Saturday, December 27, 2008

77. Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Üç maymun (Three Monkeys)” (2008): Mastery of contemporary, contemplative cinema

uri Bilge Ceylan’s latest film Three Monkeys proved to me that Turkish cinema can rub shoulders with the very best in contemporary cinema. I watched the film at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) 2008, a week ago, months after it had won the Best Director award both at Cannes and at the Osian (New Delhi) film festivals earlier this year. The film is now Turkey’s deserving, official submission for the best foreign film Oscar 09. It has a certain maturity and mastery of the medium even if it follows the patterns of Tarkovsky, Terrence Mallick and Zvyagintsev, with its ability to externalize the internal feelings of individuals and catapult those feelings within the context of the well-chosen exteriors—sometimes natural environments and sometimes man-made structures. It’s a film that makes the capability of a director and art director stand out even to a village idiot viewing cinema.

The title of the film does refer to the proverbial three monkeys; one who refuses to hear, one who refuses to see, and one who refuses to speak. It is an interesting contemporary tale revolving around three adults that make up a Turkish urban nuclear family. The husband drives the car of a politician to make a living, the wife works in a kitchen of a large establishment, and their adult son is a student dreaming of owning a car. It is a tale that could take place in Turkey, or any other part of the world, suggesting that tales of individual angst fall within some external matrix that a viewer can either glimpse or reject as a cosmic play of dice.

The three “monkeys” are a husband, a wife and a son living a cohesive, stable life. A fourth character is a typical, creepy politician whose actions disrupt the tranquil life of the cohesive trio by a chain of lies, deceit, lust and avarice—all brought about by the ripple effect of an external request. Here is a tale of three essentially good people who become entwined in actions that threaten to break up their happy but mundane middle-class lives.

What is the external request that leads to the domino effect on the family? The politician falls asleep while driving a sedan and knocks down an unknown person on a remote road and the incident is noticed by a passing car. To preserve his political chances at the soon-to-be-held elections, he requests his regular driver to take the rap and go to prison for the crime he did not commit, while the politician promises to continue paying his salary and provide a large sum at the completion of his jail term. The first “monkey” gets hooked to the suggested plan that he hears.

The son dreams of a family car that could be acquired with an advance on the politician’s final payment to his father and goads his mother to meet the politician with the request. And you soon have two other “monkeys” trapped by their own innocent actions that spiral into grievous crimes because they choose not to see, hear or speak. Interestingly, each of the three persons is essentially a well-meaning, ethical individual. However, the external request of a politician to the head of the family of the trio opens up vistas for three good persons to choose deviant paths they might not have chosen otherwise.

The filmmakers go on to suggest that the pattern could spillover to upset another sedate life of a good man at the end. The cosmic tale carries on like a Shakespearean or Tolstoyan tragedy, even as dark clouds gather over the magical landscape on the coasts of the Marmara Sea or Black Sea captured with digital magic of Gokhan Tiryaki (the cinematographer of Ceylan's Climates as well). Are we individuals truly in control of what happens to us in life? This is the implicit question the film asks of the viewer. Do events in our life force us to take paths we never would have taken otherwise? Do we learn from our mistakes or prefer to make bigger mistakes like a "monkey"?

Interestingly the film itself is a product of another family—but this one is incredibly talented. The husband and wife team of Nuri Bilge Ceylan (director, editor, and writer of Three Monkeys, and actor of his earlier films Distant and Climates) and Ebru Ceylan (writer and art director of Three Monkeys, actor of Distant and Climates and an award-winning short-filmmaker) team up with Ercan Kesal (actor in Three Monkeys, playing the politician in the movie) to write up this interesting film.

The story is only a small part of the film's broad enjoyment spectrum. Take the art direction—the building in which the trio live looks imposing at the start of the movie. Only towards the end of the movie as the lives of the individuals fall apart you see the building has an imposing front but is actually a poor tenement with a fabulous view. The railroad becomes a flight path to freedom from the drudgery of the house, but tenants of the house need to cross barriers to reach the station. Interestingly, the head (and face) of the son poking out of the train window form a poster of the film, a shot that is repeated with differing expressions as the film progresses.

In this film, the husband-wife team of the Ceylans stays behind the camera. They introduce a TV actor Hatice Aslan who plays Hacer, the mother/wife role in the film. The performance is nothing short of spectacular. The sudden action of kicking up of her shoes while sitting and breaking into smiles of freedom is unforgettable; the true implications of the scene revealed to the viewer only much later.

I am forced to compare this work of Ceylan with his earlier work Climates, shown at an earlier edition of IFFK. Climates was the more demanding film of the two, dealing with quest for unattainable happiness of a husband, a wife and the husband’s lover as the events in their lives take place in parallel to the external climates of summer, fall and winter. The title itself indicated the path the director would take, even before you enter the theatre. In both Climates and Three Monkeys the interplay of relationships revolve around three individuals. But in Three Monkeys the film is comparatively more accessible for the viewer as the chracters are less complex. The plot is clear and linear, not as complicated as Climates. Yet, Three Monkeys shows Ceylan’s ability to make the viewers wonder if they could become "monkeys" given the throw of the cosmic dice. There is a single sequence of the husband paying a visit to a mosque which probably results in partial reconciliation with his wife; the film is not religious though an obvious spiritual odyssey. There are a few unexplained shots of a dead child of the family that appear as soothing images to the two men. It is a poetically rendered story captured on digital film that brings out the best in cinema today.

A small sequence in the film at the beginning of the film struck me—a car accident takes place off-screen. Hollywood and Bollywood would have shown the incident graphically. One wonders if the explosions and fires (and wrecked vehicles) that we enjoy so much in commercial cinema are contributing to the global warming. If so, filmmakers could learn from this film.

Turkish cinema has thrown up great filmmakers. Yilmaz Guney was my favourite Turkish filmmaker. Now I have added Ceylan (and his talented wife) to that list. Guney took up subjects that mirrored politics and got into trouble for that. Ceylan appears to be apolitical except for his dark universal swipe at politicians as a tribe. Or is he?

P.S. Three Monkeys is one of the author's top 100 films and one of  the top 15 films of  the author's top 15 films of the 21st Century. Ceylan's two subsequent films Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) and Winter Sleep (2014) have been reviewed later on this blog.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

76. Australian director Lian Lunson’s charming documentary “Leonard Cohen: I am Your Man” (2005) (USA): The singer, not just the song

I confess to be a die hard fan of Leonard Cohen, Canada’s Bob Dylan, poet, novelist, ladies man, thinker and singer. He is alive and 74 years young while a new generation vibes to the music of Shrek (2001) without much of a clue to the tiered meanings of the Cohen song Hallelujah sung in the film or who wrote it.

In the early Seventies, during my college years, I became his fan when I was introduced to Cohen’s poetry and music captured by the Robert Altman film McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971). Decades later Cohen continues to be globally adored by musicians, women and fans in equal measure. It is not surprising therefore that Australian actor/director Mel Gibson helped co-produce this charming documentary directed by a young lady Ms Lian Lunson, a film in which musicians like Bono lavish praises on this man with a “golden voice.”

For those who have not heard the original Cohen renditions—beware, the film has only two songs sung by Cohen himself—one during the credits and one towards the end with Bono. The rest of the songs sung in the film are free-wheeling interpretations of Cohen’s songs by other singers, all Cohen’s fans themselves, which are not comparable to the magnetism exuded by the original rendering by Cohen.

Predictably the director Ms Lian Lunson faced brickbats from Leonard Cohen fans who expected the old man himself to sing his own songs—not realizing that his voice has aged though not like fine wine. However, Ms Lunson won the Dorothy Arzner Directors Award at the 2006 Women in Film Crystal Awards for this film. (For those who have not heard of Arzner, she was one of the first women to direct films in Hollywood.) The film is a combination of songs and interviews but what makes the film a delight is the mature editing, which will perhaps be lost on viewers not paying adequate attention to the words of the songs. Ultimately the film is less about the songs and more about the man as the title of the film suggests. (I am your man is, of course, one of the titles of a popular song he wrote and sang.)

