Thursday, January 26, 2012

124. Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “Elena” (2011): The third riveting film from a talented filmmaker who makes any perceptive viewer sit up and enjoy layers of meaning

Designer Sam Smith's favorite poster of the film/(courtesy MUBI)

Andrei Zvyagintsev is one of the most interesting among active filmmakers today. He has only made three feature films. Each of those three films is built, to put it in literary terms, on the scale of a novella rather than an epic novel. Each film delves with aspects of family bonding—or at least that provides the least common factor for the tales, only to multiply and amplify on aspects of an individual’s life beyond the family, subjects often relating to psychology, politics, sociology and religion. And that is what makes any Zvyagintsev film interesting—its universality and its inward looking questions, all open ended for the viewer to ponder over after the movie gets over. And Elena is true to that spirit.

Famous Russian novels (later made into films) often had for their titles mere names—Anna Karenina or Dr Zhivago. But those novels went beyond those ordinary names. (A few US films, such as Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, also used ordinary individual’s names at titles of movies.)  This is the case of Elena, the movie. Elena is the lead character, an ordinary individual. Yet, she represents much more than a simple individual. She represents a social class, a generation, and the mother hen of a family. She combines diametrically opposing elements of the angelic Florence Nightingale and a cool, calculated villain. Like a Karen Crowder (played by Tilda Swinton) in Michael Clayton, you can spot Elenas in our society.

The basic story of Elena is of a humble matronly nurse who marries a rich man, taking care of his needs from hospital, where they first met during a hospitalization, to his elegant home in the evening of his life. The obvious strand of the story is the social disconnect between husband and wife, even though both are content and obviously need each other. The woman needs the money and social standing of her husband, and the man needs a woman for companionship and personal care and to manage his upscale apartment. The rich man has a “hedonistic” daughter from a previous marriage, who still loves her father in an aloof manner and lives her own life far from the “family”. The father, in contrast, cares for the prodigal daughter and is concerned about her future, while he is least concerned about his wife’s progeny.

Elena has her own brood, from a previous marriage. A son, a daughter-in-law, and a grandson with limited means and ability, who seem to survive on Elena’s financial contributions, constitute the other branch of the family tree. After the initial introductions of the state of Elena's extended family, the story of Elena the movie takes off to a higher altitude as the drama progresses from the preliminaries into intrigue culminating in an ending that will make an intelligent viewer ponder over the various events in the film.

To assess the film as a mere tale of two social classes in modern-day Russia would be missing the wood for the trees. It is indeed a tale of the “invasion of the barbarians”—an original title Zvyagintsev had toyed with using. The sharp contrast of the overhead shot of the rich old man in his bed early in the film, with the overhead shot of Elena’s grandchild lying in the center of an oversized bed is only one layer of the rich screenplay of Elena.

If a viewer thought the film was a tale on class inequalities in Russia, it would be relevant to hear what the director has to say on the film.  To quote Zvyagintsev from Elena’s press kit: “This is a drama for today, told in a modern cinematographic language subjecting the viewer to eternal questions about life and death. A monster disguised as a saint, a repenting sinner facing her idols in a temple — how is that for an image of the Apocalypse? The Devil is powerless when he stands before the face of God. Man is powerless in the face of Death. And God is powerless in the face of Man’s freedom of choice. Humanity holds the key to the future of this trinity.” Now, this critic has always held the view that Russian directors like Tarkovsky, Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky, and Zvyagintsev are deeply religious individuals (having grown up in the traditions of Russian Orthodox Church) and their cinema betrays their theological bent even though traditional images of worship rarely appear on the screen in their cinematic works. In Elena, there is a brief sequence of Elena praying but it is fleeting. At a critical point of the film, the train on which Elena is travelling kills a horse on the railway tracks.  A horse killed in an accident might appear insignificant to many. Not so to a Russian filmmaker like Zvyaginstsev who loves to use Tarkovsky-like images of horses one recalls in Solyaris and Andrei Rublyev. For Zvyagintsev and for Tarkovsky, the white horse is a symbol of purity and grace. And the killing of a horse in Elena suggests the fall from grace. The context has to be understood by the viewer.  So is the electrical power failure or outage in Elena’s son’s apartment on Elena's second visit. In Zvyagintsev’s The Return, other Tarkovskian metaphors like the sudden rains were brought into focus.

