Tuesday, December 09, 2014

170. The late Chilean maestro Raúl Ruiz' Portuguese film “Mistérios de Lisboa” (Mysteries of Lisbon) (2010): A brilliant cinematic treatise on memories


     “My films are not fiction films but about fiction”---Raúl Ruiz

     “In today’s cinema there is too much light, it is time to return to the shadows”--- Raúl Ruiz in his book ‘Poetics of Cinema’

      “I chose to take refuge in the dramaturgy of dreams” ---Raúl Ruiz

These three quotations of Raúl Ruiz are important starting points for analyzing the penultimate cinematic work of the talented Raúl Ruiz-- Mysteries of Lisbon. Ruiz had already made over a hundred movies and he made Mysteries of Lisbon knowing well that his days were numbered after being diagnosed with a life threatening liver tumour.  He completed the film while recovering from a successful liver transplant, only to die soon after, ironically from a lung infection.  While one can sense the brilliance of this cinematic work, it is difficult to distinguish what credit ought to be attributed  to the Portuguese novelist Camilo Castillo Branco, who wrote the book in 1854, without having read the work (the English translation of the book is not easily available), and what needs to be actually credited to director Ruiz.  Despite that conundrum, there are obvious pointers to what was definitely the contribution of Ruiz. The following analysis pertains to those aspects of the movie that are predominantly attributable to Ruiz alone.

Young Joao looks at his 'mother' in the company of Father Dinis

Father Dinis and Joao's "mother" (Maria Joao Bastos) after she becomes a nun

Mysteries of Lisbon is a 272 minute film unfolding a convoluted and yet interesting tale narrated by a tormented epileptic orphan Joao under the care of a priest named Father Dinis and some nuns. The tale is mostly set in the early 19th century Portugal. Priests and nuns there often have led colourful lives, preceding their final vocation. For author Branco, who was by all accounts a religious person, the Church in Portugal at that time provided sanctuary for orphans, widows, and those in trouble. Either Branco or Ruiz, or both together, use the puppet paper theatre as a prop and as a narrative punctuation device for the epileptic Joao to imagine vivid tales of grown-ups in aristocratic Portugal, who are all somehow connected to Father Dinis (Adriano Luz) and a lady who claims to be his mother, who has gifted him the puppet paper theatre while recovering from an epileptic attack. It is thus not surprising that characters in Joao ‘s world are closely interrelated.  (For example, Joao’s “mother’s“  husband’s mistress turns up later in the tale as the wife of Albert de Magalhaes, another important person in Joao’s life story.) In that process, Branco examines the social importance Portuguese gave to the firstborn in a family, how paternal titles made or unmade individuals, how fathers wreck the love lives of their daughters for personal benefit only to rue their actions much later in life and the lack of fidelity of abusive husbands.

Any approach to appreciate Ruiz’ cinema cannot dissociate it from  Ruiz’ life--a Chilean director who chose self-exile in the early Seventies following the US-supported coup that removed the democratically elected Salvador Allende while installing the Chilean armed forces Commander Augusto Pinochet in power instead.  Today, the world knows the late Pinochet was implicated on over 300 charges of human rights violations. The multi-talented Ruiz fled from Chile under Pinochet hopping from one European country to another, frenetically writing plays and books and making over a 100 films. Each of these works reflected his distaste for the armed forces that took power in Chile and his wistful love of Chile, a country he could not return to work as before.  Even though Mysteries of Lisbon is predominantly set in Portugal and France, there is a sequence where the ‘orphan’ Joao ‘appears’ to end his last days in Brazil, not far from Ruiz’ homeland Chile. Ruiz forever dreamt of returning to Chile. As per his wishes, Ruiz was buried in Chile. Such indirect references abound in each work of Ruiz. While Mysteries of Lisbon is essentially about dreams, the final sequence reiterates the importance of dreams.  At the end, the colours of the screen fade to merge with empty white light. The film of shadows comes to a close. Ruiz transcends Branco’s words using cinematic effects.

Shadows and perspectives: Ruiz upstaging Branco
(the shadow is of  Father Dinis) 
A casual viewer of Mysteries of Lisbon would not associate the work with surrealism and magic realism more obvious in Ruiz’ works, such as, That Day (Ce jour-la) (2003) and Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983). Early into Mysteries of Lisbon, there is a short sequence where another kid of Joao’s age leads Joao to a spot behind the hedges of the orphanage where some men have been hanged in public view. The kid claims that one of the hanged men is a thief and his father. The viewer can see the hanged individuals. Joao is crestfallen as he has been accused of being the son of a thief and confused but does not respond as one would expect.  Father Dinis, who accompanies young Joao and the kid who is showing Joao the hanging, is merely studying Joao’s face  rather than the hanged persons, and he leads Joao back impassively after Joao has taken in the scene of  the hanged individuals. Where is the surrealism or magic realism?  Could this be a real hanging, so close to the orphanage? If it was real, why is Father Dinis not appearing to be concerned with the hanging? Why is he only concerned about Joao? Why do doors open and close by themselves in the film? Why do certain paintings come alive for Joao? Why does an important transaction between two friends take place in a room with two massive religious frescoes on the walls and just two chairs, devoid of any other furniture? Why does Ruiz employ two Joaos during the duel scene, one committing suicide after pensively walking in the background, and another active Joao who partook in the duel going on to live another day with honour? The answers to each of those questions are “mysteries” that contribute to the richness of the film and help the viewer to unravel Ruiz’ complex movie Mysteries of Lisbon with its unusual ending.

Towards the end of Ruiz’ Mysteries of Lisbon, the grown up Joao encounters Elisa de Montfort (Clotilde Hesme). She pauses in her walk and comes to Joao to state, “You lacked courage, my dear.”  This is a sequence which could have been typical of Ruiz’ cinema referring to Ruiz’ political courage or it could also have been Branco’s idea. While the lack of identity is a problem for Joao the orphan, the lack of citizenship of Ruiz is perhaps one reason for the director to choose to make this film, which mirrors his own life.

Riches to rags: The teenaged Joao encountering a once proud Marquis
reduced to beggary searching for the 'mausoleum' of his daughter
Throughout Mysteries of Lisbon, the peripheral non-aristocratic characters listen to conversations of the aristocrats and seniors openly. Servants not just bring in chairs and messages for their masters, but serve as silent and sometimes expressive external commentators within the film.  Even in an abbey, junior priests eavesdrop on the colourful tales of senior priests. Money transforms people of lesser social stature into aristocrats in Mysteries of Lisbon and a proud Marquise is transformed into a blind beggar in the course of the tale.

Torn shreds of an unread letter captured by the camera
placed below the resting pieces

The cinematography (André Szankowski ) of the film is stunning. The camera teases the viewer. The camera goes under a glass table to capture the torn pieces of a letter that is never read. Stories within a story deliberately show individuals with unreal beards and make-up, while the main story in contrast never compromises on quality. Dreams within dreams are treated differently by Ruiz.

Using the paper puppet theater to punctuate Acts

Mysteries of Lisbon is essentially a brilliant treatise on memories. At the end of the movie the viewer is shown a tired and graying Joao who needs a walking stick, but no taller than a teenager, narrating his tale to a scribe. He says “I was 15 years old and I didn’t know who I was. I went on no outings or holidays. I received no presents. I don’t know how long it has been since I lost consciousness. And the moment I opened my eyes. I thought I dreamt it all“, while lying down on a cot broad enough for a kid. Doors close by themselves and the screen brightens gradually to be covered by pure white light.

This film won the San Sebastian Festival Silver Seashell for Best Director and the Sao Paulo Festival Critics award for best film. The film was carved out by Ruiz from several episodes he made for the Portuguese TV.

