Thursday, December 19, 2013

156. Italian filmmaker Uberto Pasolini’s English film “Still Life” (2013) (UK/Italy): Quietly amazing and powerful cinema

It is not often that you come across a film that looks innocuous at its beginning and then develops gradually into a truly uplifting and amazing work of cinema.

Still Life is a tale of a lower-rung British civil servant John May (his name could well have been John Doe in the US or Joe Bloggs in the UK ), unmarried and yet married to his job with a diligence that makes our own attitudes to work in offices (and homes) look a tad unprofessional in comparison.  The name John May sounds as colorless as is the individual that the director and original screenplay writer Uberto Pasolini gets actor Eddie Marsan to play. The incredible character is a lonely chap working in a small office in UK all alone with files all neatly stacked just as neat and orderly is his small desk with a phone.  And Marsan and Pasolini get around to develop such a colorless individual that some unsuspecting viewers of the movie assumed that the film would be as drab as the character and were seen walking out of the film halfway misled by its quiet beginning. And what a lovely film they missed out on!

Marsan is able to slip into the role of the loner, who ensures that all lonely individuals who die in his official jurisdiction get a proper burial after taking great pains to locate any possible kith and kin to attend the funeral, by either calling up people on the phone or ever visiting addresses he finds in the deceased’s residence. (Marsan had earlier played minor but important roles in Scorsese’s The Gangs of New York,   Iñárritu's 21 Grams and Malick’s The New World.). Marsan, who never smiles in the film, does smile once in the film and what an occasion that is!

Eddie Marsan as John May: Discovering color in "colorless" lives

When May returns to his apartment from work, the viewer is presented a neat and orderly place with the bare essentials, and one even gets to see him eating a meager meal of toast and canned fish. And we also learn that he has been repeating this for the past 20 odd years, and believe it or not, enjoying both his work and his spartan meals.

However, the director Pasolini leaves a crumb trail for the perceptive viewers.That trail, which looks innocuous, is only building up to something unusual, as intelligent viewers would expect. And that Pasolini does deliver at the end of the film, and it's a finale that would make you revisit the earlier scenes with your mind’s eye afresh and enjoy it all over again.

The existential query of a diligent bureaucrat

Who is Pasolini? He is no relation of the famous filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini.  Interestingly, he is a descendant of famous Italian  director Luchino Visconti and is a real life Count, if Wikipedia, is to be believed, and he has worked his way up the movie ladder after being the third Assistant Director for Rolland Joffe’s  The Mission (1986), the producer of The Full Monty (1997) and director of Machan (2008), his debut film that picked up a few minor awards worldwide.

Pasolini in Still Life makes visual statements that border on the comical but is never funny in the conventional sense of fun. These statements are thought provoking and real.  Early in the film, the viewer sees empty churches of various Christian denominations where the priest solemnly conducts a brief funeral service and even reads out a few words of praise about the deceased. We subsequently learn that those words spoken by the priest are actually provided by May after painstakingly going through the deceased’s living quarters like a detective and speaking to people who knew the person when he or she was alive.  Mr May is often the only individual present at each of these funerals.  But May ensures that the dead do get a fitting funeral at the cost of the town's exchequer.

The person sitting behind me in the movie hall was heard commenting: “Look at the empty churches,” mistakenly assuming the visual commentary of the director was on religion. But Still Life is not a film about religion but about old age and the lack of friends and family in the evening of our lives. Even when John May contacts the deceased's  relatives and friends they rarely bother to attend the funeral. It is a film that looks at relationships both in life and upon death. It is a film about the uncertainty of our jobs, of being served the pink slip even when you are the ideal worker. It is a film that reminds you that you cannot take tomorrow for granted.

A glimmer of color in the life of John May

Still Life is also a film about essentially good people who remain unmarried and without friends and yet ought to be be be considered as persons who add value to society . Director Pasolini has proven one fact: you can make great cinema if you have a great script with a positive tale and a wonderful performance by an actor such as Eddie Marsan. And Pasolini has a talented composer of music to make the movie even more delectable, his wife Rachel Portman, who had earlier regaled our ears while watching Swedish film director Lasse Halstrom’s two notable works Chocolat (2000) and The Cider House Rules (1999). The power of Ms Portman’s music in Still Life keeps pace with the development of the film’s story and, if the viewer pays attention to the subtle progression in the music, one can anticipate an extraordinary end. The film’s end and the final chords of Ms Portman’s music are truly memorable.

Now Still Life could appear to be a very simple film to many viewers but is it? Still Life captures visual details that can be considered humorous, sofa chairs propped up by books (shown twice in the film), what the elderly consider a great meal on two occasions in the film is toast and canned fish, and when a young man in the mortuary is searching for a four letter world combining death and animal, John May is quick with the correct answer “dodo.”  Visuals in the film are brilliant and evocative: closed curtains of apartment buildings so that no one knows what is happening in another neighbor’s home,  old people looking out of balconies day after day in a vacant manner, streets that seem to empty without children or young couples. It is indeed a Still Life that Pasolini picks to project as a slice of modern England. It is a life where people don’t care about the others. It is a life where officials are quick to spot jobs that can be logically considered redundant in modern society to save money, oblivious of how well someone is executing that particular job, and of the larger value of the job that makes an otherwise drab life colorful, even if the job deals with death of many unsung individuals who fade out without a song. It is a tale that reinforces the fact that the most unimpressive persons can change lives of others if they care to do so–a subject that British director Stephen Frears tried to grapple with limited success in Hero (1992) with Dustin Hoffman playing the lead. It is a British film to the core as it looks at its staid bureaucracy, but with a difference, and it is an European film because Pasolini injects a typical European way to dissect the British subjects, with love and a twinkle in the eye. It has propped up the dwindling British cinema recalling the finer examples of the late Joseph Losey's cinema.