In Elena, the opening shot is of an apartment viewed from outside, from the perspective of a tree branch. There is a long silence until it is broken by a cry of a bird, a hooded crow (Corvus cornix), if my knowledge of ornithology holds good. The shot of the bird and its cry, are harbingers of the varied metaphors strewn around the film. A crow is never considered a good omen. When the rich man takes out his costly sedan to drive to go to his regular swimming pool, he has to stop his car for a stream of workers who cross the road. Any Zvyagintsev film ought to be enjoyed like solving a crossword puzzle. Every shot is loaded with a silent commentary. The obvious story line of the rich versus the poor is obvious for the less interested viewer.  However, Zvyagintsev has presented through Elena his concern for the diminishing ethical, moral and spiritual values in of the post-glasnost Russia of today.

Zvyagintsev’s choice of subjects and the writer(s) to build his three films gives an insight into the man. His first film The Return was based on a little known Russian duo, who wrote TV scripts. Collaborating with Zvyagintsev, opened up their careers to work later with the talented Nikita Mikhalkov on the Oscar nominated film, 12, loosely based on The Twelve Angry Men. Zvyagintsev moved on to American writer William Saroyan for his next film The Banishment. He used the skills of two other lesser known Russian screenplay writers, Artom Melkumian and Oleg Negin. Between the two writers and Zvyagintsev, Saroyan’s work was transformed into a slightly different tale with so much added punch. He cleverly dropped the Saroyan title of The Laughing Matter and called it by the loaded title The Banishment. Zvyagintsev persisted with Negin on his third film Elena. What Melkumian and Negin did to reshape the Saroyan tale, is accentuated by Negin in Elena, with a host of symbols and metaphors that transport a simple tale of a family into the world of contemporary politics, ethics, social changes and religion. The women characters in all the three Zvyagintsev films are interesting studies: they live to serve men. In Elena, the main female character drives the story-line, even though she lives to serve, first her husband and subsequently her son.

Zvyagintsev’s debut film The Return has all the trappings of the elements that made Andrei Tarkovsky tick and the structured layers of meanings that the film offered were mindboggling. That debut won him the Golden Lion at Venice film festival and 27 other awards worldwide. His second film The Banishment won the Best Actor prize at Cannes film festival. His third work Elena won him the Jury prize at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section, the Grand Prize of the Ghent international film festival and the Silver Peacock for the Best Actress at the Indian International Film Festival, Goa.

These honors themselves indicate that Zvyagintsev is a director who can pick good actors and derive great performances from them. In the first two films, he stuck with actor Konstantin Lavronenko for the main role. He was able to transform an actor with three low profile Russian films into an internationally recognizable actor. For his second film, he chose the talented Norwegian/Swedish actress Maria Bonnevie over Russian actresses and the lady delivered a smashing low-key performance. In Elena, a TV actress Nadezhda Markina was catapulted into role that won her a Silver Peacock and the best actress award at the Asian Pacific Screen awards.

Zvangintsev’s cinema cannot be appreciated sufficiently if one does not notice his constant cinematographer Mikhail Krichman who went on to win a Golden Ossella at the Venice Film Festival for his cinematography in another remarkable recent Russian work Silent Souls (2010). Krichman’s amazing ability to make nature and the natural surroundings come alive in each frame is remarkable. The combination of Zvyagintsev and Krichman is a gift for viewers, just as director Grigory Kozintsev paired with Jonas Gritsius to give us those magnificent Shakespeare films from Russia, Korol Lir (King Lear) and Gamlet (Hamlet).

