Sunday, September 22, 2019

239. US independent filmmaker Debra Granik’s third feature film “Leave No Trace” (2018): An unusual tale of a father and his teenage daughter duo, living in the woods in self-imposed exile, far removed from socially acceptable elements of modern living

Director Debra Granik is an independent filmmaker in USA who works outside the Hollywood studio system.  Leave No Trace is her third feature film as a director without support from the influential studio producers and mainstream distributors.  Ms Granik often works with US scriptwriter Anne Rosellini. Their collaboration has resulted in two notable independent feature films: Ms Granik’s second feature film Winter’s Bone (2010) and Leave No Trace. 

The duo picked  up two novels on individuals living on the fringes of society (one on the family of a drug addict, another of a traumatized war veteran), and transformed those into  the scripts of unusually magnetic feature films with very striking performances from carefully chosen actresses, propelling them from near obscurity to world attention. This happened with all three feature films directed by Ms Granik: Vera Farmiga in Down to the Bone (2004), Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone (based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell) and the trend follows with Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie in Leave No Trace.  Ms Granik won top honors as a director at the Sundance Film Festival for her first two feature films and several minor awards at Berlin, Venice, Stockholm and Hong Kong film festivals.

Will (Ben Foster) an Iraq war veteran who becomes a recluse, preferring a life,
with what is left oh his family,  in the woods

The film Leave No Trace is based on a novel My Abandonment written by Peter Rock. The book won an Alex Award, instituted by the American Library Association, for outstanding books “for adults that have special appeal to young adults aged 12 to 18.” The film pivots on a clean father-daughter relationship in the absence of the mother of the girl. As the film progresses, the viewer learns that the father Will (Ben Foster) is a war veteran who served in Iraq and that his daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) has not known her mother for a long, long while. A newspaper clipping tells us that many of Will’s veteran compatriots committed suicide on their return. Evidently the unusual behaviour of Will to live with his daughter in the forest, devoid of social interaction, is part of a post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) behaviour pattern.  As an army veteran, Will knows the basics of survival and camouflage in the forest. He teaches his daughter techniques of survival and hiding/camouflage and most importantly, good manners.  He even teaches her to play chess and use nonverbal communication.

Will's teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) etching a
remarkable performance
The daughter reads a clipping carried by her father,
revealing the effect of  PSTD

An arrest by the police and the resulting evaluation of the duo reveal several interesting facts: their relationship is not sexual, the father Will has taught his daughter Tom sufficiently that she is better than other school-going kids of her age and that Will was once a team player and is no longer one.  Attempts by social groups to re-integrate the duo into mainstream society have different effects on Will and Tom. While Will can communicate silently with horses, Tom communicates with rabbits and dogs.  The sight of a helicopter above a Christmas-tree farm triggers a PSTD urge in Will to return to the seclusion of the forest. 

The subtext of the film that honey bees don't sting bare hands if they recognize
the hand of the beekeeper

Ms Granik’s film presents a forest scenario without reptiles, insects or wild animals, which contrasts with reality.  While the film is beautifully made and provides a plethora of comments on society, evaluation of behaviour, interesting techniques to re-integrate people on the fringes of society into the mainstream, honeybees’ relationships with humans, the ending of the film is credible and beautifully executed, much like the Alex award for books –a film “for adults that have special appeal to young adults aged 12 to 18.” It is indeed a great film that shows the respectful and loving behaviour of a teen towards a parent while making a responsible, resolute decision that affects her future.

Will educates his daughter Tom, informally (even in chess), to be as or better
educated than a formally student of her age

The final song Moon Boat, with music by Dickon Hinchliffe and sung by Kendra Smith, raises the level of the film. The words of the song reprise the philosophy of the tale/film and are evidently written specifically for the film.
I wander, this world green and wild, And the things in my mind are like A red sun gone down. 
And I, I know you must go And I think I know why But I don't know why.
Still I am thinking we both share a moon and a star. May you be safe may we both find a place with a heart. 
Here, where treasures abound In the things I have found, a leaf, a song come from above.
In the wood, where secrets crawl The earth so small, a place, a home, A dream my own. 
There'll be a tree that joins you and me from afar. And I am certain we all share a moon and a star.
Ms Granik’s films prove that independent films in the US can provide richer fare with lower budgets than Hollywood films. Of course, the lovely works of director John Cassavettes and Jim Jarmusch are ”indies” that rarely made the Oscar nominations but these are film superior or equal in quality to those that do eventually win Oscar nominations. Ms Granik and Ms Rosellini have proved their capability to transform novels into wonderful scripts that ultimately make their films stand out from the rest. Finally, Ms Granik has proven that she can extract remarkable performances from her actors, different lead actresses for each film, and choose the right team to embellish the soundtracks of her films.

