Tuesday, October 25, 2016

198. Italian maestro Luchino Visconti’s “Gruppo di famiglia in un interno” (Conversation Piece) (1974) (Italy): “Grief is as precarious as anything else”

Conversation Piece-- the penultimate feature film of Luchino Visconti--is a complex, often confusing and yet ultimately a very rewarding film. It is so complex with a variety of distractions that could make a serious viewer of cinema dismiss it as a minor work of the maestro only to change that opinion after multiple viewings and re-consider it as a major accomplishment of Visconti, almost autobiographical in parts. Autobiographical, one might ask? Yes, even though the original story is the work of another important Visconti collaborator Enrico Medioli, there are bits of the real life relationship between actor Helmut Berger and director Visconti that is infused into the film, not too obviously.  Similarly, the tale of a retired science professor is not far removed from the world of the Italian film director who is realizing much like the professor, he too is in the evening of his film career. The author of the original story Medioli had worked on the screenplays of three  other major Visconti films—Rocco and his Brothers, The Leopard and The Damned—and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. Medioli won an Oscar for his screenplay adaptation of Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968).

This is also one of those rare films in the history of film an actor--Burt Lancaster--helped a director at a vital stage of the filmmaking process. (One recalls Kirk Douglas prevailing on Stanley Kubrick to change the ending of the original Kubrick script of Paths of Glory, and transform it into a major work of cinema that we now can enjoy.)  In Conversation Piece, actor Burt Lancaster, staked his own money to complete the film as producers were backing out noticing the director was ill and could die before the film was completed.

The cloistered world of the professor (Lancaster),
 surrounded by books, paintings and vases

The film’s tale is essentially the world of a professor who had taught in a university in USA, returning to live a cloistered life in Italy surrounded by books and paintings. He was once married. He does not seem to have had any progeny.  His wife is either dead, divorced or separated. He is looked after in large multi-floored apartment in the city by a faithful old housekeeper. The film reveals that though he knows all about art and the value of paintings, he does not know how to bargain with those selling the paintings. Into his life of peaceful solitude barge in a rich lady (Sylvano Mangano) with her daughter and the daughter’s boyfriend to see if they could lease the empty upper floor of the apartment building. She wants the apartment for her gigolo boyfriend Konrad (Berger), a well-educated, once politically involved, now an amoral drug abuser.  One would then assume the story would unfold into a clash of the classical sedate cloistered life of the professor versus the loud decadent world of the younger generations. Slowly the film peels away the layers of these individuals’ outward characteristics to reveal the real personalities. The rich lady’s behaviour is a result of a shameful marriage with an unscrupulous politician husband and his unsavoury friends. The gigolo boyfriend turns out to be not just well educated but a person of great political ideals, fighting the new age Fascists. The professor, living alone and clutching to semblance of seclusion, seems to be ruing a lost marriage, recalling his wife in her wedding gown (a cameo by Claudia Cardinale) and possible past where he could have opposed different Fascist forces in Italy when he was young.

The rich lady (Mangano) married to a corrupt industrialist

A major fact that many viewers could miss is the title of the film does not directly relate to conversations in the movie but was a well known (in the world of paintings) title for a series of paintings of an 18th century British painter, Arthur Devis.  Conversation pieces were paintings of activities that could lead to conversations of art lovers and other intellectuals. Another artist, William Hogarth, a contemporary of Devis, drew a painting called A midnight modern conversation depicting men conversing in drunken incoherence. That makes you to reassess the entire film.  The only direct connection of the series of paintings is a brief conversation between two major characters in the movie—the professor (Lancaster) and Konrad (Berger)—giving clear evidence that both were well acquainted with the series of paintings. Once you evaluate the film on the basis of the painter's decision to change the very trees and objects in his painting compared to the photograph taken of the same scene, the movie's stature itself changes. The film is a study of Italy through the eyes of three generations and their varied values on social interactions, art, politics, architectural design, music, et al. The viewer is thus gently nudged to make the metaphorical connection.

An attentive viewer will note the film begins with a loud gunshot. You don’t see anyone being killed until the end of the film. The opening credits follow the blast as the camera captures the electrocardiogram graph roll streaming out unattended is a Visconti masterstroke. The patient is apparently dead.

The professor and the newly acquired 'family'

The professor (Lancaster) and the gigolo (Berger);
both are equally amazingly knowledgeable about art 

The film is even more complex for the viewer because the gunshot and the person whose electrocardiogram is being taken are not directly connected. The person killed by the gunshot is another. What is even more complex is that the individual shown in the film filled by the gunshot is supposed to have committed suicide. Yet there is statement made by the rich lady (Mangano) the lover of Konrad killed by the gun shot: “He did not kill himself. They murdered him.” Whether it is a statement of reality or mere hyperbole is for the viewer to decide. But that statement grievously hurts the old ailing professor, the only among all the characters in film who had faith in him (Konrad) as he closes his eyes in the final shot. The film slowly drifts to the point it makes –grief. A statement made in the film towards the end “Grief is as precarious as anything else” encapsulates much of the film—grief of broken marriages, grief of not having faith in persons who deserve it, grief of not fighting Fascist forces by either becoming a recluse or taking to drugs. Visconti’s broader statement is of Italy over decades.

That the film was made by the director sitting on a wheel chair is impressive. Is it a film about acquiring possessions or about understanding people? It is about both. At the beginning of the film the retired professor is acquiring paintings, by the end of the film he has acquired a family he initially did not want or approve of. The professor wistfully states in the film “It could have been my family.”  Thus, the Italian title of the film which translates roughly as “internal family group” makes equal sense as the English title. One realizes the importance of understanding human behaviour of strangers, as one educated professor was withdrawing into solitude surrounded by books, works of art and great music. And his life changes for arguably richer and yet tragic experience in his sunset years. The endearing performances of the aging Burt Lancaster and of Silvana Mangano as the haughty rich lady are remarkable. Burt Lancaster’s three performances in Italian films are the highlights of his career—Visconti’s The Leopard  and Conversation Piece and Bertolucci’s 1900.The cameos of Claudia Cardinale as the professor’s wife, the smiling and enchanting Dominique Sanda (as the professor’s mother) do not contribute much except in providing insights into the character of the professor for the viewer.  In two films, Conversation Piece and in Death in Venice (1971), the director Visconti and cinematographer Pasqualino de Santis together have captured images of a person dying that are impossible to forget.