A touch of  "Pier Paolo" in Uberto Pasolini's cinema 

Pasolini’s Still Life is a remarkable film bolstered by an amazing screenplay, astute direction, credible acting and appropriate music. It is the finest film of 2013 that entertains and uplifts the mind of the viewer and it is great to know that there is yet another Pasolini in the world of cinema that matters! It is also a film that shows a director can grow in expertise from film to film as in the case of the Polish maestro Kieslowski who bloomed towards the end of his career. However, it is essential that the viewer watches the film right up to the end to grasp and relish the film’s quiet strength. It was one of the few films that received a standing ovation after the film ended from the knowledgeable audience at the recently concluded International Film Festival of Kerala. Uberto Pasolini had indeed made an impact with those who stayed to watch the film right up to the end.

P.S. Still Life is the best film of 2013 for this critic. It won several minor awards at the 2013 Venice film festival and the award for the best film at the Reykjavik film festival. Still Life won the Black Pearl award (the highest award) at the Abu Dhabi film festival's New Horizons section for "its humanity, empathy, and grace in treating grief, solitude, and death." The citation went on to add  "The film lured us with its artistic sensibility, subtleness, intelligence, humor, and its unique cinematic language." Mr Marsan won the Best British Actor award at the 2014 Edinburgh International film festival. Still Life won the Grand Prix and the Best Actor award at the rapidly emerging 2014 VOICES film festival at Vologda, Russia.  The film, The Mission, in which Mr Pasolini  served as the Third Assistant Director was reviewed earlier on this blog.

P.P.S. The author was delighted to receive a personal "thank you" email from the director of the film Still Life, just weeks after the above review was posted on the internet. The author had neither met nor contacted Mr Pasolini prior to receiving his email.

Friday, December 06, 2013

155. Danish film director Lars von Trier’s film in English “Breaking the Waves” (1996): An unusual, stunning, cinematic ode to all lovers, especially spouses

Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves is just amazing cinema.

It is essentially a film about the relationship of a newly married couple Bess (Emily Watson) and Jan (Stellan Skarsgard). It is an unusual film as it never really bothers to explain to the viewer how this couple met or decided to get married. For the director von Trier and his co-scriptwriter Peter Asmussen, those are not details of importance. For the director and his co-scriptwriter the film is all about the post-marriage events—not what led to the marriage. Even Bess’ sister-in-law Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge) who, we learn as the film unfolds, is the closest person to Bess and lives in the same house, states early in the film following the marriage that she does not know Jan well and that she hopes Jan would take good care of Bess. The viewer soon realizes that Bess is still a virgin right up to her marriage and that Jan too is totally devoted to his bride although they obviously never had sex before marriage, unusual details considering that they are so devoted to each other in a contemporary Occidental scenario. Those are some of the few quaint but important elements of the past about the duo that the scriptwriters reveal.

The marriage

The marriage takes up “Chapter One: Marriage of Bess”, which begins with an intriguing still life shot that soon deceptively comes alive with a helicopter appearing in the sky. On the soundtrack, you hear Mott the Hoople belting out his 1973 rock song All the way from Memphis, which is about losing his guitar (in real life) while travelling to Memphis. Soon the song stops halfway. Much later in the chapter you see Bess impatiently waiting in her wedding gown to greet Jan, who has just arrived from his workplace on the helicopter. The way von Trier uses this chosen piece of music as an intermezzo for his narrative is different and interesting. The director expects the viewer to rewind the film in his mind to pick up the connections. It’s not just rock songs that von Trier employs for his chapter breaks’ soundtracks. For “Chapter Five: Doubt”, the director employs the lovely folk song Suzanne written and sung by Leonard Cohen in 1966 with the words

Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by
You can spend the night beside her
And you know that she is half crazy
But that’s why you want to be there.

Long after the song fades away halfway, the movie presents the “half crazy” Bess trying to seduce Jan’s doctor in his apartment. Again the director expects the viewer to recall the phrases from the song heard a few minutes earlier in screen time to pick up the connections between the almost still life “chapter break” visual, the intermezzo song, and what follows as the narrative of the story within the chapter.

Post-marriage love

Breaking the Waves presents an unusual way to present a tale on screen.

First, while it is structured like a book complete with a prolog, chapters and an epilog, it extends the literary structure to references in contemporary rock and folk music, with lyrics that match the tale that follows within each chapter. Thus, when the chapter is over on the screen, the chapter title and the song add a second level of enjoyment /entertainment in an overt way. One could argue that all intelligent directors do the same when they deliberately choose a song or piece of music in a movie. However, unlike most other filmmakers, for von Trier the musical introduction is used as a precursor to what is to follow—unlike most other directors who would use the music synchronously with the visual tale. If one studies the structure of the film closely, the prolog of the film before Chapter One begins has Bess responding to the question of the elders of the church posed to her as to what Jan and his friends who are outsiders to the Scottish community have “brought of real value” with a simple answer: “Their music.” Those words do not make much sense to the viewer nor to the church with a bell tower and no bells in it make sense until the epilog of the film when the viewer hears glorious sound of the church bells ringing. The screenplay is well crafted. Somewhere in between the prolog and the epilog you see Jan and his colleagues are avid listeners of music on the oil rig. Somewhere in between Bess expresses her sorrow to see Jan depart for work by hitting an overhead crane with a metallic rod, and Jan responds by doing the same action and the sound communicates his love for his wife as no words could. That’s great cinema. You realize the importance of sound and music for the filmmaker in developing the film’s narrative.

