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