Thursday, September 30, 2010

Le Silence de la Mer

Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-73), 1949, 75m

This is a film set during the German Occupation of France during WW2. The director experienced this period first hand which gives the film veracity.

A German officer is lodged with an elderly citizen and his niece in the country side. On the surface France under Occupation seems a peaceful place--shops do business, people go around doing their duties, horse carriages move in the street. But  the price of capitulation has been paid for this tense and unnatural peace.. The French co-operate with the Germans in a sullen and defiant way.

The Officer is very un-Nazi like in terms of his courtesy, consideration towards his French hosts and quite apologetic  about having had to barge in. He is a man of culture and music and idealistically believes that the German Occupation is the beginning of a great new era of Utopian peace and friendship between the two nations.

The Uncle and niece maintain absolute silence throughout the film, not so much as acknowledging his presence. The Uncle continues at his reading and his pipe while his niece will not raise her eyes from her knitting as the uninvited guest continues in his reverie. The German, a lover of French culture visits them everyday and carries on a monologue about literature, music and his admiration for France and French things. Gradually the relationship between the Nazi officer and his French hosts mellows, and this is subtly probed through changes in gesture and expression.

Finally, on a visit to Paris, he learns of the concentration camps and the true German intention of crushing France in body and spirit. He returns, disillusioned and horrified to his hosts in the countryside and the film closes on a subdued note.

This is a simplistic and sentimental film. It would seem that the true horror of the reality and intentions of the Germans dawned slowly on the French, even as they were about to be squashed under the German heel. Perhaps they were even slower than the English to catch on. It is possible lots of Germans knew little of what was happening.

 The film is based on a book of the same name which was secretly circulated during the Occupation. This must have been the way a large section of the French must have protested the alien presence. The activities of the militant Resistance Movement are documented in the same director's Army of Shadows. Clearly, the French Resistance was no Vietnam War.

I would rate it as the first assay by a fledgling film maker. It is a truthful parable about a people humiliated. And what a contrast to the American  Occupation of Japan.

And, of course, not all Nazi's were bad. There was Schindler too.                          

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Paradine Case

Hitchcock, 1947, 112m

A murder mystery culminating in a courtroom drama with more than the usual twists and turns. Everything ih flavored with a syrupy love quadrangle built around the deceased blind and wealthy soldier-aristocrat, his fatally beautiful wife who is charged with the crime, the dead man's valet who is more than a valet, and brilliant defense counsel Gregory Peck who is drawn to the accused woman. Charles Laughton as the Dickensian Judge spices up the fare with his engaging British-isms as does the prosecutor played by Charles Coburn.

More of drama than cinema, the movie holds you for it's span of time and you leave of with a feeling of two hours agreeably wasted.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Army of Shadows

Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969, 145m, French

If you are watching this movie on a small screen, make sure the room is darkened. Although it is in color the palette is almost completely dark most of the time. So the title is all the more apt, since the characters, members of the French resistance during World War 2, are very much like shadows who move around stealthily, talking in muffled tones.

France was occupied by the Nazi's from 1942-44, and a puppet government was set up under Marshal Petain at the town of Vichy. The Gestapo maintained a tight leash of surveillance on the citizens. The Resistance seems to have been a low key affair both in terms of men and armaments though it grew in strength as the war progressed. It consisted of a limited band of committed individuals, who dared to take up oars against an overwhelmingly hopeless tide. Their activities were mainly confined to supplying information to the British allies in anticipation of the Allied entry into European terrain.

This feeling of being defeated from the start, with no flicker of hope except perhaps to salvage one's own honor and humanity pervades this dark film.

What makes th film all the more significant is that Melville was an eyewitness to the humiliation of occupation and active in the Resistance. The occupation produced a breed of philosophers, Sartre being the most famous. The Resistance was in fact led by the philosopher Jean Cavaillais, who is transformed into the Luc Jardie character in the film. For these are distinguished men who have chosen a path in which death, imprisonment and torture dangle constantly as a possibility and thus have everything to be philosophic about.

Not an easy movie to watch, very different from the director's Le Samourai. Stylistically, it made me think of the Grey Zone.

Roger Ebert
Manohla Dargis

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Le Samourai

Jean Pierre Melville, 1967, 95m, French, Alain Delon

The movie opens with wisps of cigarette smoke rising from a hardly visible source in a dimly lit room, as a shaft of light penetrates around a half opened curtain. A bird in a cage chirrups agitatedly in the center of the room. In the dim light you can't distinguish anything but the smoke and the sound.