Chapter break--rainbow and the church steeple

Second, the film is built around one word: “good.” An alert viewer will be surprised at how often that word is spoken in the film. And sometimes, the “good” aspects are highlighted by deliberately presenting the “bad” and calling it as such verbally. In the intermezzo of “Chapter Seven: Bess' Sacrifice” Pink Floyd sings

If you have been bad
Lord , I bet you have
and you have not been good..

The mesmerizing performance of Emily Watson includes the unforgettable “conversation” with God in a darkened church, with Watson employing her dramatic skills of creating the conversation by voice modulation and by underscoring the words “Now Bess, be a be a good girl.” The film develops a fascinating and sometimes thought provoking tale of what is good. It is an essay on being a good wife and conversely a good husband who is empathetic towards his spouse without thinking deeply of the consequences of his demands. In the epilog, the doctor who has been treating and guiding her post-marriage states at Bess’ inquest that her death was caused by being “good” rather than being psychotic or neurotic. While there are sufficient instances in the film to prove Bess is mentally unstable, the film goes beyond the medical condition to explore what is morally and spiritually considered good and, conversely, considered bad. Even Bess has an opinion of “good” in social terms when she says “I have always been stupid but I am good at this

Post-accident love 

Third, the film is quintessentially a film about love in all its myriad forms. There is carnal love. There is exceptional devotional love for God. There is sacrificial love for one’s beloved, in this case the spouse. There is platonic love expressed by Bess’ sister-in-law for her. The key words of Bess in the film as spoken to her doctor are “Jan and me have a spiritual contact. I choose for myself. To give Jan his dreams.. I don’t make love with them; I make love with Jan. And I save him from dying.” Jan himself acknowledges “Love is a mighty power.”

Love for God: conversing with God  in a darkened church

Finally, the film is a debate on religion. The pious does seem to act in a way that results in a miracle after medical opinion is initially quite unsure of a positive outcome. It is a film about questioning the Church’s (is it Calvinist?) treatment of the dead who have obviously sinned while alive. Bess enters the packed Church midway into the film dressed as a prostitute and on hearing a part of the sermon shouts “How can you love a word? You cannot love words. You cannot be in love with words. You can love another human being. That’s perfection.” These are words that need to be put in context with the words of the priest at Bess’ wedding commending her love for God expressed by her selfless actions in keeping the same church clean over a long period. The script obviously parallels actions of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and to some extent, Joan of Arc. The movie thus questions aspects of religion as much as it affirms it. To be more precise it is Lars von Trier’s personal look at what constitutes “good” in religion and in marriage.

The modern Mary Magdalene

And when Lars von Trier deals with “good” subjects he is more than a good filmmaker. The bells toll.

Any analysis of Breaking the Waves will be incomplete without praise for Emily Watson’s performance. Though this was the first regular movie role for her, it is sad that she was nominated for an Oscar and that she did not eventually win it. This is a spectacular film performance from a good stage actress (most of them give great turns in cinema by a rule of thumb). Perhaps von Trier should be congratulated on his casting skills and directorial skills in eliciting flawless performances from the entire cast. Lars von Trier can put some viewers off in some of his films but this one is a winner all the way. It could, despite its nudity and adult theme, even serve as a text for students of theology to mull over while discussing love, marriage and being “good” in the sight of God as much as a medical case of analyzing neurosis/psychosis.

The film won the Cannes film festival’s Grand Prize of the Jury in 1996 and the European film awards for best film and best actress, awards that stand out among some 43 awards won by the film worldwide.

P.S. The movie is one of the author’s top 100 films.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

154. US director Bob Rafelson’s “Five Easy Pieces” (1970): One of the finest examples of screenplay-writing from Hollywood

A lot of thought goes into writing a good screenplay. Unfortunately movie directors often walk away with the credit that ought to be shared with the screenplay writer first unless, of course, the director comes up with a cocktail of visuals and music that takes center-stage pushing the script into the background. Among the best of American screenplay-writers that come to ones’s mind are Horton Foote (Tender Mercies and To Kill a Mockingbird) and Ernest Lehmann (Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf?).  Another brilliant screenplay-writer in the same league was the late Carole Eastman (credited under her pen name Adrien Joyce), who wrote the screenplay of Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces. Going by the movie credits, the original story was co-written by Rafelson and Eastman, which was developed into a screenplay by Eastman.

Nicholson as Bobby Dupea, the blue-collar oil worker

Carole Eastman’s screenplay is simply brilliant. For nearly half of the film, she builds the character of Robert ("Bobby")  Eroica Dupea (played by Carole’s real-life friend, Jack Nicholson). The viewer is gradually convinced that Dupea is a blue-collar oil rig worker. The spoken words, the accent Nicholson employs for the first half of the film, and his body movements betray no evidence whatsoever that he was brought up in sophisticated white-collar world of fine tasteful living.

Nicholson as the blue-collar oil industry lout yelling at every one, even dogs

The first indication of the real “Bobby” Dupea is when he gets agitated at being caught in a traffic snarl, gets out of his car, and starts clambering up on another car before the owner yells at him to get off, only to get on the back of a truck carrying household goods that include a piano. The sight of a piano transforms the character of Booby and he sits down in front of the piano and plays Chopin’s Fantasy in F minor. The viewer is likely to be shocked for the first time—how come this blue collar oil-rig worker can play Chopin without notes minutes after he was ranting and raving as an ill-mannered ruffian. And Dupea gets so involved in playing Chopin that he does not realize that the traffic is now moving and that the truck he is in on is pulling away in a different direction to his friend’s car. Hats off to the brilliance of Carole Eastman to build up a character and then gradually peel off the made up personality of the oil-rigger Dupea so effectively and in such a dramatic manner!

