Tuesday, April 17, 2018

221. Bulgarian director Stephan Komandarev’s film “Posoki” (Directions) (2017): Has God indeed left Bulgaria along with a third of its population, to quote a character in the film?

Directions could be described as Central Europe’s companion piece to the celebrated Argentine 2014 black comedy and film anthology Wild Tales. Both are portmanteau films that deal with contemporary economic and social concerns of the middle class in their respective global geographies. Both films make you laugh at times, only to present a more somber appraisal of reality. 

There is a virtual bond between Stephen Komandarev and Argentine director Damian Szifron, even though they might not have met each other or even seen each other’s works. While Szifron’s film gave us six stand-alone original tales written by the film director himself, Komandarev’s film is about six taxi drivers’ diverse actions as they drive their taxis in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia, also original tales co-scripted by the Bulgarian director with Simeon Ventsislavov.  Szifron’s Argentine film, in the director own words, was about “law abiding citizens who face difficulty in making money and do so many things we are not interested in…a lot of people get depressed and some explode and this is a film about those who explode.” Komandarev’s film, too, is about some people who “explode” and some others who choose alternate solutions, when faced with economic and social difficulties in leading an honest life, by helping those who need help, whether it is humans or animals, and even undertaking a second unrelated occupation to make ends meet.

Trying to resolve financial problems in ways he knows best

US film director Jim Jarmusch had made a somewhat parallel film in 1991 presenting five taxi drivers in five cities in a film called Night on Earth. Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi used the same template in his 2015 film Taxi with a single taxi driver (Panahi himself) interacting with various customers in Teheran.

Directions is a film that presents the sad reality of Bulgaria’s post-Communist, post-Glasnost society, where the pessimists have fled the country for greener pastures and the optimists have stayed on, despite growing corruption, rising costs of living and persistent  Communist mentality of the past. People work hard to earn honest wages–yet they suffer heart attacks and end up leading lonely lives. Prostitution is rampant as young girls want to live on the fast lane despite elders advising them to change.

A schoolgirl takes a ride

All the taxi drivers in Directions drive their taxis due to their economic and social compulsions.  One of the taxi drivers is a middle-aged woman whose economic plight might have hinged on an event during her university days when she refused the sexual advances of a man who a decade later is wealthy and based in Austria but fails to recognize her in the present avatar of the taxi driver. Another is an Orthodox priest driving a taxi in the night to augment his income, an unusual scenario elsewhere in the world. One might laugh at certain situations the film’s script offers but overall the film is pessimistic with a dash of religion thrown in. Even the dead drive taxis in this film, in the epilogue.

From start to finish, the underlying commentary is on earning money to survive in modern Bulgaria. A taxi driver uses his wiles to stop a man who has called his taxi for a ride before attempting  to jump off a bridge, ostensibly to get his precious fare that would be lost if the man does jump off.  But the segment reveals other unusual contemporary social problems—the man is a philosophy teacher living alone whose students have made fun of him on Facebook that leads him to think of ending his life.  What follows are uplifting and witty interactions between him and the taxi driver. The film Directions proves that the Bulgarian taxi drivers have a heart of gold and are not merely focused on making money.

Loneliness, poverty, Facebook and a taxi driver make an interesting cocktail
in this suicide attempt

Unlike most European films, Bulgarian cinema gives a lot of importance to family ties. A father lives for his daughter’s future. One episode of the film is on a father bemoaning the loss of his son, a loss he cannot tide over. He projects his love for his dead son by feeding a stray dog each night.

...and taxi drivers who take revenge for what led them to a life of a taxi driver

There are suicidal characters. There are characters who commit adultery. There are others who take revenge on those who have made their life miserable in the distant past (as in the opening segment of Wild Tales).  Opposing the negativism are the generous individuals who drive taxis in Sofia not merely for money but extending a helping hand when required to those in trouble—young school girls, old and sick bachelors who need medical and financial help, and suicidal teachers with little or no family to fall back on during stress.

Taxi drivers who help the sick and lonely to reach their destinations

Komandarev’s film strings the beads of the stand-alone episodes in a commendable manner to give us a lovely Bulgarian necklace, unlike its Argentine counterpart. The first episode ends with a taxi driver that is brain dead. Many of the later episodes have other taxi drivers listening to the news of that unfortunate incident. Another middle episode has a taxi driver taking a famous heart surgeon rushing to undertake a last operation in Bulgaria before he emigrates to greener pastures. Later in the film, you have a unemployed and lonely baker having to call a taxi to take him to hospital where he has been told they have a heart available for transplant that would suit him. The viewer has to string the not-so-obvious beads of the necklace.