The Samurai in question is a Parisian hit man. The film is a gripping crime thriller, distiguished by style and atmosphere. Delon, as Jeff, a professional assassin has an uncanny resemblance to Tatsuya Nakadai in the Sword of Doom (1966). Whereas the Japanese movie ends with a sword arrested in mid-swing, the French one enigmatically ends with the firing of an unloaded gun in order to fulfill a contract.

What does the metaphor of the samurai stand for? The Jeff character has been described as Bressonian. The professional warrior must wear death on his sleeve. He holds emotions and nerves in tight leash. Jeff hardly speaks. The character is expressed in agility and grace of movement, like a lonely tiger, and imperceptible flickers of facial muscles, and on one occasion, beads of sweat as he pants. The most talkative creature in the film is the caged bird which he keeps in his sparsely provided room.

The plot: after furnishing himself with a solid alibi, Jeff kills a restaurant owner, but he is observed while getting away and ends up as one of the suspects in a line up for a police identification parade. He can't be pinned and has to be freed. Subsequently he is chased by the police as well as those who hired him for the hit job. He maneuvres through the metro system like a hunted beast in an electrifying (oh, poverty of vocabulary!) chase sequence. There are betrayals and loyalty and a climax of bizarre perfection.

The secret of the movie's ability to cast a spell on the mind is in the mechanics. It is a perfectly tuned piece of clockwork, an inspired sequence of puppetry, a meticulous architecture. Who is the caged bird? It is as though the script and code of Jeff's life has been written out for him, but there is something of the heroic in this unnaturally handsome, almost effeminate, cold blooded killer. The code which he obeys is internal and he answers only to himself.  The film concludes in an act of ritual suicide, as if to establish that he was more than a machine.

The noisy little bird in the cage is a disturbing symbol, as it flutters around desperately. If one may overstretch an interpretation, it is the anguished human being behind the glacial exterior, bound in the cage of his body.

Ebert's Great Movie Essay

Friday, September 24, 2010

Mr Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred D Leuchter

Errol Morris, 1999, 91m

Fred D Leuchter  is an engineer who specializes in the modification of execution equipment: electric chairs, lethal injection systems, gallows, gas chambers. Being the son of a jail official, he has a good knowledge of the execution process, about how gruesome and painful the results can becme if there is a malfunction of a system when in "use". "I'm for capital punishment but I am not for capital torture," he says. He runs a business which carries out these activities. The first half of the movie is an expose of the various means of execution currently in use in the US.

The dreadfulness lies in the fact that these macabre devices are a part of the sanctioned machinery of the modern state, the darkest edge of the socio-legal spectrum. Leuchter himself is a  nondescript person who talks about these unsavoury realities in a professional, dispassionate tone. His uneven nicotine stained teeth and hesitant smile make him an unattractive individual, whose background and profession have told upon his capacity to feel. What kind of choice of profession is this?

And then fate catapults him into a renown of sorts. He is inducted by a group of Holocaust deniers to testify in a legal proceeding in which one Zundel is on trial for disseminating material which aims to prove the holocaust never happened. He is flown over to the sites of concentration camps where he studies the construction of the gas chambers and takes samples of brickwork, which are chemically analyzed for traces of lethal gases. He comes to the firm conclusion that the gas chambers are a myth, and testifies to that effect. He is feted by the revisionists, flown around for lecture tours and the Leuchter Report is widely published and translated.

But his celebrity status is short lived and he becomes a pariah in his own country. His wife leaves him. His customers, the jail authorities in different states, blacklist him and he stops getting orders for work. In the end, he rues that he has been "persecuted and prosecuted" without any crime. But he remains firm in the belief, based on his professional expertize, that the genocide of the Jews never took place.

Errol Morris says his aim was to enter into the "mindset of denial". What we may gain from the film is self knowledge, our blindness to what is going on under our very nose. Leuchter is immunized to the enormity of the fact of capital punishment. Denial of the holocaust only underlines it's inconceivability. We are able to go through our daily routine by assuming varying degrees of myopia. The world is a country of the blind.

Roger Ebert's review
Todd McCarthy

The picture shows a part of a lethal injection system.

