Thursday, September 27, 2018

226. Italian/US director Andrea Pallaoro’s film “Hannah” (2017) (Italy/France/Belgium): A film with minimal spoken words and yet providing a subtle, complex and visually informative narrative, aided by an award-winning performance, intelligently captured by the camera

Hannah is the second film of Italian director Andrea Pallaoro—and, according to him, it is the second film of a trilogy of films he is making which appear to be having a common  thread of  a woman  internally reassessing her relationship to her family members over time.  One would often expect a female director to grapple with such subjects but here is a male director getting inside the female mind.  All three films in the trilogy are original scripts, all co-scripted  by him and his friend Orlando Tirado, a team that has worked not only on the trilogy but also on an early short film called Wunderkammer (2008) again on that very theme.

His debut film and the first of the trilogy was Medeas (2013) which won him awards at Venice, Tbilisi, Marrakesh, Nashville, and Palm Spring international film festivals.  His cinematographer Canadian/American Chayse Irvin won the prestigious Cameraimage cinematography prize and a Special Jury prize at the Nashville film festival for his contribution in Medeas. Pallaoro’s direction of Colombian actress Catalina Sandino Moreno won her an acting award at Nashville. The third film has the title Monica and is under production.

Hannah (Rampling) alone and sad riding a public bus,
reflecting on her predicament

With an interesting recognition of his debut feature film Medeas, it is not surprising that Pallaoro’s second feature film Hannah almost replicates some of the remarkable achievements of his debut film.  Hannah’s lead actress Charlotte Rampling won the deserving Best Actress Award at the Venice film festival. Once again, cinematographer Canadian/American Chayse Irvin won an award for his work in another Pallaoro film, this time a Silver Hugo for Hannah from the Chicago film festival.  The citation for that honor is very appropriate and insightful and reads as follows:

"Hannah tells the story of a very guarded woman and is itself a guarded film, refusing to spell out the motives or contexts behind a lonely woman's behavior. The images, then, must convey feelings and ideas that the screenplay and character will not. Through meticulous composition, unexpected framing, and a finely calibrated color palette, they do just that."

The color captured by cinematographer Irvin,
for a shot where Hannah is briefly recalling her good times

Bleak, muted colours for an important sequence as Hannah walks to throw
an important incriminating item in the garbage, when apartments
appear to suggest prison cells 

The team of Andrea Pallaoro, Orlando Tirado and Chayse Irvin obviously constitute a talented trio and they are getting well-deserved international recognition. (That Hannah has got a low IMDB user rating is arguably not a fair indicator of its innate quality as good cinema.)

Hannah views a beached whale,
a metaphor of her own life at this juncture

The worth of Hannah as a mature work of cinema is apparent in its ability to unspool its tale by leaving bits and pieces of visuals (sometimes as understated reflected images) and few spoken words (sometimes of people you never see but only hear) peppered across the film. An aging husband is preparing to be incarcerated in a prison for unstated crimes, leaving behind a devoted and elderly wife, in an apartment where their only other companion is a pet dog.

The obvious questions for many viewers would be what was the crime that led to the prison sentence of an old and seemingly affable man?  Why are the director/ scriptwriters not revealing it up-front for the viewers? Don’t the old couple have any progeny? When they do not speak much or show emotions, what are they thinking?

Pallaoro’s style is very close to Ingmar Bergman’s, with one major difference.  While Bergman would have tended to give considerable emphasis on spoken words in the screenplay, Pallaoro’s and Tirado’s style uses minimal spoken words and emphasizes communication through body language, visual clues, reaction of the title character to strangers and children (such as  Hannah’s sudden decision to stop swimming when children enter the public pool). Both directors use theatre as a secondary element in their film. Theatre rehearsals and mime are important in Pallaoro’s film as well as it is in many Bergman films.

Hannah (Rampling) breaks down in the closet toilet reprising
Bibi Andersson in Bergman's The Touch (1971) 

Hannah is like a mystery film, say an Agatha Christie detective tale, where clues are subtly revealed to the viewer without much dialogue. The viewer is forced to become the detective connecting the dots—mostly visual and a few spoken lines, often by characters that occupy only  fragments of screen time.  An astute viewer will be able to figure out the crime of Hannah’s husband without it being spoken. The viewer learns the aged couple do have a son and grandson.  The grandson wants to meet his grandmother but the son forbids that. The viewer has to figure out the reason by picking up the clues provided in the film. The viewer has to figure out why Hannah does not have any friends or why the film begins with a scream. There have been major films that ended with an anguished scream (Skolimowski’s 1978 film The Shout and Lumet’s 1964 film The Pawnbroker) but Hannah reverses the effect, introducing the viewer to the scream followed a rather quiet film in contrast to it. The scream, of course, is pivotal to understanding the film as is the long purposeful walk towards the end recalling the walk of Eddie Constantine in Godard’s Alphaville. The walk and the end of the walk state more than what Bergman would have achieved with long conversations. That’s the power of Hannah, the film.

