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!