Wednesday, December 28, 2011

122. Canadian director Sébastien Pilote’s debut film feature film “Le vendeur” (The Salesman) (2011): White lies to make people happy and sell products that are not essential for the buyer

If there is one director who has made his presence felt with a debut in 2011, it is Sébastien Pilote from Canada. Few have heard of him, and even fewer have seen his first feature film The Salesman. The Salesman is probably one of the most powerful films from Canada in recent decades that recall the quiet intensity of the works of Canadian directors Claude Jutra and Norman McLaren, some forty or fifty years ago. The Salesman was honoured with the Jury’s Grand Prize and the Best Actor Silver Gateway award at the recently concluded Mumbai International Film Festival where the competition section is only open to debut films across the world. Having caught up with the film at the International Film Festival of Kerala, one realizes that the Mumbai jury had honoured the two aspects of the movie that truly make it a rewarding experience—the direction and the acting.


The Salesman does not have the trappings of a ponderous movie. Yet, this critic considers it as one of the finest films of 2011.  It captures the global concerns of the day—unusual weather changes and economic turmoil that affect almost all citizens globally. Yet the film is not ostensibly about either of those two subjects. The weather and the economic upheaval that leaves so many jobless remain as a bleak backdrop for this lovely tale of an individual whose life is interesting while on screen and will be interesting for the viewer long after the movie gets over. That is precisely what makes the film stand out—a “lovely” humanistic tale against the “dark” background. It gives you an indication of the contrasts that the film provides the viewer at several stages of the film. Everything in the film needs re-evaluation in each differing context—what is lovely could take on a dark hue.


It is a tale of a car salesman in a small town in Quebec, Canada, that is reeling under some 250 plus days of continuous snow and a local economic catastrophe of the impending closure of a paper mill that directly and indirectly supports the town’s population. Who is he? "I sell cars, that's all," says the salesman in the film. That's the devotion and the single purpose of his life as it appears for the viewer.


It is essentially about business ethics that ought to make many students of business schools squirm-- if they have a conscience. A successful salesman has to show results, not once but several times, and especially in bad times of recession. Canadian actor Gilbert Sicotte (who has been associated with so many good Canadian films) plays the affable Marcel Levesque, the elderly car salesman. A successful salesman is not a new concept in cinema—David Mamet’s play that was made into a film by James Foley and called Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) and Arthur Miller’s play made into a film by Volker Schlondorf f called Death of a Salesman (1985) seemed to have flogged the angst of the textbook salesman to the extreme. But Pilote’s debut film provides a new perspective—once a salesman, always a salesman. The true salesman is indestructible. Irrespective of what happens, they go on and on. In a way Pilote’s film The Salesman reminds the viewer indirectly that all true professionals are similar—once they are good at a job they never give up, till they are made to stop by external forces or physical handicaps. A doctor remains a doctor, a journalist a journalist, a scientist a scientist, an actor an actor, if they are good at their job, even after they are shaken mid-career by personal losses that question whether all their devotion was worth it. 


Examine the film’s tale from the viewpoint of business managers. A good salesman is a goose that lays golden eggs. A healthy, smart business organization rewards the top performer always, in the presence of less competent salesmen. The top performer is given the more difficult of assignments—here in this Pilote film of selling a fleet of new vehicles to the police department. The salesman’s manager (read the ideal human resource manager) is sensitive to the personal upheavals of his staff’s lives—and even suggests that his top salesman take a break. But will a good professional take a break or keep on working towards new goals set by the organization?


Then again the film is really a film on balancing ethics with being good at your job, being the best in the rat race. It might be philosophically an existential question. Do we live to be happy having lived ethically in our professional careers or do we give more importance to win the race and keep our pay packets secure? These are not questions asked in the film—these are implicit questions for the viewer as the film ends. And that for this critic is the reason why the film gains importance. And it is this judgement of each viewer that will morally assess the salesman who cares little about what happens or what could happen to the buyer after the sale, in the medium term. And I am quite sure there will many who will debate their individual viewpoints after the movie gets over.


The film is a wonderful example of a film driven by a great performance. Actor Gilbert Sicotte, always well dressed and quietly persuasive, not just brings on screen the character of a perfect salesman, but also makes the viewer like the character. The salesman treats his co-workers well and they in turn even admire him. He is a good parent and a good grandparent. One of the finest and delicate sequences in the film is of the grandfather teaching his grandson the Lord’s prayer. There is another innocuous sequence when the salesman quietly joins the jobless workers of the paper factory in a group prayer. Religion is compacted into very few scenes in the film but how powerful those scenes are can only be assessed at the end of the film. Perhaps it is intense religion that keeps the salesman ticking. And may be not.



Then there is a relationship between a father and a daughter. The affection of a daughter towards the widower father is not just the in food she brings him but  in the understanding that the best gift she could provide her father would be to make him happy in his job as a salesman by driving down to pick up a vehicle to humour her father’s client’s wishes. Pilote’s direction comes to the fore with the visuals of the employed salesman driving past the jobless workers and the innocuous statement of the salesman that he believes in keeping his clients happy. The salesman says "You have to like the people. And you need to look into their eyes. If you look into their eyes, you look into their souls." Pilote’s marked ability to develop a character indirectly by beading simple incidents is fascinating. The salesman prides in knowing his clients. Yet you know from an earlier Pilote sequence that he doesn’t know them or rather he has forgotten them in spite of keeping a tape recorder to learn from his own mistakes and become even better at his work. Yet he goes on with his job aware that he might be bringing misery to others than happiness. Pilote's film accentuates the contradictions.

Two incidents late into the film provide the pivotal intensity by which the film needs to be evaluated. And interestingly the two incidents help the viewer to evaluate and revaluate the salesman.


The film exudes a quiet power that is gripping and thought provoking, as the final scene of the film of the salesman looking at the arrival of the next lot of vehicles to sell. You might not get the feeling that you are watching great cinema unfold on screen but if you care to reflect on what you saw after the film concludes you will realize that Pilote’s film packs a punch that becomes obvious over time as you reflect on the issues presented in the film that have universal significance today. Like the salesman who claims to know his clients' souls by looking into their eyes, Pilote's film allows the viewer to "see" the soul of the salesman. 

P.S. The Salesman ranks as one of the 10 best films of 2011 for the author.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

121. US director Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” (2011): An exquisite cinematic product grappling with metaphysics and theology

Terrence Malick has made only five feature films to date, all made in the US. The five films have won a solitary Oscar (for Nestor Almendros's cinematography in Days of Heaven), although many of his films have made the grade of garnering numerous unsuccessful Oscar nominations. On the other hand, Malick’s The Thin Red Line won the Golden Bear at Berlin Film Festival, Days of Heaven won the Best Director award at Cannes, and now The Tree of Life has won the coveted Golden Palm at Cannes, awards that have eluded many Oscar winners. These facts themselves speak loudly about the quality of Malick’s cinema, appreciated more in Europe than in the US.

For this critic, too, only three of the five Malick feature films, the same three that won acclaim in Europe, bear the stamp of truly outstanding cinema. In contrast, many American viewers to this day find his debut film Badlands, which has certain elements that recall the typical Hollywood entertainment ingredients of the Sixties and Seventies, and The New World with its historical magnetism to be equally enchanting.