The carefully chosen visual frame: two plant stalks in the forest,
one withering and old,
another green and in good health, encapsulating the film

Any future works from team Granik-Rosellini-Hinchliffe-Smith would undoubtedly be worth waiting for. This team has an unusual winner with  a carefully crafted signature closing ballad that has proved to be  be more powerful that than all the elements of cinema that preceded it. Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider (1969) was one film that came close to the achievement of this film decades ago.

P.S. Leave No Trace has already won 17 awards. Recommended reading--an interview of Ms Kristy Strouse with Ms Debra Granik, which includes her thoughts on Ms Kendra Smith, singer of the closing song discussed above, published in Film Inquiry

Saturday, September 14, 2019

238. Italian maestro Roberto Rossellini’s film “Stromboli, terra di Dio” (Stromboli) (1950) (Italy) (Italian, English): A slightly different perspective of the classic nearly 70 years after the film was made--atheism vs. theism

Many cineastes are aware of Roberto Rossellini’s famous work called Stromboli. But how many are aware of its complete title Stromboli, terra di Dio, which translates as Stromboli, land of God? The full title is essential to grasp what Rossellini as its director and its original story writer wanted to state through the film he conceived and made for us to enjoy and appreciate.

The bulk of the critical analyses of the film considers the story outside of the film’s narrative—the extramarital affair between Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman and Rossellini, which led to the birth of three offspring and a brief self-enforced exile of Ms Bergman from Hollywood. Ms Bergman, while working in Hollywood, had expressed her desire to work with Rossellini after viewing his two films prior to StromboliPaisan and Rome Open City—by writing this brief and famous letter to him without having met him.

Dear Mr Rossellini,
I saw your films Open City and Paisan, and enjoyed them very much. If you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well,who has not forgotten her German, who is not very understandable in French, and who in Italian knows only "ti amo," I am ready to come and make a film with you.
Ingrid Bergman

Ingrid Bergman as Karin

It is quite conceivable that Rossellini wrote the story of Stromboli, terra di Dio with Ms Bergman in his mind to play the role of a Lithuanian prisoner-of-war who had an affair with a German army officer during World War II. In contrast to Alfred Hitchcock, who made films (three of those with Bergman in the lead roles) with detailed scripts and precise words to be learnt by rote and spoken by the actors, Rossellini merely wrote a story sketch and developed the spoken lines as he went along, just as Terrence Malick made films many decades later.  The volcano on the island of Stromboli was not expected to erupt during the filming and the entire volcanic activity captured in the film is real and not faked or recreated artificially. The denizens of the island knew what to do if and when the volcano erupted and knew the procedure of taking shelter in boats cast out to sea but well within view of the island.

The simple, hard-working fisherman Antonio (Mario Vitale),
husband of Karin

Antonio falls in love with Karin, a Lithuanian prisoner of war,
exchanging few words with barbed wire separating them 

Rossellini wrote the story/script that tossed the lives of the main characters against a very unpredictable and life threatening natural calamity. Being an Italian, Rossellini was influenced by the Catholic Church and evidently he was quite familiar with the Bible and consciously included the character of a Catholic priest with a significant role within the film’s tale.

Rossellini’s familiarity with the Bible is evident when the film opens with a quote chosen from the Bible—The Book of Romans, Chapter 10, verse 20, which reads “I was found by those who did not seek me. I was made manifest to those who did not ask for me. ” The passage is attributed to Apostle Paul writing to the Romans in the New Testament where the “I“ refers to God. Interestingly, the passage itself is a cross reference to the precise words of the prophet Isaiah stated earlier in the Old Testament within the Book of Isaiah Chapter 65, verse 1. 

It is immaterial whether director Rossellini and actress Bergman were staunch believers in God—what matters is that the title of the film Stromboli, terra di Dio includes the word “Dio” (God) and the film begins with an important quotation in the Bible, which incidentally appears twice in the Bible.

Karin is found lacking in modesty by the elder womenfolk of the island

The biblical start of the film gains importance towards the end of the film when Ms Bergman’s character Karin in the film utters the final words of the film “ me,  give me the strength.. the understanding .. and the courage.  God, God, God, merciful  God. God, God. God.” Prior to those words are Karin’s words of epiphany “Oh God! Oh God! What mystery, what beauty!”  after the volcano settles down, and the smoke withdraws to show birds flying against a clear sky.

The last words and the ending of the film are in stark contrast to the words spoken earlier by Bergman’s Karin to the priest on the island that God had not been merciful to her and had left her desolate. (“With me, God has never been merciful” ..“These black rocks, this desolation, that...that ‘terror,’ the island drives me mad, Father!”)

