Sunday, January 26, 2014

159. Georgian film director Zaza Urushadze’s “Mandariinid” (Tangerines) (2013): A Gandhian perspective on contemporary waves of hate, national and religious

The year 2013 has introduced new talents to the forefront in cinema. 

The Georgian film director Zaza Urushadze can hardly be considered to be a known entity in international cinema. Yet Mr Urushadze has written a witty and touching film called Tangerines, which is an adorable, small-budget film that is superior both in content and quality to the much touted and comparatively big budget films from USA and France made in 2013. What is more, two small brilliant films, Uberto Pasolini’s Still Life (2013, UK/Italy) and Urushadze’s Tangerines, reinforce two thumb rules in cinema—one, talented directors can write their own scripts—they don’t need to lean on professional scriptwriters or adapt their screenplays from successful novels or plays--and two, a positive humanistic tale, interestingly told, will grab a viewer in any corner of the world.  Tangerines is a wonderful film that needs to be viewed and appreciated for its direction, acting and screenplay apart from the general knowledge it provides the viewer about the small nation called the autonomous Republic of Abkhazia, on the shores of the Black Sea, complete with a national flag of the republic that declared its independence in 1992.

A viewer of Tangerines will soon be educated about the war that raged in Abkhazia in 1992. Russia supported the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia by sending mercenaries, as the new Republic wanted to separate from the independent Georgia. The mercenaries that one encounters in Tangerines, are Chechen Muslims. The Georgian soldiers fighting the Chechens are Christian. Caught in the crossfire are some Estonian nationals, whose ancestors relocated to Abkhazia in the late 19th century and have come to love Abkhazia over the period they have lived there, and because of the war are considering returning to the Republic of Estonia where their roots belong. Estonia is another Republic but on the shores of the Baltic Sea way up north in Europe, another Republic which also broke away from the Soviet Union.

Reflecting in the light and the shadows on love and hatred

The film Tangerines has an all male cast; it has no sex and no violence. It is not even a war film. Yet, it is a film that would entertain you from start to finish thanks to the intelligent and witty script. It is perhaps best described as a film on a war of hatred among common individuals. It is not surprising that audiences love the film at all the film festivals where it gets shown.

The plot hinges around an elderly Estonian called Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) who lives alone, in an almost derelict village in Abkhazia.  He has a neighbor Markus (Elmo Nueganen), another Estonian, who has been cultivating tangerines and is now trying to sell a bumper crop of the fruit in the midst of a war to soldiers. Ivo makes wooden crates for Markus to sell his produce. Ivo’s daughter has already returned to Estonia, escaping the war. Evidently, Ivo is reluctant to leave the village where his wife lies buried—the bonds created by passage of time are strong.

Ivo is not the kind of man who would care to be part of either side in the war. He is a humanist. When armed men come to his door with menacing guns, he gladly provides them food when they ask for it.  When one soldier Ahmed (Giorgi Nakasidze) is critically wounded, he gets an Estonian doctor set to return to Estonia to put the soldier, a Muslim Chechen, who was bullying Ivo earlier, on the road to recovery under Ivo's roof.  By a twist of fate, another soldier equally wounded, literally found alive as he was being buried by Ivo after being presumed to be dead, from the opposite camp, a Georgian Christian, is also put on the road to recovery in another room of Ivo’s house. And Ahmed knows that the Georgian in the adjoining room probably killed Ahmed’s buddies.

The film is about the sparks of hatred that fly between the two soldiers.  The two sworn enemy soldiers are kept at bay by their respect and gratitude to their common benefactor, Ivo.

A "war" fought with kindness

Without revealing what happens next in the film, the crucial aspect of the script is the wry humor in the spoken words and body language that makes the viewer forget the Abkhazian war and the conflict of religions. Here, is a film that gets to the core of hatred peeling away layers of mistrust in the company of a well-meaning individual who has no interest in either politics or religion. It is a film that gradually replaces guns with acts of kindness.

Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) loves Abkhazia and its natural produce

At the end of the movie, the viewer will feel positive about life in spite of all the negative forces that we encounter in life throughout the world if we look beyond Abkhazia. It is a small film about a little, big man called Ivo. Tangerines is a film that transcends petty issues and looks at life positively, a rare gift when film directors today seem to be increasingly more at home with aberrant behavior or violence. Here is a Georgian film that introduces an interesting Estonian actor called Lembit Ulfsak. One wistfully recalls it was Estonia that produced one of the finest actors of the 20th century, Yuri Jarvet, who was picked by both directors Grigori Kozintsev and Andrei Tarkovsky to play key roles in their respective major works. And this work of cinema from Georgia is arguably the best work from that country since Tengiz Abuladze made Repentance way back in 1987.