The Tree of Life is arguably Malick’s finest and the most profound work to date. It is not an easy film to appreciate and will leave an impatient viewer totally perplexed and frustrated. If a viewer had no idea of Malick’s cinema and had come to watch a typical action film with Brad Pitt and/or Sean Penn, that person would indeed feel cheated. If a viewer was not used to a narrative cinema continually switching between past and present with long sequences of film that appeared to be out of the Discovery TV channel and not pick up the relevance of the editing, the experience would be akin to a viewer wondering if the reels of the film were mixed up by the projectionist. (Interestingly, I recall similar reactions in the early Seventies when Stanley Kubrick’s 2001-A Space Odyssey was released. Young students went to see the film to get a “high” after smoking hashish, because of the long psychedelic and colourful sequences the film had of the journey to Jupiter, with no spoken words, accompanied by superb music in near empty theatres, totally oblivious of Kubrick’s intent.)

Malick’s cinema is different. Malick’s films are the works of an erudite filmmaker and, therefore seek to communicate with a viewership that has the patience and humility to listen to profound rhetorical questions asked for the benefit of the viewer. These films are the antithesis of popular cinema with slick talk and frenzied action. Malick’s works—at least the three that I admire most—tend to deceive the impatient viewer who refuses to probe a movie beyond the obvious. Malick’s The Thin Red Line was less about the heroics of war but more about the ethical and reflective mind of the soldier who is able to comprehend his actions and put them in the perspective with nature’s majesty. Malick’s Days of Heaven provided the viewer with awesome images of difficult calamities and the travails of the urban poor running away for refuge in rural America that sandwich a period of magical carefree rural lifestyle of love that embraces the wonders of nature around us that one often tends to ignore. The natural “heaven” in Days of Heaven is not so obvious but it is there in spite of the locusts and the fire that dominate the film.  In The Tree of Life, each and every sequence of natural beauty, is a tool for the viewer to help understand the metaphysical and moral education of Jack (the director’s alter ego) that incorporates the lessons Jack has learnt from his father and mother, and, most all, his brother.

Malick is not a film director who makes films just for the love of the medium. He intelligently uses cinema, combining both music and images, as a tool to discuss his favourite metaphysical and theological concerns. Swedish director Ingmar Bergman did this often to question conventional Christian concepts his own father, a priest, had brought him up to respect and believe in. Bergman’s “Man-God trilogy” of Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence almost rejects God as a metaphorical spider in the first, accepts God in the second despite doubts, wrestles ambiguously with God’s silence that even Mother Teresa had found so difficult to accept in the third. Andrei Tarkovsky did the same but very subtly—Tarkovsky’s strong Russian Orthodox Christian roots silently emerge in Solyaris (Solaris), The Stalker, and his final film Sacrifice, while the subjects of these films were not overtly spiritual. (Few are aware that Tarkovsky was an intensely religious Russian Orthodox Christian and knew St. Mathew’s Gospel in the Bible by rote, the very same book that Italian Pier Paolo Pasolini made into a fascinating work of cinema called Gospel According to St. Mathew). The Tree of Life needs to be evaluated the way one evaluates a Tarkovsky, a Bergman, or a Pasolini—all classics of international cinema.

There are different strokes to appreciate Malick’s The Tree of Life. The obvious one is that of a theist, a believer in God or Allah or any name you prefer to give the Creator. The first clue the viewer gets is the quotation "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" (Chap 38,verses 4 and 7) from the Book of Job—a book from the Old Testament of the Bible. It is arguably the oldest book of the Bible, a tale that existed before Genesis was written and accepted by the Abrahamic religions. (For Muslims, Job is also part of the Holy Quran) The Book of Job is built around an individual, a God-fearing theist who questions God on why he of all people has been deprived of all things material and familial but yet stoically chooses to accept and revere God. In Malick’s film, a deeply God-fearing religious Texan family is deprived of one of their three sons, not unlike Job.  The mother, Mrs O’Brien, the embodiment of grace in the film mimics Job’s reactions after the loss, with the words “I will be true to you. Whatever comes.” A major problem for viewers of The Tree of Life would be the constant references to the Book of Job, in case they are not familiar with the text. A quotation from the book kicks off the film. Fortunately, this critic had studied the book as a prescribed optional text for his postgraduate degree in English Literature from Bombay University, not merely as a religious text. Some of the text is explained by the priest’s sermon in the film. No one knows who wrote the Book of Job and literary scholars have concluded that the present form of the book is the product of oral literature and that the current version is the product of at least three different authors. Malick distills the essence of Job’s metaphysical travails into a simple event—the death of a 19-year old that occurs early in the film. For cineastes like me, the event and the progression of the film is reminiscent of the structure of Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s French movie Three Colors: Blue, which interestingly Kieslowski and his screenplaywriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz similarly modelled on an important philosophical chapter of the Bible: I Corinthians 13.  Mallick’s film, too, recalls the Kieslowski’s film, when Mrs O’Brien speaks the words “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.” Those words of Mrs O’Brien reflect the same ultimate realization of actor Julliete Binoche’s character in the French/Polish film following the death of an important member of the family, early in the Kieslowski film.

For Malick, the Job-like realization of Mrs O’Brien is only a tool for the full education and sensitization of her eldest son, Jack (who probably embodies the young Malick, growing up in Waco, Texas, the name emblazoned on the truck spewing DDT, in the film), played by Sean Penn, who has grown up to be a successful urban architect of repute. The success of Jack seems to recall the words of his father Mr O’Brien “Your mother's naive. It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world. If you're good, people take advantage of you.” We can assume Jack had followed his father thus far—following the way of nature. But when Jack’s brother dies, Jack realizes his folly—he needs to follow the way of grace embodied in his mother. What results in the film is an abstract journey (a path to nirvana of sorts) from the worlds of steel and glass, through a derelict wooden door frame (symbolic of the transformation of Jack) as he is led by a woman (either his mother or his spouse), through rocky crevices to a sea shore where all the persons he has met in life are alive and well. The sudden action of falling on his knees is the dawning of nirvana in Jack that links the viewer back to the opening words: “Brother. Mother. It was they who led me to your door.” To the attentive listener, the framework of the entire film had already been presented with the opening quotation from the Book of Job, followed by these words of Jack, before you even see a single person on screen. Apart from the Book of Job, there are several references to the 23rd chapter of the Book of Psalms. Now to an atheist viewer, or a cineaste who is merely interested in pure cinema, all this could appear to be hogwash. But is it?

If you prefer to put aside religion and theology in The Tree of Life, a moot question would be: Can an atheist enjoy and appreciate The Tree of Life? This critic would fault the marketing of The Tree of Life for audiences who are not familiar with the cinema of Malick, a method of presenting a tale increasingly being adopted by other filmmakers such as French director Claire Denis and Turkish director Semih Kaplanoglu. There is a link between these directors' separate works that moviegoers could pick up. Alert viewers of Malick’s The Thin Red Line would recall a flame in the middle of a dark screen that began the film. The flame reappears prominently later in the film when the Sean Penn character in the film as an avuncular boss interacts with the AWOL character played by Jim Caviezel. There is the following spoken lines Pvt. Bell from The Thin Red Line : “Love. Where does it come from? Who lit this flame in us? No war can put it out, conquer it. I was a prisoner. You set me free.” That sequence too underlined connection of the flame and “grace” glorified in The Tree of Life. This flame symbol takes a more evocative level of punctuation between segments of The Tree of Life, including the start of the film. The transformation of the troubled adult Jack in The Tree of Life begins with Jack lighting the flame of a blue candle. A flame that symbolizes light in darkness and knowledge of creation. The chain of thought is endless. In The Thin Red Line, an alligator slithering into the forest ponds opened the film only to be strung up as dead meat for soldiers later in the film. In The Tree of Life you have large dinosaurs for the creation sequences, followed by sequence of a lizard brought into the house by young Jack and his siblings.

