Tuesday, December 26, 2017

217. Turkish director Semih Kaplanoglu’s film “Grain” (Bugday) (2017) (Turkey), in English, based on his original screenplay co-scripted with his wife: A sci-fi film on an agricultural scenario that could be real in the near future, with theological understatements

Grain is a very important film of 2017. 

It is an important film for several  reasons.  Globally, very few feature films have dealt with agriculture as the focal point. In India, several important films were made on social themes related to agriculture—Mother India (1957), Do Bigha Zameen  (Two acres of land) (1953) and Upkar (Good Deed) (1967) are examples.  China’s Red Sorghum similarly dealt with society more rather than agriculture. Even the celebrated Russian film, Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930) dealt with social issues of collective farming rather than agriculture per se. Semih Kapalonglu’s Grain is a rare feature film where the focus is more on agriculture and science, and less on the social fallouts. A rare film that could be compared to Grain in content is Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green (1973)—a Hollywood film on a bizarre industrial response to alarming global food shortages.

Prof Erin (Barr) finally stumbles on an underground store of true, uncontaminated
wheat seeds, collected by ants that could revive natural agriculture
in uncontaminated soil.
(The rough diagram indicates the typical ant-storage architecture, according to Kaplanoglu,
which unfortunately is not explained to the viewer in the film)

Grain is notable because the film highlights the viewpoint of those who oppose the cultivation of genetically modified agricultural crops known as GMOs. GMO crops are those crops that have their DNA artificially altered by a process that does not happen naturally. The artificial process introduces genes from a different species or organism into the natural crop, boosting the ability of the altered crop/organism to survive diseases, insect pests, fungi and even extreme climates.  More than half of the countries within the European Union have banned GMOs until long-term studies conclusively prove these to be safe for long-term human and animal consumption. The pro-GMO lobby asserts the modified crops are safe and necessary to feed the increasing populations. The controversy has led to many products sold in the market to be clearly marked as either “Organic” or “non-GMO” for the consumer who cares to consume safe farm produce. Most GMO crops are grown on soils treated by chemicals necessary for such GMO cultivation. Chemical contamination of soils where GMO crops have been cultivated is another growing source of concern highlighted in the film Grain.

Like the 2022 setting of the 1973 film Soylent Green, Kaplanoglu’s English film is a sci-fi film that is set in the near future.  In the film Grain, GMO crop cultivation is the accepted norm for the majority of the population presented on screen and the private sector that develops and promotes GMO crop cultivation is a formidable and unrelenting force if one cares to challenge it.  Soils have been contaminated by the associated chemicals required to grow GMO crops.  Immigrants from less-endowed nations crowd “processing” centres hoping to be accepted by the richer countries even if they have to deal with its strict policing. People die of strange epidemics and when they die their bodies don’t rot or create a stench. This indeed is a dark subject fit to be made in black and white rather than in colour.

Opening sequences of multi-ethnic immigrants seeking better food and life
in countries with strict policing and controls

Electro-magnetic "walls" keep undesirable immigrants away from the land of plenty

Kaplanoglu is a known admirer of the films of the acclaimed Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky.  Kaplanoglu’s earlier film Milk , a constituent of his semi-autobiographical Yusuf trilogy, had a sequence where the protagonist’s mother  is sitting on a fence just as Tarkovsky’s mother  did in Tarkovsky’s  famous autobiographical film Mirror (You could refer to the review of Milk on this blog showing that scene).  There are several sequences in Grain that will remind a cineaste of Tarkovsky’s reflective sci-fi films Stalker and Solaris and even the theologically imbued final work Sacrifice, with a lone tree in a barren landscape.

Grain’s original script, written by Kaplanoglu and his wife Leyla Ipecki, is not a typical sci-fi film. Beyond the sci-fi text is an overt layer of theology that is remarkably close to the films of Tarkovsky and perhaps even Kubrick’s 2001-A Space Odyssey. In an interview with this author, Kaplanoglu revealed that the inspiration for making this film came from a chapter/portion of the Holy Quran called Khef or the Kahf (cave) Sura . The entire film Grain questions the wisdom of human beings tinkering with nature, what the Creator of earth provided and the fallouts of such scientific meddling.

Stark beauty of Anatolia (Turkey) provide the location for the filmmakers
where people in the film die suddenly from unknown epidemics

The film is not about disparaging conventional agricultural research involving hybrids and products of varietal cross breeding but those specifically about tinkering with natural species to create man-made species, and mindless destruction of natural resources in its wake for the sake of profit. The film Grain attempts to interconnect the life in a grain of wheat with life in humans, and how even lowly ants instinctively try to collect and preserve naturally occurring non-modified organic wheat grain for their own species’ survival. The argument the film present is notable absence of the fictional “n” particle missing in GMO crops but present in naturally bred crops.

The Prof (Barr) comprehends the importance of non-contaminated soil
and natural organic farming devoid of chemicals

Grain is also important as the director Kaplanoglu and co-scriptwriter Ipecki try to contrast science with spirituality and theology. The end product can befuddle many and yet offer food for thought to those viewers who can pick up the details of spiritual metaphors, visual and verbal, that pour in cascades.

