Friday, August 30, 2013

150. Italian filmmaker Ermanno Olmi’s masterpiece “L'Albero degli zoccoli” (The Tree of Wooden Clogs) (1978): An uplifting and monumental work of a cinematic genius

Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs, a 3-hour long feature film, won the prestigious Golden Palm and the prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the Cannes Film Festival in 1978. For those who have been fortunate to have sat through the slow-paced realistic film right up to its end, it would prove to be a rare cinematic entertainment, indelible from their memories. It would touch any sensitive individual’s heart and mind in a way few movies can. It is a film without a single professional actor and yet when the respected Hollywood thespian Al Pacino was asked to identify his favorite film, the first name that came to his mind was The Tree of Wooden Clogs.  That statement says a lot about the quality and credibility of the performances by the ensemble of non-professional actors gathered by Olmi from his own village in Bergamo, Lombardy, Italy. 

Why is The Tree of Wooden Clogs an outstanding film? Few films are made by directors that are based on a script totally written and developed by themselves, without the aid of professional screenplay writers. Film directors Ingmar Bergman and Terrence Malick are prominent examples who can be termed original screenplay writers. But their films are always photographed by regular cinematographers. Few are the films where the director is also the sole cameraman. The Tree of Wooden Clogs is one such rare example. And finally, how many filmmakers edit their own cinematic works without help from professional editors. Ermanno Olmi is one. Thus The Tree of Wooden Clogs is a rare film where so many critical roles of the film-making process—including casting of non-professional actors---can be credited to a single individual.

Olmi explained his penchant for picking non-professional actors in an interview given to Bert Cardullo, Professor at the Izmir University of Economics, Turkey: “In a film about peasants, I choose the actors from the peasant world.  I don’t use a fig to make a pear.  These people, these characters, bring to the film a weight, really a constitution of truth, which, provoked by the situations in which the characters find themselves, creates palpitations—those vibrations so right, so real, so believable, and therefore not repeatable.  At the twentieth take, the professional actor still cries.  The real actor, the character taken from life, won’t do more than four repetitions.”  (Cineaste,Vol.XXXIV, No.2, 2009)

Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs resembles a 3-hour long documentary and yet it is not one. It is realistic fiction. It weaves the stories of four peasant Italian families, who serve as tenant farmers to a rich landlord in 1898. Olmi is able to find buildings that resemble those of that period so that the viewer feels the authenticity of the tale. The viewer is introduced to a time and place where the peasants wore wooden clogs instead of shoes and these clogs were made from certain trees that lined to the paths to the peasant's living quarters. But the trees belonged to the landowners and the peasants had no ownership of those trees. Recalling bits of oral history from his mother, Olmi fashions a film that weaves realistic details that depict their mostly honest hardworking activities that could get further worrisome if the landlord found them to be dishonest.

Education and poverty

Being a fervent Roman Catholic, Olmi’s peasant families in The Tree of Wooden Clogs are fleshed out as devout Christians, who listen with respect and reverence to their priests and nuns and say their prayers each day with devotion. Right at the beginning of the film, a priest advises one of the heads of the four peasant families to send his son to school, even if it meant one less person to help him in the fields. It is advice well meant, as most of the peasants are illiterate, and education of one member of the family would indeed pave the way for a better life than providing an extra pair of hands for the head of the family to till the land and harvest the produce. And this advice that the elder peasant accepts becomes the fulcrum of the film’s tale and gets closely associated with the movie’s title. Even science of the day (the veterinarian’s prognosis that a milch cow, an important source of financial sustenance for one of the four poor families in the film, is dying) is superseded by the fervent religious faith of a woman and her prayer miraculously cures the cow written off by the veterinarian  Another religious and economically poor widow skips going to church on Sundays so that she could wash more clothes of the landlord’s family and thus earn more money to feed her children. The flip side of religion is also ambiguously stated—a priest offers to take away two of her children to a monastery, ostensibly to lessen her financial burden. But the eldest son prefers that they stay with them as he has started earning. A nun gifts a one-year old orphan to a newly married couple to bring up as their own as the parents would be rewarded financially—a “gift” the shocked couple cannot refuse. There is further religious ambiguity, if the viewer carefully studies the spoken words of the peasants. Before killing a fattened pig, one peasant comments, “I know how it was raised. I cared for it better than any Christian.”