In The Thin Red Line, there is a voice-over rhetorical question from Col. Toll about trees and nature:  “Look at this jungle. Look at those vines, the way they twine around, swallowing everything. Nature's cruel.” In The Tree of Life, Mr O’Brien representing “nature” is the parent growing trees and getting his son to tend the lawn in front of their house. It is important for the viewer to recall the first spoken words in The Tree of Life:Brother. Mother. It was they who led me to your door.” The father is NOT one who ultimately transforms the adult Jack.

For those who love good cinema, the following sequence epitomizes Malick’s cinema like no other. A character (the mother) receives bad news. No word is spoken. There is a sob of grief. Cut to the loud whirr of airplane engine. A telephone call is answered in the midst of the din. No word can be heard, only the loud engine. The engine sound suddenly fades and you hear bells of a church. This is typical of Malick’s cinema. Spoken words are minimal and when they are spoken they are often as a voice-over. Sometimes, the voice is not that of the person on screen.

Malick’s dialectics are essentially rhetorical questions and exclamations made by the characters in his films, with you the viewer emerging as the judge of the series of spoken viewpoints. It is Malick, the teacher of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) taking over, or perhaps Malick the Harvard and Oxford university alumnus taking over.  For instance, in The Thin Red Line a soldier asks another who has a Greek name “Did you read Homer?” The question may seem out of place but if the viewer is familiar with Homer’s epics the situation on screen gets a new perspective. In Malick’s The New World samples of voice-overs are “Who are you, what do you dream of?” with the answer from lead female Pocahontas “We are like grass.” Very few directors have attempted this—and viewers who are new to the cinema of Malick, Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Syberberg, Zvyagintsev, Ruiz, and Claire Denis will find such works “pretentious” just because the grammar of their cinema requires the viewer to be attentive and patient and constantly reflect on what they see and, most of all, what they hear. Mallick, and filmmakers like him, give more attention to nature, the flora and fauna, to tell a story of human beings.

In The Tree of Life, Mrs O’Brien, the mother, represents grace. She says: “Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.” quite in contrast to her husband who teaches his sons to be “fierce.. to get ahead in this world. If you're good, people take advantage of you.” Jack later realizes that his father, an evidently clever God-fearing man, who has 27 patents to his name, loses his job eventually. Jack even begins to hate his father and eventually the grown up Jack apologizes to his father for something he said following his brother’s demise. Jack’s father's self realization (another voice over) is another lesson in life: “I wanted to be loved because I was great, a Big Man. Now I'm nothing. Look. The glory around... trees, birds... I dishonoured it all and didn't notice the glory. A foolish man.

The basic structure of The Tree of Life is birth, acceptation of siblings, ability to differentiate between good and bad, awareness of the less privileged, sexual awakening, loss of social security of a parent, death of a loved one, and the understanding of why death is a part of the larger scheme of the Creator of the universe. This basic structure is punctuated by visuals of the creation of the universe which puts in context the differences of the two parents of Jack. There is a dinosaur who almost kills a smaller one and yet does not but instead goes in search of another—is it the anguish of a mother who has lost her progeny? The volcanic lava meeting waves of the sea might appear to have little relevance in the Malick tale but it has considerable import if you consider the constant nature vs. grace turmoil in the O’Brien family. The final words of Mrs O’Brien the viewer hears are: "I give him to you. I give you my son." These are words of considerable theological relevance coming from a woman who was initially grieving the loss of a 19-year old son. This lady also says another important line: “Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.” Every leaf, every ray of light, is precisely what Malick underscores for the viewer in The Tree of Life. The visuals of creation, from the cell to the planets, nature’s beauty ranging from a butterfly to a tree, are interlinked with message of good living and understanding life for both a theist and an atheist. Malick's achievement in this film is his ability to telescope the development of Jack's body and mind with the cosmic development of earth, its fauna and flora. Kubrick's attempt in 2001--A Space Odyssey looked at the external cosmic beauty and man's preoccupation with machines, not with individual minds. Malick has broken that boundary.
One wishes Malick explained the absence of the third son towards the end. The third was not the kid who drowned—that was a kid from a neighbour’s family. Jack seems to be influenced by one sibling who dies, and not so by the other. The O’Brien family’s attitude to race relations is ambiguous while Mrs O’Brien goes out of the way to provide drinking water to arrested and disturbed individuals in police custody. There is compassion exhibited for all including frogs that some thoughtless kids tie up to a firecracker rocket for fun.

There is much more to this film than all this. There is the relevance for each piece of music used in The Tree of Life--pieces of music and chorale pieces carefully chosen by Malick. Malick's wide-ranging knowledge of music and the dogged effort he makes to identify the right piece for each film surpasses that of Kubrick, Peter Weir, Michael Mann, and Andrei Tarkovsky, all directors who have proven their skills in this field. The Tree of Life is a film that demands several viewings to digest the varied details and the full perspective of what these have to offer for an attentive viewer.

I recall, as a wet-behind-the-ears film critic, recommending in a New Delhi daily that I worked for in 1979 that one of the finest films on show during an International Film Festival of India was an Andrei Tarkovsky film showing at the now defunct Archana theatre. The disgruntled viewers who could not appreciate the film damaged the seats of the theatre. The next day I was pulled up by my News Editor. If the same film was to be screened today in New Delhi there could be a totally different reaction because more people are aware of what to expect from a Tarkovsky film. So, too, is the case of Terrence Malick’s movies—the more you see a Malick film with patience, the more you realize what it has to offer.  Perhaps then a viewer will appreciate the philosophical words spoken in The Tree of Life: “I am nothing...Keep us. Guide us. Till the end of time.”

P.S. The films The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven, Three Colors: BlueThrough a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence have been reviewed earlier on this blog. The Tree of Life ranks as the best of the 10 best films of 2011 for the author and is included among the author's  top 15  films of the 21st century.

P.P.S. The Tree of Life has won the status of the best film of 2011 from three independent journals that matter: Sight and Sound (UK), Film Comment (USA), and The Village Voice (USA) as well as the second best film of 2011 of Cahiers du Cinema (France). It did not win a single Oscar or Golden Globe.

Malick's To the Wonder has also been reviewed on this blog.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

120. Romanian director Cristi Puiu’s “Moartea domnului Lazarescu” (The Death of Mr Lazarescu) (2005): Loving thy neighbour as thyself

No Romanian film that this writer has seen has been as honest, as gripping, and as well crafted as Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu. It bolsters the credibility of Romanian cinema, which has traditionally lagged behind the rich cinematic products of the former USSR (e.g., Tarkovsky, Paradjanov, Kozintsev), of Hungary (e.g., Fabri, Szabo), of Poland (e.g., Kieslowski, Wajda) and even of the former Czechoslovakia (e.g., Forman, Kadar, Trnka). For the Romanian viewer, this movie could touch a raw nerve that relates to the true state of Romanian hospitals, the attitudes of their medical staff and their ability to care for the sick and elderly slice of the Romanian population. It is indeed a societal and psychological study of the varied behaviour patterns of emergency room staff under stress. From this viewer's perspective, the film's tale could easily extrapolate a similar situation anywhere on this planet—in a rich developed country or in a poor developing country. The film transcends man-made boundaries. It is a tale of gradual loss of independence as one’s health deteriorates. It is indeed a degrading experience when one wishes for the proximity of their dear ones.

All of us assume that if we have a medical emergency someone would rush us to an emergency room of a hospital where our ailment would get immediate and due attention. But what if we have that unfortunate requirement shortly after a major accident (or for that matter, a terrorist attack, or a fire, or a building collapse) near the hospital and we reach the hospital emergency room when every worker at the hospital is stretched to the limit. If you subscribe to Murphy’s law that ‘if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong,’ this movie is for you to appreciate and reflect on its amazing contents.