Now why would a documentary film of this nature be remarkable? A part of the film’s inherent strength comes from Cohen’s learned inward-looking observations captured by the fine interview/monologues. My favorite one in the film was Cohen, a Jew and later a Buddhist monk (for a short while) stating “There is a beautiful moment in the Bhagavad Gita. Arjuna, the general. The great general. He's standing in his chariot. And all the chariots are readied for war. And across the valley, he sees his opponents. And there he sees not just uncles and aunts and cousins, he sees gurus, he sees teachers that have taught him; and you know how the Indians revere that relationship. He sees them. And Krishna, one of the expressions of the deity, says to him, "you'll never untangle the circumstances that brought you to this moment. You're a warrior. Arise now, mighty warrior. With the full understanding, that they've already been killed, and so have you. This is just a play. This is my will. You're caught up in the circumstances that I determine for you. That you did not determine for yourself. So, arise, you're a noble warrior. Embrace your destiny, your fate, and stand up and do your duty."

Who is the real Leonard Cohen? The documentary opens the viewer’s eyes by following this conversation to his famous song “If it be your will” sung by Antony Hegarty:

If it be Your Will
From this broken hill
I will sing to you
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing.

The Arjuna and Cohen parallels make the song even more interesting than it would have been otherwise.

The sensitive view-points of Leonard Cohen, the metaphysical thinker, can be glimpsed in the film where another of his songs is sung:

Ah the wars they will be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold and bought again
the dove is never free.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in
which is followed by his spoken comment: “Sometimes, when you no longer see yourself as the hero of your own drama, expecting victory after victory, and you understand deeply that this is not paradise... somehow we're, especially the privileged ones that we are, we somehow embrace the notion that this veil of tears, that it's perfectible, that you're going to get it all straight. I've found that things became a lot easier when I no longer expected to win.”

Ms Lunson, the director of the film, would cut from the middle of a song to a shot of Cohen peering nostalgically with an enigmatic wry smile between red bead curtains while the song continues

I was born like this
I had no choice
I was born with the gift of a golden voice
And twenty-seven angels from the Great Beyond
They tied me to this table right here
In the Tower of Song

Some viewers would be annoyed but this is a thinking person’s documentary to be enjoyed keeping in perspective the mental state of the man who wrote that string of words while jostling with likes of Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol and a host of off-beat intellectuals of the Sixties and Seventies. At that time his poetry was more important for him than his music. Here’s a film that can be enjoyed to glimpse the thoughts of a great talented mind gifted with a golden voice that could barely “carry a tune” by his own admission. Here's a film where Cohen's enigmatic wry smile says a thousand words. Here’s a film that can be enjoyed beyond the songs even though my favorite Cohen song Democracy is not included in the Lunson film which I viewed as Barack Obama won his Presidential race. The words of the Cohen song Democracy seem to be hauntingly appropriate for the historical moment:

"It ain’t coming to us European style:
Concentration camp behind a smile.
It ain’t coming from the east,
With its temporary feast,
As Count Dracula comes
Strolling down the aisle...
Democracy is coming to USA."

"First we killed the Lord and then we stole the blues.
This gutter people always in the news,
But who really gets to laugh behind the black man’s back
When he makes his little crack about the Jews?
Who really gets to profit and who really gets to pay?
Who really rides the slavery ship right into Charleston Bay?
Democracy is coming to the U.S. A. "

It would not be fair to criticize Ms Lunson for leaving out any Cohen song as she was essentially filming a concert in Australia (the Gibson connection?) devoted to Cohen’s music and editing (Mike Cahill) that footage into her Cohen interview. What this documentary reveals is the power of juxtaposing connected filmed materials, switching from color to black-and-white with felicity, where the total effect exceeded the sum of the film’s parts symbiotically. Ms Lunson deserved her award as she captured the brilliance and the humility of Cohen the man leaping over the lilt of the rendition of his songs.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

75. French director François Truffaut’s film “Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player)” (1960):”What you did yesterday stays with you today”

François Truffaut is often considered to be one of the finest French directors of cinema as he along with Godard and Chabrol are credited with the French New Wave. Shoot the Piano Player is arguably one of his finest works. There are two basic ways to approach Truffaut’s cinema—his choice of subjects and the way he dealt with those subjects.

Truffaut had a gift for spotting interesting literature in pulp fiction—that too from distant lands—and turning them into remarkable works of cinema. Shoot the Piano Player was based on an American pulp novel called “Down There” by David Goodis. (Others include Cornell Woolrich’s novels that were the basis of the Truffaut films Mississippi Mermaid and The Bride wore Black and another of Ray Bradbury that metamorphosed into the Truffaut film Fahrenheit 451). This gift of spotting gems from pulp fiction actually helped the struggling authors. After the success of the film Shoot the Piano Player, the noir fiction writer’s book “Down There” was republished as Shoot the Piano Player, a rare example of how cinema affects literature in a positive way.

Truffaut grew up relishing Hollywood noir films of the Forties and Fifties—films in black and white, populated with cigarette smoking heroes having dark personal histories, with a penchant for wry humor often winning their personal wars at the end of the film. Truffaut transposed the ingredients of American noir film into a French setting in Shoot the Piano Player. The dour-faced Charles Aznavour replaced the typical cigarette smoking, tough-talking Humphrey Bogart of the Hollywood with goons (“heavies”), brawls, deaths, investigating cops and lonely good-looking women thrown in good measure to spice-up the viewer’s appetite.

What did Truffaut find attractive in Goodis’ work? The wonderful line from Goodis’ novel “What you did yesterday stays with you today” essentially captures the essence of many Truffaut films (right up to his later films such as The Woman Next Door). Truffaut was probably attracted to the theme of loyalty that pervades the Goodis story: loyalty to one’s family (the four odd brothers sticking together), loyalty to wife/husband in true love, and loyalty to the café even when owners and colleagues change. There is nothing American or French about it—it is universal. My guess is that Truffaut found the sudden rise and downfall of an individual at the peak of success that the Greeks called “hubris” appealing. Goodis provided Truffaut with three types of women: one that would go to any extent to prove her love for her husband (Therese), one that would seek out the ideal mate for her with a resolute purpose (Lena), and finally one seeks a mate that provides friendship, physical and moral (Clarisse).

After spotting the interesting story, Truffaut the director paints the story with humor and pathos. When a goon says a blatant lie and swears on his mother’s life that it is true—the quaint Truffaut, with typical French humor, shows his mother collapsing and dying, even though the woman has no role to speak of in the story. When a bad café owner, Plynie, is discussed in conversation, three separate telescopic images of the character are shown simultaneously. Finally Plynie correctly surmises that the piano playing hero Charlie is “scared”, the hero is initially stumped, reflects on the charge and then admits “I am scared.”

The film’s contribution from Truffaut and cameraman Raoul Coutard cannot be downplayed. The camera zooming in on Charlie’s attempts to hold the hands of Lena provides humor and a moving intimacy for a viewer with a character that few directors have achieved. Finally, the closing shot of the pianist playing the instrument staring blankly at the camera, underlines the signature of Truffaut analyzing characters in his film dispassionately (He repeats this again as the closing shot of his later film The Story of Adele H). Truffaut and Coutard achieve a rare technique, inviting the viewer to analyze characters during the film’s run time. The silent gaze of Charlie partly hidden sitting behind a small piano at the camera captures the essence of the entire film, "What you did yesterday stays with you today.” The tortoise hides in his shell. Here the shell is the piano. Even a talented and good person is caged by external circumstances, basically because he is scared of facing a larger reality.

What Truffaut, Chabrol and Godard achieved beyond the technique of their film making was their ability to invite the viewer to look at anxieties and fears of the lead characters. Truffaut unlike Chabrol and Godard would inject comedy, when the viewer least expects it. For instance, as Charlie completes an internalized monologue that the viewer hears on the soundtrack about his brother, Charlie suddenly speaks two words "Bon chance!" (Good luck) while he continues to play the piano. This was probably the reason why Truffaut was more popular among the three afore-mentioned directors.

Many consider the film to be near flawless cinema, but here’s a film where a windshield of a car splashed by milk becomes sparkling clean a few moments later defying logic! Many critics consider Shoot the Piano Player to be basically Truffaut’s work but it is truly a product of a great team—Truffaut, Goodis, Coutard and Aznavour, each contributing to the film’s appeal. However, for me, The Story of Adele H. is superior cinema and arguably Truffaut's most powerful work.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

74. Hungarian director Árpád Bogdán’s debut film "Boldog új élet (Happy New Life)" (2007): More than a look at an orphan’s loneliness

Debut films reveal a director’s inherent creative attempts to seduce the viewer much more than what is evident in their later body of work. Some directors mature with each film, making each new film more alluring than their first attempt at cinema. These exceptions are few and far between—Bergman, Kieslowski, Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Terrence Mallick, and John Cassavetes are among the few who evolved for the better after their debut films. Many like Orson Welles don't.