P.S. Mysteries of Lisbon is the first film of Ruiz to be included in the author’s top 100 films. It was also one of the top 10 films of 2011 for the author and one of the 15 top films of the 21st Century for the author.  Ruiz’ earlier work, That Day (Ce jour-la) (2003) was reviewed earlier on this blog. Ruiz’ last film that he completed before his death, La Noche de Efrente (Night Across the Street) (2012), was one of the top 10 films of 2012 for the author.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

169. French director François Ozon’s French film “Dans la maison” (In the House) (2012): Second Ozon film on creative writing, this time adapting a superb Spanish play

François Ozon seems to be fascinated by what makes writers tick. And he loves to prod the viewer to reconsider his/her mental evaluation of fiction and reality as they watch his later films.

Many viewers are likely to initially consider the superb tale of In the House to be solely Ozon’s creative work; it is not. In the House appears to be almost totally leaning on the product of a contemporary Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga titled The Boy in the Last Row, if one goes by the reviews of the play. It is, thus, not a coincidence that the French film went on to win the well-deserved Golden Shell (the grand prize) and the Jury prize for Best Screenplay at the San Sebastian film Festival in Spain. Then why is the film important, if almost all the credit rests with the play on which the film is built? This is because Ozon forces any intelligent viewer to evaluate himself/herself as they progress with the viewing of his film beyond the film’s tale. Is the viewer being cajoled to infer more than what the movie actually informs us?  Is the viewer a voyeur, wanting to see more than what the film offers? Those are Ozon’s questions thrown at us by cinematically adapting the play.

However, the Spanish play proved to be a perfect extension of the very ideas director Ozon presented in his previous movie The Swimming Pool (2003).  In The Swimming Pool, a film based on a story written by Emmanuèle Bernheim, director Ozon presented a riveting thriller, complete with dashes of murder and sex, which was essentially an essay on how a creative fiction writer (Charlotte Rampling)  gets and develops ideas to write her novels, while jolting the viewer to realize at the end of the film that what they read in books (or see and hear on screen) need not be true and that a clever writer can manipulate your mind to make you believe it is indeed true until the end, when you comprehend the real truth.

It is to the credit of director Ozon that he chose to film Mayorga’s play, which logically extends the cinematic argument presented by director Ozon in The Swimming Pool. Mayorga’s play is also about the creative writing process, laid out in a greater and more entertaining detail than in the previous film; with an important additional question relating to morality asked of the viewer. Does the creative process need to be merely smart or does it have to combine moral/social values?  Ozon never dealt with morality in The Swimming Pool but he does that to a certain extent in In the House.

Creative writing: Teacher Germaine Germaine (Luchini)
and student Claude (Umhauer)
In the House is a tale of a young, intelligent male school student, Claude already good at mathematics, who occupies the last rows in his class (the detail referenced in the title of the play), trying out his skills in creative writing in a literature class. Playwright Mayorga is erudite and one assumes is familiar with Vladimir Nabokov’s book Lolita, which has a literature professor double-named Humbert Humbert, who gets obsessed with his step-daughter nicknamed Lolita.  Playwright Mayorga alludes to Nabokov’s work by creating a literary teacher named Germaine Germaine (the viewer gets to see the teacher’s full double name on the cover of his very unsuccessful published book, in the Ozon movie). It’s not just Ozon and Mayorga who are taken in by Nabokov’s novel, even the maestro Stanley Kubrick decided to film Nabokov’s Lolita. Germaine Germaine  is not the only oblique literary reference in this film. They are scattered all over. The name of the French school in the movie is Lycee Gustave Flaubert and the teacher Germaine Germaine (Fabrice Luchini) refers to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a novel that prevails on the reader not to quickly judge characters presented in it, while introducing the work to his students. (Madame Bovary was also the inspiration for Robert Bolt’s script of David Lean’s film Ryan’s Daughter, made in 1970, initially trashed by critics who were ironically too quick to judge what it offered.) The school-teacher’s wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) knocks down her husband in the film with a hardbound copy of Celine’s novel Journey to the End of the Night, quoted at the start of Sorrentino’s recent movie The Great Beauty (2013). The choice of the book is not an accident. Knowledge of international literature can provide additional entertainment for the viewer by enjoying the trenchant remarks of various characters in the movie/play.

The teacher (Luchini) and his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas),
who reads and comments on student Claude's creative writing

The film/play, like Nabokov’s character's name Humbert Humbert, presents and discusses on screen two fathers, two wives, two mothers (one on screen, the other off-screen). and a pair of twins, who own an art gallery, The position the young schoolboy Claude (Ernst Umhauer) occupies in his class is the last row—and visually ironically enough his teacher Germaine Germaine also occupies the last row during an internal teachers’ meeting in the school to discuss school uniforms. Both pupil and teacher are astute observers and thinkers at their individual levels, both sitting on benches in classrooms/schools or in open parks. Both are critical of the middle class to which they themselves belong. The last shot of the film is of both teacher and pupil sitting on the same bench, observing lives of people they have never met.  Ozon’s cinematic rhetorical unspoken question at the end of movie is who is the teacher? Ozon dissects the creative process of writing and storytelling for the viewer. The answers do not lie in the film; the resolution of the conflicts rests with us the viewers. Is the sharing of an apple by a woman and a boy symbolically innocent or not so innocent?

The film/play is a tongue in cheek look at the growing power of TV soap operas which keep viewers dangling on the edge at the end of each episode, convinced and reassured the tale is to be continued in the next, and thus ensnaring the viewer to watch the next episode.  People need stories like the ones Scheherazade narrated keeping her Sultan asking for more tales for 1001 Arabian nights. The creative writing process not merely ensnares the reader/viewer but also involves the creation of a good ending. The teacher of creative literary writing explains to his pupil that a good ending is one that is “necessary, unpredictable, inevitable and surprising.”  Director Ozon does just that by providing such endings in both his films: The Swimming Pool and In the House.

Real or unreal 'barbaric invasion:" Claude (Umhauer) appears to sleep
 between his classmate's parents.
Claude appears to look at the camera/viewer. while
his shadow seems to be looking at his classmate's mother
 (Emmanuelle Seigner)

In the House is ironically about the beguiling”barbaric invasion” of smart students in the school classrooms taking on unsuspecting teachers and extending that invasion to unsuspecting middle class-households with the knowledge of a well-meaning teacher who stokes the embers of creativity in his student not able to decide if his student’s entry into another student’s house is “like an angel or a vampire.” The play/film goes on to compare the allure of mathematics (that “never disappoints”) with that of creative writing (or literature).

The closing shot of the teacher and his pupil

Director Ozon presents a very entertaining and complex film that even prompts Germaine Germaine to wonder if his student Claude’s literary work that keeps his readers transfixed and amazed is close to an imaginary Pier Paolo Pasolini film when Claude is kissed by his male classmate Rapha Jr., while Claude is actually attracted instead to Rapha’s mother (Emmanuele Seigner), in whom he sees his own physically absent mother.  On the flip side, Germaine Germaine’s wife Jeanne wonders if her husband is turning homosexual with his increasing interest in his male student, while her husband actually sees in Claude a son he never had with his wife Jeanne.  Perception and reality are compared at every stage in the film. Who is the Svengali, the literature teacher who is a failed author or his bright student with real raw talent?

It is a film that explores the world of academia recalling Joseph Losey’s and Harold Pinter’s acerbic treatment of the middle class in Accident (1967).  Ozon’s In the House is a film like Accident, which makes a viewer evaluate himself/herself, while presenting a delightful and a surprising ending with endearing performances from an ensemble cast.

For keen Ozon watchers, it would be interesting if he does go on to make a third feature film on the subject to complete a triptych that began with The Swimming Pool and followed up with In the House.