The story of Grain revolves around a seed geneticist Prof Erol Erin (Jean-Marc Barr, a French/American actor) who lives in a fictional city in the near future, the inhabitants of which are protected from multi-ethnic emigrants with electro-magnetic walls. “Erol” in Turkish means “brave.” For reasons unknown, the city’s nearby agricultural resources have been hit by a genetic crisis. In an internal meeting at the headquarters of the corporation that employs the geneticist, he learns of a fellow scientist who wrote a thesis on “Genetic chaos and the N particle” about the recurrent crises affecting genetically modified seeds is no longer employed by the corporation.  In pursuit of this elusive scientist named Cemil Akmann (Ermin Bravo, a Bosnian actor), Prof Erin meets up with his daughter, who is silently communicating on the computer in a language unknown to the professor, living alone in a huge house in disrepair and apparent neglect. A word that appears on her computer screen is ELOHA (the Hebrew name for God). Prof Erin sets out to meet the fellow scientist in a perilous journey and does find him. The journey, though totally different from Tarkovsky’s Stalker, has several visual references to the Russian film masterpiece. There are exquisite shits of the Anatolian landscape in Turkey captured by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens adding hues of mystery and awe in equal measure, somewhat like the desolate word of the Dead Zone in Stalker.  In Stalker, there is a stray dog that inspects the sleeping travellers; in Grain, a wolf inspects the tent of the sleeping Prof Erin. In both films, there is only a thin line that divides dreams and reality. In Grain, a child converses to the professor in the night in a dream sequence and then disappears under equally strange circumstances into the darkness. (Dreams play significant roles in two very important films of 2017: Grain and the Hungarian film On Body and Soul.)  After meeting Akmann, Prof Erin prefers the life style of Akmann and chooses not to return to the city.

Two scientists, Cemil Akmann (Bravo) and Prof Erol Erin access
the non-contaminated soil that can grow true organic crops and fall asleep
after transporting it to useful locations for safe use

The film even includes a visual of burning bush that will strike a chord with viewers familiar with texts of the three Abrahamic religions. The Burning Bush on Mount Horeb  (mentioned in the Book of Exodus in The Bible) is a bush that is never consumed by the fire and Moses is directed by God to remove his footwear as per the ancient religious texts, as he approaches the bush, while tending Jethro’s flocks. But is the Professor actually encountering the burning bush/tree or is it a dream? Those who have read the religious texts will associate the Burning Bush as a holy ground from where God speaks to Moses.

The film Grain begins with ultra modern electro-magnetic walls to keep out undesirable human beings and ends with a sequence where Akmann and Prof Erin spend time inspecting a stonewall, removing a stone here and there to peer through the gaps in the wall to glimpse Paradise. As in the end of 2001--A Space Odyssey, the final silent spectacle speaks for itself.  Kubrick was an atheist; Kaplanoglu is not.

Sleeping among growing crops, like a child in a mother's womb--touches of Tarkovsky

The two scientists team up

This is a film that is important for viewers familiar with the GMO debate.  The pro-GMO enthusiasts will debunk the science in this English film, which is a Turkish-German-Swedish-French-Qatari co-production.  According to the director, the film has been wilfully kept out of certain important film festivals that wanted to initially screen the film by the influential pro-GMO lobby. In spite of this, the film won the top award at the Tokyo film festival. The film was shot in Michigan (USA), in Germany and in Turkey. Visually the film is stunning in its stark beauty—an antidote to colour and natural flora that one encounters in commercial cinema. The subject itself is an antidote to the prescription of a better world as seen by the private sector corporations for us.

Whether one agrees with the basic scientific premise of the film or not, Grain is definitely one of the most important films of 2017, arguably the most ambitious work of Kaplanoglu, especially for any reflective viewer with either an interest in science or in theology/spirituality.

P.S. The film Grain won the Best Film award at the recent Tokyo Film Festival and is included among the author's top 10 films of 2017. The Kaplanoglu films Honey and Milk have been reviewed earlier on this blog. The Tarkovsky films Solaris and Mirror, mentioned above, have also been reviewed earlier on this blog.  The Hungarian film On Body and Soul  has also been reviewed on this blog. Turkey did not submit the film to compete for the Best Foreign Language film Oscar as the film was primarily in English. (Click on the coloured name of the film in this post-script to access that review)

Saturday, December 02, 2017

216. Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi’s film “Teströl és lélekröl” (On Body and Soul) (2017) (Hungary) based on her original screenplay: A stunning script involving dreams and matching dreamlike cinematography bring Hungarian cinema back to the heights it had climbed several decades ago.

 “Teströl és lélekröl  (On Body and Soul) is an idiosyncratic love story full of lyricism and humour, free of all social conventions. It impresses us with the subtlety and eloquence of its style and involves us in its joy of living and loving.” 
--- The citation for the FIPRESCI prize bestowed at the Berlin Film Festival

Hungarian cinema touched its zenith in the Seventies and Eighties when a group of remarkable Hungarian directors delivered their best works: Zoltan Fabri, Istvan Szabo, Miklos Jansco, Istvan Gaal, Karoly Makk, and Marta Meszaros—in that order.  Then there was a lull for several decades while the director Bela Tarr briefly captured the imagination of a new generation of filmgoers of the Nineties and at the turn of this century. Now in 2017, Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi brings back to the floundering Hungarian cinema the power of yore.

Just as Zoltan Fabri’s brilliant The Fifth Seal offered food for thought as few films do, director Ildikó Enyedi presents in On Body and Soul a range of philosophical thoughts captured through near silent sequences that discusses issues pertaining to the human body and soul---often presenting contrasting ethereal natural behaviour of animals in the forest with the bloody horror of an abattoir for another set of animals.  

The stag and the doe--arresting award-winning cinematography of Mate Herbai

On Body and Soul is not about animals—it is about us, human beings.  The main plot is an unusual love story of a physically unattractive old cripple falling in love with an emotionally crippled beautiful woman half his age. Director and scriptwriter Enyedi evidently loves to study body and soul in many facets of everyday life, not just limited to the world of a Hungarian abattoir.  If one looks at the subjects the film present, they could present obvious metaphors for larger geographies.  

Enyedi chose Hungarian cinematographer Máté Herbai (who has primarily worked with the little- known but not insignificant Hungarian director Atilla Gigor) to bring magic to her feature film made after a significant 18 year hiatus from making regular feature films, just as Terrence Malick took a 20 year break  between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. Enyedi’s last feature film was Simon the Magician (1999) that won awards worldwide following her 1989 Cannes winner My Twentieth Century. Now, Herbai (under directions of Enyedi) ,captures intimate  images of a stag with antlers in the company of a doe in a snowy forest.  There is no copulation on screen but the animals are evidently attracted to each other.  The film sequences seem to talk to the viewer.  That’s the first chapter of the “soul” in the film.

