Saturday, April 26, 2008

63. Spanish director Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo’s feature debut “La noche de los girasoles (The night of the sunflowers)” (2006): A fascinating thriller

Here's a thriller with an interesting title that seems to query: Where do sunflowers face in the night?

When the sunflower plant, Helianthus annuus, is in the bud stage, the head and the leaves do indeed track the path of the Sun. The genus name Helianthus is from the Greek helios "sun" and anthos "flower". Interestingly, however, and contrary to popular belief, once the massive topmost flower opens into the radiance of yellow petals, it slows and then stops moving, ending up permanently facing east.” ---Solar flower, New Scientist, 3 August 2002

Why am I quoting this interesting bit of trivia? Sunflower buds, we all know, keep moving but a stage comes when it does not move any further. Why am I discussing the night? That’s the name of the film. The only teeny-weeny bit about sunflowers in the film is over as the opening credits end. But then the sun is not relevant for the night, is it? The near oxy-moronic title give a life to the movie after the film is over—in many ways similar to the disturbing Austrian-French film Caché made by Michael Haneke.

For a cineaste, who can sit through the film right up to the end of the film, the real punch line from the director/screenplaywriter comes in the form of an audible TV program statement about bees in a beehive, that do not attack unless provoked. It is stated while the end-credits are rolling. This is an innocuous fact but is loaded with meaning in the context of the film's ending. This is a statement heard by the unpunished rapist still on the prowl.

The Spanish director Sánchez-Cabezudo’s film is based on his own script. (He is the latest among formidable Spanish directors making good films based on their own scripts, following the tradition of the gifted directors, Amenabar and Almodovar). Most viewers would appreciate or find good entertainment in the film while mulling over in the different non-linear narrative segments of the story of rape, vigilante killing, extra-marital sex, corruption, village vs. urban comparisons, love for a dead spouse. Each segment provides a different Rashomon-type perspective of sections of the same story from a different angle, as seen by a different character. The director uses a technique used in modern pulp literature most recently used by Dan Browne for his book The Da Vinci Code. While the technique might baffle a few, most viewers would derive entertainment as they are constantly challenged to figure out the plot.

The film offers dollops of entertainment ice-cream that most viewers want—mystery, exploration of new found caves, a rape scene, a brief scene of violent death, and some endearing performances from the actors. If presented as a straight chronological narrative—the story could be ideal for a typical Hollywood thriller. But why is it different? It is different because of its end.

That is where the director and screenplay writer scores a bull’s-eye—for a patient viewer who does not leave the theater once he sees the end credits begin to roll. The comment about the bees drive home the uncomfortable, parallel moral issues that Austrian filmmaker Haneke raised in Caché.

Europeans and many of us prefer to retain status quo rather than rake up disturbing moral and social issues. It is convenient for us to do so. It is not because the issues are resolved. In this film the main culprit, a rapist is never brought to justice. If an attempt was made to bring him to justice, three persons would go behind bars for manslaughter, a homicide would surface, the reputation of an erring wife would become public knowledge, a good policeman’s daughter would find out that her husband and father of her unborn baby is a corrupt cop and so on.

The film is, therefore, not merely a film to be appreciated for its structure but its underpinning question of morality. The film shows us that evil is not limited to a rapist but the best of us. A good man could do evil in a fraction of a second. And to defend lesser evils, the bigger evil gets away. Only to scar our conscience for ever.

Spanish cinema is on the move this decade. This film has won several Spanish national awards. Sánchez-Cabezudo’s film is good but the post-script in his screenplay is truly formidable. Figuratively, the film suggests there indeed comes a time these days when "sunflowers" mature and stop turning towards the sun and only to face the east.

Because it is convenient!

P.S. The Austrian-French film Caché directed by Michael Haneke was the first film reviewed on this blog.

No comments :