(This review was earlier published on 5 Nov 2014 at  http://dearcinema.com/review/film-recco-francois-ozons-house/5245 )

P.S. Losey's Accident and Lean's Ryan's Daughter were reviewed earlier on this blog.

P.P.S. The two lead actresses Kristin Scott Thomas and Emmanuele Seigner had previously worked together in Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon (1992), coincidentally a tale about a failed author narrating a tale that could have made a great book. Polanski's film was an adaptation of a novel by the celebrated French 'New Philosopher' Pascal Bruckner. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

168. British film director Steven Knight’s film “Locke” (2013) based on his original script/story: Amazing script forged from what could also have been a superb one-act play with a great performance

There is something special when a director writes his own original script. And Steven Knight’s Locke is special, if an astute viewer evaluates what it offers.

The title reminds one of the 17th century British philosophers, John Locke.  John Locke postulated his ‘theory of mind’ that built the early concepts of ‘identity’ and ‘self.’ Locke felt that our minds at birth were without ideas or blank slates (or tabula rasa) and that our mind’s subsequent knowledge was derived from experience through sense perception.

Knight’s film Locke is about another unrelated, contemporary fictional Locke, whose full name is Ivan Locke. This Ivan Locke, the only person the viewer gets to see in the entire film, is an unusual human being.  Ivan Locke is a successful technocrat—a senior civil engineer responsible for overseeing the construction of skyscrapers.  Ivan Locke is a principled, devoted family man who is on the verge of laying the concrete foundation of the tallest skyscraper he has ever built within the next 24 hours.  However, the good man’s enviable life dramatically changes.

One night’s indiscretion after drinking two bottles of wine, brings all his family and career crashing down at the pinnacle of his 9 year career when he could own a state-of-the-art BMW X5 car. Knight’s development of the Ivan Locke character begins when you see the man removing his work boots before entering his car and putting it in a bag meant for them.  Ivan Locke might not be an aristocrat, but he evidently knows and plans ahead to maintain a rich man’s car. Ivan, we soon find out, is dedicated to his job, and, even after he is fired, insists on completing what he was doing professionally without any scope for mistakes. And when he does make a mistake he is willing to do everything to correct it and admit it was a mistake to all who matter to him. 

He is a modern day Jean Valjean of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, caring for those who are weak and lonely, who believes in ensuring his new progeny knows he /she has a caring father, unlike Ivan’s own father.

Tom Hardy as a fictional Welshman Ivan Locke:
aiming to reproduce
the "gravitas and integrity of Richard Burton's performances"
But what holds Ivan Locke’s life together are the principles and experience that he has acquired from his career, his life and, most of all, his father’s actions towards him. Those are the common denominators for technocrat Ivan Locke and the ideas of philosopher John Locke presented indirectly by director Knight for the thinking, discerning viewer. 

Director Knight has stated in an interview “He is called (Ivan) Locke because he is the John Locke philosopher of rationality and he is trying to do stuff logically.” (Huffington Post interview with Erin Whiney, 24 Apr 2014). Much of Ivan Locke’s actions in the movie have a bearing on the lack of communication and interest Ivan’s dad had with Ivan, which we learn from Ivan’s monologue addressing his dead father, as though he were sitting in the rear seat of the car.  It is important to note that the references to the distant past life of Ivan are brought up in “conversations” with his dead father or rather a monologue using the rear view mirror. (Appropriately, the rear view is for the past; the details of the concreting is in the file beside him in the car; and the GPS screen indicates his possible chosen future, with all its options. The confined space of the driver seat, is not confined to the obvious physical limitations.)

Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy)  speaking to his invisible dead father
 in the rear seat

The manner in which the 85-minute film was made is remarkable. The filming of the original script apparently evolved during a tight schedule, not unlike films of Terrence Malick evolving during the film-making process . Director Knight’s script was captured on film after mere eight nights of shooting, with two versions of the film being recorded each night. The final film was apparently a cut and paste of the 16 accumulated versions.  Except for the immensely talented Tom Hardy, the rest of the cast are only heard but not seen. The film is thus a close relative of a radio play with visuals.

It is visuals that inform the viewer, thanks to Bluetooth, that Ivan has keyed in ‘Bastard’ as the eponym for Gareth who is Ivan’s boss on his mobile phone. It is the GPS visuals on his car’s dashboard that indicate the straight road Ivan is taking to be with Bethan,  the mother of his soon to be born child. It is visuals that inform the viewer that Ivan is not over speeding on the highway. It is visuals that show you that there is further chaos outside the car on the highway as police cars/ambulance with sirens overtake Ivan’s car while Ivan is dealing with and getting on top of each crisis in his life that particular night. And if you are paying attention, you are not likely to turn off the radio (if you were to consider it as a radio play) or walk of the movie.  And it is visuals that inform you that Ivan’s BMW also has an ironic number plate “ADIOS,” Spanish for goodbye.

It is not important how the movie ends. The movie is more about how a viewer can identify with Ivan Locke, a successful working class British man who has made one mistake.  On a drunken night the married man slept with his secretary while on work away from home. He does not love his secretary but has sympathy for her apparent solitary life. Ivan seeks forgiveness from his wife for his one and only occasion when he has been unfaithful. Her trite answer to Ivan’s protestation is “The difference between never and once is the difference between good and bad.”  The viewer has to choose between the wrongdoer and the wronged, and decide whether Ivan is the hero or the anti-hero of Locke.

It is also a movie where the lead actor has contributed considerably to the making of the film as was revealed at the Venice Film Festival press conference, just as actor Kirk Douglas made director Stanley Kubrick make the all important change to the ending of Paths of Glory (1957). It is a movie that is more than an advertisement for a great car. It is a movie that will make you recall what Steven Spielberg achieved in his similar (and outstanding) film Duel (1971), in which unlike Steven Knight emphasizing character development through spoken dialogues, Spielberg emphasized the effect of faceless and illogical terror through images and sound rather than spoken words.  Tom Hardy’s personal interest in developing an unusual accent keeping the late Welsh actor Richard Burton on his mind’s radar while enacting the role in a confined space is truly commendable. It is a fascinating performance that complements a lovely script.

The film belongs to both Steven Knight and Tom Hardy in equal measure.  It is surprising that the Venice Film Festival chose it to be included in its official major line-up but kept it “out of competition.”  If it were in competition, it might have won an award or two.  The film is recommended for viewers who can appreciate good script-writing and actors committed to perfecting their skills.

P.SThis film is one of the author's best 10 films of 2014

Sunday, October 12, 2014

167. Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s film “Certified Copy” (Copie conforme) (2010) in English/Italian/French languages: Love and marriage and their respective true copies

Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami can be fascinating because of his audacity to toy around with the minds of intelligent, discerning viewers. 

His Shirin was a feature film exclusively capturing the mosaic of varied emotions of several female viewers watching a movie with a narration in Farsi (the language of Iran) about a popular fable/tale of love and valor, without showing Shirin’s viewers what those members of the audience within the film were watching but merely providing the soundtrack of the “watched” film.

The puzzle begins: Who is the woman who can take up a reserved seat
at a book release ceremony

Kiarostami’s  Certified Copy is equally abstract and demanding of its audience but in a different way. Certified Copy proves to be a fascinating work because it is a film with an open ending and a narrative full of ambiguities, while succeeding in retaining the attention of any viewer, who can sense and appreciate a high level of intellectual discourse presented within the film. Despite the physical and thespian allure of Juliette Binoche (presenting one of her most complex and commendable performances that deservedly won her the Best Actress award at the Cannes film festival in 2010), the film a perceptible viewer will soon realize is not about works of art or beauty (which is what the bulk of the film discusses) but merely uses that platform to discuss love between two adults and the institution of marriage which is the result of love. The film presents an extension of Plato’s critical discussions on the Greek terms mimesis (imitation) and contrasting it with diegesis (narrative). The film indirectly asks the viewer what is real love and what is real marriage as opposed to the general perception of love and marriage. Stanley Kubrick toyed with the subject in a different manner in his swansong Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Ingmar Bergman dealt with the subject in a parallel manner in several films, most notably in The Touch (1971).