The lead characters go home after work separately
until their separate dreams bring them together

Enyedi and Herbai follow up with a contrapuntal sequence also bereft of music. This is of cattle waiting quietly before they are slaughtered. Herbai captures the eyes of the bull which seems to anticipate its fate as it looks through its cage at the slaughterhouse workers as they casually chat before they begin their day’s work. Both the lady janitor and the bull looks up at the sun tying up humans and animals in a cosmic silent gesture.  Enyedi and Herbai do not show the actual slaughter—only the preparation and the aftermath. Yet, the sequence is chilling and yet aesthetically rendered.

The filmmakers state in the end-credits that no animal was killed specifically for the film but they merely recorded an actual event in the abattoir.  That’s the second “chapter” of the film that gradually moves from the “soul” to the “body,” from the shots of the live animal to its dead body as prime beef portions. This sequence is not for the queasy animal lovers in the audience but yet it is aesthetically presented as few filmmakers can.

The CFO (Morcsanyi) watches his new Quality Inspector (Borbely) at work

As the film progresses, the viewer realizes Enyedi has merely introduced us to the human soul and body in the main plot of the film bringing to the fore the human stag and the human doe, connected through dreams.  While scientifically much of Enyedi’s imaginative tale can be pooh-poohed, the tale is extraordinary.  It is the unusualness of the situation that grabs the viewer. We are presented a man who is a cripple, who once had an active sex life, and now has a grown up daughter, suddenly taking an interest in a reclusive new worker in the abattoir, where he is the influential Chief Financial Officer (CFO).  Enyedi ‘s and Herbai’s initial visual introduction of the lady is superb: she is standing outside the building alone, while others are chatting in groups.  She retreats into the shadows when she realizes her legs are being burnt by the sun’s rays.  Enyedi develops her character as one who is very smart—one who can figure out likely conversations between people without hearing them, a person who can recall dates of incidents in her life perfectly unlike most of us, a person who takes her job seriously and professionally. Even her plate of food is carefully placed to geometric alignment. (Oh, Enyedi, how I admire the lovely details of your script!) And she is naive about sex (and music) even though men are attracted towards her but is evidently interested in experiencing it.

Enyedi does the same with the human “stag.” He once had a fair share of women in his life. The CFO still has a glad eye for sexy women that comes in his view but has grown up sufficiently to apologize profusely when he caught staring. Unlike the human doe who believes in rules, the CFO knows how to keep the local police chief happy by presenting him choice portions of beef. Unlike the human doe, the human stag has no problems meeting up with strangers. They are contrasting characters

What brings the opposites together?   Dreams. Sigmund Freud would have laughed at the amazing proposition of Enyedi’s film but even the stodgiest detractor will have to agree the improbable scenario presented in the film could happen. After all, it is a reworking of the Beauty and the Beast tale, cleverly packaged.

Separate bedrooms in a split screen. Both characters look forward to their dreams
as they prepare to sleep

The film is not just Enyedi and Herbai. The lead male role of Endre, the CFO, is played by a nonprofessional actor, Geza Morcsanyi, who in real life is a successful publisher of Hungarian books, has never acted in a film before and may not in the future.  However, he does edit film scripts and has written one screenplay. The female lead, Maria, is played by Alexandra Borbely, who has acted in a couple of feature films. The lead actors are very convincing.

Geza Morcsanyi plays the CFO

The film introduced this film critic to the wonderful voice, songs and lyrics of British folk singer Laura Marling whose song “What he wrote” wraps up the film. The lyrics of the song do not tie up with the story of the film. My guess is that scriptwriter/director Enyedi merely introduced Marling to the viewers as an extension of the sequence where music store owner suggests a CD  as good music to the character Maria who cannot make up her own mind on what music CD to buy and ends up buying the suggested disc.

Enyedi’s film is one of the best films of 2017. What is amusing is how a lady scriptwriter is able to create the minor characters—the sex obsessed male workers, the amusing psychologist, and the side plot of a worker stealing sex stimulants for human consumption that was meant for animals about to be butchered.  The film is Hungary’s submission for the Best Foreign Film category at the 2017 Oscars.  A formidable one indeed! Hungarian cinema is back at the top.

P.S. The film On Body and Soul won four awards and honours at the Berlin Film Festival: The Golden Bear award for the best film of the year; the FIPRESCI Prize; the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury; and the Prize of the Reader Jury of the daily Berliner Morgenpost .  It also won the prestigious 2017 Cameraimage Award for its cinematography by Mate Herbai and the top award at the Sydney film festival. It also won the audience award at the Mumbai film festival. Hungarian director Zoltan Fabri’s The Fifth Seal (1976) and Terrence Malick's  Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line have been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the names of the films in this post script to access those reviews.)

Saturday, November 25, 2017

215. Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes’ francophone film “Rosetta” (1999) (Belgium) based on their original screenplay: The desperate struggle of a poor teenager who craves for a regular job and a steady income to improve her own life with an alcoholic mother

“Your name is Rosetta. My name is Rosetta. You found a job. I found a job. You've got a friend. I've got a friend. You have a normal life. I have a normal life. You won't fall in a rut. I won't fall in a rut. Good night. Good night.”  --Rosetta speaking to herself and responding to her own stronger self and making a personal resolve before falling asleep in the film

The Dardennes brothers constitute Belgium’s best gift to world cinema and are included on this critic’s best 15 active filmmakers from around the world.

They are distinct from most other filmmakers for at least four reasons. One, they write their own original screenplays. Two, they choose subjects that relate to poverty, ethics, and social struggles to survive (similar to the works of English director Ken Loach, also on this critic’s aforementioned list).  Three, the brothers work as a team (similar to the Italian Taviani brothers, also on this critic’s aforementioned list).  Four, their use of extraneous music is minimal in all their films and handheld camerawork is very common.

