Friday, February 22, 2013

140. Uruguayan director Rodrigo Plá’s “La Demora” (The Delay) (2012): Meaningful and mature cinema that has universal relevance

An evocative poster of the film at the Berlin Film Festival
The conventional poster

Uruguay is not a country that one would easily associate with great cinema.  Even for Latin American standards, Uruguay cannot boast of major cinematic works.  And yet, Rodrigo Plá’s La demora (The Delay) offers without any doubt a major Uruguayan contemporary counterpoint to Michael Haneke’s Amour (Love), both films made in the same year, both major winners on the film festival circuit, both offering quality cinema that will grip the viewer right up to the end.

While Amour dealt with uxorial love, The Delay is all about paternal love. Both films deal with the problems of the elder citizens today. While Amour dealt with the problem within the economic comforts of a small Parisian apartment where the principal characters could afford hospitalization, home nurses, a baby grand piano, a good music system, and a concierge to buy groceries, The Delay pushes the viewer to the bitter realities of the Third World. These Third World realities include possible loss of a job that economically sustains the sizable family, the costs related to bringing up three young children by a single parent, old age homes in Montevideo (Uruguay’s capital) that are either too costly or are over populated with severely incapacitated elders to accommodate a less severe case of an old man struggling with the onset of dementia. While the world goes gaga over the subject and storytelling of Amour, the Uruguayan film The Delay is comparatively a lesser known and lesser celebrated cinematic work that underscores several social issues Haneke’s more sophisticated work never dealt with.

A modern "King Lear" played by first time actor Vallarino

One of the key issues The Delay deals with is with the travails of a single parent. At no point in the movie do the viewers get to know anything about the children’s father. Is he dead or alive? Was the mother married? Neither does Maria, the “Mother Courage” who is in her forties in this movie, ever talk about him or even indirectly refer to him. Rodrigo Plá’s film built on Laura Santullo’s script is very clear: the focus of the film is the relationship between a daughter and her aging father, just as Haneke’s film zooms in on the husband and wife relationship. All other characters in both films are mere foils to build the central relationship. The Plá-Santullo script includes a brief plea from Maria to her married sister to help take care of their father and the response is negative. The interaction is not so much to introduce and delve on the sister, but more to reiterate the situation of Maria and her commitment as a daughter to take care of her dad and her household of three growing kids all dependent on her as the sole breadwinner.  The script is equally silent on the absence of Maria’s mother—one can only assume she is dead.  So is the script clever in sidestepping the relationship of Maria with a male admirer, now married, who remains Maria’s only help in emergencies.  The script is equally clever in sidestepping the obvious action Maria ought to have taken in her search for her father, which she does at the end of the film. But then it is this cleverness that makes the film tick.

It is interesting to compare the scripts of the two films Amour and The Delay even further.  The response of Maria’s sister in The Delay contrasts starkly with the daughter of the old couple in Amour—both are averse to taking direct responsibility of the parent in distress and in urgent need for care.  The European and the economically stable frameworks presented in Amour’s screenplay offer a convenient way out for the daughter—place the parent in an affordable old age home. In The Delay, even for the less caring of the two daughters, the option would be to take care of the parent herself—which she refuses point blank for reasons never discussed in detail in the film. 

Maria (actress Blanco) combining "Cordelia" and "Mother Courage" 

The financial stress for the family plays a major emotional chord in The Delay, even though Maria’s family is not extremely poor by Third World standards. Maria works as a tailor/seamstress for a struggling medium-sized company and what she earns has to be hidden away in her stockings so that the money is not stolen or misspent. Even this hard earned sum gets almost destroyed when the stocking is put into the washing machine accidentally.  Director Plá and scriptwriter Santullo are able to weave in the financial stress and wry humor into the larger tale with a felicity that is commendable.  A hair-dressers wife in the movie wryly snaps at her husband (Maria’s long-term admirer) by stating that the value of his modest establishment has just hit the sky on the New York Stock exchange. And yet director Plá is not showing the warts of Uruguay’s less endowed environments but instead the middle class parts of Montevideo, clean and well maintained.

While Michael Haneke’s script of Amour focused on love between husband and wife, the Plá-Santullo script of The Delay deals with a similar love of a daughter for her father slipping further into dementia and/or aggravation of the Alzheimer’s disease. The financial stress leads to a sudden impulsive decision by the daughter Maria in The Delay, which is not very dissimilar to the sudden act  of the husband to end the misery of his wife in Amour. A viewer of The Delay could wonder where the love of the caring daughter seems to vaporize from that impulsive point onward.  And it is this brief switching off of the parental love in The Delay and the final resolution of the tale that makes the film admirable. The film provides sufficient clues that there is no fracture in the love between daughter and father. In fact, Maria is not just a daughter to her father but a “mother” to her father.

