Saturday, December 25, 2010

110. Mexican director and screenplay-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film “Biutiful“(2010) made in Spain: Preparing for death and communicating with the dead

Iñárritu gets better with each film he makes. His screenplay (with co-scriptwriters Armando Bo and Nicolas Giacobone) in Biutiful takes a quantum jump in quality from his earlier Babel. In Babel, Iñárritu toyed with global ramifications of one person’s innocent actions, often an outcome of a knee-jerk reaction due to lack of empathy and/or of sympathy. Biutiful inverts somewhat similar connections and concerns from souls connecting beyond the grave with the living approaching their own death.

While it is easy to be swayed by the riveting (Cannes Best Actor, 2010) performance of the Spanish actor Javier Bardem, the real winner in this remarkable movie for me is its writer-director Iñárritu. Biutiful is a movie that deals with people living on the fringes of urban poverty, flirting with communication with souls in their after-life. The film begins with an absolutely stunning conversation between a man about to die and a man (the father, or is it his grandfather?) who is already dead. The film essentially discusses the last days of a man who has the gift of communicating with the dead. Just as one glimpsed Iñárritu’s concern of one stranger for another in Babel, in Biutiful this empathy/sympathy is underscored in the context of approaching death. The film is also a realistic attempt of a dying man putting the remnants of his fragile family in secure hands, when he eventually has to depart from this world. It is a film in which the director/scriptwriter uses the concept of death and extra-sensory gifts of communication to really communicate with different personalities already dead. Here is a film set in Bercelona, Spain, in which a father of two kids totally dependant on him  reaches out to empathize with Senegalese and Chinese immigrants in Barcelona, as much as a woman who wants to love her husband but is in no mental state to do so without sending contrary signals, all of which are an extension of the essential idea of Babel, only more refined and escalated in a spiritual context. As in Babel, there is a closure offered in Biutiful achieved by doing good for the lesser privileged and the less understood by basic human goodness in human beings however outwardly corrupt they may seem. And this goodness, Iñárritu seems to emphasize exits in the common man, often representing the negative elements in our society (involved in peddling drugs, corrupt middlemen dealing with corrupt cops, and even cheats who sell gas-based room heaters that could kill from leakages).

Biutiful is a beautiful film, simply because the title is taken from a semi-literate urban street hustler’s attempt at teaching his kid how to spell the English word “beautiful” to his Spanish offspring learning English in school.  The incorrect spelling of the title reflects beautiful aspects of the 'bad" people. The film Biutiful has an awesome screenplay that seamlessly combines parenting and death. The film is all about death but after you view the film there is good likelihood that the viewer will not consider it to be so but merely see the corruption, fragile marriages, drugs, immigration and gratitude for favours rendered as the more overriding elements than death itself.

The opening sequence and the end sequence are almost the same. Dead owls, that collect a bowl of wool, are discussed. Death is captured by sound and a blank screen. Uxbal (Javier Bardem) earns from the dead—he has the uncanny ability to converse with the recently dead—and helps the souls of the dead pass on un-communicated messages to the living.

Like director Carlos (Silent Light) Reygadas, Iñárritu is an amazing modern cinematic talent from Mexico. Iñárritu’s forte is to link various subtexts of life in a larger mosaic of life that is positive and giving, not destructive and revengeful. There are contradictions that the movie throws up: good people can get killed (e.g., the Chinese lady who baby-sits Uxbal’s kids, Uxbal’s wife who loves her husband but sleeps with his brother).

In Biutiful, a dead kid wants to set right the wrong notion with his parents about a stolen watch. In the same film, the bad conscience of Uxbal prevents his communicating with the recently dead Chinese woman and child, who were his well-wishers. A Senegalese immigrant could walk out on her benefactor Uxbal and return to Senegal with a wad of cash but prefers to stay back and thank her benefactor by taking care of his kids. None of the characters are essentially good “individuals” or heroes of our society, yet Uxbals of any society mean well and are silent heroes in their own limited space. That is the irony captured by the misspelled title.

Biutiful is a tale of generations: Uxbal and his father/grandfather, Uxbal and his children, the Senegalese couple and their child, the Chinese woman and her child, and a dead Barcelona kid and his parents. It is also a tale of a man realizing his role in a limited canvas of history in the winter of his life (literally at a snowy locale). The movie is dark but an uplifting undertone reflecting the goodness in most of us.

Biutiful proves Iñárritu is convinced of the larger cosmic plan in a seemingly chaotic world. Biutiful is not about rational abilities and actions of Uxbal, but then what is rational about any one of us? Can one really deny that communicating with the dead is impossible? The string music of Gustavo Santaolalla (Director Michael Mann, who has a great taste for music, used Santaolalla's music in Collateral) often emphasizes the irony that the script offers. Here is a film that unlike Babel is able to flesh out the main lead character, provide great music and offer tale that you can reflect on even after the film has stopped rolling. And more interestingly as a director he has an interesting and arresting way of depicting death—not very much removed from a somewhat similar depiction of death by director Semih Kaplanoglu from Turkey in another remarkable movie made this very year called Bal (Honey) that won the 2010 Golden Bear at Berlin. Both Bal and Biutiful are spellbinding films of 2010. The world is indeed small and interconnected.

P.S. Iñárritu’s Babel and Reygadas' Silent Light have been reviewed on this blog earlier.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

109. Russian director Aleksei Fedorchenko’s “Ovsyanki” (Silent Souls) (2010): A requiem on love, death, birds, water, and our past

Good Russian cinema has always gripped me like no other; Kozintsev, Tarkovsky, Paradjanov, Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky and Zvyaginstsev are imprinted in my mind’s eye and ears. And then along comes another, a certain Aleksei Fedorchenko. His Silent Souls happens to be his third feature length film, which recently picked up the Venice award for best photography. (Venice could claim to have introduced him to the wider cinematic world when his debut film First on the Moon won a significant award at that festival). Russian cinema often suggests that melancholia can be appealing if dealt with intelligence that Silent Souls proves as did works of the afore-mentioned Russian/Soviet filmmakers. And the camerawork of Venice award-winning cinematographer Mikhail Krichman remind you of the lensing of Jonas Gritsius, Kozintsev’s cameraman. It is not surprising to find Krichman was the cinematographer of Zvyagintsev’s two feature films. Small world, this world of good Russian cinema! Krichman also bagged the prestigious Plus Camerimage award for 2010 for the work in Silent Souls. Silent Souls also won the Black Pearl award for the Best Narrative film at the Abu Dhabi film festival.

Silent Souls is an amazing and complex work of cinema. Fedorchenko has made a film based on the novella/short-story called The Buntings, by Aist Sergeyev, with a screenplay by Denis Osokin adapting Sergeyev’s work. The main character in the film/story is also named Aist, obviously the alter ego of the novelist, who narrates the tale. The narration begins by self-introduction--the narrator is a Merjan, a 400 year old Finno-Ugric tribe in North-West Russia. His dead father was a poet--'He was a queer fish, that self-taught Merjan poet.' The narrator says the Merjans don’t talk much—much of the real “talking” in the film is done by the camera and the imaginative direction, not the actors.

Two essential elements of cinema lurk in the screenplay: the camera and the written word. Aist, the narrator, is a photographer. Early in the film interesting Russian faces smile into Aist’s lens as he directs them to smile or tilt their faces. Is he a ladies’ man? Aist has no family but has gifted a trinket to his best friend’s wife. Much later into the film Aist recollects his father, the self-taught Merjan poet, throwing his most prized possession a typewriter into a semi-frozen river. The only song in the film is sung by an admirable choir and we are told it is a song written by a local Merjan poet. The story/screenplay/direction nudges the viewer to the unwritten tale of the Merjan nation underneath the obvious tale. Most interesting trivia for me was the dedication of the film: not to the father of the director or screenplay-writer but to the father of the original story writer (who probably in real life threw his typewriter into the water!).

The only relationships discussed in the film relate to son and father (so much akin to Zvyagintsev’s The Return), women are objects of pleasure (as wife, illicit lover, and prostitute) and memory (to be captured on still film, as well). Aist the writer has called his story “The Buntings”, birds of the sparrow family. We are shown two buntings in a cage which accompany the two main characters on their journey. One would have assumed the suggested parallels are between Aist, the narrator, and the widower Miron. When you sell a pair of buntings, it is often a pair of birds of the opposite sexes. The parallel suggested by Aist the story-writer relates to Miron and his dead wife, Tanya.

