Sunday, December 30, 2018

233. Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s third feature film “Capernaum” (a.k.a. Caphernaum; and Chaos)(2018) (Lebanon): A film that puts Lebanon on the world cinema map by presenting truth, humanism, and issues often swept under the carpet, in many parts of the globe

“Why are you attacking your parents in court?”—Lebanese judge/magistrate to Zain, a 12-year-old Lebanese, already behind bars for a crime he has committed 
For giving me life”—Zain’s response

The year 2018 has seen the release of three interesting films from three distinct parts of the globe. Each of the three  are very interesting, have several common themes and have and will be competing against each other for major honours at different awards nights and film festivals. The three films are directors Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum (from Lebanon), Hirokazu  Kore’eda’s Shoplifters (from Japan) and Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (from Mexico).
Zain (Zain al Rafaeea) pondering on ways to feed and take care of
someone younger and more helpless

All three films deal with multiple children and their families into which they are born-- for no fault of theirs.  All three films are original tales conceived and developed by the directors from their own experiences and imaginations. All three films deal with poverty, though in Roma the effect of poverty is limited to the servants and not the children of their masters who are luckily born into a world of financial security. All the three films have already won major awards either at Cannes or at Venice film festivals and are/were competing for the Golden Globes and the Oscars.  Though Capernaum is the weakest of the three in production quality, it offers much more to the viewer to reflect on and appreciate than the other two films.

Perhaps, to relegate all the production aspects of in Capernaum as less stunning than Shoplifters and Roma would be quite inaccurate.  An early aerial drone shot in Capernaum of the shantytown districts of Beirut, thanks to its cinematographer Christopher Aoun, stuns you. What you see is a mosaic of tin sheets that act as roofs of human habitation held in place by old rubber tires of all sorts of vehicles.  

A 12-year-old Zain takes care of a 1-year-old with
responsibility and love he never got from his own parents

Zain carrying Yonas around Beirut to find food and shelter

Assuming this low-cost camera shot in Capernaum is real and not a computer generated perspective, that simple astounding shot deserves more credit than the comparatively awesome beach rescue scene and the hospital delivery scene in Roma captured by the able Mexican cinematographer/director Cuaron with the relative high costs involved, the mainstay of the Mexican film Roma’s technical finesse. Now why would that one shot in Capernaum be so important? Beyond the humour and surreal perspective of Beirut that shot offers, it encapsulates the chaos implied in the title of the film. And to place that stunning shot at the start of the film is a master stroke of co-writer and director Labaki.

Capernaum is a film close to the neorealist film traditions of Vittorio de Sica (Italy) and the contemporary works of Ken Loach (UK) and the Dardenne brothers (Belgium) using non-professional actors to etch realistic tales of poverty in an engaging, intelligent manner. On the other hand, Kore’eda’s Shoplifters is a film that has used experienced actors who have appeared in films before, often in earlier works of the director.  If the viewer of Capernaum dissects each scene with the 12-year-old Zain (Zain al Rafaeea, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon  who has never acted before playing the role of a Lebanese kid) and the one-year-old Ethiopian child Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) who is not old enough to walk but can crawl, one can glimpse the mammoth effort taken by director Labaki to capture the right emotions of the two kids and the amount of time spent  and footage the filmmakers shot to get the final edited version of Capernaum. And it looks so real!

Capernaum offers an unusual tale—a 12-year-old boy so frustrated with his miserable life on earth which led him to commit a crime out of rage that results in imprisonment with other kids of his age. From the jail, he is ingenuous enough to contact a live TV show host on a cell phone to start the process of suing his biological parents with an unusual demand that his mother abort the foetus that she is carrying. He does not want yet another child to be born into his family of illiterate and incompetent parents, who neither have money or time for their offspring but continue to breed.

Zain in court speaks to the judge with his lawyer (director and co-scriptwriter
Nadine Labaki) standing next to him

While Capernaum is a plea to parents worldwide who cannot afford to have another mouth to feed and to stop procreating further, it is equally an unsettling plea against child marriages, where a girl child (Zain’s younger sister Sahar) can be given off in marriage in exchange of five chickens to feed the family for a few days.  It is a plea by a child who has never been to school on behalf of the children of the world for a right to education and their right to the joys of childhood.  In stark contrast to the children in Shoplifters, who experience love of parents, grandparents and foster-parents, the children in Capernaum are pushed by poverty to survive from day to day employing ingenious methods of drug peddling and their incredible transmission of opioid medication routes to survive and generate income to help other kids, more fragile than themselves, live another day.

The illegal Ethiopian migrant Rahil in Lebanon
 in search of a better life for herself and her son Yonas

Capernaum prods the viewer to spread the word on the importance of sterilizing illiterate parents already burdened with kids, blind to the travails of their progeny present and future. It is a film that underscores the importance of registering the births of children in today’s global village to have their own identity and rights in their own country that will help them in their life. It is also about paperless emigrants: an Ethiopian single mother Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) ekes out a living in Lebanon, evidently because Lebanon offers her a better life than in Ethiopia and in a similar flip-side scenario to escape poverty the Lebanese Zain goes scrounging for his identity papers (that never existed because his parents never bothered) so that he and Yonas could be transported to Turkey and/or Europe as immigrants also seeking a better life. The film’s unspoken message is that immigration problem starts at home, with parents who are responsible for the upbringing of the family rather than curse their own financial predicament. It is thus not unusual to find brothers being more responsible for the fate of their sisters than the parents in the Middle East. The many Zains of Lebanon do manual child labor to survive each day while more privileged children head to school in small vans covered with their schoolbags.

