Thursday, April 20, 2017

206. Russian director Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s film “Belye nochi pochtalona Alekseya Triyapitsyna ” (The Postman’s White Nights)(2014) (Russia): An amazing, profound elegy reconciling one to the fact that good and evil coexist in Russia, then and now

Where does this music come from? From the heavens or from the ground? Now it’s stopped.
--- A quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, used as the end quote for The Postman’s White Nights

Any serious Konchalovsky film viewer will recall that the end-quotes of his films, when used, are very important to put the tale one just viewed in its intended perspective.  He did use it with aplomb in Runaway Train (a quote from Shakespeare’s Richard III) and Shy People (a quote from Revelations in the Bible). What is the music he is referring to? It would be too simplistic to consider it to be the music of the film’s composer Eduard Artemev, the talented composer of Tarkovsky’s three monumental works—Solaris, Stalker and Mirror, and the important Russian sci-fi film Dr Ivan’s Silence. The music is most likely to be a metaphor for the waves of good and evil forces that an average Russian encounters in life and learns to live with over time.

The real postman Aleksey Triyapitsyn "acts" as himself--his army clothes
indicate his status of a paid government employee

Now, Andrei Konchalovsky’s career can easily be divided into three distinct phases: pre-Hollywood work in former USSR, some with classmate Andrei Tarkovsky (The Steamroller and the Violin, Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Rublyev) and some alone; his Hollywood phase (which included Runaway Train, Maria’s Lovers and Shy People); and the recent post Hollywood phase in Russia working with the obviously unusually talented co-scriptwriter Elena Kiseleva. The Postman’s White Nights marks the beginning of this exciting new phase in Konchalovsky’s career when he begins his collaboration with co-scriptwriter Elena Kiseleva. His second film with Kiseleva was Paradise (2016). He is currently working on a third film with Kiseleva, tentatively titled Il peccato. This critic could see parallels in this fascinating collaboration with that of the late Polish maestro Krzysztof Kieślowski’s collaboration with co-scriptwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz, towards the evening of his respective career that resulted in his masterpieces Dekalog, The Three Colours trilogy, and The Double Life of Veronique.

The Postman’s White Nights is one of the finest works in recent years from Russia that can rub shoulders with the cinematic gems of Andrei Zvyagintsev. The depth of the film can be lost on a casual viewer while it can offer profound commentary on Russia for the mature viewer.

The rural Russian folk smoke endlessly, drink tea and vodka, and die often alone

What did Konchalovsky and Kiseleva do in The Postman’s White Nights that will stun the viewer? They scripted a tale set in a rural setting where the village school is in ruins; men are turning alcoholics and survive on pensions; newspapers, bread, medicines, are brought from the nearest town by a postman, an alcoholic in the past, currently a bachelor; with one other regular government employee posted in this village an unpopular lady mayor, living alone with a young son, because she fines folk caught trawling fish in the nearby water bodies to win brownie points with her unseen superiors.

Everybody smokes, but the postman has kicked his drinking habit
after it ruined his family life 

As in both the Konchalovsky and Kiseleva films, the scriptwriters build-up details that do not seem to add up midway but punches you at the end of the film. And if you blink you might miss that brilliant visual that says more than all the spoken words in the entire film. (There is a third partner in the Konchalovsky-Kiseleva films: cinematographer Aleksandr  Simonov). The Russian government obviously seems to have ignored the well being or the development of this rural township.  Not only is the school in ruins (possibly because there are not enough kids to attend school) but the folks there have only the TV sets as sources of entertainment. There are no tractors to till the land, only animal driven ploughs. From all evidence there is only one plough for the entire community. It is no wonder that people in that locality are driven to steal outboard motors of boats or trawl the water bodies for fish—an illegal act for all except the powerful generals who infrequently visit the area. But not very far away, Russia rocket/space power is quietly advancing ignoring the plight of the rural poor.

The good and the bad coexist in the rural world with the committed postman being the prominent do-gooder. The townsfolk do not go out of the way to help the postman when he faces a professional crisis with his motorboat’s engine stolen and thus not being able to discharge his duties for the rural folk.  In the world of email communication and mobile telecommunication, the postman fills a multitasking role. And he loves to do it. He has to file a theft report and wait for a replacement to be supplied.  The elders in the rural areas wistfully recall better days during the socialist regime and some even recall being in Vietnam during the war there.

The postman and the mayor's son

What most viewers are likely to miss out is an important decision taken by director Konchalovsky—all characters in the film’s rural setting are played by authentic villagers. The only professional actors are the two individuals who play the roles of the lady mayor and her delightful young son, Timur, who addresses the postman as “uncle.” Now that is incredible considering how the onscreen presence of the real postman engages the viewer.  One would mistake him for a professional actor able to convey so many complex emotions and body languages.  The Russian title of the film would read as the white nights of Aleksey Tryapitsyn, the name of man who plays the postman in the film. He is playing himself. Thus the entire script revolves around real people playing themselves.  But the script belongs to brilliance of Konchalovsky and Kiseleva.

Look at how they built the script. The entire background of the life of the postman is provided by Aleksey Tryapitsyn’s monologue as he sifts through old photographs of himself with the movie’s camera placed behind his head and shoulders.  Who is he talking to? The viewer. Such a monologue is never repeated until the end sequence where all or most of the village folk sit shoulder to shoulder on a ferry, their differences forgotten, without a word spoken, looking at the camera. Who are they looking at? The viewer.

The postman shares his childhood fears and tales with the
mayor's son.