On trains and buses, Hannah witnesses cameos of couples who are breaking up:
in one, the female openly accuses the male of only having interest in sex;
a reflection of what Hannah could have been in the past

If there is one film that Hannah could remind you of, it would be the 1971 French film director Pierre Granier-Deferre’s The Chat, another film about an elderly couple (played by Simone Signoret and Jean Gabin) where they hardly speak to each other in their small apartment they share with their cat. (In Hannah, by contrast it’s a dog,)

Hannah's only friend her pet dog--which she gives away to new owners.
Human friendship has been lost, possibly because of her past inactions

When the actors don’t speak much, the acting capabilities are naturally pronounced to the eye. In Hannah, Charlotte Rampling is awesome from the seminal scream captured in close-up to the final silent shot in the metro taken appropriately in a long shot. Her body language speaks a thousand words. Ms Rampling’s works on screen are varied but always stunning. Cavani’s The Night Porter, Visconti’s The Damned, Ozon’s The Swimming Pool, Andrew Haigh’s 45 years are unforgettable films considerably due to her contributions. Age certainly does not wither her, picking up best actress awards from Berlin and Venice within a couple of years, touching the grand age of 70. The scream in Hannah would have won her an award in most festivals.

Hannah is very European in style. While the film is likely to be remembered for Ms Rampling’s performance, the film belongs to the trio of Pallaoro, Tirado and Irvin. Watch out for them; they are indeed talented.

P.S. Pierre Granier-Deferre’s French film The Cat  (1971) discussed in the above review has been reviewed in detail earlier on this blog. That film won the Best Actor and Best Actress awards at the Berlin Film Festival, just as Rampling won for Hannah at the Venice film festival.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

225. British director Peter Brook’s film “Meetings with Remarkable Men” (1979) (UK): George Gurdjieff’s philosophical quest for life's answers presented on screen using snakes, sandstorms, and musical competitions conducted on open hillsides as metaphors.

“When I realized that (ancient wisdom)... had been handed down...from generation to generation for thousands of years, and yet had reached our day almost unchanged...I...regretted having begun too late to give the legends of antiquity the immense significance that I now understand that they really have” --- George Ivanovich Gurdjieff  (  (1876/7-1949)

Director Peter Brook’s film is an adaptation of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff’s multi-volume book of the same name Meetings with Remarkable Men, specifically focussing on the second volume . For those who have not come across the author of the book, Gurdjieff was a spiritual teacher, originally from Armenia, born to a Christian family, exposed to a “multi-ethnic, multi-confessional” population that respected mystics and holy men. In a life seeking philosophical quest for answers, Gurdjieff travelled to several parts of Central Asia, Egypt, India, Tibet and Italy. His significant interactions were with dervishes, fakirs, the Yazidis (of Iraq and Syria who bore the brunt of the ISIS onslaught in recent times) and finally with the Surmoung Brotherhood, which in turn was influenced by the Naqshbandi Sufi tradition of Islam. Gurdjieff propounded “the Fourth Way” blending the fakir, the monk and the yogi. Various intellectuals, such as P D Ouspensky, artist Alexandre de Salzmann, photographer Rene Zuber, writer/philosopher Colin Wilson, editor Alfred Orage (The New Age), mathematician John Bennett and the eminent New Zealander short-story writer Katherine Mansfield  found solace in his distilled knowledge. His funeral took place in the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Paris and is buried there.

Peter Brook made the film after he was approached by Jeanne de Salzmann (wife of artist Alexandre de Salzmann, and mother of one of the six Gurdjieff offspring) and there is evidence that Brook himself is a follower of Gurdjieff.   Brook and his production manager Jean Claude Lubtchansky chose to film in Afghanistan before Taliban and other fundamentalist force crippled it. The result is an interesting product that promotes Gurdjieff’s writings and his life’s quest for spiritual wisdom.

Now Peter Brook may not be a major filmmaker comparable to the likes of Tarkovsky, Malick or Welles but he is awesome as a director dealing with dramatic situations, possibly because of his extensive experience with British stage theatre and handling major stage actors. This comes through in spurts throughout his film Meetings with Remarkable Men with some fascinating sequences that unfortunately seem disconnected in time but appear as beads of an unusual necklace.