If the viewer rewinds to what Eastman and director Rafelson have offered up to that point in the movie, Dupea’s disdain for Rayette‘s (Karen Black) Tammy Wynette songs suddenly makes sense. Dupea’s taste for music is apparently notches higher than that of Rayette—a fact that seemed clouded by Rayette’s not very bright demeanor.  But the strength of the screenplay is not limited to the mere ability of the writer to shroud a character and then reveal it. It is also in the second part of the script/movie that we realize that Bobby’s character is not just refined but smart, when he ia ble to order his omelette and toast when the combination is not available on a restaurant menu apart from revealing what he is used to having for breakfast with his real family.
The transformation of Bobby (Nicholson) is evident when he wants a more
sophisticated breakfast than what's on the menu, as Rayette (Black) looks on 

The deeper strength of the screenplay lies in using music to structure the tale.  The “five easy pieces” refer not to five easy women Bobby Dupea  interacts with (Rayette, the bowling alley girl, the two hitch-hikers and Carl’s girlfriend Catherine)  but instead with five classical pieces of music used in the second half of the film—Chopin’s Fantasy (played by Dupea on the truck),  Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue (played by Bobby Dupea’s sister in the recording studio, while Bobby watches), Mozart’s Piano Concerto no.9 (played by Bobby Dupea’s brother Carl and his friend  Catherine while bobby watches), Chopin’s Prelude in E minor or Op. 28, no.4 (played by Bobby Dupea at the request of Catherine and played on the soundtrack of Polanski’s The Pianist) and finally Mozart’s Fantasy in D minor played briefly after Bobby and Catherine have sex. These are all popular pieces for the piano but they are definitely not easy compositions but apparently given to music students as easy works to practice and master. 

Bobby Dupea proves on two occasions that he had fluent mastery of these pieces, that he was probably the most talented person in the musical family, and yet he had a disdain for all that his well heeled family stood for. He liked the family nonetheless, but he was running away from the comfort it offered to his own world of his choosing.

The brilliant screenplay has the Dupea family names linked to music as the family indeed is. Bobby or Robert Eroica Dupea has a middle name linked to the popular name of Beethoven’s Third Symphony,  Bobby Dupea’s sister name is Tita, short for Partita—a term in music for a suit of musical pieces, and  Bobby’s brother Carl has a middle name Fidelio, the name of Beethoven’s only opera (the very name Kubrick would later use enigmatically in his Eyes Wide Shut).

While viewers would wonder where Bobby Dupea is headed at the end of the film a close look at the Eastman’s screenplay provides all the answers. Bobby tells his sister that he will see his father before heading for Canada; the truck driver says he is heading north of Washington State, which would mean Canada or Alaska; and the hitch-hikers given a lift on Bobby’s car talked of Alaska being “clean.”

The transformed Bobby (Nicholson), suave in actions, speech and dress, as sister "Tita" watches 

Beyond the structure and the references to classical music that encompasses the Dupea family (in stark contrast to the Tammy Wynette world of the simple-minded Rayette), the film presents an alienated but very thoughtful Bobby Dupea. Bobby comes back to comfort a hurt Rayette who is sulking in a car lot alone in the night. Again Bobby could have left behind Rayette before going to see his family but he takes her along. When friends of his family poke fun of Rayette’s mental capacity, he comes to her rescue and rebukes her tormentor. Finally, when he wants to cut off his links with Rayette he gives her his entire wallet. So also Bobby cares for his father and his sister. The script builds up a caring Bobby Dupea, who even rushes to the aid of his male friend who is being chased by two strangers.

The script paints the world of USA upset with the Vietnam War, the Kennedy assassination, the drug culture, and what classical music meant for upper-class elite even if their lives were dysfunctional and lacked communication in contrast to the blue-collar workers who ‘seemed’ to be more responsible about family responsibilities. The long one-sided “conversation” between him and his father who cannot speak is memorable as it defines Bobby Dupea’s character so well “I don't know if you'd be particularly interested in hearing anything about me. My life, I mean... Most of it doesn't add up to much that I could relate as a way of life that you'd approve of... I'd like to be able to tell you why, but I don't really... I mean, I move around a lot because things tend to get bad when I stay. And I'm looking... for auspicious beginnings, I guess... I'm trying to, you know, imagine your half of this conversation... My feeling is, that if you could talk, we probably wouldn't be talking. That's pretty much how it got to be before... I left... Are you all right? I don't know what to say... Tita suggested that we try to... I don't know. I think that she... seems to feel we've got... some understanding to reach... She totally denies the fact that we were never that comfortable with each other to begin with... The best that I can do, is apologize. We both know that I was never really that good at it, anyway..I am sorry it didn’t work out.” And Nicholson breaks down and cries. The end of the film reprises these very thoughts without those memorable words. Equally trenchant are the words sculpted by Eastman for Catherine to describe Bobby “You're a strange person, Robert. I mean, what would it come to? If a person has no love for himself, no respect for himself, no love of his friends, family, work, something... How can he ask for love in return? I mean, why should he ask for it?” The words will be unforgettable for any sensitive viewer even after the movie ends. 

It is easy to misconstrue that the brilliance of Five Easy Pieces solely belongs to director Bob Rafelson, even though it is arguably Rafelson’s finest cinematic work, if not one of the two of his finest works, if one wishes to bracket it with King of the Marvin Gardens. The main architect of this film will remain Carole Eastman, who too, never reprised her feat in writing scripts as she accomplished in this film ever again. Eastman’s screenplays for Rafelson in Man Trouble (1992), for director Jerry Schatzberg in Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970), and for director Mike Nichol’s The Fortune (1975) never got as sophisticated as in Five Easy Pieces. Just like many truly memorable works from Hollywood, Five Easy Pieces was nominated for 4 Oscars but failed win even a single one. It was nominated for in 1971 for Best Picture/Film, Best Writing, Story and Screenplay, Best Actor (Nicholson) and Best Actress (Karen Black for her convincing role as Rayette, the simpleton).