Male-dominated as it may seem, the film is paean of a man for his dead wife, an object of love even in death. He is so broken in spirit that he rushes out of his car in remorse to kick a birch tree. Director Fedorchenko stated in his press conference at the Venice film festival: “The slogan of the film was tenderness. We wanted tenderness to be transformed into nostalgia; tenderness and nostalgia were to become synonymous with love. This feeling, this representation of the Merjan, was something we felt the whole time we were staying in that region. Also the names of the rivers bring us back to the Merjan people, and the expression on the women’s faces us reminds us of that people, that there was something different. We wanted to recreate this world that didn’t exist any longer, but was constantly present with us.”

But to assess this film further one has to shift gears. The film transcends love. It grapples with death and “water” (read nature) as major belief of the Merjan community. Merjans believe that all souls live in the flowing waters. Flowing water is as holy for the Merjan as the river Ganges to the Hindus. And believe it or not, the two communities separated by a continent believe in cremating their dead and collecting the burnt remains and consigning those remains to the flowing waters. Even the wedding ring worn by the husband is thrown into the water. Amazing that two communities so distant believe in the same rituals. Aist, the narrator, states “Our cemeteries are almost empty, only the young are buried there.” The incredible end of the film has the husband and wife meeting in the waters of the river, while another son, father, mother and the poet’s typewriter all meet in the sacred river. The narrator mentions he now writes on the “fish’s bodies.” Of course the narrator is speaking from a watery grave. Meanwhile, the end credits show Merjan couples locking locks on bridges and throwing the keys into the river. The everlasting Merjan story seems to continue to be associated with rivers over generations.

Death is another key element in this movie. Miron’s wife Tanya is dead early in the film. The Merjan rituals of preparing the dead for their last journey take up a chunk of the film. The journey to the river to consign the dead to flames and the waters of the river provides opportunity for “smoking.” “Smoking,” for the Merjans, is when intimate details of the dead are revealed to close friends to facilitate emotional release for the bereaved, a rough parallel with the Irish “wake.”

A conversation on immortality leads to the buntings falling silent in the car. Just as Hitchcock’s birds in his famous film The Birds become ominously silent before tragedy unfolds so do Fedorchenko’s buntings fall silent. But the image of a large bunting-like bird capable of smashing a windshield transforms the sequence into a dreamlike imagery from the realistic body that make up the rest of the movie. But surprisingly, the brief change in style fits into the scheme of the narration, as more facts are revealed by the narrator.

Silent Souls provides much to ponder about right from the first shot of the narrator with his cycle on a pontoon bridge to the final shot when the viewer realizes the true identity of Aist the narrator. Is it only love that gives meaning to life, as Aist, the narrator states, as he wishes he could live forever? But if you reflect, those are meaningless words as Aist has no family or friends, only the two buntings are his “family” apart from Miron his best friend who Aist has cheated in love. But then for the Merjans everlasting love has its abode in the flowing waters. The past and present merge as the narrator is not a hero but someone that resembles a chorus in a Greek tragedy. So do love and the flowing waters merge for the Merjans in the epilogue as the end-credits roll.

Fedorchenko may not be the finest Russian filmmaker alive, but he is definitely immensely talented and worthy of following closely.

P.S. Andrei Zvyagintsev's The Return and The Banishment with Mikhail Krichman as cinematographer have been reviewed earlier on this blog. 

Thursday, December 09, 2010

108. Iranian screenplay-writer and director Majid Majidi’s film “Baran” (Rain) (2001): A Sufi take on the mosaic of Iran

Many would assess and dismiss this delicate Iranian feature film as an interestingly made love story between a young Iranian man and an Afghan woman refugee in Iran,or even as interesting cinematic tale where the woman lead actor does not speak a word. However, the film communicates much more than a regular love saga. Baran won the the Grand Prix of the Americas at the 2001 Montreal Film Festival and the Freedom of Expression Award of the US National Board of Review.

The story of Baran, the film, is a based on a delectable screenplay conceived by the director himself. First, the name Baran is the name of the young Afghan lady in the film and Baran also means “rain.” So big deal, one would say. But rain is the ultimate scenario for the final sequence of this Majidi movie. Again rain might not mean much to a casual viewer of this film. Majidi, the screenplay writer, has deliberately chosen the word Baran to link the two elements of the movie, the human and the natural.

Many would assume the principal subject of the film to be the female protagonist Baran. Yet Majidi surprises the viewer by a clever inversion of the subject—the film turns out to be a tale about the man who falls in love with Baran rather than Baran herself. The film traces the gradual change in the male character before and after falling in love with the girl. Once in love, Lateef the young Azeri Iranian evolves from the cheeky young  fighter-cock constantly conscious of the importance of accumulating savings at each opportunity, to an individual who slowly transforms into an ascetic giving up all his wealth and the costly identity papers for his love’s family who needs those items of “pelf” more than him. Lateef in love is a transformed individual, he doesn’t chase away birds but feeds them. This is close to the Sufi ideals that one needs to adopt in life to be “united/aligned with the Beloved/Divine forces.” Somewhere near the middle of the film a troubled Lateef encounters an Afghan shoemaker with a "Rumi-like" visage who says the enigmatic words “From the hot fire of being apart, Comes the flame that burns the heart.” Probably these lines are from the Sufi poet Rumi, I do not know for sure. It is important for the viewer to note that that the shoemaker is never seen again by Lateef, and that the end of the film is also about a shoe that is returned to the owner and footprint of the shoe is shown being erased by rain.

In Iranian cinema, one hardly encounters physical touch by the opposite sexes, and true to this spirit the only acknowledgement of love is a smile or a furtive glance acknowledging the lover. With such constraints, memories become valuable than touch and more so in a movie like Baran, which transcends a love tale to enter a higher level of philosophy knocking at the doors of Sufism (and perhaps Tabula Rasa?).

The movie Baran is replete with minor details that indicate ethnic differences within the Iranian population that becomes apparent in the film but not to a casual visitor to Iran (I have visited Iran more than once on official work but never noticed the mosaic of ethnicity beyond the sprinkling of Armenians in Teheran and the bulk of the Persian Iranian population). Baran could be essentially classified as a tale of the Afghan refugee and the Afghan's eventual desire to return to his homeland, but Majidi’s Baran introduces colourful vignettes of Azeri Iranian (as associated with Azerbaijan), the Turkmen Iranian (as associated Turkmenistan), the Kurds and the Lurs. The official website of Baran explains the details. The construction site brings the different ethnicities together. Majidi’s screenplay knits the logical interplay between the communities: the Persian Iranians play the Inspectors, the Azeris bond together and take care of each other, the Kurds and the Lurs are easily provoked to fight the Azeris, while the poor Afghans, without identity papers, toil away for a fraction of what the others earn always fearing deportation if spotted by the Persian Iranian inspectors. And in Majidi's script and film, each ethnic group lives in separate rooms while they work together at the same construction site. Forget the love story, because these details, lovingly crafted, tell another realistic story that is perhaps more interesting than the obvious love tale.

There is a strange similarity that I note between Majidi’s Baran and Aki Kaurismaki’s Man Without a Past. In both movies, the past of the main persona is forgotten and a new person emerges harking back to Tabula Rasa--to start life anew. In both films “rain” is a mystical symbol—in Baran, you see the footprint of the beloved (or philosophically the one you seek) in the rain towards end of the film; in Man Without a Past there is rain on a clear day to grow potatoes, rain that grows six or seven potatoes on a small patch of land, and the last half-potato is given away to a stranger who wants to eat it to avoid scurvy! Futrther, in Baran there is a departure by a hired vehicle for Afghanistan, in Kaurismaki’s film there is a train that is moving forward, a visual metaphor used to punctuate past and future. Both Majidi and Kaurismaki seem to have similar minds and affinity in their personal philosophies.

A closing thought. Did Majidi, when he wrote the script, intend to make a love story relating to one dazzling individual that struck a chord in a boy’s heart and mind or did Majidi want to make a philosophical film on the life of a young man maturing into one that cares for others less fortunate than himself? I feel both stories co-exist in this film and it is the viewer who has to choose which tale is the more powerful strand of the two.

P.S. Aki Kaurismaki's film Man Without a Past has been reviewed earlier on this blog

Monday, November 29, 2010

107. Canadian director Neil Diamond’s documentary film “Reel Injun” (2009): A documentary that helps a viewer re-evaluate what cinema makes the viewer believe to be true

Who is the real Native Indian of North America or, if you prefer, the American Indian? The images that many will recall of the Native Indian of USA and Canada are often closely related to the images of the native Indian conjured up by Hollywood, often images that have been stretched far from an accurate depiction for the sake of convenience by Hollywood directors, scriptwriters, and costume designers. And we the viewers after watching several such depictions begin to believe in these inaccuracies. For instance, one associates Native Indians to wear headbands while in reality the headband was common headgear only for a small fraction of the Indian nations on that continent. The headband was used by Hollywood initially for stunt actors to keep their wigs in place as they performed amazing acts for the camera. Gradually the headband became the norm of the Native Indian’s regalia. This is one of the many interesting insights provided by Neil Diamond’s Reel Injun.

