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