Director Puiu’s film The Death of Mr Lazarescu has won at least 24 awards, including the prestigious Prize of the 2005 Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section, the Golden Swan at the Copenhagen Film Festival, and a Silver Hugo at the Chicago Film Festival. Interestingly, this is the first of six films the director intends to make that revolve around Bucharest and its environs, each a treatise on love, this one being a film dealing with love for fellow men. The other five are to be films on (a) love between a man and a woman, (b) love for one’s children, (c) love for success, (d) love between friends, and (e) carnal love. Is this Romania’s answer to the Polish genius Kieslowski’s Dekalog, which had each of its 10 episodes devoted to one of the Ten Commandments? I do hope it is. (His second film Aurora, in this proposed series of six films, has been made in 2010 and screened at the Cannes Film Festival but this writer has yet to view it.)

Puiu and his co-scriptwriter Razvan Radelescu developed a fascinating yet dour character they call Mr Dante Remus Lazarescu. That name is heavy with allusions. Dante, we know, is associated with the famous writer Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) who wrote The Divine Comedy describing man’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Remus, we know, is associated with Romulus and Remus, the two mythical shepherds who are credited to have built the city of Rome. Now Remus was killed by Romulus and his henchmen for leaping over a wall built by Romulus, but some writers alternately suggest Remus died from natural causes, and not killed. But eventually Romulus went on to bury Remus with pomp and regret. The name Lazarescu would recall the two distinct Lazaruses mentioned in the Bible associated with the Gospels—one is a Lazarus who is raised from the dead by Jesus and the other is a Lazarus who is poor and sick, and lives off the crumbs of a rich man's table, eventually dying to reach heaven while the rich man goes to hell. Imagine mixing all these details to weave a single character in the film, which interestingly is not about Mr Dante Remus Lazarescu or his death but about his last days on earth. The movie is about how others deal with him and how one person decides to take care of a stranger who needs help. Yet each element of this unusual name is important to appreciate the depth of the film’s script.

Mr Lazarescu of Puiu’s film is an average human being, not very rich, not very poor, living alone in a small apartment with cats as his only company. He is probably living a retired life. His wife is either dead or has left him. His only progeny, a daughter, has married and migrated to another country, Canada. His closest kin is a sister who lives in another town and is an eager recipient of some money he sends from time to time. We learn that he had been operated for an ulcer in his stomach.  His young neighbours in the apartment building hate his cats and have very little time for him as they are immersed in their daily chores. Mr Lazarescu’s only “friend,” other than his cats, is his bottle of liquor. Inevitably, when Mr Lazarescu has a severe and persisting headache and is vomiting blood even after taking some pills available in his apartment and his neighbour’s apartment, he is stinking of liquor. However, the interesting script of Puiu and Radelescu adds an interesting detail: Mr Lazarescu, in spite of his pain, loneliness, and his awareness that he needs urgent medical help, worries about feeding his cats and sending money to his sister who desperately needs it. But how do people deal with such an individual in that condition? That is the core structure of Puiu’s cinematic essay, not so much the conditions of emergency rooms in hospitals.

As Mr Lazarescu awaits his ambulance to arrive, his neighbours do provide minimal succour of providing him a pill for headaches and even offers a bite to eat. When the ambulance and its paramedic appears on the scene, the neighbours cry off the responsibility of accompanying Mr Lazarescu to the hospital—their priorities lie elsewhere. It is the paramedic who has never met Mr Lazarescu before, who realizes he has no one to care for him. It is the paramedic who decides that he needs urgent medical attention (after having made an interesting medical diagnosis through her years of experience rather than medical studies), who takes his papers, and who accompanies the sick man the entire night. But on that fateful night, just before Mr Lazarescu    reaches the first hospital, the emergency room has its hands full, dealing with scores of other equally critical patients as a result of a bus accident. 

What ensues later are a series of encounters between doctors of all hues and the paramedic accompanying the patient. There are tired doctors, irascible doctors, egoistic doctors, caring, empathetic doctors, doctors sexually attracted to other doctors, doctors with dark humour, doctors who go by the rulebook and not common sense, doctors who use every trick they know to get another doctor to attend on a serious patient, and even brilliant doctors who can diagnose the condition of the patient with alacrity, all quilted and sketched out with remarkable credibility that makes the viewer wonder if the movie has indeed transformed from fiction into a documentary.

A powerful subplot of the film involves the stand-offs between qualified specialist doctors and the less qualified paramedics. It is interesting to note the intolerance of the educated towards well meaning less-educated individuals with lots of experience. Also captured by the lovely script is the intolerance of doctors towards a sick patient smelling of liquor and having a sharp tongue.

Many viewers noting the similarity of the names Lazarus and Lazarescu might expect this movie to be about death or even surviving death. The film is not about either of those scenarios. The film is about how people react to situations where a person is nearing the end of one's life and how we behave towards such individuals in such situations. Lazarescu’s life might have been saved if one of the doctors saw the urgency of his medical condition and did not toss the patient to the next convenient hospital to reduce work load and offload accountability. The film might show the emergency room and the pressures of that environment. But it is actually a film that asks the viewer to look at ourselves and our behaviour towards others. Only one individual, the paramedic goes out of the way to help a stricken stranger, even when she knows from experience it is a no-win situation. Yet, she extends a hand in help to a man without any kin, just as she would care for a family member, asking no reward for doing so.

That brings us back to the name of Dante Remus Lazarescu. Who is the "Lazarus" here? One realizes the parallels in the movie are more related to the Lazarus, the beggar with sores eating off the crumbs of the rich man’s table (read emergency room of hospitals). Who is the "Remus" here? One recalls the fable of the creator of Rome and one might see the parallels with Remus who was killed but officially considered to have died a natural death. Did the lack of love in the emergency rooms kill "Remus" Lazarescu, which would eventually be labelled as natural death.  Who is "Dante" here? Lazarescu appears in this film progressing through “Hell” of the Divine Comedy. Comedy, you ask? What can you say of doctors who insist on a signature on a form to absolve the doctors from blame by a dying man, who is not in his senses, before conducting a major operation? The film is supposed to be based on actual events; yet the name of the dying man decided by the filmmakers is not without substance.  

This notable Romanian film does not merely rely on the strong script but a bravura acting performance of the entire cast. The flawless performances of each player in the film are astounding. The viewer begins to feel that these are real people--such is the effect of the film. At the end of the film there is silence as the patient is ready for the operation and is left alone. The film does not have to state anything further. What the film had to state has been eloquently said already. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet stated with his powerful final words: “The rest is silence.”

P.S. Two segments of Kieslowski's ten-part Dekalog have been reviewed earlier on this blog. Dekalog part 5 deals with the Commandment "Thou shall not kill" and  Dekalog part 7 deals with the Commandment "Thou shalt not steal." The Death of Mr Lazarescu is among the author's top 15 films of the 21st century.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

119. French director Claire Denis’ “L’intrus” (The Intruder) (2004): Conscience as an intruder

The Intruder begins with an opening quote "Your worst enemies are hiding inside, in the shadows, in your heart."  As the film rolls on you realize this film is not a regular movie that you come across. It has touches of Andrei Tarkovsky, of Terrence Mallick, of Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light. This writer is pleasantly surprised as this is the first Claire Denis directorial effort (of 10 works to date) that he has watched, though he had seen several works (“Hanna K,” “Paris, Texas,” “The Secret”) on which the lady was the assistant director. The Intruder is definitely a film that makes you think. It is also true that it is a film that would put off the impatient viewer. Yet, it is an important film from France that can mesmerise you. This film of Claire Denis clearly puts her in a league of the finest filmmakers making films today.