Visconti, Lancaster and Medioli are the significant contributors to this grossly underrated work.

P.S. Two films-- Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America  and Kubrick’s  Paths of Glory--mentioned in the above review have been reviewed earlier on this blog. Conversation Piece won the Golden Spike award at the Valladolid International Film Festival. 

Sunday, October 02, 2016

197. US director Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups” (2016) (USA): A personal and intense theological statement pushing the envelope of theism

Not many films would end with the enigmatic word “Begin.” Knight of Cups ends that way. That gives one a clue of the feature film.

Terrence Malick is amazingly well read and spiritual. He expects his viewers to be able to comprehend his personal views distilled in his films, laced with stunning visuals and an amazing choice of music.  Knight of Cups will be fascinating for those with an inclination to scurry to the nearest library and read up on the nuggets of  literary works spread over centuries that the film refers to—but how many will do that? This is why this beautiful, intriguing work-- perhaps Malick’s most audacious work to date--is likely to be dismissed by the lazy viewer as an indulgent, pointless exercise in filmmaking. Yet, this work is one of the most rewarding films of 2016 for those who would care to read the literary sources after seeing the movie.  Knight of Cups reveals much of the views of the director’s mind that was not so evident in his earlier works.

The brooding Rick (Christian Bale) and one of his female distractions

There are several keys to unlock the treasure chest of theological ideas packed into Knight of Cups. The opening lines of the film (and opening shots are important for any Malick film) provide the clue that the film is related to Paul Bunyan’s 1678 literary allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress (from This World to That Which is to Come Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream) though the film has directly very few but important overt connections to that literary work. But if you have read it, the personal spiritual  ”progress” of the Hollywood scriptwriter, Rick (Christian Bale) is akin to the travels of Christian, the lead character, in Bunyan’s work. As the character Christian in Paul Bunyan’s work loses the load on his back that he was carrying on his journey towards the end of the book, so too does Rick seem to get over his meaningless life as a womanizing and successful Hollywood screen-writer. The entire film is a dream of Rick, where he is talking to several people in his life—his father, his brother, his former wife, his sexual interests, et al., as was Christian dreaming in Bunyan’s work.

If you have figured that much of Knight of Cups, you would assume the film to be an intensely Christian treatise on the lines of The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, the two earlier Malick films. The well-read Malick introduces in Knight of Cups ideas that would upset some of the traditional Christian believers—passages from the apocrypha Acts of Thomas, which is not part of the Holy Bible. Apocryphal texts are some 60 odd books that ought to have been included in the New Testament of the Bible, but were excluded from the “public use of the Church.” Acts of Thomas is one of those 60 odd books that are not considered as part of the Bible. In the Knight of Cups the tale of a son sent by his father to Egypt to retrieve a pearl is narrated in the early part of the film and again towards the end of the film. This tale comes from a section called the “Hymn of the Pearl” in Acts of Thomas. The purists among Christians would wonder what Malick is up to.  Knight of Cups is the first work of Malick since he made The Thin Red Line, which quoted from non-Christian scriptures such as the Hindu scriptures of Bhagavad Gita. (Ref: Paper titled Rhetorical Transcendence Revisited: “The Thin Red Line” as Perennial Philosophy; Education Resources Information Center [ERIC] ED458649.) Malick goes beyond apocryphas in Knight of Cups. The quest for the pearl could also be a part of A Tale of the Western Exile by the Iranian mystic Suhrawardi (1154-91), the founder of Illuminationism, a school of Islamic philosophy. Then if you look closely at the end credits the film, Malick uses Charles Laughton’s renditions of Psalm 104 from the Old Testament and Plato’s Phaedrus.  Malick’s literary and theological cosmos is simply mind boggling. This is literally casting pearls (pun intended) before the swine. It is not surprising that many found this work of cinema to be below average when it actually offers cinema of a quality that transcends the conventional Hollywood or American cinema.

Two brothers--men are important in this Malick film

Unlike The Tree of Life, where Malick underscored the role of the mother in the “graceful” development of the son, The Tree of Life flips to decode the role of the father (Brian Dennehy), exasperated by his lack of influence in the spiritual growth of his son.  The characters are different; however, the relationships mirror each film. A careful viewer will pick up the brief sequence of the Texas childhood shot from The Tree of Life in Knight of Cups. There are two fathers in Knight of Cups—a theological one you never see and a physical one. Rick even calls his physical father “an old fool” during a soliloquy.  The physical father says “I stumbled down the road like a clown..That doesn’t mean that it is a wrong one. I turned you upside down. Womanizer. Cut off...I gave up my life for you kids. ” In contrast, the spiritual father talks of Rick’s time on Earth, reminding him of the future. “You think when you reach a certain age, things will start making sense. Then you realize that you were as lost as before. I suppose that is what damnation is. Pieces of your life never come together.”

The physical father tries to get his son Rick back on a spiritual mode: “There is so much love inside us that never gets out. According to your unfailing love, great compassion, blot out my transgressions. My son, I know you. I know you have a soul. Seems you are alone. You are not. Even now he is taking your hand and guiding you. By a way you can’t see. If you are unhappy you should not see it as a mark of God’s disfavour

Who speaks the final lines of the film is ambiguous. Is it the physical father or the theological father of Rick? The words are ponderous “Find the light you know in the east. As a child. The moon. The stars. They serve you. They guide you on your way. The light in the eyes of others. The pearl. Wake up. Turn. Look. Come out. My son. Remember. Begin

The Tarot cards are a distraction unless you know a lot about that subject. Each Tarot card has one different female personality connected with Rick. Knowing Malick's wide knowledge there are definitely linkages that eludes one on the deliberate segmentation that he has made with the cards.

Unlike The Tree of Life, Knight of Cups seems to be more focussed on male relationships with Rick—his father and two brothers, including Billy, the dead brother, who never appears but is merely discussed. Much of this is autobiographical with names changed.

