Thursday, December 24, 2009

94. French maestro Jacques Rivette’s “Around a Small Mountain (36 vues du Pic Saint Loup)" (2009): Deceptively simple cinema

To appreciate Rivette’s cinema one has to look beyond the obvious show—in this particular case a traveling circus in France, a circus that attracts less than a handful of people each night. And they don’t even laugh at the clowns. So when some does laugh, the laugh itself is a show stopper!

At the 14th International Film Festival of Kerala, many viewers of the 81-year-old French film director Jacques Rivette’s latest work Around a Small Mountain trooped out midway. The die-hard Rivette fans, some 60% of the audience, remained in their seats to the very end. The film is not everyone’s cup of tea.
Rivette’s cinema, in the case of Around a Small Mountain and all the films that he has made in the past has a mix of comedy, romance and mystery. In Around a Small Mountain, the comedy is obvious even to a village idiot but its relevance is what one is forced to ruminate on. What make one laugh at a clown in a circus, and why does another person not react to the same clown for the very same action? Comedy for the French includes tragedy—there is a thin vein of that element as well in this work of Rivette as in all his earlier films.

In India, filmgoers are familiar with the theme, if they have watched Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker. The only difference was that Raj Kapoor spoon-fed his audiences with ideas he wanted convey. In contrast, Rivette does it with style and discretion for the audience to figure out the latent, subtle meanings.

Around a small mountain is also a tale of romance. A mysterious handsome Italian man (Sergio Castellitto) fixes the car of a stranded elderly retired French circus artist (Jane Birkin), while she is stranded on a lonely road. The Italian fixes her car without uttering a word. This sequence is amazing. The seeds of romance are thrown. One would expect the woman to fall in love with this knight in an expensive sports car. But the reverse happens. That’s Rivette’s cinema.

Birkin has aged and is almost unrecognizable, if one recalls her roles in the French New Wave film of the Sixties. (Birkin is the real life mother of the lead actress in The Anti-Christ), For Birkin fans, she walks on a tight rope, a foot above ground in a fabulous single shot. There are no stunt doubles for her!

There is mystery as well. The Italian stranger remains an enigma. Who is he? There is also a mysterious death in the history of the circus troupe, which is unraveled slowly.

It is also a tale of chance—chance encounters where two individuals meet by accident. There is the frumpy Kate (Birkin) wearing clothes that make her look older than she is and a younger Vittorio who is in elegant casuals. Rivette drives home the opposites.

But at the end of the movie, the viewer has to figure out the obvious question. The circus troupe with just three or four persons for an audience cannot be real or cost effective. So how real is the circus? The director is using the concept as he would use theatre as another tool to tell us another aspect of our lives. The English title of the film is Around a Small Mountain (the French title is 36 vues du Pic Saint Loup). There is a mountain captured in the film’s opening shots. Evidently much of the action takes place in its environs. But to an intelligent viewer, Rivette’s mountain is not the physical one. It is a metaphor for the leading lady’s dark memories.

This is an unusually short film of Rivette (under 90 minutes) in contrast to his other films that last 2 hours on average. One could argue at length if this is Rivette's best work yet. But one cannot deny that this is a significant contribution to cinema. It was nominated for the Golden Lion at Venice Festival.

There were cat calls during the show from viewers who would have preferred a Raj Kapoor style of direction. But Rivette’s cinema is to be enjoyed at a different level altogether. One has to remember the circus was a mere prop for a 81 year old master filmmaker to tell a tale of life, where one (here the Birkin character, Kate) runs away from realities but return to same place to recognize them anew. The film for me reflected T.S. Eliot's poetry “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive at where we began and to know the place for the first time.”

Monday, December 21, 2009

93. Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s "Shirin" (2008): Audacious experimentation that’s awesome

No feature film has ever been made this way.

Shirin, the latest work of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami is based on a love myth of Khusrow and Shirin, a literary 12th century love saga of a prince and a young woman named Shirin, a tragic tale cutting across the borders of Persia and Armenia. And then again, the film is not about the love saga because you don’t see the film, you only hear the sounds of an elegantly made film and see the corresponding light and darkness of the virtual film falling on the faces of 114 of the best actresses in Iran and of Juliette Binoche, a famous French actress of cinema. What you hear is what would be a delightful radio drama of the tale made into film that you never get to see. What you see instead is a canvas of beautiful women emoting to this virtual film.

The film Shirin is an audacious experiment, in which for 92 minutes you are subjected to watching the faces of different women in a movie hall watching a movie of the tragic love tale of Shirin and her two lovers Khusrow and Farhad, one is a prince and the other a sculptor. The interesting trivia you need to know is that during the packed screening of the film at the 14th International Film Festival of Kerala that the entire audience stayed enraptured in their seats for 92 minutes of the film without a single cat-call, totally in awe of what was happening. Earlier, delegates, like me, had stood in line hours in advance and many had to go back disappointed unable to enter the theatre.

For those who have not heard of Abbas Kiarostami--he is a 69-year-old poet, photographer, painter, graphic designer, screenplay-writer, film editor and an art director of films.

Two questions bounce at you while watching Shirin.

Are there any men in the film? There are two men Khusrow and Farhad, in the virtual film that we only hear voices of. However, in the filmed audience too there are men but you see them in rows behind the female faces. Kiarostami has made a film on the reactions of women towards a famous tragic epic poem. Tears flow, eyes look away and then back again, each subtle movement capturing the emotions of the viewer. Obviously, the director is not interested in the men’s reactions. He is interested in the women’s reactions. This becomes apparent towards the end when the virtual film is heard stating “There is a Shirin in all women..” or words to that effect.

Will such a film ever make money? It is a minimalist film that would surprise even the most dyed-in-the-wool cineaste. Once you are inside a film hall watching Kiarostami, you are hypnotized. You would not leave the hall. I did not, nor did the hundreds who saw the film with me, some sitting on the aisles. But the moot question is would I have come to see the film in the first place, if I was aware of what I was going to see? Probably not, having assumed that it would be boring experience. Yet having seen the film, I would state otherwise.

Kiarostami is a genius, an audacious one. He has realized one fact. The audience matters as much as the story. Therefore, you need to look through the camera-eye at your audience. Through close-ups. In a way, the entire film is an ode to close-ups in cinematography. It is a also a formidable work of editing, one could point out the range of emotions do not include laughter and contentment. Theatre directors and film directors all know the importance of their audiences. After all they succeed or fail because of the audience. Here's a film that captures the all-important audience through close-ups. Kiarostami, the filmmaker, turns into a psychiatrist and a Svengali of the audience instead of the actor!

This work of Kiarostami is at a deeper level capturing the fears and hopes of the average Iranian through a catharsis of a movie watching experience. Had he used only the ugly faces of Iran’s women this might not have worked but actresses like Golshifte Farahani (Sepideh of About Elly) and Niki Karimi (The Hidden) are faces of the gifted beautiful women, whose faces never make the audience of Shirin look away.

Kiarostami and Dariush Mehrjui are great filmmakers on par with best in the world. Kiarostami set up a famous film institute when Mehrjui made his famous film Gaav (the Cow). That institute can take the credit of being instrumental in making Iranian classics like Naderi's The Runner. But these film-makers can never be taken for granted and have to work within a system that reduces the scope of what they can film as subjects. Documentary and fiction merge often in Kiarostami’s cinema just as it does in Shirin. So do themes of love and death. That too plays a role in Shirin.

P.S. Abbas Kiarostami's Tickets (2005) has been reviewed elsewhere on this blog. The above review of Shirin has been cited as a reference in the book "Film and the Ethical Imagination" by Asbjorn Gronstad, University of Bergen, Norway. 2016. (Publishers: Palgrave/Macmillan)

Try to catch up with this film—because it is a totally different experience you’re not likely to forget. It is on one plane a folk tale, on another a tale of what makes an audience react the way they do, on yet another the options of entertainment for a woman in Iran how she reacts to those limited options, and finally how a clever director can manipulate the audience.

