Sunday, March 17, 2013

142. British film director Ken Loach’s film “The Angels' Share” (2012): A comedy that entertains and makes you think as well

If you get half a dozen viewers of this lovely film together across a table and ask them what the film was all about after they had watched it, you are likely to get up to six different views on the same film. 

One would say it is a comedy. One would consider it to be a caper film. One would call it is a cinematic essay on the virtues of single malt whisky.  Another would see it as a study of dilemmas facing the urban Scottish youth today.  Yet another would see the movie as a critical look at the prevalent judicial system and its inadequate ways to reform delinquents who would love to reform and seek a life far away from the urban violence and gang warfare that they are involuntarily pulled into. A smart guy could interpret the tale as a family film, on the virtues of  looking ahead to build a financially secure future for your nuclear family. And there could be yet another view that this is a lopsided movie where the “bad” guys win. And all of these perceptions of the film would be correct. That is the intriguing aspect of The Angels' Share and that is also its unusual strength.

The reformer spotting the reform-able

If you ask a person of my age, The Angels' Share is first and foremost a lovely fictional tale revolving around Scotland’s most popular and distinct produce:  fine Scotch whisky, and more specifically, single malt whisky. And the film is NOT about people guzzling down the lovely liquid, euphemistically called the “water of life”; the film is instead a very educative movie that reveals all about the complexities of manufacturing it, aging it, grading it, evaluating the better ones by connoisseurs, and finally auctioning the rarest of the single malts (called “Malt Mill” in the movie) for incredible sums to bidders from all over the world, where the cost could be literally higher than gold.

In the words of director Ken Loach provided in an interview to Neil Ridley in the Whisky magazine: Appreciating whisky is about taking great care and enjoying it. It’s the opposite of just getting wasted. So, like anything, it’s about catching the imagination of younger people. It has the added bonus of requiring the drinker to keep focused to discover what they really like. (In the film) we discuss the remarkable longevity and job security often experienced at many of Scotland’s well-known distilleries and the fact that the whisky business is one of the only industries where people have remained with the same employer for decades, helping to maintain the sense of local community in rural Scotland.” Thus, in a way the film is not about whisky per se, but about the workers who are devoted to the industry that has made Scotland and fine whisky synonymous worldwide. Much of the film educates the viewer and would even serve as case studies for human resource management gurus as to why employees of these distilleries remain loyal to their employers—and, perish the thought; it is not because they get to swig the liquid.

One of the first and most important bits of trivia the viewer of the film learns is the meaning of the movie’s title: The Angels' Share.  When good whisky is aged in wooden oak barrels a small percentage of the liquid is lost to evaporation, and the varied flavors that the different oaks used to make the barrel can impart to the liquid ultimately makes the evaluation of the final product so important. The rarest of the single malts are auctioned just the way famous works of art are auctioned and buyers from all corners of the globe bid astronomical sums.  But then is the film The Angels' Share about whisky alone or something else?

The 76-year-old Ken Loach’s cinema (often termed as “kitchen-sink” realism) has been varied if one looks at his body of work. He has discussed the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War in The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006), which won the director the highest honor at the Cannes film festival that year.  His documentary film Which Side are You On? (1985), with the cinematographer Chris Menges,  was based on the songs and poems of the UK coal miners’ strike and the movie went on to win an award at the Berlin film festival after it encountered some stumbling blocks after it was made. Loach’s most important work is arguably Kes (1969), also with cinematographer Chris Menges, a tale of a troubled schoolboy and his pet bird, a kestrel. Today Kes is widely accepted as one of the finest works in British cinema.  In recent years, Loach’s nine film collaboration with Kolkata-born screenplay writer Paul Laverty has been phenomenal. The collaboration includes award-winning films The Wind that Shakes the Barley, The Angels' Share, Bread and Roses (2000), Carla’s Song (1996), Tickets (2005: co-directed by Iranian Abbas Kiarostami and Italian Ermanno Olmi) and Sweet Sixteen (2002),  Loach is definitely a socialist and a Free Thinker. And that is what makes his films tick—not just the subject he chooses but rather his approach to the subject. And going by the recent films, Paul Laverty has contributed considerably to Loach’s work getting increasingly recognized.