Taxi drivers who care about stray animals as much as their own family

Where does religion fit into all this? At the obvious level, there is an Orthodox priest moonlighting as a taxi driver with a cross dangling on his chest.  The epilogue of the dead taxi driver continuing his trade and caring for his daughter after death is another. The interesting philosophical conversation between the priest-turned-taxi-driver and his passenger on the way to get a new heart at the hospital is a highlight of the film.

An Orthodox priest moonlights as a taxi driver

More than religion, it is the sad state of Bulgarian family life that is laid bare. Husbands cheat on wives. Many men lead lonely lives of bachelorhood. School girls grow up in the absence of their biological mothers and some take to prostitution. And yet unlike other parts of Europe, Directions seem to be a soulful cry from those who have stayed put in Bulgaria wistfully harking back to their social and religious traditions of old, amidst the ruins.

P.S. Directions is one of the author’s top 10 films of 2017. It won the best screenplay award at the Gijon International Film Festival and was picked to participate in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival. Two films mentioned in the above review, the Argentine film Wild Tales (2014) and the Iranian film Taxi (2015) have been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the name of the film in this post-script for a quick access to those reviews on this blog.)

Sunday, March 25, 2018

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

Background note on Russian filmmakers Sokurov and Kozintsev

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The interview:

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

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

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

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

Q. Did Kozintsev’s filmmaking influence you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

219. Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s “The Square” (2017), based on his original story/script: A modern social satire on urban hypocrisy that will unsettle most viewers in different ways

 “The square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations” 
---Explanation written for an abstract art installation, a square ground in front of an upscale museum. The square is demarcated with white borders painted on the open cobbled space, on which pedestrians can walk

The year 2017 has thrown up three wonderful, thought-provoking films from three different countries, all receiving nominations for the Best Foreign Language film Oscar in 2018: On Body and Soul from Hungary, Loveless from Russia, and The Square from Sweden.  All three are weird movies, far removed from the style or content of a popular Hollywood blockbuster. Beyond the individual subjects of the three films, all three are tales originally conceived by their respective directors. The directors of such films need to get the status that one often gives to authors of novels, and not be restricted to the more obvious role of the director. Most of the commercial films are based on novels, plays or real events.  These are directors who deserve more respect and admiration from the public who goes to the movies. Few realize the distinction between directors who are truly originally creative and those who merely adapt existing works or build on incidents that have occurred somewhere.

The white glow of the square replaces
the conventional statue of a man on horseback
in front of the art gallery

Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s previous original screenplay and feature film Force Majeure (2014) had looked at a split-second instinctive reaction that jolts the tranquillity of a perfect nuclear family. It presented a situation that could have happened within the best of families. In Östlund’s next film The Square, the director’s carefully conceived original script is built around a white successful male named Christian. Though the film has no religious overtones—the viewers in Scandinavian countries and much of Europe will easily identify Christian as the average European,  financially secure, well-bred, courteous, politically correct and good looking. Now that’s perfect material for Östlund to use make the viewer look inwards within the familiar world of not-so-financially secure immigrants dotting the European demographic landscape. Östlund is a master of the unpredictable and makes very interesting tales/films out of unsettling yet believable situations.

"You have nothing" is the title lit up on the wall to describe
the abstract installation of heaps of gravel which gallery viewers
respectfully view from a distance

In The Square, the main character Christian is convincingly is played by actor Danish actor Claes Bang who deservedly won the Best European actor award for his performance in this film. He is the chief executive of an upmarket art gallery with very interesting abstract installations.  One of the current installations is room full of small equal heaps of gravel placed at intervals with geometric precision. The amusing title of the abstract installation is “You have nothing.” People look at the installation with incredulous and yet respectful demeanour while gallery security are watchful that the visitors do not tamper with the heaps.  Much later in another sequence, we see the hall with the same installation being cleaned with vacuum cleaners and some of the soil from one of the heaps being inadvertently sucked into the machine. The cleaner adjusts the heap to resemble the original. No words spoken.  It is for the viewer to understand the jibe of Östlund. Östlund watchers could recall the final sequence of Force Majeure where once again no word is spoken but the silence communicates more than words.

The controversial scene from a video clip to promote the gallery
and the controversy relates to the race of the girl

The Square is a film that would strike a chord with Europeans who have accepted immigrants into their society.  These immigrants beg for alms from rich Europeans such as Christian. In a preoccupied moment, he ignores the plea for alms. In a thankful, happy frame of mind the good “Christian” offers a meal to the needy woman in a fast-food restaurant.  But then note the script of Östlund: the immigrant dictates to her benefactor what specific meal she want to have and Christian obliges.