The next striking visual is the repeated morning waking shot of the postman looking down at his boots on the carpet that he need to get into. He is living alone. There is no tap water; he has to fetch water in pails. The mayor and the postman wear camouflage army clothes—possibly because they are the only paid government employees.  His life is spartan.

The filmmaking trio emphasize rumination and natural beauty—the characters are constantly reflecting, outdoors and indoors.  Those sequences are with the music of Artemev as in the early Tarkovsky and Konchalovsky films.  And that leads on to the dark grey cat (“there are no cats in the village” the viewer is informed, and ergo the cat is a metaphor of a silent imaginary friend of the lonely postman—a cinephile will recall Tarkovsky used totemic images of a dog in Stalker).  The silent cat comes through the window, follows Aleksey Tryapitsyn during his imaginary visit to the school ruins, and finally sits on the stomach of the reclining postman. Does the cat have a common link with a cat’s images on the postman’s tablecloth?

Simonov's cinematography and Artemev's music can be stunning 

...and who wouldn't ruminate on contemplating the natural beauty of Russia
captured by cinematographer Simonov?

Apart from the good actions and the bad actions of the characters in The Postman’s White Nights, the overarching philosophy of the film is to accept this truth and reconcile what is left of one’s life with this attitude. The postman runs away but decides to return to the same community where, not surprisingly, he is still welcome. Konchalovsky “ran away” from USSR to work in Hollywood on to return to Russia with all its continuing faults and greatness. The film might be a great anti-smoking film with almost all the elders addicted to tobacco and evidently not healthy but the young boy also learns to smoke following the actions of the elders. But in the end segment, Konchalovsky, Kiseleva and Simonov are pointing out with their tongues firmly in their cheeks that Russia is launching spacecrafts and rockets not very far from the world of rural folk who can’t fish in the water bodies without asking for trouble or have any entertainment beyond state TV. And guess what, these Russians on the fringes of Russian society addicted to tobacco and vodka are still happy and content as long as they get their pensions.

Where does the strange sustenance of the Russians come from? From the ground, or from the rockets? A Shakespearean conundrum indeed!

It is a meaningful film for the serious film viewer, and richly deserving of the Venice film festival honour.

P.S. The Postman’s White Nights won the Best Director Award (Silver Lion) for Andrei Konchalovsky.  Detailed reviews by the author of Konchalovsky’s earlier films Runaway Train (1985) and Paradise (2016) were posted earlier on this blog. A link to the Konchalovsky written paper/lecture on the "Russian Soul" is provided on this blog and the contents are closely linked to the basic mood of the film. A critical line from that lecture reflects the essence of the film's ending "Why Russians can build a rocket and send it off into space, but not make a decent car?"

Saturday, April 08, 2017

205. US director Jim Jarmusch’s film “Paterson” (2016) (USA): A delicate, well-conceived film on a bus driver turned poet constantly noting beauty in ordinary subjects, thanks to his contented life with a supportive spouse

Paterson would appear to be a simple tale; but it is not. It is a film where Jim Jarmusch the original scriptwriter over-shadows Jim Jarmusch the director. Yet they are both the same individual in two roles. The script is trenchant; it is brilliant. The direction follows the script. A script on a week in the life of a bus driver who writes poetry.

Bus driver Paterson (Adam Driver) at work

Optimistic, poetic Paterson  lives in Paterson City, where commercial activity
obviously is in distress (see signage on the walls)

Why is this original script brilliant? Paterson, in the movie, refers to several things—it is the name of the lead character (the bus driver and amateur poet); it is the name of the city in New Jersey, USA, where the story takes place; it is the name of the volume of the collection of poems of Pulitzer Prize winning US poet William Carlos Williams who worked as a paediatrician in Paterson, New Jersey. 

Scriptwriter Jarmusch’s lead character is a bus driver who likes poetry, writes poetry, and lives in a house with book shelves full of books of poetry by Williams and other poets. A 10-year-old girl with a penchant for writing poetry in a secret notebook who meets Paterson for the first time amiably describes him after the brief encounter as “a bus driver who likes Emily Dickinson” (the poet). The bus driver writes his poems in his own secret notebook, before and after driving his bus. These poems are odes to his partner Laura, of Iranian lineage. Now, Jarmusch’s choice of the name Laura for bus driver Paterson’s partner is not accidental—the Renaissance Italian poet Petrarch (1304-74) too wrote all his poems to his muse Laura de Noves, the wife of a Count, whose beauty made Petrarch leave priesthood even though their relationship was platonic.

Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) paints and wears black and white
and even put black and white icing on her cupcakes

Jarmusch’s creation of Laura is equally amazing. Laura is equally a creative individual as Paterson is. She loves to paint at home with white and black colours. She goes to the extent of painting her clothes while wearing them. When she bakes cupcakes, the icing is again black and white. Even her guitar that she orders on-line is painted black and white! When she takes her spouse Paterson to a movie—the movie is in black and white. Yet Laura is odd—she is devoted to her husband and recognizes his gift for poetry. She is equally devoted to her pet dog.  Her life seems fairly limited to home management and an interest in music. Yet she manipulates her husband to agree to buy a costly guitar on-line but makes up for the cost by making equal or more money selling cupcakes at the local farmer’s market.  And guess what? She had dreamt it first.

Now writer Jarmusch elegantly contrasts the life of the loving couple, who love each other intensely, despite their quite different likes and dislikes, constantly encouraging and supporting each other, while other couples in Paterson do not seem to get along with as much élan despite being together. The love between Paterson and Laura helps the bus driver Paterson to see beauty in ordinary objects and mundane situations.