The Whisky magazine interview reveals this collaboration further when Loach discusses the genesis of The Angels' Share. Says Loach “Well Paul and I were endlessly nattering about the way of the world and the starting point was the massive alienation that you find among young Scottish people--where they’re often victims of a system that gives them nothing. We spent some time with them and were really struck by their wild senses of humor  how inventive they were and how they don’t fit the stereotype of what you’d imagine. From that, we started to think of a story that would really reflect this and give people a positive view of those who are often disregarded. Paul had the idea of marrying that with the ‘national industry’ and the arcane and extravagant language that whisky lovers use.

Getting the "share"

Therefore, director Loach and scriptwriter Laverty leverage the world of whisky production in The Angels' Share to give the viewer a comedy, a robbery film, and a social study of Scottish youth all knitted well to suit different viewer tastes.  The filmmakers are aware of the problems that face the poorer sections of the Glasgow population, mostly not well-educated and with few job opportunities available for them, caught up in the web of urban petty wars (or call it gang violence) that are generations old and eventually make the youngsters end up as law-breakers. The Angels' Share begins by focusing on the youngsters as Glasgow delinquents who take to drugs and violence and gradually become regular lawbreakers. Later into the film, the socialist Loach presents another contrasting view:  the educated and the rich can be equally doing acts that are against the law. The filmmakers point out that there are unethical criminal minds even among very important people in society who can be connoisseurs of single malt. Therefore, there is not much difference between those accepted in society and the social misfit Glaswegians, who just need a chance to change their lives. Loach and Laverty develop the film’s tale where actions of the ‘innovative’ and struggling delinquents appear acceptable as today’s modern quixotic Robin Hoods, who with their talent are able to conjure up law-breaking acts that forge a pathway to reform themselves and escape getting sucked into a no-win whirlpool of crime and punishment.

It is equally a family film where the new responsibility dawning on a young father makes a life-changing difference in attitudes. A misfit in society suddenly yearns to fit into the very society that would have rejected him through his own ingenuity and a little help from a mentor who has faith in him.

A fellow film-festival junkie was exasperated that he could not follow the merry jokes that pepper the film, which this critic fortunately could, having worked with Scots as colleagues over the decades.  For those who might be watching the film on DVD, it might help if the subtitles are turned on to aid with the comprehension. If you can follow the language in the movie, the film would prove to be a delight apart from some obvious visual humor of police harassment of the kilt-wearing youngsters.

Realism mixing with visual humor

There is an underlying message that the film offers. That message is typified by the character of the community service supervisor in the film. Even the dregs in our society can redeem themselves if one gives them a fleeting chance to do so, especially when they are young, and steer them in the right direction. Some viewers of The Angels' Share might wonder if the ending of the film is an ethical one—but one has to consider the broader canvas of the film that Loach and Laverty have painted on and we realize the film’s stealing angle is only a segment of the total picture. The movie is about a bouquet of subjects—it is even a tale of a "bad guy" reforming as much as it is a classical love story of the hero riding off into the sunset with his spouse and their new born child.

And that brings us back to double meaning of the movie’s title The Angels' Share.  The second meaning of the term in the movie’s context could also be interpreted as the share of the robbery for the true angels in the film. The Angels' Share is a movie that gets you to tap your feet to the music of the Proclaimers’ 1988 song ”I am gonna be/500 miles” that also underlines the optimism of the film embodied by the engaging debut performance of actor Paul Brannigan as the lead character, Robbie, in the film. The film won for Loach the Cannes jury prize in 2012, which is effectively the prize given to the second best film in competition each year. And Loach continues to bewitch audiences and film festivals decade after decade.

P.S. The Angels' Share is one of the top 10 films of 2012 for the author.   