But how does director Plá make the script come alive? He gives ample footage to prove that the father has faith in his faithful daughter, like a Lear for his Cordelia.  He can wait and brave the cold and desolation in the faith that his daughter will ultimately rescue him. Even the sequences of strangers trying to help the old man are to no avail—the old man has faith in his daughter.  He is convinced that the true love resides is in his daughter’s heart, a love stronger than that of well meaning strangers. The old man not only refuses food and shelter but also urinates unwittingly while sitting on a park bench in the cold winter night and wants someone to clean him up, possibly the way his daughter would have done if he had done this in his daughter’s apartment. The director Plá’s ability to capture these feelings in a lonely cold urban landscape makes The Delay a major cinematic work of the year.

Unlike Haneke’s Amour, which had top class actors for Haneke to manipulate, director Plá had only actress Roxano Blanco (playing the lead role of Maria) who was a professional actor. Maria’s father, Augustin, is played by a first time actor Carlos Vallarino. Perhaps Mr Vallarino’s lack of confidence in front of the camera helped in portraying the forgetful and genial old man in the evening of his life. It is not surprising that some of the awards at minor festivals for this film have gone to Ms Blanco (at the Biarritz Latin American Film Festival) and to Mr Vallarino (at the Hamptons International Film Festival).  The more significant awards the film has picked up include the Celebrate Age Prize at the Mumbai International Film Festival, the Ecumenical Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival 2012, and the Best Director Award at the Pune Film Festival 2013–all deservedly for Rodrigo Plá—and the Best Screenplay Award for Laura Santullo at the Lima Latin American Film Festival. The spectrum of awards won on three different continents by this amazing little movie could not have accentuated its inherent strengths any better. It is a lovely counterpoint to Amour “sung” visually in a different style to highlight the sufferings of the elderly and the travails of those who try to ameliorate their pitiable condition.

P.S. La Demora (The Delay) is one of the top 10 films of 2012 for the author. It was also Uruguay's official submission to the Oscars 2013.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

139. Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s “Dupa dealuri" (Beyond the Hills) (2012): Beyond the obvious

Romanian cinema produces fascinating movies from time to time. Beyond the Hills is one of them.  There are several reasons why this film is remarkable.

First, it is amazing to have a film with two women, who have never acted in a movie before, to face the cameras and do a job that is so convincing on screen that they both walk away with the prestigious Best Actress Award at Cannes Film Festival, 2012. So what, a cynic could exclaim.  The fact remains that the two ladies won the award when they were competing  against a rather outstanding performance of Ms Emanuelle Riva in Amour (Love), a rare performance that even the American Oscars felt worthy of nominating for the Best Actress Oscar, even though Ms Riva was performing in a movie in a foreign language.

The postures tell a tale of award-winning performances

The two Romanian actresses in Beyond the Hills are Cosmina Stratan (playing an angelic nun named Voichita) and Cristina Flutur (playing a not-so-religious and emotionally unstable Alina). These two can glue the viewer to the screen for the entire duration of the movie but the credit for their outstanding performances truly goes to their director Cristian Mungiu.  In an interview for New York Times, Mungui stated “We rehearsed a lot during casting, read a lot, and I acted a lot for them, so I am giving them directly the tone of voice, the energy, the rhythm, the body language that I want. Guidance, but not with words. I’m not telling them what to do, I show them how to do. But it’s fair to say that by the end, I had adapted as much to them as they adapted to me. We did what was there in the script, but each time it wasn’t possible to get the dialogue exactly right, I was adapting what I wanted to do and editing the scene to what they could do. Because you can’t push onto the actors something that does not belong to them.”  This is what this critic believes contrasts the performance of Ms Riva in Amour versus the Romanian actresses in Beyond the Hills, the difference between the effort of an amateur and a professional. And yet the amateur can perform well under the right mentor—in this case, the director Mungiu.

Second, Beyond the Hills is important cinema not just because of the acting of the two budding actresses who grabbed the Cannes center stage for their undeniable achievement in acting but because of the unmistakable strength of Mungiu’s screenplay in the film (which incidentally won the Best Screenplay Award at the Cannes festival for the director).  The story of the film ostensibly is based on a true life incident in Romania picked up by a journalist Tatiana Niculescu Bran and later turned into a “non-fiction” novel by Bran. Now Bran apparently brought to light a bizarre set of real incidents in a small Christian Orthodox monastery where a girl dies following an “exorcism” done by a group of not-so-educated nuns and a priest. Mungiu’s amazing screenplay takes Bran’s journalism and a subsequent novel to a different plane beyond the incidents. The film asks the viewer the most discomforting and an important unspoken question “Who is responsible?” which is underscored by the final shot of the film of the windscreen wiper following a seemingly innocent conversation between two policemen in a closed vehicle.