In Biblical terms, Capernaum in Galilee was where Jesus began his ministry, performing miracles, and  a town cursed by Jesus unless the people repented. In Labaki’s Capernaum, there is scope for the parents to repent after hearing Zain’s plea from behind bars and sterilize themselves or adopt other temporary birth control methods so that other Zains are not brought forth into the world.  Labaki’s Capernaum might be focusing on a small portion of Beirut—but the message of her film is universal.  One is again reminded of the iconic shot from the sky of Beirut’s shacks with tin sheet ceilings held in place with old tires.

Zain and his younger sister Sahar who will be given away in
marriage by his parents for the price of five chickens

Though Labaki’s Capernaum lacks the financial and acting prowess of Roma and Shoplifters, the strength of the film is in the message and the ability of the filmmaker to work with a 9-year-old Syrian Zain playing a 12-year-old Lebanese with the same name.  The fictional character Zain cares for those weaker than himself and, in jail, shows a maturity beyond his physical age to envisage a similar fate as his that awaits his future brothers and sisters unless he acted quickly against his parents. Director Labaki plays the role of Zain’s lawyer in the film. Step back and the viewer will realize that Labaki is the “lawyer” making an impassioned plea for a better deal for children of poor illiterate parents who disregard sterilization and beget children deprived of food, education and love and plead innocence without taking responsibility as production of children is equated with currency. 

The more economically stable film viewers of Capernaum can scoff at the concept of a child suing his parents, but it is a viewpoint few filmmakers would have dared to address till now.

Capernaum is the film of 2018 and arguably the best film from the Middle East in a long, long while.

P.S. The lovable Zain al Rafaeea, who is the main actor, is now a legal immigrant in a Scandinavian country with his parents.  Capernaum is the winner of the Jury Prize and two other awards at the Cannes film festival; award for direction at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards; best screenplay award at the Stockholm Film Festival, audience awards at Calgary, Acadie, Ghent, Melbourne, Mill Valley, Norway, Sarajevo, St Louis, Sao Paulo, and Toronto international film festivals.  The author's ranked list of the top 20 films of 2018 includes Capernaum.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

232. Danish/Irish director David Noel Bourke’s third feature film “Bakerman” (2016) (Denmark) based on his original story: An interesting tale of a quiet and introspective Dane facing career threats from his employer who is an immigrant, and unprovoked and unconnected vandalism from other immigrants, sparking off an unusual chain reaction

Bakerman is an award-winning Danish film that has surprisingly not been picked up for screening by international festivals beyond western Europe and the American east coast. Few critics seem to have either seen the film or discussed it. Yet it is better than some of the films that do get screened at film festivals around the globe and get discussed.  It won the Best Foreign Film award at the Maryland International Film Festival and Best Actor award at New York’s Nordic International Film Festival, both in USA.

Director David Noel Bourke’s original script of Bakerman is quite engaging because it captures several feelings any economically fragile Dane would face in recent times.  Bourke presents a variant of the very subjects that the Belgian director brothers Dardenne or even the French director Stéphane Brizé usually work on. Bourke’s script injects a sinister psychological perspective to what the Dardenne brothers or Brizé would perhaps have preferred to skip while moulding their own scripts for their films.

Bakerman’s title character is Jens (Mikkel Vadsholt), an introverted middle-aged baker by profession. It might not be the best of careers in Denmark but Jens loves his work and is concerned about retaining the quality of his baked products. It is doubly interesting when the viewer realizes that he is just an employee and not the owner of the bakery.  Not many workers consider quality of the product they help produce to be important when they are not directly sharing the profits of the establishment or enjoying wide recognition for their inputs. Yet Jens is a quiet man worried about the drop in quality of the bakery’s products and chooses to voice it. The viewer begins to like Jens at this stage.

The introspective baker Jens (Mikkel Vadsholt) at home

In the film, when Jens asks his employer, an immigrant to Denmark who has acquired the bakery, for a salary raise because others in the bakery have been given one, he is rudely turned down with the argument that there are others who could replace him. One feels sorry for the good hard working Jens.

The viewer is slowly drawn closer to Jens, living alone in a house in the suburbs, waking up early before crack of dawn to have fresh baked bread and other baked products for customers in the morning. Compared to his colleague in the bakery, Jens is reticent but an observant gentle giant who referees football games.  However, women friends who drink with him in the pubs do not find him sexually attractive, while his male bakery colleague is successful on that front. The viewer begins to reassess Jens.

Jens alone by the sea, reflecting and planning

A wanton act of theft and another of vandalism by immigrants from a Muslim nation involving Jens’ car parked near Jens’ workplace sparks off a Batman-like transformation in the quiet baker. He travels in his modest “Batmobile” clearing lone immigrant drug peddlers off the streets, without a mask or a cape. On one such lone night vigilante trips, he rescues a Muslim immigrant girl being brutally beaten up on an empty street by her “brother.”  When Jens offers to drop the lady (Mozan) home, she explains in broken English that she has no place to stay. Our Batman takes her to his home and behaves like a gentleman towards her as Batman would.  The director Bourke intentionally makes the viewer more inquisitive about Jens with his contrasting actions: one a ruthless killer and the other a genuine good guy and a gentleman.

Mozan (Siir Tilif)  at the party hosted by Jens' sister

Bourke’s film grows in complexity as Jens is evidently not what he appears to be at the start of the film. The job insecurity and vandalism triggers off a set of a proactive deeds by him to set right "Jens’ world." Some of those actions reveal that quiet, boring people can be meticulous planners who can literally get away with murder.

Jens has a past not unlike that of Batman.  This is revealed by newspaper clippings secretly stored away in closed boxes, which explains his moody behaviour. Jens’ attitude towards religion suggests he is an atheist as he avoids attending his nephew’s confirmation, an important milestone for religious Christians.  These subtexts are important in the context of the film’s ending that clarifies that Jens’ vigilante-like behaviour against immigrants is not based on their religion but on their unprovoked, unacceptable actions.

