar adentro deals with a thought provoking subject, the brilliance of the young director is underlined in The others--a fabulous ghost story, elegantly told. Amenabar and Andrei Zvygintsev (The Return, discussed in this blog earlier) are the most promising and talented young filmmakers (both Europeans) today. Amenabar has proven that he can direct great movies, elicit great performances from his actors (Javier Bardem, here. and Nicole Kidman in The Others), write good music and pick fine appropriate music of established composers (Puccini, Beethoven, Mozart and Richard Wagner). Like good cognac, the film is best appreciated by reflecting on all its attributes after the repast of the film viewing.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

37. Hungarian director Lajos Koltai's "Sorstalansag (Fateless)" (2005): A thought-provoking film on the Nazi horrors

Many directors have made acclaimed movies on the horrors of the Nazi perpetrated holocaust, the gas chambers, and the concentration camps. This work stands out as one of the very few intelligent films reflecting on the effect of the atrocities on those directly and indirectly affected, rather than a clever film milking the pathos of the tragic events. Here is a film that telescopes the tragedy beyond the World War II for the main character a teenage Jewish boy (and the viewer) to the post-war human interactions. Here is a film that does not stop as a celluloid memorial for the Jews, but makes one reflect on human behavior worldwide while facing similar horrors—the Pol Pot genocide in Cambodia, the tragic ethnic cleansing of Muslims in post-Tito Yugoslavia, the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur…the list goes on.

How does this film end up being different? The Nobel prize winning story alludes to camaraderie of the oppressed in concentration camps, prisons and other unusual bonding of strangers for survival. The 'free' world rarely provides that bonding. The film and the story are thus made up of two parts: the incarceration and the freedom. In the free world, a German asks the survivor if he ever saw the gas chambers and the honest answer is "no." And that comforts the guilty suspicion of the non-Jewish German.

Much of the film centers on the capturing the emotions of the boy, without spoken words. This might appear unusual but study the gradual use of shadows, the dirt, and the evidence of tears. The controlled bleached color prints add to the visceral visual power of the film. These are images that you will not forget even after you leave the theater (or switch off the Indian TV channel, as in my case)

There are sequences that suggest more than what is shown on screen. A guard takes an odd liking for the young boy and keeps staring at him instead of others, once in the suburbs of Budapest and then again in the concentration camp. The special care in the infirmary could allude to Nazi medical experiments. Delving on those details would have reduced the real strength of the film. It is easy for many whose fate was death in the camps. There are half dead men who refuse to accept their fate as they are carried away to the gas chambers. And there are young men fated to live and survive in a difficult inhospitable world and accept this as their fate and move on. They are the "fateless" few.

This work turned out to be remarkable because of the outstanding team behind it. The story and screenplay is by 2002 Nobel prize winner Imre Kertesz who won the prize a few years before the film was made. The story is semi-auto biographical The acclaimed Hungarian cinematographer turned director Lajos Koltai and Italian Ennio Morricone team up once again after the two weaved celluloid magic in The legend of 1900 (reviewed earlier in this blog). The camera is not with Koltai but Gyula Pados this time, but Koltai would have contributed to the photography. Another marvel of the film are the vocal renderings of Australian Lisa Gerrard (of Dead can dance) that alternate with pan pipes conducted by Morricone.

Three remarkable films on the Nazi atrocities evoked similar feelings for me: the outstanding 10-hour cinematic docudrama by Hans-Jurgen Syberberg Hitler-A film from Germany that led essayist Susan Sontag to write an equally outstanding critical essay on the film, Zoltan Fabri's The Fifth Seal (referring to the Bible's Revelations) the finest Hungarian film that needs to be seen more widely also based on a major Hungarian novel (by Ferenc Santa) and Istvan Szabo's touching mystical and allegorical Budapest Tales that said everything about the Nazi occupation without a shot of the concentration camps by portraying dislocated Jews, strangers to one another, coming together to put a symbolic trashed Budapest tramcar back on the rails far away from the city. Arguably these three films along with Fateless constitute the finest and the most accomplished body of cinema on the subject. If you prefer straight easy tear-jerkers try Steven Spielberg's films on the subject, Polanski's The Pianist, Benigni's Life is Beautiful or even Louis Malle's Au revoir, les Enfants—all good, acclaimed films but not quite in the same league.