The film is a critique of the well-meaning people of Europe. On a busy street full of pedestrians, Christian comes to the aid of a passerby who screams for help unlike many others who do not. That well-meaning man is robbed.

Aftermath of an unplanned sexual encounter: Anne (Elisabeth Moss)
confronts Christian (Claes Bang)

Not many films have scenes of unplanned sexual encounters where the male uses condoms. Christian uses one and Östlund spins off an unpredictable yet responsible and thought provoking post-coital conversation on who should be disposing it without consequences, when the woman wants to keep/dispose it.

The film has more unusual Östlund situations:  a well-to-do female Caucasian journalist who lives with a grown-up chimpanzee as a pet.  A formal fundraising dinner has an actor who terrorizes the invitees acting as a baboon and even trying to rape a scared woman invitee in public view.  People who often rush to help the needy do not rush to stop the show which has exceeded its limits.  A clever, well-meaning scheme by Christian to get the robber who stole his wallet, cufflinks and mobile phone to return the articles anonymously without the robber identifying himself/herself  or getting into trouble with the law, spins off a new collateral controversy involving an innocent, immigrant kid. A split-second decision not to review a promotional video for his art gallery cascades into controversy that costs Christian his comfortable, high-paid job again because Christian is not averse to  accepting responsibility for a video he did not make but had merely hurriedly approved.

Christian (Claes Bang) explains one of the installations in his gallery
that helps visitors to choose a route to view exhibits.
Evidently more people visiting his gallery tend to trust others.

The Square can make you laugh. Then it will make you squirm. That’s the power of Östlund. Christian in The Square may be the well-meaning Caucasian male in Europe today. It could be you, if you put yourself in Christian’s shoes. On Body and Soul from Hungary, Loveless from Russia, and The Square from Sweden are examples of superb scripts and mature cinema, superior to most films made elsewhere in 2017. Holywood is waking up to this Swedish director and remakes of his films are likely to be made in USA.

P.S. The film The Square won the Golden Palm for the best feature film in competition and the Vulcain Prize for its Production Design at the Cannes Film Festival; and swept the European Film Awards winning the Best European film, best comedy film, best director, best actor, best screenwriter and best production design awards. Ruben Östlund’s previous feature film Force Majeure (2014) has been reviewed earlier on this blog. The 2017 films On Body and Soul from Hungary and Loveless from Russia have been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the name of the film in this post script to access that review.) The Square is one of the top 10 films of 2017 for the author.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

218. Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film “Nelyubov” (Loveless) (2017) (Russia), based on his co-scripted original screenplay with Oleg Negin: Indirectly encapsulating the state of politics in Russia from late 2012 to December 2015 and religion as practised today in that country.

On the very obvious level, Loveless is a modern tale of a middle-class family living in Moscow. Boris and Zhenya, the parents of a 12 year old schoolboy Aloysha, are on the verge of a divorce.  This might appear to be a tale of the disappearance of the anguished kid deprived of parental love—but the film is much more.  What is not so obvious in Loveless, is precisely what makes the film outstanding—as is the case of any Zvyagintsev feature film. The key to appreciating Zvyagintsev is to “suspend your belief” in the obvious and re-evaluate what was presented. And every shot of his films is loaded with silent commentary for any astute viewer to pick up and relish.

There is a special flavour that exudes from original screenplays conceived by directors in contrast to adapted screenplays based on novels, plays and historical events. That  flavour will make an erudite viewer sit up. Barring the exception of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Banishment (built on the framework of the US novelist William Saroyan’s The Laughing Matter) all four other Zvyagintsev’s films are based on the original screenplays.  The last four of the five Zvyagintsev feature films were co-scripted with Oleg Negov. If there is one common thread that binds all the five works --it would be love and absence of love, often within the walls of a family. To the more astute viewer, there are two other common perspectives in all the five films: the political state of Russia and religion in Russia, as practised by the Russian Orthodox Church today.  These statements are explained in the paragraphs that follow.

Aloysha: at the mercy of parents who want to divorce

Zvygaintsev in an interview with Nancy Tartaglione published in Nov 2017 in www.deadline.com stated (http://deadline.com/2017/11/loveless-andrey-zvyagintsev-oscars-interview-news-1202209229/) “These events (in Loveless) take place against a very specific historical background. The film begins in October of 2012, when people were full of hope and were waiting for changes in the political climate, when they thought that the state would listen to them. But 2015 is the climax of their disappointment: The feeling that there is no hope for positive changes, the atmosphere of aggression and the militarization of society, and the feeling that they are surrounded by enemies.” This statement is further testimony to what any Zvyagintsev film enthusiast already knew; that all Zvyagintsev films’ plots can be viewed as political metaphors/allegories. Zvyagintsev’s and Negin’s Aloysha is an obvious allegory of Russia today.

