Sunday, March 25, 2018

Russian maestro Aleksandr Sokurov speaks to Jugu Abraham on Grigori Kozintsev and Andrei Tarkovsky, titans of Russian cinema

Background note on Russian filmmakers Sokurov and Kozintsev

Russian film director Aleksandr Sokurov (66) is famous for diverse reasons. Some recall his experimental feature film Russian Ark (2002) filmed in a single, unedited 90-minute shot with over 2000 actors in elaborate costumes and 3 live orchestras exploring several sections of the Hermitage museum in Saint Petersburg (Leningrad). Some recall his more recent feature film Faust (2011), honoured with the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The late film critic Susan Sontag, while including two Sokurov feature films among her 10 favorite films of the 1990s, stated “There is no director active today whose films I admire so much.” Musician Nick Cave, in an interview published in the British newspaper “The Independent,” revealed “I wept and wept from start to finish” on viewing Sokurov’s Mother and Son (1997), a poetic experimental feature film with minimal spoken lines.

In 1998, Sokurov made a documentary called Saint Petersburg Diary: Kozintsev’s Flat. It is indeed rare that a famous filmmaker makes a film on another filmmaker’s lodgings. Russian film maestro Grigori Kozintsev’s (1905-73) directorial career spanned both the silent and the sound era of film. Kozintsev is renowned for his two black-and-white Shakespeare films Hamlet (1964) and King Lear (1971)--his last films--made in collaboration with friend and composer Dimitri Shostakovich and Nobel Prize winning novelist Boris Pasternak.  The silent 1929 Kozintsev film, The New Babylon, co-directed by Leonid Trauberg, had Soviet film directors Vsevolod Pudovkin and Sergei Gerasimov as actors, and composer Shostakovich providing music. The film and the intended music for the silent film ran into problems with the Soviet censors who demanded over 20% cuts before its domestic release, as the film was an obvious avant garde, anti-war film.  A slightly longer version was released in 1983 in Russia without Shostakovich’s music. However, the restored “original length” version became available in 2010, long after the filmmakers and the composer  had died. This was because a nitrate print of the film’s uncut length was found intact with Cinematheque Suisse (Switzerland) to which the Shostakovich’s music was finally added as originally intended.  (Shostakovich had apparently refused to add his music to the earlier truncated versions of the film approved by the censors.)

The neglected and hungry soldier in Kozintsev's The New Babylon (1929)

Cordelia and Lear interact towards the end of Kozintsev's King Lear (1971)

Subsequent to his travails with The New Babylon, Kozintsev made his Maxim trilogy during Stalin’s regime. The police commissioner of Detroit, Michigan, USA acting as censor, banned Kozintsev's Youth of Maxim (1935)—the first part of the Maxim trilogy--in the Thirties as being "pure Soviet propaganda and likely to instil class hatred of the existing government and social order of the United States." That ban was short-lived.

The Sokurov interview with Jugu Abraham, author of the blog Movies that Make You Think,  Dec 2017

Sokurov was not merely an admirer of Kozintsev but equally of the later film maestro Andrei Tarkovsky. Intriguingly, Tarkovsky never discussed Kozintsev in his writings on filmmaking. Indian film critic Jugu Abraham interviewed Sokurov with the aid of an interpreter in Trivandrum, India, where Sokurov was being honoured in December 2017 with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the International Film Festival of Kerala. The resulting interview revealed a lot about Kozintsev, Sokurov and Tarkovsky, three major filmmakers, active in different decades of Russian film history, with unusual linkages.

Alexandr Sokurov (right) with Jugu Abraham,
after the interview (December 2017)

The interview:

Q.  I was intrigued that you made a documentary film on director Grigori Kozintsev’s flat. What made you pick up the subject?  Was it your interest in Kozintsev as a filmmaker? Did he have an influence on you? Did you like his way of filmmaking?

A. I was much, much younger than Kozintsev, so I never met him. But I was a very good friend of his widow. I visited her house many times.  When I used to visit her there, often there were routine problems in the flat like repairing a leaking pipe and I would help her with the repairs. So we had a very good heart-warming relationship. For the most part, all the Soviet directors liked Kozintsev because he was a truly honest person. He would never betray anyone. He was a moral authority for Soviet filmmakers. Kozintsev was the only person who truly defended Andrei Tarkovsky when he was under fire from the Soviet Government. Kozintsev’s film adaptations of Shakespeare were outstanding. Nobody in the world ever made films that way. 