The citation for Zaza Urushadze’s best director award for Tangerines given by the Warsaw film festival  reads “The director of the film succeeded in telling a simple, yet very powerful story in a manner that created a warm, delicate, sweet and sour world. “ Something like the fruit—tangerines?

P.S. Tangerines is on the author’s list of his top 10 movies of 2013. The film won the best director award at the Warsaw film festival and the audience awards at both the Mannheim-Heidelberg and Warsaw film festivals.  The Georgian film Repentance (1987) was reviewed earlier on this blog.

Monday, January 13, 2014

158. Iranian film director Asghar Farhadi’s French language film “Le passé” (The Past) (2013): Offering the flipside of Farhadi’s ‘A Separation’ with some parallels to Ray’s ‘Charulata’

The title of a movie often provides a vital clue for a viewer to approach and analyze a film.

In Asghar Farhadi’s latest work The Past, there are several pasts on review:  the past life of the Iranian Ahmad (Ali Mostaffa) and his French wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo) now about to sign divorce papers; the past life of Marie who had lived with a gentleman we never see on screen but is currently living in Brussels and is definitely the father of Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and possibly of even of Lea; the past life of Samir (Tahar Rahim) whose wife Celine is in a coma after a botched suicide attempt, and is a husband-in -waiting  for a pregnant Marie after she divorces Ahmad. These pasts are never shown in the film; the viewer has to flesh out these pasts from bits of dialog in the film as it progresses.  The pivotal point for all the three “pasts” revolves around one individual Marie. She is the one seeking a divorce.  She is the one who has two husbands living under one roof, one a man who is going to be her husband and another a husband who is going sign her divorce papers. It is interesting to note that in both the Farhadi films, it is the wife wanting a divorce, though in both films the wife seems to care for the husband in indirect ways and the husband's seemingly stubborn actions seems to have led to the current situation.

The pasts in the film The Past are developed by the screenplay writer/director Farhadi  in multiple ways. The relationship of Marie towards Samir is captured by a stunning remark by Marie’s daughter to Ahmad “You know why she went to that jerk? Because, he reminded her of you.” Both Ahmad and Samir do resemble each other physically. Both are Muslims who married French women. Both seem to want to leave their respective wives at a later point in their lives.

And at a crucial point in the film, the third unseen “past “, that of Samir’s life with Celine, is recaptured briefly in the film using the effect of smell of the perfume Samir wore when he was with Celine.

'Something unresolved when two people fight after 4 years of separation'

In an interesting visual metaphor, Marie’s “house” is under renovation which includes painting to fixing of leaky kitchen sinks. The Past offers a flipside of Farhadi’s earlier work Nader and Simin: A Separation, where a resolute wife was separating from a distraught husband—a film in which two sets of husbands seemed to be in lesser control of their lives than their respective wives. In both films, the Iranian men prefer to stay in Iran.  Interestingly A Separation had the Iranian actress Leila Hatami in the strong and practical wife’s role of a wife seeking a divorce; in The Past, Ms Hatami’s real life husband plays the strong and level headed husband Ahmad agreeing to a divorce. Director Farhadi is mastering the technique of flipping/mirroring roles on film and in reality from film to film.

Glass barriers separate sound and total communication in the opening
sequence of The Past 

The collaboration of Farhadi and Iranian cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari  on the two films has been a major factor in the success of the two movies. The final scene of A Separation has a glass panel that impedes the crucial spoken words of the daughter of divorced parents to the magistrate from reaching the parent’s ears, while the opening scene of The Past has glass panels of the international airport impeding proper aural communication. The end of A Separation suggests the social fracture between husband and wife has been formalized while in the end scene of The Past the social fracture of one couple seems to be healing. Farhadi is deliberately flipping the story and the coin at different levels. In The Past’s opening scene words are not spoken or heard and in the final scene, too, the communication is limited to the visual, the olfactory, and the body language. Farhadi has honed his skills as a director and scriptwriter, improving as he goes along from film to film.

The perfect father and house-husband

In both films, the children or the offspring of the adults born and unborn play pivotal roles during the screen time of the two films in determining the outcomes. Samir’s son Fouad asks his dad an inconvenient question while riding the metro “Where is home?” as he has lived in two homes, one with his real mother Celine and another with his foster-mother-in-waiting, Marie.  Thus, both the Farhadi movies explore the effects of divorce/separation on adults and children of the adults.