Boris: the father who is more worried about keeping his job after the divorce
than looking after his son

Zhenya: the mother more interested in a richer lifestyle after the divorce

Zvyagintsev’s first film The Return was about two young boys who grew up in the apparent absence of love from their biological father and their affinity to him when he does return.  When the kids understand their father’s love, it is too late. In his second film Banishment, the focus is on love and absence of love between mother and father, as also between father and children.  When the husband ultimately appreciates his wife’s love for him, it is too late. In Zvyagintsev’s third film Elena, a rich man has a hedonistic daughter from his first marriage, a grown-up offspring whom he loves but that love is only reciprocated by her in an aloof manner. Elena, also has a biological son, daughter-in law and grandson from an earlier marriage, whom she loves and cares for financially. The focus of Elena is also on the love or the lack of love between husband and wife. In Zvyagintsev’s fourth film Leviathan, the husband forgives his erring wife and obviously intensely loves her and their son.  That film had included a sermon by a Russian Orthodox priest in the church (towards the end of the film) that stated "Love dwells not in strength but in love". Thus, love or lack of it within the family connects all the five Zvyagintsev films.

Apart from Zvyaginstev, much of the high quality of the last four films ought to be attributed to co-scriptwriter Oleg Negin. Their collaboration is akin to late career collaborations on scripts of director Andrei Konchalovsky with Elena Kiseleva, of director Krzysztof Kieslowski with Krzysztof Piesiewicz, of director Aleksandr Sokurov with Yuri Arabov, and of director Ken Loach with Paul Laverty. Each of these collaborations has been spectacular. In Loveless, the script reflects the socio-political Russia (mention of the Ukraine war on television is like a loss of a child to father Russia), partially cut trees preparing the ground for more concrete constructions, while older buildings are crumbling, uninhabited and neglected. (In doing so, they seem to be paying a silent tribute to Andrey Tarkovsky’s films Stalker and Solaris.)

Loveless may seem to be lacking in the religious fervour of the scriptwriters more obvious in the earlier works such as Leviathan and Banishment.  Is it really so? Boris and his co-worker at work talk about their boss (they refer to him as “Beardy”) as a fundamentalist Christian who wants all his employees to be happily married, if they want to keep their jobs.  Another worker, it is revealed, who was not happily married, paid someone to act as his wife and progeny at an official get together to keep his job.  Zvyagintsev revealed in an interview that the character of Beardy was built on a real Russian industrialist with a similar mindset.  Zvyagintsev is a deeply religious director who is disapproving fundamentalist religious fervour indirectly in Loveless.  Similarly, when Zhenya’s mother invokes God briefly, it is not a religious outburst but more of a reflex comment from a “Stalin in skirts,” as Boris describes his mother-in-law, invoking God.  Zvyagintsev and Negin are clearly pointing to the lack of understanding of religion of those who profess their faith but act to the contrary. Another commentary on Russia today!

When the police force gives up on locating Aloysha, social groups get into the act without any monetary reward. Even though Zvyagintsev protests that his films are universal and not social or political, it might be a strange coincidence that the age of Aloysha is precisely the number of years Putin has headed the Russian government.

The mother is more concerned with her smartphone
than looking after her biological son,
who she claims is even beginning to smell like his father

The absence of love in Loveless is not merely between a set of divorcing parents and their growing son.  There is no love lost between Zhenya and her mother, the “Stalin in skirts,” who lives alone in a fortress, hardly ever in touch with her daughter.  In the search for the missing Aloysha, the police find a body of a similar 12 year old—evidently there are other Aloyshas in Russia today. Perhaps the current generation is behaving thus because of how their parents behaved and acted religious in the past when they did not translate their belief into actions.

What are the reasons for these instances of absence of love? Loveless suggests that it could be hedonism, the love for modern smart-phones overtaking interest in their immediate family, or it could even be the pursuit of wealth and comfort.

Much of these opinions are not said overtly but effectively captured by Zvyagintsev and cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, as they did together in four of the five Zvyagintsev films. Krichman’s camera lingers to capture more than the action, he focuses on the environment that plays a silent role in the events. Krichman is emerging as a major cinematographer alive and making films today.  The best sequence of Loveless is the silent scream of Aloysha, reminiscent of actor Rod Steiger’s final anguished scream towards the end in The Pawnbroker (1964).