Jens wearing  a superhero costume for a party
appears a frail human being searching for Mozan

Bourke’s film Bakerman is interesting on several fronts.  The main character Jens is revealed gradually, where the viewer is led to assess him and then reassess him continuously as the film progresses. It is a roller-coaster ride for the patient viewer right up to the end of the film to figure out the Danish Batman/Bakerman.  An example of Bourke’s remarkable ability is being able to compress a murder sequence to one without any scene of the actual murder itself by creative editing of shots.  More interestingly, Bakerman is a film that challenges the viewer’s judgements and luckily the dark, brooding, evil mid-section of the film gradually blends with the positive ending that Bourke provides us. 

Birds in flight, an appropriate metaphor
for the happy Jens at the end

Bakerman is not a perfect film (e.g., how could a woman who cannot speak Danish figure out the headline of a Danish newspaper clipping?) Yet, its strengths are the performance of Mikkel Vadsholt who brings out the complex yet vulnerable character of Jens and the ability of Bourke to reconstruct the script into a shorter film at several stages due to budgetary constraints that an independent filmmaker faces. Both Mikkel Vadsholt and director Bourke are talented individuals and one hopes that they contribute even further to good filmmaking in the future and be more widely accepted. 

P.S. Three films of the Dardenne brothers (Rosetta, The kid with the bike, and Two days, one night) and director Stéphane Brizé’s Measure of a man were reviewed earlier on this blog. (Please click on the coloured titles of the films within this post-script to access the reviews.)

Sunday, December 02, 2018

231. Indian director Praveen Morchhale’s third feature film “Widow of Silence” (2018) (India), based on his original story: A lovely tale woven by the director’s observations on the no-win situation for the women in Kashmir

There is always an unusual distinct flavour when a director makes a film on a tale that he or she has written from scratch. Praveen Morchhale’s three films are such films and have shown an ability to highlight positive bonding of people in ordinary situations and as well as in extraordinary situations.

In his debut film, Barefoot to Goa (2013), Morchhale highlighted two unusual bonding situations. The first was the love of two kids for their lonely grandparents, a wistful look at the large Indian family being gradually replaced by a more impersonal nuclear family due to economic compulsions.

The second was contrasting the humane attitude of poor rural folks towards kids and strangers compared with the uncaring attitudes of the urban rich.

In his second film, Walking with the Wind (2017), Morchhale chose to write a film on a school boy of modest means living in the high elevations of Ladakh, in Kashmir, trying to repair his chair in his school classroom that he inadvertently broke and desperately attempting to procure a bottle of ink critical for his sister to write her forthcoming school examinations. Nobody tells the young kid to do these acts: these are conscientious decisions taken by the school kid to act proactively without the knowledge of the school authorities or parents.  Morchhale’s ability to magnify the maturity of the kid in taking responsibilities without being told to do so and ensuring his microscopic school-centred world of writing examinations remains Utopian is commendable. The family in the second film was essentially reduced further from the first film to a caring brother-sister relationship, with the parents/grandparents having much lesser roles. Morchhale’s second film recalls the early works of the late Iranian maestro Abbas Kiarostami such as The Bread and Alley.  (The film was formally dedicated to the maestro in the film’s credits.) Walking with the Wind has been subsequently rewarded with recognition in India and elsewhere. 

The pensive "widow" silently washing clothes.

In Widow of Silence, the third film, the writer/director further reduces the family size under the cinematic microscope, either intentionally or unintentionally. Here unlike small kids of the earlier films, there is only a single major figure—a married woman making a living working as a nurse. Her husband is missing for 7 years, and is therefore called a half-widow, as he is technically missing and not dead. She supports, from her meagre earnings as a nurse, two other members in her family: her 11-year-old school-going daughter and a semi-paralysed mother-in-law who can’t speak. As in Morchhale’s first film there is a bond between granddaughter and grandmother but the communication in this film is one way. The daughter’s presence is minimal uttering a few lines to express her loss of paternal presence and that classmates taunt her for being the daughter of a “half-widow”, who cannot pay her school fees.

The "widow's" 11-year-old daughter returns home from school

The "widow's" mute and semi-paralyzed mother-in-law has
to be tied up to a chair when she is alone in the locked house

The main story of Widow of Silence deals with the plight of half-widows where husbands go missing after they are abducted by security forces or militant groups. The lack of a death certificate creates economic and social distress for the wives. If they are attractive and young, they have to fend off suitors and predatory men. The film ends with a stunning and thought provoking action that might surprise the usual Morchhale watchers. To the director's credit, the ending is well executed and credible..

The 7-year "absence" of of the widow's husband (in the torn photograph)
causes anguish to the widow's daughter

Morchhale’s film Widow of Silence rings true in the context of the #Metoo social upheaval unsettling the rich and the powerful.  It rings true of the problems faced by the average peace loving Kashmir denizen who is not taking political stands. Who can give succour to the families who are bereft of male members to protect them and earn sufficient, steady income for the family in a unjust male-dominated Islamic society?

Morchhale’s first two films were on love and innocence; his third is on an anguished cry from the upright and marginal individual for justice and protection from predators in a democratic republic. The creation and introduction of the poetic taxi driver (Bilal Ahmad) serves as a chorus in a Greek tragedy mourning the lack of humanity and love in the once beautiful and tranquil Kashmir. It is very interesting to note that the very credible adult performers in the film are not Muslims (if one goes by their names), except for the very charming actor who plays the taxi driver.