Kiarostami is unintentionally mimicking Ingmar Bergman, both in style and content. At least this is increasingly evident in the recent Kiarostami phase of filmmaking outside Iran (first Shirin that utilized non-Iranian actors, then Tickets made in Italy, followed by Certified Copy and the latest being Like Someone in Love, made in Japan) all mirroring the interests of the Swedish maestro—and both directors wrote their own screenplays/stories. And like Bergman, Kiarostami’s films increasingly tend to linger on the actors’ faces that communicate emotions beyond spoken words or their other physical activity. And the conversations for directors rarely abate.

Kiarostami uses his favorite visual idea--a moving vehicle;
and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi captures
 the duo (Shimmel and Binoche)
with Italian exteriors in reflection

Certified Copy begins with a book release in Italy by its British author, James Miller (played by William Shimmel, an opera singer of some repute). The book is also titled Certified Copy and discusses the value of copies of art, not unlike the subject of Orson Welles’ delightful F for Fake (1973). The book release is attended by a young mother (Binoche) and her son briefly. Before leaving hurriedly (as her son is hungry), she leaves behind her address for Miller so that he could sign the many copies of his book that she has bought. Throughout the film, the lady’s name is never revealed or spoken.

Miller does respond by visiting her studio populated with copes of art and he obliges the good lady by signing the copies of her book, one of which is for her son addressed by Miller by the first name. And there begins the puzzles for the viewer to ponder over. The son notices that his surname has been left out by Miller. The lady recalls her sister used to stammer and addresses James Miller as “J-J-J-J-James.” Is there a familiarity between the two that has not been revealed? Miller states that he wrote his book after watching a mother and her son in Italy, after the son stopped to admire a statue that was probably a copy “some 15 or 5 years ago.” And the lady played by Binoche seems to be aware of that incident. The viewer is cleverly sucked into a complex puzzle to figure out if the two knew each other in the past and whether the author, Miller, is somehow related to the boy.

Miller is married to someone (similar to the unseen film-within-film in Shirin, and the young man’s past lover in Tickets) the viewer never sees but evidently exists. Third parties viewing the duo traveling in Italy assume Miller and the woman to be married, following which they begin to “act” as if they are married. Perceived actions appear more real than reality. The couple’s individual reactions to newly-weds in churches asking them to join them in their celebrations are markedly different. Miller comments "I didn't mean to sound so cynical, but when I saw all their hopes and dreams in their eyes, I just couldn't support their illusion." Is Miller's real marriage having a downturn as to be considered an illusion?

Do the "married" couple spend the night together?

Church bells ring as if a marriage is taking place (possibly real, possibly “copied” in memory).  The “acting” couple asks for a room at the same small hotel they had apparently stayed ages ago and the lady (Binoche) expects Miller to spend the night with her, when the bell tolls 8 o’clock and Miller has a train to catch in an hour.   A perceptive viewer will recall the lady’s son commenting, “You are trying to fall in love with him.” And that she does by going to the rest room and wearing costume jewelry earrings and trying to look more attractive for Miller, which he does not seem to notice. She, on the other hand, has noticed his change of perfume. Whose is the real love and whose is the certified copy of love?

Shimmel and Binoche: reprising Bergman's techniques?

Kiarostami seems to be toying with real love, perceived/certified copy of love, real marriages, and perceived/certified copy of marriages. The film offers the viewer several options. None is cast in stone.    

Carriere's and Shimmel's respective characters
 discuss the copy of Michelangelo's statue David  in Florence,
a subject discussed ironically by two "married" couples

Somewhere in the middle of the film Kiarostami shows the conversing couple passing by a copy of the statue of David by Michelangelo publicly admired at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, while the original is in Florence’s Gallery of Fine Arts. And the couple discusses this subject with a tourist (played by Jean-Claude Carriere the co-screenplay writer of so many of maestro Luis Bunuel’s classic films and Peter Brook’s Mahabharata) and his fictional tourist wife. The discussion of the original (diegesis) and the certified copy (mimesis) continues to the end of the film as marriage and love gradually replace works of art in the discussion.

"Costume jewelry is as good as real jewelry" quote from the film 

While there is no sex or nudity in the film, it is quite understandable Certified Copy could not have been made in Iran with that country's prevalent official conservative social attitudes. Having seen all the recent four films made by Kiarostami, Certified Copy proves to be the most cerebral, with his episode in Tickets proving to be the most delectable among the four. In comparison, Like Someone in Love, was not remarkable cinema even though no Kiarostami movie can ever be considered pedestrian.

Certified Copy remains essential viewing for viewers who love good cinema and have a penchant for philosophy and aesthetics.

P.S. Kiarostami’s earlier works Shirin and Tickets and Orson Welles’ F for Fake have been reviewed earlier on this blog.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

166. Indian filmmaker Sudevan's debut film "CR no.89" (India) (2013): A micro-budget Malayalam language movie that is different and refreshing

Malayalam language movies have won prestigious Indian national film awards in recent years but they are rarely ones that stand out as some did, three or four decades ago. 

At last, there is an innocuous debut film from a young director that would make a sleepy cineaste sit up to savour its whiff of freshness. That’s director Sudevan’s CR No.89--a little, big film which premiered in 2013 at the Intentional Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK). It is “little” because it is an 80 minute film made with an incredible shoestring budget of Rs 700,000 (about US$11,000) pooled by the director’s well wishers (read “non-internet” crowd funding).

It is “big” because the film, with its odd title, devoid of sex or participation of mainstream actors, and with minimal violence, has scooped up a slew of regional Indian awards including Best Film of 2013 at the 2014 Kerala State Film Awards, the NETPAC award for the best Malayalam film at the 2013 IFFK, the Aravindan award for the best debut film by an Indian director from the Chalachitra Film Society, the John Abraham award (in memory of the talented late Malayalam film director, not the living Bollywood actor) for the best debut director from the Federation of Film Societies of India (FFSI), the Padamarajan Puraskaram (award) for the best film of 2013 from the Padmarajan Memorial Trust and an acting award for Asok Kumar (for the role of the automobile mechanic)  from the Kerala state film awards. Unfortunately, the only international film festival this film has been invited to, thus far, is the minor Colombo International Film Festival.  Marketing remains the bane of quality Indian regional cinema while what does get showcased in countries  outside India are the semi-commercial films.

What is the odd title of this movie? The title ought to be expanded to Crime (or Criminal) Report no. 89. “CR no.89” is the jargon used in a regular Indian police station.  The title has a subscript as written in Indian police files “under section 323, 324, 379 of the Indian Penal Code, read with 25(1)(b) of the Arms Act.”  It refers to an unsolved criminal report relating to an illicit transportation of deadly weapons in a stolen jeep and other felonies. The weapons, transported in a jeep, are hidden in crates under heaps of tomatoes.  When the law does catch up with such consignments as depicted in this movie, the transporters are rarely caught or brought to justice. Further, the haul of the weapons by the law enforcers is merely reported in the news and subsequently buried in dusty files as a ‘cold case.’

The brevity of the title inadvertently describes the young director Sudevan, who has evidently not considered how a different and more attractive title could have marketed his debut film beyond the confines of Kerala state, but is more concerned about the reality of frequent illicit arms transportation in Kerala, the violence such weapons inflict on innocent rural folk, and the apathy of the law and order machinery to resolve such cold cases.