The Life of Emile Zola

William Dieterle (director) 1937, 116m, Paul Muni (1895-1967) as Zola, Oscar for Best Film

This is a biographical film about Emile Zola (1840-1902), the prolific and popular French novelist, a French Dickens whose novels mirror the times in which he lived. Emile Zola is equally famous for taking up the cause of justice at the peak of his career, in the process staking wealth and reputation, even putting his life at stake.

This was in the context of the Dreyfus Affair, in which a French army officer was falsely accused of passing on military secrets to a foreign power. He was publicly disgraced, stripped of military rank and status and deported to Devil's Island, off the coast of South America, where he withered away for four years. It soon became clear to the military that Dreyfus had been wrongly convicted, but the entire military establishment right up to the war minister engaged in a massive disgraceful face saving cover up, involving forgeries, lies, absolving the actual culprit and transferring to a remote African location, an officer who dared raise his voice for the truth, offering concrete proof of the miscarriage of justice.

It was under these circumstances that Zola was persuaded by Dreyfus' wife to use his literary renown and power of words, which was bound to resound throughout the land. At first he was reluctant but when confronted with the monstrosity of the scandal he threw himself completely into the cause. His first and most well known salvo was the eloquent newspaper article in the form of a letter addressed to the  French President under the heading J'accuse--I accuse. This is sometimes called the most famous newspaper article ever. In words of burning eloquence and emotion Zola outlined the shameful behavior of the high and mighty, naming each one of them, and appealing to the conscience of the people. The result was that Zola himself was put on trial for libel, and another mockery of the legal process ensued.

It is this trial which forms the center piece of the film. The trial has been compared to a circus on which the attention not only of the entire French populace but the whole world was transfixed. Crowds milled around the courtroom and Zola from a celebrity became the most hated man, with piles of his books burnt in bonfires. The film captures magnificently the grand spectacular trial, in which the amphitheater like bowl of a courtroom brims and explodes with the teeming passions of an inflamed populace, and the disgraceful parade of injustice and judicial malpractice, with political power pulling the strings from behind proceeds in broad daylight.

To cut a story short, Dreyfus was found guilty by the jury and condemned to the maximum punishment of one year's imprisonment. He decided it prudent to escape to England where he carried on the battle of words in the British press, attracting worldwide attention. Things finally took a favorable turn and the French government left with no choice but to bow to international opinion and save it's honor by acquitting Dreyfus and pardoning Zola. The affair places a searchlight on the evil macchiavellism which is the governing philosophy in halls of power.

I had never heard of Paul Muni. His portrayal of Zola is impassioned, fluid and skillful. He is a thespian in the old mold and this is a great movie from the days when movies were movies and actors acted.  I  was vaguely affair of the Dreyfus case and Zola's role and always curious about it at the back of my mind. This movie does a thorough and immersive job. It is an inspiring and uplifting film which deserves to be better known.

I have to thank my blog pal Nathan Hood for telling me about this wonderful film.

Nathan Hood (Review)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Thin Blue Line

Errol Morris, 1988, 103m

The title is a metaphor for the police force (based on the color of their uniforms) which is presumed to "separate society from anarchy". The stated motivation behind the documentary was to secure justice for one Adams, wrongly convicted for the murder of a police officer, and serving a life term. The film did succeed in this objective, since Adams was ultimately released. The film is a study of the legal machinery in the US which seems as flawed and corruptible as elsewhere.

The story is interesting and intricate but there seems no point getting into plot details here. What seems surprising is the lengths to which police would go to secure a conviction in a case of murder where the victim is a police officer. The actual guilty person (one Harris) is below sixteen and ineligible for the death sentence, which is what they want. Using the concocted testimony of Harris and three purchased eye-witnesses a verdict of guilty is secured for Adams in a trial by jury, which on appeal is commuted to a life term, for a technical reason.

Morris uses a mixture of interviews, footage and re-enactment to construct a multi-faceted montage of an intricate legal process, involving many people. Authenticity and truth are the dictums of Errol Morris. To reach conclusions or to pass judgement is not his way. Here we treated to a tour of the seamier workings of human nature and the haphazard lurching of the legal machinery. The only definite thing seems to be that it is difficult to be definite about anything.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Brief History of Time

Errol Morris, 1991, 83m

The title derives from the book by Stephen Hawking on cosmology. Though ostensibly for the layman and without mathematics, the bulk of it is far beyond the capacity of even seasoned physicists. I was able to skim through it once upon a time and left with a nebulous awareness of awesome frontiers of science, but more importantly a sense of the vast expanses of space and time which we inhabit. Hawking never talks down to the layman, which is responsible for the popularity of his book, because it gives you a good feel for things, if not an understanding. It conveys without dilution a sense of what the universe looks like from the present frontiers of cosmology, and also a view of the unbelievable fruits of the workings of the engines of science, involving the concerted operation of the best minds around the world.