Árpád Bogdán’s debut film seduces you with stylized visuals and an intensity that gives you an insight into the director’s mind. His profound knowledge of the subject is evident throughout a film that is bereft of sex and violence. There is a poetic feel to the images that include a horse running wild on the streets of Budapest before it is caught and led into a horse trailer. The sequence is an eerie symbolic reminder of earlier visuals in the film of the young boy fleeing from parents/elders being arrested by police with the mother figure urging the child to run before he himself is caught and taken to an orphanage, psychologically scarred. And later, having seen the film, I was not surprised to discover on the Internet that this interesting film on institutionalized orphans has been made by a man who himself lived with a foster family until 14 and never enjoyed regular schooling. And yet he is a poet and a painter to boot! Is a young Paradjanov emerging in Hungary? Happy New Life seduces you as visual poem would, revealing some emotions and submerging others for the interested viewer to discover. Not surprisingly, much of it is autobiographical.

The importance of a debut film is often increased when the screenplay is written by the director himself/herself. Young Bogdán has predictably written the screenplay himself. He does not need anyone else to write out the screenplay. The story is of an orphan who grew up in a state-run orphanage, who having grown up leaves the state-run foster-care to earn a living and raise a family. Family life is a simple gift most of us enjoy, but has eluded the protagonist in the film, save for some fleeting memories of childhood. Only four women enjoy fleeting screen time in the film, a woman in a poster advertising a perfume who comes alive in a dream sequence, an old woman who is a foster mother of an orphan girl, images of a lost mother, and finally the young orphan girl who is missing her real mother. If you look at the choice of womanhood presented , all life stages are covered. Yet there is no obvious man-woman relationship as in other regular films--because the growth of the young man is stunted by events. Yet the film presents "empty" dining spaces in a factory and foetal-curled positions that describe loneliness of the protagonist. The film says much visually. Spoken words are few. Compared to a recent wordy film on orphans from Australia December Boys (2007), Happy New Life would be close to a silent film. But with poets like Bogdan, long conversations are excess baggage to avoid.

Before the film begins, there is a preface from the director of the large numbers of young Hungarian “orphans” under state care who when grown up are thrown up to enter society as equals and build their own families. The protagonist wants to know his past. He stumbles on something from documents in an envelope handed over by a benevolent warden. The viewers of the film later see him shredding the envelope and its contents. The warden noting that the information has only had a negative effect on the young man regrets his decision but invites his past ward to visit his new rural home. The film would appear to be despondent one because the director opts to leave the real issues partly hidden for the viewer to ferret out.

Happy New Life forced me to recall another debut film tackling existential, social and moral questions—Claude Chabrol’s Le beau Serge (1958), arguably his finest work that kicked off the new cinema movement in France. In that film, too, one of the two buddies, François shouts at Serge "You're like animals, as though you had no reason for living." Responds Serge: "We haven't. How could we? The earth's like granite; they can barely scrape a living. They work because they've no choice.” In Happy New Life, too, the young orphan does not really see a “reason for living” when he comes out of orphanages, especially if he knows who he really is. Director Árpád Bogdán has stated in an interview that even if the film presents a despondent view, unlike the film's story he has personally looked at life positively by creating movies, drawing paintings, and writing poems. One hopes that this minor Manfred Salzgeber award winning film at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival propels the director to make even better cinema than this one.

Many questions would irk the alert viewer after viewing the film. Is the film merely on loneliness of orphans? Aren’t there sufficient messages in the film about gypsy families in Hungary and elsewhere in Europe, though the term "gypsy" is never mentioned? The young director has admitted his interest in romology (the study of gypsies, their language and sociology). Bulgarian director, Milena Andanova, recently made an interesting but less stylized film Monkeys in Winter (2006) dwelling on this emerging topic for filmmakers in Europe just as some American filmmakers such as Abraham Polonsky tried to provide the American Indian’s viewpoint in a revisionist western Tell them Willie Boy is Here (1969). Just as the issues relating to the broken promises made to American Indians are rarely discussed in USA, the gypsies of Europe found their issues swept under the carpet by each country and regime.

The two cinematographers who worked on the film Happy New Life include Gábor Szabó, a young Hungarian cameraman chosen by Vilmos Zsigmond, to film his own first film The Long Shadow (1992). Szigmond is a reputed cameraman from Hungary who made his mark in Hollywood and if he felt confident with Szabo it is no surprise that Bogdán picked him as well. It is unusual that two cinematographers share the credits for Happy New Life, Mark Gyori (film editor as well on this film) with Szabo as the second. Did Bogdán and Szabo fall out?

Hungarian filmmakers have mesmerized me, particularly Zoltan Fabri, Istvan Szabo and to some extent Miklos Jancso—so much so that as a young film critic I traveled across continents from New Delhi to Budapest to interview two of them in 1982. Fabri would have been pleased with the work of young Bogdán, if he were alive today.

Friday, October 03, 2008

73. Swedish maestro Ingmar Bergman's "Tystnaden (The silence)" (1963): A demanding movie directed at a mature viewership

The Silence was the first Bergman film I ever saw, way back in 1973 as part of a film society screening in Chennai. India. I loved the disturbing and profound film but could not come to grips with why I loved it so much. Was the graphic carnal content (for the social standards of that decade) a reason for my liking it? Was it the austere film making where ticking of a clock was the most important sound effect in the film? Was it because of the mesmerizing performances? Was it due to the theological and existential content? Was it because I knew, even then as a college student, that it would be a folly to evaluate the film without having seen the earlier two films in the trilogy, namely Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light? As a college student, I confidently wrote in 1974 a lengthy review of Bergman’s The Touch (released commercially in India!) in my college magazine but deferred writing on Bergman’s The Silence. Some 25 years after my initial viewing of The Silence, I finally feel confident about writing about the complex film. I still recall telling a friend who was in awe of Spielberg’s Jurassic Park sequence where the approach of a dinosaur is first detected by water shaking in a container that the idea was a mere copy of a concept from Bergman’s The Silence made 30 years before the Hollywood film. Does this matter, anyway, in a world where people still believe the best in cinema comes from DreamWorks or Hollywood? Even Kubrick’s fascinating horror film The Shining seems to have heavily borrowed visuals relating to the boy in an almost empty hotel from The Silence.

There are different strokes to appreciate The Silence.

The first is the theological/existential perspective. Contrary to many published reviews on the trilogy, I find the three films affirm the existence of God in the face of doubt. (Marc Gervais book on Bergman’s cinema is perhaps one of the few critical studies that affirm the opposing view). Bergman was the son a Christian Lutheran priest who eventually became the personal chaplain to the King of Sweden. Bergman, revolting against his father's beliefs probably as a consequence of his strict upbringing, was questioning the existence of God through his cinema. Yet Bergman claimed that the trilogy was more directed at absence of love more than the absence of God. What is the silence referring to? In Through a Glass Darkly, the film ends with the words of the father to the son "God exists in love, every sort of love, maybe God is love” and the son involuntarily exclaims “My father spoke to me.” In Winter Light, the favorite Bergman film of Andrei Tarkovsky, the crippled sexton refers to God’s silence as the crucified Jesus cries out to his Father in heaven “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” But then Tarkovsky was a deeply religious individual and is reported to have memorized the Gospel According to St Mathew—the book in the Bible that attracted Pier Paolo Pasolini as well. In the final film of the trilogy The Silence, the favorite Bergman film of Kieslowski, the ailing sister has a one-sided “conversation” with God “My God, let me come home before I die” and later indirectly refers to God while recollecting her dying father’s words “Now it is the eternity.” Her prayers are “unanswered” as she dies in a foreign land, alone among strangers. God appears to be quiet; yet the ailing Ester communicates with her nephew by providing him a piece of paper with a foreign word “hadjek” that means “soul” or “spirit”. Is that a word that a woman disillusioned with existence of God would pass on to her nephew on her deathbed? I have doubts about Bergman’s professed agnosticism. "Hadjek" is the last word of The Silence spoken by Johan reading from the list of foreign words from Ester’s letter to him that he jealously guards from his own mother Anna. Somewhat like "rosebud" in Citizen Kane. Again there are two shots towards the end of The Silence that offer Christian symbolism affirming faith in God. First, there is the last shot of Ester her face directed at light from the window, fully exposed to light, as she waits for her eventual death, content at having passed on the letter to her nephew. The second is the last shot of Anna opening her train compartment window to bathe her face in rainwater (a symbol of baptism) having read the contents of the letter that Johan holds in his hands. Both Bergman and Kieslowski professed atheism but their films merely question the existence of God and are often built on strong arguments on theology that can be interpreted to equally satisfy both the Gnostic and the agnostic.