When everything around the poor fails, there is religion

These details form the delightful mosaic of humility and goodwill that pervade the diverse lives of the peasants. A child trudges miles to study in a school, a privilege of richer folks, wearing a pair of clogs that eventually gives way. A pregnant mother opts to give birth without the help of a midwife so that the money saved could be used to buy warm clothes for her elder kids. There is care for each other and discrete sorrow expressed within closed doors at another neighboring family’s misfortune.

Olmi is not just a devout Christian but also a socialist. There is a political uprising against the glaring social divide but the peasants of Olmi’s tale seem oblivious of politics. A newlywed peasant couple pass a stream of chained prisoners being led away by the law-keepers, apparently unable to comprehend the political scenario in the cities. One elder attends a political gathering in a town square but his priorities are to retrieve a gold coin lying on the ground without anyone in the crowd noticing his action rather than listening to the speaker. Olmi seems to underscore one fact—survival from day to day is more important than either politics or religion for the poor, while the rich landlords are content to hear their young ones play Mozart’s “Turkish Rondo” on the piano, strains of which are alien to the peasants less exposed to fine music.

The peasants, the animals and the birds sharing space

What are Olmi’s views on cinema? The Olmi responses to Professor Cardullo’s questions are revealing: “Some would say that the raw material of film is the image, but it’s not just the image.  Today we have the image, sound, rhythm.  All that is so simple, and at the same time it is complex, just like the unwinding or playing out of life itself.  While sound is one moment here, and the image there, cinema is this extraordinary instrument that allows you to reproduce—but “reproduce” isn't the exact word—to repropose some of those moments, some of the fractions of life, to select and compose them into a new mosaic through the editing.  This operation consists of choice, image, sound, rhythm, synthesis.”

“In the case of my films, they contain a reality that is entirely taken from the real.  Within this reality there is the echo of the documentary, but this is documentation that is critically penetrated and put at the service of the content presented.(Cineaste,Vol.XXXIV, No.2, 2009)

The trees used for making clogs line the path as peasant
children transport washed clothes of the landlord's family

Olmi’s “compleat” cinema in The Tree of Wooden Clogs is precisely as stated in the Cineaste interview. Johann Sebastian Bach’s Fugue in G Minor is used discreetly early in the film and the next occasion for music is hours later into the film, when a rich child plays Mozart on the piano on a moonlit night. Tragic details and comic details are beaded alternatively to retain viewer attention. Details of the death of a breadwinner alternate with a young lad walking long distances in the night to be near his sweetheart, singing aloud to muffle scary animal sounds in the dark. A honeymoon for a newly married rural couple is an overnight visit to a convent in the city where their aunt, who is now a nun, lives. The most humbling bit in the film is when families struggling to survive are happy to share their modest meals with visitors who have even less and how elders pass on that tradition of  "giving" to the young ones in the respective families to inculcate the habit in the future. What the film provides is more than social or religious commentary—it provides an honest peek at the tenuous lives of simple, hard working, rural folk. It is both real and touching. It is. as Olmi stated, "a reality that is entirely taken from the real” Few movies have achieved this—perhaps Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thief came very close in style and content but what de Sica offered was nowhere near the overwhelmingly  large canvas of believable characters offered to the viewer in The Tree of Wooden Clogs.

P.S. The Tree of Wooden Clogs is one of the author’s top 10 films of all time and is widely considered as the best work of Olmi. Mr Olmi is also one of the author's 15 favourite active filmmakers

Thursday, August 15, 2013

149. Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Dekalog, dwa” (Dekalog 2) (1988): Absorbing cinema that provides entertainment beyond its run-time

There are very few examples of movies that make you scurry to the libraries to figure out the full implications of the source material after a screening, with the implicit understanding that one needed to know more. That is the power of great cinema. Kieslowski’s ten part movie Dekalog is one of them. The late film director Stanley Kubrick had described Dekalog as the only masterpiece he could name in his lifetime. And, interestingly, Kubrick is often considered an atheist!

