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.