The film is interestingly a film about dogs and people who love dogs (it actually begins and ends with dogs). It is a film about love between a father and a son and their inability to manifest it. It is a film that touches on regret for the lack of love in physical relationships. It is a film like a Tarkovsky film (sudden rains) or a Mallick film (sudden gusts of wind) where nature is thrust on the viewer: Denis’ screenplay includes a suggestion to a woman to listen to the “sounds in a forest” as a foreplay bout before copulation, and of images of a woman lost in tall grass even with the aid of binoculars, of the sound of intruders outside a house, of idyllic flowing streams. To many the film would appear disjointed, in the same way a first-time reader of the Nobel Prize-winning James Joyce’s Ulysses, without sufficient introduction to his style of writing (“stream of consciousness,” epiphanies, puns, and metaphors), is likely to wonder what the book is all about.

In the context of books, the film is indeed an idea that director Clair Denis “abducted” (a term from a Denis post-screening press conference) from a book L’intrus by Jean-Luc Nancy which deals with heart transplants, how the body tends to reject a transplanted organ, how they either survive or die. The relationship between the book and the film is as tenuous as the relationship between James Jones’ novel The Thin Red Line and Malick’s movie The Thin Red Line. Denis uses the concept of heart transplant and even shows exaggerated scars of a heart transplant operation—but for Denis one suspects this transplant is a Joycean dream or a metaphor for another malaise—the lack of love or the inability to win it from your progeny.

The lack of love “dogs” (pun intended) you, the viewer, throughout the film. The film begins with a policewoman at an international border with a dog. The woman showers affection on the dog. Her house-husband showers affection and care his wife and twin children. The main character Louis Trebor (Michel Subor) also showers affection on his “twin” dogs. His neighbour is a woman who breeds dogs either as a profession or as a passion and she too expresses love and affection for her canines. This neighbour is finally shown shouting with joy on a sled pulled by dogs at the end of the film.

In sharp contrast to the love showered on dogs there is the lack of love elsewhere in relationships between humans. Louis Trebor gives money to his son in France with a tinge of regret rather than of love. When he sleeps with his female pharmacist friend the script of Denis employs the words “Medication, schemedication” to describe loveless carnal relationship (in fact he kills a man who tries to enter his house between bouts of sex). There is no love between Louis Trebor and his enigmatic female neighbour. There is no love between Trebor and a Tahitian woman (real or imaginary), who has apparently borne his son ages ago and Trebor has never bothered to keep in touch with the woman on his son from that relationship. Finally, Trebor has so many women in his life, but no wife or spouse. What is his puzzling relationship with dog rearing neighbour? Both are interested in each other but also seem to dislike the other. Everything is vague, probably indicating that you are viewing a dream. This is where the viewer has to decide eventually what is real in the film and what is a dream.

The existential aspect of the main character reminds one of Albert Camus’ The Stranger. Who is Trebor? He has several passports that you see him destroy. He can kill silently and has a strong physique. He has made sufficient money from his prior activities stashed away in a Swiss bank with which he can buy a “heart” for himself and a Korean ship for his son.  Trebor, the man who loved his dogs, leaves his dogs behind with sacks of dog-food to fend for themselves, as he goes on the mission to acquire a new “heart”, contact with a lost son, a ship for his existing son. Can the acquisition of  a new heart lead to acquiring love? Is there a connection that Denis alludes to between Trebors love for his twin dogs and Trebor's son's exemplary devotion towards his twin children, while there is hardly an affection between Trebor and his son? The questions are there in the film, never explicitly put, for the viewer to answer.
Denis has made films on the European/African interface that this writer has not yet seen. The viewer begins to wonder if Denis sees Trebor’s, past life in Tahiti (an island in Southern Pacific Polynesia, which the French had colonised) as the life of an intruder in Polynesia. There are several other such possible metaphors of intrusion strewn in the film. There is a male intruder in Trebor’s house who is killed (Trebor is shown cleaning blood from a knife). There are immigrants who cross the Swiss/French border. One cannot put a finger on who is the main intruder in this film. Most probably the intruder is in Trebor’s heart, physical and/or metaphorical, as stated in the opening quote.

Like the works of Tarkovsky and Mallick, the visuals (cinematographer Agnes Godard, a regular collaborator with Denis on many of her films) and the guitar and trumpet music of Stuart Staples (of the musical group called Tindersticks) play a major part in the film. Without their contribution Denis’ work would seem pedestrian. Agnes Godard and Denis have long magical sequences of the sea as seen from ship’s window (reminds you of Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s final shots of Shy People with the late actress Jill Clayburgh looking out of the window of her aircraft at the dark skyline).

Without any doubt, Claire Denis joins the likes of Terrence Mallick, Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky, Andrei Zvyagintsev, Carlos Reygadas, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan as filmmakers who are currently making films that redefine the grammar of contemporary cinema for the intelligent, perceptive and patient viewer. It is the appreciation of films like these that make the application of concepts provided in Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Judgement a pleasure for the astute viewer.

P.S. Two films mentioned above, Mallick's The Thin Red Line and Reygadas' Silent Light, have been reviewed earlier on this blog.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

118. Indian director Ashim Ahluwalia’s documentary feature “John & Jane” (2005): Juggling truth and fiction

Documentaries have a discrete charm of their own, especially when they are well made. When this writer lists his 10 favourite movies, one of the 10 is a documentary: a ten-part, 7.5 hour feature documentary called Hitler: a film from Germany, made by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg in 1978. A film as long as that has to be top-notch to keep any viewer interested and energized to return after each break. One of the finest essayists and film critics, Susan Sontag was so enraptured by this documentary that she subsequently wrote a lengthy critique that eventually became a book, incorporating numerous responses that followed Sontag's initial response to the documentary film. Sontag has probably written more on this documentary of Syberberg than all the feature films made by Syberberg’s contemporaries Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders, Schlondorff, and Schroeter put together. This is an indication of the power of impressive documentaries.

Young Ashim Ahluwalia treads the path taken by Syberberg: getting real characters alongside actors to document reality, provoking the viewer to think while presenting facts and trends that are real and socially important for the viewer to analyze. Today there are several thousand educated Indians who live in India and work “when the city sleeps” in call centres to serve Americans during their daytime. These are Indian workers serving the American public because the work provides them with an income that is more attractive than alternative jobs available to them. And these jobs could trap them into a surreal and demanding lifestyle, if they want to keep their jobs. They have to learn to speak with an American accent and relate with the lifestyle of the distant continent to provide information that is requested or to sell a product of an American company to Americans while sitting in India far removed from the American reality. It is not an easy job as an American doing the job in his own land would demand higher real wages than the Indian. The Indian would have to bear the tantrums of the American who might realize he or she is speaking to a foreigner, if chinks in the accent surface. The Indian worker working in an air-conditioned office through the night has to return each day to sleep in his less attractive and less comfortable home, loud and lacking air-conditioning, while all others at home are either working or doing their normal daytime chores. This disconnect of time and society leads to social and psychological aberrations for the call centre employee answering calls on American 1-800-numbers or telemarketing American products in USA, while sitting in India. And that is the subject of John & Jane. The Americanization of a small urban clutch of Indian call centre workers in their youth who are changing their lives for the sake of money and a job, little realising the slow transformation the job has on their lives. They behave like the bizarre Zelig of Woody Allen’s creative mockumentary movie (1983) of that name.