Neil Diamond, the director of the full-length documentary is not the singer Neil Diamond that my generation would fondly recall. He is a Native Indian from Canada, of the Cree nation, and a filmmaker. The film is an interesting mix of interviews and film clips of Westerns made over a century with Native Indians. Reel Injun looks critically at how cinema can blur the truth about the Native Indian. The interviewees include Native Indians and Hollywood icons such as Clint Eastwood and independent director Jim Jarmusch, who are obviously not Native Indians. The film discusses the controversial incident at Wounded Knee in 1973, which has a direct bearing on the several Hollywood films recalling the century-old but more important incident at Wounded Knee in 1890 and of the more famous Little Big Horn incident in 1876. Both incidents are history; the moot question is how the incidents were recorded in history and on film. Poet Stephen Vincent Benet immortalized the former incident in his poem “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee,” and popular songs and films such as Hidalgo (2004) and Into the West (2005) followed in Benet’s footsteps.

I am not a US citizen but I grew up watching Hollywood cinema that recorded the 1876 incident. One particular film etched in my memory as a kid was Lewis R Forster’s Tonka (1958) produced by Walt Disney and thanks to that film even as a kid the viewpoint of the Native Indian struck a chord with me. It is unfortunate that no clip from Tonka was included in Reel Injun because it was one of the few Hollywood movies that came very close to portraying a positive view of the Native Indian. Forster’s film is an important one for Native Indians as it provided the “unromantic truth of the warfare on the plains” (General Custer’s last stand) as one writer wryly noted. Tonka was not the only Hollywood film that portrayed native Indians positively: there was John Ford’s important film Cheyenne Autumn (1964), Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970) , Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Terence Mallick’s The New World (2005) and finally my favourite Abraham Polonsky’s Tell Them Willie Boy is Here (1969). Each of these top-notch films are important takes on the Native Indian but Mr Diamond only chose to discuss the Arthur Penn film and the Michael Mann film to drive home his point of view.

A major point of discussion in the film is Marlon Brando’s support for the Native American and Brando’s decision to decline the Godfather Best Actor Oscar in 1973 by sending a Native Indian to read out his message protesting the depiction of the Native Indian by Hollywood. John Wayne was so incensed that he wanted to physically attack the Native Indian who came on stage to refuse the award. Other critics claimed the lady was not a Native American at all but was of Italian descent and so on. But the brave lady Sacheen Littlefeather (born Marie Cruz) made a point that made the world sit up. For me, Brando was not just a great actor, but a man who was sensitive to social issues around him. This action of Brando is in line with his comment that his lead role in Gillo Pontecorvo’s Quiemada was the finest piece of acting he ever did. Quiemada has only seen a fraction of critical acclaim in comparison with Brando’s work in mainstream Hollywood films.

After you have viewed Neil Diamond’s documentary you will have a definite position on the subject. You might agree with Diamond or you might not. Arguably Reel Injun is not the finest of documentaries but it is definitely a documentary that will set the viewer thinking. Diamond underscores the fact that often the viewer assumes that what he or she sees on screen is correct while cinema is a potent hidden persuader. Diamond fleshes out the real personalities of Native Indian actors such as Russell Means and Wes Studi, who played major roles as Native Indians in Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans. Diamond’s film, most of all, will effectively persuade a true filmgoer to seek out the revisionist films from North America that put the Native Indian in a better perspective than the traditional Western with the stereotype roles of scalp-hunting savages. Diamond’s film discusses roles and personalities of Native Indian actors Graham Greene (I often wonder if the celebrated late novelist Graham Greene knew of this Canadian actor, best known for his Oscar-winning role in another revisionist film Dances with Wolves and who shared his name) and American Native Indian actor Will Sampson who played the unforgettable role of Chief Bromden who pretends to be deaf and dumb in Milos Foreman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Finally, Diamond’s film includes Clint Eastwood’s statement made in an interview to Mr Diamond that relates to the Oscar Academy debating whether Native Indians portraying themselves can be considered to be essaying a performance worthy of an Academy Award! However, the following personal quote of the late actor Will Sampson best encapsulates the point of view of Reel Injun: “Hollywood writers and directors are still using 'em for livestock. They somehow just can't seem to bring it around to give the truth about Indians.

P.S. Arthur Penn's Little Big Man and Gillo Pontecorvo's Quiemada (Burn!) have been discussed earlier on this blog.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

106. Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s “Safar e Gandehar” (Kandahar) (2001): An ode to a tragedy called Afghanistan

Time magazine selected Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar as one of the top 100 films of all time. If one judges quality of cinema solely by the story or the plot, Time magazine is not off the mark. It won minor awards at the Cannes and Thessaloniki  film festivals as well. 

Afghanistan, like Darfur (Sudan), would make any sensitive human being wince on viewing on screen the tragedy of a great nation buffeted by forces that do not get weaker but stronger each year. Generations of Afghans have faced hunger, fear and a life deprived of democracy, equality and education and, last but not least, economic and social progress. Take the Afghan factor out of the movie (something quite unthinkable!) and the film would be no better than a clever documentary. This remark does not indicate that I do not admire Mohsen Makhmalbaf as a creative filmmaker; I sincerely do.

Mr Makhmalbaf loves Afghanistan. He makes any viewer of Kandahar empathize with the problems of that country. Women of Afghanistan have less freedom than women elsewhere. They are forced to cover their bodies in a gown called the burqa and have to apply lipstick within the confines of the gown—one of the many tragi-comic details the director provides the viewer. Grown-up women have to be led by young male kids, because a male kid has more social power than a female. Children grow up in constant fear of land mines that can take away a limb and have to enrol in schools (madrasas) where education is centred on learning the Koran by rote and the importance of Kalashnikovs. Any journey to the countryside is fraught with many dangers: robbers, well-water contaminated by worms that could make one sick if consumed without boiling, check-posts governed by the Taliban that deprive you of any books that they suspect to be socially subversive. The film is definitely a great attempt by Mr Makhmalbaf to introduce the travails of the ordinary Afghan to the wider world.

An amazing visual sequence in the film presents a group of men running on crutches to grab artificial limbs dropped by low-flying aircraft near a Red Cross Centre that tries to help the growing numbers of victims of the myriad landmines. While the problem is a real one, the sequence would make any intelligent viewer wonder at the fine line dividing reality and illusion. Look closely and you will find the Afghans are caught on camera smiling when they are supposed to be running desperately to procure a prosthetic leg! There is another sequence where the director underscores the need for constant medical care for the average Afghan and that lack of proper medical care. To the credit of the director, the problem of treating a sick woman with a curtain separating the patient and doctor drives home the tragedy, however comic and unreal the scenario appears to the viewer. Somewhere in the periphery of the plot is a woman about to commit suicide. The Afghan tragedy, in spite of the unwitting comedy in the movie, is endless. Mr Makhmalbaf is not the only individual in his family concerned with the Afghan problem; his young daughter Hana made a beautiful film Buddha collapsed out of shame also on the Afghan tragedy where the historical Bamyan statues of Buddha were destroyed by the Taliban and how young girls in Afghanistan are deprived of education that young boys can access. Hana’s elder sister has made another evocative tale called Blackboards, another true scenario near the Iran/Iraq Kurdish border, where teachers literally carry blackboards to impart education to children and earn a living. The Makhmalbaf family is truly an amazing family of filmmakers from Iran.

If you want to see the creative genius of the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and head of this family, one needs to view his earlier but lesser known work Gabbeh, which I consider to be very close to magical cinema of the Armenian maestro Sergei Paradjanov. Gabbeh did not have rely on the subject to prove Makhmalbaf’s abilities, it transported you to the breathtaking world of cinema by the inherent merit of its visuals and sound. Here was a tale of love and lovers with the magic of Iranian carpets for a backdrop. (Incidentally, Mohsen Makhmalbaf won the Paradjanov award for cinema, a few years ago for his contribution to cinema).