Visually stunning metaphors from Malick and Lubezki

The main allures of the film for those viewers who are not concerned with the theology are the visual and aural ones. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki works wonders with the camera when he is with Malick. As a Malick follower, every sequence shot underwater might appear spectacular but it reminds you of late Nestor Almendros’ shot of Richard Gere falling face down on the water surface in Malick’s Days of Heaven. Almendros paved the way for Lubezki. The fluid camera movements are in tune with the dream concept of Bunyan and Malick. Interestingly, the camera of Lubezki lingers on the night sky with the moon in focus at the final word—“Begin.”

The true majesty of any Malick film lies squarely in the director’s outstanding talent to pick amazing pieces of music.  Music-wise the mainstay of Knight of Cups is Wojciech Kilar’s “Exodus” used with aplomb, while the works of the main composer New Zealander Hanan Townshend and the Estonian composer Arvo Part are used with considerable care and intelligence.

Do actors matter in a Terrence Malick film? Some are indeed a delight to watch—especially Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman. However, the standout performance was possibly that of Armin Mueller –Stahl’s brief appearance as the priest and the narration of Ben Kingsley. Actors do not matter in a Malick film for two reasons. One, Malick does not have a screenplay cast in stone. The screenplay changes in major ways during the production stages. Two, actors rarely speak lines directly for the camera. Perhaps, the director gives more importance to dogs—the credits mentions “Accounting Dog—Stevie.” That’s Malick.

A minor point that nags me—why are the colored people in Malick’s films always either sick or possible criminals?

A wife (Cate Blanchett) who leaves Rick

Malick is slowly being recognized as one of the best living directors on the planet. This slow recognition is partly due to Malick’s depth of knowledge that eludes a majority of his films’ viewers. These often require a critic to explain and point out the not-so-obvious details to flummoxed viewers. Now, consider this, how many films end with the audacious end word/sentence: “Begin’? Malick is constantly raising the bar of quality cinema.

P.S. Knight of Cups will definitely be included in the author’s best 10 films of 2016. Reviews of Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, TheTree of Life and To the Wonder have appeared on this blog earlier.

Monday, September 19, 2016

196. Russian director-duo Grigory Kozintsev’s and Leonid Trauberg’s silent film “Novyy Vavilon” (The New Babylon) (1929) (former USSR/France), with music by Dimitri Shostakovich: One of the most laudable silent films ever made that has surfaced recently

The exaggeration of the film's actors...
...is fundamental to the film

The New Babylon is a Russian silent film, made in 1929, centred on the events related to the rise and brutal suppression of the 1871 Paris Commune.  As the Germanic Prussian army defeated the French army and advanced to conquer Paris, the rich in the city went on with their escapist lives without caring to protect the city. On the other hand, the working class of the city refused to capitulate and set up a Paris Commune with a socialist fervour to protect the city of Paris from the Prussian army. The Paris Commune achieved its primary aim of protecting the city but was in turn crushed by the French Government working from Versailles with financial and moral support of middle class in Paris. Thousands of members of the Paris commune were killed by the French Government instead of being grateful to the brave hearts. These events deeply influenced the writings of Karl Marx. Very few moviegoers are aware of this laudable film’s very existence and hence, The New Babylon rarely, if ever, gets mentioned on lists of important films of the silent era.

Graffiti of the movement scribbled by a dying member of the Commune  

There are several reasons for the lack of awareness about this film.

Louise selling clothes to the rich with a mannequin next to her

First, it was made by two Soviet Russian filmmakers who ran into problems with the Russian censors. The released version did not have the full approval of its principal filmmakers: directors Kozintsev, and Trauberg and composer Shostakovich.  Some versions of the original 2 hour film were chopped down to a ridiculous 84 minutes and 93 minutes when shown in Russia and abroad post-censoring.  The film was considered by the Soviet censors to be an anti-war and not a communist film. Both charges were essentially correct, in retrospect. It was merely a film made in the wrong country at the wrong time.  The New Babylon incorporated composer Shostakovich’s first explicit work for cinema, written when he was only 23 years old, and his friendship and subsequent rich collaboration with director Kozintsev continued up to the final Kozintsev film King Lear (1971). (Shostakovich’s music, not written specifically for cinema, was used in Sergei Eisenstein’s October, released a year earlier in 1928.)

The rich of Paris captured in an interesting perspective,
 aided by an interesting camera angle

The second reason was the political climate that slowly disintegrated the interesting theatre movement called the” Factory of the Eccentric Actor” (FEX) developed and headed by Kozintsev and Trauberg that led to the making of several silent films, including a comedy called The Adventures of an Octoberite (1923) (now lost), Shinel (1926), based on Gogol’s The Overcoat , which many consider to be best cinematic adaptation of the literary work, The Devil’s Wheel (1926) and The Club of the Big Deed  (1927), which the Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky considers “the most elegant film of the Soviet Union.” The Russian director duo tried to infuse futurism, surrealism and Dadaism in their creative outputs. The satirical elements in the film The New Babylon and the music in the film (“The Marseillaise” being diluted with Can-Can music) did not go down well with the Soviet censors. Shostakovich increasingly fell foul in the eyes of Josef Stalin from then onwards. He was denounced twice politically: once in 1936 for being “coarse, primitive and vulgar,” and later in 1946 for being “formalist and non-Russian.”   Shostakovich’s friends and relatives were either deliberately killed or imprisoned.  After the death of Stalin, the world recognized Shostakovich as a major composer of the 20th century.

The situation with the Jewish director duo Kozintsev and Trauberg (in today’s political geography they would have been Ukrainians) was not very different from that of Shostakovich.  The duo continued to work together until 1947, after which they began making their own individual films. One of Trauberg's celebrated works is a 1960 film Dead Souls based on Gogol’s literary work of the same name. Trauberg was again attacked by Soviet authorities for being a Jewish intellectual, post-World-War II. 