The film studies how the English speaking Indian is tutored to speak the language with an American drawl and how an American speaks English (‘I kaent do it’ for ‘I can’t do it’) as distinct from the English spoken elsewhere. The film focuses on six individuals at call centers who answer/make the calls by night (Indian time) and have become pretty good at it. Some like it, some don’t but they are doing it for financial security. Their attitude changes slowly. There is a gradual morphing of Indian personalities into Indians who dream to be Americans because they are dreaming of that life style. One of the six Indian (possibly an Anglo-Indian) call center worker is shown eating bacon and eggs at home—which is not an average Indian’s breakfast. One dreams of owning costly bikes. Marriages take place between two such employees and if one spouse changes a job the couple hardly have quality time for themselves and end-up killing time as most American kids do playing video games and eating junkfood available in malls where the average Indian is rarely seen (in this movie). Their names are tweaked and Anglicised to fit their new world of air-conditioned offices and their unnatural fluorescent lighting—the six characters have names like Glen, Sydney, Osmond, Nikki, Nicholas and Naomi. One such employee is seen attending a Christian evangelistic meeting, possibly to cope with the stress or alternatively “to belong” with the world he interacts with each night. The toll of the 14-hour night shifts are varied—some take to drugs, others to junk foods. Some begin to reject their reality of their dingy homes and how their family reacts to their day-time slumber. They are the Johns and Janes that director Ahluwalia has created after studying the world of such employees at work and later when they come home to sleep in the day--some real, some bizarre and some unreal.  Exhausted after work, even their dreams relate to their work. At work, each of them have to be consistently polite yet persuasive—which is not easy with temperamental individuals on the other end, when you are constantly being evaluated for your performance and results by your bosses, which in turn decides your pay and whether you keep your job.

The film serves as an eye opener for many in the US who may be unaware of the emotional pressures that play on call centre employees in a distant land who could be upset but is forced to pretend s/he isn’t. One begins to empathize with their lot. That is when young Ahluwalia introduces us to the last of the six employees who called Naomi. She has bleached her skin to resemble a Caucasian. She has dyed her hair blonde and is on the lookout for a blonde partner. The camera of cinematographers Mohanan and Mukul Kishore does not lie—she is not Caucasian, she is an Indian trying to ape a white American.

Ahluwalia has made an interesting film that has touches of Syberberg’s cinema. Fact intertwines with fiction. Are the characters documenting their real lives or are they being made to act out a written script that is a brainchild of the director. The film opens with shots of Indians smoking pot in a car. How and why do they get hooked on hashish? What makes them want to escape their pressures of a night life at a call center? The questions become even more interesting for the global viewer to answer towards the end of the film as any answer to any question would get entangled in the film’s web woven with both fact and fiction. This writer’s daughter noted the obvious connection between this movie and Chetan Bhagat’s novel One Night at the Call Center, a tale revolving around another six somewhat similar call centre workers in India. Both works have hit the streets about the same time--in 2005.  

Any which way you look at it, director Ahluwalia has spotted an interesting subject to film and he has done a commendable job. The most arresting aspect bit of John & Jane for this writer was the striking music of Masta Justy (from India), of Metamatics, of the Japanese Minamo, and the minimalist experimental music of Thomas Brinkmann. The sound mixing/editing was top notch—Mohankutty assisted by Resul Pookutty. Oscar winning Resul Pookutty (with Mohankutty) needed to win an Oscar for this film than for the Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire! The music selected by Ahluwalia embellished the out-of-the-ordinary and disturbing subject: clearly Ahluwalia has a keen ear for music (so does Syberberg)!

It is not surprising that this cinematic work won the Indian national award for the best documentary. The problem for any viewer of this interesting work would be to consider it as a purist's version of what consitutes a documentary. It documents a lifestyle but presents a view of the director. While the documentaries of Robert Flaherty, Norman McLaren, and even Michael Moore have stayed within the boundaries of conventional meaning of the term, intelligent and important directors such as Syberberg, Orson (F for Fake) Welles, and the Iranian Mohsen (Bitter Dreams) Amiryousefi have shown us other creative new boundaries of the term 'documentary.' Young Ashim Ahluwalia joins that second group.

P.S. The Iranian documentary Bitter Dreams by Mohsen Amiryousefi was reviewed earlier on this blog. This blog contains reviews of three other documentaries of note A Song for Argyris (Greece), Reel Injun (Canada), and Leonard Cohen: I am Your Man (Australia).

Saturday, July 30, 2011

117. Chinese director Quan’an Wang’s “Tuan yuan” (Apart, together) (2010): A director’s second look on the theme of love between spouses in marriages

There is every likelihood that a casual viewing of this film will lead many viewers to categorize the movie as just another ordinary love story. And there is a strong possibility for a viewer to even relegate this work as an unimportant one.  But is it indeed a movie of little consequence?

The strengths of the film become apparent only when one grasps the larger perspective offered by the film—that the film is not merely a tale of love between particular individuals but a study of the bonds built through proximity and a craving for physical nexus, when and if that bond becomes tenuous. It is also a film that studies bonding in marriages under extreme conditions. And this is not a Chinese problem but increasingly a worldwide phenomenon as spouses are often physically separated for reasons dictated by finance and/or politics.

For those who follow the inherent connections between works of a particular director, here is an example of Chinese director Quan’an Wang continuing his cinematic studies on marriage and the individual that one glimpsed in Tuya’s marriage, the cinematic work that preceded Apart, together. Tuya’s marriage had won the Berlin film festival’s top honour, the Golden Bear in 2006.  It is no surprise therefore that Quan’an Wang’s  next movie Apart, together opened the Berlin Film Festival 2010 and that this movie went on to win a Silver Bear, not for the direction, not for the acting, but for scriptwriting! Berlin seems to appreciate this director more than other festivals of equal repute. The screenplay incidentally was co-written by director Quan’an Wang and a Chinese actress Na Jin.

The film Apart, together is a tale of an elderly man called Liu from Taiwan (a territory that China refuses to accept as an independent country) who takes an officially approved tour to mainland China’s Shanghai and uses the chance to reunite with his wife Yu-e and his biological son, both of whom he has not met for half a century. Yu-e has during the long absence of her husband married another man Lu, assuming that chances of reuniting with her first husband is ruled out due to the political cold war between Taiwan and mainland China. But consider the interesting script: both the husbands are former soldiers, one a soldier of the Kuomintang army of Taiwan and the other a soldier of the Red army of mainland China. Both soldiers are exceptional: caring and loving husbands, one who has been torn apart from his wife due to politics, and the other who has lived together with his wife ever since his marriage, bonding well with his wife, stepson and other biological children. The oxymoronic title of the film allows the viewer to compare and contrast the behaviours of the two men throughout the film with the wife, common to both men, serving as the pivot of the see-sawing story.

Interestingly, the story of Tuya’s marriage co-written by Quan’an Wang and Wei (Farewell, my concubine and To live) Lu also had a woman Tuya who marries a second husband ironically out of love for her first husband who is a cripple and needs Tuya’s attention and care as do Tuya’s children. It was a fine example of a woman’s devotion for her first love and spouse under extreme, changing conditions. Tuya’s marriage also had its share of international politics (stated in the most unobtrusive manner) as it was set in Chinese Mongolia, bordering the independent Mongolian nation.  In Apart, together, the director presents a wife Yu-e, who loves the first husband Liu and father of her first son, wrenched away from her life by politics, and reconciled to the idea that they might never be together again. Like Tuya, for survival, Yu-e marries again, fortunately to a kind and loving husband, Lu. Yu-e, like Tuya, has to make a difficult choice, when her first husband Liu returns and asks her to come with him to Taiwan while compensating Lu and his family monetarily. And like Quan’an Wang’s earlier film all the husbands are accommodating in this film as well. A conundrum indeed, and those who choose to view the film will know the interesting outcome of Yu-e’s decision. In both films, the ultimate decision rests with the woman and after making brave decisions each reviews her fate.