Mohsen Makhmalbaf made yet another amazing film in Tajikistan called Sex and Philosophy years after he made Kandahar, where he once again showed his real talent that we glimpsed in Gabbeh. That film, unlike the suggestive title, has neither sex nor nudity—the subject of sex is merely suggested by a male hand and a female hand caressing each other, in lyrical synchrony to the violin of Vanessa Mae. The director states on his website that the four women shown are his vision of the development of the adult women. The story is constructed on a series of intellectual debates of a cynical male philosopher and his women friends, eventually retracting from the world of a lover to one of self imposed loneliness (shades of the Iranian Mehrjui's The Pear Tree and Allan Sillitoe's short story The loneliness of the long-distance runner hover, as the subject balances social concerns and politics without making either one obvious) while paying tribute to Russian literary geniuses Chekov and Tolstoy (whose names are thrown by the shopkeeper who sell three antique watches). Do not miss out the hidden, mischievous comment that the third watch on sale, indirectly connected to Stalin, is picked up by the protagonist's third lover who likes to erase the protagonist from her memory, preferring the watch to the ones related to literary figures! The film tries to imitate the colour coding of the late Polish genius Kieslowski. In this Makhmalbaf film, the four women wear black, red, blue and white and the colour coding is accomplished quite well. Evidently the second lover had shades of the last of the four characters as she wears one red shoe and one white one. The switch from one colour to the other is gradual.

The film is very well made with touches of the absurd (talking to each other within the same car using mobile phones, "a cold coffee with a cold smile", a poodle in a woman's bed preferred to the human lover) and the surreal (a big passenger plane with just one passenger, autumn leaves covering a dance hall, the lighted candles on the dashboard of a moving car, etc).

To revert to Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar, I applaud the director’s intentions. The colour of the bridal party of burqa clad women looks lovely. With the same breath, I wonder if those colourful burqas can be associated with Taliban ruled Afghanistan where black and grey are often the colour of burqas that one would tend to associate lifestyles of Afghan women in the remote parts of the country. But then this is Mr Makhmalbaf of the colourful Gabbeh and Sex and Philosophy as well. In any case, whether you loved Kandahar or not, it would make you reflect on what it showed. As an Indian national, I loved the Sanskrit shlokas being recited on the soundtrack from time to time. Was Mohsen Makhmalbaf trying to be ecumenical? Or was it his family's love for Indian culture that made this addition?

But if you want to see the director at his best—I recommend Gabbeh or his later film Sex and Philosophy. The moot question is what do you want in good cinema: do you want the subject or do you want an intelligent presentation of the subject to overpower your senses? Mr Makhmalbaf can present both types of cinema in separate films that he has made.

P.S. Hana Makhmalbaf's Buddha Collapsed from Shame was reviewed earlier on this blog.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

105. French director Pierre Granier-Deferre’s “Le Chat” (The Cat) (1971): True love which the wrecking balls of change cannot demolish

The Cat will remain one of my all time favourite French films. It is realistic. It is endearing. It is more complex than a mere love story. It provides food for thought to masticate before it is fully digested. It is capable of evoking profound emotions in an observant viewer. More importantly, the film is not about a cat, or unusual human beings, but more about two endearing ordinary human beings with follies not markedly different from any one of us.

At the very basic level, The Cat is an obvious masterpiece of cinema showcasing the non-verbal, well-developed acting skills of two amazing French thespians: Jean Gabin and Simone Signoret. And capturing all their complex and subtle emotions on film is director Pierre Granier-Deferre, who never surpassed his amazing skills evident in this particular cinematic work in any of his other films. In The Cat, Granier-Deferre created a sophisticated little French film that combined the directorial maturity of Marcel Carne’s The Children of Paradise (1945) which was a delectable study of individuals and Jean-Pierre Melville’s debut film The Silence of the Sea (1949), where non-comic, non-verbal communication was showcased as never ever before. However, both Carne and Melville did not have the advantage of utilizing two great actors at the zenith of their careers, as did Granier-Deferre. Granier-Deferre built his film on the cinematic building blocks that Carne and Melville had already provided French cinema. Granier-Deferre’s The Cat deservedly won both the best actor and the best actress awards at the Berlin Film Festival in 1971 but missed accolades in other departments.

Great performances in a well-directed film

Many critics have praised the contribution of Gabin and Signoret in The Cat. To this day, I am not aware of any critic appreciating the contribution of Graniere-Deferre in The Cat over that of the acknowledged performances of the two leads in the film. Graniere-Deferre’s rightful contribution to this remarkable cinematic product seems to have been overshadowed by the performances.

Essentially, The Cat is an intelligent adaptation on film of a Georges Simenon novel published in 1967. The story was adapted into a screenplay by Graniere-Deferre and Pascal Jardi within a few years of the novel getting published. The Simenon tale is a love story with a difference. It can easily be mistaken for a film about a husband (Julien Bouin, played by Gabin) and his wife (Clemence, played by Signoret) who hate each other in the twilight of their lives. Contrary to any such impression, the film is essentially an immaculate tale of love between a trapeze artist and a typesetter, how they remain married and faithful, and how their love survives, imperceptible at times but strong as concrete to their last breath. This is a quaint tale from a country where changing spouses is very common. Simenon’s story adds steel to the concrete, when you realize that the couple are childless and that the wife has had an accident on the trapeze that leaves her with a limp and little prospect of another job. She is not without male admirers but she prefers her spouse to them.

In another French scenario one could assume that Julien is a devout Catholic who cannot divorce his wife. But that is not the case, as there is no mention whatsoever in the film of religion. In fact there is another woman in Julien’s life, younger and more attractive woman than his wife Clemence. But when he is with the “other woman” it is not for sex but to discuss his wife. What the wife does not realize is that her husband leaves her company when her actions are intolerable to him, and not because he has stopped loving her as a devoted husband.

Silent communication through body language

Now how did Graniere-Deferre and Pascal Jardi sculpt the Simenon story into a great movie screenplay? Early in the film, a nurse in a hospital says “How do you spell Bouin?” Someone answers off screen “As it sounds, B-O-U-I-N.” The opening lines in a film with few spoken lines let you know the characters you will meet are ordinary. They are not characters that leave a mark in society if and when they do leave us.

Then the director Graniere-Deferre picks an unimpressive old building at end of a cul-de-sac standing obstinately as the entire neighbourhood is being demolished by developers to make way for bigger, taller buildings. Julien and Clemence Bouin are the denizens of this decrepit old house that was their dream house to retire in the evening of their lives. The house is small, cozy and manageable. Yet the director gives ample evidence by splicing sequences of demolitions and construction that this sweet house may not survive since its immediate neighbourhood has not survived the winds of change.

The development of the characters is not facilitated by dialogue as much as by their actions. Their movements indicate that each of them is intensely watchful of the other as they go on their individual grocery shopping trips, without interfering in each other’s activities. The camera of Oscar-winning cinematographer Walter Wottitz (The Longest Day) captures a poignant sequence from a high angle as the two leads in the film proceed to make their separate suppers and eat on separate little tables in their tiny kitchen without a word spoken. The dream team of art directors of the film should be also credited for building up atmosphere of the house within and without and they included Vincent Korda (brother to Alexander and Zoltan Korda and art director of both The Longest Day and Carol Reed’s The Third Man), Ted Haworth (The Longest Day, Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, and Siegel’s original Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and Léon Barsacq (The Longest Day, Carne’s The Children of Paradise). I would assume, and I have no proof whatsoever of this, that Graniere-Deferre somehow got the services of many of these behind scenes geniuses who were working on the The Longest Day to work on his film The Cat as well. The combined magic of all these men contributed to this little, big French film. The magic combine was able to draw a remarkable parallel of the world of Bouins and the demolition being undertaken outside their nest. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s own phrase this was “the externalization of the internalization” of the characters, grappling with age, and rapid changes around them.

The title character of The Cat is introduced quite late into the film when Julien communicates with Clemence by scribbling notes on small bits of paper and propelling them with an index finger as a carrom player would to make the pieces of paper land squarely on his wife’s lap. The first note the viewer reads carry two words The Cat. The animal actually was a denizen of this house until the wife in a fit of jealousy killed it in the hope that her husband would then give her more attention than the cat leading to the reign of silence in the house. But an attentive viewer will note that these were not the words that Julien wrote initially. He wrote another note when he heard Clarence coughing, probably a note of concern, that he threw away. The director, of course, uses this juncture to commence a flashback on the subplot relating to the cat.

Graniere-Deferre’s commendable achievement lies in his ability to contrast the resolute love and affection between the husband and wife underneath the cold war on the surface of the main plot which takes place in the foreground of constant demolition of structures, jobs and values that Julien and Clemence were used to in early parts of their lives. Julien even has an acidic comment on the users of the low-cost hotel run by his female friend that caters to lovers who do not seem to have the unshakable marital commitment of Julien and Clemence that even their friends note even during tremors that seem shake their commitment. Graniere-Deferre’s second achievement is gathering the talent of three noteworthy art directors (including two from Hollywood) realizing quite well in advance of the filming the importance of art direction to make this film tick. His third achievement is the structure of the script that hangs between two hospital scenes that almost open and end the film. These are two scenes that seem disconnected with the main story but are actually the most resounding comment provided by the filmmakers.

