Monday, October 25, 2010
A Page of Madness
This is a strange film, a disturbing film, a great film. Made in 1926, it could well have been made yesterday, so much beyond it's own time does it seem to be. You may call it surreal or avant garde, but what we can say for sure is that it is an inspired and compassionate work of pure cinema, it's strength foremost in the visual dimension. Of all the movies I have seen about mental illness, this is the most heartfelt.
Plot. We don't know the plot since the script, in the form of inter titles, has been lost. The movie itself was lost for fifty years. The film was originally screened to the accompaniment of a banshee, or live narrator. The outline of the plot can be guessed as follows. A man has taken up a job as an attendant in a lunatic asylum in order to be close to his wife who is an inmate. She is in the asylum because she has drowned her child earlier. Next to her cell lives another woman who dances like crazy most times. There are plenty of other sick folks around and the due retinue of doctors and attendants.
The film is a sequence of images and it is hard to inter relate them. What is captured through the wordless audio visual medium is the subjective experience of insanity, alternately from the eyes of the affected person and others close to her. By far the most mesmerising image in the film is of the dancing woman. Locked up in a barred cell, she dances in a ceaseless rhythmical rotation, with demoniac energy till she falls to the ground exhausted and bleeding. The woman who drowned her child is perpetually huddled up and her husband, who obviously cares for her, can't bear to see her pitiable condition. At one point he steals the keys to release her. But she is adamant in not wanting to escape. On another occasion all the inmates break out in a riot and the camera does a marvellous job capturing the asylum on the boil with great detail and precision. The score, for the most clacking sounds made by wooden implements, is purely Japanese in flavour, and is marvellously suited to the theme, doing a far better job than words could do.
The restless, ever disintegrating, eternally forlorn and hopeless universe of mental illness has been captured in this energetic, dynamic, film. It is one of the great silent movies. It is nothing less, and surely something more, for being silent. I did not even miss the absence of subtitles or the narrator. The film gains through this austerity in it's tight minimalistic character.
At it's 58 minutes, it is a highly absorbing, enjoyable and watchable film.
Once again, it's a pleasure to acknowledge Nathanael Hood's contribution in introducing me to this fantastic film.