The three films of Morchhale prove a few undeniable facts.  Directors and screenplay writers don’t have to look far for good ideas; the best subjects for a film can come from a keen sense of observation. Morchhale’s gambit of following the style of Kiarostami’s cinema and seeking the collaboration of the Iranian cinematographer Mohammad Reza Jahapanah for both Walking with the Wind and Widow of Silence have paid off. Jahapanah has worked for Iranian directors of repute such as Jafar Panahi as the cinematographer in his film Closed Curtain. Jahapanah recreates the Kiarostami-like visuals in the two Morchhale films shot in Ladakh and in Kashmir—the exterior long winding road shots reminding the viewer of Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry and the driver and co-passenger in an automobile's front seats recreating images of Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, while one of them is talking.

A long shot of the taxi in which the widow travels:
a visual touch reminiscent of Taste of Cherry

The widow sits in a taxi with flowers grown in her garden:
a visual touch reminiscent  of Certified Copy

Morchhale’s gambit in investing on a talented crew for sound management and editing has made a difference. He is able to make low-cost films of international quality which his contemporary filmmakers in India have not been able to do because those directors prefer invest on famous actors instead of compact and talented production crews. Morchhale brought a breath of fresh air to Indian cinema just as Anand Gandhi did by investing on a Hungarian sound designer for his remarkable Indian debut film Ship of Theseus (2012). Indian directors have lagged behind their international peers because they never saw value in acquiring talented production crews with their modest budgets. Morchhale and Gandhi did see the value and they reaped their rewards with national and international recognition. Both have made films with titles in English.  Both these young directors are likely to gain further recognition in future if they trudge on the same trodden path and not deviate. Widow of Silence is a film that will count as one of the major Indian films of 2018.

P.S. The film Widow of Silence has already won the Best Indian feature film at the Kolkata International Film Festival. Morchhale’s earlier films Barefoot to Goa and Walking with the Wind were earlier reviewed on this blog. So also were other films mentioned in this review:  Certified Copy and Ship of Theseus. (Click on the coloured names of the films in this postscript to access the individual reviews.)

Sunday, November 25, 2018

230. Vietnamese director Ash Mayfair’s debut feature film “The Third Wife” (2018) (Vietnam) based on her original story: Gorgeous cinematography, interesting visual allegory, female characters and actresses add value to a film that ought to make Vietnam proud!

Debut films of several directors worldwide have often been unforgettable, even when compared to their later works:  Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), Ridley Scott’s The Duellists, Steven Spielberg’s Duel, Jean-Pierre Melville’s The Silence of the Sea, Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Claude Chabrol’s Handsome Serge, Bertrand Tavernier’s The Watchmaker of St Paul...the list goes on.  That stamp of unmistakable awesome standards of filmmaking is apparent in Ash Mayfair’s debut feature film The Third Wife.

Within minutes of the film’s opening credits an observant viewer gets a clue of the quality of the film that follows—intelligent use of visual editing in presenting the title of the film and the aesthetic and delicate balance between silence and music on the soundtrack. The Third Wife is an original tale written by the film’s director. It is set in the 19th century Vietnam involving a rich nobleman living comfortably far away from the towns, with a retinue of servants, three wives of different ages, their progeny, and his father. The nobleman’s writ is the law in this remote household.  The film is set in a time frame in which men made the rules, when child marriages were acceptable, and when the birth of a boy was held at a premium for the parents over that of the birth of a girl.

May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) as the 14-year old third wife

The title character of the film, May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My), is a 14-year-old child bride who has to travel by boat to reach her future husband’s abode.  She is welcomed by the entire family and household staff with pomp and feasting. The first wife Ha (Tran Nu Yen-Khe, who had earlier graced two significant Vietnamese films Cyclo and Scent of the Green Papaya) and the second wife Xuan (Mai Thu Huay Maya) welcome May with genuine warmth. The film narrates the tale economizing on spoken words but revealing much more visually by the brilliant camerawork of the lady cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj, twice a winner of the Nestor Almendros (of Days of Heaven fame) award for cinematography. If the Spanish/Cuban maestro was alive today, he would have been delighted with the mastery of the visual elements from start to finish in The Third Wife.

The tale weaved by writer/ director Ash Mayfair, deals with the child bride’s interactions with the family members of various age groups over a period of approximately a year, learning quickly that to gain favour of her husband she has to bear a son and not a girl. Ms Mayfair’s tale is often visually edited to link her tale with the allegorical of life cycle of the silkworm—caterpillar, cocooning, fresh cocoon, cocoon with pupae, and finally a silk moth.  Why the silkworm? Evidently nobles of 19th century Vietnam saw silk as a valuable income source. And lots of silkworm pupae are killed while preparing the cocoons for making the silk threads. The tale of the film has obvious parallels between the mute silkworms and the human characters.

The pregnant third wife spends cordial time with the first and second wives

...and cordial interactions in the evening indoors.

The film has a predominantly a female production crew (writer/director, cinematographer, editor, etc.) and naturally the perspective is from a female viewpoint. Yet the feminism in the film is subtle, only making a silent but powerful statement towards the end.  Bereft of spoken words, the last ten minutes of the film is a fascinating recounting of critical past images from the film as recollected by the third wife May, who has matured over a year witnessing incest, patriarchal preferences to indulge boys over girls, the fate of children born out of wedlock among the servants, and the humiliation of a bride not accepted by her future husband.  The casting of May’s cute female child and the facial expressions of the infant captured by the film crew are highlights of the film. 

May's cute baby girl looking at her mother holding the
the yellow flowers, very significant to the tale

Though the ending of the film is ethically unacceptable, one gets a premonition that the last ten minutes of the film will be slowly accepted as one of the most powerful and sophisticated endings ever devised to end a feature film in recent years.