I have loved this film because it is not just a film with great performances but one that underscores the importance of the director, the screenplay writers, the original novelist, the cinematographer, and the art directors. It is truly a film that you will relish if you care to go beyond the obviously interesting story of Georges Simenon. This is a film that needs to be widely seen and appreciated.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

104. The late Argentine director Fabián Bielinsky’s “El Aura” (The Aura) (2005): A mind–bending thriller that takes you beyond guns, women and lucre

Argentine director Fabián Bielinsky (1959-2006) died months after making The Aura following a heart attack at the age of 47. The Aura was his second feature film. His first feature film was Nine Queens. Incredibly, the two feature films together have picked up at least 30 awards worldwide.

If Bielinsky were alive and making movies, he could well have been the toast of cineastes today. But most of all, Bielinsky’s two movie career is unusual because both films were based his own original screenplays, not a mere adaptation of a novel, story, or play and not even based on actual events. I stumbled on these two interesting films at a minor film festival amongst some 50 odd international films on show, organized in Trivandrum, India, the organizers of which did not realize what they had inadvertently accomplished! They were showing a Bielinsky retrospective without trumpeting that fact.

While Nine Queens, the first feature film of Bielinsky, recalls the humour and thrills of the original The Italian Job (1969) with Michael Caine and Noel Coward that took a swipe at the emerging civic problem of traffic jams, Bielinsky’s script captured the cancer of Argentine societal malaise of scams with a twinkle in his eye. Here was a thriller that entertained not just Argentinean audiences but festival audiences worldwide, while it dissected the cadaver of the social maggots of Argentina on the sly. (The title, Nine Queens, refers to a set of rare stamps around which the film’s main plot revolves.)

The second Bielinsky film The Aura takes a quantum jump in sophistication of plot development, social criticism, riveting performances, and entertainment that makes films such as Memento look flashy and somewhat juvenile. Both the Bielinsky films have the incredibly talented Argentine actor Ricardo Darin, portraying characters that are distinctly different in moods and actions.

The Aura encourages the viewer to turn detective. Bielinsky begins and ends The Aura a psychological noir thriller, a caper, and a epileptic’s take on marriages (his own and another’s) sandwiched between two scenes of a talented taxidermist at work in his studio. Yes, the film is about an epileptic. An epileptic taxidermist, to be precise. What Bielinsky insinuates is that a taxidermist deals with the dead and makes the stuffed animals come alive for us who love to recall the fauna that habits or habited this planet. A taxidermist naturally has to observe the details of the animal or bird and, if possible, imagine their movements and looks, to make his products life-like for us to enjoy in a museum or home. And what if the taxidermist who is trained to work on noting details of life has the gift of a photographic memory to boot? Would such a talented individual be making a living, stuffing dead animal carcasses?

Bielinsky’s The Aura takes you on roller-coaster ride of an animal hunting expedition in the Patagonian forests, dead bodies, man and animal bonding, abuse of wives/women, wives leaving their husbands, thugs who kill for money, talented kids who can draw detailed pictures, and finally planning the perfect crime. Bielinsky’s script has a moralistic vein as well. Early in the film, there is mention of the epileptic taxidermist’s wife leaving him. Yet there is no rancour for the man towards the female species, he actually helps a woman flee a no-win situation of exploitation and fear. For Bielinsky’s complex script the bonding between dog and man is more stable and enduring than that of a man and a woman.

That epilepsy is central to the development of the plot is not without meaning. Bielinsky is not the first creative artist to find the subject useful to weave a great tale: Fyodor Dostoevesky (The Idiot) and Thomas Mann (Buddenbrooks) probably lit the path for Bielinsky to tread in this film. An epileptic fit becomes a useful point for the plot to use as reference to the past and future. Belinsky uses the event once early in the film and another much later in the film. And interestingly both events have diametrically opposing roles with time in relation to the plot development. The first event in front of a cash teller machine cannot be easily defined by time in relation to the plot, at least by the time the movie ends. The second event is more finite and seems to fit into the plot. But which is real and which is not? Is an epileptic fit a convenient moment of epiphany for creative novelists and scriptwriters?

Bielinsky does not limit the film to entertainment associated with a heist. Michael Mann’s Heat was a rare Hollywood movie that combined an action movie with complex character developments, marital relationships, and alter egos. Bielinsky’s film goes a step further than Michael Mann’s commendable effort. Bielinsky makes the viewer to rewind the images he has relished earlier in the film to figure out what was real and what was unreal. In fact, the delectable movie provides two distinct story lines parallel to each other. It is left to the viewer to figure out which was real. And you will realize that the director carefully leaves behind clues that could bolster either theory. That’s amazing cinema of a novel variety.

Bielinsky’s cinema seems to mirror the social fabric of Argentina, deliberately or unconsciously. While Nine Queens had looked at scams big and small, The Aura looks at taxidermy where the dead is made to look alive. Social analogies are inferred, though not stated. Crime and easy money seem to be omnipresent in his scripts, though critical of their power over the average citizen. The importance of the life-like eye in the stuffed animal goes beyond verisimilitude in this film. It is a metaphor that becomes evident as the film progresses.

To talk of the plot of The Aura will not do justice to this remarkable film. The bulwark of the film was the almost dead-pan yet sophisticated top notch performance by actor Ricardo Darin. His performance in this film, much superior to a very good one in Nine Queens, combines elements of a sick man, a very quick witted man, a very observant man, and a man who appreciates love and cannot bring himself to pull the trigger to kill even an animal. You think at times that Darin is portraying a dour, colourless character. Yet the ability of the thespian in combining several other aspects of the character without having to shout or cry, which an Al Pacino, Richard Burton or Marlon Brando would resort to, is nothing short of amazing. It is as much an actor’s film as it is a director’s film.

Similarly, several other facets of the film are extremely praiseworthy. One such facet is the music of Lucio Godoy that provides an excellent foil to build the mood as the plot develops. The director ensures that the lovely music does not occupy the centre stage at any point. The cinematography (Checco Varese) and the art direction (Mercedes Alfonsin) are elements that are so crucial in making the film so meaningful and complete. Each detail shown in the film provides clues for the viewer to decide which of the two equally radical options the film offers is to be chosen as the real tale.

At a stage when Argentine cinema is making waves having won the 2010 Best Foreign Film Oscar for another Argentine film with Ricardo Darin titled The Secret in Their Eyes, the absence of Bielinsky is unfortunate. Had Bielinsky been alive today, world cinema would have been richer for it, especially as he seemed to be a director, like Krzysztof Kieslowski, rapidly honing his skills with each film.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

103. Australian director Peter Weir’s Australian film “The Last Wave” (Black Rain) (1977): Australian cinema at its best, connecting dreams and reality

Today, many filmgoers associate Peter Weir with his touching US movie Dead Poets’s Society. I, too, love Dead Poet’s Society for the message it conveys to its audiences and for the charming performances of its actors. But if the evaluation is based on the quality of the cinema, I would rate Weir’s earlier film The Last Wave, a film he made in his native Australia, to be intrinsically far superior.

There are several reasons why I consider Weir’s The Last Wave to stand out amongst Weir’s interesting and rich cinematic works.

First, unlike his more talked about films Dead Poet’s Society, Gallipoli, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Witness, The Year of Living Dangerously, The Truman Show, Fearless, and Cars that Ate Paris, all of which are either based on actual events and characters, or works of novelists, Weir’s The Last Wave is an intensely original personal story, conceptualized and developed by the director himself. It is inconsequential that the end of the film is left open-ended and is difficult to comprehend for many who prefer finite endings for movies. But then which parts of our life are fully finite and understood? In a fascinating interview available on the internet with the director, Ms Judith Kass reveals that Weir’s idea to make the film was initiated by an indefinable sudden urge to dig up a buried ancient statue of a child in Tunisia, after stumbling on another piece of the statue above ground, while on a holiday in that country. This incident led Weir to develop the story of this thought-provoking movie. For those who believe in spiritual coincidences, could there be a better reality tale?

Second, this is a rare attempt in the annals of Australian cinema to truly understand the Aboriginal inhabitant’s mind, values, and sacred beliefs with part sanction and approval from the Aboriginals themselves.

Third, some of the actors in the film were not “acting” in the true sense—they were portraying characters they had decided for themselves after they were satisfied with Weir’s script. In fact, a real life Aboriginal and tribal magistrate Nandjiwarra Amagula ‘plays’ the role of “Charlie” in the film, after incorporating his and other Aboriginals’ views on the development of that character. For Nandjiwarra Amagula, this was his sole movie appearance.

Most of all I love my favorite line in the film “Our dreams are shadows of something real.” And this is not Sigmund Freud, but the words of the original scriptwriters of the film—Peter Weir, Tony Morphett and Petru Popescu.