Both films are equally tales of lies that leave a deep impact on different sets of marital lives. For an Iranian like Farhadi, the tenets of marriage are important and sacred, while in France even Muslims like Samir (an inference one draws from the names Samir and Fouad) seem to disregard those tenets.

Asghar Farhadi’s cinema really came to fore after he made About Elly (2009) as his earlier work Fireworks Wednesday pales in comparison both in content and in style. For Indian viewers, About Elly is similar to a tale filmed by an Indian director Mrinal Sen adapted from a short story by Ramapada Chowdhury. The Indian film in Hindi film was called Ek din Achanak (One day suddenly) (1989) which competed at the Venice Film Festival some 20 years ago and even received an honorable mention from the jury. Like Elly disappears in About Elly, in Ek din Achanak, a professor and head (played by Dr Shreeram Lagoo) of a family, that included his two daughters and a son, suddenly disappears without explanation or trace. That Mrinal Sen film had also developed a parallel story to that of Farhadi’s script.

Now The Past, yet again, has an end scene that recalls the end scene of yet another Indian film of repute—this time the Bengali  maestro Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (The Lonely Wife) (1965), winner of the Silver Bear for director Ray at the Berlin film Festival. Both films end with the crucial handshake/touching of hands between husband and wife that is deliberately left ambiguous by the respective directors. In both the Indian and the Iranian films, the respective husbands realize their “past” mistakes in their relationships to their respective forsaken wives and try to reaching out to them with their hands in the end scenes. Ray’s Charulata was based on the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s tale The Broken Nest.

Despite the uncanny similarities to two famous works of Indian cinema, the increasing mastery of Farhadi’s screenplay writing abilities is nothing but awesome, considering that he achieves these feats alone without the assistance of a co-scriptwriter.  In The Past, Ahmad’s missing bag on arrival at the airport might appear an innocuous detail—it is common occurrence to flyers worldwide. But the missing/broken bag for scriptwriter Farhadi is a prop for developing the narrative of how Ahmad and Samir differ in dealing with kids who are inquisitive about the contents of a bag when they might contain gifts for them and others in the family. The bag also serves as a metaphor for the affection of Ahmad towards Lea (whose biological father’s identity is blurred in the script) at a time when social ties are about to be broken by an impending divorce. It is a baggage of the “past” connections to the family. But during the car ride from airport to Marie’s home when Ahmad brings up a past detail, Marie cuts him off “It’s not important..I don’t want to go back in to the past.” By a contrast, while Marie wants to forget the past, all the three kids yearn to retain past memories (Lucie and Lea of the time with Ahmad, and Fouad of the time with Celine in his earlier home). In all his later films, Farhadi ensures that his final scene in his scripts are enigmatic and open ended ensuring the viewer has to reflect on Farhadi’s work even after the movie is over to understand it properly. That’s cinema for mature audiences.

In comparison to A Separation, Farhadi’s next work The Past, offers a viewer a structured comparison of the western attitudes and Iranian attitudes.  Consider the following discussion between Marie and Ahmad on her relationship with her future husband and father of he unborn child:

  Ahmad: When did you meet each other?
  Marie: In the drugstore. He came to get his wife's medicines.
  [Ahmad sneers]
  Marie: What?
  Ahmad: In our culture, it is laughing.
  Marie: But in our culture, it is mocking!

For those who missed the point, Farhadi is ironically looking at the start of an illegitimate extramarital relationship when a husband is trying to help his own wife recover from an unspecified illness. Farhadi in The Past actually improves on what he had achieved in A Separation by incorporating additional perspectives of cultural differences beyond the effects of lies and the processes of a divorce on varied characters. Several bits of conversation in the film point to Ahmad’s inability to adjust to life in France as the reason that cost his marriage.  But has the marriage really been torn apart?  A detail of the spoken words in the film indicates otherwise.  The gynecologist discussing Marie’s pregnancy states philosophically “In this situation, every certainty is a doubtful!”  Equally loaded is Samir’s comment about Marie and Ahmad: “When two people see each other after 4 years and still fight together, it shows that there is something unresolved between them.”

Marie: a crucial figure in the three "pasts" presented 

Finally, a word about the citation of the award the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes Film Festival bestowed The Past quoted John 8:32 from the Bible “The truth shall set you free.” If one examines the film closely when the lies are exposed, broken marriages begin to heal and reconciliation starts. It is, therefore, surprising that the Oscars, which honored Farhadi’s A Separation, did not even nominate The Past, a more complex but superior work on several fronts including its acting performances, camerawork, screenplay, and direction.