Q.  You knew Andrei Tarkovsky very well.  I noted that Tarkovsky never mentions Kozintsev in his extensive writings on cinema. Do you know why?

A. That is too bad that Andrei forgot to mention this great director in his writings, a man who was always helping him. It happens with many great filmmakers. They forget to mention the most important person who helped them. It is very bad, that’s too bad.

Q. Did Kozintsev’s filmmaking influence you?

A. I can’t say he influenced me directly because he had his own style and I have my own style. But everyone appreciated his level of professionalism.  There were many directors in the world at that level at that time. What is important is that Kozintsev was able to adapt western and historical concepts in Soviet cinema, and in that sense, outstanding.  Unfortunately, he was in so many ways controlled by Soviet censors. It was a big obstacle for him and this prevented him from creating many films he wanted to make.

Q. Do you have any opinions about Kozintsev’s directorial partner on his early silent films, Leonid Trauberg?

A. Kozintsev worked with Trauberg when he was very young. For me, Kozintsev’s best films were made when he worked alone, when he was older. With Trauberg, we can only connect with the beginnings of his career. Kozintsev’s collaboration with Trauberg speaks a lot about the director; that he was able to cooperate with and be in continuous dialogue with another important director, film after film. Not many directors are able to do that.

Q. Just like Kozintsev, you have taken a lot of interest in literature and in photography. Do you see that as a commonality?

A. The difference is that Kozintsev’s interest in literature and photography was evident towards the end of his life, while for me literature and photography were important from the very beginning. Kozintsev started as a revolutionary. He believed in radical art connected with socialism. This affected his earlier career. When he got rid of his childish diseases, he started to think differently.

Q. He is the only Soviet director who had his films banned briefly both in Soviet Russia and in USA ...

A. No, his films were not banned in Soviet Russia.. I don’t know about USA.

Q. I am referring to his silent film The New Babylon (1929).

A. Ah, yes. But that film was allowed to be shown later. Kozintsev was always among the top five Soviet directors like Eisenstein, Pudovkin and others. He was always considered as a classic director during his life-time. As film students, we all knew about this great director who lived in Leningrad (St. Petersburg). He had a good salary and quite a big apartment. He was never forgotten.

Q.  You had once stated that cinema cannot achieve what a novel or a painting can achieve. Could you elaborate?

A. Cinema is too concerned, too worried about showing everything, every detail. Unlike literature where there is an element of absence of the author in the work, everything is never totally said; there is always a mystery until the very, very end. In cinema, even though we try to present details, we are never able to show a person in the way a writer can.

(Though Sokurov would have been happy to answer more questions, his accompanying Russian managers insisted he had other commitments.  For those interested, the restored uncut 2010 version of Kozintsev’s The New Babylon is available free to view on "Youtube.")

The unforgettable sequence from the restored
version of Kozintsev's  The New Babylon (1929)

P.S. The author's in-depth reviews of Kozintsev's King Lear (1971) and The New Babylon (1929), Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972) and Mirror (1975), and Sokurov's Faust (2011) were posted on this blog earlier.. (Click on the name of the film in this postscript to access the specific review.)

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

220. Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof’s “Lerd” (A Man of Integrity) (2017), based on his original story/script: A very critical and philosophical look at corruption and religious intolerance in Iran today

 "Early on, this film introduces us to many different facets of its main character's life that barely seem to relate. Gradually and powerfully, the script teases out the connections, all of which culminate in a haunting finale. This structure requires patience and discipline from its writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof. In a festival full of modern spins on film noir, he gives us one of the best, set in an unlikely place."
---Citation for the film’s Silver Hugo award for its screenplay at the Chicago Film Festival 2017

Director Mohammad Rasoulof’s A Man of Integrity is a laudable film from Iran, describing corruption and religious intolerance in the Islamic Republic. It deservedly won the 2017 Cannes Film Festival’s  Un certain regard award. While both Rasoulof and his contemporary Jafar Panahi have been found guilty of anti-regime propaganda and jailed for 5 years in 2011, they continue to make films within Iran that end up as international award winning films.  How do they make films when they are supposed to be jailed or having a jail sentence looming over them? How is this famous duo able to film in the open streets of Iranian towns and cities so frequently, unless the Republic implicitly approves the fame the duo gets for their country?  Whatever be the reason, films such as A Man of Integrity are truly courageous. Several prominent and award-winning films made in 2017 deal with corruption in various parts of the world; this is one of the very best in that category.