The movie is more about the man than his work--Morris could obviously not have handled that, nor would it be material for authentic documentary, abstruse as it is. It is an irony of life that a person blessed with so powerful an intellect should be struck at the age of twenty one with a disease which gradually crippled everything in him except what mattered most--his mental capacities.

We understand the phenomenal level of his talent when a former class fellow remarks, "We realized we were not just not in the same street, he was from a different planet." Now that he has acquired pop status we should not forget he occupied the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge which was once decorated by Sir Isaac Newton.

The juncture when he first learns about the nature of his illness, and the two or three years left to him, is portrayed with sensitivity. Hawking immediately understood and accepted the finality of the pronouncement with a degree of stoicism. But then he far outlived the scant years which the doctors pronounced as his remainder. He recalls learning with great life that his intellect would remain unimpaired, even as his body would wither away.

What he seems never to have lost to any significant degree is the zest for life and work. In spite of his gradually diminishing physical capabilities, he poured demonic energy into his work. He was hooked to science. In a sense one may say that he was in no way handicapped in performing what he was born for, and the disease brought his life into even greater focus, since little else remained. As one of the interviewees in the film remarks, what could have been a disability and an unbearable suffering for an average person was far less so for him.

Even if a bit slow, Morris has made a fine movie, which needed to be made.  Like everybody else I knew about this iconic cosmologist on a wheelchair who talks via a computer, having even read that book of his with scant understanding. But Morris makes his life come alive, cutting him to human size. We empathize with his suffering as well as his awesome passion. Platitudes about courage apart, Hawking is a rare case study of a man of science, about a man's consuming immersion in his work, and ultimately, of Man.

The drawing by William Blake portrays Newton.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Jalsaghar: The Music Room

Satyajit Ray, 1958, 93m.

This is a black and white film, but there is little white to be seen. This is a movie about transience. It is about the unutterably sad and melancholy yet defiant and dignified extinction of a man, a family, a way of life, a culture and an era. It is a strange, dark, brooding film. It's a film which stirs in me deep, hidden, forgotten, nameless feelings. You have to be Indian to understand it, and Bengali to understand it fully, which sadly I am not. Yet I am sure it is a film which will whisper different secrets to different folk. Even in Ray's spectacularly varied pantheon, it stands apart and alone, a musical poem belonging to no genre, genius and inspiration stamped all over it.

It's a highly musical film and it speaks more through the language of music than of words and this is what should make it widely approachable. It speaks about the innermost soul of a land and a generation, and nothing short of music could have reached out so deep. Music seems to be of the essence and the cinematography and acting cast a halo around the music, more than vice versa.  The thespian performance of Chabbi Biswas leaves even the likes of tragedy kings  Dilip Kumar and K.L.Saigal panting behind--after all, they never acted for Ray.

We are treated to an intoxicating brew of Indian classical music from the topmost maestros. We have the meditative and pain drenched strains of Ustad Vilayat Khan on the sitar. Bismillah Khan bursts into joyous exuberant  melodies on his shehnai. We have a tantalizingly brief excerpt from a thumri of Begum Akhtar (bhar bhar ayee mori akhian pia bin). There is an extended khayal by Salamat Ali Khan and a dazzling kathak dance.

All these are heard in a room reserved for such soirees in the now somewhat crumbling mansion of feudal landlord Bishwambar Roy, whose resources are coming to an end. He is the gentle scion of an old family and holds out with stubborn tenacity to his inherited lordly lifestyle. His most redeeming feature seems to his total immersion in music--he lives and breathes music and hears it in his mind all the time. Music is his drug of choice. I think this is the Ray part in him. There is also in him a piece of Wajid Ali Khan of Ray's Shatranj ke Khilari (The Chess Players). He loves his wife and son. His son shares his father's passion for music. My own guess is Ray must have been shooting up like a rocket in response to this kind of music.