Sunday, March 03, 2013

141. Italian directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s “Cesare deve morire” (Caesar Must Die) (2012): Meta-film at its thoughtful best from the venerable octogenarian directors

Caesar Must Die is a movie that revolves around Shakespeare’s tragedy Julius Caesar and yet it is not a film that unfolds the entire play.  If a viewer, who has not read the play, went to see this movie, the viewer will have a blinkered view of the power of the written work, mainly because the play is never presented in full in this movie. However, a viewer who has read/studied the play will be able to grasp the subtle nuances of the film a lot more than a viewer who is not familiar with the play. Why is that? Why did the film win the Golden Bear for the Best Film at the Berlin Film Festival?

To answer those questions one needs to start with a requisite understanding of where the filmmakers of Caesar Must Die are coming from—what they have done in their past cinematic works and what they are attempting now in this film.

The Roman Senate recreated with prison walls for rehearsals

First, the Tavianis are two Italian brothers, both journalists turned film directors and screenplay writers, who work together on films which have a distinct style of their own. Their unusual style is not easily perceptible to an average viewer, unless the viewer is a keen observer: each brother alternates the role of the director for each scene.  In other words, you are seeing a movie with one scene directed by Paolo, followed by the next made by Vittorio and so on. Yet they are beads of the same necklace—and the viewer appreciates the necklace, not the beads.  Perhaps increased exposure to their cinema will reveal those differences, if any, between the two brothers in their directorial style. 

"Brutus" in the final performance

Second, interestingly the brothers Taviani have consistently shown their attraction to world literature, which they have adapted for cinema with a difference, with their scripts often departing from the original in imaginative ways but rarely moving away from the perspective of the underprivileged/oppressed. One of their finest works, Padre Padrone (Father and Master) (winner of the Best Film at the Cannes Film Festival in 1977), was an adaptation of an Italian autobiographical novel by Gavino Ledda, in which author Ledda himself appears at the end of the film and speaks to the viewers.  Kaos (1984), Fiorile (1993) and Tu ridi (1996) were based on works of the master storyteller and Nobel laureate Luigi Pirandello.  (For the sake of readers who are not well versed with Pirandello, the Taviani brothers honored Pirandello specifically by giving the first film, of the above-mentioned three films, its title Kaos (chaos), because Chaos was the name of the Italian village where Pirandello was born.)   The Sun Also Shines at Night (1990) was an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s remarkable novella Father Sergius, with the additional contribution of the fascinating scriptwriter Tonino Guerra. The duo has made TV films adapting other works of Tolstoy and a book of Alexander Dumas. A recent work, The Lark Farm (2007), was based on the Armenian genocide, again adapted from a bestselling novel by Antonio Arslan.  Therefore, the Taviani brothers choosing to adapt Shakespeare would be no surprise to Taviani watchers but what is amazing is what they do with the written work on screen.

In Caesar Must Die, they use Shakespeare’s play, while not presenting Shakespeare’s play in full. And yet there are important segments of scenes from the play that are enacted with a honesty that seems to come close to a faithful  adaptation, while the film cannot be classified as a regular adaptation.

Those who have loved the Taviani brothers’ masterpiece Padre Padrone will recall they had already begun an experimentation that makes its full impact and culmination in Caesar Must Die. In Padre Padrone, the directors used non-actors alongside professional actors. Some ten movies later, in Caesar Must Die they make the movie almost totally with non-actors except for one actor/ex-Rebibbia prison convict who plays Brutus (he had acted in the 2008 Mafia film Gomorrah) and a real-life theater director Fabio Cavalli. The actor who plays Brutus was a convict who had served out his term in the prison, made an impact as an actor subsequently, and returns to Rebibbia to play the role of Brutus, at the request of the filmmakers.