Interactions and reactions of rural Indian characters

However, the film is not about arms transportation. It begins with a focus on engines in hardly roadworthy vehicles that ply on Indian roads. The movies then gradually explores how five or six Indian rural characters interact with or react to the shady arms transporters by happenstance or when they stumble on the abandoned  vehicle, because the jeep carrying the illicit consignment has broken down on an unpaved, rarely used road, cutting through a hardly inhabited rubber plantation. The illegal arms transporters chose that odd route to avoid detection. What follows is a credible edge of the seat entertainment for the viewers with an unusual ending as a bonus. 

What Sudevan has accomplished, with the help of three cameramen utilizing very basic camera equipment simultaneously, is to realistically depict varied reactions of average Indians to the goons in distress. How Sudevan has achieved this is truly praiseworthy, especially in creating the final sequence, in which the bad guys are absent. The entire concept is Sudevan‘s own, including an interesting credit sequence. The end-product is a delectable mosaic of how Indians behave.
There is wry humor sprinkled throughout the film—a game of rural checkers played with nuts and bolts, odd hairstyles, attitudes towards work by a not-so-busy small-time automobile mechanic, who is quite skilled in his trade, and the intricacies of social etiquettes of distribution of marriage invitations for middle-class Keralites. There are interesting shots of chameleons cleverly edited into the narrative to allude to social parallels. Sudevan ducks the popular lure of spoon-feeding his audience with unnecessary details in the narrative—he forces the linear details to be assembled by the intelligent viewer. That is rare in Indian cinema.

CR No.89 opened a week-long FILCA international film festival in Trivandrum a week ago. Even the noted Indian filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan stayed through the screening to watch the film that he had heard about but not seen. Young Sudevan had a history of persistently following up with film societies, such as FILCA, to enter his short films in competitions and in film society screenings. The quality of his short films and the resulting sales of the DVDs of his short films helped fund each subsequent Sudevan film, culminating in the award-winning low-budget feature film CR No.89. The success of Sudevan is partly due to the role of film societies in encouraging young film makers, an unusual scenario that is alive and laudable in pockets of India, such as Kerala.

CR No. 89 is a film, with English subtitles, that deserves to be widely seen and appreciated by film-goers who hanker for good Indian cinema in India and abroad. Most of all it is amazing that a lovely, quality film could be made with Rs 700,000 by a young man committed to cinema without any compromises or a political subtext. Most importantly, the film makes the viewer reflect on the varied reactions of ordinary citizens to a similar situation. And it is a movie relying considerably on diagetic sounds picked from the natural environment, something quite unusual for soundtrack management in Indian cinema. Sudevan is able to capture rural Kerala milieu without the unrealistic but popular dramatic inflection of tones used by professional actors, often associated with the better Malayalam cinema.

While quality Malayalam films enjoy widespread viewership within Kerala, it is truly sad to note that well-made small-budget films, such as CR No. 89, and major works of Malayalam cinema, such as M T Vasudevan Nair’s Nirmalayam (The Offering) (1973) and Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Anantaram (Monologues) (1987), are rarely seen or discussed beyond the borders of Kerala, either nationally or internationally.

(This review was first published at www.dearcinema.com at http://dearcinema.com/review/cr-89-malayalam-movie-different-refreshing/2730#comments)

P.S. This film is one of the author's best 10 films of 2014

Friday, July 18, 2014

165. Self-exiled US director Joseph Losey’s British masterpiece “Accident” (1967): Atrophy and unhappiness of the educated upper crust

Although he was an American filmmaker from Wisconsin state hounded by the infamous “McCarthy” Committee (House Un-American Activities Committee) set up to weed out Leftist sympathisers in Hollywood, most filmgoers today tend to associate Joseph Losey with British cinema than American/Hollywood cinema. Losey had in his early career worked with the obviously Leftist playwright Bertolt Brecht in Germany.  Sensing apathy in the US after being asked to appear before the “McCarthy committee,” Losey quickly chose to live in the UK rather than “name names” at the socialist witch-hunt. America’s loss was Britain’s gain.

Unfortunately, in England, some of Losey’s works were far ahead of its time, especially his three movies made in collaboration with the Nobel Prize winning screenplay-writer Harold Pinter in the evening of Losey’s career. Just as the Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski bloomed in his final years as a filmmaker following his association with screenplay-writer and lawyer-politician Krzysztof Piesiewicz, the Losey-Pinter phase produced three remarkable works: The Servant, Accident, and The Go-Between. Losey’s Accident left home audiences in the UK considerably puzzled, but won the Grand Prize of the Jury at the Cannes film festival, while his The Go-Between (1971) picked up the Golden Palm a few years later. Even to this day, only serious cineastes note the understated brilliance of Losey’s Accident —with its myriad details less obvious for a casual viewer.

Joseph Losey’s Accident was the high point of his career and arguably one of the finest and least appreciated British films ever made ranking alongside the British works of Stanley Kubrick. Losey has made great films and very unremarkable films in his career. This critic rates Losey’s Accident as one of the top 100 films ever made globally. The following review attempts to explain the importance of this movie that eluded most audiences when it was made. It is engagingly similar to Michael Haneke’s Caché (Hidden) (2005) both in structure and content, even though the French/Austrian film was made half a century later. Caché, like Accident, pleased the jury at the Cannes film festival and picked up major awards.

Stephen (Bogarde)  and Anne (Sassard): Controlled emotions enhanced by the camera angle

The structure of the film. Accident begins and ends with a long static shot of a house without human presence in the foreground. Haneke’s Caché reprises the same long static shot of an apartment in Paris without human beings in front of the camera to begin and end his film. Both films do not use music but natural diagetic sounds for these scenes (recall Hitchcock’s treatment of sound in Rear Window). Of course, in Accident both the long static shots end with the sound of a car crash, which is pivotal to the movie without ever showing the accident as it occurs in close proximity to the house. This is one of the tools that would have irritated audiences used to seeing what it heard on screen.  Losey had already achieved a half century ago, the cinematic effect that Haneke perfected recently in Caché. In both films, the closing shots are not merely following the aesthetic structures propounded in Aristotle’s Poetics, but are attempts to urge the viewer to revisit what has been said in the movie earlier.

Both Accident and Caché suggest ideas rather than show/spoon-feed viewpoints of the filmmakers. The viewer is forced to deduce the story; the director does not tell you the full story. Take the example of the final shot in Accident with the brilliant use of sound edit of a similar car crash one heard when the film began. The only difference after you hear the two crashes is that after the first one, the inhabitants of the house come out to investigate. After second crash, there is no apparent interest by the denizens of the house to investigate the sound after second crash sound is heard. Losey and Pinter have a created a masterstroke.  The second one is not real but a symbolic statement for us the viewers to employ as a clue to figure out what the filmmakers were stating beyond the obvious.  The brilliance of the film in this movie cannot be attributed to the novelist Nicholas Mosley but to the director and the scriptwriter who made the effect so fascinating. (By contrast, this critic has always maintained that in some films. such as Life of Pi (2012), the novelist is the true creator, with much less contribution of the director or the scriptwriter whose contribution is merely to transpose the written ideas effectively on the screen. An ignorant viewer would place the credit for the basic ideas on the wrong shoulders.) Then again both Losey and Haneke combine silence and sudden violent acts with amazing skills—for Losey violence gets distilled into the sound of a breaking twig, for Haneke, it is more graphic and chilling.