When director Ash Mayfair dispenses with spoken lines, she has two other tools beyond the camera. The music and wordless vocals (used for the end credits) composed by Ton That An (a Vietnamese male composer), and sound mixing (by Roman Dymny) that are ethereal. In a crucial point within the film, prior to a tragic development, the sound department introduces the sound of crows cawing though you don’t see them on screen (Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev has employed this effectively in his 2011 film Elena). To Ms Mayfair’s credit, at no point in the film does the soundtrack seem overpowering—when you hear sound/music, it is soothing and calming to the viewer’s senses complementing the incredible camerawork.

Even interior shots are elegantly captured: a pregnant May,
 with the second wife's daughter

If there is a loser in this lovely film it would be the lack of emphases for details of realism. The film is a picture postcard view of Vietnam in the 19th Century.  Everything you see in the film is picture perfect, every detail of exteriors and interiors are dust free, polished and colourful.  The silk linen clothes hung out to dry in the sun are the whitest of white, the absence of mud and dirt on the feet of women walking in the night is unbelievable in a tropical country. So too are the absence of insects and reptiles beyond the silkworms and a single lizard on a mosquito net. Are there no snakes and other insects/ reptiles found in vegetated tropical Asian countries then and now?  Especially near bamboo groves at night?

Arrival of the third wife, May, by boat, to her husband's house

Ms Mayfair has thanked American director Spike Lee (of The BlackKkKlansman fame) among many others in the film's closing credits for the Spike Lee Fellowship she won as a student of New York University which enabled the development of the film.  Ash Mayfair has thanked the Government of Vietnam that lent a helping hand in making this high quality film in that country. The film’s highly talented cinematographer Ms Chananun Chotrungroj is also an alumnus of New York University and a recipient of the Ang Lee Fellowship. This film ought to encourage successful film directors to invest a part of their life’s earnings to develop new talents in filmmaking who otherwise would have never made a mark. Finally, Ms Mayfair choice of the actresses who played the three wives and their performances and her choice of the music composer also contributed to the incredibly well-made debut film. Even the poster of the film says a lot of the care taken to communicate the tale of the film intelligently.

The citation for the Gold Hugo for The Third Wife at the Chicago Film Festival reads:
"The Gold Hugo goes to The Third Wife. Ash Mayfair's lush, assured debut feature which follows a 14-year-old girl as she enters a wealthy household. Mayfair's unshakeable vision grants the women of this world an individuality their society rejects, treating them as creations as wondrous as the natural world that surrounds them, as the film builds to a staggering climax that devastates and thrills in equal measure."
P.S. The film has already won the Gold Hugo award at the Chicago Film Festival and the Royal Bengal Tiger Award for the best international feature film at the Kolkata International Film Festival. It won minor awards at Toronto and San Sebastian Film Festivals. The film was also part of the recent Denver Film Festival. The film is one of the best 10 films of 2018 for the author.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

229. The late Chinese director Bo Hu’s debut and final film “Da xiang xi die er zuo ” (An Elephant Sitting Still) (2018) (China): A realistic film on the lives of the marginal urban population in China, a perspective rarely presented to foreigners, based on a novel written by the director

It is not easy to sit through any feature film that is nearly 4 hours long; more so if the characters in the film are dour, unexceptional, and behave like the dregs of society. An Elephant Sitting Still would challenge the average viewer to keep on watching the principal characters whose actions are abhorrent, whose views are negative, and whose reactions are slow. What keeps the fatigued viewer to persist in watching the long film is the unusual subject revealed in the initial few minutes of the film: an elephant that is sitting still in a city in China as part of a circus but eats the food offered to it. You keep watching the film trying to figure out the connection between the host of anti-heroes in the film and the elephant—which becomes clear only in the final sequence of the film. (The film is on show at the Denver Film Festival)

Two school kids, Bu and Ling, meet at a monkey-feeding cage,
where the monkeys keep a low profile

An Elephant Sitting Still belongs to a wave of Chinese films (e.g., Jia Zhang-ke’s  A Touch of Sin) in recent years  that deals with the lopsided growth of the Chinese economy which leads to isolated violent actions by those who feel  deprived of any hope for a change in their life, however much they aspire and dream for a better deal . The temperament of the film is nihilistic to the core—wives cheat on their husbands; friends betray friends; sons value their offspring more than their parents; dogs run off from their caring human families and seek refuge with strangers; teachers/deans have sex with their students; grown-up men kill dogs that have done them no harm; touts sell fake railway tickets; when you possess valid rail tickets, the  trains get cancelled; people burn garbage in the open, close to tall, residential buildings; violent acts in schools are not reported to the police as the consequences are worse... The list goes on. It is the myth of the Sisyphus—trying to climb a mountain that you will never be able surmount.

“I don’t like anybody. The world is quite disgusting. They are afraid of you, if you kill.”--Words of a schoolboy in the film after shooting a thug and before committing suicide

Exploited school girl Ling turns violent 

It is not surprising that the director Bo Hu committed suicide soon after completing his debut film and the publishing of his novel on which the film is based. The film "reads" like a suicide note.

Bo Hu had written the original script of the film based on his own book Huge Crack  (written under his pen name Hu Qian and published in 2017, a year before the film was made) evidently noticing the myriad problems of the lower middle class in modern day China. A well-meaning bright student has to deal with bullies in school and parents who do not encourage or appreciate him at home. Most young people look at their parents for inspiration; but what can you do, when you find out that one of your parents was caught taking bribes? The late Bo Hu had studied filmmaking and this debut magnum opus seems to have been stuffed with his perceptions of things wrong in his world in the 29 years that he lived on this planet.

