Friday, June 19, 2015

180. The late Hungarian maestro Zoltan Fabri’s “Az ötödik pecsét” (The Fifth Seal) (1976) based on Ferenc Sánta’s novel: The ultimate debate on conscience and self-respect

Very few films deal with philosophy and ethical human choices under extreme testing situations.  The Fifth Seal is one that not only presents a philosophical dilemma on screen but will make any intelligent and sensitive viewer to ponder over his or her own choice under similar circumstances.  The film directed by Zoltan Fabri (1917-94) won the Golden Prize of the Moscow Film Festival in 1977. The film is based on a novel written by Ferenc Santa, arguably the finest Hungarian writer who has won almost all the top honours in that country. Santa himself wrote the screenplay of the film and, therefore, one can guess the film reflects the novel’s content pretty accurately.  This is the second work of Fabri that was based on a Ferenc Santa novel—the first being Twenty Hours (1965). Both films won the top award in the respective years at the Moscow Film Festival. The Fifth Seal is one of the top 100 films of this critic and the film made such a positive impact on him that he travelled to Budapest in 1982 and succeeded in interviewing the director. (The exclusive interview was published in the English daily newspaper, The Telegraph, of Kolkata, India, in 1982.)

The book seller, the watchmaker. the carpenter, and the bar keeper meet as usual
-- the photographer (with his back to the camera) is invited to join them 

The basic debate on conscience is raised during a meeting of four friends in a Budapest bar, set during the Nazi occupation of Hungary during World War II, though the film/novel focuses on the Hungarian Arrow Cross officials who sympathized with the Nazis. But the mention of the Russians replacing the Arrow Cross, give away the obvious intention of the writer/director.  The question thrown up in The Fifth Seal is, if we were to die today, whether one would like to be reborn as a powerful, rich, cruel dictator/slave owner who does not believe he/she is doing anything unethical or as a slave who is poor and is continuously brutalized and humiliated by his/her master and yet is happy that he/she has not done any action that is wrong in spite of his/her powerless condition.

Keszei, the photographer, makes the crucial soliloquy quoting the relevant
 passage of the Bible on the Fifth Seal 

To appreciate The Fifth Seal sufficiently, it would help considerably if the viewer has some knowledge of the Holy Bible and of visual art, specifically the works of the Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516). The reasons are simple. The title of the film refers to the following excerpt from the Holy Bible:  

“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.” Revelation 6:9. 

Further, a character in the film/novel, Karoly Keszei, who is an artistic photographer and a wounded ex-soldier, refers to the above passage, specifically mentioning the Fifth Seal, in a crucial monologue in the film.

Similarly the artist Bosch has additional relevance in the film The Fifth Seal. The book seller, László Kiraly (László Márkus), who is referred to mockingly as the “intellectual” in the film/novel, states that he procured two prized portions of meat for consumption, shown in the film, on selling a Bosch painting, or possibly, a book on Bosch’s paintings.  Director Fabri intercuts important pieces of dialogue with visuals of Bosch’s paintings. And interestingly much of Bosch’s famous paintings deal with the Book of Revelation in the Holy Bible, the perverted delights of a sinner, and martyrdom of various early Christians. (Bosch is increasingly being acknowledged today as the first surrealist painter, while surrealism as a movement is often considered to have begun only in the 1920s. Works of Dali and those of Bosch are so strikingly similar, that one wonders how four centuries could separate them.) And the film's director Fabri does not stop with the paintings—he recreates visuals from Bosch’s paintings with live human beings for the bookseller Kiraly to fantasize in a drunken stupor while reflecting on the philosophical issues raised in the film/novel earlier.

The crucial moment towards the end of the film that redefines
all that the viewer hasbeen shown and believes

The film can be divided into three segments though these are seamless. The first is the situation in the bar where Miklós Auricular (Lajos Öze) a watchmaker, Kiraly the book seller, János Kovacs  (Sándor Horváth) a carpenter, and Béla (Ferenc Bencze) a barkeeper meet and discuss a variety of subjects in the presence of Keszei, the artistic photographer, who joins these gentlemen for a drink by accident. The second segment takes the characters out of the bar, where each come to a decision as to who he would like be reborn as. The third segment puts all the characters in an extreme environment, where interestingly for different reasons, all the characters seemingly reverse their earlier decision made in the film to the question posed by Mr Auricular. One metaphoric aside made by Mr Auricular is whether you would choose to eat veal breast or an artichoke, if given an option, referring directly to the piece of meat the book-seller has procured to eat later. The third segment adds another aspect to the final decisions—the aspect of self respect.