As his fortune dwindles and as one world is fading into another, unbearable tragedy strikes his life. Nothing is left to him but alcohol since he banishes even music from his life. Of course this is the familiar romantic dissipated alcoholic wastrel but Ray uplifts it to portray a specific society society at a specific epoch, etched with passion and sadness.With two attendants he withers away, glued to his armchair as months or years elapse.

As the movie draws towards the end, like the final outburst of a flame, we are treated to the virtuoso kathak performance by Roshan Kumari. In a moment of exquisite dramatic richness, Roy restrains the hand of his rich but boorish  neighbor, hooking the crook of his walking stick on the others extending wrist, as the neighbour tries to fling coins towards the dancer, asserting his right as host to make the first offering. In a truly electrifying finale, he rides out on a final journey on his favourite horse attired in regalia. The closure is on a tragic note, but it is also a transcendental poetic pointless death defying gesture of bravado, an assertion of his dignity as a man.

Most memorable are the cultural evenings of music or dance in the Jalsaghar, the Music Room. The audience recline forming an arc around the performer. Hookahs are lighted, wine is served, and a servant heaves a large fan (it's before electricity). As the fragrance of music settles, the camera explores the impact in the expressions of the audience. Some are fidgety while others restrain their lumps in the throat or tears and exchange shy glances of shared appreciation. The curtains billow like sails in the evening breeze and the huge chandelier sways as if responding to music.

A masterpiece. I'm knocked out. The second view of the movie cannot be just anytime. One must create the setting and the mood indigo, preferably on a rainy day and certainly to be accompanied by the cup that cheers, just like the magical evenings depicted in the film.
Ebert's Great Movie Essay
Bosley Crowther

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

Errol Morris (director), 2003, 105m

Errol Morris has a genius to get people talking, engaging them in creative dialogue. He has even invented a gadget called the interrotron to facilitate the process. It uses mirrors and the interviewee is speaking to the lens (he must be getting the feel of loud thinking) and the eye contact is with the viewer of the film. Morris never appears on screen though you can hear him infrequently asking a few questions in a slow, disembodied tone. Tough guy that he surely is RSM frequently breaks down, just short of tears, his voice breaking, when talking of the JFK assassination or the immolation of a mormon in protest against the US role in the Vietnam war. Of course great men have to be great actors. But it is such intimate authentic touches that are responsible for the power of the film.

One thing that comes through forcefully in this film is the central role of the individual in shaping social destiny. History is made by individuals. Power is necessarly concentrated in individuals, even in a democracy, and the processes that determine the course of war and peace occur invisibly in the depths of an individual mind. Such concentraton is all the more pronounced in war time. In the event of nuclear war the decision to press the trigger will formulate in one person's mind, and people at the helm seem to be closer to insanity than the rest of us. We learn from the film that the world was but a whisker breadth from nuclear calamity durng the 1962 Bay of Pigs Cuban Missile Crisis. Castro retrospectively confesses (in a 1992 meeting with McNamara) that he had already recommended the use of the over hundred nuclear warheads deployed in or around Cuba against the US in the event Cuba was attacked, even at the cost of Cuba's annihilaton, much to McNamara's horror, feigned or otherwise.

Human beings are fallible and war is a fog in which nothing is clearly visible. Most alarmingly, says the politician, human nature cannot change (the last of his eleven conclusions) and we are doomed to recurrent cycles of conflict. Whether it is so must be debated but it is nauseous that brilliant people at the peaks of the pyramids of power can find such suicidal fatalism affordable.. Obvious alongside the incredible evolution of the human intellect is the rudimentary development of the ethical funny-bone, which is the cause for the unleashing of hell and the helplessly collapsing dominoes, from Genghiz Khan down to the Nuclear Godzilla.

The peak years of McNamara's life (1916-2009) span his Presidentship of the Ford Motor Company, Secretary of Defense during Kennedy's tenure (including the nuclear confrontation during the Cuban crisis and JFK's assassination), the Vietnam war under Johnson and subsequently President of the World Bank. We journey through the past of McNamara in the company of Morris through a series of questions and monologues. In particular, the film gives a remarkably clear picture of the blunderings and errors of judgement which were the hallmark of the Vietnam war.