P.S. At the Berlin Film Festival, Fateless lost out to two remarkable films I have seen that won the major awards: U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha from South Africa and Kong Que (reviewed earlier in this blog) from China. Like Fateless, the Chinese film was also the first directorial effort of an accomplished cinematographer.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

36. Italian Frederico Fellini's "Le Notti di Cabiria" (Nights of Cabiria) (1957): Christian Marxism of Fellini and Pasolini

It would be far too simplistic to feel that the film merely presents an optimist's commitment to live and enjoy life in an imperfect world. Nights of Cabiria has always intrigued me among the many Fellini films that I have seen—-it is great cinema that asks more questions than it provides answers. It's a fascinating cocktail of Christian Marxism of Fellini and Pasolini—an elegiac social and religious commentary. Noted director Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote the screenplay of the intriguing film. Years after it was made, one realizes that the film was not as simplistic as it appears. It offers considerable questions for the viewer beyond the obvious.

Question one—who is the altruist who provides alms in the night to the wretched of the earth? The only reason for the addition of this character seems to be that Fellini wants a contrasting figure who works in the night—one who gives sustenance to others in a commendable way—a way Cabiria would have preferred to live her life if she had an option. It was amusing for me to find out that this entire sequence was deleted in earlier released versions of the film. My guess is that this sequence was an addition of screenplay writer Pasolini, as it would fit into his style of Christian Marxism, more than the neorealism of Fellini. Interestingly, this is one of the three males in the film (others being the actor who invites Cabiria home, and Brother Giovanni) who seem to have a pure heart and good intentions—all the others seem to have a predominant evil streak.

Question two—-Brother Giovanni leaves a profound effect on Cabiria. Confessing to him (she thinks he is a full fledged priest) and having Mass celebrated by him was Cabiria's wish but the cold response she receives from Giovanni's colleague, who is apparently a full-fledged priest, seems to be Fellini's/Pasolini's comment on the Church—otherwise why have the scene? Question three-—Cabiria's eyebrows change their shape as she contemplates a married life. This is not in line with Fellini's Cabiria, who would think about the effect eyebrows will make as she switches gears in her personal life. Or is Fellini suggesting that as Cabiria steps on the threshold of marriage, the personality of Cabiria changes to a more calculating woman, in contract to the earlier simple, waif like personality.

Apart from questions such as these, it is unquestionably one of Fellini's finest films. I preferred La Strada, another Fellini film with his wife Guilietta Massina in the lead role, and his later less talked about Orchestra Rehearsal, made some 20 years later, in which social commentary takes center stage and storyline the backstage.

I am surprised that most Fellini viewers are taken up with performances and the story each Fellini film offers. The more poignant world of Fellini revolves around the commentary on the divide between the rich and the poor, the honest and the dishonest, the religious and the agnostic. The allure of Fellini to me remains his social commentary—-he underlines this with Cabiria, in the final shot looking at you the viewer, bringing up the nexus between the character and the viewer. In fact, this final shot ought to wake up the sensibilities of the laid-back cinema viewer.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

35. US director Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven" (1978): Seeing heaven by twilight on earth

Director Terrence Malick strides the world of cinema as a colossus in the company of Soviet directors Andrei Tarkovsky (, Sergei Parajanov (, and Grigori Kozintsev. After viewing Days of Heaven for the third time in 20 years, the film touches me the same way as did the works of the three aforementioned Soviet filmmakers.

The title is from Deuteronomy 11:21:

"That your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, in the land which the Lord swore unto your fathers to give them, as the days of heaven upon the earth."

Technically the movie can be appreciated by each of the three elements that build the final compound product. First, there is a pristine innocence in the images of this movie that few Hollywood movies have been able to record on celluloid. Nestor Almendros richly deserved the Oscar for filming Malick's requirement in the magic hours of twilight. Haskell Wexler contributed "additional photography". Wexler and Almendros are giants among cinematographers; this movie is a testament to both their creative abilities. One of my favorite takes is the final shot of Richard Gere falling in the water!!

The second major contribution is the music of the brilliant Ennio Morricone. After every viewing, I am convinced Morricone contributed as much or more to the film than the cinematographers. It is easy to spot the visual artistry, but being able to pick the aural artistry of composer's four or five connected but distinct pieces of music is exhilarating. Compare this with Hans Zimmer's work in The Thin Red Line and we see the importance music plays in Malick's cinema (as is also the case with Tarkovsky, Parajanov, and Kozintsev).

The third is the writing and the direction. A casual viewer would see the movie through events surrounding the adult characters and wonder where the 'Heaven' was in a story woven around deception, anger, jealousy, pestilence, murder, sickness, etc. A closer appraisal of the film will take you to the perspective of the young narrator (as in The Thin Red Line) which is at times all play and at other times a distant impersonal observer of events. What is 'Heaven'? Perhaps heaven is far away from industry, perhaps you glimpse it when you are playing with your friends. Malick's days of heaven seem to be limited to a short period sandwiched between long months of hell. The film invites us to look at a slice of life in each of us that prepares us for the rest of our existence. The amoral world is lovely to behold (young Gere and Adams) and tragic but the moral world is weather-beaten (Robert Wilke's face) or sick (Shepard) but true--a contradiction similar to the beautiful close-up of the locust, a pest. Malick is forever inviting the viewer to reassess and reflect on our accepted norms.