P.S. Some major Iranian films including Gaav and  The Runner have been discussed earlier on this blog.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

92. Polish director and scriptwriter Urszula Antoniak's debut film "Nothing Personal" (2009): Amazing tale on solitude beautifully told

Solitude is often craved for by individuals who are thinkers (and sometimes by misanthropes, due to their personal past experiences). It is a state that monks and people spiritually inclined love to enjoy at some stage in their lives. It is an accepted life stage in Hindu religious practice and certain Buddhist and Jain traditions. Gertrude Stein wrote on solitude "When they are alone they want to be with others, and when they are with others they want to be alone. After all human beings are like that.Nothing Personal is a very interesting film that reflects Ms Stein's thoughts. It begins with a woman who for unknown reasons gives away all her worldly possessions and leaves on a journey to nowhere. In a secluded spot in Ireland, another man--a widower--lives alone valuing his solitary life. Yet, he realizes that he could do with some hired help to tend his garden. The two individuals meet but do their lives change? The Irish-Dutch film directed by a Polish director explores the theme with remarkable results.

Polish director and scriptwriter Urszula Antoniak, currently living in Holland, is someone to watch out for in the future landscape of world cinema if Nothing Personal is an indicator of her capabilities. I have a soft corner for any talented debut filmmaker who relies on his/her own story and script. Ms Antoniak is one such director revealing her potential of greater works to come.

Actress Lotte Verbeek essays the fascinating character

Nothing Personal, a very recent Irish-Dutch co-production, making its Indian premiere at the 14th International Film Festival of Kerala, had its audience clapping away at some delightfully composed shots by cinematographer Daniel Bouquet and director Antoniak, conjured for the viewer. It is without doubt a nugget of a film. Ms Antoniak deservedly won the best first feature of a director award at Locarno Film Festival. The film has won an incredible tally of 10 awards already, 6 of which came at the Locarno film Festival itself in Italy.

Lotte Verbeek, a Dutch actress with a magnetic screen presence, plays a young attractive Dutch woman who discards all her material possessions in Holland one fine day and watches strangers pick up the material from the window of her apartment. She is shown wearing a wedding ring, which she is shown removing. Evidently, she was once married but there is no mention of her past or of her marriage as the film unspools. Ms Verbeek won the Silver Leopard best actress award at Locarno Film Festival portraying the main role of a young woman with no money, backpacking from Holland to an unknown beautiful desolate spot in Ireland with no apparent purpose with all the qualities of a misanthrope. During the film, Ms Verbeeck’s demeanor gradually changes from the unfriendly to the affable and then back to her old self. The changes in her character that are subtle are truly a treat to watch. Like Ms Antoniak, we can be sure that Ms Verbeek, too, will be talked about in the future.

Director and scriptwriter Antoniak presents an enigmatic character with minimal spoken conversations. But when words are spoken the carefully chosen words provide a lot of meaning. The woman is distrustful of men, who possibly mean her no harm, and rude to women who want to get know her or even help her. The woman feeds herself by checking out trash bins for left-over food. On reaching a scenic spot in Ireland by apparent chance, she spots a lonely house of rich owner. When the owner, a well-to-do genial old widower, returns to the house, he offers her food. She is initially rude to him as well. The two come to an arrangement where she would work for food, but refuses to reveal her name or speak a word of who she is. Throughout the film she is addressed as “You’ by the house-owner Martin after she says he can call her ‘You ‘ The deal is food for work, but no discussion on personal matters. Hence, the title of the film--Nothing Personal.

The film is essentially about the relationship that is built over the days between the two. Both are individuals who, for their own reasons, like to be alone. Both, it is gradually revealed, are well-educated and cultured Europeans. The back-packer with no money is capable of making haute cuisine when she chooses and is well versed with good music and books. What follows is a gripping tale of appreciation of solitude, not because one hates people and their friendships, but because they value their own space and time without intrusions from others. Yet, even such people can value companionship when they find people of a similar vein.

This film will provide a great boost for Irish cinema. The film showcases yet another commendable performance from Irish actor of repute Stephen Rea, who had a major role in the award-winning film The Crying Game. It will also serve as a great advertisement for Irish tourism with its fascinating locales liile known to potential tourists.

Without revealing the end of the film, I would advise all viewers of this film to pay attention to the sound and visual details throughout the film. A perceptive viewer will truly enjoy the remarkable epilogue of the film, which tells an aspect of the story that the film does not reveal right up to that point of the tale.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

91. British director Stephen Frears’ “The Hit” (1984) (UK): Dissecting duality in personalities

Often filmmakers unconsciously choose subjects and scripts that they find interesting, unaware of links between the subjects. My guess is that the three films that I have picked to discuss--all made by a single film director--were never meant to be a conscious trilogy and yet these have all the markings of three separate films that present a similar theme from the same individual. The filmmaker under discussion is Stephen Frears and it is quite possible that he himself would be surprised at the pattern he drew in the three films.

Three films of British filmmaker Stephen Frears require to be reassessed decades after they were made and, arguably, forgotten by many. The most enigmatic of the trio would be The Hit (1984), followed by Hero (1992) with Dustin Hoffman in the lead role, and finally Mary Reilly (1996) with Julia Roberts, John Malkovich, and Glenn Close. All the three movies have a common thread that would be apparent, if they are evaluated closely as group or as work of an auteur of cinema. All three, written by three different novelists and three different screenplay writers are essentially Frears’ cinematic essays on contradictory personalities in an individual, and then the perception of this duality by various less important characters within each story unfolding on screen and, ultimately, by us the viewers. If one realizes that Frears is a law graduate from Trinity College, London, the approach he takes on the three distinct tales is similar to a lawyer’s arguments presented to you, the viewer, as the judge and jury.

Frears' Mary Reilly was the most obvious example among the three films examining the black and the white aspects of human beings, because it was based on Valerie Martin’s novel which in turn was revisiting the Robert Louis Stevenson theme of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, essentially presenting the Stevenson tale from the point of view of Jekyll’s housemaid, Mary Reilly (played by Julia Roberts). This tale was further processed by screenplay-writer Christopher Hampton, whose screenplays credits include Atonement, Carrington and Dangerous Liaisons. And Stephen Frears added his cinematic stamp in the opening shots of the film with Julia Roberts on her knees, with the not-so-innocent camera encircling her from above giving the viewer a starter dish to savor, of both the watcher and the watched, heralding the meaty story that unfolds. Towards the end of the film, the viewer would wonder who was ultimately watching whom in the story.

Mary Reilly is no ordinary dumb housemaid. She observes and grasps changes in her environment. She even contemplates on what she grasps as a philosopher. Note the words of Mary Reilly in the movie `Where does this come from, this rage?' which are strangely the lines echoed by director Terrence Malick in his mesmerizing film The Thin Red Line made just 3 years later. Mary Reilly is talking about the dark side of man; so is Malick, only in his case, the context is war.

The words of Mr Hyde to Mary Reilly: `Would you like to stay for awhile, or has my sense of smell betrayed me?' is an example of verbal sexual play in the film that makes the Hampton screenplay notable. It reminds you of another dark contemporary film: Perfume-the story of a murderer, another film made many years after Mary Reilly.

Or take this intriguing line from the same Frears film. Asks Mary Reilly: “He said you had an ailment. What sort of ailment is it?” Answers Dr Jekyll: “You might call it a fraction of my soul. Something that left me with a taste for oblivion.” 'Fraction of the soul' is indeed a great way to describe the three Frears films.

And some four years before Mary Reilly, Frears had made a film in the US called Hero that had uncomfortable questions thrown at viewers on the basic concept of heroism and the associated values and contradictions. Can a petty thief be a hero? That was the thought-provoking question asked by a threesome--Oscar-winning writers Alvin Sargent and David Peoples, and another distinguished Hollywood author Laura Ziskin--in Frears' Hero. Bernie, a pickpocket, played by Dustin Hoffman, anonymously rescues people from a plane crash site forcing the viewer of the film to come to terms with the subtle line dividing our perception of heroism and crime in the context of one individual. Another character, Bubber (Andy Garcia), more pleasing to the viewer’s eye than Bernie, is an otherwise noble individual who does the reverse by opting to impersonate the real hero. They are clever alter egos of each other. Another "fraction of the soul." It is like asking the viewer to choose between a Jekyll and a Hyde in either of the two individuals while the film is ostensibly a satire on hypocrisy on the media today.

