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.