Transformed Bobby: Not relating to the way of life of his upper class family

To his credit Jack Nicholson is simply amazing in this film as when he breaks down in front of his father towards the end of his film. Nicholson might be remembered for his fascinating Oscar winning turns in Foreman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Brook’s As Good as It Gets but his role in Five Easy Pieces needs to be bracketed with those two.

Silent reflection: Rafelson's and Kovac's touches of creative masterstrokes

Director Rafelson went on subconsciously looking for scripts to make a trilogy on the male US adult that would progress from an alienated son (Five Easy Pieces) to brother (King of the Marvin Gardens) to father/stepfather (Blood and Wine) all with Jack Nicholson.  They never equaled the brilliance of Five Easy Pieces, because even though Nicholson was on hand and he had the Hungarian émigré Laszlo Kovacs as the cinematographer, at least for the first two films of the trilogy, because the brilliant Carole Eastman was missing from the matrix.

P.S. Five Easy Pieces won Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture-Drama, Best Director, and Best Actress (Karen Black) among several other awards.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

153. British filmmaker Sir Ridley Scott’s unsung debut feature film “The Duellists/Point of Honor” (1977): An awesome work that has never been given its due

Ask any film-goer familiar with Ridley Scott’s work and the movies he will be associated with are likely to be one of his blockbusters such as Gladiator, Thelma and Louise, Blade Runner, Black Hawk Down, Hannibal, or even Prometheus, all of which Scott directed. But it is unlikely that anyone will have seen or could recall his debut film The Duellists, which if re-released today could possibly make the box office jingle in response to the footfalls of knowledgeable cineastes.

The Duellists is a small budget film that resembles a big budget movie, tastefully photographed with a host of remarkable performances by a handful of talented actors. It is a film with finesse and subtlety rarely encountered among debut films. It is a film that introduces the viewer to a director who loves his craft and can hone it to perfection. It is not surprising that The Duellists went on to win the Cannes film festival’s best debut film award in 1977. None of his later, more popular Oscar-nominated films ever made the competition grade of the Cannes or the Berlin Film Festivals. The Venice film festival thought Scott’s film Legend (1985) was good enough for its competition line-up but the film failed to win any award. If we discount the three unsuccessful Oscar nominations for his later films, the Cannes festival award for The Duellists is truly Scott’s crowning artistic achievement to date. And yet few moviegoers today are even aware of this lovely impressive work that is superior to his later commercially successful works.

Honorably waiting for the duelling opponent to arrive

Now Ridley Scott is not a director who can develop his own original screenplay for his movies. He is one of those directors who utilize published works that are crying out loud to be made into great works of cinema. It takes talent to spot such works, and Ridley Scott found it in Joseph Conrad’s The Duel, a novella of some 60-odd pages. Various directors of repute have attempted to film Conrad’s works and have tasted success—Richard Brooks with Lord Jim (1965), Francis Ford Coppola with Apocalypse, Now (1979) that cleverly in incorporated Conrad’s Heart of Darkness  into a modern Vietnam war tale, Hitchcock with Sabotage (1936) incorporating Conrad’s The Secret Agent, and Polish director Andrzej Wajda with his Shadow Line (1976). Conrad’s written works, like Shakespeare’s works, often make great movies, provided they are well directed. Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Conrad’s The Duel falls in that category.

Directors who choose to film Conrad’s works are interested in delving into unusual human characters:  their moral growth, their hubris and eventually their fall from grace. Conrad did not develop heroes, he developed anti-heroes. Conrad’s father introduced his son to the works of Victor Hugo (specifically Toilers of the Sea)—and although to this critic’s knowledge no literary or movie critic has perceived the closeness of Hugo’s Les Miserables and Conrad’s The Duel, the two works have distinct parallel plot developments.

Playing with light and shadows indoors: the cinematography capturing the mind of the principal character,
 with books strewn on the floor...

..and the picture postcard exteriors of cinematographer Frank Tidy

The Duellists is about two honorable officers Gabriel  Ferraud  (Harvey Keitel) and  Armand d’Hubert (Keith Carradine) of two different  French Hussar regiments of Napoleon’s army.  Ferraud is brash and argumentative, while d’Hubert is quiet and reflective.  That they are excellent soldiers is apparent as the film and novella reveals—eventually over decades both characters get promoted from mere Lieutenants to Brigadiers-General in their respective regiments.  Early in Conrad’s tale, d’Hubert unfortunately was ordered by his superior to arrest Ferraud for having grievously hurt a politically connected man in a fair duel, and d’Hubert does locate Ferruad in the company of a noble lady to reveal his purpose. For Ferruad, this was a dishonorable act as he was shamed in front of a lady, and challenges d’Hubert to a duel forthwith. Thus begins a series of honorable duels between the two officers in the novella/movie.

Ferraud (Kietel)  and d'Hubert (Carradine) duel
Laura (Diane Quick) realizes that "nothing cures a duellist"

No duel is completed as in each duel one of the duellists is grievously hurt. For Ferraud, the duel has to be completed even after decades of incomplete duelling as he sees it as a matter of honor and challenges d’Hubert whenever their paths cross. Armand d’Hubert loses Laura, his mistress, over these series of absurd unending series of duels. Laura had come to realize that “nothing cures a duellist” and even taunts Ferraud as a man who could beat a woman to death.  But at the final duel between the two  principal characters, there is a winner and a loser. Intrinsically the tale is very much like Hugo’s Les Miserables where an honorable convict is pursued by a policeman who believes it is his honorable mission to arrest the convict again, over the decades long pursuit.