The film is essentially just that. It sways between dreams and reality. It toys with subconscious memories, rebirths, ancestral faiths, and relationships with natural calamities.

For Weir, the plot of the film balances the virtues of material wealth of modern Western society with the spiritual wealth of Aboriginals of Australia. It is also a tale of nature doing unusual things, when rain is not clean water but a dark liquid, when wind and rain can make you squirm with fear within the safety of your home and when you feel they are speaking to you, when waves from the sea can appear to be like a tsunami, literally or figuratively speaking. The Aboriginals seem to to know more about the strange natural phenomena than the richer and more educated European Australians. It is also a tale of how modern Australia has built cities such as Sydney over traditional Aboriginal land with artifacts and totems that may still be holy and sacred to the tribes that once ruled the land. And these artifacts could be truly buried under the sewers and waste outlets of modern cities.

The Last Wave is an inquiry into one’s subconscious as well. It is definitely not a thriller or even a horror film. The lead character David Burton (a decent performance by American actor Richard Chamberlain) of the movie is an Australian lawyer, who is supposed to have a South American lineage. He is defending an Aboriginal accused in a murder of another. He experiences strange dreams and feels he has an unidentifiable "connection" to one of the accused in the case. The Aboriginals in turn identify him to be a “mukurul from across the sea.” Weir develops the connection further as the plot progresses, as the character David shows a distinct affinity and curiosity for the Aboriginals. The same Aboriginals frighten David’s wife, while they mean no harm. As David encounters Charlie the Aboriginal to ask him why he had come outside his home and frightened his wife on a rainy night, and asks him “Who are you?” Charlie’s enigmatic response is “Who are you? Who are you? Who are you? Are you a fish? Are you a snake? Are you a man? Who are you?” An existential conundrum indeed, probably partly resolved when David picks up an aboriginal “mask” figuratively and literally, much later towards the end of the movie.

Weir achieves a rare feat in cinema as the film empathizes with the unknown instead of tending to rationalize the odd facts presented in the script. When I saw the film, some 30 years ago, it provided a great introduction to the emerging and throughly awesome Australian cinema of the Seventies. When I view the same film today I get the feeling of reassurance that Weir had somehow grasped the uncanny problem of vagaries of nature relating to water that Australians increasingly face as they wait for cloud bearing storms to survive the ever increasing water shortage on the continent. That he was not able connect this to the main tale adequately is unfortunate. Can Australia afford to forget the spiritual wealth of the original inhabitants of that continent as they grapple with nature’s vagaries even to this day?

Critics have pointed out that Weir was at a loss to close the tale and the apocalyptic end was not in the original script. If you reflect on the final scene of the film one could say that Weir truly couldn’t have ended the tale any better. It is a film that will make the viewer question many facts, dreams, and the freaky behaviors of nature. It need not be Australia-centric but has relevance to parallel global values.

Kudos for this nugget of cinema need to go not just to Weir, but to a host of other gifted Australians: cinematographer Russell Boyd, actor David Gulpilil, composer Charles Wain, and Oscar winning cameraman John Seale (obviously an apprentice in this film).

My appreciation of the film increased after reading Peter Weir’s interview with Judith M. Kass available at But the best lines in the interview are the following.

Judith Kass: What would you like your audiences to know about your films?

Peter Weir: I remember a quote of Bruce Springsteen's in Rolling Stone. He said, "I like to give my audiences something money can't buy." So I'd like them to walk out with much more than the $4.00 or whatever it cost.

If you have seen the movie, reflect on the importance of the original title of the film The Last Wave and perhaps you will get more value than $4! The Last Wave won the Golden Ibex (the Grand Prize) at the Teheran International Film Festival, 1977.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

102. US director Elia Kazan’s “The Visitors” (1972) (USA): Remarkable and disturbing cinema that forces the viewer to introspect

The Visitors is a remarkable film on a dark subject that becomes even more significant if you are aware of the dark side of the talented director. And more interestingly most American film critics have either ignored this work or trashed it.

The Visitors begins with hardly a sound on the soundtrack. The camera captures, in a long shot, a snowbound house. It is apparently early morning. Tree branches are covered in snow and icicles. A dog roams outdoors. It is evident the director, Elia Kazan, wishes to begin the ‘cinematic narration’ of the tale with a visual metaphorical distance. Lights come on in the darkened house as the inmates wake up. You see a male and a female figure come down from the bedroom upstairs to the living room as they peer outside from the window at the bleak snow covered exterior. There is some subtle body language that suggests that they tolerate each other, that they are comfortable with each other and yet somehow that they are not madly in love. Kazan deliberately does not add music to the soundtrack to please the viewer. The director suggests a cold and sombre tale is to unfold. And the film does prove to be a sombre, thought-provoking tale.

The Visitors ends with the same duo alone in the house. Only now both the camera and the two individuals shown at start of the film are inside the house. The indoors are dark and shadows seem to win over the light, unlike the beginning where light won over shadows. There is a new distance between the couple. There is no physical touching between the couple as in the opening sequence. The body language accentuates a distance between the duo. At the same time you note a discrete new bonding between the two that was obviously missing in the opening sequence as they look at each other. And again there is no sound on the soundtrack. Elia Kazan, the master director, in a way has captured a scream or a wail without the noise—and the silent scream or wail comes from within the director’s heart. This is Elia Kazan of East of Eden (1955) or On the Waterfront (1954) all over again. Yet strangely most Americans wish away The Visitors for some reason. Many would not realize that the The Visitors made the competition grade at Cannes, the year it was made. [It lost out on the major awards at Cannes ‘72 to three equally remarkable films, Francesco Rosi’s The Mattei Case (Italy) , Elio Petri’s The working class goes to heaven (Italy), and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solyaris (Solaris) (USSR).]

In between the two sequences that I have described, Elia Kazan brings on screen an original script by his son Chris Kazan that obliquely mirrors the dark side of his father’s actions and its consequences in real life for his father. The Visitors is a tale of war crimes and the ripple effect of the revelations of such crimes. In Vietnam, two American army men rape and kill a young defenceless Vietnamese woman. A third American watches, does not participate even when asked to, and eventually testifies against his comrades in war. The perpetrators of the crime are punished. The man who was watching is tormented that he did not stop the rape and killing. He eventually becomes a pacifist after he is court-martialled following his testimony.

Chris Kazan’s story is about the aftermath of the incident. Will the soldiers who were punished forgive the man who testified against them? Will the 'father-in-law' of a pacifist ever come to terms with his 'son-in-law', when he himself is a war veteran of a different war, loves the traditions of the army and is still trigger happy, killing dogs instead of enemy soldiers?

The story on screen written by Chris Kazan has an uncanny parallel with his father Elia Kazan’s (the director of the film) life. Elia Kazan, a brilliant director, a former Communist in the US, chose to testify at the now-Infamous Joseph McCarthy hearings on Un-American Activities at the height of his career. He and some others like actor Robert Taylor named “names” following which several bright minds of Hollywood were blacklisted for life because they were suspected of being “Communists.” Some examples of the victims of this witch-hunt, direct and indirect, were talented directors Charles Chaplin and Abraham Polonsky. Many believe that the famous screen line that actor Marlon Brando shouts in On the Waterfront “I am glad what I done, you hear me? Glad what I done” reflected the thoughts of Kazan after his testimony. And like the Vietnamese war crime testifier, Elia Kazan had equal numbers of supporters as he had detractors. At the Oscar ceremony, where he was conferred a lifetime achievement award, several notable Hollywood invitees opted to remain seated and not applaud the recipient. Kazan had to bear the brunt of his testimony just as the anti-hero of The Visitors. The silent end of the The Visitors is a more powerful antithesis of the torment that made Brando's character shout the famous last lines of On the waterfront.

The two Kazans, Elia and son Chris, present a trenchant tale that provides a moral dilemma for the viewer. Can a military man squeal on his colleagues? Is morality higher than unwritten codes of military honor? In The Visitors, the anti-hero Bill (a worthy debut performance by actor James Woods) has testified against his comrades-in-arms and does not regret it. What he does regret is that he did not have the courage to stop the war crime. He carries the moral burden alone and does not reveal the details to his spouse Martha even though they have child through their live-in relationship, until she confronts him and asks for the facts. Martha’s father is a World War veteran, who gives more importance to military codes of honor and has scant respect towards the father of his grandchild, when he learns of the Vietnam incident from the visitors to his daughter’s house. The visitors are the perpetrators of the Vietnamese war crime who have served their time and are now visiting the man who sent them behind bars.