Karin finds the population of the island "horrible"

Karin, as Rossellini etched her character, is able to comprehend that she has sinned in the past by having an affair with an officer of the invading Nazi German army (“I was trapped like all the rest .I..I have sinned but I have paid”) Karin is also a woman who threw out an image of Virgin Mary that Antonio’s (Mario Vitale) dead mother had kept in the house  while renovating  the meagre dwelling, much to the chagrin of Antonio, when he realizes what his wife Karin had done. Even if Karin has no respect for images of Virgin Mary in the house, Karin who calls the villagers of Stromboli “horrible,” for  describing her to be lacking in modesty, self realizes with magnanimity during the volcanic eruption that she, Karin, is worse than them.“They don’t know what they are doing. I am even worse.” Some of the theology in the film can be attributed to Father Felix Morlion, who was consulted by Rossellini while writing the script.

Now, if the viewer accepts the theological undercurrent of the film, it is most amusing that in USA the film was released as an 81 minute version (in contrast to the restored 107 minute version) bowing to the call of church groups, women’s organizations and US legislators who wanted the film to be banned solely because of the publicity of the extra-marital affair of Ms Bergman with Rossellini and the birth of their illegitimate child rather than the contents of the film. A Colorado Senator called Ms Bergman “a powerful influence for evil” (Ref. Stromboli film on Wikipedia). The  81-minute US version that did not have Rossellini’s approval had an ending that implied Karin was returning to her husband Antonio, which is never assumed in the restored 107 minute version. (Ironically, Ms Bergman was re-accepted and lauded by Hollywood years later for her role in Anastasia.)  In contrast to the negative reception of the film Stromboli, terra di Dio in USA, the longer Rossellini film version won the Rome Prize for Cinema (the best Italian film award) in 1950.

Now, if the viewer were to be an atheist, the film can be appreciated differently. Karin is obviously a woman who is not respectful of the religious artefacts kept by husband Antonio’s dead mother and throws them away to renovate and redecorate the house. She is an attractive woman who wants and enjoys attention from male personalities that she encounters—including a Catholic priest who tries to help her adjust to her husband but resolutely rebuffs her advances.

Karin is an opportunist wanting a life more interesting than what she had in Lithuania (her hope there was the German army officer), more interesting than Italy (she wanted to emigrate to Argentina), escape the life of a POW in Italy (she succeeds in marrying an Italian) and after being in Stromboli for a while, she yearns for a better life by leaving her devout, simple husband and escaping to the other side of the island. But the protective woman in Karin emerges briefly in the film when she is upset viewing a trapped rabbit being killed by a ferret.  Visually it is clear that Karin, after the volcano has stopped erupting, is as concerned about the child in her womb as she was with the rabbit. She aspires for a better deal for herself and her unborn child, in another geographical location, even though she is penniless and without a change of clothes (reminiscent of the final pages of John Bunyan's book The Pilgrim's Progress written in 1678) .  What she does or rather what she intends to do is never clearly stated.

Karin escaping her life with husband Antonio and the erupting volcano 

Rossellini leaves the ending open ended for the viewer to interpret–a treatment rarely accepted in commercial cinema worldwide.

The greatness of this work is the depiction of conflicts of man and nature without employing special effects or cinematic tricks which flood cinema today. Rossellini’s filming recalls the world of Robert Flaherty and his classics Man of Aran (1934), shot in Ireland, and Nanook of the North (1922), shot in USA. Like Flaherty, Rossellini used the real population of Stromboli, except those employed for the major roles. Thus, the real tuna fishing sequences can be termed docu-fiction taking a leaf out of Flaherty.

The exhausted Karin falls asleep as the violent eruptions
of the volcano subside, the profile of Karin seemingly mimicked
by the now quiet volcano, while the moon shines at both

The effort of Rossellini to craft the final half hour of Stromboli, terra di Dio is commendable while some detractors will fault the film’s details such as the lack of grime on Ms Bergman's body. This film is truly one of the best works of neo-realism ranking alongside Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs, made without professional actors decades later.

P.S.  Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978), reviewed earlier on this blog, is a neo-realist classic that won the top honour at Cannes film festival and one of the author’s top 10 films. Few are aware that the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was so impressed by Rossellini's work that he invited him to come to India and invigorate the state-run Films Division's documentaries. Rossellini accepted the invitation only to fall in love with another married woman, this time a Bengali lady, Sonali Dasgupta, create another controversy, and eventually marry her! The influential journal of film Sight and Sound's Critics Poll lists Stromboli, terra di Dio as one of 250 greatest films of all time.