The opening and the end of Accident are a delight to study.  The opening shot is captured in the night with realistic skies by cinematographer Gerry Fisher as opposed to “day-for-night” tricks that other directors employed with aplomb even decades later.  The opening shot is actually filmed at night and the final shot late in the evening under twilight. A difference that the filmmakers want the viewers to note is a toy car left behind by the children on the driveway.  The toy car provides a symbolic irony of the car accident that ties together the various strands of the tale about adults. The toy car in its ironic turn has little to do with the movie but “accidentally” and innocently provides a pivot to bring all the elements of the story in perspective.

William, Charley and Stephen (in the backgound): the typical weekend afternoon.
Note the camera angle.
The “accidental” story. The film doesn’t have a amazing story but rather looks at the society and academic milieu in the UK in the Sixties and presents a sketchy tale of marital infidelity and latent homosexuality framed against the respectable world of family weekends, tennis, cricket, and some elevated philosophical banter among university dons who live in comfortable houses in the British countryside. Stephen (the late Dirk Bogarde) teaches philosophy and appears to be happily married to Rosalind (the late Vivien Merchant). They have two children (minor marginal characters the filmmakers utilize for leaving behind the toy car for the final shot) and are expecting the arrival of the third. Stephen has a macho colleague in Charley (the late Stanley Baker) who not only has a glad eye for Stephen’s female philosophy student Anna (Jacqueline Sassard) and even Stephen’s wife Rosalind. Stephen has an unusual relationship with a male student William that suggests mutual homosexual attraction, which is never made explicit. William seems to be head over heels over Anna, who is equally being stalked by Charley and Stephen. The quintet of the five adults only prove what Losey and Pinter have loved to discuss in their works—the decay of the upper classes and the lofty world of academia and level of disquiet among the well-heeled British who spend afternoons drinking and watching/playing cricket. The novel recedes to the background as the scriptwriters steer the cinematic vehicle to their points of view—presenting social criticism. Anna's shoe on William's face, as she emerges from the wrecked car, is an early visual clue of what follows more subtly. 

There are personal trivia that add value to the script. Charley reads out from an academic journal “A statistical analysis of sexual intercourse at Colenso University, Milwaukee, showed... that 70% did it in the evening, 29.9% between 2 and 4 in the afternoon and 0.1% during a lecture on Aristotle.” An old professor is quick to quip “I'm surprised to hear that Aristotle is on the syllabus in the State of Wisconsin.” For most viewers it would be just witty banter. Or is it? Please note Losey was from Wisconsin and was a student of philosophy. Was this an exile’s jibe at the US?

Another trivia is that both Pinter (in a small role of a TV producer) and his then real-life wife Vivien Merchant appear in this film. Ironically years later, Merchant divorced Pinter for infidelity just as Stephen was cheating on Rosalind in the film Accident.  Bogarde was gay and the film is a wonderful example of his real sexual inclinations, a subtle performance that is less memorable than his overtly gay role in Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971) based on Thomas Mann’s novel.

The unusual camera angles and the studied silence of the soundtrack, employing John Dankworth’s music only when essential, would have put off most viewers.  But the silence talks in Accident. The making of the omelette and the “violent” eating of the omelette brings one closer to the ‘kitchen-sink realism’ that Pinter was famous for detailing. What was spoken had to share time and space with the making of a single dish. That is seminal Losey-Pinter alchemy.

Stephen (Bogarde) and Rosalind (Merchant) (in the background):
underplayed powerful performances

Accident is a great work of cinema, from a great ensemble of actors and talented persons behind the camera. It was a harbinger of interesting films that followed decades later. Accident was outstanding, not so much for its story, but more for the way it presented the story.

The superb Czech poster of the film Accident which tells it all
(including the progression from night to late evening
as provided by the opening and closing shot,
depicted in the shades of grey used in the title)

P.S. Accident is one of the author’s top 100 films of all time. Michael Haneke’s Caché has been reviewed earlier on this blog. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

164. Portmanteau film “Tickets” (2005) (Italy/UK) in Italian and English, directed by Ermanno Olmi, Abbas Kiarostami, and Ken Loach: Perceptive studies on human behavior of Europeans brought together in a unified, structured film

Tickets is a film rarely discussed by cineastes. If it is discussed, it is often to compare and contrast its three celebrated directors. It is therefore more satisfying to evaluate it as a single movie more than a portmanteau film. This is a movie that progresses in intensity of purpose from one segment to another as though it was one director’s idea rather than of three directors and their own teams.

Tickets is a film that examines how different individuals react with strangers. And interestingly the film focuses on the varied reactions of Europeans on a single train journey to Rome as carefully developed by three top-notch filmmakers Ermanno Olmi from Italy, Abbas Kiarostami from Iran, and Ken Loach from UK. Each director makes the viewer think about the unusual reactions of the characters under differing conditions—all three sections carve out delectable perspectives about human nature. There is a common thread—all three segments underscore the good side of human beings and are therefore uplifting. Of course, the film can also be perceived as a political allegory of the new Europe grappling with immigration, anti-military views, and social inequality. Undeniably, all three directors have a socialist leaning.

The rich scientist about to board a train

What is most interesting to note is the gradual progression in the film from the subtle to the obvious, from the world of silence, spare lines of conversation, predominance of non-verbal communication though glances and/or stares, and discrete notes classical music (Chopin’s preludes) contrasted to the other extreme decibel level with sounds of raucous yelling and singing of the Celtic song as in a football stadium, verbal abuse, without losing the interest of the viewer in the narrative. The reverse progression would not have worked. Olmi is the master of subtlety, and naturally begins the film. Loach is the master of the “kitchen-sink” cinema with Glaswegian humor spat out like machine-gun fire and naturally deals with the end segment of the film. Kiarostami balances the two opposites—a delightful mix of some polite conversation between four sets of actors set off against an obnoxious harridan, once rich and powerful when her husband was alive, some pop music, providing the progressive transition from Olmi’s quiet cinema to Loach’s loud cinema.

The film is equally interesting as the film progresses gradually from the rich to the poor. The Olmi segment introduces us to a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry, who is rich enough to pay for two seats instead of one for his additional comfort and privacy. The second section dealt by Kiarostami deals with a woman holding second class tickets without reservations but travelling in a first class compartment. The third section deals with sections of the public who either don’t have money for their tickets or do not have money to pay the fines for a stolen ticket.

The three sections in the film are consciously or unconsciously divided into the past, the present and the future as well.

The recent past: The public relations official  (Valeria Bruni Tadeschi)
ensures the scientist has a comfortable journey with a lot of care

The opening Olmi section allows for the respectable 60-year-old scientist to recall his childhood when he had heard the same Chopin piece being played by a girl whose face the scientist cannot recall or perhaps eludes his memory.  He is constantly recalling the attractive public relations lady (Valeria Bruni Tadesschi, sister of Carla Bruni)) who had taken great pains to ensure he has a comfortable trip back to Rome. She has noticed him for years, but the scientist has not but is pleased to note her kindness towards him.  Gentle reveries of the distant past and the recent past are shaken by the present—a sullen military official who occupies a seat opposite him and an Albanian family of limited means he can view travelling evidently without reservations between his coach and the next.  Olmi nudges the viewer to evaluate the present in the context of the past. The final action of the scientist is unusual but assertive; all his co travellers in the first class coach (including a rich Indian regal family, a music enthusiast and a man cutting up news snippets from a daily newspaper) are staring at him, while the military man hides his face behind his jacket. The importance lies in the silence and stares that end the segment.