But Frears’ fascination for the dichotomy of the human personality is arguably best portrayed in his earlier film The Hit. This Frears' film had the trappings of a conventional thriller or a road movie. However, Frears and the writer and scriptwriter Peter Prince delivered a jawbreaking punch at the viewer’s perception an individual's approach to inevitable death in the near term. Another "fraction of the soul" to quote the lines from Mary ReillyThe Hit is a film that could be dismissed as a mere thriller were it not for this cat and mouse game on screen revolving around mortal fear and the clever game between the filmmakers and the audience. Frears and Prince flesh out a character named Willie Parker (Terence Stamp), a hood who squeals on his mates and in return the British judicial system gives him a new life in Spain, complete with a fulltime bodyguard. The hood spends his days in exile reading books. The hood it appears has gradually transformed into a well-read philosopher. It is at this time that he is abducted by two hit-men (fascinating performances from John Hurt and Tim Roth) hired by the gangsters who had to go to prison because of Parker’s testimony.

To most viewers, the film would provide interest because of the excitement the film offers during the abduction and the various events that unfold as the prisoner is taken in a car from Spain to France for his eventual execution on Paris by those he had squealed on. But Frears and Prince present a film on a gangster, who by his recent exposure to books, can mock impending death.

Here is a sample conversation:

The young hit-man Myron (Tim Roth) “You've got nothing to smile about mate, if you knew.”

Willie Parker:”If I knew?”

Willie Parker to the senior hit-man Braddock (John Hurt): “He thinks I don’t know

And much later Parker tells young Myron about his views on death “It's just a moment. We're here. Then we're not here. We're somewhere else... maybe. And it's as natural as breathing. Why should we be scared?”

Answers young Myron: “I think you're crazy, but I admire your attitude.”

Now it is this attitude that makes his otherwise cold-blooded captors defer killing him. Early in the movie it is the youger hit-man Myron who wants to kill the cool Parker and Braddock intervenes.

It is this attitude that makes the audience gradually admre Parker. Frears and Prince transform a hood into a hero not just for the hit-men on screen but for us the viewers. There is an awesome shot captured by Frears of Parker enjoying the view of a waterfall, seemingly at peace with himself as would a Tibetan monk, not characteristic of a man about to be executed. It is definitely one of the finest performances of Terence Stamp on screen. Even the senior hit-man Braddock is shaken by Parker's demeanor.

The trouble is that Frears and Prince have made a film that makes it almost impossible to admire Parker, except for two pivotal instances in the film which can be missed out, if you the viewer even blinks. Frears development of the character of Willie Parker is as distinguished as another British filmmaker John Boorman’s character Walker (played by Lee Marvin) in his US film Point Blank (1967). Both characters, Parker and Walker, are goons--yet the two directors presented us with characters larger than life, admirable for limited screen time.

The Hit is more than an interesting study of the personality of Parker. Three other characters in the film also exude elements of dual personalities themselves. The only woman of note in the film, Maggie, is a woman, who states that she does not know English sufficiently but this lie is exposed through a trick. The two hit-men are not made of steel either--each present vignettes of their characters that contradict the obvious veneer.

If you evaluate the three Frears’ films, each provides value beyond their screen time as the viewer can reflect on the subjects presented on screen. Each film presents two sides of a coin. Often these individuals are not likeable individuals but there is a certain magnetism that they exude on screen. And each film has a moment or two where you realize that what you see and associate with goodness or braveness can be deceptive. It could bother a perceptive viewer, and perhaps that is one reason these films did not make the box office jingle.

One wonders if Frears is continuing to build on the same theme in more films.

P.S. The film is not just an important collaboration between a director and scriptwriter but a film that offers three memorable performances from Terence Stamp, John Hurt and Tim Roth. John Hurt’s performance as the hit-man Braddock won him the best actor award at The Evening Standard British Film Awards and shared the honor with Terence Stamp and Tim Roth at the Mystfest (Italy) awards for The Hit. Two films mentioned above--The Thin Red Line and Perfume--have been reviewed earlier on this blog.

Friday, October 02, 2009

90. US director Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line" (1998): “What’s this war in the heart of nature?”

If I were to state that the most interesting filmmaker alive and making films today is an American named Terrence Malick, the statement is likely to be met with stares, dead silence, or some incredulous query like “What, not Steven Spielberg?”

Who is this Malick? Unlike his American peer Spielberg, who has made over 30 well-received movies, Malick has only made four. By the number game, Malik is a loser. Unlike Spielberg, whose bearded face and personal details are splashed all over countless newspapers and magazines, even the resourceful Time magazine had trouble locating a recent photograph of Malick, notorious for eluding journalists and for including “no personal publicity clauses” incorporated in his contracts with movie studios. And unlike Spielberg who dropped out of his Long Beach University course, Malick has attended Harvard University, is a Rhodes Scholar and has even taught philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). While Spielberg has won a clutch of Oscars, his fortune at Cannes, Berlin and Venice film festivals has been dismal. Venice finally gave him a lifetime achievement award. On the other hand, Malick has never won an Oscar but has won the prestigious Best Director award at Cannes for Days of Heaven and the Golden Bear for The Thin Red Line in the respective main competition sections. Arguably Malick is better received in Europe than in his home country or perhaps he is the toast of the cognoscenti rather than the Hollywood studio regulars, who vote at the Oscar polls. And, agewise, both Malick and Spielberg are in their sixties.

But why compare Spielberg with Malick or chalk with cheese? In 1999, the two directors’ works seemed to converge briefly when Malick’s The Thin Red Line and Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, both films on the Second World War, competed for the Oscars. While Spielberg’s film picked up many Oscar statuettes, Malick’s work had to remain content with the seven unsuccessful nominations for the statuette. (Seven Oscar nominations for a single film indicates a substantial following even within the Hollywood system.)  All of Malick’s films have won critical acclaim internationally and, not surprisingly, had to be content with a remarkably slow but gradually encouraging response at the box office. Why is that? While the studios were initially aghast with the poor reception from the general public, the latest data indicate that The Thin Red Line picked up over a 60% profit world-wide to date, quite in contrast to the initial assessments.

Many viewers paid good money to view Malick’s The Thin Red Line with the implicit expectation of enjoying the typical Hollywood war movie, replete with heroics and muscle-flexing. Many walked out of a film that had the flow of a meandering documentary, without a gripping plot, heartwarming heroics or even an explicit closure, associated with an average Hollywood product.  It was never marketed by the distributors as a different type of war film. In contrast to the regular war film, Malick’s film presented a metaphysical perspective of war, a haunting evocation of man’s existential woes and the philosophic human condition of incomprehensibility, relegating the James Jones novel as a mere tool to present a movie that seemed to use a new film grammar that is rarely taught in film schools. This film unfolds with voice-over commentaries, often with the commentator never appearing on screen. Malick uses voice-overs, music and natural sounds heard in the outdoors to provide entertainment that urges audiences to think and react in timed dosages, somewhat like time-release medication. For instance, how many war films from Hollywood could have these philosophical lines spoken as voice over: “This great evil, where is it come from? How did it steal into the world? From what seed, what root did it spring? Who is doing this?” or this "Maybe all men got one big soul everybody is a part of, all faces are the same man. One big self. Everyone looking for salvation for himself. Each like a coal drawn from the fire."

Malick’s The Thin Red Line invites the viewers to move away from the James Jones novel and gently encourages them to reflect on many wars, one on screen, the wars between different types of individuals, and the war between man and nature, first through the minds of the individuals on screen, and subsequently nudging the minds of the viewer. This is best captured by the evocative poster of the film--an eye that peers through helmets of soldiers at the enemy. Though this war movie has guns and gore, it transcends guns as it focuses on the minds of men wearing those helmets just as the final shot is of a coconut seedling on an empty beach arguably signifying re-emergence of life and hope after man-made wars.

To the impatient viewer, The Thin Red Line would appear to be an unfinished film. In contrast, the same film is a wonderful experience for the reflective, patient viewer. I am reminded of my favorite Will Durant quote that the “more and more we know, we realize we know less and less.” Part of Malick’s unfinished flourishes, I believe, comes from his philosophic perspective, in contrast to regular Hollywood cinema that spoon-feeds the viewer with images of heroism or cowardice, ensuring the viewer leaves the movie hall gratified that the film ratifies the core values the viewer holds. European cinema on the other hand very often tends to either question the accepted norm or present a different view

Malick’s film is a radical departure from the accepted norms of cinema. There is no room for sentimentality. The film looks objectively at heroes and cowards, victors and vanquished, flora and fauna, life and death, the developed world and the underdeveloped world, hierarchical subservience/values at work (here of soldiers) but most of all different approaches to life by different people. This mosaic can be enjoyed or rejected by the viewer. Before the studio's and distributors' names appear on screen we see a flame as from a matchstick lighting up the darkness. Much later in the film, the same flame appears before the imprisoned AWOL US soldier (played by Jim Caviezel) has a philosophical verbal sparring with his avuncular superior (played by Sean Penn).

