Tuesday, October 25, 2016

198. Italian maestro Luchino Visconti’s “Gruppo di famiglia in un interno” (Conversation Piece) (1974) (Italy): “Grief is as precarious as anything else”

Conversation Piece-- the penultimate feature film of Luchino Visconti--is a complex, often confusing and yet ultimately a very rewarding film. It is so complex with a variety of distractions that could make a serious viewer of cinema dismiss it as a minor work of the maestro only to change that opinion after multiple viewings and re-consider it as a major accomplishment of Visconti, almost autobiographical in parts. Autobiographical, one might ask? Yes, even though the original story is the work of another important Visconti collaborator Enrico Medioli, there are bits of the real life relationship between actor Helmut Berger and director Visconti that is infused into the film, not too obviously.  Similarly, the tale of a retired science professor is not far removed from the world of the Italian film director who is realizing much like the professor, he too is in the evening of his film career. The author of the original story Medioli had worked on the screenplays of three  other major Visconti films—Rocco and his Brothers, The Leopard and The Damned—and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. Medioli won an Oscar for his screenplay adaptation of Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968).

This is also one of those rare films in the history of film an actor--Burt Lancaster--helped a director at a vital stage of the filmmaking process. (One recalls Kirk Douglas prevailing on Stanley Kubrick to change the ending of the original Kubrick script of Paths of Glory, and transform it into a major work of cinema that we now can enjoy.)  In Conversation Piece, actor Burt Lancaster, staked his own money to complete the film as producers were backing out noticing the director was ill and could die before the film was completed.

The cloistered world of the professor (Lancaster),
 surrounded by books, paintings and vases

The film’s tale is essentially the world of a professor who had taught in a university in USA, returning to live a cloistered life in Italy surrounded by books and paintings. He was once married. He does not seem to have had any progeny.  His wife is either dead, divorced or separated. He is looked after in large multi-floored apartment in the city by a faithful old housekeeper. The film reveals that though he knows all about art and the value of paintings, he does not know how to bargain with those selling the paintings. Into his life of peaceful solitude barge in a rich lady (Sylvano Mangano) with her daughter and the daughter’s boyfriend to see if they could lease the empty upper floor of the apartment building. She wants the apartment for her gigolo boyfriend Konrad (Berger), a well-educated, once politically involved, now an amoral drug abuser.  One would then assume the story would unfold into a clash of the classical sedate cloistered life of the professor versus the loud decadent world of the younger generations. Slowly the film peels away the layers of these individuals’ outward characteristics to reveal the real personalities. The rich lady’s behaviour is a result of a shameful marriage with an unscrupulous politician husband and his unsavoury friends. The gigolo boyfriend turns out to be not just well educated but a person of great political ideals, fighting the new age Fascists. The professor, living alone and clutching to semblance of seclusion, seems to be ruing a lost marriage, recalling his wife in her wedding gown (a cameo by Claudia Cardinale) and possible past where he could have opposed different Fascist forces in Italy when he was young.

The rich lady (Mangano) married to a corrupt industrialist

A major fact that many viewers could miss is the title of the film does not directly relate to conversations in the movie but was a well known (in the world of paintings) title for a series of paintings of an 18th century British painter, Arthur Devis.  Conversation pieces were paintings of activities that could lead to conversations of art lovers and other intellectuals. Another artist, William Hogarth, a contemporary of Devis, drew a painting called A midnight modern conversation depicting men conversing in drunken incoherence. That makes you to reassess the entire film.  The only direct connection of the series of paintings is a brief conversation between two major characters in the movie—the professor (Lancaster) and Konrad (Berger)—giving clear evidence that both were well acquainted with the series of paintings. Once you evaluate the film on the basis of the painter's decision to change the very trees and objects in his painting compared to the photograph taken of the same scene, the movie's stature itself changes. The film is a study of Italy through the eyes of three generations and their varied values on social interactions, art, politics, architectural design, music, et al. The viewer is thus gently nudged to make the metaphorical connection.

An attentive viewer will note the film begins with a loud gunshot. You don’t see anyone being killed until the end of the film. The opening credits follow the blast as the camera captures the electrocardiogram graph roll streaming out unattended is a Visconti masterstroke. The patient is apparently dead.

The professor and the newly acquired 'family'

The professor (Lancaster) and the gigolo (Berger);
both are equally amazingly knowledgeable about art 

The film is even more complex for the viewer because the gunshot and the person whose electrocardiogram is being taken are not directly connected. The person killed by the gunshot is another. What is even more complex is that the individual shown in the film filled by the gunshot is supposed to have committed suicide. Yet there is statement made by the rich lady (Mangano) the lover of Konrad killed by the gun shot: “He did not kill himself. They murdered him.” Whether it is a statement of reality or mere hyperbole is for the viewer to decide. But that statement grievously hurts the old ailing professor, the only among all the characters in film who had faith in him (Konrad) as he closes his eyes in the final shot. The film slowly drifts to the point it makes –grief. A statement made in the film towards the end “Grief is as precarious as anything else” encapsulates much of the film—grief of broken marriages, grief of not having faith in persons who deserve it, grief of not fighting Fascist forces by either becoming a recluse or taking to drugs. Visconti’s broader statement is of Italy over decades.