Zvyagintsev is also a master of using silent sequences for effect followed by pulsating minimalist music. He had used Philip Glass’ music very effective in both Elena and Leviathan. In Banishment, he had used the music of Arvo Part.  In Loveless, he asked Evgueni and Sacha Galperine, a French duo, to compose the music by merely providing the story.  They came up with “11 cycles of E” made of one note and one rhythm, which is quite similar to the soundtrack of Elena.  The Galperines won the European Film Award for Best Composer with the interesting citation that stated the intelligent piano effects made the score work like an extra character added to the unfortunate family.

The first and closing sequences of both Elena and Loveless have a similar and familiar Zvyagintsev signature: the sound/images of a hooded crow cawing on leafless trees in bleak and cold exterior shots of an urban setting. It is depressing. Yet the subjects of these five films are broadly, truly universal. 

One of the final sequences with "Russia" in bold
to reiterate the unsaid 

Is this the best work of Zvyagintsev? Though the film Loveless is remarkable in most respects, the lengthy hedonistic scenes make the previous works of the director more palatable. Leviathan was definitely more complex than Loveless. Yet Loveless might prove to have more universal appeal than his other profound works.

P.S. The film Loveless won the Jury Prize award at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival and the Best Film award at the London and the Zagreb Film Festivals. It won the Silver Frog at the Cameraimage festival for its cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, who also won the best cinematographer award at the European Film Awards. Zvyagintsev won the Best Director award at the Asia Pacific Screen awards.  The four Zvyagintsev films The Return, Banishment, Elena, and Leviathan have been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the name of the film in this post script to access each review). Loveless is one of the top 10 films of 2017 for the author. Zvyagintsev is one of the top 10 active film directors for the author.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

217. Turkish director Semih Kaplanoglu’s film “Grain” (Bugday) (2017) (Turkey), in English, based on his original screenplay co-scripted with his wife: A sci-fi film on an agricultural scenario that could be real in the near future, with theological understatements

Grain is a very important film of 2017. 

It is an important film for several  reasons.  Globally, very few feature films have dealt with agriculture as the focal point. In India, several important films were made on social themes related to agriculture—Mother India (1957), Do Bigha Zameen  (Two acres of land) (1953) and Upkar (Good Deed) (1967) are examples.  China’s Red Sorghum similarly dealt with society more rather than agriculture. Even the celebrated Russian film, Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930) dealt with social issues of collective farming rather than agriculture per se. Semih Kapalonglu’s Grain is a rare feature film where the focus is more on agriculture and science, and less on the social fallouts. A rare film that could be compared to Grain in content is Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green (1973)—a Hollywood film on a bizarre industrial response to alarming global food shortages.

Prof Erin (Barr) finally stumbles on an underground store of true, uncontaminated
wheat seeds, collected by ants that could revive natural agriculture
in uncontaminated soil.
(The rough diagram indicates the typical ant-storage architecture, according to Kaplanoglu,
which unfortunately is not explained to the viewer in the film)

Grain is notable because the film highlights the viewpoint of those who oppose the cultivation of genetically modified agricultural crops known as GMOs. GMO crops are those crops that have their DNA artificially altered by a process that does not happen naturally. The artificial process introduces genes from a different species or organism into the natural crop, boosting the ability of the altered crop/organism to survive diseases, insect pests, fungi and even extreme climates.  More than half of the countries within the European Union have banned GMOs until long-term studies conclusively prove these to be safe for long-term human and animal consumption. The pro-GMO lobby asserts the modified crops are safe and necessary to feed the increasing populations. The controversy has led to many products sold in the market to be clearly marked as either “Organic” or “non-GMO” for the consumer who cares to consume safe farm produce. Most GMO crops are grown on soils treated by chemicals necessary for such GMO cultivation. Chemical contamination of soils where GMO crops have been cultivated is another growing source of concern highlighted in the film Grain.

Like the 2022 setting of the 1973 film Soylent Green, Kaplanoglu’s English film is a sci-fi film that is set in the near future.  In the film Grain, GMO crop cultivation is the accepted norm for the majority of the population presented on screen and the private sector that develops and promotes GMO crop cultivation is a formidable and unrelenting force if one cares to challenge it.  Soils have been contaminated by the associated chemicals required to grow GMO crops.  Immigrants from less-endowed nations crowd “processing” centres hoping to be accepted by the richer countries even if they have to deal with its strict policing. People die of strange epidemics and when they die their bodies don’t rot or create a stench. This indeed is a dark subject fit to be made in black and white rather than in colour.