Emilie Dequenne is "Rosetta"---her award-winning debut role that launched
her successful career in films

Who is Rosetta? She is a Belgian teenager living with an alcoholic mother in a parked caravan because they cannot afford to live in a regular house. (The social predicament is very close to Ken Loach’s 1966 English film Cathy Come Home, which was based on a play.) The fictional Rosetta shows the responsibility of an adult by working when jobs come by and collecting clothes to mend which her mother does when she is not drunk. Their joint income is precariously placed on the abilities of the teenager to survive.  When the mother makes money by prostituting her body, the angry teenage daughter berates her own mother “We are not beggars.” The Dardennes’ magic is to create unusual lovable characters living on the fringes of society  such as the “adult” teenager  Rosetta, or the young teenager in The Kid with a Bike (2011) yearning for parents who would love him, or the young mother who is desperate to retain her job that she lost recently to supplement her husband’s income in Two Days, One Night (2014), or a young doctor who feels guilty at not opening her clinic door when an unknown patient had rung her doorbell late in the night only to be found dead soon after that in The Unknown Girl (2016). What is amazing is that the Dardennes brothers not only think about such original offbeat ideas, they make lovely screenplays and elicit great performances from their actors-- professional or otherwise--film after film.

Making resolutions to herself before going to sleep. (refer: Quote above)

Rosetta, the film, was a great success and viewers began to conjecture that Belgium’s Rosetta Law, which ensures that teenage wages are the same as others', was an outcome of this film’s popularity. The Dardennes brothers clarified that was not the case—the Law was about to be “voted through” when they made the film. This revelation is important to figure out how the duo develop their original screenplays.  One detail that made this critic wonder was how Rosetta’s name was printed on her apron at the waffle outlet so soon after she took on the job. Or is it that Rosetta was never her real name in the first place? No one calls her by that name except after the dream like monologue (quoted above) in which she seems to force herself to be called Rosetta after possibly noticing the name on the apron worn by her new boyfriend.

Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione, a Dardenne regular) teaches
Rosetta to dance in his apartment

For those familiar with film of the Dardennes brothers, there are common strands to their varied works. In Rosetta, the young teenager replaces a young mother pleading with her employer to retain her at the waffle dough making centre. In Two Days, One Night, the main protagonist plays a young mother pleading with her employer to retain her. The directors present both viewpoints in a world where jobs are not easy to come by. The pleading statement by the teenager uttered in the movie will resonate with viewers then and now “I want to stay. I want a job. A normal life like yours.”  

Similarly, both films present the tug of war between survival and friendship. In Rosetta, the teenager risks retributive anger from her only friend in life to get a job that ensures survival for her and her mother. In Two Days, One Night, if true friends try to help the other, it could cost their own job. It is a Hobson’s choice.

Poverty and resulting ingenuity makes Rosetta to trap fish
 in broken bottles filled with bait and hook

Rosetta presents another interesting relationship—the mother and daughter equation in the absence of a male breadwinner.  The alcoholic mother would go to any extent to get an alcoholic drink. Her level-headed teenage daughter cajoles her to seek rehabilitating cure. The alcoholic mother pushes into a filthy pond, nearly drowning her daughter, to escape rehabilitation. The daughter presents the other extreme end of family relationship--forgiving and caring personality. The mother plants flowers around the trailer home—the daughter plucks them out. For the young teenage girl her vision is to earn enough to move to a better home. The mother, on the other hand, has given up hopes of a better life.

The young teenager almost drowned when her mother pushed her into a pond. The very same teenager almost lets her only friend drown, with the grisly objective of replacing him at his job, only to rescue him on second thoughts. For the Dardennes brothers, their characters are complex but they do have basic goodness that overshadows their baser dark instincts to survive under any cost. "Rosetta"is stoic as she overhears the pleas of a worker she has replaced. 

The name Rosetta appears on her apron shortly after taking on the job.
Did she dream up her name after watching her boyfriend
dispense waffles wearing the apron?
Why convince herself that she is Rosetta in her monologue? 

For the Dardennes brothers, there is one formula that works. The lead character in each film is a fighter and often a humanist, who believes in family values, irrespective of the current situation. The director duo never provides a cut and dry solution at the end, as in Rosetta. The viewer is not spoon-fed but nudged to figure out the outcome of the situation.

The directors also have a technical formula that also works:  stick with their regular cinematographer, Alain Marcoen; their film editor Marie-Helene Dozo; their costume designer Monic Parelle, where possible and throw in parts for the tried and tested regular actors they have worked with: Fabrizio Rongione and Olivier Gourmet.

The two formulae have always worked.

P.S. The film Rosetta won three awards and honours at the Cannes Film Festival: The Golden Palm award for the best film of the year; the best Actress Award for Emilie Dequenne and a special mention from the Ecumenical jury. Two Dardenne films-- Two Days, One Night and The Kid with a Bike—have been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the names of the films in this post script to access the reviews)

Thursday, November 16, 2017

214. Indian director Praveen Morchhales’s film “Walking with the Wind” (2017) (India) based on his own original screenplay: Recalling the cinematic footprints of the late Iranian maestro Abbas Kiarostami

Director Praveen Morchhale is an emerging noteworthy filmmaker from India making films based on his own original scripts that use children in pivotal, non-controversial roles.  His films certainly cannot be classified as children’s films as these works, while tugging at the hearts of adult viewers, are essentially humanistic and philosophical in content that is relevant for viewers of all ages. His films are different in many ways from the average contemporary Indian cinema. The titles of his two films Barefoot to Goa (2013) and Walking with the Wind (2017) are in English, while the films are not in that language.  Spoken words are minimal though important, while visuals and documentary-like performances dominate.  Family values are underscored indirectly in both films. Both films exude positive thoughts, providing viewers with a breath of fresh air, not unlike the early works of the Iranian filmmakers Abbas Kiarostami and Amir Naderi. Director Morchhale, who has been influenced by the former’s works, dedicates the film to him as he passed away while the film was in production. Kiarostami’s evocative short film The Bread and Alley (1970) has a similar treatment of a different story.