P.S. The film won the Best Actress Award for Bérénice Bejo and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes film festival; the Best Screenplay Award at the Durban film festival, the Best Foreign Language Film of National Board of Review (USA), and the Best Audience Award at Oslo film festival. The film is on the author’s list of his top 10 movies of 2013. Farhadi’s A Separation and About Elly have been reviewed earlier on this blog.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

157. Chilean director Sebastián Sepúlveda’s debut film “Las niñas Quispe” (The Quispe Girls/Sisters Quispe) (2013): Distant drums of politics affecting lives of the isolated denizens

Debut films very often offer interesting cinema as every new director distills his/her individual vision of cinema to a global audience. Sebastián Sepúlveda’s debut film The Quispe Girls is one such example of a director presenting a complex tale with very little dialog, relying more on capturing emotions of faces and body movements set against a breathtaking natural backdrop rarely viewed.

The Quispe Girls is a beautiful film that offers a mix of emotions that film-goers will recall in three distinctly different films, each one a classic of world cinema: the Greek director Mihalis Kakogiannis’ (popularly referred to as Michael Cacoyannis’) The Trojan Women (1971); the Bulgarian classic The Goat Horn (1972) directed by Metodi Andonov; and the little known Iranian classic Water, Wind, Dust (1989) directed by the talented Amir Naderi in Iran before he left to work in USA. The Quispe Girls adopts the tragic political flavor of the Greek film, the atmospherics of the hard lives of goat herds worldwide captured in the Bulgarian film, and the effect of desolate inhospitable terrains on human lives captured by the Iranian film. Therefore, viewing The Quispe Girls is as rich an experience as viewing all the three movies cited above.

The Quispe sisters Lucia. Justa (played by Digna Quispe, a close relative
of the real characters) and Luciana

The importance of The Quispe Girls stems from Sebastián Sepúlveda’s ability to capture the harsh and yet beautiful environment of Chilean Andean ‘altiplano’, the world’s second highest mountain plateau after Tibet, and transpose the conditions as a factor that could have a bearing on the tragic end of three middle aged unmarried women goatherds. The politics of the day (General Pinochet’s dictatorship) also need to be savored as the backdrop to their actions and worldly and existential worries through snatches of conversations between three sisters. It appears that the dictator, partially out of fear of political opponents, partially to conserve the national ecology, and partially to modernize goat husbandry decreed that goats grazing on the altiplano had to be killed as the sparse vegetation was being gradually destroyed. The decree made it impossible for the goatherds to survive in the fringe Chiliean territories while it also reduced the chances of harboring Pinochet’s opponents on the run from hiding in these otherwise remote inhospitable places and make explosives in the guise of mining rocks.

The title of the movie The Quispe Girls relates to three indigenous Chilean women in their thirties who existed and died mysteriously and made headlines in Chile’s print media. There were four Quispe sisters originally and one had already died when the movie begins leaving the viewers of film to merely study the lives of three remaining Quispe sisters Justa, Lucia, and Luciana to make up the narrative of the film. Adding to the mystery of their existence is the fact there are no Quispe men or boys in the tale and no mention is made of their deaths/lives. Where are they? How did they die or disappear?  There are no clues provided.

Possibly to counter this unusual scenario, director Sepúlveda is able to bring additional authenticity to the film by getting a close relative (Digna Quispe) of the real Quispe trio and the last human being to see them alive, to play one of the sisters, Justa, in the film. And just as in Euripides’ play The Trojan Women (written in 415 BC) which was the basis of the Cacoyannis’ film, which discusses Cassandra who had had been raped and subsequently becomes insane. In The Quispe Girls, Justa the eldest of the three Quispe sisters too had been raped at age of 17 and consequently the effect of that distant incident leave the three sisters wary of men even though the youngest sister Luciana yearns for men’s company and wears attractive clothes to attract suitors, real or imaginary. The eldest sister, Justa, chides Luciana by asking her after noticing her wearing an off-white dress “Why are you dressing like that when you are going to make charcoal?” Just as the Cacoyannis’ film was based on the Euripides’ play, Sepulveda’s film The Quispe Girls is the director’s own screenplay adaptation of a Chilean play Las Brutas by Juan Radrigan. As in any play, the spoken words are loaded with meaning and insinuations.