Now Bergman gave names to his film’s characters with considerable thought, incorporating Biblical connections that he probably picked up from his father’s sermons. The priest Tomas in Winter Light is so named because St Thomas doubted the resurrection of Christ, just as Tomas is questioning the existence of God. Ester in The Silence is obviously named after the Biblical book Esther, one of the only two books in the Bible that does not mention God directly. Does the absence of God mean the book is not holy? By corollary, does the silence of God mean that God does not exist? (Kieslowski, too, while professing to be an atheist made an intensely subtle film Three Colors: Blue that seemed to be a cinematic zoom-out of the essential message of the Biblical chapter 1 Corinthians Chapter 13, sung as a choral rendering towards the end of the film and then made his absolutely riveting Dekalog based on the biblical Ten Commandments). For the atheist viewer of The Silence, too, there is sufficient room to record the director’s observation of deserted churches—when Anna truthfully confesses to her elder sister that she had sex with a waiter in an empty church. For the existentialist viewer, there is silence from God to the cries of help from Ester. To really understand the trilogy the viewer needs to understand the Lutheran (relating to Martin Luther) anguish that seems to converge with a Christian existentialist view at the end of each film in the trilogy.

Yet another way to appreciate The Silence is to study the physical silence in the film. Spoken words are indeed few. The film begins with the tick-tock of a watch/clock, which stops when the characters break their silence. The watch is also a metaphor for the limited time of life on earth available for each individual. The sound of the tick-tock increases when Ester is unable to breath and is mortally afraid of dying from suffocation. It is also heard when Anna is reflecting on her post-coital satisfaction in her hotel room. Bach’s music is enjoyed by Ester on her transistor and Anna reads about Bach’s music in a newspaper advertisement, but the old maitre d’hotel knows the Goldberg variation of the Brandenberg concerto sufficiently to communicate with Ester without language but merely speaking the full name of the composer. Music seems to transcend language barriers. Words are few—the foreign words learnt in the unnamed country relate to “hand”, “face” and finally “soul”. Much of the visual communication relates to “hands” and “faces”, particularly those of Ester. Ester’s hands move even when she is sleeping. Ester’s hand caresses Anna’s hair but stops short of touching the face. The contortions on the faces of Ester and Anna can be lessons for any aspiring actor on lessons to emote without speaking. The denizens of the unnamed country hardly speak, yet we know all is not well, with tanks moving in the night and underfed horses pulling carts of furniture to nowhere. Death seems to be lurking around the corner. One of the few other sounds we hear is the click of the toy gun, disturbing the cleaner of the chandelier. Then there is the clank of the tank negotiating the narrow street outside the hotel. More importantly, silence in the film between individual characters in the film, existing side by side with the theological silence.

A third way to evaluate complex issues of The Silence is to study the camerawork of Sven Nykvist. Much of the brilliance of the black-and-white film revolves around shadows and light, mirrors and last but not the least, close-ups. The carnal events are captured in shadows, while epiphanies are swathed in bright light. These are tools that Bergman and Nykvist master in Persona the film that connects with the content of The Silence though made 3 years later, in which Johan reappears but 3 years older. Nykvist and Bergman use mirrors to indicate the lack of direct communication or rather the presence of bounced communication. When Ester, the translator of languages cannot converse with the maitre d’hotel, she resorts to sign language—even the boy Johan prefers Punch and Judy to communicate his feelings rather than read a book for his sick aunt. The extraordinary performance of one of cinema’s finest actresses, Ingrid Thulin, would have been difficult to perceive were it not for Nykvist's close-ups of her face and hands.

A fourth way to approach The Silence is the character of the young boy Johan, who probably is the personification of the young Bergman. Johan is a mix of irreverence
(he urinates in the hotel corridor) and innocence (he willingly cross-dresses at the behest of the dwarfs). He is attached to his mother, but respects his aunt even more. As the film un-spools, it is evident that he obeys his mother but is able to connect with the aunt’s higher level of intellect, quite aware that she is dying. Johan's father exists but is not physically present. Johan is figuratively squeezed between his mother lacking a "conscience" and an aunt with a domineering and an implied lesbian relationship with his own mother. It is not a perfect life for a boy. Indirectly, Bergman wants the viewer to step into Johan’s shoes, irreverent yet innocent and loving. Johan is first introduced to death by the personal collection of family photographs of the maitre d’hotel, including photographs of his dead wife. But John prefers to hide them beneath the carpet but resurrects the subject in his own Punch and Judy show for his aunt.

Finally you can look at The Silence as the quintessential Ingrid Thulin film. I am an unabashed fan of Thulin. The range of her performances from the plain, if not ugly, woman in Winter Light, her brilliant Hollywood turn in The Four Horsemen of Apocalypse, (where her original voice was replaced, the stupidest decision by the filmmakers) to her controversial most talked about role in Visconti’s The Damned put you in awe of the lady’s talent and latent beauty. In The Silence her facial expressions are the very imprints one associates with Peter O’Toole’s thespian turns in cinema. It is no wonder that she acted in films of topnotch directors: Bergman, Visconti, Resnais and Minnelli.

All in all, where do I place this remarkable film of Bergman? One of his very best, second only to Winter Light.

P.S. Winter Light and Through a Glass Darkly have been reviewed earlier on this blog

Sunday, September 21, 2008

72. South African filmmaker Gavin Hood’s film “Tsotsi” (Thug) (2005): Adaptation of an important African novel on redemption and self discovery

The film is an adaptation of the acclaimed anti-apartheid playwright Irish/South African Athol Fugard’s novel Tsotsi. Director Gavin Hood wrote the screenplay based on the novel. The film was a critical success winning the best foreign film Oscar along with other awards at film festivals around the world.

Athol Fugard was called “the greatest active playwright in the English speaking world” by Time magazine in 1985. Why he chose to write Tsotsi as a novel and not a play intrigues me—and why Fugard did not write the screenplay of the film intrigues me even more. An article by Andie Miller “From words into pictures” quoting Fugard gives a clue: D.W. Griffith once described film making as the ability to photograph thought, and novels, with their interior monologues, Fugard agrees, make for better adaptations than plays. This is perhaps part of the reason why the film of Tsotsi works so well.

Gavin Hood’s screenplay is a mix of English and “tsotsitaal” (thug language of Soweto). The final product was a modern day adaptation of the novel set in 1958. And it appears that Fugard was happy with Hood’s film.

The story of the film Tsotsi revolves around a car-jacking by a black South African thug. He steals an up-market sedan from a rich back lady driving it. The woman is wounded in the skirmish and the thug drives off with the car with an infant, unintentionally kidnapped, lying in the back seat. Fugard’s novel and Hood’s film explore the subsequent changes on the thug’s life as he matures into a responsible foster parent, as he re-evaluates his own attitudes to women, and his growing empathy for the infant’s parents. Racial issues take a back seat, as sociological and psychological changes in the lead character dominate the film’s theme. Sit back and reflect—the story need not be set in Soweto, it could happen anywhere.

The strength of Hood’s film is the ability to “externalize the internalization” as Jean Paul Sartre would have put it were he to write this review. Tsotsi’s star Presley Chweneyagae who was playing his first film role has very few words to speak but the film captures each detail of his emotions, with lots of close-up shots. You come out of the movie thinking that there was a lot spoken, but you realize it was an illusion. All the other characters talk but the main character spoke very little, but his body “spoke” a lot. Now that’s interesting cinema.