This is a riveting film. More than anything else we catch glimpses into the workings of McNamara's mind and behind the scene discussions that shaped some important parts of 20th century history. The insight into the nature of nuclear arsenals and the possible scenarios which could precipitate nuclear holocaust are fascinating.

Morris draws no conclusion and the conclusion if any is that there cannot be finality. The movie fittingly closes with the quote from T.S. Eliot:

We shall not cease from exploring
and at the end of our exploration
ws shall return where we started.

This is the work of an inspired documentarian with a vast three dimensional vision, wise enough to observe truthfully and passionately, and leave conclusions if any to the viewer.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Days of Wrath

Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1943, 97m, Denmark

This is a film of transcendent beauty and explosive power, chiseled to perfection. It soars above the other two Dreyer films I have seen, Joan and Ordet, both eligible for the label of masterpiece, in their own right. In the ranges of cinema, it seems a lonely and majestic peak, unlike any thing you have seen on a screen. In its dark brooding sensuality, it is a Rembrandt  like canvas of the human condition permeated by elemental human passions of hate, lust and fear. It also reminds me of Shiv Kumar Batalvi's bold classic Panjabi dramatic  poem Loona about a young woman married to an aging man, attracted to a step-son of matching age from a previous marriage.

It is set in a medieval period when trial for heresy accompanied by torture to force confessions (of complicity with the devil) seems to have been a routine thing with a well established bureaucratic machinery and procedures. Witchcraft is a taken for granted reality, a belief system accepted even by those accused of it. The film is by no means about religion or it's perversion. The movies of Dreyer are constrained by no ideology or religion. He is a compassionate observer of the hazardous and painful business of being a human being. It is about the torrents, flames and strikes of lightening which constitute our lives. It was made during the Nazi occupation of Denmark and perhaps has echoes about the ease with which populations can be brainwashed, particularly at the point of a gun or the fear of torture.

Absalon, inquisitor of witches is married to the young and beautiful Anne (played by Lisbeth Movin in an electrifying and complex portrayal), whose mother was accused of being of being a witch. Absalon spared the mother's life, in the bargain acquiring a young wife, who naturally had no inclination for it, and has for years burnt with rage, frustration and hatred for the old man. Absalon himself is troubled with guilt and uncertainties, making a strange concoction along with his dogmatic beliefs, reinforced by his official position as inquisitor.  Enter Martin, his handsome young grown up son and the beginning of a fore-doomed torrid affair. The movie opens with a burning at the stake and concludes with another.

To repeat the analogy, Dreyer's black and white  cinematography has a Rembrandt like stolidity and composure. The movement is ponderous and leisurely rather than slow (this dense drama is no more than an hour and a half). Anne gives an unforgettable portrayal which is a mixture of dignity, intelligence, long denied and inflamed physical desire, a desperation and courage not to be cheated, and finally magnificent pride in her defiance of her betrayers as she hurtles towards the stake.

Jonathan Rosenbaum (essay)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Ordet (The Word)

Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968), 1955, 2 hours, Denmark

The theme of this movie is nothing short of the mystery and grandeur of human life. It is about birth, death, madness and faith. The cosmic is never far from the mundane realities of our daily life, and we share the joys and sufferings of a comfortably off family of Danish farmers.

Morton Gorden is the grandfather, a liberal Christian. He has three sons. The eldest (Mikkel) is married to Inger and has two daughters. Inger is pregnant. Mikkel is a good hearted person but refuses faith. Johannes, the middle one, has lost his mind and thinks he is Jesus, and wanders around in a daze, blessing and prophesizing and exhorting. The youngest, Anders, wants to marry the tailor's daughter. The tailor Peter won't hear of this, because he embraces a more fundamentalist version of faith, and regards the farmer's family as heretics. Morton visits Peter with the proposal and they almost come to blows.

Events veer off on a tangent from here as Inger goes into labor and both her life and the child's is endangered. The film suddenly gathers unstoppable momentum, plunging from depths of despair to triumph and reconciliation. Let me say no more of the plot except that this is a movie universal in the scope of it's concerns, a film to see and treasure.

The details of daily life (like preparing a cup of coffee) are captured lovingly and leisurely and the speech is ponderous and measured, as though the characters are speaking to the audience more than each other, with almost biblical weight. It is a picture of solid rural domesticity, in a well tended house, surrounded by the sounds of farm animals. The horse carriage races through the wind blown countryside. Johannes the Mad Seer wanders over the heath, gazing over a promontory, addressing the cloudy dome of the sky. The world of Ordet is of solid materials, unlike the quaking earth in The Passion of Joan of Arc. The rhythms are of the ordinary yet not so ordinary lives we all share.