Malick’s film is less about action and more about atmosphere. Early in the film we are shown an alligator slithering into water. Conventional cinema will revert to the reptile’s role in the film within the next five minutes at the most. Malick’s film shows the alligator much later strung-up by soldiers as meat. Malick presents the alligator and soldiers as killing machines, and prods the viewer to review the necessity of killing or eating one another. Visually, the men prove more deadly than the alligator at the end of the film.

Halfway into the film, Malick presents an American soldier extracting gold teeth from dead and dying Japanese soldiers. Much later in the film the American throws the gold into the rain and mud. Asks a captured Japanese soldier to an American: “Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness and truth?” Films like The Thin Red Line are unusual to find among the piles of films made in USA.

The Thin Red Line is not about why there should be no wars. It is a film about the genesis of wars and why human beings get embroiled in wars. It is replete with quotations from the Bible, the Bhagvad Gita, the Illiad, and Steinbeck’s novel Grapes of Wrath and presents an argument that individuals are less in control of nature than they think they are. Philosophy and nature are important facets of any Malick film.

Malick has studied the works of philosophers like Wittgenstein and Heidegger. It is, therefore, not unusual that his films always capture the metaphysical aspects of man’s relationship with nature. After making his second film Days of Heaven, Malick took a 20 year sabbatical from movies to watch birds. In between he avoided journalists like plague and then decided to make The Thin Red Line. Interestingly Hollywood had already made an earlier black and white film on the James Jones book. Malick’s version perplexes some but gains admiration of many. Repeated viewings make the film seem more valuable an experience than before. While the book was based on the real action of World War II in the Pacific front, Malick’s film goes beyond the World War. At the start of the film—a question in the voice-over gives a clue to what follows “What’s this war in the heart of nature?”

Nature is the real star of Malick’s films. Those who saw Days of Heaven will never forget the harvesting sequences and the attack by locusts—reminiscent of the finest documentary traditions of Flaherty’s cinema in the 1930s (e.g., Man of Aran). Documentary traditions get interlinked with fiction in Malick’s The Thin Red Line, too. Waves of 5 feet tall green grass camouflage crawling soldiers, where harmless grass snakes appear less fearsome than armed humans. Nature unfolds forth waves of memories and feelings in the soldiers preparing for battle. Says one soldier, “Look at this jungle. Look at those vines, the way they twine around, swallowing everything. Nature’s cruel.” Water, too, plays fascinating roles in Malick’s cinema. In Days of Heaven, the death of the Richard Gere character Bill is captured by placing the camera underwater not merely as a gimmick but suggesting water as a cleansing symbol or a baptismal facet of nature.

Conventions are broken when Malick deals with music. In Malick’s films, music often unleashes verbal comments or drowns sentences that are yet to be completed, quite unlike traditional cinema where music underlines the spoken word or violins stress tragedy. In Malick’s movies music intentionally intrudes into the dialogue. Ennio Morricone (the wizard who contributed to the spaghetti Westerns) in Days of Heaven, and Hans Zimmer in The Thin Red Line provide powerful musical counterpoints to beauty and serenity of the landscapes captured on screen. In Malick’s cinema music is often more profound and moving than the spoken word. Zimmer’s work with Malick has been compared to the works of Shostakovich, the Russian composer.

Malick put together a fascinating ensemble of actors for the film The Thin Red Line, where the individual “disappears in the collective” to quote a critic. Actors like John Travolta, Adrian Brody (Oscar winner for The Pianist), and George Clooney stride the screen for less than a few minutes. Long footages of the film with actors Viggo Mortensen, Billy Bob Thornton, Mickey Rourke were dropped on the editing floor. The director instead chose to give long exposure to Sean Penn and Nick Nolte. Malick propelled the then unknown stars like Jim Caviezel (Passion of the Christ) and Ben Chaplin into significant roles. Caviezel has been quoted as stating that he would have left the acting profession had Malick not picked him for the role. Malick’s reputation have made good actors queue up to work on his projects.

How does The Thin Red Line compare with the other three films directed by Malick? Badlands (1973), I have always felt, was appreciated because it was the closest amongst his four movies to established Hollywood aesthetics. Days of Heaven (1978) was Malick’s major attempt to capture the magic moments of nature and meld them with music and natural sound, coming closer to the early masters of documentary such as Flaherty and even the few magical films made by the French stage wizard Ariane Mnouchkine (of Theatre du Soleil fame) or the German filmmaker Hans Jurgen Syberberg. In The Thin Red Line, I consider Malick attempted and achieved more than his earlier films because of the gravitas of director’s treatment of the subject that rejected conventions of cinema by almost rejecting the importance of predetermined scripts and throwing the established concepts out of the window. Malick broke new ground making some characters in the story more prominent and others less imposing, if not trivial upsetting top notch actors who were promised prominent roles that were eventually discarded by Malick. Malick was underlining his all powerful role as director, scriptwriter and editor. That is why James Jones recedes into the background while the "invisible" Malick plays Svengali to the chosen few actors/characters in the story. Malick apparently discusses the philosophy of the characters with his actors, which goads them to give their memorable best but gets staggering quality output from his cinematographers and composers of music. Unfortunately, his fourth film The New World (2005), though bearing Malick’s stamp of great performances, music, sound and photography could not match the brilliance of his previous two efforts. Meanwhile, I await with anticipation the release of his fifth film Tree of Life later this year.

How I wish I could meet and interact with this "brahmin" among filmmakers alive today!

P.S.: Parts of this post were published earlier by the author in National Review, New Delhi, Vol 2, no.9, in 2004. A review of Malick’s Days of Heaven was published earlier on this blog. A review of Malick's The Tree of Life appears later on this blog, exploring the connections between that film and The Thin Red Line.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

89. Chinese director Wang Quan’an’s “Tuya’s marriage” (2006): A wedding that looks back at marriage and life

The emerging cinema of mainland China offers quite a different whiff of fresh air compared to the new winds of change in cinema that one encounters from Iran, Korea, Spain, Turkey, or Mexico. Filmmakers of China are classified by a particular generation--each generation espousing a particular political and social viewpoint under the watchful eye of Big Brother. The resulting impact of the cinema of each Generation on the filmgoer, of course, is by all accounts distinct. Catching international attention are specifically the Chinese filmmakers that belong to both the Fifth and the Sixth Generations of the Chinese mainland filmmakers (as distinct from the Hong Kong and Taiwanese brand of Chinese cinema), most of whom are products of formal Chinese film institutes. The Fifth Generation filmmakers are associated with the Eighties and the Nineties and their typical cinematic works capture the socio-political configurations that emerged on the heels of the Cultural Revolution in China. Their productions exhibit rich production values, matching the best in Europe and Americas, with unorthodox methods of storytelling. These movies captured the hearts of film-festival enthusiasts, beyond the shores of China. The Sixth Generation of filmmakers, associated with the late Nineties and the current decade, unlike the Fifth Generation, have made their mark by adopting documentary-like approaches to realistic fiction, capturing the social changes of the day while seeming to consciously reject the high quality standards of the Fifth Generation while infusing a streak of individualism. The director of Tuya’s Marriage, Wang Quan’an belongs to this Sixth Generation.

Tuya's Marriage, which won the highest honors (Golden Bear) at the Berlin film festival in 2007 and the Special Jury Prize at the Chicago film festival 2007, was shot in China’s Inner Mongolia autonomous region (which some viewers seem to confuse for the neighboring Mongolia, an independent nation). Director Wang Quan’an (or is it Quan’an Wang?) has done a rare feat in Chinese cinema—making a film that is centered on an individual rather than a group of individuals. Tuya is a woman—a herdswoman taking care of 100 sheep, two children and a husband Bater, crippled while trying to dig a well for his family. Water, we learn, is a scarce resource—Tuya has to travel a great distance on her two humped camel. She is young and attractive but resolute that she has to take care of her family for ever in spite of her tough life. It is important for non-Chinese viewers to note that the state only allows one child per family in China, yet Tuya has two!