The lack of dialog and the abnegation of a conventional story lifts up the film far above the average Hollywood fare to a cinema where dialogue is muted by sounds and visual splendour. Malick's celluloid poetry enmeshes nature with human actions that seem to be out of synchrony (as it is inThe Thin Red Line as well) not far removed from derelict spaceship of Tarkovsky's Solyaris, the visual violence of Parajanov's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors or the flowers in a otherwise barren landscape of Kozintsev's King Lear.

Malick has won the top honors at Cannes, Berlin, Montreal, and San Sebastian for his cinema but has been denied an Oscar. A prophet is never acknowledged in his own village.

P.S. Malick's The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life have been reviewed on this blog.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

34. Canadian David Cronenberg's "Spider" (2002): What is real? Detection within the world of the insane mind

Insanity has been captured on cinema in myriad ways. David Cronenberg leads the viewer into the world of the unsettled mind in a manner few directors have been able to do in the past. And the film from a medical standpoint is rather accurate… Many of my friends swear by A beautiful mind, which though based on a real living person, I find to be the typical Hollywood dose of wide-eyed awe of a personality with capabilities that tower over the ordinary—in this case a mathematician tottering on the thin line between madness and genius.

Luciano Salce's El Greco (1966), with Mel Ferrer, Fernando Rey and Adolfo Celli, based on the real life painter El Greco was a similar cinematic tale, only far better in quality—thanks to contribution of the European filmmakers. Canadian director David Cronenberg's Spider invites the viewer into the world of madness leading the viewer to enter the deranged mind with compassion as the story is unraveled from the viewpoint of the deranged mind. Cinematic clues are liberally strewn by the director throughout the film—but will the viewer catch on? For instance, the camera shows the diary is not even made up of sentences or words but writing that resembles sentences. The number 29 on the door of the house, the present and past tenants, the broken glass give the viewer more clues that all is not what it seems. Miranda Richardson's triple role in the film gives further clues to the viewer to unravel the real story. The sequence of the body being carried out of the house, revealing who was actually killed, is a very creative twist provided by the director.

Thus the film while presenting an intimate portrait of an individual returning to normal life after drug therapy and the effect of not continuing the medication, with the help of stark and drab exteriors that reflect the state of the mind, slowly engages the viewer to realize that the story can be as lively as a detective story—with the viewer as the detective.

This work of Cronenberg pales in comparison to The Fly, which provided a fascinating sci-fi angle. Here, the viewer is limited to the world of insanity, where past and present have to be viewed clinically—not by emotions. Science helps the viewer to put a finger on what is real.

Great performances abound but the unforgettable line in the film for me was: "Clothes maketh the man; and the less there is of the man, the more the need of the clothes." The line referred to the protagonist wearing six shirts, one over the other—but that could also be symbolic. The line is in an odd way the film's story.

Monday, April 02, 2007

33. Pasquale Festa Campanile's Italian film "La ragazza e il generale" (The girl and the general) (1967): Can neo-realism mix with humor?

Virna Lisi gives an impressive neo-realistic performance
(The film, with dollops of satire, was made in lush technicolor, unlike the still above) 

This film will unfortunately not be remembered for Rod Steiger's performance. There are very few films that Steiger has not dominated--this is one of them. It will be remembered for the story and the direction, an interesting performance by Virna Lisi, and a somewhat creditable score by Ennio Morricone.

The director, Pasquale Festa Campanile, one should should recall has written scripts for and collaborated with great Italian directors such as Pasolini and Visconti. I do not know much more about Campanile but he must have been very good at writing screenplays for Visconti to work with him on The Leopard which is not an easy novel by any consideration. According to the opening credits in the English version of the film The Girl and the General, the director is one of the two authors of the original story.

This is not a war film. It is film that uses war as a backdrop to evaluate human values and what money means to the wretched and the poor. A bumbling soldier played convincingly by Umberto Orsini captures a General, not for heroics, not by design but by mere chance. The soldier is illiterate while the General is an understandably a well-read individual. Thus the Geneva convention and the city that Julius Caesar built is of little significance to the soldier. Yet, what is significant for him is that few Generals die on the war front and what the soldiers were given to drink before they clashed with the enemy at the front and met their death.

Neorealistic Italian cinema used the post-War scenario to examine study the human condition. Hunger is a great leveller: the General and soldier are the same when they are hungry. The soldier grudgingly shares his food with the General; the General steals a frog caught by the soldier. The writer-director clearly states where his sympathies lie. The soldier as an honest individual may appear stupid, but earns the respect of the viewer with his tenacity to come up with great ideas of making a General look like a cow to gain a few hours of sleep. His use of the word "sir" to address his prisoner over the length of the movie is a fine aspect of the character build-up by the writer.