Opening sequences of multi-ethnic immigrants seeking better food and life
in countries with strict policing and controls

Electro-magnetic "walls" keep undesirable immigrants away from the land of plenty

Kaplanoglu is a known admirer of the films of the acclaimed Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky.  Kaplanoglu’s earlier film Milk , a constituent of his semi-autobiographical Yusuf trilogy, had a sequence where the protagonist’s mother  is sitting on a fence just as Tarkovsky’s mother  did in Tarkovsky’s  famous autobiographical film Mirror (You could refer to the review of Milk on this blog showing that scene).  There are several sequences in Grain that will remind a cineaste of Tarkovsky’s reflective sci-fi films Stalker and Solaris and even the theologically imbued final work Sacrifice, with a lone tree in a barren landscape.

Grain’s original script, written by Kaplanoglu and his wife Leyla Ipecki, is not a typical sci-fi film. Beyond the sci-fi text is an overt layer of theology that is remarkably close to the films of Tarkovsky and perhaps even Kubrick’s 2001-A Space Odyssey. In an interview with this author, Kaplanoglu revealed that the inspiration for making this film came from a chapter/portion of the Holy Quran called Khef or the Kahf (cave) Sura . The entire film Grain questions the wisdom of human beings tinkering with nature, what the Creator of earth provided and the fallouts of such scientific meddling.

Stark beauty of Anatolia (Turkey) provide the location for the filmmakers
where people in the film die suddenly from unknown epidemics

The film is not about disparaging conventional agricultural research involving hybrids and products of varietal cross breeding but those specifically about tinkering with natural species to create man-made species, and mindless destruction of natural resources in its wake for the sake of profit. The film Grain attempts to interconnect the life in a grain of wheat with life in humans, and how even lowly ants instinctively try to collect and preserve naturally occurring non-modified organic wheat grain for their own species’ survival. The argument the film present is notable absence of the fictional “n” particle missing in GMO crops but present in naturally bred crops.

The Prof (Barr) comprehends the importance of non-contaminated soil
and natural organic farming devoid of chemicals

Grain is also important as the director Kaplanoglu and co-scriptwriter Ipecki try to contrast science with spirituality and theology. The end product can befuddle many and yet offer food for thought to those viewers who can pick up the details of spiritual metaphors, visual and verbal, that pour in cascades.

The story of Grain revolves around a seed geneticist Prof Erol Erin (Jean-Marc Barr, a French/American actor) who lives in a fictional city in the near future, the inhabitants of which are protected from multi-ethnic emigrants with electro-magnetic walls. “Erol” in Turkish means “brave.” For reasons unknown, the city’s nearby agricultural resources have been hit by a genetic crisis. In an internal meeting at the headquarters of the corporation that employs the geneticist, he learns of a fellow scientist who wrote a thesis on “Genetic chaos and the N particle” about the recurrent crises affecting genetically modified seeds is no longer employed by the corporation.  In pursuit of this elusive scientist named Cemil Akmann (Ermin Bravo, a Bosnian actor), Prof Erin meets up with his daughter, who is silently communicating on the computer in a language unknown to the professor, living alone in a huge house in disrepair and apparent neglect. A word that appears on her computer screen is ELOHA (the Hebrew name for God). Prof Erin sets out to meet the fellow scientist in a perilous journey and does find him. The journey, though totally different from Tarkovsky’s Stalker, has several visual references to the Russian film masterpiece. There are exquisite shits of the Anatolian landscape in Turkey captured by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens adding hues of mystery and awe in equal measure, somewhat like the desolate word of the Dead Zone in Stalker.  In Stalker, there is a stray dog that inspects the sleeping travellers; in Grain, a wolf inspects the tent of the sleeping Prof Erin. In both films, there is only a thin line that divides dreams and reality. In Grain, a child converses to the professor in the night in a dream sequence and then disappears under equally strange circumstances into the darkness. (Dreams play significant roles in two very important films of 2017: Grain and the Hungarian film On Body and Soul.)  After meeting Akmann, Prof Erin prefers the life style of Akmann and chooses not to return to the city.

Two scientists, Cemil Akmann (Bravo) and Prof Erol Erin access
the non-contaminated soil that can grow true organic crops and fall asleep
after transporting it to useful locations for safe use

The film even includes a visual of burning bush that will strike a chord with viewers familiar with texts of the three Abrahamic religions. The Burning Bush on Mount Horeb  (mentioned in the Book of Exodus in The Bible) is a bush that is never consumed by the fire and Moses is directed by God to remove his footwear as per the ancient religious texts, as he approaches the bush, while tending Jethro’s flocks. But is the Professor actually encountering the burning bush/tree or is it a dream? Those who have read the religious texts will associate the Burning Bush as a holy ground from where God speaks to Moses.