Marvin the dog on a Persian carpet at home.
(The dog got a rare award at Cannes! And the film is dedicated to it, as well)

Paterson (Driver) takes Marvin out for a walk,
 before entering a pub for his daily glass of beer 

The third most important character in the script is an English bulldog called Marvin who waits outside the pub dutifully each evening as Paterson has his daily glass of beer. The dog is apparently fond of Laura more than Paterson. But the apparently docile dog is cunning enough to make Paterson wonder who is tilting his mailbox. And when Marvin is left alone in the house he wreaks revenge on Paterson the bus-driver in his own way.

Laura recollects having dreamt of having twins with Paterson. The script introduces us to several pairs of twins in Paterson and motley people all interested in writing poetry. The sets of twins include elderly men sitting on a bench, passengers on the bus, twins in the pub, the 10-year old girl poet who possibly has a twin sister, and so on. Poets include a 10-year-old girl, a man waiting to get his laundry washed, and a tourist. The recurrence make you marvel at Jarmusch’s interest in adding details that would have been inconsequential in most other screenplays.

Paterson (Driver), having lost his secret notebook. gazes at the waterfall
in solitude

Japanese actor Masatoshi Nagase as a Japanese poet, arrives at the waterfall
viewing site and later sits down with Paterson and discusses poetry.

All that, of course, would be limited to characters and character development. Towards the end, the script shifts gears as it introduces magic realism. Peterson, who has lost his secret poetry notebook, wistfully gazes at the waterfall in Paterson city, sitting alone on the bench. An amazing encounter with a Japanese poet leads to Paterson being gifted with an empty notebook—as though the tourist knew of Paterson’s recent loss. Paterson the bus driver-cum-poet renews his writing after this unexpected gift from a guardian angel—a tourist who is meeting him for the first time.

The final line Paterson writes is “Would you be a fish?” This might intrigue many people viewing the film. A fish might look good but it cannot read or write. And in spite of its agility in the water it can get caught and end up as food. Ergo: being a poet is better than being a fish.

The importance of supportive couples is contrasted with one that does not

A word about the actors in Paterson. Is the casting of Adam Driver as the bus driver a mere coincidence? Is the casting of the Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani as Laura who dreams of Asian images of elephants and furnishes her floors with Persian carpets, another coincidence? Is the casting of the Japanese actor Masatoshi Nagase [the lead actor in Naomi Kawase’s equally reflective Japanese film Sweet Bean (2015)] yet another coincidence? Quite evidently Jarmusch builds on details while writing his script, while casting and directing.

This film establishes Jim Jarmusch as one of the top two directors working in USA today alongside Terrence Mallick.

P.S. This critic is disappointed that this original screenplay did not even get nominated for an Oscar. It is far superior to others that were nominated in 2017. The film is one of the best films made in 2016. Unfortunately, this critic viewed it only in 2017 and, therefore, Paterson is likely to find a place in the top 10 films of 2017 of this critic. Earlier on this blog, this critic had reviewed Naomi Kawase’s Sweet Bean (2015) with actor Masatoshi Nagase

Monday, March 27, 2017

204. Polish maestro Krzysztof Kieślowski’s film “Dekalog, Jeden” (Decalogue, One) (1989) (Poland): A fascinating debate on atheism versus faith in God/Yahweh/Allah

Frozen lake

The ten-part Dekalog is definitely one of the 10 best works of cinema ever made for this critic. Each segment of the ten-part film Dekalog is linked to the 10 Commandments given by God to Moses as believed by Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Now many who are not familiar with subtle changes introduced into various versions of the Bible over time would assume the Ten Commandments are written in stone and will have to be the same in all published versions. This, unfortunately, is not the case. One reason for the differences pertains to sources of the Commandments (The Septuagint, Philo’s Septuagint, The Samaritan Pentateuch, the Jewish Talmud, and The Holy Koran’s sura Al An’am and al Isra) and the second, the various interpreters (St Augustine, Martin Luther and John Calvin). (Ref: Wikipedia )

When Krzysztof Kieślowski made Dekalog in collaboration with co-scriptwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz one can guess each of the Ten Commandments, each episode refers to in broad terms.  But a detailed evaluation brings into the limelight the conflict of the tale of some episodes of Dekalog with various differences in the numbering of the Ten Commandments and the subtle differences of how each Commandment reads, depending on the particular faith of the viewer.

Now Dekalog, One refers to the First Commandment I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no other gods before me.  The story of Dekalog, One can be deconstructed to accommodate two conflicting views about God derived from two adults in the life of a 12 year old precocious boy called Pawel.  The father, Krzysztof, is a university professor who believes in reason and scientific methods. Pawel’s mother is apparently abroad.  Pawel has an aunt Irene (Krzysztof’s sister) who deeply believes in God unlike her brother.  

Pawel and his brilliant rational professor father, Krzysztof

Young Pawel is close to his father and shows off the computer skills he has learnt from his father to his aunt Irene. He can lock the door of his apartment using remote control with the help of the computer. He can even open water faucets by a similar method. However, the clever Pawel is also a sensitive boy who is shaken by the sight of a familiar stray dog that has died near his apartment.
When Pawel asks his father “Why do people die?” his father answers: “It depends—heart failure, cancer, accidents, old age..” 

The million dollar question from a 12-year old

Pawel persists: “I mean what is death?”

His father Krzysztof explains, “The heart stops pumping blood. It does not reach the brain. Movement ceases. Everything stops. It is the end.”

Pawel continues “So what is left?”