Ridley Scott was making his first feature film and he used the adapted screenplay written by Gerald Vaughan-Hughes, a screenplay-writer who had only one obscure but entertaining movie called Sebastian (1968) to his credit apart from some TV movies. One cannot guess how much Scott contributed to the screenplay and how much of the final work belonged to Vaughan-Hughes.  Between the two of them, they recreated a brilliant opening sequence, a fascinating end sequence, and an incredible sequence of the two principal characters meeting in Russia as Napoleon’s army is defeated by the freezing cold temperatures. The visuals—whether it is the white geese in the opening shot or the clouds over a deep and silent river in the final shot—tell a psychological story that complements the actions of the principal characters.

These afore-mentioned three sequences in The Duellists will be indelible from the memory of any student of good cinema. These three sequences show the mettle of the director and screenplay-writer.  The opening sequence is how a young girl, guiding a gaggle of geese, perceives the absurdity of bloody duels between adults—a lovely picture of innocence versus gory games of “honor.” Conrad’s tale was just about that and Scott/ Vaughan-Hughes introduce the viewer to just that only a few minutes into the film.

Similarly, the final scene shows Ferraud (Kietel) contemplating a river flowing below silently for several minutes. Nothing happens. Not a word is spoken. Scott and Vaughan-Hughes achieve in this sequence what most other directors would have achieved with dialog. Here visuals and the silence do the talking.

An innocent girl watches the outcome of a gory duel
Offering a drink in cold Russia to a duelling opponent--honor of a different kind

Similarly the actions of Ferraud and d’Hubert in the Russia sequence reveal the differences and commonality of what honor means to both the principal characters. Again the spoken words are minimized—the verbal interaction is replaced by body movements. This is pure cinema that Conrad would have been proud to see on screen if he were alive—better than Peter O’Toole’s Lord Jim or Marlon Brando’s Kurtz. Scott had chosen Kietel and Carradine over the original choice of Oliver Reed and Michael York because of budgetary constraints, but the performances of the former duo tuned out to be exquisite. So are the brief roles of Albert Finney, Robert Stephens, Diane Quick, Tom Conti, Edward Fox, John McEnery and the late Pete Postlethwaite (in his first screen appearance).  Kietel’s brash and argumentative personality serves as the opposite of Carradine’s reserved and calculating persona of two very honorable Hussar officers.  Ridley Scott was able to guide the viewer inside the mind and soul of the anti-hero in each of us, to re-evaluate the concepts of honor and the variants acceptable to different audiences. Conrad was concerned with differing mindsets that led to the Napoleonic wars, 

The final scene: clever play of light and shadow with not a word spoken 

Ridley Scott was offering the viewer a chance to question why we take “honorable“ positions on various subjects—social and political, and duel to the death. Scott is to be appreciated for this delectable and wholesome film, but more so, the genius of Joseph Conrad that the film brings on screen. A sensitive viewer will dwell on the importance of the final silent scene and that makes the work a treat for the mind of the viewer.

P.S. Richard Brook's Lord  Jim, another adaptation of a Joseph Conrad tale, was reviewed on this blog earlier.

Friday, October 18, 2013

152. Indian film director Praveen Morchhale’s film “Barefoot to Goa” (2013) in Hindi: Accomplishing an unintended comparison of real rural India with urban middle class India

Young Praveen Morchhale evidently wrote an original screenplay for his debut film that was pegged on the tenuous relationships of the typical family as larger family structures of traditional rural India are dismantled into smaller nuclear families in their urban contexts. The sweet grandparent and grandchild relationship gets diluted by distance and economic constraints in the modern developing India. Morchhale’s debut film achieves what it set out to achieve—to underscore the importance of the larger Indian family.

Love through sweets

The film is a tale of two school kids who decide to visit their ailing grandmother in Goa without the knowledge of their parents who live in a modest apartment in Mumbai. It is a road movie with a difference. The kids get on trains without tickets and get off trains without any plan of their next mode of transport to their destination. Director Morchhale is not interested in pre-occupying the viewer with details such as their likely encounter with the ticket inspector—he is interested in moving forward with the journey to Goa, train or no train. Conversations are minimal, but interactions aplenty. In fact, the film is unusually populated with key characters who cannot speak or hear, a clever ruse of the screenplay writer and director to add economy and impact to the film’s narrative or perhaps to indicate that one would not listen to those voices if they could be heard.

Seeking love when parents don't have time for them

But more than that, Morchhale achieved another feat: his script is a rare testament to the unbridled hospitality of the rural and small town India towards strangers put in contrast to the unmindful and hurried world of the emerging urban India. Parents in the big cities have little time for their children, urban families traveling in cars buy roasted corncobs from rural roadside vendors but forget to pay for their order, and harried city police station officers have little concern for mothers who are worried about their missing children because they have been unaccounted for a mere few hours. All this is presented without the script appearing to be a sermon on the eroding values of developing India. Morchhale’s film reminds one of the Algerian filmmaker Amor Hakkar’s lovely 2008 road film La maison jaune/The yellow house, which had, like Barefoot to Goa,  reinforced the contrasting worlds of the uncorrupted and considerate world of rural Algeria with the corruption of the richer townsfolk in that country. In Barefoot to Goa, too, there are glimpses of negative elements in society: shoes of the kids being stolen at the entry point of a temple forcing them to travel barefoot and corruption of the police who demand bribes and free meals, which is contrasted with the innocence of children who free pigeons caught by a benefactor who had given them a free ride on his motorbike without realizing the economic loss their well-intentioned action would cause to their benefactor.