Of course, even though Tuya's Marriage centers around one individual Tuya, director Wang has an escape clause that would please the Chinese authorities, if the question were to ever crop up—the principal character is constantly caring for others, kith and kin. For his third feature film, Quan’an ropes in a major collaborator on the project. That person is Lu Wei, who wrote Chen Kaige’s Farewell, My Concubine (Golden Palm winner at Cannes and Golden Globe winner in Hollywood) and Zhang Yimou’s To Live (Cannes winner of the Grand Prize of the Jury). Lu Wei and Wang Quan’an present a tale that might make occidental viewers wonder if such dedication to family life exists today—it’s a tale of a woman who seeks a divorce merely because she loves the family intensely, and hopes she can win a new spouse who will take care of the entire divorced family. It is an amazing love for the family by an individual that is presented by the filmmakers that bewilder the authorities depicted in the film, then the suitors of Tuya, and finally, the audience.

Typical of the Sixth Generation filmmakers, many characters such as Tuya’s crippled husband Bater and Tuva’s neighbor-cum-suitor Senge in the film are local habitants of Inner Mongolia without amy acting experience picked up by the director, quite in line with original neo-realist traditions. In contrast, the lead character of Tuya is played by Yu Nan, a professional actress, who has acted in all the three films made by the director and has won best actress awards for all three performances at three film festivals in succession (the French Deauville Asian film festival for the first, the Paris film festival for the second, and the Chicago film festival for Tuya’s Marriage). It is not surprising that the Wachovsky brothers’ (of Matrix fame) cast her in their recent film Speed Racer (2008).

Any ordinary filmmaker presented with Tuya’s story would probably have opted to end the film with a finite conclusion to the unusual tale. The director and scriptwriter begin and end the film with the scenes of a wedding of Tuya—while the film is specifically about the married life of Tuya. Wang Quan’an ends the film with tears flowing down the face of Tuya. Who are Tuya’s tears for? That is the question the film asks of the viewer. Are they for her divorced crippled husband, who loves so her intensely? Are they for her children constantly getting into trouble? Are they for her true lover that Tuya recognizes at last? Or are the tears for her new husband waiting in another tent to marry Tuya, accepting all her conditions of marriage? Or are the tears for the no-win situation that Tuya finds herself in? The last few minutes of the film remind you of the quiet, soft power of the end of another film: Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton.

The film succeeds in capturing the Sisyphean existential dilemma of the sensitive and ethical individual eclipsed by society’s demands of different hues. I have subsequently learned that Wang Quan’an’s mother came from the region shown in the film, where economic development is fast displacing the shepherds of Inner Mongolia. I have also learned that the non-professional actor playing the taciturn Bater (who had the best lines to speak in the film) was a herdsman who after doing the role in the film was forced to become a peasant following decisions made by the State. I also learn that the film is made in Mandarin language and not in Mongolian, the language spoken in those parts of China shown in the film, a decision possibly take to help the lead actress who speaks most the meager spoken lines in the film. Much more than spoken words, the film communicates through the documentary feel of the film helped by the German cinematographer Lutz Reitemeier, who has worked with the director on the last two films.

It is indeed difficult to classify Tuya’s marriage. Is it a docudrama? Is it a love story? Or is it an existential query?

P.S. Films of three Fifth Generation filmmakers have been reviewed earlier on this blog--Zhang Yimou's Not one less (1999), Zhang Yang's Getting home (2007), and Gu Changwei's Peacock (2005)--all internationally lauded works of cinema looking at aspects of family values in modern mainland China.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

88. Russian director Khuat Akhmetov’s “Chelovek-veter” (Wind Man) (2007): Marquez in Kazakhstan

Many cinematic memories flashed in my mind as this Russian film, set in Asia, began unspooling. “Wind man” was the nick name of Akira Kurosawa, the great film maestro from Japan. Kurosawa was called the wind man, ever since he made his debut film Sugata Sanshiro/Judo story (1943). It had a powerful end, cinematically capturing the role of the wind as much as the human actions. And one of my favorite movies of this Japanese Wind Man is not a Japanese film but a Russian Oscar winning film called Dersu Uzala (1975), also set in Asian parts of Russia.

Set in the glorious natural expanses of rural Kazakhstan, Khuat Akhmetov’s Wind Man is an obscure Russian film that offers great value both in style and substance. Although I did not spot any reference in the movie’s credits to Nobel Prize winning Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the story is evidently adapted from his popular short story called A very old man with enormous wings. Those who have not read Marquez' story would be enthralled by the magic realism that the story/movie offers. Even those who have read the story, would find the Russian film enthralling and try to re-read the Marquez tale (the translation is available free on the Internet) because the film and story are considerably similar at the start and yet so very different towards the end. That is the likely logic for Akhmetov to avoid mentioning Marquez by name in the credits. For me and many others, such films are important not just as cinema but because viewers are driven by curiosity towards the finest writers of this world. Wind Man will remain a fine example of good cinema encouraging people to rediscover the pleasures of the written word.

Akhmetov and co-scriptwriter Odelsha Agishev metamorphose Marquez’ fictional character of a poor Christian fisherman into a marginal Muslim Kazakh villager. The Kazakh ekes out a living raising horses and chickens. Both the fictional characters have a wife and a sick child. Both are visited on a balmy night by an old man with enormous wings who falls down from the skies. However, Akhmetov’s tale ends in a tragic fashion (Russian novelists and filmmakers seem to be at their best with tragedies) while Marquez offers a more spiritually oriented alternative end (in line with the Roman Catholic upbringing of the Colombian rural folks). Both tales offer the reader/viewer many moral perspectives to reflect upon and even have a hearty laugh.

Akhmetov and Agishev are able to transform the tale into satire in many parts of the film, with an old aircraft serving as a “supermarket” that moves around not of its own power but because it is tugged by a land vehicle. If you view the scene critically, you will chuckle at the fact that the words “supermarket” is written in English, not Russian—when not even one character in the village is likely to speak English. There are obvious barbs at Communist era thinking processes of individuals who try to figure out how an old man with wings could be “socially productive” for the commune. The sycophants and imbeciles, with power thrust on them that such societies are likely to produce, are well fleshed out. Corruption in such societies is naturally captured by the filmmakers. One of the corrupt sycophants ends up as an “angel” in a freak show and there is a fine sequence in the film of the two "angels" evaluating each other's predicament.

The movie’s real strength comes from the original Marquez concept—goodness of the strange angelic creature that is no longer young but finds camaraderie in young children and uncorrupted minds of the adults. We are happy to see old angels when they make the sick children healthy. But how do we react after they outlive their immediate social/moral value? The Russian film provides, intentionally or unintentionally, an alternate ending to the Marquez story that fits like a glove for the Muslim mindset—which even adds an imaginary contrapuntal Satanic character Madar, representing death, that never existed in the Marquez story. Ironically, the local Mullah decrees that the winged man is not an angel because the creatures does not speak Allah’s language—Arabic. (Interestingly, even the priest in Marquez’ story writes to the Pope--through proper hierarchical channels--to figure out whether they should call it an angel!)

The movie will open up considerable insights into typical thoughts of the people of Central Asia today with its population often seeking refuge in religion after surviving corrupt political despots of earlier eras. The film cannot be compared to the power of Dersu Uzala. Yet Wind Man is representative of the wide variety of good cinema that Russia continues to produce decade after decade, even though this is the first regular film made by 60-year-old director who had made one TV film prior to this fine feature debut. Akhmetov's trump card for the viewers of Wind Man is the choice of the actor Igor Yasulovich who does not speak a word in the entire film. He reminds you of the latter day thespian Yuri Jarvet (Kozintsev's Lear and Tarkovsky's Dr Snaut in Solyaris/Solaris) of Russian/Estonian cinema, being able to meld respect and aloofness to the strange character he portrays. The only time he makes an audible stamp in the movie is when, under pain of being poked with a red-hot iron, he screams in pain (an event common to both Akhmetov and Marquez versions of the tale) resulting in an unusual storm that is definitely not of man-made proportions.

