Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Flowers of St. Francis

Roberto Rossellini, 1950, 83m, Italy

St Francis of Assisi a Christian messianic figure lived in the twelfth-thirteenth centuries. The film is based on a book of the same name which recounts fifty three disconnected incidents from his life-of which the movie selects nine- referred to as flowers because of their child like sweetness. The unpretentious Saint and his dozen or so bare footed friends and followers rove in the undulating Italian country side like a troupe of joyful schoolboys whose pranks comprise somewhat fantastic acts of piety and love. The mood of the film is of exaltation born from tranformative inner experience, resulting in a zeal to share the joy with others. The highly charged prologue, a hymn of adoration and gratitude for creation, probably a direct quote from the original source, might easily be  a Vedic chant:

Praise be to Thee, my Lord,through all Thy creatures......especially brother Sun,who illuminates the day. And beautiful is he and radiant with great splendour. Of thee, most High he bears the likeness.Praise be my Lord, for sister Moon and for the stars. ln heaven, Thou hast formed them luminous, precious and fair. Praise be my Lord,for brother Wind,...and for the air and clouds,and all the weather......through which you give all Thy creatures nourishment.Praise be my Lord,for sister Water...she is greatly helpful, Praise be my Lord,for brother Fire......Praise be my Lord,for our sister, Mother Earth,who sustains us and governs us...and brings forth diverse fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

We see Francis conversing and preaching to a little bird, who trustingly perches on his hand, making no effort to fly off. The ragged bare footed band, joined by a camaraderie of faith, seem to be having a jolly time, enduring even the beatings and abuse they sometimes encounter as a joyful and welcome service to Christ. In one discourse, in the course of which they are beaten by a house owner on whom they insist on imposing their evangelization, Francis explains true happiness (this sounds like a Sufi discourse):

..even if we could make the blind see the deaf hear, exorcise demons,and raise the dead - this is not perfect happiness. Even if we knew the language of the angels, the soul's secrets,this is not perfect happiness.Were we to convert all to Christ,this is not perfect happiness.Tell me, where is perfect happiness?....... God, in his mercy, will surely show us where perfect happiness is.....(at this point the two of them receive a thorough beating).....Brother Leone, lamb of God, now that we've suffered all this for Christ it is perfect happiness.Above all the graces which Christ gives His followers is the grace to conquer oneself. Only in this is perfect happiness! We poor monks roam the world for love of others.and to endure suffering for love of Him.Only in this is perfect happiness!

In one of the hilarious but moving stories one of the comrades is captured by a tyrant but escapes with his life after sufficiently puzzling him with his attitude and behavior to win him over. This is one of the realistic natural miracles which form the substance of the film. It is reminiscent of the Buddha's encounter with the ferocious demon Angulimal.

This is beyond doubt a great film, born out of the deep spiritual insight of the director. It is outstanding cinema and captures in immaculate black and white the spirit of Christianity in pristine. Perhaps the greatest spiritual film I have seen, far, far from the madding crowds of Hollywood and Cannes..

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Ek Din Pratidin (One Day, Every Day)

Mrinal Sen, 1980, 95m, Bangla

Mrinal Sen has a sharp perception of the bitter realities experienced by the lower middle class, presumably born of personal experience. This one is pretty despairing.

We have a large family comprising three generations living in a tenement comprising a room or two. Many other family's are crowded into this congested bee-hive of a building, with people all but peering into each other's quarters and lives. There is a single tap which serves all tenants. Neighbors can be civil, helpful, interfering or judgmental. As the title implies, life is a continuous, repetitive and bitter struggle to make ends meet and to retain dignity and decencies in a rigid and unforgiving society. His Kharij is set in a similar if not the same group housing building.

Chinu (Mamata Shankar), the eldest of four siblings, is the sole earning member in the family. One day she fails to return home. What could have happened-was she held up at work, or involved in an accident, or, hard to imagine, is she seeing someone? The alarm mounts as the day deepens into night and soon the whole neighborhood are observers and participants, each with their own theories and surmises, mostly derogatory. Why do they have to send a daughter for work and depend on her earnings? Police are not helpful and there is a tense sequence where the youger brother visits the morgue to identify the dead bodies found by the authorities. Finally the family bonds explode in mutual recrimination and accusations.

This is certainly depressing material, perhaps unnecessarily so, but it should hit us in a vulnerable spot. If Ray soars in hope and optimism even as he portrays extremities of suffering, Sen's world is an insider's dreary and claustrophobic vision. He sees no glamor in the curse of poverty.

Mercifully, India has been changing dramatically since the film was made.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Clockwork Orange

Stanley Kubrick, 1971, 130m

This is a film with a message: it's the capacity for choice that makes us human. To be capable of good and bad and to choose to be good is what makes us good. Divested of this capacity and to be programmed to behave only one way makes us into clockwork automatons--Clockwork Oranges. Orange is appropriately ambiguous because how can a biological organism-a nice, beautiful, juicy orange-be like a passive assemblage of nuts, bolts and levers?