While Morchhale’s first film compared and contrasted contemporary urban and rural western India, his latest film is entirely shot in a rural setting of Ladakh, in the northern Indian state of Kashmir, with principal actors playing their real-life roles. Italy’s filmmaking maestro Ermanno Olmi achieved a similar effect in the brilliant Golden Palm winning The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978). Morchhale spent time over two seasons with the community some 80kms from Leh, while developing the tale and roping in the inhabitants to join the film as non –professional actors in roles close to their own in real life.

The boy and his sister study as their parents prepare dinner in the modest
real Ladakhi rural home

Morchhale’s characters are very ethical. In Walking with the Wind, a school student unwittingly breaks a school chair and goes to immense efforts to get it repaired. (It is not clear whether he has to sit on that very chair to write his forthcoming examination.  In any case, a broken chair would cause inconvenience to some student in his class, if not him)  A school student studies diligently to pass his examinations but realizes that he and his sister have no ink to write it and literally goes the extra mile to procure it from a distant town. Education is important for some children (including girls) when they note that only a few of the adults in the village are educated. Morchhale’s young film characters are all resolute, whether it is to reach a destination (as in Barefoot to Goa) or to achieve a modest aim.

The young Indian director, influenced by Iranian cinema, roped in a young Iranian cinematographer Mohammad Reza Jahanpanah, who had done the cinematography for Jafar Panahi’s acclaimed film Closed Curtain (2013), a Silver Bear winner at the Berlin Film festival. And if there is a single most engaging aspect of the film it is camerawork that captures the terrain, the pathways (roads are few here), and the sparse population compared with the rest of India.

The terrain, the boy, and the broken chair: the camerawork of  Jahanpanah
captures it all

The director is clever in incorporating real life characters from the village into his script thus avoiding high costs he would otherwise have incurred employing professional actors. The performances as in an Olmi film are flawless.  The main character is a schoolboy, the carpenter is a real life carpenter, the poet is a real one, the blind man is a real blind man, and the Japanese painter/documentary filmmaker in the film is a real bona fide inhabitant, married to a Ladakhi man in the village. The director has not used sets—he used the real dwellings.

There are evocative sequences in Walking with the Wind that will not be missed by viewers exposed to good, international cinema. The Japanese lady, busy painting the landscape, looks up from her work to watch the young boy with a chair in the distance. The cinematographer captures the boy’s presence in the vast landscape on the corner of the visual frame accentuating the smallness of the character and the relative importance of the event in the vast land. The open metaphors the film offers are for viewers to decipher and ingest.

The impressive lead actor who like the others
in the film are not conscious of the camera

Morchhale’s filmmaking proves several points for filmmakers in India. You can make good films by investing on good film crews rather than on actors. Writing your own non controversial screenplays is more rewarding in many ways. And more importantly, the world of cinema is growing more international and often more non-verbal. Finally, it showcases the pristine parts of India little known to most Indians, and far less to wider international audiences. It is also a film that does not spoon-feed the audiences—the end sequence of the film makes the viewer think awhile.

P.S. Morchhale’s first film Barefoot to Goa (2013) was reviewed earlier on this blog. The film Walking with the Wind is the first Indian film chosen to compete in the 2017 Cameraimage festival in Poland. Olmi's The Tree of Wooden Clogs has been extensively reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the names of the films in this post-script to access the reviews). Subsequent to writing this review, the film has won the top prize at 21st Tertio Millennio International Film in Rome. Rare honour indeed for an Indian film to win a top prize at any international film festival! The film also bagged three awards at the 2018 Indian National Film Awards.

The trailer of the film is at https://vimeo.com/242193105

Monday, November 06, 2017

213. US director Michael Almereyda’s film “Marjorie Prime” (2017) (USA): Commendable adaptation of a good American play on film with noteworthy performances and musical choices

Nobody is who he was. Nobody will be who he is now” 
--lines spoken in the film, adapted from Jordan Harrison’s play Marjorie Prime, a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize and the winner of the 2016 Horton Foote Prize for an Outstanding New American play

US director Michael Almereyda made some fine decisions to make Marjorie Prime. He chose an amazing play that would only be enhanced by the tools of modern cinema, if used with restraint and class. He achieved that partly by scripting the film himself. His next winning decision was to retain actress Lois Smith in the role of the old Marjorie, a role she had played earlier on stage. The director’s next winner was the casting of actress Geena Davis as Marjorie’s daughter Tess and actor Tim Robbins as Marjorie’s son-in-law, Jon. The fourth bright decision was to choose the talented Mica Levi to contribute the original music of the film. All win-win decisions.

The film/play deals with real people interacting with holograms (“Primes” created through memories of others) that can intelligently respond to you.  The responses of these artificially intelligent (AI) creations are as interesting as the responses of robots in the recent fascinating sci-fi film from UK, Ex Machina (2014). Playwright Harrison does not delve into the science of developing the holographic characters but instead concentrates on how real humans react to the responses of the holographic characters whose knowledge is based on information provided by the interacting humans themselves.  Harrison is an alumnus of Stanford University, where interesting developments in AI have been emerging and continues to emerge. When Marjorie Prime won the Sloan prize at the Sundance Film Festival the citation was itself revealing of the maturity of the film. The jury awarded the film for its "imaginative and nuanced depiction of the evolving relationship between humans and technology, and its moving dramatization of how intelligent machines can challenge our notions of identity, memory and mortality.”

Marjorie (Lois Smith)  interacts verbally with the hologram of
her husband Walter (Jon Hamm), as he looked when he was 40.

Film has a clear advantage over theatre when it comes to holograms. Early in the film, Marjorie (Lois Smith) walks through the leg of her dead husband Walter’s hologram (Jon Hamm).  As the film progresses, real characters keep interacting with holograms of persons who died recently as well, when they are alone. (Harrison and Almereyda are more interested in the psychological reactions of humans to spoken words of holograms)  These interactions can be switched off at the human’s will. These possibilities are fictional at present but could soon be reality as AI makes rapid strides with time.

