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.