Ironically all the three individuals were recognized by the country that almost demolished their creative talent at their peak. In 1964, Grigori Kozintsev was named as the “People’s Artist of the USSR.”   Leonid Trauberg, initially in trouble for his early works, was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1941 only to be attacked once again by the Soviet Authorities post-World -War II. Dimitri Shostakovich, was denounced twice during the Stalin years and yet was honoured with the Lenin prize, three times with the Order of Lenin, the Hero of Socialist Labour, etc. Outside his own country, he was honoured in UK, Denmark, Finland and Austria.

Trauberg thought his early work with Kozintsev-- the full version The New Babylon--was lost until the film was re-released in 1982. Kozintsev had died in 1973. Both filmmakers were not alive when the film was restored fully and re-released in 2010.

Thus, the third reason for the obscurity of The New Babylon was that its re-release and restoration only occurred some 80 years after it was made, and this was done outside Russia. Its relevance seemed to have been diluted by time. It is now freely available on You Tube for cineastes to enjoy.
It is with this background, one ought to evaluate the film The New Babylon. Why is the film important beyond the “The Marseillaise” and Can-Can mix of music that irked the Stalinist censors? What did it offer beyond the silent films of Eisenstein and Pudovkin?

Jean, the simple, starving soldier

...and Louise, the happy, idealist salesgirl 

Evaluating the film The New Babylon, one will realize the directors were directly projecting their views on socialism through the sad love tale between Louise, a working class shop assistant in Paris and Jean, an army deserter begging for food with tattered shoes meeting for the first time who had joined the army for a better life than what he had in his village.  Louise’s character is developed by the directors as a feisty woman who dislikes her employer but needs the job to make ends meet. Louise’s interest in Jean is a mix of charity and disgust as he has deserted. She feeds him and as he in turn is repelled by her overt dislike tries to leave the place while another elder male is repairing his tattered shoes. Louise cautions him that he needs to wait and wear the shoes that are being repaired before he leaves. The idealist Louise asks Jean to fight the Prussians but the disillusioned Jean is not interested.  Eventually Jean re-joins the French Government armed forces again as a lowly worker who is ironically commandeered to dig the grave of Louise, now condemned to death.  Kozintsev and Trauberg were evidently giving their own take on socialism—the idealism, the poverty and the irony of fate of two individuals who could probably have loved and led a peaceful and happy life in an ideal world.

The directors achieve this irony by an unforgettable sequence of light and shade (or black and white, if you will) as Louise’s face is illuminated with light as she contemplates her imminent death after being condemned to death by a kangaroo court, and watches the once–hungry man she had fed bread digging her own grave because he too has few options but do as he is told.  The smart lady laughs as she understands the irony of it all and shouts at Jean, a man whom she had come to love and understand, the words “We will meet again, Jean.” The film connects with the viewer both with the melodramatic story that unfolds and the use of visuals, editing, and music.

Women wearing aprons fire guns to protect the city,
only to be given death sentences 

A British librarian turned film critic Matt Bailey, writing in notcoming.com  (posted on 11 July 2004) pointed out the eloquence of the editing of The New Babylon thus “While the film is a rather unsurprising parable of revolutionary fervor and the tyrannical efforts of the bourgeoisie to suppress it, the visual style of the film is anything but conventional. While perhaps not quite as radical in form as the work of Eisenstein or Vertov, the two directors of the film, along with their gifted cast and crew, used the tools of cinema in a lively and invigorating fashion that still gets the blood flowing even today. Multiple storylines and locations are cut between with brisk fluidity; the camera is tossed, spun, raised lowered, and put in places you would never expect; the visual references to French painters of the fin-de-siècle come at a rapid pace and quite out of nowhere; and the performances of the cast are, as the school would have it, eccentric, yet never out of place or out of keeping with the tone of the picture. The film has all of the vigor and pure cinematic originality of Abel Gance’s Napoleon without all the pretensions to greatness shouldered by that film.”

There is more to the editing in this film. The directors give the viewer the impression that characters in the film are aware of incidents in real time by their reactions, when that could not be possible if you look at each sequence carefully.  

Visually the sequence of the columns of the Prussian army advancing on Paris is terrifying.

Everything in the film is visually exaggerated, not real. And that was the directors’ intention. But the satirical effect is profound even today where computer graphics hold the sway. Similarly the visuals of Jacques Demy’s celebrated 1964 film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg possibly took an idea or two from the early sequences in The New Babylon.

If one assumes the film is to be assessed by the revolutionary content of the words in the film “We are working for us, not for the owners.We do not work more night. Our children are not cannon fodder for the rich.. " this would only be partly true. The film is essentially a satire--a typical product of FEX--what the directors had set out to do, which understandably did not find favour with politicians of the day. Even the title of the film is cleverly chosen to represent the big shopping store, where Louise works, catering to the rich of Paris.

Does God care for the conditions of the poor and oppressed
(a rare but important shot in the film bringing into focus
the rich Catholic community of Paris/France)?

It is unfortunate that Soviet Russia never appreciated their greatest filmmakers Kozintsev, Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov during their lifetime just as the US film institutions refused to acknowledge Orson Welles, Abraham Polonsky and Terrence Malick. Malick is, of course, still alive and making films.

P.S. Kozintsev’s King Lear made with the collaboration of Shostakovich remains the author’s favourite film and one of his top 10 films of all time and is reviewed on this blog.

Monday, August 08, 2016

195. Colombian director Ciro Guerra’s “El abrazo de la serpiente” (Embrace of the Serpent) (2015) (Colombia/Argentina/Venezuela): An amazing film with deep insights on nature and civilization dedicated to “peoples whose song we will never know.”