Alex is the magnetic leader of a band of young men whose way of life is to go around beating up people and molesting women. The setting is England, the near future, a world sufficiently like and unlike ours to make it a grotesque uncanny valley. The language of the script is a parody of English: words and phrases from different periods (thou and oh my brothers, and a liberal sprinkling of sovietisms to suggest a totalitarian state). The boys are dressed in a mixture of the Dickensian and Elizabethan with prominent codpieces and affect an exaggerated civility and cultivation of manners as they indulge in acts of brutality. Alex loves Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and the violence is accompanied by this music. It is true that much of our musical heritage has been inspired by the battlefield. Beethoven's Symphony which is inspired by Utopian sentiments of human harmony is here used ironically to express a world bordering on chaos..

The mayhem of the first hour of the film results in a power struggle and the unintended murder of a woman. Alex is arrested, spending two years of prison, which is full of hilarious parody, as Alex feigns an inner change in a desperate bid to have his fifteen year sentence commuted. He is chosen, in recognition of his exemplary behavior, for the newly invented Ludovico treatment, whereby he is programmed to become incapable of wrong-doing. Beethoven's Symphony now throws him into paroxysms of agony.

The movie, for all it's famed lurid subject matter is an artistic triumph. Even the violence is meticulously choreographed, and I think ultimately Stanley Kubrick is depicting the violence which is a part of our nature. We are riveted by it's spell binding power because Alex and his friends represent an undeniable aspect of the human nature of which everybody partakes. In the middle of the film is some footage about Hitler and the troops of youth parading with Nazi emblems. Kubrick has replaced Wagner with Beethoven in a brilliant feat of irony.

War has always been synonymous with glory. History is punctuated with gory battlefields. In the film, this propensity for violence is expressed in an easily conceivable situation where the machinery of law and order has become ineffective. One solution which the film satirically offers is the lobotomization of the capacity for choice. This of course is much easier than "educating" people to a point where they stand in control of the tempestuous and unruly seas which constitute our inner reality, spiritual victors in the inner war.

A great movie.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Red Beard

Akira Kurosawa, 1965, 185m

This is a film about human exaltation and suffering. Human nature has a capacity for goodness and nobility commensurate with it's potential for evil. Contemporary art is more comfortable with depicting the latter, often in clever disguises.

Red Beard is a doctor in nineteenth century Japan (it is an age without electricity but the medical practices we see are modern if rudimentary and certainly not primitive). He is fired with a spirit of compassion to help the poor and suffering and earning is nowhere on his agenda. He runs a hospital partly supported by the government. A bright young doctor trained in Dutch medicine in Nagasaki visits him but finds himself trapped to work in the lack luster environment which offers no scope for worldly advancement. But he is quickly infected by the elder doctor's humanity, charisma and zeal to serve.

We are exposed to a pageant of extremes of human suffering seldom depicted to such a pitch of intensity. A dying man unburdens his strange tale of marriage deceit and reconciliation. Another's suffering is so deep that he refuses to say a word until the end. A girl of twelve is saved from the clutches of a brothel but is already broken to the point of insanity. A family is driven to suicide by starvation. One of the inmates is a young and beautiful murderess of three men, and the new intern himself has a narrow escape. What better place can there than a hospital for the poor to encounter the meaning of suffering. Death is a regular visitor and there is a spiritual brotherhood which includes the staff. Of course this is no ordinary hospital, not even the missionary sort. (At one point the good doctor reveals a not altogether surprising side when he beats up and maims a bunch of hoodlums.)

This is perhaps too plain a story and some may find it mawkish. It is perfectly structured and the several strands are tautly drawn together into a powerful composition. The black and white cinematography captures the Japanese environment with powerful and lucid clarity. The tiled sloping roofs seem beautiful and the architecture and interiors are a feast for the eye. Snowfall and rain are filmed exquisitely. Says Ebert most aptly, "I've never seen wetter rain in another movie." I differ slightly, the wettest rain was the unending downpour which opens Rashomon.

One is tempted to compare Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray, particularly in view of their mutual admiration. Both are rooted in their respective soils and depict their respective countries and people with artistry and love. Kurosawa is more robust and warlike, whereas Ray remains a gentle and neutral observer of his universe. Ray weaves delicate tapestries, Kurosawa's fabric is coarse but tough. Perhaps Kurosawa has delved deeper into human reality. However , he cannot match Ray in delicacy or accuracy of characterization. The two children in Red Beard are no match for the children of the Apu Trilogy.Both are optimists and believers in human nature and their movies end on a note of triumph. In Ray, suffering is mute. In the present film, the wounds are raw and cry out, even though the samurai Kurosawa never loses restraint.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Case is Closed (Kharij)

Mrinal Sen, 1982, 95m, Bengali

A pre-teen ager servant boy dies of carbon monoxide poisoning on a cold winter night. He was employed by a young working Calcutta couple (Anjan and Mamata) with a small boy of their own. Taking money from a neighbor's friendly daughter, he slipped away to watch a movie on a cold winter night. Finding his usual sleeping corner below the stairs too cold, he bolts himself inside the kitchen, where a fire was burning. The next morning we witness a powerful discovery scene like on the morning after Macbeth's murder. The door is forced open and we see the commotion in the apartment block which is the stage of the drama.