Perhaps the message, if any, is that the mundane and the sublime are close to each other. The heaven and the earth are one.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Into the Storm 2009

This is a sequel to The Gathering Storm, with a different cast and director, and same script writer. It is a worthwhile investment of time for it's insights into history and glimpses into the persona of prominent leaders. Although it lacks the effervescence and energy of  The Gathering Storm, it has more than enough momentum to make the period come alive. The war itself remains in the background (mercifully) and we have a human drama in the corridors and chambers where decisions effecting millions are being shaped. It is structured as a retrospective from a holiday in France after the war where a listless, enervated Churchill awaits the result of his losing post war election. He is uncomfortable without a battle raging around him. He reminisces of the days when as a boy he waged a battle with an army of toy soldiers, and the drama laden days of the real war. The deliberations of the British decision makers over a long rectangular table, the debates and heckling on the floor of the house, Churchill's encounter with Roosevelt in th US where Churchill finds himself perchance facing the American President in his birthday suit ( literally, as his only towel slips off his waist), the Yalta Conference where Stalin proposes a toast to Churchill's valet, Churchill's encounters with the king--such touches makes it  all too human a tale one can enjoyably relate to. In the course of a cabinet meeting when the situation seems absolutely hopeless, Churchill spontaneously breaks into verse, reciting these lines from the poem Horatius from Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome:

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
"To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods?"

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Gathering Storm 2002

This is one of the best historical biopics. It details  Churchill's role as as an MP in the years preceding WW2. The movie shows Churchill in political oblivion and an object of disdain for his "war mongering" attitude. But as the intentions of Germany become clear, he is back in saddle as the head of the Navy in Chamberlain's cabinet when Britain declares war in September 1939. We see the events from the perspective of  his family home--his problems with his children who live in the shadow of the great father, the support and inspiration he draws from his wife, his straitened finances, the painting, bricklaying and writing, and the affection and loyalty of his domestic and official staff. His blood surges when he dreamsof great battles of history, like George Scott in Patton. The battlefield, military or political, is his element. He adores England, thinks little of Gandhi.

The personality of Churchill comes alive in the powerful, confident and blustering performance of Albert Finney. Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs Churchill also gives no less memorable a performance as a woman of personality, intellect and character, a driving force for her husband. The script sparkles and spills like champagne and the country home with a magnificent view is captured in sunlit verdure. The scenes in Parliament and the political lobbying in the corridors (and toilets) gives an insight into how history and decision making are shaped in a  democratic system. Churchill is portrayed as a voluble, volatile, good natured person with a strong sense of humor {outbreaks of emotion in the Churchill family are always attributed to the food recently consumed), liable to break into poetry, specially in moods of despondency. Well, a BBC portrayal of the darling and jolly good fellow national hero could hardly have been less rosy, but the film does have the breadth of perspective to portray greatness in something approaching its true dimensions. The best of talents have been harnessed for this movie, and the result is an enjoyable, well proportioned and meaningful film.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Clean, Shaven

Lodge Kerrigan (director), 79m, 1994

The film depicts the world through the eyes of Peter Winter, a schizophrenic in his twenties. The depiction of insanity has grown into a genre ( List from Wiki) and schizophrenia is a sub-species. Some films, like A Beautiful Mind and Proof, romanticize the condition. Ingmar Bergman, in The Hour of the Wolf and Through a Glass Darkly has given cameos which seem more like generalized reflections about the human condition. Stanley Kubrick cashes it into a horror in The Shining. What is very sure is that the inner world of a mentally sick person is a mysterious and by no means a glamorous one and an adequate representation of this harrowing widely prevalent disease will have to be awaited. Perhaps this can only be done by a film director suffering from schizophrenia, but if he could do that, he probably would not be one.

The present film deals with the condition with something like clinical honesty. Peter hears sounds with a heightened intensity (like electric wires humming) but this is more associated with narcotics than schizophrenia. He hears a threatening and abusive voice, presumably that of his father. He is obsessed with seeing his daughter, who was given to adoption. There are gruesome scenes of self mutilation--he is completely (but wait, nothing is that complete) possessed. The film has a superb climax, which resolves the plot threads on their own terms.