The father answers his son: “What a person has achieved; the memory of that person.  The memory is important. “

Now the film’s character Krzysztof could easily be associated with (or an extension of) its director Krzysztof Kieslowski, who had publicly stated that he was an atheist. The third Krzysztof of the film is the co-scriptwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz, who is publicly a Roman Catholic. This critic is convinced that Piesiewicz is possibly one of the finest scriptwriters in the history of cinema even though he is primarily a politician and a lawyer.

Pawel's aunt Irene is the optimistic theist 

In this amazing film, despite all the knowledge and scientific reasoning and calculations and a physical personal check of the ice that covers the frozen lake, the ice breaks.  There does seem to be a parameter beyond science and reason and physical reassurance that the calculations are correct.  Krzysztof, the father, calculated if his son’s weight could crack the ice and found the ice would hold. For the university professor, computers, mathematics and reason, is more trustworthy than God.  In 1989 Poland, computers and computation was the new God. As a good father, to reassure his own calculations, he himself goes on the ice to see if it could hold his adult weight.  He is reassured as the ice holds. Yet, tragedy follows.

There is sufficient evidence on the IMDB portal’s page on Piesiewicz that Dekalog, One, Two, Seven and Eight are four episodes that were originally written by Piesiewicz. These are four of the most intriguing episodes of the 10. Conversely the other six were originally written by Kieslowski, with additional inputs from Piesiewicz.

If we accept the Piesiewicz contribution to Dekalog, One being more than that of Kieslowski, plot wise, the end of this episode falls into place. The devastated, emotionally broken, rational father goes to the church under construction to make peace with God.  The makeshift wooden altar breaks.  The falling lighted candles drip white wax on the iconic figure of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, giving the impression that the Madonna was crying. (Dekalog, One opens with a shot of aunt Irene crying as she watches television breaking news on the streets.) As the emotionally broken father leaves the church, as a good Roman Catholic he dips his hand in the receptacle containing holy water. The water is partly frozen.   A former rational professor pulls out a piece of ice resembling a Host wafer from the receptacle and contritely presses it on his forehead by himself. What a wonderful symbol of accepting God above all his rational calculations. Was Kieslowski really an atheist as he claimed to be? 

P.S. Dekalog is included in the author's top 10 films. Three other episodes: Dekalog, Two; Dekalog, Fiveand Dekalog, Seven have been reviewed earlier on this blog. The reviews of  Dekalog, Two and Dekalog, Seven dwell on the intriguing interpretation of the relevant Commandment.

This critic was fortunate to have met and talked with director Kieslowski in Bengaluru, India, in January 1980 when his collaboration Piesiewicz had yet to begin. Dekalog, Three Colours: Blue, White and Red, and The Double Life of Veronique were yet to be made. This critic ardently hopes to meet with Piesiewicz to ask him about those films and Kieslowski, now that Kieslowski is no longer with us.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

203. French director Jean-Pierre Melville’s and cinematographer Henri Decaë’s début feature film “Le Silence de la Mer” (Silence of the Sea) (1949) (France): When silence (and the camera) talks and can be more effective than the spoken word

Some of the best films of celebrated filmmakers have been their debut films because they put in all their pent up creative energy in that effort to find recognition as a director. Examples are Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge (Handsome Serge) (1958), Mike Nichols' Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971), Sir Ridley Scott’s The Duellists (1977), and Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton (2007). Unfortunately, they rarely are/were able to repeat or improve on that amazing quality that is often not tailored for commercial viability but more for artistic value. 

Very few cineastes would associate the director Jean-Pierre Melville with his debut film Silence of the Sea; most will associate him with his cops and robbers action films or noir crime films, such as The Samurai, films that have a wider appeal. That's because Silence of the Sea is essentially unusual and intense filmmaking so different from the rest of his films. The film mainly is built around three characters with one talking most of the time and the other two of them rarely or almost never speaking to the camera. It’s unforgettable film-making, with amazing play of light and shadow and camera angles that recall German expressionist cinema. Of course, each of the aforementioned debut films by the different directors too had exhibited that finesse of melding the plot with incredible unusual technical quality. All these are films for the lover of quality cinema not for the lover of escapist thrills.

The uninvited guest--a Nazi officer Lt von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon)--is
 thrust into the world of a French village household comprising an
uncle and his niece duo during the German occupation

Silence of the Sea is based on a French novel written 7 years before the film was made. The novel/short-story was written by Jean Marcel Bruller better known by his pen name “Vercors.” He was part of the French resistance against the Nazi invaders of during World War II. Director Jean-Pierre Melville was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach and, like Vercors, was also a part of the French resistance with a code name Melville (after the novelist Herman Melville). And his name “Grumbach” transformed officially into “Melville,” once he launched his career in cinema. Jean-Pierre Melville almost did not make this important debut feature film, first because Vercors did not think he could do justice to his novel and refused permission to film it. Melville coaxed Vercors to a wager that he would destroy the film if any in a jury of 24 French resistance workers disapproved the final film product. Vercors reluctantly agreed to that wager. Then the debutant director Melville had to face another hurdle: two of his cinematographers left the project, one after the other. Debutant cinematographer Henri Decaë was the third choice and this was his debut as well. And what a debut that turned out to be!