Fugard/Hood uses a crippled beggar as a pivotal point for a change of heart in a thug who does not seem to know what "decency" means. He kills without reason and cannot accept criticism. The broken legs of a beggar remind the thug of the dog with its backbone broken by the thug's cruel father. Asked by the thug, how the cripple continues to live like this, he gets the answer "Because I like the sun on my face!" This conversation leads to a gradual evolution from heartlessness to the actions of a "decent" human being. Towards the end of the film he removes his dark jacket, only to wear a white shirt, a weak symbolic action the director could have avoided.

The entire film uses actors from South Africa and the film can boast of high standards in production quality. The obvious comparison of the ghettos with the posh housing colonies remind you of the comparison made by the Hungarian director Geza von Redvanyi’s remarkable 1965 European film Onkel Toms Hütte (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) which showed Manhattan’s skyscrapers before flashing back several decades to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s story that throw a socio-economic perspective to the respective stories for the perceptive viewer.

Director Gavin Hood has drifted into film direction after a stint as a lawyer and then as an actor. Tsotsi is his third film as a director. He evidently grappled with three different endings of the film: one where the lead character is shot dead, one where he escapes, and a third where he surrenders to the police with the parents of the infant supporting Tsotsi. Each option would provide a definite perspective to the final product. To Hood’s credit, the option that he chose is the most interesting one, and one that makes the viewer think.

The film does not glamorize violence and yet provides some top notch sequences such as the robbing of a rich man on a commuter train, the forced breastfeeding of the infant at the point of a gun, or the communication between a crippled beggar and a thug, all of which could match the best films from Hollywood. The film encapsulates the concerns of Africa, orphans seduced into the world of crime and the tenuous family linkages in a modern world where owning material goods become the dreams of poor yet essentially lovely individuals. Hundreds of parents die each day in Africa, some from AIDS, some from other causes, leaving behind potential Tsotsies to populate the skyline. Fugard and Hood underline one statement: under the veneer of each undesirable human being lies a streak of goodness. Only circumstances can bring those streaks of goodness to the fore.

P.S. Director Mark Dornford-May's South African film U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha (2005) was reviewed earlier on this blog.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

71. Indian director Feroz Abbas Khan's Hindi/English film "Gandhi, my father" (2007): A super-human father and his prodigal son

“He is the greatest father you can have, but he is the one father I wish I did not have”—Harilal Gandhi, son of Mahatma Gandhi

“The greatest regret of my life…. Two people I could never convince – my Muslim friend Mohammed Ali Jinnah and my own son Harilal Gandhi.”—Mahatma Gandhi

It was easy for Sir Richard Attenborough to make Gandhi (1982)—he was merely narrating a story of a great individual who walked on this planet not so long ago. Comparatively, it must have been a lot tougher for director Feroz Abbas Khan, making his debut as a filmmaker, to film Gandhi, my father, pitting a shriveled anti-hero against an international hero, both of whom were historically real individuals, and ironically father and son. The events in the film are mostly real. Mahatma Gandhi lived, as shown in the film, setting high moral standards for the world to follow. Yet, these very standards overshadowed the aspirations of his eldest son Harilal to be a lawyer of repute like his father, to complete his education and to get a job in India and, eventually provide income for his nuclear family.

The film does not debunk Gandhi or his ideals. For Gandhi, his mission was larger than his family’s aspirations. While he loved his family and cared for them, his thoughts for appeasing their aspirations were blinkered by his ideal of caring for the masses. He stood for equality and dignity among all persons and, in his view, to give special undue advantages to his own son overlooking other deserving persons went against the basis of what he preached. The film looks at an unusual case of parenting—where an idealist parent places receding goalposts for a less-than-brilliant offspring wanting to make his own life away from his father's shadow.

The film presents an unusual scenario that really happened. A son marries his childhood sweetheart, upsetting his father. The father upsets his son’s educational aspirations at several key junctures keeping his own interests at heart. The fragile link between a devoted son and a father breaks, as the son wants to stand on his own feet and care for his nuclear family. While the father gradually becomes the father of a nation, the essentially good son stumbles in his valiant quest for identity and survival. His marriage breaks down and he seeks solace in religion, buffeting between Islam and Hinduism. Through all his tribulations his link to his mother remains, until she chides him for being drunk, when he comes to meet her.

Feroz Khan is essentially a director of plays making his foray into cinema. He wrote and directed the play Mahatma vs. Gandhi that had considerable impact on the Indian theater community. The play and the consequent film were based on two biographies, one by Chandulal Dalal and another by Nilamben Parekh. The success of the staged play was a good reason for the commercial Bollywood actor Anil Kapoor to produce this noteworthy film. Every time a good director of plays attempts to direct cinema there is an evidence of a lack of confidence with the medium. For instance, the British stage personality Peter Brook is a great director of plays, but less competent as a director of films.

The opening shots of Khan’s film promises great cinema—a derelict Harilal Gandhi is brought to Sion Hospital, Bombay (now Mumbai) barely mumbling that his father is Bapu (the popular name of Mahatma Gandhi), father to an entire nation. The hospital authorities do not recognize him to be Mahatma Gandhi’s eldest son, dying in poverty bathed in loneliness.

Apart from the dramatic opening, the film unfortunately merely presents a great story and some superb exterior shots of father and son meditating in silhouette. For an Indian film it does present some high production qualities that go hand in hand with a lack of interest for details (the clothes of most Indians in the film seem dust-free and freshly laundered, actors have somewhat modern hairstyles, and even actor Shefali Shetty playing Mohandas Gandhi’s wife a century ago has styled eyebrows), the bane of Indian cinema. Since Feroz Khan is a theater personality, he has invested much more effort in working with the actors in developing the characters rather than on cinematic details, somewhat like Sir Richard Attenborough, also a product of theater (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts), who invested considerable attention to performances and detail and less on the virtues of the cinematic medium in his Oscar-winning film on Gandhi.

Knowing quite well that to criticize Gandhi in any manner was asking for trouble, even when there was no direct criticism in the film, producer Anil Kapoor took a remarkable decision of not putting up posters of the film at accessible heights in India, fearing that some one could tear the poster or disrespect it intentionally or unintentionally.

With all its mix of greatness and faults, Gandhi, my father throws several questions at the viewer. Is a mother-son bonding stronger than a father-son bonding in parenting? Is one’s immediate family less important than humanity at large? Does one seek refuge in religion and alcohol only when worldly troubles are encountered? In this film, Harilal buffeted by adversities runs from one religion to another, while his father quotes scriptures “Forgive them for they know not what they do” when beaten and thrown on the ground by a South African policeman, convinced of the value of religion and convincing others as well.

The film won the Best Actress award at the Tokyo International Film Festival for Shefali Shetty (Shah) and an Indian national award (2007) for best screenplay. Director Feroze Khan and producer Anil Kapoor have handled a sensitive subject very well and elicited above-average and worthy performances from the ensemble of actors. I do hope the international success of the film paves the way for some able director to film another brilliant Indian play--Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq--some day meeting international quality standards.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

70. US film director Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory" (1957): Rich in content and relevance

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,

And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,

Awaits alike th’inevitable hour.

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

--Thomas Gray's poem Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard

Here’s a significant black and white film from the master director Stanley Kubrick that only a small section of his fans find interesting enough to discuss. Made half a century ago Paths of Glory is a movie that film goers might find relevant even to this day. It was not a runaway box office success. It’s an anti-war film that has a political relevance for any country that pushes its foot soldiers to fight suicidal battles for the glory of politicians and generals. And the most surprising element of the film is that the film loosely describes events that actually transpired in France. Consequently this 1957 film was not shown in France until 1975, and in Spain until 1986.

Set in Europe during the First World War, the movie is based on a novel by Humphrey Cobb. After the book made an impact on film director Stanley Kubrick, the film rights of the book was purchased by Kubrick and his friends for a modest sum of $10,000. Cobb’s novel describes a historical event that took place because some French generals decided to derive glory for themselves during the war by pushing soldiers in the trenches to attempt a suicidal attack on an enemy position. Once the decision is taken by the generals, the orders are passed down the pecking order, from general to colonel, from colonel to major, from major to corporal. The suicidal strike does take place, some die, and many fall back under the fire from enemy lines. A general, even under these circumstances, is only thinking of cornering glory in the pages of history and urges soldiers under him to fire on their own positions, despite protests from his officers. The attack is a fiasco and the angry general forces his officers to provide names of three soldiers who did not advance in the battle so that they would face court martial and death, if found guilty.