The film is interesting beyond the obvious interaction between “the whistle-blower” and the criminals. It looks at the characters on the periphery. Martha, who wears glasses and long skirts before the arrival of the visitors, opts to discard the glasses and wear short skirts, which adds another dimension to the straight development of the story. Martha’s father, viewing a game on television, equates life to two teams, nothing more, as it is in war. The Kazans develop a character who, like Martha, seems to give sanction to the events that follow. He even invites the un-invited visitors to stay on.

I believe The Visitors is a well thought out collaboration between father and son exploring the trauma of a man ostracized, a man not considered a virile man when you are a pacifist, a man who believes in his values that might not concur with the majority. Further the film explores the psychology of various characters in the film and their individual grey values. Does a man who says “I forgive you” really mean it? Can a woman who had earlier appreciated the moral stance of her spouse, allow an evil-doer to dance and hug her shortly after the appreciation of her spouse's moral stand? These are grey areas on which questions only a tormented man can ask. I believe this is a Kazan film from the heart of the filmmaker, more explosive, more personal and introspective than any of his previous films. Just as David Lean’s film Ryan’s Daughter was trashed by critics for myopic reasons, Kazan’s The Visitors has a rare individuality and maturity that you only glimpse in his other films. It deserves to be widely seen and re-evaluated now. The importance of the disturbing film is captured and distilled in the final sequence of the film, silent and yet so evocative!

Friday, June 18, 2010

101. Chilean director-in-exile Raúl (Raoul) Ruiz’ French/Swiss film “Ce jour-là “(That Day) (2003): More sense than meets the eye

Raúl (Raoul) Ruiz, for me, is the most fascinating Latin American filmmaker alive, who is directing films today. It does not matter that he no longer lives in Latin America. It does not matter that he no longer makes films in the Spanish language. It does not matter that he is living in Europe and is considered a European filmmaker by some. Because of its language and its cast, Ruiz’ film Ce jour-là (That Day) will be considered by some as a typical French film. It will be seen by others as a European film because its subject involves Switzerland. But for those who know Ruiz, the film is all about Chile and Latin America, without any overt comment to that effect.

That Day is a fascinating film—a film that can easily be mistaken for a Buster Keaton comedy film or a simplistic dumb cartoon-like comedy for simpletons. In reality, this is a film that provides a fabulous cocktail for the senses of an erudite viewer, combining elements of the Theatre of the Absurd, politics, crime, innovative ideas in cinematography, theology, and cinema aesthetics. It is a film in which the principal characters are either mad or mentally challenged. But then every other character in the film does not behave normally. Is the mentally challenged then, more normal than others? To truly appreciate Raúl Ruiz’s cinema, one needs to know where he is coming from (literally and figuratively). Director Ruiz is a student of law, theology and theatre and each of his films hark back to those influences. In 1968, he was the films advisor to Salvador Allende’s socialist government in Chile. In 1971, he was forced to go into exile after Pinochet overthrew the Allende government.

Many Latin American cinema aficionados would not recognize the name of Raúl Ruiz. And then many, who may be aware of the name, may not consider him to be a major filmmaker, even though he has been living and making films that make the competition grade of Cannes and other major film festivals, with a frequency that is enviable. The main reason for this is that this Chilean filmmaker no longer lives in Chile, or for that matter in Latin America. He lives and makes films, often in French, while in exile in Europe. And his films do not appear to be “Chilean” or even Latin American. Yet look closely, and each Ruiz film is a lamentation of an exile, an essay on his weaning away from his native land. That Day is no exception.

Today, Ruiz’ contemporaries like Miguel Littin (who I can claim to have hugged me like a lost friend in far away Dubai, some 5 years ago, following a spirited one-to-one conversation on Littin’s early movies in a movie theatre foyer following a screening of his latest film The Last Moon, with Miguel‘s daughter interpreting for us) are considered true heroes of Chilean cinema, but not Ruiz. For me, only Littin’s Alcino and the Condor and The Jackal of Nahueltoro are somewhat comparable to the intellectual robustness of Ruiz’ films that I have been lucky to see so far. Littin, who lives in exile in Mexico, has paled in comparison to Ruiz, who is truly blooming in France, Germany and Switzerland, while in exile.

Raúl Ruiz has made some 50 films and unfortuntely I have only seen two and a half of these. And those few have floored me. They provide images that are not easily erased. The first Ruiz film that I saw was Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983) some 20 years ago, a film that tossed reality and unreal images with a felicity that recalled Orson Welles’ witty and brilliant mockumentary and last official feature length film F for Fake (1973). Only much later I stumbled on the fact that Ruiz was a great admirer of Welles. I suspect the wit in the Ruiz’ film had much to do with Welles’ remarkable last film. And as Ruiz’s father was a sailor the connection to Coleridge’s poem Rime of the Ancient Mariner is not misplaced. The film is a lamentation for Chile that Ruiz cannot forget.

The second one is That Day,  to which I will revert in detail presently. The “half film” of Ruiz I mentioned is a fascinating 3-minute segment called Le Don Ruiz made as part of the portmanteau film by 32 of the finest living movie directors from around the world using some of the most enigmatic of actors and this collective film was called To each his own cinema (Chacun son cinéma ou ce petit coup au coeur quand la lumière s'éteint et que le film commence) (2007). In those three brief allotted minutes Ruiz, taking a leaf out of sociologist Marcel Mauss' Essai sur le don, gets the French actor Michel Lonsdale to play a “blind” priest, a true faithful of God, who gifts a radio and a movie projector to aboriginal south American Indians (from Chile?) for their upliftment. The innocents tribals turn the gifts into items of barter and ritual sacrifice, which ultimately reach other Europeans who quickly jump to classify the Indians as “blind atheists” while depriving the Indians of their “access” to sound and images (typically cinema).

To comprehend Raúl Ruiz’ cinema, one has to understand who he is and what makes him tick. First, he is a student of law, theology and theatre. In the two films that I have seen all three streams of study play vital parts in the final product on screen. Then, Ruiz is essentially a Chilean director making films in exile in various European countries, ever since Salvador Allende’s government was overthrown by Pinochet. In both the Ruiz films that I have seen, the images of Chile percolate through the European images. As some critics have pointed out, the very “absence of Chile” underscores the Ruiz commentary on his homeland. Laughter in his cinema is an unreal one, suggesting lies rather than truth. It is often a laugh of a sad individual. Finally, Ruiz is a director who loves to experiment with technology of cinema that would leave a true cineaste stunned with his innovativeness.

Is That Day a simple tale for simpletons? I am sure there are some viewers who believe it to be just that. But let me remind those viewers that the film is made by a director who once said, "If you can make it complicated, why make it simple?"

Ruiz’ has stated in his book Poetics of Cinema: “Often, and at times immodestly, I have made use of metaphors in order to approach intuitively certain ideas; many of which could best be described as images and half-glimpsed visions. I hope that among them it is the angelic smile rather than the sardonic irony or the biting impetuousness that has the upper hand. ‘Metaphor’ is a word that has a bad reputation among theorists. To use it implies that one does not have clear ideas, and in that case, the best thing to do is to remain silent. That may be so and I regret it. Yet, in the present state of the arts: does anyone have clear ideas?”

It is therefore not unusual for a viewer to emerge after a Ruiz film totally unclear of what was presented on screen. Ruiz’ cinema often has a dose of the Theatre of the Absurd (termed as surrealism, a related term, by those unfamiliar with theatre). In That Day, a diabetic psychopathic murderer starts shaving his face in front of a door, using the translucent glass as a mirror. It is absurd, especially when you are capturing the actions with a camera from inside the house. But then one has to go beyond realism. Ruiz’ cinema maybe reminiscent of slapstick cartoons but he offers much more. What is the house representing? What is the world outside and inside representing? The Pinochet violence in Chile? The closest overt statement of linking Chile to Ruiz’ tale (his own original script) is the movement of military trucks in a Switzerland “overrun by the military sometime in the future” at two key points in the film. The Pinochet regime was a military backed regime.

Many impatient viewers would miss the fact that the film is an oblique look at Pinochet’s insane violence in Chile towards supporters of the democratically-elected socialist Allende government that made Ruiz and Littin flee the country. There are macabre images of an entire grown up family killed sometimes by a lunatic and sometimes by an innocent woman who throws a hammer carelessly. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Danish director Lars von Trier was influenced by 2003 Ruiz film That Day when he filmed his unforgetable hammer-killing 3-minute segment within a cinema hall in the 2007 film To each his own cinema, (referred to earlier).

That Day is also about detectives solving murders by doing nothing in a café. The clues come to their feet in the form of gossip. But then one has to read beyond the obvious. Under dictatorships “gossip” plays a role different from gossip in democracies. That Day is also a tale of two abnormal people in love dancing to the tune of the ringtones of the cell phones belonging to a pile of corpses they have just killed. That Day is a film that even discusses multinational companies targeting the natural resources of specific countries (water of Bolivia) and the wealth of Switzerland. It is also about people wanting to covet other's property even if the person targeted is within the family. That Day is an intellectual journey that throws hundreds of political and social messages at the viewer. Whether Ruiz’s messages get to you, depend on individual viewers.