The speaker and the two silent listeners: note the shadows,
the books and the piano--all important facets of the film

As mentioned earlier Silence of the Sea revolves around three characters. One is a German Nazi Lieutenant  called Werner von Ebrennac (played by Howard Vernon) and the other two are French residents of a French village—an elderly pipe-smoking man living with his niece, shown cooking and knitting indoors in most of the film’s duration. They are nameless—the filmmakers/Vercors do not name them. They represent the proud but conquered French population. For some unknown reason the house of this French duo is chosen for the German officer to stay and as a conquered nation the French family obliges but refuses to communicate with their uninvited guest.

The German officer who's changed into his civilian dress gives regular
monologues on why he appreciates French literature, as the French 
elder (Jean-Marie Robain) seems to pay more attention to his pipe

Most of Silence of the Sea is filmed in the very house the author Vercors wrote the novel. The film thus gets reduced to regular pleasant monologues of the German officer to his silent hosts in the evenings as the old man either smokes or holds his pipe and his niece is preoccupied with her knitting. The victor in war tries to communicate with the vanquished. In return, all he gets is silence, not even a visual acceptance of his physical presence.  The old man is forever seemingly preoccupied tending his pipe, and the young lady busy with her knitting.  The German is an intruder in their daily lives. The silence is not to be interpreted as a social weapon but as a moral and patriotic response. And where is the sea? There is no sea in the film. The “sea” of French men and women who disliked the German occupation opted to be silent in their adversity—a smart, cultured passive resistance, when analyzed in retrospect.  A silent rebellion that hurts the victorious enemy!

The silent listener to the German's monologue in French,
not even acknowledging the presence of his uninvited guest

The difference Vercors/Jean-Pierre Melville presents in the novel/film will bother the viewer’s conscience. The German officer is not a brute; he is cultured, well mannered, well read, very knowledgeable about music, and actually admires French writers Moliere and Racine. He even states that he finds German girls to be coarse. [A good cineaste would be quick to note the parallels between Vencor’s von Ebernnac in Silence of the Sea and Konchalovsky/Kiselava’s Nazi officer in Paradise (2016) who admires the Russian literary giants as he deals with a Russian lady prisoner in the prison camps.] Director Melville allows the old man to speak off-camera in Silence of the Sea using a voice over narration and one of the most pertinent lines he utters is “It pains me to offend anyone even if he is my enemy.” Despite the silence and impassive faces there is visual evidence that the niece is possibly falling in love with the “Beast” (von Ebrennac had deliberately mentioned how he loved The Beauty and the Beast, a French fairy tale) as she pricks her finger while missing a stitch while knitting at the precise juncture when the German mentions his German woman-friends. The brilliance of Melville’s film is the ability to get the camera to pick up subtle details of the silent couple that talk more than words. Spielberg did just that in his film Duel.

A rare moment when the niece (Nicole Stephane) looks up from her knitting
--her hurt finger is of little concern

The camera captures three sets of hands
evoking a silent conversation  of their own

The subtlety of the filmmaking is astounding in Silence of the Sea. Was von Ebrennac in love with niece or was he merely wanting to discuss his views on how the French and the Germans could be united in “a beautiful marriage.” Did the niece make a muffled adieu to the German without looking up towards the end? These are details for the attentive viewer to pick up.

Director Melville won the wager with Vercors when the jury of 24 eminent French resistance fighters that included André Malraux and Jean Cocteau and the La Figaro editor voted on the final cinematic product. The La Figaro editor was the only one who voted against the release of the film because he found he was a last minute substitute on the ”24 person jury.”  Director Melville would have had to burn his film going by the wager.  Luckily for us, Vercors dismissed the scribe’s vote on realizing why he had voted against the film.

While much of the film is shot indoors, there is a wonderful sequence when the niece is walking alone on the snow and the German guest walks past her in the opposite direction. No words are spoken. The visuals speak more than words.

Another unforgettable sequence is when the French elder visits the office of his German guest for some trivial requirement and the host and the guest note each other’s presence.  Mirrors play a role. Who is the guest and who is the host?  The roles are reversed. Words are not spoken between the two—but what the camera captures speaks volumes. That is great cinema.

The body language of actors can be more expressive than words. Essays could be written on the the very subtle body language of the niece captured by Melville and Decaë.

A hot beverage is seemingly more interesting than a guest's monologue

On the other hand, von Ebernnac’s character is fleshed out more by words.  Imagine a German even today stating that Bach’s music is “inhuman” and that Germany has that “inhuman” character. Of course, Vercors was writing a novel that presented the French being superior to Germans in his subtle manner through the words of von Ebernnac. In Silence of the Sea, Vercors/Melville present the unusual German (recall again and compare the German Nazi of Konchalovsky/Kiselava in Paradise) which makes the intelligent viewer to realize that there is rarely a clear black and white distinction when we consider an enemy—there are more grey areas. That is why both Silence of the Sea and Paradise will remain great works of filmed screenplays.

The low-angle shot and lighting are equally as eloquent as the spoken words

Towards the end of the film—the old man gives his guest a verbal response and a virtual goodbye to von Ebrennac  leaving open a book  by Anatole France with the opening quote clearly visible to his guest: “It is a fine thing when a soldier disobeys criminal orders.

Director Melville took a big risk in attempting to make this film. If any of 23 jury members did not like it, the negatives of the film could have been burnt as a part of the wager with Vercors. This is without a doubt the crowning glory of Melville’s and Decaë’s respective careers.