Apart from actors and the cameraman of Zvyagintsev’s cinema, viewers have been introduced to three remarkable musicians Andrei Dergatchev in The Return, the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in The Banishment, and now in Elena the minimalist US composer Philip Glass. In Elena, Philip Glass’ music comes in stark contrast to a diegetic soundtrack, when Elena heads to the nest of her brood. Philip Glass has never been as breathtaking in cinema as he has been in Elena and Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi.

And that is what makes Zvyaginstev’s cinema a rich total experience—great thought-provoking screenplays, superb visuals, arresting performances, delightful music and a direction that leaves you clamoring for more of such films. 

P.S. Elena ranks as one of the 10 best films of 2011 for the author. Zvyagintsev's The Return and The Banishment  have been reviewed earlier on this blog. The Russian films Silent Souls and Korol Lir (King Lear) and  the US film Michael Clayton have also been reviewed on this blog.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

123. Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s “Jodái-e Náder az Simin” (Nader and Simin: A Separation) (2011): A delightful study of gender differences and the importance of keeping the family together

Iranian cinema has made impressive strides in recent decades and Nader and Simin: A Separation is undoubtedly the crowning achievement of Iranian cinema in 2011. It is not often that any film wins three of the four top honors at a major festival such as the Berlin Film Festival 2011.  Apart from the Golden Bear for the best film,  Nader and Simin: A Separation won the Silver Bears for Best Actor and Best Actress—it only missed out on the Best Director, a redundant award after having won the Golden Bear. The many other awards the film has won include the Silver Peacock for the best director at the Indian International Film Festival held in Goa and the Golden Globe for the best foreign film. No Iranian film has received such an impressive and varied international recognition to date.

There are many reasons to admire this work of cinema. One, it is one of the few Iranian films that has enjoyed equal recognition within Iran and elsewhere. Though the film has slivers of implicit critical commentary on the conditions in Iran today, the mainstay of the film is a social commentary that could take place anywhere in the world. It is probably this fact that led the current government of Iran to allow this film as an official entry of Iran at the Oscars 2012.

The second reason that evokes admiration is that the film is not about a separation leading to divorce, but instead a film on how a wife, Simin, of 14 years desires to be with her husband, Nader, but emigrate from Iran and thus give a fillip to the future of their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh. Another aspect of this social value chain is the bull-headed stand of Nader, who refuses to emigrate because of his ingrained Asian fundamental value of the son's moral responsibility to care for his Alzheimer-stricken father in Iran. Nader’s viewpoint is the derived from the Asian value of parents giving all their efforts and savings for their offspring, quite in contrast to modern western values. The film thus underscores the importance of a family, the love of a mother for her daughter, a son for his father, a daughter for her parents, and an economically weak husband, Hodjat, for his wife Razieh and their daughter.

The third reason that makes the film outstanding is the rapid flow of the realistic narrative, enabled by an ensemble cast that makes the viewer feel the events on screen could easily happen to the viewer as well, in any geographical context. There is not one moment in the film when the viewer would feel bored. The amazing script enraptures the viewer as a thriller would while the film exudes realism that is easily identifiable and credible.

The fourth reason is that the film’s director Asghar Farhadi seems to have made his best work to date, with each film he has made being progressively an improvement on his previous work. This work finally catapults him to a level where he can rub shoulders with finest of Iranian filmmakers: Mehrjui, Kiarostami, Majidi, Panahi, Naderi, the Makhmalbaf family, and Jalili. The success of this film will definitely help to bring into international limelight the finest of Iranian cinema to audiences who are unaware of its stature.

