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

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 ) 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.