Dogs seek shelter with strangers like Wang (above): not expecting
strange behaviour from them

In the film An Elephant Sitting Still there are two suicides, a killing of a dog, a mortal accident caused by a push, and several killings of human beings by individuals driven to the edge of despair. The varied age groups involved in the bleak and dark narrative range from teenage school kids, to young men and women starting their lives by investing in an apartment, an elderly man being pushed into a retirement home where even retired army generals are not happy, and an elderly grandmother lying dead in her tenement because her family does not visit her.

If you are standing on a tall building’s balcony, what would come to your head?"
--Words spoken by a thug, Chen, whose best friend jumped off a tall building’s balcony
“I would think what else can I do?” --Response from a school kid Bu, who has unintentionally killed Chen's brother (who in turn was bullying him) by pushing him backwards at the top of the stairs of his school, echoing the very advice given to Chen earlier by the woman he loves

The importance of the film rests solely on Bo Hu’s intentions to discuss the social problems of China today without making it look like an overt criticism of the Government. It is clearly inferred in the film that the police is more feared rather than serving as a source of protection from evil forces. The people who kill are mostly aware that the law will ultimately catch up with them. But An Elephant Sitting Still is not a film that deals with the wages of killing; it is a film that wonders if there is a way out of this juggernaut of negative socio-political matrix for someone who wants to live a new life, turn a new page, irrespective of their physical age.  It is a film of people who wonder “what else they can do.

So who are trying to witness the strange elephant with an unusual behaviour? A retired man with his school-going granddaughter and two teenage school kids, possibly in love, with human blood on their hands make their pilgrimage to the metaphorical elephant that eats without moving. Any intelligent viewer will grasp what the pachyderm stands for.  Nietzsche would have smiled at this film, if he was alive. Perhaps so would have Soren Kierkegaard (recalling his concepts of 'levelling' when compared to the gradual leveling of the hubris of the alpha-male Cheng in An Elephant Sitting Still) and the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev in finding a soulmate in Bo Hu. It is not the film that is important, it is what the film tries to communicate to the viewer that is important.

P.S. The film won the FIPRESCI award at the Berlin Film Festival and a special mention for a debut film at the festival. At Taiwan's Golden Horse Film Festival, the film won the Golden Horse for the Best Feature film, Best Screenplay Award, and the Audience award. The film is one of the top 20 films of 2018 for the author.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

228. Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film “Ahlat agaci” (The Wild Pear Tree) (2018) (Turkey): A slow-paced, contemplative stunner, yet another Ceylan tale of an adult male member within a traditional family, touching on several contemporary problems in Turkey

Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan is one of the most distinguished filmmakers alive and The Wild Pear Tree is arguably one of his best works to date, currently on show at the Denver Film Festival after its premiere at Cannes in the competition section earlier this year. If the viewer is patient to absorb a 3-hour film with lots of loaded conversations and meaningful visuals, the hours spent would be well compensated.  More so, if the viewer is well read and perceptive. It is a film that encompasses social, political and theological thoughts without being too obvious. Remarks made in passing are not easy to ignore in any Ceylan film, less so in this one.

Sinan, the graduate, reads at home rather than look for work

On a very simplistic level, a young man Sinan returns home after graduating in a distant college to his home town after some years.  He realizes his school-teacher father Idris has slid into a compulsive gambler, accumulating debts. His mother Asuman keeps the home running with a combination of tact, practicality and help from her neighbours.  Asuman wants Sinan to earn a living now that he has graduated. Sinan slowly distances himself from his parents. Sinan, who has neither a definite career goal nor a life partner in mind, wishes to first publish his book that he describes as “quirky, auto-fiction, meta-novel, free of faith, ideology or agendas.”  As an unknown author without any money to spare, he has to find financial support to get it printed.   The title of the film The Wild Pear Tree is the title of the book Sinan wants to publish and he does get published eventually.  As the film progresses the symbolic importance of trees is underlined at crucial places within the film visually by the Ceylan’s constant trusted cinematographer GokhanTiryaki. A wild pear tree growing in isolation, bears fruits, just as Sinan has earned a graduate degree. It is still a gnarled tree unlike popular pear trees, just as Sinan struggles for fuller acceptance within his family and community. 

Sinan finally understands his father Idris, who he acknowledges never beat him 
Sinan gives a copy of his book to his mother Asuman, acknowledging
her role in his life

Sinan with his girlfriend minus her head scarf and her tresses blowing
behind a tree

Those who have been exposed to Ceylan’s previous works will spot the common structures of Ceylan’s tales: the father, mother, and son trio in The Three Monkeys (2008); the several husbands and wives recalled by male characters in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) including an unforgettable comment in that film,   “You don’t know how boys suffer here, without a father. It’s the kids who suffer most in the end, doctor, it’s the kids who pay for the sins of adults..”;  and the see-sawing  relationship of a husband and wife in Winter Sleep  (2014) overtly caring and respectful to each other, taking great care not to tread on each other’s toes. All the films are  based on original scripts written by Ceylan and his wife Ebru Ceylan, sometimes working with a third co-scriptwriter; in the case of The Wild Pear Tree it is Akin Aksu,  who additionally acts as one of the two debating Imams in the film. (When this critic had asked director Ceylan on his wife’s contribution to his films, soon after the release of Winter Sleep in a film festival “question and answer” session, Ceylan indicated that he was doubtful if his wife would work on his next film as she felt Winter Sleep was way too lengthy. Evidently, as in the case of all the wives in Ceylan’s films, luckily for us, she has continued to work with her husband in this equally long film: The Wild Pear Tree).