There is no dull moment in this Asghar Farhadi film. The film opens with a court scene, where a magistrate is only heard on screen, not seen (a craft perfected in a superb Iranian 2004 film by director Mohsen Amiryousefi called Bitter Dream). What is not seen is a deliberate effort by the director to hide the less relevant details and focus instead on the more important.  The magistrate asks Simin (played by the beautiful Leila Hatami, who has played roles for Mehrjui and Kiarostami in the past, and is a daughter of another Iranian film director of repute—Ali Hatami) why does she think her daughter has no future in Iran. The question is not answered by Simin but her body language does. This is the first of the only two overtly political comments that this critic spotted in the film. It is not easy to make an honest film in Iran. Asghar Farhadi seems to walk the tight rope with a panache while others get into trouble with the authorities. 

Nader and Simin: A Separation is a tale of half truths and the impact of these half truths on various individuals, on growing children who look upon their parents as role models, and on relationships of teachers in schools with the parents of their students. It is also a tale of conflicts of class and wealth in society. But most of all,  it is not cinema of escapism, but of reality. The film presents a very real modern day Iran—and this critic has visited Iran on five occasions over two decades on official work related to agriculture, interacting with ordinary citizens, scientists, and a succession of powerful Federal Ministers in that field. Iranians are a very intelligent and admirable people, in spite of the current public intolerance of other faiths. The second evidence of political criticism (if it was meant to be one) in this film that I spotted was the Alzheimer-stricken father of Nader wearing a necktie and being driven in a car in public places in Iran. Why Nader did that is not explained in the film. In Iran, only foreigners wear neckties, as other citizens could face the wrath of the moral police that often terrorize the public.

While much of the film delves into the conflict between two couples--one rich, one poor—arising out of the outraged knee-jerk anger of a loving son (on seeing his father left unattended and fallen on the ground with his hands tied to the bed-rail) expressed towards his female house employee who had neglected her responsibility and stepped out of the house, the film surprises the viewer at every stage like a thriller. A major surprise is when the pivotal figure in the film turns out to be the young girl, Termeh, and not her parents, Nader and Simin, as the title of the film would have led the viewer to believe. Farhadi’s film has made a great leap by allowing a young girl to make the major decision in the film that will affect her parents and eventually her like an adult having watched adults and their behavior. It does not matter what the decision is—what matters is who makes the decision, in a world where the males made all the decisions. (Interestingly, the young girl in the movie is played by Farhadi’s real life daughter.) Ironically, the viewers will recall the film had begun with a woman demanding a better deal for her daughter.  Farhadi has made a film that re-defines the role of women in modern Iran (and why not, when the first Nobel Prize winner in Iran was a woman, Shrin Ebadi!) while men only seem to care and give priority to other men over women (at least in in this cinematic tale).  It is a great film that focuses on women and the girl child in Iran.

Farhadi’s film is one that will have universal acceptance because what is shown on screen will appeal to most viewers worldwide. The performances are truly outstanding. The editing is equally commendable. And for Farhadi to have developed the tale from real life observations the effort is commendable. True to the director’s recent trends in exhibiting improved abilities with each film, I hope the next Farhadi film outdoes this film in overall merit. Farhadi seems to have raised his own bar for his next jump.

P.S. Nader and Simin: A Separation ranks as one of the 10 best films of 2011 for the author. Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly was reviewed earlier on this blog. Iranian films by Mehrjui, Kiarostami, Panahi, Naderi, Amiryousefi, Makhmalbaf, and Majidi have been also been reviewed earlier.

P.P.S. When this author queried blogger MKP at The Film Sufi on the curious necktie scene mentioned above, MKP replied "You make an interesting point, Jugu. Since the Revolution, Iranian authorities and moralizers have endeavored to establish a social norm opposed to men wearing a necktie, which is deemed to be too “Western” and not in alignment with the principles of the Revolution. You do occasionally see some people, particularly in places like Tehran, wearing ties, but they are usually older people whose practices date back to the “old days”, when it was more common among the progressive middle classes. Nader’s allowing his father to wear a necktie would presumably reflect his filial loyalty. And it would also probably subtly underscore the class distinction between his family and that of Razieh in "A Separation" - Asghar Farhadi (2011)"