Bosch’s surreal images and the surrealist manifesto of the 1920s would nudge the viewer at the grim end of the film. All through the film, an intelligent viewer will note the characters in the film constantly reassess their philosophical stance or points of view, according to circumstances. Nothing is as per the obvious. Keszei, the photographer, lost his leg on the war front, like the slave in the philosophical conundrum and believes he has a clear conscience. Yet his actions prove to be the opposite. The viewer would also need to reassess his/her judgements of the characters the end of the film, particularly in in view of the past and possible future intentions/actions of Mr Auricular.

Mr Auricular, the watchmaker, asks the carpenter the difficult
philosophical question

The final shots of the film underscore the fact that one is ultimately alone and the final decision of a reflective soul could surprise oneself. This movie is undoubtedly the best work of Zoltan Fabri, a marvellous filmmaker, who most cineastes the world over have yet to discover. And this is possibly the best work of the author/novelist Ferenc Sánta, little known outside his country. This is a film with superb performances (especially Lajos Öze as Mr Auricular), the lovely music of Georgy Vukan that opens (with colourful details) and closes (in deliberate contrast with a dark, blank screen) the film, intelligent editing (Ferencné Szécsényi), and needless to add, a great script. The “intellectual” in the film would like to distract himself with music or play snooker, when someone has been shot dead outside. These are some of the little nuggets of detail that make this work truly outstanding.

What is so remarkable about the film? The viewer will find that as the film progresses, the viewer's own judgement of the principal characters' response to their individual conscience keeps changing right up to the end. That's what will make you think deeply about this work of cinema.

Thank you, Mr Zoltan Fabri and Mr Ferenc Sánta, for the top-notch cinema.

P.S. The full movie is available on You Tube.  The film is one of the author’s best 100 films. The author had interviewed Mr Zoltan Fabri in Budapest in 1982 as a staff film critic of a daily newspaper published from New Delhi, India. The author suspects Larissa Shepitko's Russian film The Ascent (1977) borrowed heavily from The Fifth Seal following its Golden Prize win at Moscow Film Festival early in 1977.  It is very likely that Shepitko had viewed the Hungarian film and structured her own script on the lines of the Hungarian film. Most viewers who laud Shepitko's film are not aware of Fabri's film. The author's 1982 interview with Mr Fabri in Budapest, Hungary, is also published on this blog. 

Saturday, June 13, 2015

179. The late French director Maurice Pialat’s “La Gueule Ouverte” (The Mouth Agape) (1974) based on his own original screenplay: An unforgettable cinematic work on dying and family bonds

Here’s a film every true film enthusiast ought to make an effort to see though it is rarely found on the “best film” lists of the better known film critics and directors. Some 40 years ago when this critic saw The Mouth Agape for the first time, the film and its director leapt out not only among the pantheons of French cinema’s giants but also those of world cinema. Forty years later, on a second viewing, this film, The Mouth Agape, still remains for this critic one among his world’s top 100 films. Most importantly, it has one of the finest subtle endings in the history of cinema, one that will be appreciated by any dyed-in-the -wool film viewer. And this review is not revealing it.

The Mouth Agape.  What a name!  One guesses Pialat’s choice of the title had something to do with the popular belief that people die with a last gasp for air associated with death.  Interestingly no such scene is included in the film, which is indeed pegged on the death of a lady Monique; only scenes prior to her death or after her death are included. The actual death is not shown on screen; it is inconsequential. The laboured heavy breathing of the dying Monique is captured with no other aural distraction and presented in a manner rarely seen on screen. Pialat could not have chosen the title because of the spoon-feeding of her semi-solid diet, which is shown in the film for the simple reason that the mouth is not always open when you eat or drink. It would be too simplistic to state the film is about Monique’s death, it would be more accurate to say the film is about Monique’s immediate family. If we zoom out of the specific tale, the film is about the fragility and the strengths of modern French family bonds which can be best assessed when death comes knocking at the door.

Monique (Monique Melinand) in hospital 

While one is not privy to the casting details and chronology of the writing of the original script by Pialat, one unique fact would strike the mind of an intelligent viewer. There are four major characters in the film, the dying mother Monique (Monique Mélinand), her husband Roger (Hubert Deschamps), her son Philippe (Philippe Léotard) and her daughter-in-law Nathalie (Nathalie Baye). Three of the four major characters have the same first names of the actors. It is too much of a coincidence. Did the script develop after the casting of the actors? If the choice of names was a decision of convenience for the director and the actors, why was Roger called as such and not Hubert? Only those closely involved with the film would know.