Kerrigan retains objectivity and does a fine job of not underplaying or romanticizing the condition. He shows it for the terrible thing that it is. What is most remarkable is the humanity and compassion he has retained. He is  reminding us that the mentally sick are human beings, no matter how extreme the disturbance. Schizophrenia is not something one is, but something one has.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Sophie's Choice 1982

2 hours+, Meryl Streep (best actress)

This is a highly prolonged soap opera about a love triangle involving a non-Jewish holocaust victim, an endearing paranoid schizophrenic, and a twenty two year old aspiring novelist. The title of the film has entered the lexicon because of the agonizing choice given to Streep wherein she must doom one of her two children to the gas chamber. The holocaust is used as a background material to juice up, without appreciable success,  a film which has little to stand on. Talk about commercializing tragedies--it only means that we are beginning to forget. The plot is highly convoluted, as it usually is in films and novels of this grade, probably to give the audience something to chew on the way back home. Being an accomplished artist, Streep pulls off the unnatural feat of  speaking English with a real thick Polish accent and Polish and German like a native. Talented as she is, she comes close enough, making it ludicrous by a kind of reversed Uncanny Valley effect. It seems that it was these linguistic gymnastics which got her the award, since the role itself has little logic, neither does she succeed in uplifting it.
Review (Tim Brayton)

A Poem by Emily Dickinson

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labour, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school where children played,
Their lessons scarcely done;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then 'tis centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Hour of the Wolf

Bergman, 90m, 1968

Max von Sydow plays an artist who arrives with his pregnant wife, played by Liv Ulmann, to settle in an isolated cottage on a hillock by the seaside. The story is about his inner demons and his descent towards insanity. The line between fantasy and the real is thin and you can decide for yourself, and is of no importance. These include the homicide of a boy, an attempt on the life of his wife, memories of being locked up as a child, and the ridicule poured on Sir Artist by his neighbors.

The film, which surely has autobiographical elements, deals with the theme which runs throughout Bergman's movies--the anxieties of living without faith. Without hope, consolation and an ordering principle of life, the mind, left to it's own resources of intellect, emotion and instinct, must veer on dizzy trajectories, at the mercy of demons of one's own creation. Bergman is an artist, a painter of the tempestuous sea that is the inner world of human beings. He sees no lighthouse--man is but a weed who happens to be helplessly afloat, tossed by the waves of fear, hate and desire.

The film is a hard watch even at it's modest duration. It lacks the focus and simplicity of Persona. Maybe too much has been crammed into it. We have had enough dose of Freudian nightmares by way of films. I am unlikely to give it the second viewing which it probably deserves. But maybe I will--a half digested would be masterpiece does not lodge comfortably in the mind.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


Bunuel, 1959, 94m, Mexico

Nazario, a Christian priest, lives in a squalid Mexican neighborhood, surrounded by vagrants, petty criminals and street walkers. He has an upstairs room, its window serving as a perpetually open entrance. He carelessly allows his possessions, the coins and pots and pans to be filched. He doesn't bother much whether he gets to eat or not. He continues this quixotically pious existence till he finds himself harboring a woman, who, in a quarrel resulting from a theft of buttons, has killed another woman, .

Next we find him on the run  through the countryside in "civilian" garb. He soon lands himself in another soup where the unsought and unwanted reputation of a miracle worker is dumped on him. Two women devotees now cling to him in his misadventures, till the police catch up to him, and he is ridiculed, insulted and beaten by his fellow prisoners. He has arrived  at a stage when he can't take more of human nastiness. He finds it difficult to carry out the Christian teaching of forgiveness. As Nazario trudges along a dusty road, disillusioned and angry, a old woman offers him a pineapple. At first he refuses, too wounded to accept kindness. On second thought, he beckons to her to accept the offering,internally illuminated by her goodness. A flower blooms in the desert.

I don't know what Bunuel is trying to say except that the times call for a tougher brand of altruism  than mechanically offering the other cheek. That's just tinkering with the vast seas of suffering all around. As film, it has neither the outrageous surrealism of his silent movies like Un Chien Andalou and L'Age d'Or  nor the dark insights of The Exterminating Angel and Belle de Jour. The sounds and smells of a Mexican inner city streetside are poetically evoked in the early parts of the movie, and may be a second view would reveal more visual treats in the details.