And the added attraction for most viewers is that, unless one is a die-hard film enthusiast, each of the ten parts can be seen and appreciated in isolation. Each of the ten parts has different characters, all living in the same condominium in Poland. Each tale is set in the late Eighties. What is common to all the ten parts is that they all have the three common creators: the director Krzysztof Kieslowski, the co-scriptwriters Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz, and the music composer Zbigniew Preisner. And last but not least, the ten parts relate to the Biblical Ten Commandments, given by God to Moses—as is believed by Christians, by Jews and by Muslims. And what is most important is that none of the ten segments is overtly religious. But each tale is underpinned by the Ten Commandments.

The ten segments of Dekalog can be appreciated as top-notch cinema as Kubrick and most film critics have found them to be. But they can also be treasured for their unusual lateral theological discourse that a viewer will only discover if the viewer puts the cinematic tale in the perspective of what has been written about the Ten Commandments in the scriptures and by theologians of various faiths over the years. "Everyone seems to accept the Ten Commandments as a kind of moral basis," Kieslowski has said, "and everyone breaks them daily. Just the attempt to respect them is already a major achievement."

Of the 10 segments, Dekalog 2 is one of the most difficult and yet poignant segments to appreciate and savour.

A non-theological assessment of Dekalog 2. The scriptwriters present two individuals facing unusual moral dilemmas. One is an old dour oncologist (Aleksader Bardini), who has no family left—his grandchildren and daughter, all killed in a bombing. The personal loss has only accentuated his interest in life, growing indoor plants and keeping pet birds, when not tending to his cancer patients. He does not smoke cigarettes. The old man is always conscious of the importance of time. This is reinforced on the viewer subtly by his actions, his precise recollections of his grandchild’s teething troubles and the time of the day when it occurred, the necessity to cover the birdcage with a cloth so that it could sleep, his need to collect milk (milk is a connecting symbol for most parts of the Dekalog) in the morning, etc. The good doctor spends his time treating his patients hoping they survive. Deaths of his near ones have made him appreciate life and the importance of children.

"One thing I know is I don't know"
The counterpoint to the old man is an attractive lady Dorota Geller (played by the wonderful Krystyna Janda) in her thirties who also lives in the condominium. She has met the old doctor in the past, presumably to apologize for having run over his pet dog in her car. Unlike the old man she is unfortunately associated with death: her husband is dying from cancer, she is killing her well tended indoor plants out of exasperation, and is seriously considering aborting a 3-month old child conceived out of wedlock. She is a chain smoker, which any oncologist would know is dangerous. And she is so disoriented with stress and sleeplessness that she has to ask a postman for the time of the day.

To bear or not to bear a child
The two opposites meet because Geller’s husband is being treated by the old doctor. She needs to know if her husband will live, in which case she will abort her foetus, as she still loves her husband. Dorota also knows that if she aborts she is not likely to have a child again with her husband. If the husband is likely to die, she could keep the baby and possibly live with her lover. The outcome is unpredictable for both the key characters.

A mysterious silent character, playing a hospital orderly (who surfaces in 9 of the 10 segments of Dekalog) observes the key players making the key decisions, the wife at her seriously sick husband’s bedside and the doctor looking at the growth of cancer cells of the woman’s husband in the laboratory, with his understudy confirming the disease is spreading. A keen observer will notice the ambiguity in the old doctor’s body language.

"Don't do it.."
As a movie just 54 minutes long, the filmmakers use every second and every body movement of each character, to flesh out the moral dilemma that an ordinary individual could face. The viewer at the end of the movie will recall the statement of the old wizened doctor “One thing I know is I don’t know.” Humility comes from knowledge.

Dekalog 2 is not just a great story, it is a movie of great performances, understatements and pregnant silences, punctuated with amazing music used with discretion. One can enjoy the film as a great tale superbly told. But is that all?

A theological assessment of Dekalog 2. According to the Roman Catholic Church, the second of the 10 Commandments is “You shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” as stated in the Book of Deutronomy (5:11). Of the two scriptwriters, Piesiewicz was a Roman Catholic and Kieslowski a possible atheist. The lead actress Ms Janda was a Lutheran.

There are only two occasions in the movie that overtly brings up religion. Mrs Geller (Janda) asks the doctor “Do you believe in God?” The doctor’s response is “I have a God. This is enough for me only.” To this answer, Mrs Geller responds “Your private one? Then ask your God for absolution.”

The second is a critical point in the film where the lady is told she should not abort the foetus by the doctor with the clear words “Don’t do it. He is going to die.” To this, the lady responds, “Can you swear?” And the old man responds. “I swear.” One assumes you swear by God’s name.