The Wind Man is no ordinary tale. It forces the viewer to look as politics, social anomalies, religion and humanism. It does not matter whether the Wind Man is an angel or not. It does not matter whether or not children's lives can be saved by extra-terrestrial angelic forces. What the film seems to ask the viewer is to focus on the relationships and values of individuals and families--not far removed from what Marquez intended. Even Mozambican writer Mia Cuoto walked the same road as Marquez and Akhmetov. And cinema brings them closer to us.

P.S. Another example of magic realism in contemporary cinema is the Portuguese/Mozambican film Sleepwalking Land (2007) built on the novel of Mia Cuoto. That film was reviewed earlier on this blog.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

87. Italian director Francesco Rosi’s “Tre fratelli” (Three Brothers) (1981): Look back without anger

Francesco Rosi’s film Three Brothers would be better appreciated if we refer and compare the film to the short story (the translation is freely available on the Internet) that inspired the unassuming but powerful cinematic work. An old man goes to a telegraph office and sends a telegram to his sons—“Mother dead. Come home. Father.” In the short story there are six sons. In Rosi’s film, Three Brothers, there are only three. Both in the written work and in the film, the sons return to their rural home to attend the burial of their mother, after a long absence from their parent's home. The film’s plot could appear to center around the return of the three sons for the mother’s funeral but Rosi’s film offers much, much more in terms of social, political and existential commentary, relevant today as it was when it was made way back in 1981.

The film was inspired by a short story called The Third Son by the Russian novelist Andrei Platonov, a work that found an admirer in, among other literary peers, Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway won the Nobel Prize, Platonov never did. Yet Platonov achieved a unique distinction after his death: a minor planet discovered by a Soviet astronomer was named after him.

In Russia, Platonov’s fame yo-yoed with the vagaries of the Stalinist regime. The once celebrated writer toward the end of his life is reported to have eked out a living by sweeping the streets. It is ironic that the novelist wrote in a letter a decade before his death “If my brother Mitya, or Nadya, were to come back out of the grave, adolescents as they were when they died, and were to look at me to see what has become of me... I have become a monster, mutilated both inside and outside. "Andrei, is that really you?" Yes, it's me-I've been through a lot” The anguish Andrei Platonov expresses with those lines was captured somewhat in his short story. The residual impact of that feeling comes through in the Rosi film as the lives of three sons are dissected. (Ironically, one of Platonov’s best known satirical novels The foundation pit was only published 25 years after his death.)

Few filmgoers are aware that two famous films—Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s Maria’s Lovers (USA) and Alexander Sukurov’s The Lonely Human Voice (former USSR) were both based on another Platonov short story to be found in the collection of his short stories called The River Potudian. Konchalovsky's film surprisingly did not mention Platonov's name in the credits.

It is not surprising that Rosi found the Platonov short-story The Third Son ideally suited for adaptation to the Italian environs in the early Eighties. The similarities were considerable—the rural Italians are staunch Catholics and the rural Soviets equally staunch followers of the Russian Orthodox Church. One endured the brutality of Mussolini, the other of Stalin. Both the Russian and Italian communities are traditionally strong votaries of family bonding and the institution of marriage. Rosi’s obvious and natural collaborator was the legendary screenplay writer Tonino Guerra to develop the Italian tale. Guerra had worked with Antonioni and Fellini, but more importantly was an ardent admirer of Russian legendary filmmakers Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Parajanov. Barely two years after Rosi’s film was made, Guerra collaborated with Tarkovsky on the celebrated Nostalgia. made by self-exiled Tarkovsky in Italy.

Rosi and Guerra make the transition from the Russian short story to the Italian context seamlessly. The film begins and ends just as the short story does. Both have the transmission of the telegram by the father (a fascinating performance by the late French actor Charles Vanel, in the film). The father of three sons living in rural Italy summons his sons living in different Italian cities, apparently not in touch with each other for years. The second son brings his daughter, Marta, along (in the short story, the third of the six brothers brings his daughter to the funeral). The film ends just as the short story does, the sons carry the coffin to the grave, while their father and grand-daughter stay behind in the house. Death of their mother brings the three brothers together, while the widower gets to bond with his loving grandchild.

Interestingly for Platonov, Rosi and Guerra, the family bonding is fragile between father and sons but it grows rapidly between father and grandchild. Rosi’s film explores the visual parallels provided by simple actions—a young wife (the dead mother of the sons) playing in the sand and her young grandchild playing in the heaps of harvested grain--separated by time. Quite in contrast to the halcyon days in the lives of the father and his wife Rosi and Guerra paint the fragile marriages of two sons and a third who is not interested in committing himself to a marriage but instead finds succor in a “marriage” to social work. None of the three sons are bad individuals. One is a respected judge (the late Philippe Noiret), another a social worker, and the third a factory employee desiring a better deal for his colleagues from the management. While Platonov’s story tried to mask the author’s disenchantment with Stalinist Russia, Rosi and Guerra built the anguish of Italy in the early Eighties, judges trying to be impartial while handing out sentences often at the cost of their lives and careers, civil society battling the effects of rampant abuse of drugs, guns and money on the younger population, and the growing power of trade unions in the manufacturing sector.

Rosi and Guerra present four dreams in the film, one of the father and three each of the sons. The father recalls his young wife losing her wedding ring and how they retrieve it. The most successful of the brothers, a respected judge and an idealist, dreams of being assassinated while his estranged wife is truly worried that he could be, if he continues with his official work. The social worker, another idealist, who initial dream opens the film of rats hunting for food (implying the social rot) against a dreary concrete wall of a tall building with gaps for windows (implying progress), progresses to dream a surrealist one where drugs, guns, and money are swept away for good and set on fire. Another brother is also an idealist wanting to procure a fair deal for the workers in a factory and dreams of fixing his marriage as he tries to reach out to his separated wife in the city. All the sons dream on beds on which they have now overgrown, quite in contrast to the father who sleeps with his grand daughter on a giant bed without the burden of idealism but love for his family, his home and the gratifying reunion of the family through the death of his wife. The visual metaphors are stacked up for the viewer to pick up and savor.

The film’s cinematographer Pasqualino de Santis has not just worked with Rosi on his finest works, but also with Visconti, Zeffirelli, and Bresson on theirs. There is a lovely shot captured by de Santis and Rosi as one brother views his two siblings at different heights from a window at a height. Who is morally superior to whom? Little or nothing is spoken but the visuals speak loudly of what seems to concern each person in the frame.

Sometimes Guerra’s words take over from the camera—as when one a brother visits a neighbor’s house to be shown a fig tree and comments that the tree appears to be smaller than what he recalled. The neighbor’s reply is laconic but figurative “It is you who have grown big.”

For those who have seen Tarkovsky’s first film Ivan’s childhood, one would wonder whether Guerra who was an admirer and collaborator of Tarkovsky, was replicating the shots in Three Brothers as de Santis’ camera follows the young girl Marta as she explores her grandfather’s house.

Similarly there is another dream of war ravaged villagers putting up their hands in abject surrender to a menacing tank rolling towards them. Allied soldiers emerge from the tank only to embrace the villagers with the words “We too are Italians!” Rosi’s film is not somber throughout it has its patches of mellow humor. In one of the most beautiful parts of the film, the dead grandmother teaches her husband how to catch a hare by its ears.

The film is a paean to rich values of rural life that urban folks miss out on. It is a tale that harks back to traditions. The urban brothers are not at peace with themselves, while in contrast the village folks seem to be reconciled with what they have and are happy, even if it appears that they are left behind by their lovers and spouses. The final shots of the film show two rings on the father’s ring finger, the second being the ring worn by his dead wife.

Rosi needs to be credited for spotting the story and roping the talented actors, the scriptwriter and the cinematographer for this deceptively charming movie with a subject that has considerable depth beyond the obvious story line. I found this film to be one of Rosi's finest works rubbing shoulders with his later work Christ Stopped at Eboli.

Platonov's work throws up discomfiting questions at its readers, and Rosi's film goes even further. Platonov's story asked us to look at simple joys and familial relationships that one seemed to have forgotten. His story questioned misplaced idealism wrecking individual lives in a dysfunctional political environment. Rosi and Guerra go further as they present similar questions on the Italian political and social environment of the day, presented through each brother. The film offers a possible humanist closure without delving much into religion, a prime facet of Italian life. But look closely and you will find the undercurrent of religion pervading the film, much more openly than in the Platonov story.