The film delves into how three unfortunate soldiers were picked by their superiors to face the military court and how they did not get a fair trial and are shot by a firing squad.

That’s only the framework of the story that Kubrick used to build a film that asks inconvenient questions of the viewer. Kubrick and Cobb underline the difference between the generals who are waltzing with their spouses while the poor foot soldier is worried if he will ever see his wife again. Those in power enjoy, while the poor are pawns caught in the games the powerful play to bring glory to themselves.

Kubrick’s taut screenplay shows interaction between a general and the foot soldiers in the trenches. Three of the soldiers the general chooses to speak to are the very same individuals who are made the scapegoats at the military court and shot to death for no fault of theirs. Are all of us who do not enjoy economic freedom, slaves to a system that is not fair and just? The content of this film somehow anticipates Kubrick's and Kirk Douglas' next project, Spartacus, a film that was not planned at the time Paths of Glory was being made.

The film has shades of existential colors. One of the condemned men compares his life and the life of an insect: “See that cockroach? Tomorrow morning, we'll be dead and it'll be alive. It'll have more contact with my wife and child than I will. I'll be nothing, and it'll be alive.”

At several points in the film, the screenplay underlines the reality that a junior ranking officer can never blow the whistle on a senior officer’s misdeeds and get away with it. The ending of the film that Kubrick was toying with was a happy one—but the lead actor Kirk Douglas prevailed and made the ending a philosophical and a tragic one. This is perhaps one of the few examples in cinema history when an actor contributed so positively to a film. The film with a happy ending could have made more money but wouldn’t have been comparable in merit and strength as this one.

The viewers today can approach the film as an intelligent anti-war film in the league of Terrence Mallick’s The Thin Red Line. Yet, remove the element of war and what happens in Paths of Glory could happen in an office, in a university, in politics, or on the playing field.

If we study the film closely the film it is basically a story of men. But the men are always thinking about women. And a woman’s (a German, a representative of the army they were fighting) song in a dehumanizing situation transforms the leering soldiers into men recalling their wives, mothers and daughters. The dehumanizing situation of the woman is not far removed from those of the three innocent soldiers killed by a firing squad. The lady who sang the song became Mrs. Kubrick.

Philosophically the film asks the viewer whether all the various paths of glory in life lead to the grave. And as the Thomas Gray poem that provided the title of the book suggests: death is a great equalizer. The tragic twist at end of the movie underlines this dark facet of life

Many critics have praised the performances in this film. Ralph Meeker and Timothy Carey as two of the condemned men and the fascinating actor Adolph Menjou and George Macready as the Generals provided sterling performances. (Macready’s performance in Tora! Tora! Tora! was probably a notch better) Kirk Douglas had a role that any good actor could have taken advantage of—my guess is that had Richard Burton been finally cast in the role, as Kubrick initially planned, the film would have been richer. But then if Douglas was not there, we might have lost the tragic end of the film. (Douglas’ finest acting credentials surfaced in my opinion in the little praised 1969 film of Elia Kazan called The Arrangement.)

Paths of Glory is a film that never won an Oscar or a major film festival award. Yet, it marked the beginning of a series of great films by Kubrick. To Kirk Douglas’ credit, he is quoted as saying way back in 1969: “There's a picture that will always be good, years from now. I don't have to wait 50 years to know that; I know it now” How true!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

69. Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s US/Mexican/French film "Babel" (2006): Lack of empathy or a problem of communication?

There is a revival of interest worldwide in making feature films that comprise several disparate stories that link up with a common thought or use a common location. This is now called the portmanteau film. Such films have sporadically surfaced over the decades but their appeal seems to be limited to the serious film goer. Babel belongs to that odd genre stitching together several stories, one taking place in rural Morocco, another set in towns on the Mexico--USA border, and a final one in urban Japan. Understandably you hear five languages--Berber, Arabic, English, Japanese and Spanish—with subtitles to help the viewer, not to mention sign language used by the hearing impaired.

To understand the film one needs to know the historical meaning of Babel. Babel is a city described in Christian and Jewish scriptures relating to King Nimrod in The Book of Genesis. In that book, Babel was a city that united humanity with a single language in use by its denizens. But the King made the tower not for praising God but for the glory of man. The holy book says God was angry and confused the languages of the people, eventually abandoning the building of the tower and scattering the people who were building it to various far away lands because they could no longer understand each other.

A simplistic approach to the film Babel would be to evaluate all the actions of different individuals and the way each action impacts someone else in the world. In that perspective, the benign action of a Japanese tourist gifting a rifle to a tourist guide in Morocco, can lead to USA mistaking an accidental shooting by young boys for an act of international terrorism, while an American’s refusal to be empathetic to his maid’s request for a short leave to attend a marriage leads to deaths and loss of livelihoods for innocent but economically poor Mexicans. Lives are indeed connected in this global village of ours.

However, another approach to enjoy the film would be to compare the interpersonal relationships of individuals from the developed world with those of the developing world. There is disconnection between husbands and wives (the US couple who cannot communicate to each other and reconcile the loss of their third child until a worse tragedy overtakes them, a Japanese couple whose lives are a wreck in spite of riches ultimately leading to the wife’s suicide) in the developed world. In the developing world, family ties are comparatively stronger (a Mexican housemaid uses all her resources to attend a close family wedding throwing basic intelligence to the wind, a Moroccan goat herder while chastising his three growing children who are inquisitive about sex, reinforces traditional family values of respect for each other’s privacy).

Yet another approach to the film is to analyze the varied attitudes of the personalities. It is interesting to note the bewilderment of an American man (Brad Pitt) when a poor Arab refuses his money for helping his wounded wife (Cate Blanchett). For an Arab, it is an insult to take money for helping someone in distress. The lack of communication is not limited to language (Arab vs. Berber vs. English vs. Spanish vs. sign language) or disability to speak (physical dumbness) but the lack of empathy (US officials manning a border crossing or the rich American putting his priorities on his personal worries over those of his less affluent Mexican domestic help). For the French tourists, their own safety and comfort take priority over the problems of an American couple in distress. The film goes beyond the demands on people to listen to others; it grapples with the lack of empathy in relationships. Would the Mexican nanny have been more forceful in her phone communication with her employer had her financial security been better? Are our communications with people governed by economics? Hypothetically, if the entire world was financially secure and equal as in the days of King Nimrod—there would be only one language and, perhaps. we would understand each other better.

The film has won accolades for the director Iñárritu but the writer of the script, Guillermo Arriaga, deserves equal credit. It is unfortunate if reports are to be believed that a spat between the two resulted in the director keeping the scriptwriter away from the Cannes festival where the director took all the credit. The film has howlers. For instance, a helicopter with a Red Cross in Morocco makes an appearance, when anyone in the Arab world knows that the Red Cross is replaced by the Red Crescent in that part of the world. This trivia probably ironically reflects the basic storyline of Babel.

At the end of the film, the viewer is nudged by the director to listen more to others. The film reiterates that the world has come to a situation where present day Nimrods can be pleased with the progress in the world and build “towers of Babel” but this progress is negated if we do not try to understand each other. The film clearly underlines one fact—no individual is bad and that everyone means well. Yet there is strife because everyone is living their lives for their own ends.

My guess is that director Iñárritu took more than a handful of cues for this film from the 2005 Hollywood portmanteau film Nine Lives directed by Rodrigo Garcia and produced by Iñárritu himself. Garcia’s film is more professional (it won awards at Locarno festival) and touches on several issues presented in Babel. But Babel with its Cannes award (interestingly the film was co-financed by the French) was marketed better than Nine Lives worldwide. If you liked Babel, see Garcia’s (Garcia is the son of Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez) film Nine Lives. You will then know how Iñárritu apparently worked on Arriaga’s script to make it considerably similar to Nine Lives, the film Inarritu had produced a year earlier! To Iñárritu’s credit, he thanks Rodrigo Garcia and the brilliant Mexican director Carlos Reygadas in the end-credits of Babel.