Both posters above are predominantly in black and white,
while colour is utilized sparingly and effectively,
 as in the film

The display I witnessed in those enchanted hours was such that I find it impossible to describe in a language that allows others to understand its beauty and splendour; all I know is that, like all those who have shed the thick veil that blinded them, when I came back to my senses, I had become another man.” ---German scientist and explorer Theodor Koch-Grunberg’s (1872-1924) writings, quoted at the opening of the film

The year 2015 witnessed the release of three outstanding films from South American countries: Land and Shade from Colombia, The Pearl Button from Chile, and Embrace of the Serpent a co-production from Colombia, Argentina and Venezuela. Each of the three films deals with history and economics. Each film present a combination of fact and fiction, the last two blending history with actors playing fictional roles that have some facts to rely on. Each of the films provide the viewer an unsettling perspective of reality that you rarely encounter in cinema these days. Each of these three is an artistic work that will satisfy a sensitive viewer who is looking for entertainment without sex, violence, and escapist action. All three films are bolstered by outstanding cinematography, direction, and incredibly mature performances by little known actors that can make big Hollywood names pale in comparison. And more importantly, these films have been made for a fraction of the cost of an average Hollywood film.

First journey: Koch-Grunberg (Bijvoet), Manduca, and young Karamakate,
with material possessions, including a phonograph
Embrace of the Serpent is a tale of two scientists/explorers: the German Theodor Koch-Grunberg (1872-1924) (played by Jan Bijvoet of Borgman) and the American Richard Evan Schultes (1915-2001) (played by Brionne Davis of Avenged). Both men were seeking a medicinal flower “yakruna” from a native shaman Karamakate (played by Nibio Torres, when young, and Antonio Bolivar, when old), who lives on the banks of the Amazon and its tributaries. 
There is a 20-30 year gap (1909 to 1940) between the two encounters of Karamakate and the two explorers from the developed world. Koch-Grunberg was an ethnographer who had fallen ill while studying the Pemon natives of Venezuela and is brought to the shaman Karamakate, who knows about yakruna and where it can be found. This flower Koch-Grunberg had been told could cure the sick explorer. Karamakate distrusts Koch-Grunberg and Manduca, Koch-Grunberg’s native companion and recently freed slave. Karamakate refuses money as he takes the German and Manduca to Colombia along the Amazon only to find Colombian soldiers misusing the plant as an hallucinatory drug and growing it in untraditional ways for profit and drug abuse. The drugged soldiers and the plants are destroyed by the enraged young Karamakate. Koch-Grunberg is thus not cured and dies even though he is sustained for a while by Karamakate blowing a hallucinogenic powder up his nostril. However, Koch-Grunberg’s detailed notes of his trip with young Karamakate and the yakruna that he saw before the plants were destroyed, survive his passing. 
Second journey: American Richrd Evan Schultes (Davis) and the older
Karamakate (Bolivar), reach where the last yakruna grows

Decades later, the American scientist Richard Evan Schultes, having read the detailed notes of Koch-Grunberg, locates Karamakate, now much older and possibly with memory fading (or at least affecting to fade) and less temperamental than in his youth. The American is also searching for yakruna for commercial reasons because the genetic resource of the flower’s seeds can apparently make rubber trees disease-free adding to the profits of the global rubber industry chain, from forests to factory. Old crafty Karmakate shows him the last yakruna flower and cleverly cooks it for Schultes. The outcome shown in Embrace of the Serpent is, to say the least, fascinating. 
What is the serpent in the title of the film? It is the Amazon. The Amazon does look like an anaconda when viewed from the sky. It appears as a massive snake that populates the Amazon banks and the director cleverly shows the birth of young anacondas early in the film. To add to the visual suggestion, there is a clever line in the script that states the natives believe the snake came from the skies. (This is not far removed from similar analogies within the traditional beliefs of natives of Chile in The Pearl Button.) 
Two aspects of this important film stand out for any viewer. The two native actors who play Karamakate overshadow the performances of professional western actors in this film. The credit not only goes to the native actors but to the script of director and co-scriptwriter Ciro Guerra, co-scriptwriter Jacques Toulemonde Vidal and the cinematographer David Gallego. One has to admit considerable fiction has been enmeshed with the two historical trips on the Amazon river separated in time by some three decades. 
The young impetuous Karamakate (Torres) with the Amazon behind him

The second aspect of the film is the deliberate choice of the director Ciro Guerra to make Embrace of the Serpent in black and white (cinematographer David Gallego) for most parts. [This deliberate choice needs to be compared with a few other important films on evil/distrust and reconciliation deliberately made in black and white with superb outcomes: Mike Nichol’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) and Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009)—all cinematic works with reflective depth and common concerns which would have had lesser impact were they made in lush colour.] It is possible that a colour version of the film Embrace of the Serpent would have emphasized the wrong elements of the tale—the formidable river and the overarching rain forests. The pivotal aspect of the film is the traditional world of the natives and their knowledge of traditional medicine orally handed over generations and kept protected from commercial misuse. When colour is used briefly by the filmmakers in Embrace of the Serpent, it is to communicate this wisdom. It is not surprising that several reviewers have noticed the parallels between Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Embrace of the Serpent. Science/scientific knowledge (here, specifically the commercial production of rare plants and genetic resources) and accumulated human wisdom are weighed against each other in both the cinematic works. Somewhere in the film Karamakate says, “Every tree, every flower brings wisdom.” The endings of both films, their release separated by half a century, will humble a reflective viewer. 
Embrace of the Serpent provides much food for thought. The journeys on the river have parallels with Homer’s tale of Ulysses voyage. In Ciro Guerra’s film, there are three major ports/stops during the river voyage. The first is a native village on the banks of the river. There is a peaceful exchange of knowledge and understanding of each other’s cultures. The natives listen to European classical music from a phonograph of Koch-Grunberg. Koch-Grunberg and Manduca dance to German music of Haydn and Handel and entertain the natives who end up stealing his compass. Koch-Grunberg is upset that his only scientific aid for navigation is lost. Karamakate sagaciously drills reason into the mind of the upset German, ironically reminding the scientist “Knowledge belongs to all. You do not understand that. You are just a white man.” Even the natives need to learn from the developed nations, the shaman appears to assert. Ironically, we learn in the film that shamans such as Karamakate were almost wiped out by the colonizers. One reason for Karamakate to agree taking Schultes on the second voyage on the river is to connect with those remnants of his tribe that had shamans. 
At the religious settlement, the trio treads with care 