Many film goers tend to discount the value of a literary work when the film itself is arguably awesome in technique and content. But can we truly discount the inspirational literary works that contributed to major works such as Terrence Mallick’s The Thin Red Line or Andrei Zyyagintsev’s The Banishment, especially when those filmmakers seem to considerably depart from the original works of James Jones and William Saroyan?

To quote a few lines from Platonov’s The Third Son: "The third son suddenly straightened up, put his arm in the darkness and reached for the edge of the coffin, but he could not hold on to it and only shoved it a little to one side on the table, as he fell to the floor. His head hit the floorboards, but the son did not make a sound—only his daughter screamed." While it quite true that no such scene appears in the Rosi film, can we deny that Rosi, Guerra and de Santis did succeed in capturing the same spirit of Platonov’s short story in their film Three Brothers?

(P.S. In 1981, this film made the final nomination list for the Best Foreign film Oscar but did not win the statuette.)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

86. Actor Tommy Lee Jones’ debut directorial effort "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" (USA/France) (2005): Amazing grey actions in life

The more you reflect on The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, the more you begin to appreciate what the value-added film has to offer the viewer.

Many have seen the film and considered it to be yet another tale on the US Border Patrol actions ensuring that economically deprived Mexicans do not cross over into US territory illegally. Some US viewers have taken to a knee-jerk dislike for the movie because it shows the US law enforcers in a poor light with touches of racism. It was probably this undercurrent of emotions that deprived the film of an Oscar, while it picked up two distinguished awards at the Cannes Festival (Best Actor for Jones, and Best Screenplay for the Mexican scriptwriter Guillermo Arriaga) and the Grand Prize at Flanders International Film Festival (an official FIAPF A-grade festival held in Belgium).

If the obvious subject of the film and the non-linear story reminds you of the celebrated film Babel and its border crossing sequences it is partly because both films have scripts written by the talented Guillermo Arriaga (who also wrote the scripts of 21 Grams and the Mexican film Amores Perros). If you are familiar with the scripts of Arriaga, you will understand the writer digs deep into people’s actions, their causes and the ripple effect of those actions.

Some viewers have perceived the Tommy Lee Jones’ film as a modern Western. It does have horses, cowboys, lassos, rifle shooting, and a typical Western ending of a hero riding off on a horse to God-knows where while someone you least expect to care about the rider shout “You gonna be all right?

This is the defining stamp of Arriaga’s scripts that evidently attracted Jones’ sensitive mind. Who are we to judge human actions? Can we judge human actions without empathy? A man who appears as a good guy with values can kidnap a man for a moral cause that he considers to be important and cross over international borders with impunity just as in the Wild West in these days when man-made laws, national and international, seem to be in place. A man who does not have empathy for his sweetheart-turned-wife or for illegal Mexicans, who have done him no harm, eventually begins to care for his brutal captor and empathize with his captor's values (is it a case of Stockholm syndrome or a new awakening of values?). A Mexican lady, who had her nose broken while being arrested by a US border patrolman, instead of seeking revenge, saves the patrolman’s life after he is bit by a deadly snake, but pours hot coffee on him when he recovers. A woman, who has enjoyed sex outside marriage to color her dull life, when push comes to shove, chooses to stay on with her husband rather than run off with her true love. A lawman who intended to shoot with a rifle an escaping kidnapper opts not to do so, even after getting the target well within the sights of his rifle. Each of these personalities presents the viewer neither a black nor a white character but a grey one that may not become obvious to many during a first casual viewing of the film.

If violence is considered an attribute of westerns, Jones’ film has its essential doses of beatings, cruel dragging of people by the rope, and shooting bullets to scare individuals into submission. Yet the violence in Jones’ film seems to serve a larger purpose, of underscoring the lack of empathy towards lesser privileged human beings, especially the lack of compassion of citizens of the developed world towards those of less developed countries seeking a better life. The violence actually reforms hitherto uncaring characters. To merely interpret this film as a depiction of US-Mexican border issues or a cruel film would be to miss the wood for the trees.

Mexican scriptwriter Guillermo Arriaga made similar suggestions in Babel where characters were painted with ambiguous strokes of his pen. In Babel too, an innocent action of a Japanese gifting a rifle to a Moroccan guide leads to tragedies with a domino effect across continents. Thus good actions and intentions evolved into costly mistakes in Babel. But Arriaga shifts gears in his transition from Babel to The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. The actions of all characters (cowboys, waiters, policemen, illegal aliens and their facilitators) seem to be entwined in the micro-cosmos of the US-Mexican border, not across continents. Interestingly, the viewer will note that each character has a positive streak that comes through in the film—not one character in the film is truly evil (or conversely, a saint) This presents a remarkable shift from Hollywood scripts that loves to paint the good guys white and the bad guys black in character, to the extent that often the good guys even rode white horses in conventional Westerns.

A viewer of Babel and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada will note the emphasis both scripts lay on the institution of the family. In the latter, we have five families in the spotlight. The first is the young patrolman’s family breaking up due to lack of empathy that the patrolman rues while watching a US TV serial in the wilds of Mexico. The second is the family of the restaurant owner and his waitress wife, who is mature enough to stay married. The third is the enigmatic Estrada family, imagined or real, that "seems" to have bonds of steel. The fourth is the dream family of the Tommy Lee Jones’ character Pete Perkins with the wife of the restaurant owner’s wife. The fifth, the most profound one presented, is of a blind man and his son, the only remnant of his family, who he knows will never return to care for him because of a terminal illness. What a fascinating array of different tugs and pulls on the institution of family is presented in this lovely film.

I am not surprised that actor Jones realized this script offered a great stepping-stone for him to enter the world of film direction. I commend Jones for not letting Pete's character overshadow the other mosaic of characters because eventually this film is not about one individual. Jones' film encourages the viewer to perceive shades of ourselves in the film's characters. However, I am delighted that the Cannes Jury recognized Jones' contribution as an actor in his own directorial debut. Further, Jones’ selection of Chris Menges as his cinematographer in the film was a smart move as Menges has a penchant to capture natural beauty in all his films. The beauty of the landscape offers a a lovely backdrop for the quilt of characters that make up the movie.

There is a report that director Jones gave each crew member a copy of Albert Camus's novel The stranger. If it is true, Jones ought to be credited as a thinker among Hollywood personalities as well. The existentialist/absurdist/nihilist novel provides interesting parallels to Jones' film. The novel begins with sensual passages and ends with actions/responses deprived of emotions or empathy. The actions of Pete in the movie does somewhat mirror those of Meursault in the novel of the Nobel Prize winning French author.

It is to the credit of Jones and Arriaga that the film does not bring the story to an ideal closure. While a promise made by a friend to another, even though both belonged to different countries and financial worlds, is kept, the viewer has to reach an independent conclusion about the dead man’s family. Was it real or a product of a vivid imagination? What is real and sacred for Jones and Arriaga are that the film underscores values of friendship, religion (Pete’s refusal to kill the blind man) and respect for other individuals.

While watching the film, I was constantly reminded of the parallels between this film and a Chinese film by director Zhang Yang called Getting Home (Luo ye gui gen) (2007) another story of a man carrying his friends corpse for burial in his native village because of a promise made earlier, defying all national laws. The Chinese director has always claimed that his film made two years after Jones’s film was based on a true life incident in China. Both films are interesting movies; the Chinese film offers dark, social comedy, while the US film presents a larger canvas of serious moral and ethical issues.

P.S. The films Babel and Getting Home have been reviewed earlier on this blog.

Monday, June 22, 2009

85. British director Roland Joffe’s “The Mission” (1986) (UK): A script for all seasons

The Mission is a movie set in South America delving on the Spanish/Portuguese colonization in the 17th century. Some viewers of the film could consider it to be an interesting treatise on how the Catholic Jesuit priests went about converting the indigenous Guarani population who lived in the environs of present-day Paraguay. To other viewers, the film would be an interesting take on religion versus the state (here the Portuguese and the Spanish), where religion and freedom gets smothered by forces only interested in financial gain. To yet another group of viewers, the film underlines the capacity of indigenous people to fend for themselves in a free world ("I see no difference between this plantation and my own," comments a slave owner in the film, while a Jesuit priest answers emphatically: "That is the difference: This plantation is theirs."). And to many, the film could appear to be a disconnected effort with three heroes, or rather three anti-heroes—a well-meaning Jesuit priest (Jeremy Irons), a slave-trader turned priest (Robert de Niro), and a powerful Cardinal (Ray McAnally), a man who realizes that he is actually a pawn to bigger forces, each gradually sucked into a quicksand of defeat, both spiritual and political.