This critic appreciates cinematic works that are based on original screenplays a lot more than adapted screenplays. Barefoot to Goa demonstrates the new generation of Indian filmmakers’ attempt at brevity of detail without compromising on quality of the narrative. The film is able to convey the tale without the crutch of the spoken word in many scenes—the spoken lines are minimized. When the children speak, their words are the bare minimal quantum needed to move the story forward. The end of the film breathes a freshness rarely encountered in Indian cinema—it tells a story without spoon-feeding the audience with a little help from clever editing and intelligent photography.  Barefoot to Goa is not the best of world cinema but is definitely a breath of fresh air for Indian cinema, struggling to survive in a cinematic whirlpool where world cinema is progressing by leaps and bounds.
Dictating a letter to a letter-writer through silence
Barefoot to Goa can be described as a children’s film as the main characters that drive the film are two school kids. Yet the film grapples with issues that are larger than those of small school kids—it deals with family relationships (loss of ties with parents after marriage, lack of empathy towards the old, the bonds of small townsfolk, the valuation of a parent’s role by those who miss out on a loving, caring parent). Sweets prepared by a caring grandmother might be devalued by an irate daughter-in-law but they signify a bonding that economic progress cannot obliterate. The sweets (Indian ladoos) are a prop that raises the film from a mere children’s film to a film that reflects on the values of family bonding that go beyond the nuclear family.

Apart from writing a commendable script, director Morchhale’s direction of the two children played by Prakar and Saara Nahar is commendable as they portrayed body movements that were real and believable without resorting to bouts of tears and merriment. Similarly the role of the mother and irate daughter-in-law (Purva Parag) was brief yet credible. The film might not have had the same impact were it not for the role of the editor (Ujwal Chandra) and the sound editor (Bibek Basumatary). The importance of Barefoot to Goa is in the way the story is presented rather than the tale itself. It is a breath of fresh air for Indian cinema accomplishing much more than it intended.

P.S. The film has been entered in competition in the Celebrate Age section at the Mumbai international film festival, 2013. Amor Hakkar's Algerian /French film La Maison Jaune/The Yellow House (2008) was reviewed earlier on this blog.

Barefoot to Goa - Film Trailer with english Subtitle. from Praveen Morchhale on Vimeo.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

151. Italian maestro Federico Fellini’s “La Strada” (The Road) (1954): Re-evaluating a neo-realist classic by reflecting on the movie’s screenplay

A  half century after La Strada was made and widely accepted as a world classic, the film needs to be evaluated by its content as much as by its often touted “neo-realist” style.  Interestingly, Pope Francis considers La Strada to be the film that he loves the most. Director Frederico Fellini considered this work  to be his most “representative film”, most autobiographical, and one which he had the greatest trouble “realizing” and finding a producer (p. 85 in Edward Murrays’s Ten Film Classics). Fellini also felt close to all the three principal characters in the film (p. 115 in Gilbert Salachas’ Federico Fellini).

First, it is interesting to study the three lead characters--three distinct types of idiots/fools—that Federico Fellini and his co-scriptwriters, Tulio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano, presented us. These are characters  that provide the basic, pivotal elements of the film. What made them create the three major characters? Were these characters fools or intelligent folks playing the fools? Who survives and who does not? Aren’t the three a reflection of the fool in each of us?

The fool Gelsomina--childlike innocence devoid of evil

The first fool in the film the viewer encounters is a woman, Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina), who is childlike and innocent, fatherless and a burden on her single mother, who in turn is struggling to feed her many children. And Gelsomina, the fool, is most eloquent when she is silent. To top it all, she is not a sexually or a physically attractive person.  She is described in the film by another thus “What a funny face! Are you a woman, really? Or an artichoke?” She is the epitome of the innocent fool, unattractive, and yet without a trace of evil. Even the nun who befriends her sees parallels between Gelsomina and herself.

The fool Zampano--all brawn and no brains

The second fool is Zampano (Anthony Quinn), the strongman, who is a brute who uses his brawn more than his brains. Zampano does use his limited intellect to earn his daily bread (he fools his audiences that he is able to breaks chains strapped around his chest  with a physical effort  that could make his eyes pop out) but is not smart enough to be able to recognize true love or thank his benefactors who provide him shelter. He can never consider the consequences of his actions. In the film he is compared with a dog “He is like a dog.  A dog looks at you, wants to talk and only barks.” One could assume that Rosa, Gelsomina’s sister, either fled Zampano’s company or died while working for him. He believes his women can be bought either for sex or for work. He does not realize that he needs long-term companionship until it is too late. When Gelsomina suggests marriage he does not even consider it as an option. The first scene of Zampano in the film La Strada suggests a wicked, street-smart and physically overpowering man “buying” a woman. The final scene of Zampano in the film suggests just the opposite, a vulnerable and sensitive man, lonely and remorseful for his past actions, a King Lear who bemoans the loss of a loved one. Zampano’s eloquence is not verbal, his physical expressions, as Fellini captured them, in the final sequence of the film says more than all the spoken words in the film just as director Arthur Penn captured the essence of his film Night Moves (1975), visually and non-verbally with the brilliant end sequence.

The professional fool Il Matto--well-read but ignorant of his limits of foolery

The third fool is “Il matto” (The fool/The clown), a professional fool, played by Richard Baseheart . The clown is the smartest of the trio and a philosopher. He considers himself to be ignorant but he reads books. He is able to spot the latent capability of Gelsomina . But he is not smart enough to know when he has to stop playing the fool. He is the proverbial jester of a king’s court, intelligent enough to spot talent and grasp universal truths. In the most philosophically important line in the film he states “Everything is useful... This pebble for instance.” When queried as why the pebble is useful, he replies even more interestingly “If I knew, I would be the Almighty who knew all. When you are born, and when you die... Who knows? I don’t know for what this pebble is useful but it must be useful. For if it is useless, everything is useless. So are the stars.”   “Il matto,” the clown, when dying, is philosophically worried that his watch is broken, when it is his skull that is actually broken by Zampano.