The second stop is at a religious settlement run by fanatic Roman Catholic monks who brutally inculcate Christianity in the minds of innocent native kids obliterating any respect they had for traditional wisdom. The monks seem totally oblivious of the virtue of translating Christ’s pacifist teachings in real life. Karamakate, Koch-Grunberg and Manduca try to help free the native kids from the priests' influence. The freed native kids are ironically later found some 30 years later by Karamakate and Schulte as grown-up twisted Christians who have interpreted religion in a bizarre manner, taking to idolatry and cannibalism. The effect of Roman Catholic monks on the natives during the colonization period is dealt in a parallel manner in both Embrace of the Serpent and The Pearl Button
The final decision for the old Karamkate comes from his environment
and wisdom that he has acquired over time

The third stop in both voyages is where the yakruna flower grows. Karamakate’s reactions are different each time. It is important to note that yakruna is a plant that can heal, symbolic of the independence of the natives. And it grows on rubber trees! But commercial compulsions of the developed world always lead to loss of independence of the natives. A rubber slave pleads for death as the rubber sap pail he had nailed to a rubber tree has been emptied and he will have to face brutal consequences from his masters. It is therefore not surprising that Karamakate’s constant refrain to both explorers is to unburden themselves of their material possessions.
Embrace of the Serpent constantly pits personal material possessions against collective traditional memories. The old Karamakate says, “To become warriors, the cohiuanos must abandon all and go alone to the jungle, guided only by their dreams. In this journey, he has to find out, in solitude and silence, who he really is. He must become a wanderer and dream. Many are lost, and some never return. But those who return they are ready to face what is to come.“ The film is unusual in many respects. In the film nine languages are spoken including Spanish, Portuguese, German, Catalan, Latin and four aboriginal Amazonian languages. 
Secondly, women are almost peripheral in the film for reasons best known to the filmmkers alone.
Then, the film touches on the resources of the river itself—the fish. Karamakate specifically warns the scientist Koch-Grunberg not to fish during a particular period (possibly its breeding period to preserve its numbers) but the German does not listen and answers, “The river is full of fishes. We cannot possibly end them.” Today, oceans and rivers are rapidly losing the rich fish species and their diversity by mindless over-fishing.
Finally, there is the contrast of the messages in dreams presented in Embrace of the Serpent —the anaconda suggests that Karamakate kill the scientist Theo, the jaguar suggest the opposite. The two dreams distil the quandary of the film for the viewer—science vs human wisdom. The final action of old Karamakate before he disappears seems to reconcile the jaguar’s view and the shaman’s accumulated wisdom. The American explorer Schultes is cured of his insomnia, he can dream, and is now a changed human being. In a parallel Kubrick moment, he is at home with butterflies!

P.S. Embrace of the Serpent won the Golden Peacock at the 2015 Indian International Film Festival in Goa; the Art cinema award at the Cannes film festival; the Golden Apricot at the Yerevan film festival (Armenia); the Golden Astor at the Mar del Plata international film festival; and the Alfred P. Sloan prize at the Sundance film festival. The film is in myriad ways superior to the Hungarian film Son of Saul, which won the Best Foreign Film Oscar while Embrace of the Serpent lost to the Hungarian challenge after both were final nominees for the award. All three films Land and Shade (Colombia), The Pearl Button (Chile), and Embrace of the Serpent (all released in 2015) are on the author’s top 10 films list for that year and have been separately reviewed in detail on this blog. Another film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) mentioned in the above review is also reviewed in detail earlier on this blog.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

194. Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s Farsi/Persian language film “Taxi” (2015), based on his own original screenplay: Very interesting subject but intriguing cinematic docu-fiction.

The difficult Kafkaesque conditions for the intellectuals and the financially insecure in Iran discussed in Taxi are indeed very real.

I have visited Iran several times and therefore I have seen it all first-hand. You do not encounter beggars but it is only natural that economically weak families exist in Iran.  In the film Taxi, too, you don’t see beggars but there is a conversation about Iranians being publicly hanged for petty crimes and of a husband-wife duo wearing masks taking to mugging of their richer neighbours because of their pecuniary compulsions. The film ends with thieves/plain-clothed policemen on a motorbike ransacking the “taxi’s” cameras.

Anyone who criticizes the Iranian government is perceived to be a foreign spy and brutally interrogated, while blindfolded, in notorious prisons.  In his film Taxi, the director Jafar Panahi claims that he himself underwent a similar situation and that he is still hoping to one day identify his interrogator by his voice. In the movie Taxi, the Iranian prisons are referred to tongue-in-cheek as “Paradise” by a famous Iranian human rights lawyer, Ms Nasrin Satoudeh (the flower woman), who travels in the Panahi driven “taxi.” She explains that once you are released from prison, your neighbours and friends treat you so differently that you wish you were back in prison. She would know because she was there herself. Ms Satoudeh has represented prisoners and political activists. Her impressive list of clients includes the Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. 

Director Panahi drives his taxi in Teharan's streets with a camera on the dashboard,
while a pirated CD hawker engages him in a conversation on films

Everything discussed in the movie is real. My heart goes out to the people of Iran where the best works of Iranian cinema are banned and good foreign cinema rarely shown. My favourite Iranian film Bitter Dreams, a 2004 debut feature film by Mohsen Amiryousefi, was banned within months of it being shown at the Cannes film festival and awarded the Camera d’Or (the award for best cinematography) and subsequently most cineastes are not even aware of that path-breaking film’s existence or the unique capability of the young director.

Now Panahi is different. He makes very interesting films. He claims he is hounded by the Iranian authorities but yet continues to make films, one after the other, openly on the streets of Teheran. It cannot be that he has accomplished it without people noticing his filming activities in public areas. Iran is a nation, which has lots of cops in civilian clothes and a slice of its population is ever ready to report on activities that would please the government machinery.

Now Taxi is a laudable work--including a discussion of males wearing ties in public (I have not spotted a single Iranian male wearing a necktie in Teheran, but two people in Taxi wear ties, Panahi's friend who has been mugged and a just-married bridegroom), the human rights lawyer  Ms Satoudeh (the flower woman) referring to prison tales after she herself was an inmate of the notorious Evin prison,  pirated film CDs of American, Japanese  and Turkish films being hawked surreptitiously  on the streets of Teheran--all laudable, realistic cinema.

