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.