Having seen The Mission twice after a gap of 20 years, I am convinced that there are two distinct ways to appreciate the film. One way is to appreciate the film’s technical (visual and aural) splendor, well appreciated separately at the Cannes film festival and at the Oscars. The Mission won the Cannes film festival’s highest honors: the Golden Palm for director Roland Joffe and another technical grand prize for Joffe. The film won a solitary Oscar for its remarkable photography by cinematographer Chris Menges. The British Academy (BAFTA) too chose to honor the music of Morricone, the acting of Ray McAnally (who played Cardinal Altmirano) and finally, the editing. These accolades underline the first approach, I suggest for evaluating the film.

The other approach would be to look at the depth of a remarkable story and script of Robert Bolt, which is based on historical facts, an effort distinctly lauded by the Golden Globes and the Evening Standard film awards (both chosen by media persons, not film industry personnel). Yes, the original script is one of the final formidable works of the screenplay writer who gave us the existential Lawrence of Arabia, and the remarkable scripts of Ryan’s Daughter, Dr Zhivago, and A Man for All Seasons. The Golden Globes honored The Mission’s script (Robert Bolt) and its music (the maestro Ennio Morricone). The Evening Standard Film Awards honored McAnally and Bolt. This latter set of awards underscores the second approach I suggest to appreciate the film.

The first approach to appreciate the film would be to acknowledge Joffe’s ability in choosing the major actors, Menge's ability to capture the natural beauty of the Iguazu falls, Joffe's strong visual metaphors of religious penance of dragging heavy armour up a cliff and the eventual liberation from the emotional baggage, the intelligent editing of the shots of the crucified priest flowing down the falls or even the capturing the silence enveloping a troubled Cardinal in a near-empty church, and finally the magic of Ennio Morricone’s music that provides the core of the film’s strength, a fact that the film reminds its viewers with the symbolic shots of a broken oboe and a shattered violin towards the end. I consider these to be aspects of the movie that are more obvious to appreciate.

The second and more complex approach would be to study the script closely. To appreciate the originality of the marvellous and yet seemingly disconnected script, it is essential to know the mind of writer of the story/script: Robert Bolt. Bolt was born into a strict Methodist family that insisted on attending church three times each Sunday. It was natural that he would revolt and after age 16, when his father allowed him to make up his own mind, he never again attended church. (Not unlike the life of the formidable Ingmar Bergman to whom The Mission’s script has a strange connection, which I will discuss shortly.) Bolt became a Marxist, joined the Communist party, and then quit the party when he was disillusioned. For him, as is evident in his magnificent screenplays, the individual with a strong morality has to face constant conflicts between idealism and society’s requirements of the individual to conform.He went on to write an existential take on T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom for Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. The story/script of The Mission was one of the three works written after a heart stroke that led to partial paralysis in 1979. It was written between his two marriages to Sarah Miles—marriages and a relationship that were reminiscent of the Burton-Taylor double marriages. The script was written at a time when he was physically and psychologically troubled.

Now consider a Leftist who abjured the Church choosing to write a story/script on a very spiritual subject of the Jesuits converting natives of South America into Christianity against the backdrop of Portuguese and Spanish politics of colonization and slavery of the natives. Obviously, for Bolt, the interesting aspect was not religion as much as the moral conflict between the Jesuits and the politics of the colonizers somewhat like his earlier celebrated scripts. A memorable part of Bolt’s script is when the Catholic colonizers, who enslave the Guaranis like animals, arguing and insisting that they don’t have souls. There is evidence that Bolt was egged on to write the passionate script by The Mission’s co-producer Fernando Ghia. The script adds significance when it becomes obvious that the main character is neither the Jesuit priest nor the slave-trader–turned-Jesuit in spite of the casting assuming otherwise and confounding viewers used to relating to equating importance of characters with top billed actors. The center stage is actually left for the visiting Cardinal (played by a lesser known actor) who begins and ends the film.

Yet the director Joffe almost kills Bolt’s script in the final film version possibly trying to elevate the roles of de Niro and Irons above that of McAnally. How else can one explain that the most crucial lines of the film are spoken by McAnally AFTER the long end credits of the film have rolled—not even as a voice over but as regular film! The words are “So, your Holiness, now your priests are dead, and I am left alive. But in truth it is I who am dead, and they who live. For as always, your Holiness, the spirit of the dead will survive in the memory of the living.” Why would Joffe have this appendage? I remember being stunned by the darkened screen full of alphabet soup suddenly coming alive, when most of the audience had trooped out of the cinema hall, under the impression the film was over. Even if it was a post-script, why tag this crucial scene after the end credits—it’s as if Joffe was uncomfortable with Bolt’s canvas and yet did not have the strength to delete the scene or those words and was hiding them from scrutiny. (Evidently there has been a subsequent rethink--please read the postscript.)  Somewhat like director Michael Cacoyannis hiding the crucial reference to contemporary Greek politics, after the end credits, when he made The Trojan Women, to possibly escape the domestic backlash in Greece.

Apparently director Joffe and its co-producer David Puttnam wanted to make a film related to the San Salvador conflict and Bolt and Ghia gave them a script on 17th Century that was quite different in spirit and substance depicting genocide in the wilds of South America in the 1750s.

Bolt, who had earlier in life revolted against Christianity, in this script went on to take a leaf of what Ingmar Bergman did 25 years before him in Through a Glass Darkly (the title is a phrase from the Corinthians chapter) and what Kieslowski a doubtful atheist did six years later in Three colors: Blue weave the elements of Christian love from the same chapter of the Bible, I Corinthians Chapter 13, a chapter on love and maturity read out by the slave trader (de Niro) before he takes up priesthood. Rodrigo Mendoza (de Niro) repeats the words “Though I have all faith so that I could remove mountains and have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor and though I give my body to be burned and have not love, it profiteth me nothing. Love suffereth and love is kind. Love envieth not. Love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things. But now abideth faith, hope, love... these three. But the greatest of these is love.” These Biblical lines are also pivotal to and read out in another brilliant film: Andrei Zvyagintsev's The Banishment (2007).

I have mentioned the Kieslowski-Blue connection already. Blue was a film that also revolved around an unfinished musical piece of a dead composer and interestingly the widow of the composer picks up the Bible, zeroes in on the Corinthians chapter and suggests adding more flute to the additional music score for completing the composition. Is it a coincidence that another maestro Ennio Morricone, who wrote the absolutely adorable award winning theme music of The Mission, has basically built the composition around oboes and flutes?

Culture critic Michael Medved called the film “anti-religious” because “it focused on cowardly eighteenth-century ecclesiastical officials who sold out idealistic Jesuit missionaries and their converts to profit-minded Portuguese imperialists and slave traders.” The film begins with killing of priests and ends with more of the same. The final end-title is a quote from the Bible "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." (John 1:5). If this was a contribution of Bolt, it paves the way for more thought about Bolt, the man, rather than Bolt the scriptwriter. Bolt’s script presents a tragedy that resembles Greek tragedies where the downfall of the hero is inevitable. Like Bolt’s script of A Man for all Seasons, the script of The Mission too is about acts of conscience. Director Stanley Kubrick is quoted as having said that The Missionreached deeper into the psyche than words, of that uncommon plant, that endangered species, of the spirit of 1 Corinthians 13”.

For the reflective viewer, the central figure of the film is truly the Cardinal. And this film is clearly an example of Bolt’s brilliance towering over Joffe’s intelligent craftsmanship

P.S. The movies Through a Glass Darkly, Blue, The Banishment and Ryan's Daughter have been reviewed earlier on this blog. In more recent alternate versions of  The Mission, the post-credit sequence discussed above has been reduced to a silent one and the spoken lines that once were spoken in the appended scene, is now included before the credits. Obviously a rethink has taken place, But why retain a silent abbreviated post-credits scene even after the crucial spoken lines were moved within the main movie as it ought to have been in the first place?