If we go by the words of Deutronomy 5:11, the scriptwriters have dished out two occasions where “God’s” name has been taken in vain.

Interestingly the second Commandment You shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vainmentioned above is the third Commandment for Protestant Christians. For the Protestant Christian Church, the second Commandment is You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandmentsDeutronomy 5(8-10). As the Catholic Church finds no problem with images of Christ and the Virgin Mary, the second Commandment observed by the Protestant Church is not underscored by the Catholics. In Protestant churches, the crucified Christ and the Virgin Mary are never exhibited, which is strangely in parallel with Muslim concepts. The only symbol that you find in Protestant churches is a bare cross.


That does not mean that the Roman Catholic Church has only nine Commandments. For the Protestants, the ninth Commandment observed by Roman Catholics ”You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife”, is merged in the tenth “You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.’’ Thus both Churches observe Ten Commandments.


" I wan't to hear you play the violin in the Philharmonic Orchestra"

Now which version of the Second Commandment is applicable to Dekalog 2? The screenplay writers of Dekalog were not novices. Dekalog 7, if we go by Roman Catholic list of Ten Commandments refers to “You shall not steal.” Any viewer of Dekalog 7 will note that there is no conventional stealing but only abduction by a mother of her own biological daughter. The screenplay writers in Dekalog 7 have adopted the Jewish interpretation of the Commandment, which is “You shall not kidnap”, as the Jews aver that stealing of goods is covered by the Tenth Commandment, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods.


If we accept that Kieslowski and Piesiewicz were looking at a larger audience than Roman Catholics, could the Protestants' Second Commandment be equally applicable to Dekalog 2? Could the God in question be the good dying husband and the ‘carved’ image of the husband be the wife’s lover outside her marriage? This dual possibility is what makes Dekalog 2 difficult to comprehend with any accuracy. Kieslowski and Piesiewicz love to make the viewer think outside the box—they don’t provide answers. This is why Dekalog can be enjoyed at a level beyond pure cinematic aesthetics. Kubrick had noticed it.



P.S. Dekalog is one of the author’s top 10 films of all time. Reviews of Dekalog 5 and Dekalog 7 have appeared earlier on this blog. A review of Dekalog 1 has been posted subsequently. Kieslowksi’s Three Colors Blue, White and Red are among the author’s top 100 films. The author had the privilege to meet Kieslowski during a film festival in Bengaluru, India, in 1982 but did not consider him, at that time, sufficiently important for an in-depth interview because he had not yet made his masterpieces--all made 6 or more years later.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

148. Argentine director Juan José Campanella’s “El secreto de sus Ojos” (The Secret in Their Eyes) (2009): Closing of open doors and revealing tales through the eyes, underscoring a visual element one often takes for granted

Viewers of this Oscar-winning Argentinean film are likely to enjoy the experience for varied reasons. It is definitely an engaging thriller with loads of subtle humor.  It is therefore not surprising that the film was a commercial and critical success in the country of its origin, Argentina. The best foreign film Oscar, the second for Argentina over the years, bestowed on the film would have boosted its popularity at home even further. However, the film can be enjoyed by non-Argentinean audiences as well for several additional elements beyond the obvious thrilling tale the film unfolds.

The film is at a basic level a detective story of tracking down a rapist and killer and ensuring that he gets a fitting punishment for the crime. At a more complex level, it is a tale of love of two sets of couples and a strong camaraderie of two detective colleagues. And finally, the screenplay captures the mood of Argentina’s “dirty war” period from 1976 to 1983 (during which tale is set) when criminals held sway and at least 15000 social activists ‘disappeared’ and often social status provided a sense of security for a privileged few (such as the Cornell-educated Hastings in the movie) when compared to lesser mortals (such as the investigating officer Benjamin Esposito in the movie). The indirect connection to the "dirty war" is established briefly with the TV news item watched by three pivotal characters in the movie that shows Isabel Peron morphed with the rapist/killer as her bodyguard/security staff.

The remarkable screenplay of the film, an adaptation of a book written by Eduardo Sacheri, is by both the author Sacheri and the film’s Argentinean director Juan José Campanella. The screenplay uses the power of cinema to elevate the tale of the book to an even more sophisticated level.