The Harrison/Almereyda tale is reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman's films going back in time to discover and rediscover facts and incidents and record reactions that unfold new perspectives of the present day characters by these discoveries.  The artificial holograms act as a catalyst for humans to unravel what they had subconsciously kept hidden.

Almereyda’s film makes visual connection with two images and one feature film. The two images are the saffron flags installation called "The Gates" in New York’s Central Park by Christo and Jeanne-Claude (see http://christojeanneclaude.net/projects/the-gates ) and a painting that reminds you of Alain Resnais’ surreal images in his black and white film Last Year at Marienbad (1961). The film referred to within the film is the Hollywood film My Best Friend’s Wedding  (1997). The common factors in all three are wistful recollections of human relationships from the most abstract to the least abstract. The saffron flags of ‘The Gates’ made a connection in Marjorie’s mind to her beloved dead son.  The images of the painting recalling Last Year at Marienbad could nudge a cineaste to parallels between the two pairs of couples in Marjorie Prime (Marjorie/Walter and Tess/Jon) and the unnamed man and woman in the French film. As in the Resnais film, you--the viewer--question the veracity of all the statements of the three principal living human characters when the hologram versions innocently and logically question what was stated earlier by the three humans. As in the Resnais film, memory and visual association (e.g., the saffron flags of ‘The Gate’ which are never shown in Marjorie Prime but discussed verbally) are crucial. Even the marriages of the two pairs of spouses in Marjorie Prime are tenuous.  As in the My Best Friend’s Wedding plot, there is a third person in the Marjorie/Walter relationship.  Much of these one suspects are likely to be the contribution of the director/screenplaywriter Almereyda. The final shot of the film is truly arresting—the waves of the ocean seem to have frozen in time just as the painting that recalls the Resnais film.

Two real people, Jon (Tim Robbins) and his wife Tess (Geena Davis) interact

One of the fascinating conversations occurs between Tess and the hologram of her mother Marjorie. The hologram comments “Pronouns are powerful things” following a statement of Tess for the hologram’s benefit.  Tess is taken aback and answers “That would be more her. No, you,” indicating Tess’ confusion between the real Marjorie and the hologram of Marjorie.

In a film where visuals and spoken words take the centre stage, music is not to be overlooked. Composer Mica Levi is a rising star—proving her mettle in Jackie (2016) and Under the Skin (2013). Almereyda’s choice of Poulenc and Beethoven pieces and Ms Levi’s original music combined with intelligent soundtrack editing by Kathryn Schubert (who had worked with Jim Jarmusch on Only Lovers Left Alive in 2013) embellish the film.

Tim Robbins was never as interesting as he is in this film providing interesting variation to his character. Lois Lane is a delight to watch as the real Marjorie and the holographic Marjorie. Geena Davis and Jon Hamm do not disappoint. 

Son-in-law Jon (Robbins) briefs the hologram of his 'dead father-in-law Walter
with secrets about Marjorie's and Walter's past
(Note the hologram's robotic posture)

Marjorie Prime ought to be a frontrunner in the Oscar race in several departments—acting, music, screenplay and editing. It is one of the most engaging sci-fi films since Ex Machina but a casual viewer, who misses out on the details, might find it unworthy of acclaim. The sci-fi element is minimal but the film is more concerned about memory, aging, and how people react to emotionless, logical questions of robotic creations. In many ways, the balance of sci-fi and human behaviour changing with time in Marjorie Prime is close to the balance achieved by Andrei Tarkovsky in Solaris (1972).

This low-budget film will be a strong contender for being included among the top 10 films of 2017 for this critic.

P.S. The film Marjorie Prime won the Alfred P Sloan prize for feature films at the Sundance Film Festival. Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972) has been reviewed on this blog.

Monday, October 23, 2017

212. Czech directors Jan Kadar’s and Elmar Klos’ film “Touha zvaná Anada” (Adrift) (1971) (former Czechoslovakia): Third film of an important European film trilogy (based on a Hungarian novel by Lajos Zilahy), rarely discussed or appreciated

My heart pounds, my strength fails me; even the light has gone from my eyes.
--Psalms 38:10 (Epigraph/quote that opens the film, before the titles)

Adrift is the third film of a rarely discussed but important trilogy of director Jan Kadar (1918-79) that includes the Oscar-winning The Shop on the Main Street (1966) and The Angel Levine (1970). Elmar Klos was the co-director of two films of the trilogy: The Shop on the Main Street and Adrift.  Hence, the trilogy can conveniently be considered as the Jan Kadar spiritual trilogy on human beings’ tendency to lose things dear to them due to their own follies. In all the three films, the male central character is the pivot of the story and a major female figure dies as a result of the male character’s actions. As Kadar was a Jew, the references within the trilogy relate to the Old Testament of the Bible. (In contrast, the wife of the central character is an ardent Roman Catholic, with paintings of Mother Mary over her bed—a contribution of the novelist Lajos Zilahy.)

The mysterious Anada (Paula Pritchett) in the Danube

Unlike the spiritual doubt trilogy of the Swedish maestro Ingmar Bergman (The Silence; Through a Glass Darkly; Winter Light) and the spiritual/metaphysical Yusuf trilogy of the Turkish director Semih Kaplanoglu (Honey; Milk; Egg) which are built on the original scripts of the respective directors, Kadar’s trilogy is made up of three adaptations of three novels by three different novelists, chosen either consciously or unconsciously by Kadar, to form the beads of a single necklace. The novelists are Ladislaw Grosman (The Shop on the Main Street), Bernard Malamud (The Angel Levine), and Lajos Zilahy (Adrift). Interestingly, Kadar’s Adrift is the third film adaptation of the same Zilahy novel.  A Hungarian film Something in the Water was made in 1944 and a Mexican film Something Floats in the Water was made in 1947, based on the same Hungarian novel. The novel ends with a miracle and a happy ending—Kadar’s film does not.