P.S. The Silence of the Sea is included in the author’s top 100 films. The films Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,  The Duellists, Michael Clayton, and Paradise mentioned in the above review have been reviewed earlier on this blog. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

202. Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s film “Bacalaureat” (Graduation) (2016) (Romania), based on his own original screenplay: Fallouts of a father-daughter protective relationship within a contemporary corrupt East European social framework

The year 2016 saw the release of three very interesting award-winning films from three countries on two continents—all films on the same theme.  All three films deal with the father-daughter protective relationship under different patriarchal scenarios.  Daughter is an Iranian film and presents an interesting tale set in a society where the male members of the family protect their wives and their daughters until they are married with a ferocity that might surprise many in Western developed countries. Graduation is a Romanian film with another interesting tale where the father travels the proverbial extra mile to ensure his daughter benefits from a prized graduate education in a prestigious English university that will help her in her future career, a chance he himself never got in Communist and post-Communist worlds. The third film is Toni Erdmann from Germany where the daughter is older and busy trying to climb the corporate ladder without much thought for her father whose only true companion is reduced to his dog. 

In all three films, the role of the mother is marginal. The two European films clearly indicate that the women in Romania and Germany enjoy a greater freedom of action compared to the male-dominated Iran.  In two of the three films, the women have the last word. How interesting it is to find parallel tales emerging from three different communities that grapple with the same concerns almost simultaneously! All three underline love of a father for a daughter.  Interestingly, in all the three films the father does not have a son and only has a single daughter, all old enough to make their own decisions!!!

The father's (back to camera) concern as the daughter drives off
with her boyfriend

The Romanian film Graduation offers the viewer much to mull over beyond the obvious father-daughter relationship. It reflects the statement made by the director Mungiu in an interview to the Los Angeles Times reporter Steven Zeitchik in May 2016, “We live in a world and society that is not very moral but is made up of people who believe they are moral. I come from a country where everyone talks about corruption but they blame someone else.”

It is useful to evaluate the father figure in this film with this comment from its director in perspective. The father figure is a respected doctor and honest in his profession. Yet he is not honest to his wife as he is having an adulterous affair with a single mother. His wife does not know this but suspects his infidelity. The couple seem to be leading a frosty relationship within the small apartment, while the doctor claims to be an idealist. The doctor’s smart daughter is clever enough to be aware of the affair. 

So when the viewer of the film is shown someone throwing a stone at the doctor’s closed windowpane and smashing it, we know there is a message that all is not well.  And this happens before the good doctor stoops to do a corrupt act to help his only daughter in her future life. All through the film we never get to know who threw the stone and why it was thrown.

Later in the film, doctor’s daughter is sexually attacked on a forlorn stretch of land on the way to her place of study and she is able to fend off the attacker but is naturally mentally disturbed by the incident. Despite the father’s clout with police and a police line-up of suspects, the daughter fails to identify the attacker. Once again the viewer is flummoxed. Who attacked the daughter? Who threw the stone? Who is attacking the family? Or is it all a mistaken coincidence of unrelated events?

The very concerned parents are sitting
symbolically apart after the daughter
 is attacked in the hospital

The father who loves his daughter wants to ensure that the daughter gets the required grades to get the scholarship to UK. He is worried that the recent attack on his daughter could affect his daughter’s grades and his dream roadmap for his daughter would go up in smoke. He uses his network of acquaintances who he can tap to ensure his daughter’s examination answer papers fetch the required marks for the UK education.  In the post-Communist “if you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours” scenario, the father ensures that his daughter would get the required marks if her papers are marked by his daughter with a symbol that the answer-paper evaluator will recognize as hers.

The father uses his contacts in the police force to identify
his daughter's (right)  attacker

Now if you have viewed the past works of director Mungiu you can expect an end that will surprise the viewer. That indeed is the case with Graduation. The end of the film surprise most viewers. Mungiu’s strength lies in how he ends his films. Graduation is no exception to that trend. It definitely jolted the Cannes film festival jury to bestow on him the Best Director award.  At the Chicago international film festival the jury again awarded the film the best screenplay award to Mungiu for “a narration that works with suspense as well as slice of life, creating a whodunit story structure while staying emotionally extremely close to the main character.”  And just as the father in the Iranian film Daughter won the best actor award at Moscow for the role of the father, the actor in the role of the father in Graduation won the Best Actor award at Chicago for the “ subtle yet hard-hitting impression he delivered of a father getting himself into corruption for which he pays a heavy price. His portrayal of his love for his daughter as well as his pushiness to control her future is extremely captivating” to quote the citation.

The police line-up does not help; the mysteries in the film remain unresolved

There are three exciting new/young directors making films in Romania: Cristian Mungiu, Calin Peter Netzer, and Cristi Puiu. None of them are likely to disappoint a discerning viewer as the power of each of their tales goes beyond boundaries of the stories. Each work will make you think.

P.S. Daughter and Graduation are both included in the author’s top 10 films of 2016. Mungiu’s previous work Beyond the Hills (2012), which won two major awards at Cannes, was reviewed earlier on this blog. Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005) is one of top 15 films of the 21st century for the author. Calin Peter Netzer’s Child’s Pose (2013) is one of top 10 films of 2013 for the author.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

201. Iranian director Reza Mirkarimi’s Farsi language film “Dokhtar” (Daughter) (2016) (Iran): Fallouts of a father-daughter protective relationship within a patriarchal, conservative Asian perspective

The year 2016 saw the release of two very interesting award-winning films from two countries from two continents.  Both films deal with the father-daughter protective relationship under different patriarchal scenarios.  Daughter is an Iranian film and presents an interesting tale set in a society where the male members of the family protect their wives and their daughters until they are married with a ferocity that might surprise many in Western developed countries. Graduation is a Romanian film with another interesting tale where the father travels the proverbial extra mile to ensure his daughter benefits from a prized graduate education outside his country that will help her in future life. 