The idyllic world of an educated hardworking Iranian family:
Hadis (Soudabeh Beizaee), Reza (Reza Akhlaghirad), and their son at home

A Man of Integrity is a fictional film about an educated couple from Tehran who decide to live away from the city, buy land and a house on mortgage in a small town and make a clean living by hard work. Reza, the husband, envisages a career of growing and harvesting goldfish on a fish farm while his wife Hadis works as a principal of a girls’ secondary school. They have a school-going son. Hadis has close relatives who live nearby.  Their idyllic dream is slowly wrecked by a “company” run by well-placed goons who wants them evicted to acquire their land at very low price by creating escalating problems for Reza.  The viewer learns that Reza is not the only one bullied by the “company” who have the law and local administration supporting their misdeeds. They even have motorcycle riders wearing black jackets who ride ominously after conducting acts of arson. Those affected by the company’s strong arm tactics are scared, remain mute, and suffer. The details of the “company” and its activities are never revealed; it does not matter. The only problem for the “company’s” long-term plan is that Reza is educated, smart, and resolute in his will to survive and live as he had originally dreamt of living with his family.  The events that transpire in the film are similar to the events of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film Leviathan—only the outcome is remarkably different. In both films, evictions of a family to acquire land by the corrupt form the basic tale.  The connection between the corrupt administration and religious forces also figure in both films.

Reza mulls over future steps to take as he waits for his wife Hadis

The original script of Rasoulof is not just about corruption in Iran but equally about principled folks using corruption to fight the bigger evil forces in a battle for survival. It provides interesting twists where the man who stands for principles cleverly uses bribes and tricks to get back at the corrupt forces. Similarly, his wife Hadis uses her wiles and power within her school to hit back at the corrupt forces encircling her husband’s life.  There are sequences in the film where the man who is principled surreptitiously creates hooch by fermenting watermelon juice in a country where liquor is forbidden to be produced by or imbibed by orthodox Muslims.

A Man of Integrity is a film that presents the world of corruption in Iran. Foisting of false cases on innocent individuals for economic gain by the corrupt is not new.  House searches by hoodlums stating they have complaints by the local religious bodies are a new twist, though such psychological pressure tactics occur beyond Iran. That dead members of non-Islamic families are not allowed to be buried in designated cemeteries is another form of persecution. School kids of families of non-Islamic faiths are not allowed to continue their studies, forcing families to relocate. Bribing the corrupt somehow works in Iran at all levels.

Dead goldfish--more than a fish, a metaphor of the socio-political scenario 

Many casual viewers will miss out on the importance of goldfish in Iranian films. Panahi’s debut film The White Balloon and his later work Taxi deal with characters engrossed with this species of fish. In Iran, on their New Year's Day (Navruz/Novroze) a live goldfish is an important facet to the celebrations, just as a turkey is for Thanksgiving Day in USA. It is not a mere home aquarium attraction. Even Majid Majidi’s Song of Sparrows have goldfish as an important part of the film. Goldfish for Iranians is a symbol of good luck and/or an indicator of better times.

But the film A Man of Integrity, like the Russian film Leviathan, is not about corruption but how corruption affects men of integrity, whether they win or lose their fight.  The Iranian film presents an ending that will make any sensible viewer about whether men of integrity, boldness and cleverness actually win.  The interesting end of A Man of Integrity will provide the viewer a philosophical question on integrity for the astute viewer. That is where Rasoulof scores over compatriot Panahi—his films ask you the viewer to step back from the obvious story and look at the larger universal question—can you ultimately win?

P.S. The film A Man of Integrity  won the best film award within the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival; and the Silver Hugo for the best screenplay at the Chicago Film festival. Rasoulof’s earlier feature film Good Bye (2011) has been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the name of the film in this post script to access that review.) A Man of Integrity is one of the top 10 films of 2017 for the author. Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film Leviathan (2014), referred to in this review, has been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the name of the film in this post-script to access its review on this blog.)