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 http://www.peterweircave.com/articles/articlei.html 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.