The only basic difference between the two films is that the women in Romania enjoy a greater freedom of action compared to the male dominated Iran.  In both films, the women have the last word. How interesting it is to find parallel tales emerging from two different communities that grapple with the same concerns almost simultaneously!

The brave educated daughter (Merila Zare'i) who makes a trip to the country's
capital Teheran against her father's wishes

All over Asia male members of a family fiercely protect their wives, sisters and daughters to the extent that some women are killed to protect the family honour if they choose to have a relationship with a man who is not acceptable to the family.  In the film Daughter, the Iranian family is an educated upper middle-class one. The father is a respected technocrat in a large factory in Esfahan (Isfahan) with lots of workers under his supervision. His daughter goes to college and is popular with her female classmates. One of her classmates who is leaving Iran invites her and other classmates to Teheran for a final get together. The daughter wants to attend, confides her wish with her mother, who in turn informs the father. The father turns down the request having concerns for her safety in a strange city. Without the permission of the father, she buys a return air ticket with the intention of returning the same day before her father notices her absence. The young lady attends the get together but despite her best intentions her flight that she boards in cancelled before take-off. The scared young lady has an asthmatic event and has to be treated at the airport.  This is mainly the prelude to the film.

The daughter on her own

Though the film is titled Daughter, the film is essentially about the father. The busy well-meaning technocrat is worried and offended—and has a temper to boot. His only daughter is in medical trouble in a strange city. Beyond the storyline, the director is presenting the world of women in Iran. Women in Iran are increasingly educated and wish to move freely within the country and interact with friends of their own sex. The patriarchal system restricts such activity to “protect” the women. The viewer learns, as the film progresses, that the father has a sister in Teheran, whose marriage he did not approve and had consequently cut off communication with her in anger.

The daughter (center) with her college friends
contemplating choices to make in life

Director Mirkarimi’s scriptwriter is another male Iranian Mehran Kashani , who wrote the script of Majid Majidi’s The Song of Sparrows (2008) and Hamid Rahmanian’s Daybreak (2005). Mirkarimi and Kashani take pains to show the world of the daughter’s aunt with care. The aunt loves her brother and niece. When in trouble the daughter takes refuge with her aunt. Emancipation of the Iranian ladies permeates through the film, while men are shown as the emotionally weaker sex despite their outward bravado. Director Mirkarimi is credited with an earlier feature film Under the Moonlight (2000) which created a lot of interest at Cannes for its social and religious content. Three of Mirkarimi’s feature films were official Oscar submissions from Iran. In 2017, instead of Daughter, Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman was the official submission.  (And the Farhadi film has made the final nomination for the Best Foreign film Oscar, as I write this review.)

The father (Farhad Aslani) looking at his sister's life empathetically
for a change
The father begins to empathize with the
women family members he controlled

Mirkarimi seems to be a director good at asking interesting questions through his films. Mirkarimi’s Daughter not so innocently makes a case for the women of Iran as its closed society evolves in a male dominated nation.  Its case for the ability of educated women to make informed choices in a patriarchal world is placed before the viewer. It is not a religious cleric who realizes his past mistakes but an educated technocrat who can run a factory efficiently, who stumbles when it comes managing his family. Daughter makes an environmental comment on pollution in Isfahan as a flight landing is stated as the reason for the cancellation of domestic flight. Mirkarimi and Kashani do not rock the boat and leave the film's closing open ended. That’s clever Iranian cinema. The direct and indirect messages come through, both for the Iranian and foreign audiences. The control the father has over the family has parallels with the control the country has or tries to have over its citizens.

Daughter is not just important for carrying a social message, it shows the maturity of Iranian cinema's screenplay writing and direction capabilities under strict censorship laws. 

P.S. Daughter and Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman are two outstanding Iranian works included in the author’s top 10 films of 2016—the only two films from Asia. Graduation, a Romanian film, mentioned in the above review is also on this list.  Daughter deservedly won the Golden Peacock for the best film at the International Film Festival of India-Goa, as other films competing were not of consequence. Daughter also won the best actor award for Farhad Aslani who played the role of the father at the Moscow International Film Festival.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

200. British director Ken Loach’s film “I, Daniel Blake” (2016) (UK): Portrait of an aging, honest, well meaning, elderly citizen forced to retire by a health condition, “nothing more, nothing less”

Several directors in Europe have in recent years made outstanding award-winning films on the subject of working class bread-winners losing their jobs and trying their best to claw back to a life of normalcy by finding another.  The processes are devastating in each case. Foremost award-winning examples are Stephen Brize’s Measure of a Man (2015, France) and the Dardennes bothers’ Two Days, One Night (2014, Belgium). I, Daniel Blake continues to lead the viewer along the same paths of the  films but with a difference—the film underscores the inhuman apathy of government employment systems for those suddenly forced out of work. All three films have a common thread—when you are out of work and cannot find another—a sudden camaraderie develops between the unemployed and others who have faced similar situations.

I, Daniel Blake is an outstanding film of 2016.  It is a film that combines good direction (by the 80 year old veteran filmmaker Ken Loach who returned from retirement to make this film), a marvellous and credible screenplay by Paul Laverty (Loach’s colleague for the past dozen films), good editing,  and two very creditable performances by the main players.  It is not surprising that the film was bestowed the Golden Palm (Palme d'Or), the top honour at the year’s Cannes film festival, to Loach for the second time in 10 years.

There no room for a missed appointment for a single mother, with two kids
and little or no money, at the Department of Work and Pensions, because she
boarded the wrong bus to get there. The emotions on all the faces are so real!