The present: The harridan who lacks sympathy

The present: A young man is forced to make a choice

The middle section from Kiarostami allows for gentle verbal communication among strangers—some characters are polite even under trying circumstances, others aggressive and repugnant.  As in the first segment, glances and visual appraisal of strangers are important –but with a difference, they are longer than in the Olmi segment.  But each visual and now increasingly verbal appraisal is more detailed than in the previous segment. The movie has discretely begun to change its narrative pace.  The segment encapsulates several vignettes:  a man insisting that a stranger is calling on his cell-phone without his permission, two men who insist on being seated in their reserved seats occupied by strangers, a young man conversing with a young girl from his own Italian town who recalls having played with him years ago, and the harridan who making the life of young male companion increasingly miserable.  The future and the past alluded to in the segment matter less than the present.

The future: Decisions that can make a difference

The final Loach section is about the future as grappled by three lower middle class football crazy Glasgow young men. One of the three well-meaning youngsters seems to have lost his ticket (it is possibly stolen) and has to pay a heavy fine or face jail in Rome if doesn’t pay up. The jail term in turn would affect their jobs they hold in Scotland. Another Albanian immigrant family has possibly stolen the ticket but need it more desperately to reach their destination as it affects their lives. This segment puts the future of the two groups in perspective, with and without the tickets.

Tickets is therefore interesting to appreciate as a well-structured movie made by three directors with similar attitudes to immigration, wealth, and military/police. Olmi’s brilliant Golden Palm winner The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978), which he wrote, directed, edited and even personally photographed was also an endearing tale on immigrant farm labourers looking at the differences between the rich and the poor in rural Italy a century ago. In Tickets, Olmi looks at the same subject of immigrants from the point of view of the rich, prodding the rich to step out of dreamy comforting images of the past into the present tribulations of the poor. In Tickets, as Olmi advances in age, it is Olmi’s son behind the camera.

The military and their lack of empathy towards poor Albanian immigrants

Kiarostami’s segment in Tickets recalls his first film The Bread and Alley (1970) in which a child encounters a hungry dog while carrying fresh bread in an alley. If one chooses to replace the obnoxious woman in Tickets with the dog in The Bread and Alley, there are several parallels. The man behind the camera is another talented Iranian, Mahmoud Kalari, who was the cinematographer for Kiarostami’s Shirin and Gabbeh and the recent acclaimed Asghar Farhadi films The Past and A Separation.

The Loach segment in Tickets is considerably helped by the cinematography of Chris Menges and scriptwriter Paul Laverty. Laverty’s collaboration with Loach has always raised Loach’s cinema, just as scriptwriter Piesiewicz collaboration with Kieslowski raised the quality of the latter’s later works. Viewers who have seen Loach’s movie The Angels’ Share (2012) will note several similarities in Tickets , including two actors common to the two movies.

A philosopher would have given the film a title such as “The Train Journey” but the film is instead called Tickets. Money and wealth-related power can be associated with the purchase of Tickets.
Tickets is a ticket to evolved entertainment for an attentive and perceptive viewer.

P.S.  Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs and Loach’s The Angels’ Share have been reviewed on this blog earlier. The Tree of Wooden Clogs is one of the author's favorite top 10 movies of all time.

Monday, June 02, 2014

163. Russian maestro Andrei Tarkovsky’s Russian movie “Solyaris” (Solaris) (1972): An appraisal of a cerebral movie that is truly one of the best 10 movies of all time

Many have seen this cinematic masterpiece. Many have considered it as a major achievement in science fiction cinema. The director himself did not consider this work to be perfect because of the interference of the Russian state machinery at various stages of the film’s production, limiting his artistic freedom, to which Tarkovsky had to finally succumb, to ensure that the film could be released in Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Though eventually released in limited public theatres, the film slowly gained in reputation as a cult film and did very well in the box office. It won the Cannes film festival’s Grand Prize of the Jury and the FIPRESCI prize in 1972. Elsewhere, the film befuddled audiences who felt cheated of their ticket cost, just as the few disgruntled filmgoers who tore up the seats of the Archana theatre in New Delhi during the screening the Tarkovsky retrospective as part of the Indian International Film Festival in 1979, possibly after reading this critic’s naive but honest 1979 recommendation of the film as the best film of the 2-week mega event. Even today, this cinematic work remains among the top 10 movies of all time for this critic. An extensive analysis follows.

Kris carries Hari version 2: "Whenever we show pity, we empty our souls"

The book vs. the movie: For readers of global science fiction, Polish novelist Stainslaw Lem is a giant among a host of pygmies.  Lem (1921-2006) had predicted concepts such as virtual reality and nanotechnology, in his works written more than 60 years ago, terms that are gaining in currency today. He is indeed a later day Jules Verne. His works have been made into several remarkable movies by varied directors across the world over the decades—each work philosophical and stimulating to the mind. One is a Dutch film by Piet Honderdos called Victim of the Brain (1988). The Israeli director Ari Folman made the animated film The Congress (2013), which won some awards.  The Hungarian director Pater Sparrow chose to film 1 (2009) based on another Lem tale.  An East German filmmaker Kurt Maetzig made an interesting film First Spaceship on Venus (1960).  Then comes a Russian TV film of Solaris made in 1968, then Tarkovsky’s Solaris in 1979, followed finally by Steven Soderberg’s comparatively simplistic adaptation of the novel in 2002.

Now Tarkovsky was able to consult with Lem as he worked on his film--a major advantage for any director attempting to adapt a work of Lem on screen. Typical of the director, Tarkovsky decided to infuse his own ideas into the basic structure of the novel infuriating Lem for whom two aspects of Tarkovsky’s work were unacceptable—the first being the three overbearing  love elements---the uxorial love of Hari (Khari), and the love of Kris for his dead mother, and ultimately the love of Kris for his living father and the second being the obvious theological references in Tarkovsky’s film (the mention and comparison of Protestant theologian Martin Luther’s famous act of throwing the inkwell at the devil’s appearance, at the Biblical Russian artworks complete with halos in Kris’ room on the space station shown at critical points in the film, two separate references to the literary character Faust’s theological tryst with immortality, Kris’ observation to Dr Snaut that “whenever we show pity we empty our souls” and  the use of Bach’s Chorale Prelude in F minor on the soundtrack) since Lem was an atheist, though of Jewish origin. Tarkovsky was doing what Terrence Malick did to the James Jones’ award-winning novel of The Thin Red Line, when he adapted that literary work making the cinematic work considerably personal and different from the Jones’ novel.

Donatas Banionis as Dr Kris Kelvin: "Sleep is the equalizer
between the shepherd and the king, the simple and the wise
Cervantes' Don Quixote"   

For Tarkovsky, his family mattered most. All his films accentuate this fact. Women in his life (most importantly his mother and, to a lesser extent, his first wife) are eternally elements that he recalls with love, reverence and gratitude.  (Interestingly it is a parallel case with Malick, as well, especially in The Tree of Life.) It is, therefore, not surprising that the image of his mother smoking her cigarette (often captured with her back towards the camera) is a signature shot of Tarkovsky, which he perfected in Mirror, eventually made 3 years after he made Solaris.  In Solaris, the mother and the cigarette are first introduced in the film within the film, which Kris states was shot by himself and his father. Kris’ foster mother Anna, who evidently loves Kris, is moved to tears when Kris states that he will be taking that home film on his space journey from which he might not return. Soon after the viewer of Solaris is shown the film within the film, the viewer is shown the virtual Hari version 2 (wife of Kris) smoking a cigarette, in the same posture as Tarkovsky’s mother smoked her cigarette in the opening sequence of the autobiographical Mirror. Now Lem and any logical viewer of Solaris could wonder how and where cigarettes got introduced into the scenario when only Dr Snaut was the only human on the space station, orbiting the planet Solaris, who was a smoker.  And that too, a virtual Hari smoking!! Did the real Hari smoke? There is no evidence of that either. (Of course, we know from Mirror that Tarkovsky’s mother also smoked.) Evidently Tarkovsky’s mind was playing with the images of his mother and importing those to merge with those of the virtual Hari version 2. This is clarified by the director in the dream sequence towards the end of the film where images of his dead mother and the virtual/dead Hari switch more than once. Finally, there is Kris’ father in front of whom Kris kneels at the end of the film reprising the kneeling posture in front of the near human virtual Hari at the birthday party of Dr Snaut.