Chile's Andean altiplano in light and shade as captured by the
camera of Inti Briones

Unlike the tale of the Trojan women, the Quispe girls live in a desolate area where they come across men only on rare occasions. In the film there are only two men who interact with the three middle-aged women. One man of the two men is a peddler of clothes and bare essential s and  is identified as Don Javier—who is attracted to Luciana, the youngest sister.  Justa, the eldest sister, notices this and warns the man to stay away from her sister—her rape has made her intensely distrustful of men. The only other interaction in the film of the sister is with another man, a stranger (possibly a Pinochet opponent) named Fernando who is seeking food and directions to flee the country to neighboring Argentina by crossing the altiplano. The sisters help him but tie a quixotic rope with bells close to their makeshift beds to provide an alarm if the man tries to rape or seduce any of them while they sleep.

The remoteness of the location is accentuated by a sister’s statement in the film “There is no one anywhere. They have all gone.” Apparently the only connection with humans was other goat herders, who have apparently left as a consequence of the new “progressive” edict by Pinochet. However, in the film, when Luciana, is found near a rocky spring lying on the ground, apparently sick, the camera captures a group of animals/people leaving in a single file disappearing in the distance. If the people “had all gone” what can one make of a group of people/animals moving in a single file. Do animals move in a single file on their own? The consequent sequence of sickness of Luciana leave a lot of questions unanswered of what really transpired that makes one recall yet another classic film—the Australian film Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) directed by Peter Weir, based on a novel written by novelist Lady Joan Lindsay, who enigmatically never confirmed or denied that her story was based on or inspired by real events. In The Quispe Girls,  too, it is for the viewer to guess what actually happened and what Sepulveda wishes us to believe happened to the three women at various crucial stages in the tale.

Luciana Quispe (Francisca Gavilán) and the unexplained single file of moving
humans/animals(in the center of the picture) in the distance,
if there is "no one here anyway"

The film is thus an instance of a male director giving us the perspective of lives of three women who seem to survive in a world where men are not to be trusted.  The press kit provided a at the Venice film festival mentions the term “feminist austerity” captured by the film—terms that possibly come close to the mood of the film. From the conversation of the three Quispe girls, we learn that the youngest and the most attractive sister Luciana was ridiculed by townsfolk for her lack of sophistication where they had gone to get their identity cards (shown briefly by the director towards the end of the film). Evidently, they cannot integrate with the more sophisticated townsfolk and there is impending gloom of Pinochet’s forces culling their precious goats leaving them with few options to survive. So far the goat herds survived by selling sheep and goat cheese and living in stone “rucas” or huts the goat herders lived in. The filmmakers state that the ruca shown in the film was the very ‘ruca’ the Quispe sisters lived in towards the end of their lives.

The real ruca (stone hut) in which the Quispe sisters lived is used in the film

Sepúlveda’s film goes a step further to make the film viewing richer.  With the help of two professional actresses playing Lucia and Luciana, as the film progresses the three sisters do begin to look and act alike. The cinematographer Inti Briones and the director uses the dust kicked up by the herd help in this unusual amalgamation of the three characters reminiscent of how Cacoyannis managed to merge the performances of Katherine Hepburn, Irene Papas, Genevieve Bujold and Irene Papas (four distinguished actors from four different countries) to seem like one single woman’s anguished universal cry in the The Trojan Women. The visuals of The Quispe Girls, reminiscent of the sound and visuals of Naderi’s Water, Wind, Dust accentuate the role that hostile nature plays in the actions of human beings. The magical world of goat herders captured in color in The Quispe Girls is as lovely as the lovely black and white images captured in the Bulgarian classic film The Goat Horn.

A strange man named Fernando arrives seeking food, shelter and directions
to the Argentine border

While we enjoy the film’s use of sound and enigmatic visuals of Chile’s altiplano, The Quispe Girls throws a lot of inconvenient questions at the viewers, social, political, and environmental. These questions are not peculiar to Chile in 1974. These questions are globally valid today. It is a very well made film that makes the viewer appreciate the direction, the cinematography, the sound editing, and the acting. Young Sepúlveda has arrived on the center stage of world cinema with a remarkable debut film.

The cinema of Chile has made an impact on the map of world cinema in 2013 with two notable works: The Quispe Girls and Gloria.

P.S. The Quispe Girls is the second best film of 2013 for the author on his list of his top 10 movies of 2013. The film won the Fedora award for best cinematography at the 2013 Venice film festival's critics week. Amir Naderi's film Water, Wind, Dust (1989) has been reviewed earlier on this blog.