Gelsomina is initially not able to play the trumpet but the filmmakers without showing her practising to play the instrument suggests, as the film progresses, that she had become close to the musical instrument (Zampano leaves that trumpet with her as she sleeps blissfully unaware that Zampano  is leaving her). What is more, we also learn later in the film that she has mastered the very musical notes that Il Matto the clown had always played on his miniature violin to make the audience laugh and cry.

Thus La Strada presents the viewer with three kinds of fools: the simpleton, the boor, and the professional clown, who pokes fun at others and at himself, sometimes to earn money, sometimes by habit. Each one of us plays the fool some time in our lives—but we need to identify for ourselves which kind and when we played each role.

Gelsomina playing on her trumpet Nino Rota's touching notes

It is interesting to study how Fellini and his two co-scriptwriters developed the story of La Strada. It is well known that Fellini loved the circus and much of the ideas of La Strada was a result of this fascination. Fellini modeled Zampano’s character partly on a real-life pig castrator, who was also a womanizer.  He had wanted to make a film on a travelling circus. But the concept of Gelsomina was the contribution of Tulio Pinelli, who had seen a tiny woman pushing a cart just as Gelsomina pushed the motorcycle driven van with a tarpaulin cover when it would need a push to start. But it was Fellini who made Gelsomina the dim-witted woman in the tale.  The melancholic irony of La Strada was possibly the contribution of Ennio Flaiano, whose literary works represent that very bent of mind. Thus, the film distills a tale picked up from real situations by three writers to forge an unforgettable story of three unusual characters on the fringes of society, a story delicately  woven to entertain  a wider audience over time, not just the Jury members at Venice Film Festival or the voting Oscar Academy members but even the current Pope.

Zampano and Gelsomina on the road

Is there religion in La Strada? The only obvious religious reference is provided by the nuns who provide Gelsomina and Zampano a place to stay overnight and Zampano rebukes their generosity by stealing from his benefactors. The nun who befriends Gelsomina comments that she views Gelsomina’s purpose in life to be much like her own life with the nuns.  “Il matto”, the clown, sees  Gelsomina’s life having a purpose just as each pebble has a purpose. These are vignettes of philosophy and theology that possibly appealed to Pope Francis who took his papal name after St Francis of Assisi. And at the end of the film, a reflective viewer realizes that the “pebble” of the film did have a purpose, which might not be so obvious to some other viewers.

Nino Rota’s contribution of music to La Strada might not stand out but the theme music first played by “Il matto” (the fool/clown) on a kit violin is the same music/notes that Zampano hears a stranger, a lady drying her laundry reproducing towards the end of the movie.  The strength of Nino Rota’s music is not just the cadence of the philosophical theme “Travelling down the lonely road” but the ability of Rota to capture the mood of the film in those few notes and Fellini’s ability to use the music sparingly and yet so strategically at the right moments in the film to underscore its vitality.

Director Ermanno Olmi, a neo-realist filmmaker of eminence, has questioned has questioned the concept of neo-realism in cinema that utilized professional actors in neo-realist cinema. In that context, where does Fellini’s La Strada stand? For this critic, actor Anthony Quinn has never been as impressive as he was in La Strada and perhaps in a little known Biblical film of director Richard Fleischer called Barrabas (1961). Richard Basehart, too,  has been an outstanding thespian in most films that he appeared in and his role in La Strada is not one that can easily be forgotten. But the real winner is Giulietta Masina, who is able to bring shades of burlesque when presenting tragic realism and slip so effortlessly into a role quite different from her real life. (It is not surprising that she chose to study for a degree in philosophy just as her husband Fellini, who graduated with a degree in philosophy and literature.} Thus, if we subscribe to Olmi’s purist definition of neo-realism Fellini’s favourite work does not fit into a neo-realist mode as La Strada is often considered to represent. Yes, the film did capture the poorer sections of Italy with some honesty, but the recreation of that reality was done by great accomplished actors.

Cineastes today might find it interesting to compare and contrast La Strada with Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Turkish film Three Monkeys (2008). Both films deal with three fools, two males and a woman. Both films have a touch of melancholic irony.  The films are separated by half a century and two religious perspectives but the end result is starkly similar. In both films, the three idiots are the losers at the end of the tale more as a result of their inherent personalities that they cannot control. They are parallel tales with totally divergent contexts. Yet both films offer much for a reflective viewer.

Fellini assesses his wife's transformation into Gelsomina

There is more to the film if we extrapolate the film to the lives of Fellini and his wife Masina. They were in love but their love life was tragic—their only child died as an infant. This apparently affected them unconsciously in their later work and lives. One can definitely assume Masina, a close associate of Fellini and his wife, would have contributed to the screenplay even though she is not officially credited with it. The two musical instruments (apart from the drum introduced briefly) shown in La Strada, were unconsciously linked to them. Masina was a daughter of a violinist mother, though she was brought up by her aunt.  It is therefore not surprising that violin should be one of the two chosen instruments.  And Fellini before his death requested that a famous trumpeter play the notes of Nino Rota from the film La Strada over his grave at his funeral. Masina died soon after the death of her husband and both are buried next to each other and their infant son. It is interesting to note how the unconscious references to one’s life or those close to one’s life creep into screenplays and to study how what the screenplay writer had developed in a screenplays affects him/her in later life. Thus, both the violin and trumpet were not just important facets of La Strada's screenplay but of the filmmakers' lives as well.

La Strada won of Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1957 and the Silver Lion at Venice Film Festival for Federico Fellini.

P.S. La Strada is one of the author’s top100 films of all time.  Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957) with Giullietta Masina, and Pier Paolo Pasolini as its co-scriptwriter, has been reviewed on this blog earlier. Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Three Monkeys (2008) has also been reviewed on this blog earlier.