Monique at home, later withering away

Now Maurice Pialat (1925-2003) is not as celebrated in France or elsewhere as Godard or Truffaut or Chabrol are. His cinema is different. One possible reason for his lack of prominence is that he made his first film at 44, an age at which when most other directors would have established themselves and earned some recognition.

He creates a realism that is bereft of sentimentality. His strength in depicting realism is both aural and visual. One almost feels the Austrian director Michael Haneke is his pupil and that Haneke’s Amour (2012) borrowed heavily from Pialat’s The Mouth Agape (1974) while dealing with a similar subject. In both films, the dying wife steals the show.

The second best sequence, early in the film: son Philippe (Philippe Leotard)
and mother Monique's intimate conversation at home

Why is Pialat’s The Mouth Agape so fascinating? Early in the film there is a lovely yet brief and intimate conversation between Monique and Philippe (mother and grown-up son) alone recalling their past and the family dynamics. The script is brilliant just doing that and then it offers more. We learn for the first time that Monique was superior morally and socially (she was from Paris) to Roger (a provincial man to the core) and could have cheated on her husband but did not. We learn that Philippe was not a healthy child and was tended with care by his mother. Suddenly, Philippe gets up and puts on a record as though he is bored reminiscing the past and probably he is. They are listening to Mozart’s opera Così Fan Tutte/Thus They (Women) Do All.  The static camera of Néstor Almendros captures the two faces as the record plays for a very long time. (Haneke repeats a similar sequence in Amour for a different family relationship.) Then the phone rings. Philippe attends to it. And Monique, whom the viewer would have assumed was listening all the while to Mozart, continues wistfully the discussion she was having with her son, the music and phone call notwithstanding. It is so beautiful and intimate . And so real! This is the second most important sequence for this critic in the entire film after the awesome end sequence. In both sequences, it is the mastery of Pialat the director and scriptwriter hand in hand with Almendros that create the magic. The choice of the Mozart piece for the sequence adds on another layer of irony, bringing to the fore the differences between Philippe and Monique, which becomes apparent only much later.

Roger (Hubert Deschamps) and son Philippe watch over the dying Monique:
a newspaper covers the lamp's harsh light

Pialat’s film provides a contrast between the two women (Monique and Nathalie) and the two men (Roger and Philippe). The men have a roving eye and drift with the tide; the women are more anchored to their spouses. And yet the film captures another strange phenomenon: men change, at least some seem to change. Roger, the philanderer, is the one who asks Philippe to turn off the TV, “Honestly, Philippe, have some respect (for your mother) “, when Philippe loves to distract himself from the dying mother. Roger, the philanderer, is the one who feeds, cooks and takes care of his dying wife. When he cries, the viewer is devastated by the emotion. But Pialat’s tale does not merely show Roger having two sides to his personality—all the four have. Even the mother Monique we learn from others only cared for money and possessions, especially of her father after his death. And yet only Monique is the apparently religious person in the family.The film urges viewers to look at characters in totality, rather than a few actions. This is done with carefully planned dialogue and shots, that often linger when actors have left the frame.

Roger lovingly massages his dying wife Monique's toes

None of the other works of Pialat worked as well for this critic, possibly because this is perhaps the only Pialat film in which the cinematographer was the legendary Néstor Almendros (1930-92), who was responsible for so many marvellous works of cinema, including Malick’s Days of Heaven, Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice, and Truffaut’s Story of Adele H all of which are great movies primarily because of the strength of the cinematography.

When one studies the camerawork of Almendros in The Mouth Agape there are the static shots in limited space and the moving camera that reveals delicate details, often social, rarely done in cinema. There is a sequence of the funeral service of Monique captured by Almendros and Pialat without entering the church or showing the dead body.  They are more interested in the living folks who are gathered outside. What a brilliant sequence! And finally much later the superb end sequence where no words are spoken and only images talk and jolt the viewer to figure it all out. That’s cinema. 

This is a movie, subtler and better than the best of Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, and Chabrol, based on an original screenplay created and developed by the director alone. It is essential viewing for cineastes and students of cinema.

P.S. Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012), which recalls the style and content of  The Mouth Agape, was reviewed on this blog earlier. The Mouth Agape is one of the author's best 100 films.