The film moves into top gear with the arrival of the illiterate girl played by Virna Lisi. For her, too, taking the captured General back is simply for the the 1000 Lire split between two individuals that will allow for a good life. Her character is benign, honest and rustic. For a few potatoes she bares her breasts and the humiliation of the act is wonderfully portrayed without histrionics.

The sexual arousal of the soldier, the importance of sleep over the need for sex, the urinating General whose one arm is useless are vignettes of superb cinema. The simplicity of the film, as in most neo-realist Italian cinema, is disarming. The film even goes on to make a hero of a donkey, while conversation revolves around tasty donkey-meat.

The film reverses the traditional concept of heroism by presenting a woman being superior to a man (the General), a honest foot soldier superior to a General.

I am surprised the film has been glossed over by casual viewers. I will be looking out to catch up with Campanile's work. I am pleased to note that Virna Lisi has finally been accepted as a serious actress in the Nineties for her work in La Reigne Margot.

Ennio Morricone's score in this film is very close to the music he provided for the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. His score, like the performance of Steiger, is reigned in by the director to emphasize the role of the soldier and the girl. My only problem with the title of the movie is the lack of importance provided to the soldier, who is the central figure.

When I saw the film, the film brought back memories of de Sica's Bicycle Thief. Campanile's film, which provides equal importance to hens and donkeys as it does to human characters, is as real as they come and yet far removed from the values of Hollywood's screenplays, then and now.

Monday, March 12, 2007

32. Iranian director Amir Naderi's "Davandeh" (The Runner) (1985): A gem of neo-realist cinema

Davandeh (The runner) is a cinematic ode to the spirit of Amiro, a young orphan boy who seeks to excel in what ever he does, to know more and look beyond his present boundaries, and to seek this knowledge through formal education that has eluded him thus far in life. Without a doubt, the movie is a treat to watch. This is the second Amir Naderi film discussed on this blog.

The opening shot is of the young boy yelling out a greeting at a distant sea vessel. You wonder what is wrong with the kid. As the film progresses you learn that he is an orphan. He is a normal kid, yearning to know more about the world beyond his immediate boundaries—the big ship and aircrafts symbolize this quest.

But then Amiro is not a normal kid. He also wishes to excel within his known boundaries. He tries to collect more floating bottles in the sea than other orphan boys of his age so that he can earn more and buy magazines with colorful pictures of aircrafts. He is a loner (he lives alone in an old grounded ship) but likes to prove his ability to run with his peers, and beat them in marathon races chasing moving trains. The film is called "The runner" as Amiro's running ability is underlined three times in the film—first he runs behind the train and wins a psychological race over his peers, then he runs after a cyclist who tries to avoid paying him for the cool water and catches up with him, and finally running with a block of ice that he has bought while others try to rob him of it, against a backdrop of oil fires. But then aren't we all "runners" of some sort in real life?

Naderi's Amiro becomes larger than life in his next quest. He is persistent in his efforts to learn the alphabet by literally knocking on the doors of the nearest school. By the end of the film Amiro is reciting the alphabets he has learned in school while looking at the symbols of his quest to reach the unknown distant world, beyond his physical vision. It is a literal and figurative quest.

Having seen Amir Naderi's film Aab, Baad, Khaak (Water, wind, dust) also with Majid Niroumand (Amiro of Davandeh) only a day before, Davandeh's power as great cinema was a trifle diluted.

Amiro leads the pack

What did Naderi's Aab, Baad, Khaak present that Naderi's Davandeh could not?

1. Davandeh totally excludes women, which Aaab, Baad, Khaak does not. Even in the latter they are marginal. 2. Davandeh revolves around an individual, while Aaab, Baad, Khaak is critical of society as seen through the eyes of a boy. 3. Davandeh captures temperatures (ice block vs. burning oil wells) but Aaab, Baad, Khaak is able to capture all the elements of nature (water, wind, dust) that affect the average Iranian living on the fringes of society. 4. Amiro of Davandeh was somewhat larger than life in his quest for knowledge unlike his realistic role in Aaab, Baad, Khaak. 5. Davandeh leans towards veiled political criticism, while Aaab, Baad, Khaak is a pure social and psychological essay without obvious political undertones

Why is Naderi avoiding female characters? Why is Davandeh underlining that foreign lands offer more than one's own (apart from financial disparities)? It is not surprising that Naderi having made these films in Iran, won accolades at international film festivals and now lives in the US far from his native land that provided fodder for his creativity.

P.S. Amir Naderi's next feature, a more abstract and universal film, Water, Wind, Dust (1989) is reviewed earlier on this blog.