"Brutus" rehearsing

In Caesar Must Die, the Taviani brothers, who are now in their eighties, present a remarkable theater project, primarily as a documentary. It is claimed that the Taviani brothers got the idea to make this film after watching some Italian prisoners enact a portion of Dante’s Inferno.  The brothers go into a high security prison in Rebibbia, Rome, Italy, and with the permission of the prison authorities pick real-life convicts to participate in an experiment where the convicts rehearse and ultimately enact the play all under surveillance of rifle-toting police guards to a well-heeled public audience who arrive to see the production within the prison, just as they would in a regular theater, after passing rigorous security checks.  Interesting project, you would say.  Other directors have indulged in similar projects of meta-film, where the movie shows actors/dancers/musicians preparing for an event and then you see the final event. Truffaut‘s Day for Night  (1973), Ariane Mnouchkine’s superb works Moliere (1978) and 1789 (1974), or if we stretch the point, the recent Aronofsky’s Black Swan, are a few examples among many that one could recall. The real strength of Caesar Must Die is not the meta-film process that unspools but the inherent underscoring of the power of cinema not merely of recording the process involved in staging a play with non-actors in an unusual ambiance (famous Italian director Pasolini did just that in so many films, most notably in this critic’s favorite 1963 black and white Biblical The Gospel According to St Mathew)  but suggesting,  or rather nudging, the viewer  to appreciate the real life parallels of the actor’s life and that of the play’s character he is preparing to play in this theater experiment.  The real life parallels that are suggested beyond Julius Caesar, the play, beyond the convicts and the Rebibbia prison, are what make the film so delectable. To savor the feast of emotions Caesar Must Die offers, the viewer needs to be alert and attentive all 76 minutes of its run time.

Memories for "Brutus"

Another remarkable difference the Taviani brothers adopt in this meta-film Caesar Must Die is the virtual absence of the directors in front of the camera during the entire process. You hear someone directing the actors (in a firm young voice, not one that you would associate with octogenarians, probably the voice of Fabio Cavalli, who is credited as the theater director) but you never see the film’s directors—only the actors (read prisoners) and the prison guards in the background.  The entire process of casting, rehearsals, actors memorizing their lines, is captured in crisp black and white.  When the play is finally performed and the public audience arrives, the movie switches to full color. This very difference of color versus black and white prods the audience to note the illusion and the reality in the entire cinematic exercise that theater cannot capture.  And that is indeed the essence of Caesar Must Die:  the Taviani brothers are presenting the power of cinema and not the power of theater, reminiscent of the meta-theater concept put forward by the Taviani’s favorite writer and playwright Pirandello in his famous play Six Characters in Search of an Author. In that play, Pirandello had dealt with the complex interactions of actors, characters in a play, theater directors, and playwrights in the process of putting up a stage production.  In many ways, Caesar Must Die presents a work more mature than this critic’s favorite Taviani film Padre Padrone, because unlike Padre Padrone this later cinematic work is more a tribute to film-making than limiting itself to the subject of the film.

The camera in Caesar Must Die not merely captures the rows of prison bars and concrete walls but also the impressive shadows they create from the perspectives of the rifle-toting guards who watch their prisoners rehearse the assassination of Caesar in the Senate. The film allows the viewer to experience the “unreal” freedom of the actors playing their dramatic roles within the confines of the prison. When the camera enters the actor’s real cell and you view the pictures on the walls put up by the prisoner, the alienation of the actor playing role and reality is underscored. The proscenium stage providing space without bars becomes a brief illusion to be enjoyed by both actors and their audience, with the prisoners only to be led back to their cells to serve out their sentence after a performance is well appreciated by the public. The most important line for this critic in the film is the line of the film spoken by one of actors who plays Cassius towards the end: “Ever since I discovered art, this room has become my prison” or words to that effect. What a statement to record Brechtian alienation (the defamiliarization or the distancing effect for the actor) ! The actor was in the same cell before the entire exercise—but after the event he is able to re-evaluate his confinement, his past and his future. In an interesting post script, the viewer is informed that two of the prisoners became authors—an uncanny parallel with the real life of author Gavino Ledda (the true story of Padre Padrone) who survived the “imprisonment” imposed by a strict and uneducated father to become an author.