That the film was made by the director sitting on a wheel chair is impressive. Is it a film about acquiring possessions or about understanding people? It is about both. At the beginning of the film the retired professor is acquiring paintings, by the end of the film he has acquired a family he initially did not want or approve of. The professor wistfully states in the film “It could have been my family.”  Thus, the Italian title of the film which translates roughly as “internal family group” makes equal sense as the English title. One realizes the importance of understanding human behaviour of strangers, as one educated professor was withdrawing into solitude surrounded by books, works of art and great music. And his life changes for arguably richer and yet tragic experience in his sunset years. The endearing performances of the aging Burt Lancaster and of Silvana Mangano as the haughty rich lady are remarkable. Burt Lancaster’s three performances in Italian films are the highlights of his career—Visconti’s The Leopard  and Conversation Piece and Bertolucci’s 1900.The cameos of Claudia Cardinale as the professor’s wife, the smiling and enchanting Dominique Sanda (as the professor’s mother) do not contribute much except in providing insights into the character of the professor for the viewer.  In two films, Conversation Piece and in Death in Venice (1971), the director Visconti and cinematographer Pasqualino de Santis together have captured images of a person dying that are impossible to forget.

Visconti, Lancaster and Medioli are the significant contributors to this grossly underrated work.

P.S. Two films-- Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America  and Kubrick’s  Paths of Glory--mentioned in the above review have been reviewed earlier on this blog. Conversation Piece won the Golden Spike award at the Valladolid International Film Festival. 

Sunday, October 02, 2016

197. US director Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups” (2016) (USA): A personal and intense theological statement pushing the envelope of theism

Not many films would end with the enigmatic word “Begin.” Knight of Cups ends that way. That gives one a clue of the feature film.

Terrence Malick is amazingly well read and spiritual. He expects his viewers to be able to comprehend his personal views distilled in his films, laced with stunning visuals and an amazing choice of music.  Knight of Cups will be fascinating for those with an inclination to scurry to the nearest library and read up on the nuggets of  literary works spread over centuries that the film refers to—but how many will do that? This is why this beautiful, intriguing work-- perhaps Malick’s most audacious work to date--is likely to be dismissed by the lazy viewer as an indulgent, pointless exercise in filmmaking. Yet, this work is one of the most rewarding films of 2016 for those who would care to read the literary sources after seeing the movie.  Knight of Cups reveals much of the views of the director’s mind that was not so evident in his earlier works.

The brooding Rick (Christian Bale) and one of his female distractions

There are several keys to unlock the treasure chest of theological ideas packed into Knight of Cups. The opening lines of the film (and opening shots are important for any Malick film) provide the clue that the film is related to Paul Bunyan’s 1678 literary allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress (from This World to That Which is to Come Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream) though the film has directly very few but important overt connections to that literary work. But if you have read it, the personal spiritual  ”progress” of the Hollywood scriptwriter, Rick (Christian Bale) is akin to the travels of Christian, the lead character, in Bunyan’s work. As the character Christian in Paul Bunyan’s work loses the load on his back that he was carrying on his journey towards the end of the book, so too does Rick seem to get over his meaningless life as a womanizing and successful Hollywood screen-writer. The entire film is a dream of Rick, where he is talking to several people in his life—his father, his brother, his former wife, his sexual interests, et al., as was Christian dreaming in Bunyan’s work.

"The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls and when he finds one that is unusually fine, he goes and sells everything he has and buys that pearl" Gospel of St  Matthew 13;45 in the Holy Bible
If you have figured that much of Knight of Cups, you would assume the film to be an intensely Christian treatise on the lines of The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, the two earlier Malick films. The well-read Malick introduces in Knight of Cups ideas that would upset some of the traditional Christian believers—passages from the apocrypha Acts of Thomas, which is not part of the Holy Bible. Apocryphal texts are some 60 odd books that ought to have been included in the New Testament of the Bible, but were excluded from the “public use of the Church.” Acts of Thomas is one of those 60 odd books that are not considered as part of the Bible. In the Knight of Cups the tale of a son sent by his father to Egypt to retrieve a pearl is narrated in the early part of the film and again towards the end of the film. This tale comes from a section called the “Hymn of the Pearl” in Acts of Thomas. The purists among Christians would wonder what Malick is up to.  Knight of Cups is the first work of Malick since he made The Thin Red Line, which quoted from non-Christian scriptures such as the Hindu scriptures of Bhagavad Gita. (Ref: Paper titled Rhetorical Transcendence Revisited: “The Thin Red Line” as Perennial Philosophy; Education Resources Information Center [ERIC] ED458649.) Malick goes beyond apocryphas in Knight of Cups. The quest for the pearl could also be a part of A Tale of the Western Exile by the Iranian mystic Suhrawardi (1154-91), the founder of Illuminationism, a school of Islamic philosophy. Then if you look closely at the end credits the film, Malick uses Charles Laughton’s renditions of Psalm 104 from the Old Testament and Plato’s Phaedrus.  Malick’s literary and theological cosmos is simply mind boggling. This is literally casting pearls (pun intended) before the swine. It is not surprising that many found this work of cinema to be below average when it actually offers cinema of a quality that transcends the conventional Hollywood or American cinema.