A strange musical competition on the hills of  Central Asia,
where the judge is not a human being but the hills around the venue

Who are the remarkable men? One could be Gurdjieff’s father who wishes his son could become a Christian priest, but young Gurdjieff expresses interest in science. His father counsels him to study medicine as “body and soul depend on one another.”  He even sagaciously advises “Become yourself—then God and Devil don’t matter” A snake is found indoors and Gurdjieff’s father asks his scared son to buckle up courage and to pick it up, which he does. Those familiar with Christian and Jewish religious texts will see the connection of the snake and the Devil; others might not. Anecdotes like this, pepper the film.  For those inclined towards philosophy, this film is indeed an important film—not for others. It all distils into a single quest for Gurdjieff—“I want to know why I am here.

An early episode in the film has young witnessing a competition of musicians with only one winner being able to get the hilly environs to respond unlike others with echoes that defeat logic. But music does become important to Gurdjieff as he grows up and encounters sages and religious personalities of varied hues across Central Asia, Iran, Egypt, India, and the Gobi Desert.  The Sufi dances and chants are indeed uplifting for any viewer (provided by Laurence Rosenthal adapting the compositions of Thomas de Hartmann, a student of Gurdjieff).

Sufi dances and music (composed by de Hartmann,
adapted by Rosenthal)

Not all of the film is heavy spirituality and metaphysics. Consider this interesting truism spoken by Gurdjieff partly in jest to a young friend intending to be a priest “My father used to say, if you want to lose your faith, make friends with a priest.

There are sequences in the film that provoke the viewer to sift belief in religion from sham—such as the Yazidi child who seems imprisoned in a chalk circle with an invisible cage above it. It takes a rationalist Gurdjieff to erase a section of the circle and child walks out free of the imaginary bars. In another sequence, a village population is unnerved when they find a dead man who they thought was dead and buried, lying on a cot in the centre of the village. A village elder emerges, slits the throat of the dead body, and the village population is subsequently shown relieved and happy.  Is the village elder, one of the remarkable men in Gurdjieff’s life?

What the film does definitely indicates as remarkable men include the Prince Lubovedsky (Terrence Stamp), dervishes, a certain Father Giovanni, and a spiritual stranger who tells the Prince in the company of Gurdjieff “I advise you to die, consciously, of the life you led up to now and go where I shall indicate.” Gurdjieff does interact again with the Prince much later in time who by then has apparently found his spiritual answers in a secluded monastery with Sufi life-styles, dances, and strict regimen.

Brook’s film includes a sandstorm from which Gurdjieff and his friends survive by standing on stilts while animals and all life forms below their feet are swept away.  More than a sandstorm it is a metaphor for a contemplative viewer to absorb all the rich symbols in the film. Towards the end of the film, there is a risky high-elevation bridge crossing—another metaphor captured by Brook with some theatrical elan.

Mind games: A risky high-elevation rope-bridge crossing by Gurdjieff
(Dragan Maksimovic), with no barriers of support on the sides

A character called Father Giovanni (played by Tom Fleming, who had played a similar priest in the 1971 film Mary, Queen of Scots) counsels Gurdjieff thus “Faith cannot be given to me. Faith is not the result of thinking. It comes with direct knowledge. Thinking and knowing are quite different.”

For Brook and for Gurdjieff, remarkable men are quite diverse. Some are obvious, some are not. It is quite possible for viewers of Brook’s Meetings with Remarkable Men to wonder in retrospect, who the remarkable men could have been.  For this critic, they were all remarkable: a musician who could make hills respond, a village chieftain who could slit the throat of a dead man and a stranger who knew intimate facts of a Prince’s life.  A strange film with a stranger central figure.  Yet, a rewarding viewing for a reflective viewer.

P.S. The author saw the film at the 1980 Bangalore Filmotsav sitting next to the legendary former Indian Cricket Team Captain, the late Nawab of Pataudi, Jr (Mansour Ali Khan Pataudi), who to the best of the author’s knowledge only watched this particular film at the festival and apparently had prior knowledge of the subject of the film, having travelled from New Delhi to far away Bengaluru (former Bangalore). The author attended a lecture by Mr Brook on his views on theatre given to a select audience in Delhi in 1981, which resulted in a long article by the author, published in The Hindustan Times. The film Meetings with Remarkable Men competed at the 1979 Berlin Film Festival but did not win any award.