Campanella, for those unfamiliar with his work, is an engaging and creative screenplay writer. For instance, Campanella’s 2001 film The Son of the Bride, another delightful Argentinean film that made the final nominee list for the best foreign film Oscar that year, had the lead character muttering away that he is “no Albert Einstein, a Bill Gates or a Dick Watson” making all viewers wonder who on earth was this Dick Watson. At the end of the film, when the end-credits are rolling, the movie humorously reveals that this mysterious Dick Watson is a character from a pornographic film. Campanella carries forward his unusual penchant for juggling non-chronologically images and incidents in The Secret in Their Eyes that add to a diligent viewer’s entertainment. For instance, the movie begins with shots of Judge Hasting’s and Investigator Esposito’s eyes and shots of the railway station in Buenos Aires which are only fleshed out much later halfway into the movie. Campanella is apparently reinforcing two important strands that continue throughout the duration of The Secret in Their Eyes: the importance of eyes so pivotal in the film and the development of the plot; and the importance of railway stations as a key location for both the two parallel love stories and the detective story in the film. And both deal with memories, something the script reminds us is “all that we end up with.

Campanella and Sacheri had devised a cute devise to capture the mood of Argentina to be weaved into the film. Judge Hastings (Soledad Villamil) hands Investigator Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin) a typewriter which cannot type the alphabet “A”. Much later in the film the retired investigator Esposito, while writing a book on the case is shown waking up from a disturbed sleep and scribbling the word  TEMO (‘I fear’). He knows and is afraid that he could be knocked off by the killer-cum-rapist who is out on the loose and is seeking revenge for being briefly arrested by him.  Towards the end of the film, Esposito adds the alphabet “A” to TEMO to transform the scribble to TEAMO (‘I love you’). Campanella and Sacheri again prove the importance of a script that appears initially disconnected but  is all tied up eventually.

Temo to Teamo: From 'Fear' to 'Love', with an alphabet added

Similarly, throughout the film Judge Hastings wonders if she ought to close the door of her office.  The viewer would assume that it had something to do with the latent love affair between Hastings and Esposito that Hastings did not want her office staff to hear. But is it only that? It was a time when everybody seemed to be snooping on each other and the closing of doors became imperative for all important discussions. Take the sequence when Esposito and his dear colleague go snooping into a house of the suspect’s mother. The streets are empty. Yet there were people taking note of the car,its registration number, and what they were up to. The tale is set in a period when everyone was snooping on each other in Argentina.

And later on, Esposito’s rival colleague berates Esposito in front of Hastings that he is a nobody on the social ladder, minutes before the spine chilling encounter in the lift with the rapist-cum-killer loading his gun to send a message to both Esposito and Hastings. It is a sign of the terror most Argentinians had encountered, irrespective of their social status, during the 'dirty war' years.

The message of terror in Argentina during the Dirty War years

Campanella is a delightful scriptwriter. He has proved it time and again with two marvelous films: The Son of the Bride and The Secret in Their Eyes. In both films, he was aided by the marvelous thespian Ricardo Darin, who exudes magnetic charm in each role, film after film. And Campanella  has a magical touch with his actors Darin and Ms. Villamil not just in The Secret in Their Eyes but in an earlier work Same Love, Same Rain (1999). In all the three films, Campanella shows that he can elicit great performances from all his actors and he has a magic touch with script-writing. The viewers are not likely to forget the line “the gates of heaven have opened’’ muttered by the males time and again as they encounter any beautiful woman in The Secret in Their Eyes.

However, Sacheri and Campanella, through this film, have raised the issue of crime and punishment of rapist-killers worldwide. The punishment suggested by the filmmakers is thought-provoking. The contents of the film will make the viewer think about corruption and the consequences of lenient punishments accorded to such criminals.

But is Campanella the director, the best filmmaker to come out of Argentina in recent years? This critic considers the late Fabián Bielinsky, who made just two feature films The Aura (2005) and Nine Queens (2000) (both with Ricardo Darin in the lead roles), before he passed away prematurely in 2006 to be head and shoulders above Campanella as a director. The two Bielinsky films had a maturity that should make Argentinean cinema proud of raising the bar of quality though it is Campanella, who eventually brought home the Oscar statuette.

P.S. The late Fabián Bielinsky’s The Aura was reviewed earlier on this blog.