The film Grain begins with ultra modern electro-magnetic walls to keep out undesirable human beings and ends with a sequence where Akmann and Prof Erin spend time inspecting a stonewall, removing a stone here and there to peer through the gaps in the wall to glimpse Paradise. As in the end of 2001--A Space Odyssey, the final silent spectacle speaks for itself.  Kubrick was an atheist; Kaplanoglu is not.

Sleeping among growing crops, like a child in a mother's womb--touches of Tarkovsky

The two scientists team up

This is a film that is important for viewers familiar with the GMO debate.  The pro-GMO enthusiasts will debunk the science in this English film, which is a Turkish-German-Swedish-French-Qatari co-production.  According to the director, the film has been wilfully kept out of certain important film festivals that wanted to initially screen the film by the influential pro-GMO lobby. In spite of this, the film won the top award at the Tokyo film festival. The film was shot in Michigan (USA), in Germany and in Turkey. Visually the film is stunning in its stark beauty—an antidote to colour and natural flora that one encounters in commercial cinema. The subject itself is an antidote to the prescription of a better world as seen by the private sector corporations for us.

Whether one agrees with the basic scientific premise of the film or not, Grain is definitely one of the most important films of 2017, arguably the most ambitious work of Kaplanoglu, especially for any reflective viewer with either an interest in science or in theology/spirituality.

P.S. The film Grain won the Best Film award at the recent Tokyo Film Festival and is included among the author's top 10 films of 2017. The Kaplanoglu films Honey and Milk have been reviewed earlier on this blog. The Tarkovsky films Solaris and Mirror, mentioned above, have also been reviewed earlier on this blog.  The Hungarian film On Body and Soul  has also been reviewed on this blog. Turkey did not submit the film to compete for the Best Foreign Language film Oscar as the film was primarily in English. (Click on the coloured name of the film in this post-script to access that review)

Saturday, December 02, 2017

216. Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi’s film “Teströl és lélekröl” (On Body and Soul) (2017) (Hungary) based on her original screenplay: A stunning script involving dreams and matching dreamlike cinematography bring Hungarian cinema back to the heights it had climbed several decades ago.

 “Teströl és lélekröl  (On Body and Soul) is an idiosyncratic love story full of lyricism and humour, free of all social conventions. It impresses us with the subtlety and eloquence of its style and involves us in its joy of living and loving.” 
--- The citation for the FIPRESCI prize bestowed at the Berlin Film Festival

Hungarian cinema touched its zenith in the Seventies and Eighties when a group of remarkable Hungarian directors delivered their best works: Zoltan Fabri, Istvan Szabo, Miklos Jansco, Istvan Gaal, Karoly Makk, and Marta Meszaros—in that order.  Then there was a lull for several decades while the director Bela Tarr briefly captured the imagination of a new generation of filmgoers of the Nineties and at the turn of this century. Now in 2017, Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi brings back to the floundering Hungarian cinema the power of yore.

Just as Zoltan Fabri’s brilliant The Fifth Seal offered food for thought as few films do, director Ildikó Enyedi presents in On Body and Soul a range of philosophical thoughts captured through near silent sequences that discusses issues pertaining to the human body and soul---often presenting contrasting ethereal natural behaviour of animals in the forest with the bloody horror of an abattoir for another set of animals.  

The stag and the doe--arresting award-winning cinematography of Mate Herbai

On Body and Soul is not about animals—it is about us, human beings.  The main plot is an unusual love story of a physically unattractive old cripple falling in love with an emotionally crippled beautiful woman half his age. Director and scriptwriter Enyedi evidently loves to study body and soul in many facets of everyday life, not just limited to the world of a Hungarian abattoir.  If one looks at the subjects the film present, they could present obvious metaphors for larger geographies.  

Enyedi chose Hungarian cinematographer Máté Herbai (who has primarily worked with the little- known but not insignificant Hungarian director Atilla Gigor) to bring magic to her feature film made after a significant 18 year hiatus from making regular feature films, just as Terrence Malick took a 20 year break  between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. Enyedi’s last feature film was Simon the Magician (1999) that won awards worldwide following her 1989 Cannes winner My Twentieth Century. Now, Herbai (under directions of Enyedi) ,captures intimate  images of a stag with antlers in the company of a doe in a snowy forest.  There is no copulation on screen but the animals are evidently attracted to each other.  The film sequences seem to talk to the viewer.  That’s the first chapter of the “soul” in the film.