Two brothers--men are important in this Malick film

Unlike The Tree of Life, where Malick underscored the role of the mother in the “graceful” development of the son, The Tree of Life flips to decode the role of the father (Brian Dennehy), exasperated by his lack of influence in the spiritual growth of his son.  The characters are different; however, the relationships mirror each film. A careful viewer will pick up the brief sequence of the Texas childhood shot from The Tree of Life in Knight of Cups. There are two fathers in Knight of Cups—a theological one you never see and a physical one. Rick even calls his physical father “an old fool” during a soliloquy.  The physical father says “I stumbled down the road like a clown..That doesn’t mean that it is a wrong one. I turned you upside down. Womanizer. Cut off...I gave up my life for you kids. ” In contrast, the spiritual father talks of Rick’s time on Earth, reminding him of the future. “You think when you reach a certain age, things will start making sense. Then you realize that you were as lost as before. I suppose that is what damnation is. Pieces of your life never come together.”

The physical father tries to get his son Rick back on a spiritual mode: “There is so much love inside us that never gets out. According to your unfailing love, great compassion, blot out my transgressions. My son, I know you. I know you have a soul. Seems you are alone. You are not. Even now he is taking your hand and guiding you. By a way you can’t see. If you are unhappy you should not see it as a mark of God’s disfavour

Who speaks the final lines of the film is ambiguous. Is it the physical father or the theological father of Rick? The words are ponderous “Find the light you know in the east. As a child. The moon. The stars. They serve you. They guide you on your way. The light in the eyes of others. The pearl. Wake up. Turn. Look. Come out. My son. Remember. Begin

The Tarot cards are a distraction unless you know a lot about that subject. Each Tarot card has one different female personality connected with Rick. Knowing Malick's wide knowledge there are definitely linkages that eludes one on the deliberate segmentation that he has made with the cards.

Unlike The Tree of Life, Knight of Cups seems to be more focussed on male relationships with Rick—his father and two brothers, including Billy, the dead brother, who never appears but is merely discussed. Much of this is autobiographical with names changed.

Visually stunning metaphors from Malick and Lubezki

The main allures of the film for those viewers who are not concerned with the theology are the visual and aural ones. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki works wonders with the camera when he is with Malick. As a Malick follower, every sequence shot underwater might appear spectacular but it reminds you of late Nestor Almendros’ shot of Richard Gere falling face down on the water surface in Malick’s Days of Heaven. Almendros paved the way for Lubezki. The fluid camera movements are in tune with the dream concept of Bunyan and Malick. Interestingly, the camera of Lubezki lingers on the night sky with the moon in focus at the final word—“Begin.”

The true majesty of any Malick film lies squarely in the director’s outstanding talent to pick amazing pieces of music.  Music-wise the mainstay of Knight of Cups is Wojciech Kilar’s “Exodus” used with aplomb, while the works of the main composer New Zealander Hanan Townshend and the Estonian composer Arvo Part are used with considerable care and intelligence.

Do actors matter in a Terrence Malick film? Some are indeed a delight to watch—especially Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman. However, the standout performance was possibly that of Armin Mueller –Stahl’s brief appearance as the priest and the narration of Ben Kingsley. Actors do not matter in a Malick film for two reasons. One, Malick does not have a screenplay cast in stone. The screenplay changes in major ways during the production stages. Two, actors rarely speak lines directly for the camera. Perhaps, the director gives more importance to dogs—the credits mentions “Accounting Dog—Stevie.” That’s Malick.

A minor point that nags me—why are the colored people in Malick’s films always either sick or possible criminals?

A wife (Cate Blanchett) who leaves Rick

Malick is slowly being recognized as one of the best living directors on the planet. This slow recognition is partly due to Malick’s depth of knowledge that eludes a majority of his films’ viewers. These often require a critic to explain and point out the not-so-obvious details to flummoxed viewers. Now, consider this, how many films end with the audacious end word/sentence: “Begin’? Malick is constantly raising the bar of quality cinema.

P.S. Knight of Cups is included in the author’s best 10 films of 2016. Reviews of Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, TheTree of Life and To the Wonder have appeared on this blog earlier. Mr Malick is also one of the author's 15 favourite active filmmakers.