The Wild Pear Tree is structured around Sinan’s one-to-one interactions with several men (the town’s mayor, a wealthy sand merchant, a local author of repute, a former classmate,  two Imams, and his father Idris) and  two women (his mother and his girl friend). The town’s mayor, in his encounter with Sinan, emphasizes that his office is open and has no door and yet his actions seem to be contrary to his speech (an indirect comment on Turkish administrators). In the interaction with the sand merchant, the businessman acknowledges that he has indeed supported cultural causes, if it helps him in indirectly in his business. Conversations reveal a lot. Jobs for graduates are not easy to come by, “Education is great, but this is Turkey” . The film includes a conversation between Sinan and his former classmate who had no option but chose a career in the police, where he has to brutally beat up a friend who is rounded up as a protestor.  

Scene of despondency in Ceylan's The Wild Pear Tree
Similar scene in Ceylan's earlier work  The Three Monkeys

But Sinan does publish his book and present copies to his parents. But the film is not about this accomplishment—it is only a turning point to the bigger story of the film: Sinan’s gradual appreciation of his parents and their love towards him.

The high point of the film is Sinan’s accidental interaction with two Imams (Islamic priests).  Sinan encounters the worthies stealing apples from a tree that does not belong to them and cheekily throws stones at them without revealing his presence to see their reaction.  The tree here is not a pear tree, but the roles of trees in the film are not merely decorative. While you wonder about the possible connection to the tree in the Garden of Eden, the conversation between the Imams and Sinan (who has by now revealed himself) move on to free will in Islamic theology. In negation of the free will concept, most conservative Muslims constantly use the phrase ”Insah Allah” (if Allah wills) just as conservative Jews and Christians say “if it be Thy will” or Hindus refer to the role of  “Karma” and “Atma.”  The long conversation as the trio walks towards the town after picking of the apples can be heard clearly without interruption and the same sound level while the camera of Tiryaki captures the entire walk from varied distances and perspectives. Often the dense script of The Wild Pear Tree can be linked to works of the Turkish Sufi mystic Yusuf Emre and Russian literary masters Chekov and Dostoevsky.  Director Ceylan is considerably influenced by Chekov, as per his own admission to this critic, during a public question and answer session.

Has Sinan's father committed suicide?

There are three occasions when trees make their presence felt in The Wild Pear Tree: once when the Imams pluck the apples that do not belong to them; once when Sinan sees his father had fallen under a tree with a cut rope dangling from it, a perfect suicide scenario; and once when Sinan kisses his girlfriend using the tree trunk for privacy. And all of them are important structural points in the film.

Ceylan, his wife Ebru and cinematographer Tiryaki are a constant talented team who add on other members as key crew members in each film. In The Wild Pear Tree, Ceylan uses a short segment of the 14 minute Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor repeatedly with very good effect--a work with religious implications that has been used by Coppola in The Godfather in the baptism sequence and even by Jimi Hendrix in Lift Off.

Without a doubt, The Wild Pear Tree is one of the most important films of 2018, it also happens to be Turkey’s submission for the Oscars.  The only caveat: it requires from the viewer considerable patience and attention to savor the tasteful details.

P.S. Detailed reviews of three earlier works of Ceylan:  The Three Monkeys (2008), Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) and Winter Sleep (2014) appear on this blog. (Click on the names of the film in the post script to read those reviews). The Wild Pear Tree is one of the author's top 10 films of 2018.

Friday, October 26, 2018

227. Italian director Valerio Zurlini’s last film “Il deserto dei tartari” (The Desert of the Tartars) (1976) (Italy), based on the Italian novel "The Tartar Steppe" by Dino Buzzati: An unforgettable film where cinema proves to be almost as effective as the novel

In life, everyone has to accept the role that was destined for him” 
–words spoken in the film The Desert of the Tartars, words that best describe the essence of the film
The film Desert of the Tartars, when released in 1976 did not win accolades at film festivals outside Italy, not even being nominated at the prestigious Italian Venice Film festival. Over the decades, it has gradually been recognized as a classic and, 37 years after it was made, it was restored and screened at the 2018 Cannes film festival as one.

One could argue that the importance of the film is primarily due to its adaptation of a major literary work The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati published in 1940 in Italian and subsequently translated into English.  Like the movie, the novel bloomed with time. In 1999, the prestigious French daily Le Monde, in its poll, ranked Buzzati’s book as the 29th best book of the century.  The book had become an iconic example of “magic realism” in literature. The book went on to influence the writings of major writers including the Nobel Prize winner J E M Coetzee, the Lebanese-American statistician and financial analyst turned author Nassim Nicolas Taleb (author of The Black Swan, described by The Sunday Times of UK as one of the 12 most-influential books since World War II) and the Booker Prize winner Yann Martel (author of Life of Pi).

The idealistic Lt Drago (Jacques Perrin) arrives on the outskirts of the
Fort Batiani where he will serve for years seeking glory that will elude him

Italian director Valerio Zurlini saw of the opportunity of adapting the novel on screen when its value was lesser known than it is now, realizing the potential of subtle visuals and music on screen to bring the magic realism of the words in the book. Actor Jacques Perrin had procured the film rights of the book from Buzzati. Zurlini corralled the talents of music composer Ennio Morricone, the elegant cinematographer Luciano Tavoli, and a stunning array of top-notch international actors (Max von Sydow, Jean- Louis Trintignant, Vittorio Gassman, Fernando Rey, Jacques Perrin, Helmut Griem, the spaghetti western hero Giuliano Gemma, Philippe Noiret, Francisco Rabal, etc). So were some important Iranian actors of the day included in the film such as Mohamad Ali Keshavarz, who is not listed in the IMdB credits for the film but this fact appears on the Wikipedia page of the Iranian actor.

Lt Drago introduces himself to the officers at Fort Bastiani. The empty chair
is for him.