Babel won an Oscar for best original musical score, two prizes at the Cannes festival (Best Director prize and a prize for Editing) and a Golden Globe for Best Film –Drama.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

68. Georgian (former Soviet) filmmaker Tengiz Abuladze’s “Monanieba (Repentance)” (1984): Can you bury past evils?

And art made tongue-tied by authority
And folly, doctor-like, controlling skill
And simple truth miscall’d simplicity
And captain good attending captain ill

---William Shakespeare
Sonnet 66, part of the very Sonnet recited in the film, Repentance, ironically by the film’s evil figure Varlam

It is hard to catch a black cat in a dark room. Especially, if there is no cat.
--Evil Varlam quoting Confucius, in the film Repentance, to stun the listener’s logical mind with confusion and nonsense

All repressed societies tend look back at the horrors of the past with a twinkle in the eye. Two remarkable films that took that road to tell their tales were the Cuban director Tomas Alea’s Death of a Bureaucrat (1966) and the recent Italian director Roberto Benigni’s La vita e bella/Life is Beautiful (1997). Tengiz Abuladze’s Monanieba (Repentance) made in 1987 is the third film that follows that very cobbled road using black comedy, satire, allegory, magic realism, and surrealistic dream sequences, as the stones to tread on, offering the movie's viewers disturbing images to recall historical events of their own lifetime.

In a small town in Georgia, a mayor by the name of Varlam Aravidze dies. The family mourns his passing. Eulogies are mouthed by very important and least important denizens of how great an individual he was. Varlam is buried with pomp and show. But his corpse keeps surfacing in his house, exhumed by unknown forces. Eventually, a woman baker who bakes the best cakes in town (with delicious church steeples as icing) is found to be the one who keeps exhuming the body each time it is buried and reburied. Three-fourths of the film revolves around on her motives for repeatedly exhuming the body. This is the section of the film that re-evaluates the tyrannical life of the dead man. The dead man's son Abel is reluctant to admit his father's evil acts but the dead man's grandson is ashamed of his grandfather's acts. The baker who had exhumed the body was directly affected by Varlam's tyranny and says she will not let the dead man be buried and is ready to accept the consequences. Her strange actions and what motivates them are allegorical of what Georgians endured during Stalin's rule in Soviet Russia. The three generations of Varlam's family depict the changing values within Soviet Russia, with winds of Perestroika and Glasnost blowing on the faces of the younger generations.

Repentance is the last film of the Georgian filmmaker Tengiz Abuladze, who died soon after the film was released. Repentance, like Klimov’s Agoniya (reviewed earlier), represents the Soviet movies that were released within Russia as Gorbachev unveiled Perestroika and Glasnost, allowing audiences to reflect on issues that they never dared to discuss in the open earlier.

The lead evil character Varlam Aravidze (translated as Varlam or “nobody”, a name chosen to escape the censors) is an amalgam of Hitler (moustache), Mussolini (black shirt), Stalin (haircut) and Lavrenti Beria (pince-nez spectacles). It is a political parable on the evils of dictators, when small-town bureaucrats use cunning and deceit to crush cultural values of art, and ethical values of religion, law and marriage. Historically, Stalin and Beria crushed the national spirit of Georgians targeting the intelligentsia and the Church. Abuladze was among the few that survived.

Repentance is a critique of Soviet history and assumes greater importance because it was made by a Soviet director and released in the Soviet Union. The finest sequences of the film that would not be lost on East European audiences, in my opinion, were of a mother and child searching for names of loved ones etched on logs that have been recently brought from Siberia, because political prisoners communicated with their families using this unusual method, and the final sequence of an old woman searching for the church (which has obviously been destroyed) in the empty town, a simple sequence that signifies hope for the future.

Death and consequent burial often indicates forgiveness. Didn’t Mark Antony imply this when he said the dead is “oft interred with their bones” over Caesar’s corpse? Abuladze’s heroine Ketavan keeps exhuming the dead and buried corpse to expose the misdeeds of a despotic Stalinist hero (recalling Alea’s bureaucrat in the annals of Cuban cinema) while baking cakes with symbolic church steeples on the icing (reference to the deep loss of theism and orthodox religion in Stalinist attempts to replace religion with science). Ketavan’s father is an artist with features that resemble Western images of Christ. The evil figures relish hogging the church steeples on cake icing and cooked fish (a typical Christian symbol).

Abuladze’s film approaches “repentance” by looking at evil squarely in the eye and not by sweeping it under the carpet. Interestingly, this is the very approach that Hans-Jurgen Syberberg took while analyzing the rise of Hitler in his superb yet controversial 10-hour long documentary Hitler-A film from Germany provoking Susan Sontag to write her brilliant essays on that film. Abuladze’s cinema, like most Soviet filmmakers (Klimov, Tarkovsky, Kozintsev, Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky, Zvyagintsev, etc.), is built on values that Soviet citizens imbibed through the Russian Orthodox Church.

In Repentance, the new generation seems to accept the misdeeds of their tyrannical family members and seek repentance, while the older generation prefers to go to jail by exhuming tyrannical “heroes” and exposing their misdeeds. Both types of repentance make the film an interesting tool to study history of Soviet Russia. What is remarkable is that just as a parallel to the contents of the film, the directors and writers of Georgian cinema exhume the misdeeds of the past, and the new generation of film studio authorities and censors repent somewhat by releasing these films in theatres in Soviet Russia (including Georgia) and other nearby countries.

In Abuladze’s film, surrealistic and satirical dream images of men putting flowers in a grand piano combine with images of a blindfolded woman with scales (symbolizing justice) playing the piano before being led way by a man in black, with white gloves. There is black comedy as tortured prisoners “name names” so that no one will be left without being a suspect and the jails will be full of suspects.

Abuladze has much to convey and at times seems to go over the top in his efforts to poke fun at tyranny. This is perhaps why Abuladze loses out to the more subtle works of Paradjanov (the most talented Georgian filmmaker), Tarkovsky, and Kozintsev (and even perhaps Klimov), while driving home a similar message to the viewers. Interestingly, two generations of father Varlam and son Abel that are evil (who do not repent) are played by the same actor, while the good grandson (who repents) is played by another actor. The cinema of Abuladze is more direct, while those of Tarkovsky and Kozintsev more circumspect and open-ended. But Abuladze’s cinema is, without doubt, film making that will unsettle a viewer to think about life after the film ends. The question each viewer should ask is: Where are the Varlams that we encounter in life and can we rest by burying them?

At the 1987 Cannes film festival, Repentance won the Grand prize of the Jury, the Prize of the Ecumenical jury, and the FIPRESCI prize. At the Chicago festival that year, it bagged the Silver Hugo.

P.S. Director Elem Klimov (Agoniya) played a major role in releasing Repentance within the Soviet bloc of countries. Agoniya was reviewed earlier.

Monday, June 30, 2008

67. Russian (former Soviet) director Elem Klimov's "Agoniya (Agony)" (1981): An intriguing film

There is much that would intrigue a viewer of Agoniya.

Many may not be aware that this film was considered “worthless” in the Soviet Union after it was made and shelved for years. Director Elem Klimov made several changes to the 1975 original version and it was ultimately released in 1981 and shown at the Venice Film Festival 1982 (where it won the FIPRESCI prize) out of competition. Soon after this period, Klimov emerged as a top executive in the Soviet film hierarchy at a time when other peers, the Soviet directors Tarkovsky and Paradjanov, were considered politically “incorrect” filmmakers in that country. Interestingly, following the sudden burst of publicity following Agoniya's release, Klimov was even selected to serve on the Berlin Festival Jury in 1983 and, later, on the Venice and Cannes juries as well.

The original name of the film was Agony (Agoniya) and not Rasputin, a name by which the film was marketed for a while. The title Agony was evidently in line with what the director had in mind. If we were to accept that argument, was the director’s original film about the spiritual agony of the controversial holy man? Or was it meant to reflect the agony of Czar Nicholas, who could not go against the Czarina's total faith in Rasputin? Was the title meant to depict the agony of a great nation afflicted by the abysmal corruption among the monarchists who were there to make money while the poor starved and the indecisive Czar painted flowers to distract himself from the more pressing political problems (One fine sequence in the film soon after the Duma castigates the Czar shows the silent but mentally tortured Czar, with tear filled eyes looking for comfort in the sympathetic gaze of his loyal butler). Was the title also meant to depict the agony of the Russian Orthodox Church which was suddenly losing its grip on the lay worshippers with the rise of the Bolsheviks and “holy men” like Rasputin? We will never know unless we see the original version the director made. My guess is that the director wanted to combine all these agonies and that Rasputin, the individual, dominated only a segment of the agonizing events. What we do know is that this film and its many versions that were put out by Soviet and the post-Perestroika Russian authorities were at no point of time expected to depict Rasputin as the sole villain that led to the to the 1916 October Revolution.