What makes I, Daniel Blake stand out among the three films is Paul Laverty’s ability to infuse wry humour in the carefully chosen words spoken by its characters. Words matter in this film. The film opens with a dark screen.  Then you hear a telephone conversation –a conversation between Daniel Blake, a 59-year-old carpenter who had a recent heart attack or a cardiac event, resulting in a near fall while working on a scaffolding and medically advised not to resume work, and an anonymous employee from the British Department of Work and Pensions quizzing him about all his physical conditions except his ailing heart condition only to file a report on Blake that is obviously and quixotically incomplete and misleading.  This conversation sets the mood of what follows—the apathetic world of bureaucracy that does not believe in empathy for those suffering from a medical condition that prohibits working in their chosen trade.

The good carpenter is good with his hands and quite literate. But he is not computer literate. The British Department of Work and Pensions works on-line, on telephone, and very rarely face to face.  How does Laverty put it into words? Here is a fine example. The British Department staff tells Blake “We are digital by default.” Blake, who has had a rough time posting his applications on-line answers the bureaucrat sardonically, “I am a pencil by default.” Carpenters work considerably with pencils. This is not flowery writing—the script is socially loaded beyond the obvious repartee.

The audience can only agree with Laverty and Loach when Blake calls the Department a “monumental farce.” One is reminded of the Cuban masterpiece Death of a Bureaucrat (1966) directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea, in which a widow of a dead bureaucrat cannot access her widow’s pension and benefits because a critical identity card was buried with her husband’s body in the coffin and the Communist bureaucrats refuse to process her benefits without it.

Both Laverty and Loach teams up film after film to present us individuals who struggle to survive in a social world that sweeps them away because of incidents that they cannot control or intended to face.  The Cannes’ Palme d’Or winner The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006) where the main character joins the IRA after he clearly made up his mind not to do that after witnessing a life changing incident involving British troops or the comedy The Angels’ Share (2012) where a young Glaswegian narrowly escapes prison sentencing and subsequent troubles by a chance visit to a Scotch whisky distillery which ultimately leads to a well paid permanent job. In Tickets (2005), a group of well-meaning football-crazy Glaswegians on a train journey in Europe find one of them have lost their ticket, possibly stolen and suddenly have to grapple with future consequences of that situation that makes them more socially responsible.  The dozen films of Loach and Laverty build on Loach’s Kes (1969) written not by Laverty but by a book by Barry Hines, where a young middle class school kid, given little sympathy at home and in school takes interest in training a pet kestrel by reading a book that he steals from a bookstore.  Pre-Laverty and with Laverty, Loach has dealt with characters whose lives change by events that were not planned.

What Laverty brought on Loach’s table was spoken language that seemed to have a visual power beyond that of the camera.  “A pencil by default” is not something that you capture by the camera; the viewer has to figure out the connection between a pencil and the world of the carpenter. Apparently the film's script was prepared with help on inputs from real jobless urban poor who had to seek financial and food assistance in the UK and their experiences. The brilliance of Laverty’s screenplay writing comes towards the end of the film, when the curriculum vitae that he was forced to learn to write for getting a Job-Seekers’ Allowance is read out at his “pauper’s funeral.” What is read out, are words that we never could have guessed were written on the pieces of paper Blake was handing out to prospective employers. And at least one did respond positively.  What is written by Blake is Laverty’s magic that no camera could have captured. Daniel Blake is, as stated in his own words in his CV read out at his funeral “a citizen—nothing more, nothing less.

Daniel Blake (Dave Jones) and Katie (Hayley Squires) during one of the most
gut-wrenching scenes set in a food bank for the urban poor:
"You have nothing to be ashamed of. You are all alone with two kids. You are amazing."

I, Daniel Blake does not belong exclusively to director Loach and scriptwriter Laverty. It belongs to two other talented individuals chosen by Loach—actor Dave Johns who plays the character Daniel Blake and actress Hayley Squires who plays who plays Katie, who accidently crosses the path of Daniel at the British Department of Work and Pensions facilities. Now Katie is single mother of two kids. She has been uprooted from London to Daniel’s town and arrives at the office late because she boarded the wrong bus. Laverty’s magic allows both these two wonderful human beings to meet when there being knocked around by the unfeeling bureaucrats, by a "Laverty" accident. It is not surprising that Ms Squires has been nominated for a BAFTA award but it is surprising that Dave Jones has not been nominated for the restrained power of the performance, his first in a feature film. But then one needs to congratulate Loach for picking these two main actors.

Director Loach has a team that he works with on his recent films beyond the talented Laverty. A major team member is film editor Jonathan Morris who has worked with Loach longer than Laverty.  The editing in I, Daniel Blake, does not grab your attention until the ultimate “pauper’s funeral.”  Another member of the Loach team is the cinematographer Robbie Ryan who worked on the three last Loach films I, Daniel Blake, Jimmy’s Hall, and The Angels’ Share. It only shows that the Loach team has constantly evolved but the best of them tried and tested stay with Loach.

I, Daniel Blake is undoubtedly the best work of Loach and deserved the Cannes honor. 

P.S. I, Daniel Blake and Paradise are two outstanding works included in the author’s top 10 films of 2016. Loach’s The Angel’s Share (2012) and Tickets (2005) were reviewed earlier on this blog and the former is one of the author’s top 10 films of 2012. Two other films mentioned in this review The Measure of a Man (2015, France) and Two Days,One Night (2014, Belgium) were also reviewed earlier on this blog.

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