The Desert of the Tartars, the film, is an almost all male film, save for the initial sequences of the film showing Lt. Drago at home with his mother as he wakes up from sleep to dress up into military uniform. He enthusiastically rides out of town on a Tartar horse, to report at a far away post of the Italian army in the year 1902. It is his first posting in the army.  The brief initial sequences reveal that the young man belongs to a rich and influential family and is respected by another horse-rider on the streets, who accompanies him up to the edge of the town, apparently knowing Lt. Drago’s intent. Not a single other human being or animal is shown in the town. Zurlini intentionally does away with unnecessary social farewells and family. The horse and its rider are the only objects that matter until the rider meets other military men on his journey. 

Lt Drago (right)  interacts with Lt Simeon (Helmut Griem) atop the fort 

Zurlini’s film shows Lt. Drago leaving his town early in the morning without food/provisions on horseback and arriving at the fortress with just a gulp of water/wine provided by Captain Ortiz (von Sydow) whom he meets en route possibly within a day. Drago’s horse drinks water from a stream once. Yet we realize the Bastiani Fort is very far from Lt Drago’s town or any town for that matter. Time is compressed—magic realism is at work.

Zurlini’s major winning decision was the choice of the location to film the story—a fort on the edges of a desert. It was not in Africa on the edges of the Sahara, or even in Ethiopia. The filming was done in Iran while the Shah of Iran was in power, in and around a real fort made of clay—the Bam citadel (Arg-e Bam)—built in the third century AD. The impressive structure—a UNESCO World Heritage site-- was almost totally destroyed by an earthquake in 2003, but the Islamic government of Iran rebuilt it to match its original grandeur. 

(See for the images of the fort as the Zurlini film captured it and how it appears now after restoration post the 2003 earthquake). 

Apparently, Zurlini chose this location after seeing the painting La Torre Rossa by an Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico. All those decisions taken by Zurlini contributed to make The Desert of the Tartars the film classic it is today.

One of the officers at the fort is Maj. Dr. Rovine (Jean- Louis Trintignant),
an enigma treating the maladies of the militia posted at the fort

Not unlike Franz Kafka’s books The Castle, the Buzzati tale is a quixotic look at human desire to achieve glory in life. Lt. Drago, born into a distinguished family, hopes to attain glory in military life, as he is chosen by fate to serve the Italian army at an obscure border station, a castle on the edge of the desert expecting invasion night and day by the Tartars.  Zurlini, who was a Communist, underscores the social divide by looking critically at the at the lives of officers living in luxury and riding horses, while foot soldiers drag heavy  material on command and are punished severely when they step out of line. Time is a critical element that does not seem to exist throughout the film. Only graves and death of soldiers bring time into focus. Officers and soldiers continue to be billeted at the fort for months and years for the sake of being promoted and hopefully gain honour in battle when it happens. There is almost no contact with their families. Any attempt to get a transfer is subtly thwarted, not unlike Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line that followed several decades later, The Desert of the Tartars is less a film about battles but more about battles of the mind and conscience. At the fort, the viewer learns that there was no battle fought so far. Yet as Lt. Drago arrives he sees graves of soldiers with reversed guns or sabres on top of them, according to their ranks. How then did so many die?

Lt Drago is introduced to the General (Philippe Noiret)
by Col. Fillimore (Vittorio Gassman) (center)

The depth of both the book and the film The Desert of the Tartars emerges from the lack of action in a military setting .The questions the film throws up are existential in nature. The idealistic Lt Drago is an anti-hero joining a group of military men, all trying to prepare for battle against a perceived foe, an army that cannot be seen or even confirmed to exist. Buzzati was possibly making a veiled reference to Mussolini’s military campaign in Ethiopia in 1935.  A close examination of Buzzati’s book and Zurlini’s film reveal that the tale is not based on real events but is merely an allegorical and psychological tale.

Officers and soldiers on the look-out duty sometimes spot rider-less horses and riders on horseback. Are they real or imagined? Why are known soldiers killed if they do not know a critical password? Why is the camaraderie of foot soldiers not appreciated by the officers? The film is equally critical of the lives of army officials and their egos of differing nature.

Here are important excerpts of an Italian journalist’s interview with author Buzzati on the Zurlini film
Author Dino Buzzati: "If I were the director - for the soldiers of the Fortezza Bastiani I would not choose a single uniform, but all the most beautiful uniforms in history, as long as they were slightly worn, rather like old flags. I am thinking of the uniforms of the dragoons, the hussars, he musketeers encountered in the pages of Dumas, the Bengal Lancers, like the ones used in a film with Gary Cooper...Of course, together with the uniforms, also different helmets, caps and badges. In other words, a regiment that has never existed but which is universal."
Italian journalist Giulio Nascimbeni: "Which uniform would you have Lieutenant Drogo wear?"
Author Dino Buzzati: "I should dress him up like a Hapsburg officer because Drogo's life is pointless, but full of pride."
(courtesy : trad.Interpres-Giussano) (Ref:
What were the major departures that Zurlini made in the film from the book? The book discusses the ravages of time in the world outside the fort, the fate of Lt. Drago’s family and friends. While Lt Drago became Capt. Drago at the fort, some of his friends and family have died, some have married in his town. When an officer dies in the fort, his body is transported on a gun carriage and taken home to his family for burial. Time stands still within the fort and the film, while in the book the time takes its toll on the denizens of the Italian towns. 

It is well known that David Lean wanted to make the film but one doubts if he could have created the bleak, existential and lonely world of Lt Drago and chosen Bam for the main location. Zurlini made his perfect swan song.

P.S. This critic watched The Desert of the Tartars for the second time after a gap of more than 35 years and was convinced that it belonged to his top 100 films list. It is now listed there--a film that never won a major award outside the country of the director. It is a film that belongs to the world—to Italy, Iran, France and Germany in particular.