The dog appears on Solaris, as Kris kneels before his father

Lem’s book dealt with the futuristic problem of inter-species communication and the philosophical implications it introduced for us by recalling our past life on Earth and our conscience chiding us for our past guilty actions. This is apparently why some eighty odd original crew members on the space station died leaving only two of the smartest still alive on board, when Dr Kris Kelvin is sent to join them by the scientists on earth to investigate the situation and decide either to call off the Solaris mission after accepting it as a failure or attack the Solaris ocean with high intensity rays from the station. Instead Tarkovsky lunges backwards to explore intensely personal memories and guilt of one individual, Kris, beyond the Lem novel and the Soderberg version, both dealing more with the condition of Dr Snaut (renamed Dr Snow in the Soderberg film-version) than with the evolving condition of Kris. Thus while Lem urges his readers to look outwards to communicate with an unknown species and the problems associated with it, Tarkovsky urges his viewers to look inwards—that too with a covert purpose of being critical of the political climate of USSR in 1972, while espousing Tarkovsky’s personal undeniable love for his country, its arts, its cultural history, and its literary masters. Viewers will note that the script weaves in comments about Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy—while the book and the film versions allows Cervantes’ Spanish classic Don Quixote to take the center stage at Dr Snaut’s birthday party, a connection to discuss dreams and memories that Lem considered to be important for the tale.

Finally, for Lem, the tale was basically set in outer space, while the Tarkovsky film twists the tale to discuss more about events on Earth, in both real time and in memories.

Pet symbols of Tarkovsky and their meaning. Sudden inexplicable rains are often standard visual symbols of epiphany, moments of beautiful recollections of love and passion, seemingly baptized by external, sublime forces.  The rains appear without warning early in Solaris when Kris is spending his last day on Earth before his space trip. Astute viewers will note that it occurs after the statement “I don’t care for new things ” Water pours within the space station in a bath space after Kris tells Hari version 2 why he left Hari behind, evidently after a quarrel, when he was transferred in his job on Earth. Rains appear again as Kris dreams of connecting with his father on an island on planet Solaris: this time the rain falls within the house wetting his father’s clothes. The rains are not real but serve as a metaphor to underscore the sublime and emotional connection with the characters and the scene. 

So are horses and dogs that seem to have no direct purpose but serve as links to memories and forces beyond the normal logic. Horses are part of the Kris’s father’s home and are on the walls of the space station room occupied by Kris’ dead scientist friend.  Crows/ravens sitting on bare tree branches are shown in Solaris as space traveler Burton is questioned on planet Solaris and what he saw and experienced. A similar image appears in a segment of the Breughel painting shown in the personal film within the film. (The contemporary Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev, often considered to be the new Tarkovsky,   utilizes the same symbols in his films at critical junctures.  Zvyagintsev’s Elena begins with the raven-like birds cawing and this is repeated towards the end of that film.)

Drawings/paintings of hot-air balloons decorated the walls of Kris’ room on earth, which would be a natural interest for a potential space traveler. But Tarkovsky fans will recall the hot-air balloon’s connection to Tarkovsky’s previous cinematic work Andrei Rublyev.

"Hunters in the Snow" by Pieter Breughel the Elder.
(Note the bird on the leafless branch, an image brought into focus in the film,
 and the image recreated during Burton's testimony on tape early in the film) 

Similarly, dogs in Solaris have a purpose and are introduced to serve as links to personal memories. There is a dog at Kris’s father’s house on earth; there is a dog with Kris’ mother in the film within the film and in Kris’ dreams of his mother; there are dogs of a different species in the painting (“Hunters in the snow” by Pieter Breughel the Elder) shown  in the film within the film; the dog’s image is found strewn on the floor of the space station once Kris decides to stay on in the Solaris orbit; and there is a dog in the final image of Kris visiting his father on the Solaris island.

The political elements in Tarkovsky’s movie.  Tarkovsky was always critical of the political system in the old USSR but loved his country intensely. Tarkovsky treaded this path gingerly. He couched his feelings in careful metaphors “We want to extend Earth to Cosmos’ borders. We don’t want any more worlds, only a mirror to see ourselves in.” These are asides that would not be lost on politically aware viewers, just as Tarkovsky sneaked a photograph of the banned Trotsky into his film Mirror, bypassing the Russian censors.

Homage to the Russian literary masters. Literature plays a major role in Solaris and al the works of Tarkovsky. Books are strewn all over Kris’s room on Earth, Kris’ father’s room in the planet Solaris sequence, and the venue of Dr Snaut’s birthday party on the space station. Lem introduced the reference of Cervantes’s Don Quixote and the passage relating to sleep as the equalizer between the shepherd and the king, the simple and the wise. Tarkovsky, intensely Russian, cleverly weaves in references to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Dr Snaut refers to Kris’ defense of his friend Dr Gribarian’s suicide as being equal to “second-rate Dostoevsky.” Much later in the film, Kris recalls Tolstoy’s “intellectual suffering about the impossibility of loving human-kind in general.” Tarkovsky was the son of an acclaimed Russian poet and therefore he and the co-scriptwriter Fridrikh Gorenshteyn doff their hats at Russian literary geniuses beyond what the Polish writer Lem offered.

Hari version 2  (Natalya Bondarchuk) with injection scar on her arm visually
 recalling the suicide of the original Hari 

The last words of the film with its rhetorical question. Kris says “Well, anyway, my mission is finished. And what next? To return to Earth? Little by little everything will return to normal. I'll find new interests, new acquaintances, but I won't be able to devote all of myself to them.” Tarkovsky allows the camera to linger on the face of Dr Snaut as Kris says this. Dr Snaut’s face indicates that he has understood Kris’ final decision couched in rhetoric. What follows are images of Kris encountering his father sifting through a pile of books on planet Solaris. Kris opts for the “old interests” (not new ones, recall the words preceding the first rain sequence in the film) of the Earth with all its rich literary and theological memories while on Solaris. For Tarkovsky watchers, it predicts Tarkovsky’s personal actions of the future when he opts for self-imposed exile.

Juri Jarvet as Dr Snaut

The filmmaker and his team. Tarkovsky worked with a select team of actors whom he trusted. This select team included composer Eduard Artemyev, actors Nikolai Grinko (Kris’ father) and Anatoli Solonistyn (Dr Sartorius). Yet, the key performances in Solaris are not from Tarkovsky’s trusted faithful but from the outsiders: Juri Jarvet (Dr Snaut) and Natalaya Bondarchuk (Hari, playing all the versions of the character). Jarvet was peaking in his career having played King Lear for Grigori Kozintsev, and Ms Bondarchuk delighted the director with her flawless performance.

What was the film all about?  While Lem’s book dealt with inter-species communication, Tarkovsky’s film gives more importance to introspective intra-species communication. His film is all about Kris and his family, dead and alive. (Lem would possibly have instead preferred discussion on Fechner’s child introduced by Burton, the large child Burton saw on Solaris and the child with Burton in his car.) At another level, Solaris is a film about Tarkovsky and Russia. And finally, it is a film about science, morality, conscience, and theology, transcending the obvious science fiction tale. A key quote from the film is: “The salvation of humanity is in its shame.”

P.S. Tarkovsky’s Solaris is one of the top 10 films for this critic. Tarkovsky’s Mirror has been reviewed in detail earlier on this blog.