What strikes one is Quan’an Wang’s choice of subjects that he chooses to film. These are not rich or powerful or even politically correct individuals. They are marginalized individuals who are stretched by adversity that was not scripted in an ordinary marriage. The female figure, the wife, makes the crucial decisions that affect the family and her progeny. Quan’an Wang belongs to the “Sixth Generation of Chinese Filmmakers” a generation of filmmakers who love to film such unusual individuals on the fringes of society. (The most interesting filmmakers from China belong to the Fifth and the Sixth Generation.) The Sixth Generation of filmmakers, associated with the late Nineties and the current decade, unlike the Fifth Generation, have made their mark by adopting documentary-like approaches to realistic fiction, capturing the social changes of the day while seeming to consciously reject the high quality standards of the Fifth Generation while infusing a streak of individualism. It would not be surprising for a casual viewer of Chinese cinema used to the rich production values of the Fifth Generation filmmakers, matching the best in Europe and Americas, with unorthodox methods of storytelling to find the works of the Sixth Generation filmmakers less impressive. The Sixth Generation is different and interesting because they tend to present reality in an unconventional way seeking the unusual realistic conditions that do not get associated with the larger segment of the population.
One would assume that the Chinese title “Tuan Yuan” would literally translate into the English title of the movie “Apart, together.” However, the Chinese film critic Maggie Lee states in her review of the film that “Tuan Yuan” actually translates as “happy reunion,” not “apart, together”. That literal meaning would have been adequate only for the reunion of the first husband with his wife, disregarding the equally important segment of the movie dealing with the relationship of the second husband with his wife which is not a happy one once the first husband returns. The official English title “Apart, together” thus adds gravitas to the tale.

The script writers of both Tuya’s marriage and Apart, together are not merely looking at the individuals but at the State’s role in marriage/divorces. In both films the wife and husbands encounter red tape while deciding to take their new paths in life. In both situations offered by the two films, the situation is not the classical one of divorce following an acrimonious marriage but a rare fringe case of keeping all concerned happy and well cared for. These are typical Asian vignettes of marriage where spouses empathize with the future of the other spouse going to extreme trouble to keep the other happy which might seem rather odd to modern Occidental couples.

In both films, marriage does not limit to physical and emotional ties. In both films, and in many other significant films like Changwei Gu’s Kong Que (Peacock), the ritual of the entire family coming together for a meal once or more than once each day, is not merely for a repast but an event where family members take decisions, speak out their thoughts, and decide the future actions. In Apart, together these elements are underscored—especially during one meal when little is eaten on a sumptuous table but the meal is limited to verbal conversation and consumption of liquor. For those who pay attention to screenplays, the works of Quan’an Wang are delectable to scrutinize especially when the characters sit down to eat.

More importantly one is struck by the development of characters in films of Quan’an Wang. All the adults are loving and giving. While young, each character looks at the best option to survive and make a good living. But as they age, the characters mature and look at ways to compensate those that they have wronged. The end of the film does leave questions for the viewer to ponder—but you leave the screening with the confidence that the young will follow the path trodden by their elders. They have learnt this lesson on the dining tables of their homes.

P.S. The Chinese films Tuya's marriage and Peacock, mentioned above, were earlier reviewed on this blog.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

116. Indian filmmakers Girish Karnad and B. V. Karanth’s “Vamsha vriksha” (The Geneology Tree/The Family Tree) (1971): A major Indian cinematic work, often forgotten by Indian and global cineastes

Often important movies lean on great literary works to make an impact. Girish Karnad and B.V. Karanth’s Vamsha vriksha, made in black and white on a shoestring budget, is one such example. Vamsha vriksha was based on an Indian novel written in the Kannada language. Soon after the Kannada film was made was made, it went on to win the National Award for the Best Director, the Swarna Kamal (The Golden Lotus award). Forty years down the road, this important landmark in Indian cinema is forgotten. An entire new generation of film-goers in India can hardly recall the film.

Vamsha vriksha is a tale of three generations of two Hindu families in Karnataka. It deals with Indian society’s perceptions of widowhood, motherhood, women’s emancipation, family secrets, intrigue to secure family’s assets after the death of a parent, renunciation of the family, and marital infidelity. Indian culture and societal demands of the day make the film totally riveting in the Seventies with indelible acting performances by three individuals who briefly made a name in Indian cinema as movie directors, each winning top national honors—Girish Karnad (who followed this work with another memorable directorial effort Kaadu/The forest --1973), B.V. Karanth (with his equally important film Chomana Dudi/ Chomana’s Drum--1975), and G.V. Iyer with his ambitious historical biopic in Sanskrit (a dead Indian language) titled Adi Shankaracharya (1983).

There are several reasons why Vamsha vriksha stands out today. First, the film's subject is relevant today as it was in the Seventies. It embodies many aspects of Indian society and its strong foundations built on family values. It underscores the importance of the family tree as a transmitter of those perceived values. In Vamsha vriksha, the devotion and respect of a young widow for her father-in-law and the understanding of the elder for the aspirations of his daughter-in-law convey the feelings of the emerging, evolving India with its gradual acceptance of women’s emancipation and widow remarriage. The importance of the male heir in an Indian patriarchal family is another aspect of the film Vamsha vriksha. The absence of a parent in a child’s life is yet another aspect studied through two contrasting examples in the film. And, finally, there is an unenviable choice for a young Indian Hindu widow to take--whether to deprive a loving family of their only grandson or to live with her son and new husband, bringing sorrow to her first husband’s family. The dilemmas offered in the film are not particular to Karnataka where the Kannada language is spoken but could be applicable anywhere in India or even in other parts of the sub-Continent.

Most Indian critics sideline Vamsha vriksha partly because quality Indian cinema is often associated with three languages—Bengali, Malayalam and Hindi/Urdu—and partly because the better Indian critics and scholars are more comfortable with those afore-mentioned languages. Vamsha vriksha is forgotten today because it was made in Kannada language and its main actors were the directors themselves.

For this critic, Vamsha vriksha and another Indian Golden Lotus/President’s Gold Medal winner, M.T. Vasudevan Nair’s Malayalam film called Nirmalayam (1973) are two important Indian films that have been deprived of international and national recognition in recent decades. Both discuss Indian society and its affinity to the Hindu religion as Ingmar Bergman would in his films on Swedish lifestyles and Christianity. (This critic has often compared and contrasted the ending of Nirmalayam with that of Bergman’s Winter Light--1962.) But the core strength of Vamsha vriksha comes, not from the directors or the actors, but from the Kannada novel by S. L. Bhyrappa, on which the film hangs. The novel’s name, used for its English translation, is The Uprooted.

Girish Karnad is arguably one of India’s finest playwrights ranking alongside the Hindi playwright Mohan Rakesh. Karnad could envisage how the novel could be dis-aggregated into poignant sequences to make an impact on the screen. Karnad and Karanth, like Bergman, had an affinity for the stage, but knew what cinema could achieve which the theatre could not. The last sequence in the film, one of the most evocative sequences in Indian cinema, could not have been achieved on stage—only cinema could record that. That sequence transcended tragedy as it made the viewer review all the values of Indian society. But what was more important for this critic was that final sequence could easily be considered to be parallel to the end of Shakespeare’s King Lear or Bergman’s Winter Light. Several parts of the film rely on movement of the actors, the camera angles, light and shade, rather than the spoken words. It is a remarkable directorial effort, rarely encountered in the annals of Indian cinema. It is a film that indicates a sophisticated mind behind the camera pulling together diverse visual segments that add up to more than the sum of its parts.