Or is it? In Taxi, the taxi driver Panahi is concerned that his two women passengers with a fishbowl will wet his backseat. When the fishbowl does break by accident, Panahi is not concerned about the water or the broken glass. The camera angles of the sequence with him helping the ladies saving the lives of the fish could not have been taken from the dashboard camera. Evidently there were more cameras (and camera persons) used than we are expected to believe.

Two women with a glass fish-bowl enter the taxi.
Where is the camera? If it is positioned outside the vehicle,
were there regular cinematographers at work?

We are supposed to believe Panahi’s friend who was mugged has captured electronically some evidence of that event on his electronic notebook that he shares with Panahi, the contents of which we don’t get to see. We just see Panahi’s expressions while viewing it.  Are we expected to conjecture the mugging was caught on camera? Further, are we expected to believe Ms Satoudeh and Mr Panahi could drive around Teheran without raising suspicions of a film being made, when Panahi was banned from making films in Iran?

I have actually shaken hands with the director in my city when he was chairing a film jury. He appeared sullen and unfriendly. In the movie Taxi, you see a charming, ever-smiling and friendly Panahi. Which is the real Panahi? In my opinion, the Berlin film festival ought to have bestowed the Best Actor award for this film not just the Best Film!

Candid videoography by Panahi's niece taken within the taxi (She was present in Berlin
 to pick up the Golden Bear on behalf of her uncle)

As in Panahi's The Circle (2000), the subject of Panahi’s film is totally laudable once again in Taxi. But is there an implicit collusion between Panahi and the Iranian authorities? How much of Taxi is spontaneous? Probably nothing.  Panahi, who was not allowed to make a film by the Iranian government, makes a film (or several films critical of the state of affairs in the country) and gets away with them.  Panahi’s niece captures on camera a rag picker picking up some cash dropped by a newly-wed groom.  Are we to believe that photographic evidence will go unpunished in Iran, however trivial it is?  Now that is intriguing.

P.S. The film won the Golden Bear at the 2015 Berlin film festival and the audience award at the Mumbai international film festival.  Amiryousefi’s Bitter Dreams (2004) and Panahi’s The Circle (2000) are discussed on this blog. Other reviews of several important  Iranian films (and those co-financed by Iran) on this blog can be found by clicking here.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

193. Icelandic director Grímur Hákonarson’s film “Hrútar” (Rams) (2015), based on his own original screenplay: Unusual tale of sibling hatred and bonding

Rams is an unusual tale, remarkably told. Rams are male sheep and the entire film is appropriately about two dour male, hairy, unshaven Icelandic brothers.

The two male characters, Gummi and Kiddi, are quite old and not married. They are not gay; they are not womanizers either. They are both passionate sheep farmers, who live on different homesteads, separated by a road and fences. It is indeed a strange tale to surface from a matriarchal country, one of the only two such countries in Europe, the other being Albania.

The tale, created by director Grímur Hákonarson, is centred on the two brothers who have not talked to each other for 40 years but communicate with each other by sending written messages carried by a dutiful sheep dog. As you watch the film unspool, you wonder about what could have led to the grim, silent antipathy of one brother towards another. When the movie ends, you are never the wiser. But what one realizes at that point is that this information really does not matter; the film is actually about bonding and over-rides hatred. It is this that makes the film remarkable.

The hatred of Cain..

...changes under trying circumstances alone.

Viewers learn from bits of information that percolates. as the film progresses, that the deceased parents of the two brothers had made two interesting decisions.  As most rational fathers would have done, the father bequeathed his son Gummi the sheep he owned, because Gummi was obviously the more dependable and better of his two sons in behaviour. 

Now, since Iceland is matriarchal, the mother of the two sons gets Gummi to promise that he would let his undependable, wild and irresponsible younger brother Kiddi to farm sheep as well. 

The reflection is more about sheep
than about broken relationships within the family

When the film begins both brothers are farming the best sheep in the neighbourhood and are proud of their work. When one brother’s ram wins the competition for the best ram, the other brother comes in second. They do know the intricacies of sheep farming and are superior to the other sheep farmers in their vicinity. They don’t have wives or children to bother about—their only world is sheep farming. There is no clue provided within the film of the unknown events 40 years past that led to the break in aural communication between the two brothers.

Hatred among siblings is unusually common around us if we care to be observant.  Often this hatred is expressed through resounding “silence.” Even when they hate each other, there is often a sibling bonding under the surface. When one sibling in the movie is found by another drunk and freezing in the cold, he is scooped up mechanically by a scooping truck operated by the other sibling and dumped in front of a hospital without the sober brother getting off the truck—actions that show both the contradictory feelings of an intense disdain as well as care for the health of the other sibling, in a remarkable sequence where no words are spoken. On another occasion, one sibling fires bullets at the other’s house, smashing window panes. One hears the gunfire and the breaking of the glass but no words!

Iconic shot of two rams--when the film Rams is about two hairy, stubborn men

The strange reality is that such animosity is not uncommon among siblings but ultimately blood is thicker than water.  The words spoken in the film by one of the warring brothers underscore this oxymoronic situation “No sheep. Just the two of us.” The final words spoken in the film “It will be all right” have tended to confuse some viewers but if the movie is viewed attentively there is no ambiguity. Perhaps the ambiguity stems from the fact that the words are spoken by a sibling painted earlier in the film as being wild and undependable. The ending of the film is not the film’s weakness; it is its strength.

The message of the film goes beyond sibling rivalry. Neighbouring countries go on long intense senseless wars for similar unfathomable disputes and yet many inhabitants of these warring nations like those of the other nation on personal terms. The message of Rams is not odd, it’s real. Only the Cain and Abel tale often goes beyond siblings, in a modern, wider perspective.

Nature and landscape of Iceland is a bleak backdop for the grim tale

Grímur Hákonarson’s Rams has very little spoken dialogue, often those are words spoken by tertiary characters whose dialogues flesh out details about the primary duo. The elements of the film Rams that “speak” are the cinematography and the sounds of nature. When icy winds blow in Rams, the viewer shivers. It is little wonder that cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (who was also responsible for the single-take 2015 German feature film Victoria) won the Camerimage award for this film. (One suspects that certain locations used in Rams were common with the 2015 Icelandic film Rúnar Rúnarsson’s Sparrows.) Director Hákonarson’s choice of music by Atli Örvarsson is another element of the film that raises its quality above the ordinary.