The lead characters go home after work separately
until their separate dreams bring them together

Enyedi and Herbai follow up with a contrapuntal sequence also bereft of music. This is of cattle waiting quietly before they are slaughtered. Herbai captures the eyes of the bull which seems to anticipate its fate as it looks through its cage at the slaughterhouse workers as they casually chat before they begin their day’s work. Both the lady janitor and the bull looks up at the sun tying up humans and animals in a cosmic silent gesture.  Enyedi and Herbai do not show the actual slaughter—only the preparation and the aftermath. Yet, the sequence is chilling and yet aesthetically rendered.

The filmmakers state in the end-credits that no animal was killed specifically for the film but they merely recorded an actual event in the abattoir.  That’s the second “chapter” of the film that gradually moves from the “soul” to the “body,” from the shots of the live animal to its dead body as prime beef portions. This sequence is not for the queasy animal lovers in the audience but yet it is aesthetically presented as few filmmakers can.

The CFO (Morcsanyi) watches his new Quality Inspector (Borbely) at work

As the film progresses, the viewer realizes Enyedi has merely introduced us to the human soul and body in the main plot of the film bringing to the fore the human stag and the human doe, connected through dreams.  While scientifically much of Enyedi’s imaginative tale can be pooh-poohed, the tale is extraordinary.  It is the unusualness of the situation that grabs the viewer. We are presented a man who is a cripple, who once had an active sex life, and now has a grown up daughter, suddenly taking an interest in a reclusive new worker in the abattoir, where he is the influential Chief Financial Officer (CFO).  Enyedi ‘s and Herbai’s initial visual introduction of the lady is superb: she is standing outside the building alone, while others are chatting in groups.  She retreats into the shadows when she realizes her legs are being burnt by the sun’s rays.  Enyedi develops her character as one who is very smart—one who can figure out likely conversations between people without hearing them, a person who can recall dates of incidents in her life perfectly unlike most of us, a person who takes her job seriously and professionally. Even her plate of food is carefully placed to geometric alignment. (Oh, Enyedi, how I admire the lovely details of your script!) And she is naive about sex (and music) even though men are attracted towards her but is evidently interested in experiencing it.

Enyedi does the same with the human “stag.” He once had a fair share of women in his life. The CFO still has a glad eye for sexy women that comes in his view but has grown up sufficiently to apologize profusely when he caught staring. Unlike the human doe who believes in rules, the CFO knows how to keep the local police chief happy by presenting him choice portions of beef. Unlike the human doe, the human stag has no problems meeting up with strangers. They are contrasting characters

What brings the opposites together?   Dreams. Sigmund Freud would have laughed at the amazing proposition of Enyedi’s film but even the stodgiest detractor will have to agree the improbable scenario presented in the film could happen. After all, it is a reworking of the Beauty and the Beast tale, cleverly packaged.

Separate bedrooms in a split screen. Both characters look forward to their dreams
as they prepare to sleep

The film is not just Enyedi and Herbai. The lead male role of Endre, the CFO, is played by a nonprofessional actor, Geza Morcsanyi, who in real life is a successful publisher of Hungarian books, has never acted in a film before and may not in the future.  However, he does edit film scripts and has written one screenplay. The female lead, Maria, is played by Alexandra Borbely, who has acted in a couple of feature films. The lead actors are very convincing.

Geza Morcsanyi plays the CFO

The film introduced this film critic to the wonderful voice, songs and lyrics of British folk singer Laura Marling whose song “What he wrote” wraps up the film. The lyrics of the song do not tie up with the story of the film. My guess is that scriptwriter/director Enyedi merely introduced Marling to the viewers as an extension of the sequence where music store owner suggests a CD  as good music to the character Maria who cannot make up her own mind on what music CD to buy and ends up buying the suggested disc.

Enyedi’s film is one of the best films of 2017. What is amusing is how a lady scriptwriter is able to create the minor characters—the sex obsessed male workers, the amusing psychologist, and the side plot of a worker stealing sex stimulants for human consumption that was meant for animals about to be butchered.  The film is Hungary’s submission for the Best Foreign Film category at the 2017 Oscars.  A formidable one indeed! Hungarian cinema is back at the top.

P.S. The film On Body and Soul won four awards and honours at the Berlin Film Festival: The Golden Bear award for the best film of the year; the FIPRESCI Prize; the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury; and the Prize of the Reader Jury of the daily Berliner Morgenpost .  It also won the prestigious 2017 Cameraimage Award for its cinematography by Mate Herbai and the top award at the Sydney film festival. It also won the audience award at the Mumbai film festival. Hungarian director Zoltan Fabri’s The Fifth Seal (1976) and Terrence Malick's  Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line have been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the names of the films in this post script to access those reviews.)