However, the true majesty of the film rests on the central character of the film—the patriarch of the film. He is a devout husband, a son who respects his dead father and prays for him on each death anniversary, a caring father-in-law and a doting grandfather. He is steeped in tradition and very religious. Even when his wife urges him to sleep with her handmaiden because she cannot do that for medical reasons after the first child is born, he refuses (compare and contrast it with the almost similar tale of Sarah and Abraham, in the Christian/Jewish/Islamic scriptures). What then, can lay low such a morally tall and charismatic individual?

The true hero behind the film is indeed the writer of the novel--- S L Bhyrappa. The novelist’s development of Katyayani (played by a charming Kannada actress, L.V. Sharada) who breaks free from the shackles of widowhood with tact and consideration for her late husband’s family but loses the companionship of her son, was used by the novelist as a pivot for the see-sawing tales of two families both having to weather moral turpitudes in different contexts. Shame and scandal in families, rich and poor, occur worldwide. But Bhyrappa weaved together the myriad psychological and philosophical strains that a family tree bears on its branches. The film and the novel might expose the reality under the surface of strong cultural values but they do not undermine the role of the tree preserving the cultural values for generations. For Ingmar Bergman in Winter Light, the priest continues his vocation at the end of the film following his personal social and religious turmoil. For Bhyrappa, Karnad and Karanth, in Vamsha vriksha, the family tree does not get uprooted---a grandson following his cathartic moments of losing his mother still cries out for his grandfather, although there is no response. The family tree continues to serve in preserving social and cultural values through the generations.

Vamsha vriksha is one of those rare works of Indian cinema that can match international standards in content and style and can be a rewarding experience for a viewer even after the film gets over. And surprisingly, both Vamsha vriksha and Nirmalayam are two movies that rarely get mentioned in any serious discussion of Indian cinema.

P.S. Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light was reviewed on this blog earlier.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

115. Russian director Aleksei Popogrebsky’s film “Kak ya provyol etim letom” (How I Ended This Summer) (2010): Psychological cinematic perspectives on old vs. new, and duty vs. freedom

For the entire duration of this captivating film that won the Golden Hugo at the Chicago Film Festival and the Best Film award at the London Film Festival, the viewer sees merely two individuals, one young (Pavel) and the other (Sergei) much older, old enough to be the other one’s father.  Both are living on a remote island inhabited perhaps by polar bears and nothing else. Then you don’t get to see the bears (except once), you only hear conversations between the two men about bears. One is a university student, the other a meteorologist. The only other human beings that intrude the script are the voice of a man on the mainland who keeps in touch with the denizens over a fragile radio wavelength. The conversation on the radio link is often limited to transmitting scientific data that seems to include meteorological data as well as radioactivity captured on a Geiger counter.

Director Popogrebsky presents a film that first engages you visually. Popogrebsky’s two major collaborators on this film, as on his earlier film Simple Things, are the cinematographer Pavel Kostomarov (winning a Silver Bear for this film at Berlin Film Festival 2010 and the Golden Eagle in Russia) and composer of music, Dimitry Katkhanov. You first see the sea and the land and you marvel at the natural beauty of the landscape, goaded along aurally by the music on the soundtrack.  Then the director shows you rusty contraptions that are buzzing, emitting sufficient radioactivity to make a Geiger counter come alive to produce frenetic, rapid clicks. No words are spoken but the message is gently conveyed—you, the viewer, are being introduced from beauty to ugliness. Later you are shown fields full of old jerry cans that contain liquid fuel, also rusting, all left behind years ago—a graveyard of junk that had once served many people in the past. But where are those people? The people who erected the radioactive contraptions, the sheds, the few buildings, where are they? And why is a young university student carrying a Geiger counter, while listening to rock music? You are introduced to images that remind you of the dead terrain of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. If you think the connection is outrageous, you will see the video game played by the young man is also called STALKER.
Popogrebsky has made the film using his own script and is evidently influenced by Tarkovsky. He presents a tale of confrontation between two individuals who come together by fate on this lonely yet lovely corner of the world. The viewer is introduced gradually to a father-son relationship though the two are not related. You note that the old man belongs to the old school who believes in gathering and transmitting the facile data to a faceless recipient, miles away. The young man has his clear order of priorities--music, video games, sleep and lower on the priority rung, gathering and transmitting correct data. You anticipate confrontation between the flag of freedom and the flag of rules. Instead you see teacher-student, a father-son relationship that appears to develop, even though in the old school the elders taught the young using fear tactics to keep the young ones in check. It is easy for the viewer to note that the young man has a growing respect for the elder, who has a wife and child. You feel director Popogrebsky is now treading close to Andrei Zvyaginstev’s cinema (The Return).
But the psychologist in Popogrebsky surfaces later. The young man learns from a radio message that the old man’s wife and child are killed but for a strange reason does not convey the information immediately to the elder man. Why is that? Is he afraid of causing misery to a man who had gone fishing trout to salt and take that precious catch to his wife and child as a gift? Or is it that the old man has been tough with him?
The delay in revealing the facts and the eventual transmission of the vital information leads to events that provide a thriller element to the essentially psychological tale. But the film is able to go beyond the level of a thriller—a tale of an old man who was provided delayed information on the death of his loved ones by a young man whom he treated as a son.

Popogrebsky falls into trap of his own making. The script is written as from the viewpoint of the young man. Within that scope, the story unfolds from the perspective of the young and not of the elder individual. In case Popogrebsky had not resorted to this format and had presented the story as a third person’s view of the tale, it is possible the movie would have had a different impact on the viewer. Tarkovsky adopted such a perspective in his last film, The Sacrifice, where the film is from the father’s point of view while Zvyagintsev attempted it with a flourish in The Return, where the entire story was from the elder son’s point of view. But unfortunately Popogrebsky avoids extensive analysis of the narrator, a flaw that is not so obvious in Tarkovsky and Zvyaginstsev. But all three films/directors were dealing with similar themes: old vs. new, father vs. son, political allegories, etc. While Popogrebsky is able to convey the dark message of radiation poisoning, the final sacrifice of the elder for the younger and end the film with visual optimistic message of a dark sky becoming bright, the focus of the film is turned at the end toward the elder of the duo.        
The captivating film ends with the narrator in a position to write a university paper on how he spent his summer on an island with an elderly man. Is the old man psychologically unstable or is he a very wise old man capable of making decisions the import of which dawns on others much later? It even tends to glorify the lonely, elderly widower slowly dying of radiation on an isolated island. What Popogrebsky, the psychologist, does to the viewer is to make viewer think why young people refrain from doing certain actions. Is it fear? Is it empathy? Is it love? Or is it a flaw in all of us human beings that makes us stumble at a critical point in our lives?

However, if you want to enjoy the film at a different level replace the young man with modern Russia and the elder with the erstwhile Soviet Union, and ask yourself the same questions. The radioactive, rusty machines could then appear meaningful for the viewer than a mere art director's prop. This is precisely where both Popogrebsky's film How I Ended This Summer and Zvyagintsev's The Return reach a point of confluence. 
While Popogrebsky may not be of the same class as Tarkovsky or Zvyagintsev, there is no denying that he is a notable Russian director. Evidently he has a tremendous verve in dealing with actors: both his actors in this film won a Silver Bear each for acting at the Berlin Film Festival—a rare achievement. And Popogrebsky had done this before, as the actor in his previous feature film Simple Things also won best actor awards at two festivals. I do hope that Popogrebsky’s next work improves on this one—he is younger than Zvyagintsev--while continues to work with cameraman Kostomarov and composer Kastkhanov. They make a great team behind the camera.
P.SAndrei Zvyagintsev's The Return was reviewed earlier on this blog.