The fisherman -- the good and the bad in us

The tale of Adrift (and the novel from which the screenplay was adapted) is simple. A rural family of a poor fisherman (Rade Markovic) on the banks of the Danube River consists of a religious wife Zuzka (Milena Dravic), their teenage son and the fisherman’s father-in-law.  A beautiful woman (Paula Pritchett) with no family or known history and a strange name Anada is found floating in the river, presumably dead. The wife notices a spot of life in the body and massages her back to life. The film is all about the consequent impact of her presence in the family household at the insistence of the wife.

Anada (Paula Pritchett): Is she real ,or a mermaid ,
or a mere figment of imagination 

More than the plot, it is the filmmaking that grabs the attention of an intelligent viewer as in all Kadar films more than the subject. The beginning and the end of the film are considerably similar, with parallel events. It could easily confuse an inattentive viewer. The consequence of the actions of the fisherman is never shown, only inferred by visuals that need to be connected by spoken lines earlier in the film.

Kadar’s Adrift uses methods similar to those used in Andrei Konchalovsky’s Paradise (2016) where the principal characters are answering questions on their motives and actions. In Paradise you do not see the questioner; in Adrift you see three male questioners who never reveal much about themselves except their names (Melchior, Balthazar and Kaspar) while reassuring the fisherman that they are not the police. In both films, the timing of the questioning would seem illogical until the end of the film when the seemingly illogical chronology falls into place.  The three names will give away their true identities, if the viewer is well read. These names are attributed to the three wise men that came to see baby Jesus in Bethlehem. These names do not appear in the New Testament of the Bible but emerged from a Greek manuscript written in the 6th Century AD. The Catholic Church canonised these men into Saints Melchior, Balthazar and Caspar. It is not surprising that the strange trio in the film talks of attending christenings, weddings or wakes and finding a birth or a death.  Their boat has a flag flying on it—it is a simple black one.

Melchior, Balthazar and Caspar "interrogate" the adrift fisherman

Some parts of the “interrogation” are revealing. When the three men meet the fisherman for the first time, when he is waking up on the banks of the Danube after having been “adrift,” they ask him if he remembers anything, to which he replies “I remember nothing.”  One of the three men responds: “When things go wrong you remember nothing.”  Later one of the mysterious three asks the fisherman about Anada: “Did you interrogate her?” The fisherman’s angry retort is “Who are you to interrogate me?” More revealing than the religion in Adrift, are the words and actions of the fisherman that reveal turmoil and contradictions within the fisherman’s simple mind, which is indeed “adrift.”  The trio reassures the fisherman “We only know what you know.

When asked by the trio why he let Anada stay with his family, the fisherman’s honest reply is “My wife wanted it ...” only to add on the words “I love my wife.” He goes on “... My wife’s stupidity.” The trio quickly corrects him “You mean kindness.”

The wife Zuzka (Milena Dravic) embodiment of kindness reminisces
as her husband prepares her medicine 

Truth and duplicity intermingle in Adrift.  (Kadar seems to love this strange mix—exemplified in his lovely adult “children’s film” Lies My Father Told Me, a 1975 film he made in Canada.) Early in the film Adrift, the wife Zuzka reveals that she remembers that her husband had revealed his love for her by stating that he would drown himself if she died following childbirth. Fortunately, she and her son had survived the childbirth. More than a decade later, when she falls seriously ill, as a devout Catholic, she pledges all the money the poor family has to God if she is cured for the sake of her husband and son. This why the words “stupidity” and “kindness” during the interrogation sequence takes on an added significance.

The women Zuzka (right) and Anada (left)
understand each other, which upsets the fisherman even further

Kadar’s films have a style that remains with you—the sudden use of music during certain types of activity, which stops as suddenly as it begins. His camera tells you the end of the tale as though it was a silent interloper. If you miss the important shots, the end of the film would indeed befuddle the viewer.

After the end of the film the viewer could reflect on the epigraph at the beginning of the film, though most casual viewers might not see the importance of that exercise.  Both Kadar and Konchalovsky are erudite directors who believe epigraphs and end quotes add more value for the serious and well-read viewer.

Kadar’s films are gems for viewers who pay attention to details. He is definitely one of the best Czech/Slovak filmmakers in film history. The three films in the trilogy are important for students of cinema, even though rarely discussed in recent times.

P.S. The film Adrift won the Best Actress award at the Taormina Film Festival for Milena Dravic who plays Zuzka, the wife. Kadar’s The Shop on the Main Street won the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language film and an unsuccessful nomination for the Best Actress Oscar. Andrei Konchalovsky's Paradise (2016) has been reviewed on this blog earlier.

Monday, October 02, 2017

211. US director Sofia Coppola’s film “The Beguiled” (2017) (USA): An interesting but “amputated” female perspective of a quaint but intelligent American novel

t is imperative that when a director adapts a novel into a film that one ought to compare how that effort changes or enhances the entertainment of the viewer/reader. That exercise is further compounded if an interesting earlier film had been made—making it useful to compare the three creative products—the novel, the original movie and the remake.

The Union Corporal (Colin Farrell) and Alicia (Elle Fanning) 

Sofia Coppola’s film The Beguiled is an adaptation of a novel and a remake of a 1971 film of considerable importance. Ms Coppola won the Best Director award at Cannes in 2017 from a jury that did not use that perspective but merely evaluated its strengths compared to the 20 odd films in competition at that edition of the Festival. 

The tale is set during the American civil war. An injured Union soldier is given refuge in a seminary/boarding school in a southern Confederate state inhabited by religious women/girls of varying ages. A series of unfortunate incidents lead to his death. 

Sofia Coppola is the director and screenplay writer of 2017 version of The Beguiled. Her approach to the film's subject is simple, obvious, and measured —while retaining the basic story of the novel, she would tweak it to serve us a female perspective of the novel. (Note that even the color of the film's title on poster is pink!) The original novel was written by a male author Thomas Cullinan. The original screenplay was written by Albert Maltz and Irene Kemp for the original film The Beguiled (1971), directed by Don Siegel. Ms Coppola uses that screenplay of Maltz and Kemp as the basis of her own adapted screenplay, while changing crucial elements of the preceding works. 

