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.