Time is an important element in Ruiz’ cinema. In That Day a character comes up to the camera lens and cleans it. Cineastes will love the act. But wait, Ruiz soon reveals from a reverse angle shot that the person was not cleaning the camera lens but face of an old clock thus underlining the connection between camera and time so essential for Ruiz’ tales on celluloid. The female lead in that day sates early in the film “Tomorrow is the best day of my life according to the runes and I Ching” Time is important for Ruiz as he constantly switches between past, present, and future providing links for the alert viewer. The title of the film That Day, is not without deep references.

Theology is equally important. In Le Don, one saw a blind priest trying to bring “light” of conventional religion to non-religious tribals. In That Day, the principal character talks of fallen angels and equates a man who falls of a bicycle as one such angel.

Ruiz’ preoccupation with cinema as medium is not to be discounted. The visual effects of the diabetic murderer feeling uneasy are remarkably innovative. So is the way food on a fork held in animated suspension in air for an unusual duration between plate and mouth underscoring both humor and fear.

Finally, it is tale of love. The murderer will have to go back to the asylum. But in typical Ruiz' black humor but it is the "crazy" murderer's new lover who inherits the financial control of the asylum. So all is not lost for those who are considered crazy by those who are also crazy in their own way!

The message did not get to the Cannes Jury with two beautiful actresses Aishwarya Rai and Meg Ryan, who I suspect had no idea of the Chilean references or the intellectual depth of the film. The Jury in its wisdom gave the top prize to the less impressive Gus van Sant’s Elephant, probably because of the immediacy of campus violence in the US. I guess many would not appreciate Orson Welles' F for Fake, as well. One man’s meat is another man’s poison.

Friday, April 30, 2010

100. Australian director Andrew Dominik’s US film “The assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford” (2007): A psychological maze

confess that this movie made me fall asleep after the first half hour. When I woke up, certain images from the film persisted in my memory (Roger Deakin’s play with light and shadow of the approaching train), nagging me to view the film once again from the start. To my surprise, on my second attempt, I found it to be one of those rare films which do not provide much evidence of good cinema in the early sequences while it provides such evidence much later on. And this is a rather long (2hr 40min) film. However, the film gradually entices the viewer to keep watching with the filmmaking competence improving as the film keeps un-spooling. By the end of the movie, it is quite likely that a patient viewer will not feel cheated by the director Andrew Dominik but instead admire his work that is a cocktail of delicate performances, suitable music, and admirable cinematography.

Long titles often summarize the plot of a film. The killing of the outlaw Jesse James is miniscule to the long tale of psychological games between various characters in the film. Here is a case of fictional biography (what an oxymoron!) authored by Ron Hansen and written for the screen by the director Dominik. While the assassination itself forms the fulcrum of the film, Dominik divides the film at that juncture. First he presents the buildup to the assassination and the second part is the reaction to and the aftermath of the event. Much shorter than the earlier one, it is the second half that truly makes the film come alive.

One would usually associate the word assassination with leaders, political or religious. Here is a tale of an outlaw who killed human beings as he would kill snakes (shown in the movie). Yet ironically he captured the hearts and minds of an entire nation. Here is a tale of a robber of banks and trains. Dominik and Hansen present a revisionist view of the outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt), an outlaw wearing clean clothes and a typical family man. The viewer is made to empathize with the dapper Jesse James, the moody Jesse James, the loving Jesse James who gifts a gun to his would be killer…The clouds in the film have a touch of Terence Mallick’s cinema as much as the absurdist visuals of a man taking a bath in a bathtub in the middle of a field. This is not surprising as Dominik is stated to be a fan of Mallick’s Badlands and Mallick in his turn thanks Dominik in the credits of the latter’s The New World.

The film appears to be tale of a fan and a larger-than-life hero. A hero has to be a loner—he not one of us lesser mortals. It is therefore no wonder that Dominik/Hansen’s outlaw sits alone brooding in a backyard close to snakes that he is about to kill to make a point. It is no wonder Dominik/Hansen’s outlaw is one that his own blood brother Frank (Sam Shepard) gradually distances himself from a normal sibling relationship. The filmmakers take great pains to sketch the toll of the evil deeds of the outlaw on himself while journalists and fans think of him differently. The bounty on his head does not help the disintegration of a normal mind that sees enemies and turn tails among his buddies. The repressed anger and frustration comes out on screen as Jesse shoots at a fish in a frozen lake. It is no small wonder that Brad Pitt won the best actor award at the Venice film festival for the role.

he unusual merit of the film is the hero Jesse James in part recognizing his would-be assassin Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), much in advance of his death. He not only quick with his gun, he is quick on the uptake. The silent pact of a Jesus and a Judas is insinuated between the all-knowing outlaw, who after going to the church with his family uncharacteristically keeps his gun away to dust a painting on the wall, and the eventual killer. One could argue that this "Jesus" of the American wild west needs a "Judas" to keep his notoriety alive. The many confrontations between the hero and the fan add up to a cat and mouse game that is captured delightfully by the camera, a twitch here and a look there, and the game is up. Even the Mallick-like nature shots by the impressive Roger Deakins add an underscore to the visual details of the battles between coward and hero.

One of the defining lines of this psychological film is when Jesse James (Pitt) asks his fan and eventual killer Robert Ford (Affleck): “Do you want to be like me or do you want to be me?” Sometime later the fan replies after introspecting “Heaven knows I would be “ornerier” (sic) if I were in your position.” To reduce the film to interactions between hero/anti-hero and coward would be incorrect as the characters take on different hues in each sequence just as the clouds captured by Deakins and Dominik in the movie are ephemeral, changing colors and shapes with time (note the poster of the movie above).

The script goes into top gear after Jesse is killed. Casey Affleck’s character was so far shown in the movie as a fan of 19 going on 20, looking for a chance get rich with the bounty money. The disintegration of the “coward” is more interesting than the disintegration of the “hero”. The first part had shown an assassin hero-worshiping his victim, with homosexual overtones of even sleeping in his bed before the kill. The second section shows him as a heterosexual and exhibiting signs of a courageous man confronting a balladeer (Nick Cave) to correct him on his facts. The scenes of the re-enacted assassinations are lovely studies in human psychology. Affleck’s Oscar nomination for his performance was well deserved.

Over the years I have been amused to find fine Australian talent migrating to USA to make movies. Andrew Dominik is not the first. One recalls Peter Weir who could never recreate the magic of Picnic at Hanging Rock or The Last Wave after crossing the Pacific. Big budgets and Hollywood’s rules seemed to stifle him with some of his latent talent emerging in Dead Poet’s Society. Bruce Beresford is another Aussie director whose work in Australia (such as Breaker Morant) was a tad better than the Oscar winning Tender Mercies and Driving Miss Daisy. It is equally true of a slew of actors Mel Gibson, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, et al. Or the case of the amazing Australian cinematographers Russell Boyd and John Seale, who have both made a mark in recent times with new technology rather than the creative surges evident in their early Australian works. It is no wonder that Dominik chose Australian musicians, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, to lend a fabulous musical score, over American musicians.

In retrospect, this American film, shot in Canada, with all the Australian talent behind the camera, is different from other regular American films. Two remarkable directors, the Scott brothers—Ridley and Tony—have partly bankrolled the film. Evidently they had confidence in Dominik to make a rather unusual American film. Revisionist films have been made in the US but have never been highlighted by most film critics. A particular film that I would put in perspective is Abraham Polonsky’s less-fictional biography Tell Them Willie Boy is Here (1969) with Robert Redford, Katherine Ross and Robert Blake. Unfortunately, the talented Polonsky was blacklisted by the McCarthyists. Dominik need not have such fears as his film only looks inside minds of men and women, not the politics of bounty-killing.

Dominik has made an interesting film. I wish the mettle of the latter part of the film was evident in the earlier parts to make a viewer sit up from the beginning of the film. And last but not least, enjoy the unobtrusive music that adds to the richness of the film. A more pertinent evaluation of the film would be to focus on the word "coward" than the word "assassination" in the title of the film. If one reflects on the movie, it is basically a study of hero worship rather than of heroism or of cowardice. It is also a study of how the larger population reacts to heroes and what the journalists write about them. For a while the assassin is the hero for many; later he is not. Arguably, the film is not just about Jesse James or Robert Ford. It is about us.

Author's note:  As this is is the hundredth movie discussed on this blog, I thank all the readers who have written to me with useful comments or words of encouragement.