The not-so-frail Ms Martha (Nicole Kidman) in candle light

The crucial differences of the remake with the original film are the following:

  1.  The total deletion of the sympathetic black slave girl Mattie of the novel renamed Hallie in the original film by Don Siegel. In the original film. Hallie in a crucial scene during the second leg operation, courageously remarks “There is frailty in you” as Ms Martha (played by Geraldine Page) avoids looking at the face of the soldier. In Ms Coppola’s version, there is very little frailty in Ms Martha (played by Nicole Kidman). Further, both the original version and the remake of The Beguiled portray the character of Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman in the original, and Kirsten Dunst in the remake) as a white lady, while the character in the novel is of a mixed race.
  2.  The soldier’s character and his views are reduced to the minimal in Ms Coppola’s version allowing very little sympathy to develop in the viewer's mind  for the soldier. 
  3. The sexual encounter sequence is minimized in screen time in Ms Coppola’s version to the credit of the director, when compared to the original version. In any case, that sequence is not important. 
  4. The cinematography in the night sequences is captured in candle light in Ms Coppola’s version (as it ought to be) unlike Mr Siegels’ version. It reminds one of the cinematography and lighting in Stanley Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon (1975). 
  5. The trees and the woods in Ms Coppola’s version are spectacular compared to Mr Siegel’s version. Even the fallen dried leaves in the veranda add to the intelligent details adopted in Ms Coppola’s version. 
  6. In Ms Coppola’s version, the soldier’s body is left unattended outside the gate in a covered body bag, which is odd indeed. In Mr Siegel’s version the ladies carry the covered body far away from their mansion. One can assume the ladies were not capable of digging a grave in both film versions leading to this action. 
Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) replaces the Edwina of mixed race of the novel

Religion and reality of the beguiled

The following is the intelligent and measured text of a statement issued by Ms Coppola to counter some criticism of her omissions in her version: 

 “My film is set in a Southern school for girls at the point in the Civil War when the men had been away fighting for some time and the Union had gained momentum. According to historians and several women’s journals from the time, many slaves had departed, and a great number of white women of the South were left in isolation, holding on to a world whose time had rightly come to an end—a world built on slave labor.” 

 “I wanted to tell the story of the isolation of these women, cut off from the world and in denial of a changing world. I also focused on how they deal with repression and desire when a man comes in to their abandoned world, and how this situation affects each of them, being at different stages of their life and development. I thought there were universal themes, about desire and male and female power dynamics that could relate to all women.” 

“The circumstances in which the women in my story find themselves are historically accurate—and not a distortion of history, as some have claimed. From “Mothers of Invention” by Drew Gilpin Faust: “War and emancipation revealed that many white women felt themselves entirely ignorant about how to perform basic functions of everyday life…A war that had at the outset made so many women feel useless and irrelevant soon demanded significant labor and sacrifice from even the most privileged southern females…” 

 “Throughout the film, we see students and teachers trying to hold on to their crumbling way of life. Eventually, they even lock themselves up and sever all ties to the outside world in order to perpetuate a reality that has only become a fantasy. My intentions in choosing to make a film in this world were not to celebrate a way of life whose time was over, but rather to explore the high cost of denial and repression.” 

 “There have been some questions regarding my approach to my new film, The Beguiled. More specifically, there have been objections to my decision not to include the slave character, Mattie, in Thomas Cullinan’s book on which my film is based. I would like to clarify this.” 

 “My film is set in a Southern school for girls at the point in the Civil War when the men had been away fighting for some time and the Union had gained momentum. According to historians and several women’s journals from the time, many slaves had departed, and a great number of white women of the South were left in isolation, holding on to a world whose time had rightly come to an end—a world built on slave labor." 

"Isolation of women, repression and desire" captured
by Sofia Coppola

 “I wanted to tell the story of the isolation of these women, cut off from the world and in denial of a changing world. I also focused on how they deal with repression and desire when a man comes in to their abandoned world, and how this situation affects each of them, being at different stages of their life and development. I thought there were universal themes, about desire and male and female power dynamics that could relate to all women.” 

“In his 1966 novel, Thomas Cullinan made the choice to include a slave, Mattie, as a side-character. He wrote in his idea of Mattie’s voice, and she is the only one who doesn’t speak proper English—her voice is not even grammatically transcribed.” 

“I did not want to perpetuate an objectionable stereotype where facts and history supported my choice of setting the story of these white women in complete isolation, after the slaves had escaped. Moreover, I felt that to treat slavery as a side-plot would be insulting.” 

“There are many examples of how slaves have been appropriated and “given a voice” by white artists. Rather than an act of denial, my decision of not including Mattie in the film comes from respect.” 

 “Some have said that it is not responsible to make a film set during the Civil War and not deal directly with slavery and feature slave characters. I did not think so in preparing this film, but have been thinking about this and will continue to do so. But it has been disheartening to hear my artistic choices, grounded in historical facts, being characterized as insensitive when my intention was the opposite”. 

“I sincerely hope this discussion brings attention to the industry for the need for more films from the voices of filmmakers of color and to include more points of views and histories.” 

Exterior cinematography under natural light
with dried leaves on the floor

Both the film versions have their strengths and weaknesses. Both films and the novel compare the importance given to religion and the contrarian actions of the persons who profess to practice it. Both films and the novel discuss how good individuals change with circumstances that affect their ego or their possessions. Even a child can change if it's pet is deliberately hurt! Don Siegel’s 1971 version captures a larger canvas of male characters (soldiers of the Confederate army interacting with the ladies)---several brief yet important sequences. Ms Coppola’s version avoids those distractions as she is more interested in focussing on the ladies. Both versions have their strengths. Don Siegel’s 1971 version gave importance to acting, while Ms Coppola’s somewhat notable version is essentially a director’s, the art director's and cinematographer’s film--little else. Despite directorial maturity of the remake, the original is the winner with a notable Clint Eastwood performance to boot.