P.S. Rams is one of the author’s best 10 films of 2015. The film won the top award in the 2015 Cannes film festival’s Un Certain Regard section, and major film awards at the Thessaloniki (Greece), Hamptons (USA), Ljubljana (Slovenia), Palic (Serbia), Transilvania (Romania), Valladolid (Spain), and Zurich (Switzerland)  film festivals. It also won the Silver Frog award at the Camerimage festival in Poland for its cinematography.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

192. Chilean director Patricio Guzmán’s spellbinding documentary feature film “El botón de nácar” (The Pearl Button) (2015): A powerful, poetic essay interlinking water, memory, buttons, and genocide in Chile’s history

The Pearl Button is one of the most thought-provoking and visually stunning documentaries ever made. The incredible narration of the film, which deservedly won Patricio Guzmán the Silver Bear for the Best Screenplay and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 2015 Berlin film festival, connects up anthropology, geography, history, meteorology and cosmology  relating to a single country—Chile. If one has not seen this movie, one would be aghast at the very scope of connecting such diverse subjects. The amazing thing about The Pearl Button is that the facts presented are correct and they do connect up as Guzmán presents it. In case you still do not buy the connections made by Guzmán, you will be enthralled by the magical cinematography of Katell Djian. And Katell Djian is immensely talented and reminds one of the abilities of cinematographer Ron Fricke’s contribution to Godfrey Reggio’s brilliant 1982 feature length documentary Koyaanisqatsi.

The magical cinematography of Katell Djian

The Pearl Button begins with the examination of a drop of water caught in a block of quartz some 3000 years ago. Early in the film, Guzmán states in his narration the theme of the film that follows: “Water is the essence of life and it remembers.” Now, that’s an odd statement but if you view this remarkable film up to its end, the Guzmán statement does fall into place.

It is indeed true that water on earth was a result of cosmic events and there is some evidence that humans might have evolved from aquatic life forms. The ancient natives of Chile were water nomads moving from one island to another along its 785,000 mile coastline (data according to The World Resources Institute, next only to Canada, USA, Russia, and Indonesia) on small canoe-like boats.
By the end of the film, Guzmán extends his argument “They say water has a memory. I believe it also has a voice.

Melting ice on the shores of southern Chile

Magical cinematography of water

The importance of water for Chile as a country is further explored with amazing facts in The Pearl Button. Chile has the driest desert in the world—the Atacama Desert. (This desert made of sterile soil receives less than 1.5 cm of rain per annum, compared to other American deserts such as the Death Valley that receives more than 25 cm of rain per annum.) Ironically not far from the desert is the deep Pacific Ocean. However,  the Atacama Desert was found to be ideal place to study the cosmos with radio telescopes at an internationally funded observatory facility known as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). Intriguingly, Guzman points to evidence that the ancient natives of Chile had believed in life after death on earth in the cosmos and thus painted their bodies with dots and stripes to signify celestial bodies. His commentary then wonders how we are studying the cosmos while neglecting what lies in the depths of the Pacific. Of course, Guzmán reveals the most unnerving part only in the third part of the film—the Pacific Ocean’s “memory.”

A small segment of an artist's view of Chile's incredible shoreline,
breathtakingly captured by the film's director and cinematographer

The Pearl Button can be divided into three segments. The first is about the importance of water to Chile geographically and the cultural affinity of the natives of Chile in the past to the cosmos.  The mid-portion of the movie is devoted to how the natives were exploited by European settlers and missionaries including a historically real native called Jemmy Button, who for the price of a “Pearl Button” agreed to be taken to England and be transformed into a gentleman. Subsequently, he returned to Chile disillusioned, only to take off his western clothes and seek acceptance amongst his own kin. The third and final portion deals with the Pinochet regime that brutally crushed the democratically elected Allende government that had sought to give back the natives their pride and possessions. The Pinochet regime had dumped hundreds of its political opponents after torturing them in the Pacific Ocean tied to iron rails to avoid detection in the future. One such rail is retrieved with a button on the clothing of the tortured individual still intact. The oceans that gave life to people on the mainland had ironically become a cemetery during the Pinochet regime in the Seventies. The Pearl Button takes you though the full circle of the tragic history of Chile.

A button retrieved from the Pacific Ocean attached to the clothing of
a Pinochet regime opponent clinging to a rusted iron rail

The Pearl Button is not merely a film with amazing photography and an interesting narration.  It includes revealing interviews with the surving natives of Chile. It includes acted bits of Jimmy Button in England. Like Koyaanisqatsi, this work of Guzmán is a treat to watch. It informs and it entertains. The first part of the film The Pearl Button is exquisite, to say the least. The citation of the Ecumenical Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival sums it all up: “Patricio Guzmán's documentary shows a moving history of the people of Patagonia and Chile reminding us that human suffering and injustice go beyond political and social systems. Using water not only as a symbolic tool but also as a natural element it puts the concrete story of the region's victims, including pre-colonial indigenous persons and those who opposed Pinochet's regime, into the vast perspective of humankind."

Old photograph of Chilean natives with bodies painted with stripes and dots:
 they believed in life after death among the stars

Chile’s Guzmán joins Germany’s Hans-Jurgen Syberberg and USA’s Geoffrey Reggio as one of the finest thought-provoking documentary filmmakers in the history of cinema. If Pinochet’s coup achieved one good thing, it was to gift the world the cinema of Raul Ruiz and Guzmán that made people all over the world to recall the horrors of the Pinochet regime and to learn from it.

P.S. The Pearl Button is one of the author’s top 10 films of 2015. The film won the Silver Bear for the Best Screenplay and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 2015 Berlin film festival. It also won the “In Spirit of Freedom Award” at the Jerusalem Film Festival. Koyaanisqatsi is on the author’s top 100 films list.

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