If the camera and the color were some of the levels to appreciate the cinema of Caesar Must Die, there are others as well. The film captures the emotions of the actors preparing for their roles.  Sometimes they recall their own lives outside the prison; sometimes the roles ignite sparks of tension between the prisoners involved in the experiment.  As one actor rehearses the cleverly modified Shakespearean line “Trust me, my gentle friend, like I trust you,” a co-prisoner chirps in the background “Don’t trust him. Look where trust got me.”  The Taviani brothers are able to record certain impromptu comments by the Mafia thugs while they rehearse their lines such as “It sounds as this Shakespeare lived on the streets of my city” or words to that effect.  The subtle nuances of a Cassius or a Brutus that Shakespeare might have hinted at but not fleshed out bring out the parallels in real-life mafia betrayal, treachery, and assassinations that the actor/convicts have experienced in their lives, before being convicted for their crimes.  The Palm Springs International Film Festival while bestowing the film with the FIPRESCI prize gave three of the principal actors playing Cassius, Brutus, and Julius Caesar, the prize for “embodying roles with several levels of dramatic meaning, and drawing them together to achieve a compelling emotional resolution.” How true!
The performance

Another clever decision the Taviani brothers made was to incorporate certain obvious changes to the adapted play for the film. One was to chop off the second half of the play, following Mark Antony’s speech. The second was to eliminate the two interesting female characters of Calpurnia and Portia altogether.  If the full play was indeed staged in reality in the prison, we are not shown those segments—a full play of the tragedy would be 2 hours long but the entire movie Caesar Must Die just lasts 76 absorbing minutes. That brings us to the clever editing of the film. The sound of “the crowd offering a crown to Caesar that Caesar declines three times” is captured not by visuals but by the sound of prisoners in the Rebibbia prison off-camera. (This is true to the play's original structure, but the origin of the sound is what contributes to interesting cinema.)  In such a scenario, the film editing and sound editing of the film need to be commended.

One can guess there is a written script by the Taviani brothers for this “documentary” and the credits do state that. The old foxes are probably leading us to believe that we are watching a documentary while we are actually watching certain scenes that are acted out as a documentary on the cues provided by the directors. The only actors who are not acting are probably the prison guards.  But they are not plastic, emotionless characters.  The most amusing trivia for this critic was the deliberate (mis)-casting of Cassius by the directors. Those familiar with Shakespeare’s text will recall that Cassius had a “lean and hungry look.”  But the Tavianis pick a prisoner far removed from those physical attributes to play the part of Cassius. The modern day Cassius prowling the streets of Italy peddling drugs or killing people as part of the Mafia wars need not have a “lean and hungry look.”  This provides the viewer yet another level to appreciate Caesar Must Die. One has to disassociate the physical with mental character of the conspirators and evaluate their minds anew.  The film records their subtle reactions to the entire preparation for staging the play (read, a novel prison exercise).  The Taviani brothers superimpose a modern element of “crowd reaction” (where sometimes the crowd is represented by the prison guards) to the run-of-the-mill ‘crowd reactions’ in the written play.  

Finally, what the viewer will realize is that the film is not about Shakespeare’s play but more about using the play intelligently to comment on modern day Rome/Italy, the value of freedom, and the importance of literature in life. And that is precisely what the Taviani brothers have done, if we evaluate their cinematic works in toto.  The Golden Bear award at Berlin Film Festival was the most deserving accolade for the octogenarians in bringing literature closer to modern-day reality using the medium of cinema.

P.S. Caesar Must Die is one of the top 10 films of 2012 for the author. The movie was Italy’s official entry to the 2013 Oscars, but the film did not make the final nomination lists for the best foreign film at the Oscars. The Taviani brothers' Padre Padrone (Father and Master) (1977) is one of the top 100 films of all time for the author.