The film does offer several insights into the enigmatic character of Rasputin. He did indeed accept bribes from those wanting favors from the Czar, while the film distinctly indicates that it is debatable that he loved money and wealth. He was least concerned about getting rich, because he could get what he desired without pelf. Rasputin had an ability to foresee the future but could totally misread his dreams (The film includes an interesting sequence where he rolls in a pool of stagnant water, as he can foresee his fall from grace at the Czar’s palace). He could perform small miracles, could utter saintly statements (“the cowl does not make a monk”) and believed like a village bumpkin that you could sin and then start life with a clean slate! No wonder the Russian Orthodox Church saw in him an evil rascal. What happens to him after the Church's clergy traps him is totally unclear in the version of the film I saw. Was he castrated? Klimov's Rasputin is unusual--he is an animal waiting to ravish a beautiful woman one moment, and then a religious zealot throwing out the woman for having tried to seduce him the very next moment.

While a lot has been written about actor Aleksei Petrenko’s interpretation of Rasputin, I found actor Tom Baker’s version of the historical figure in the Oscar-winning US film Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) equally fascinating. (Baker incidentally was nominated for two Golden globes for this performance--Best supporting Actor and Best newcomer). Even after Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini picked Baker for his film The Canterbury Tales (1972) following his performance in the US film, Baker found comfort in performing less-demanding TV roles.

I am convinced that Klimov’s film is less about Rasputin than about the people that surrounded him. Take the Czar, for one.

Klimov’s cinematic essay shows him scurrying away from a meeting on war preparations in dark passageways behind wall-maps worried equally about his haemophiliac son Alexei, the crown prince who is depicted as a brat. The personal worries of the Czar (in the photography dark room, in his relationship with the Orthodox Church, his empathies for his worried wife doting on her children) have been given importance, unlike Franklin Schaffner’s Nicholas and Alexandra that seemed to focus on the Czarina (Janet Suzman) more than the Czar. Interestingly, Klimov’s film downplays the Czarina’s role focusing more on the Czar.

Klimov’s range of agonies does not end here. Even the assassins of Rasputin are agonizingly guilt-ridden. Most Russians are Church-going Orthodox Christians and Klimov understood his audience quite well. The dubious role of the Orthodox Church in those troubled times are pitch forked into prominence—the film shows the burial of Rasputin officiated by the Church in the presence of the Czar.

Finally, Klimov has wonderfully used documentary footage to show the agonies of the common man—by splicing documentary footage with acted sections at every given interval to add validity to his essay on the various agonies he captured on celluloid.

While Klimov’s film shows patches of brilliance, one needs to recall that he initially made his mark as filmmaker decades before Agoniya having made remarkable satirical comedies like Adventures of a dentist. (I have yet to see the latter film; however, what both films have in common is that wonderful Russian actress Alisa Frejnlikh, who played the Stalker's wife in Tarkovsky's Stalker.) His last few films Agoniya and Idi o simotri (Go and see/Come and see) proved that he was now looking at life grimly. He was then working closely with his wife, actor and director Larisa Shepitko and was reported to be a devoted husband. Equally enigmatic is the role of Lady Vyrubova played by Alisa Frejnlikh. What was the relationship between Rasputin and Vyrubova? Probably the answers lie in the director's cut of Agoniya, which is possibly lost for ever.

I was privileged to have met Klimov at Hyderabad, India, in 1986 during a Film Festival. It was after his wife’s death. I recall that he was withdrawn and less than forthcoming to questions. Was he afraid to talk? Was he a genius who was never allowed to prove it, because of political pressures? This is probably why both Agoniya and Klimov remain enigmatic for me to this day.

Interestingly, the current Russian Prime Minister Putin was reported to have attended Klimov's wife Larisa's funeral, a very rare honor. Soon after this, Klimov who made “worthless” films was accepted within the Russian film hierarchy and even given rare prominence. But this film is definitely not "worthless," if you keep in perspective the conditions under which the film was made and under which the various versions of the film were subsequently marketed.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

66. German filmmaker Christian Petzold’s “Yella” (2007): Life beyond death

Germany’s Christian Petzold belongs to the new breed of European directors that loves to make films layered with meaning for the astute viewer. Russia’s Andrei Zvyagintsev mesmerized serious film-goers with his multi-layered films that urge film-goers to approach cinema as one would approach a challenging and intelligent puzzle to derive maximum entertainment. Spain’s multi-talented Alejandro Amenabar has proved that a holistic mix of good screenplay, music and direction can result in films that recall the precocious brilliance of the young Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane made so many decades ago. These are films that are delectable for the intelligent and patient viewer who does not demand to be spoon-fed by the director. Members of this exclusive club of directors include Austria’s Michael Haneke and Finland’s Aki Kaurismaki. In Yella, Petzold throws morsels of visual treats at the viewer. The attentive viewer will ask for more, for the less attentive it will be an invitation to snore.

“Yella” is the name of the main character of the film. (Yella is creatively linked to Wim Wender’s key character in his film Alice in the Cities, a character without a mother moving from city to city.). Petzold’s Yella has a father but the mother is either absent or not discussed, not far removed from Wender’s Yella.

Yella wears red most of the time. Now bright red is worn by many women in Europe but the color acquires a different meaning when you realize its political association with East Germany. Petzold’s Yella lives in former East Germany, full of birds, trees, rustic atmosphere and warmth. Petzold’s Yella yearns to make big bucks in the former West Germany, less populated, richer and more corrupt at corporate and personal levels.

Halfway into the film, there is a suicidal motor accident. What follows teases the mind of an attentive viewer. A desperate woman boards a train with empty compartments. A male person peeks into her compartment but leaves her alone. Much later, she realizes that the train has reached its destination and has been parked in a yard. As she strolls into town, her eyes meet with those of a woman, who is apparently well off financially and secure in an urban house. This was in my view the most powerful and enigmatic sequence in the film. Who is this woman? Is it Yella comparing what she would be like in future? When her future benefactor turns out to be a crook, Yella “helps” him. Yella herself slowly transforms into a crooked woman as a chameleon would in new surroundings, all the while yearning for the old life of her father and financially crippled husband.

The second half of the film with its almost empty hotels provides clues to understand the film, just as Amenabar progressively provided several clues in his well-made ghost movie The Others that there is something unreal. Can characters enter locked hotel rooms, eat food and disappear? Would characters who once stalked Yella be transformed into characters that Yella would herself pursue in dark alleyways outside her hotel instead of hiding from them? Who is alive and who is dead? What is real and what is imaginary? Why is the sale price of the husband’s business, eerily the same figure as the figure quoted to purchase computers? You are coaxed by your own inquisitiveness to go backwards in the film to figure that out. Somewhere floating in the water after the accident you can spot an empty can of Coca-cola, a symbol of western materialism and prosperity.

There are aspects of the film that bothers me. Why did Yella leave her husband? Because he was obsessed with her? Why is the mother figure absent? Is true love absent?

Yella is portrayed by actor Nina Hoss and the performance won her a Silver Bear for the Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival. The film’s editor, cinematographer, and director—all three have been separately honored with minor awards for their contributions in this film. The surprise for me was that the story was written by first time writer Simone Baer, basically an established casting director. It is remarkable that Baer and Petzold should weave an interesting film around personal guilt, aspirations and quality of life. I was intrigued how a male director could delve inside the female psyche so well until I was amused to spot that the original writer was Simone Baer, a woman.

Petzold and the "club" of like-minded European directors invite the audience to think and reflect about themselves after they view these movies. These films offer interesting views on politics, ethics, business and love. They may or may not be obvious. It is for the viewer to spot them. They are not served on a platter. The story on screen remains as a pivotal point for the debate to begin among viewers. These films urge you to consider your own situation in life and reflect how you would react under similar circumstances shown in these films. Even though I viewed Yella while on a trans-Atlantic flight, I found the film worthy to be included on this blog. Petzold is definitely worth your time if you are a viewer of serious, quality cinema.

P.S. Works of Michael Haneke, Wim Winders, Aki Kaurismaki, and Andrei Zvygintsev have been reviewed earlier on this blog.