Questioning the status quo

The simplistic answer to the “who is responsible” question for many viewers would be the nuns and the priest, belonging to the Orthodox Church living in Moldavia in the twentieth century post-Communist Romania who carried out the exorcism in their blind belief that what they were doing was right, just as the Catholic Church committed atrocities during the days of the Spanish Inquisition in the fifteenth century in Iberia. Yet Mungiu’s script is actually neutral towards the Church. It does not condemn the pious but it condemns a host of ills within the Romanian social fabric. It condemns isolation from development in various spheres, including the world of medical care and the rehabilitation of orphans, religious and atheist and the general lack of education of the denizens of the monastery. 

Beyond the Hills encourages the viewer to ask questions on blind acceptance of priests (of all religions by the extension of this particular vivid example) and their interpretation of religion, the dangers of well-meaning people wanting all to fall in with a particular priest’s line of thought, which actually is a reflection of the Communist mindset that the Romanian people endured for decades.  The director Cristian Mungiu in an interview to Indiewire with journalist Christopher Bell said: “I always try to get inspired by life itself and by things I see happening close to me. The film deals with two different ways of understanding love, about abuse, and about what people are asked to do in the name of love. And hopefully it speaks about this desire we all have whenever we make decisions – we hope we make them with our own heads and not in the name of any kind of ideology which can be extreme. It's one thing where you give people the freedom to decide, but to keep them in the state of mind where they think they don't have information, they don't get education. They are free but don't have the means to make the proper decisions. I don't think communism stopped in 1989, it stopped then as a political system but the consequences will be around for a long while."

Third, the script of Beyond the Hills will bring to the mind of an avid film viewer another film made 10 years ago—the Irish director Peter Mullan’s film The Magdalene Sisters (2002), which won the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival that year. Now both Mullan’s film and Mungiu’s film have common threads. Mullan made the Irish film based on his own script just as Mungiu’s work. Mullen’s film ostensibly relates to the Roman Catholic Church, while Mungiu’s movie deals with a monastery run by an Orthodox Christian priest, facing problems with his own Church leaders.  Both films hark back to real life incidents. Mullan’s film was made because Mullen felt victims of Magdalene Asylums had no closure and had had not received any recognition, compensation, or apology, though the victims remained lifelong devout Catholics.

Happiness with the status quo

The moot point both films raise is beyond religion. Even though the events and setting of the stories are definitely religious, both directors point fingers at the society that blindly follow religion. In The Magdalene Sisters, any Catholic girl who is raped and becomes pregnant out of marriage is considered "unacceptable" by society and the girls' parents force them to become nuns (the Magdalene sisters) that offer only a world of strict discipline without any exposure to the outside world. In Beyond the Hills, the acceptance of becoming a nun is assumed to be less forced by society and more of an individual choice—though the choice is an outcome of lack of education that there are options to lead a life other than that of a nunnery. In Beyond the Hills, the two orphan women who take the center stage of the movie, brought up together, seem to have had options. One chose to be a devout nun: another to live with a foster family outside the religious confines.

While the film Beyond the Hills seems to be focused on the events that take place within the monastery, Mungiu’s screenplay explores the mindsets of two sets of doctors/medical fraternity in Romania today, one before the death of the girl and one after the death.  Mungiu's screenplay deals with how an unfortunate orphan is dealt by doctors and by a family who seek to make money out of civil laws that financially help such foster families. The evocative but silent reaction of the dead girl’s brother when informed of his sister’s death is one of the striking scenes of the movie. Mungiu’s interesting screenplay finally settles down to the reaction of the policemen towards the end of the movie. The end of the film might appear to be abrupt, but the windscreen wiper’s inanimate action clearing the dirt splashed on the windshield is a lovely figurative comment on the film’s preceding tale and the shocking conversation between the two policemen about another recent killing in Romania that had nothing to do with religion or religious people.

Finally, the movie is essentially a tale of an individual against a larger group, where the individual loses out. Here, the individual is relatively more educated because she has been exposed to certain options to choose from, whether acceptable or unacceptable to the viewers, and this individual faces a well-intentioned but uneducated group cloistered in old ways, cut off from the world outside. In yet another interesting perspective, the film offers a love triangle involving two orphan girls and God, where predictably the loser is one of the girls. Beyond the Hills, just as the title of the film suggests, lets the viewer look at options beyond the impediments that obstructs one’s vision. Mungiu is not questioning God, he is questioning social controls, just as Mullen seeks an apology from the Church and society for lifelong devout Catholics who had to spend years of suffering just because they were raped and hence not acceptable to Irish society. But Mungiu’s cinema offers a fascinating and seemingly “abrupt” end to a rather long film without external music. And it is the unusual final sequences, which actually contribute to the movie's inherent strength. 

The recent Romanian films Beyond the Hills and Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005) are entertaining examples of social criticism that combines well with superb acting performances and intelligent screenplays.

P.S. Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu was reviewed on this blog earlier. Beyond the Hills is one of the top 10 films of 2012 for the author.