Who is responsible? The landlord who failed to provide ventilation in the kitchen ("it's not a bedroom"), the couple for employing child labor (which is illegal) and failing to provide reasonably comfortable sleeping arrangements? The police takes over and a post mortem is performed. Meanwhile a procession of the boy's relatives arrives and the father is inconsolable but lifts no accusing finger, his head bowed in acceptance of the nature of things. The film ends on a heart rending note of under-stated inconsolable sorrow.

Comparison with the titanic Ray is inevitable. Sen is also gentle but has a more steely and masculine quality. Ray has a child's sense of wonder, but Sen's tragic vision is touched with youthful anger. He has been called Marxist in outlook but the present film does not point an accusing finger at anyone, but does dramatically bring out a class divide almost as of two different species. The deceased boy's father Hari seats himself deferentially on the ground. He has no capacity for anger. He wails like a lost calf, while remaining meek and respectful to the end.

This is a flawless, fully engrossing film and like a gust of fresh air after a heavy and prolonged overdose of the bucolic cinema of Satyajit Ray. Sen is no poor cousin.

The entire film is can be viewed on Youtube in excellent quality. Click HERE for the first of ten parts.

The Branches of the Tree (Shakha Proshakha)

Ray, 1990, 122m

This is Ray's second last film made when he was just short of seventy. The tree is Ananda Mazumdar, a retired industrialist famed for his honesty and philanthropy, to the extent of having his town named after him. The branches are the four sons and two spouses. Mazumdar suffers a heart attack and as he hovers in the danger zone, the progeny converges around him. Ray is a good spinner of yarns and he knows how to play the heartstrings. Here he gives us a taut drama about old age and family relations with the background of Bengali society of the eighties (there is a family picnic and one of the cars is a Maruti 800).

Unlike some of his more acclaimed films which are about youth and childhood, this one is about aging with which comes cynicism and tolerance. He is able to turn an eye more understanding than indignant towards the corruption and rot in society. This somewhat lame anger is voiced through the youngest of the four sons, who chooses to opt out from the bribe driven business world. Ray was often accused of not being sufficiently concerned about the ills of society. He once said that no movie could ever change society, not even Battleship Potemkin, which only hooted for an ongoing revolution, nor Triumph of the Will, which pandered to the Nazi state. He is no firebrand: he is a mere humanistic genius, an artist and an impeccable mirror of the society which owns him, for all his anglophilia.

Ray is an enraptured by womanhood. His men are more often pathetic shadows, as in this one. Mamata Shankar as one of the wives gives a bold and charismatic portrayal of a woman disappointed in her marriage, with a mind and strength of self acceptance beyond her era and milieu.

This is a more ambitious film which expands the usual canvas to depict an era and a society. It achieves a high level of dramatic tension, even though it lacks the compassion and innocence of some earlier movies. It definitely limps at many places, as Ray is affecting a piety not his own. It is not his nature to judge people, as if to say, that might have been me. On the whole, a gripping film for all it's negligible weaknesses.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Eternity and a Day

Theo Angelopoulos, 1998, 130m, Greece, Golden Palm ('98)

Alexandre, fifty-ish, a bearded poet, is terminally ill. I was attracted to the film by it's subject matter and to catch a glimpse of it's famous director.

Alexandre strikes a friendship with a vagrant Albanian boy, saving him from the clutches of the police and unsuccessfully tries to have him sent home. He wants to wind up his affairs and get admitted to a hospital. He visits his daughter, who is unable to take charge of his dog. He also learns with shock that a beloved family house on the sea has been sold and due for demolition. He meets his demented mother. The film is a series of dreams, memories (mostly relating to his wife) and conversations.

This is a mere sentimental romance and fails to do the least bit of justice to the gravity of the theme of near impending death. The great poet does not seem to get beyond the picture card sea-scapes and the bygone romance with his estranged or deceased wife to the accompaniment of concertinas and violins and traditional dances.

One can only conclude that the jolt has failed to wake up Alexandre, and merely propelled him on a trip of nostalgic fancies. These are the rather waterish sentiments of the film-maker and not of a man confronted with the most profound phenomenon of existence. It has been said, "The most terrible things in the world are the pain of fire, the flashing of knives, and the shadow of death. Even horses and cattle fear death, how much more a man in his prime."

Contrasting to the open blue skies and expansive sea of the present film (as though the victim has transcended concerns about death), I am reminded of the shrieking reds of Cries and Whispers.  Wit  was another film to deal with terminal illness with great sensitivity. Kiarostami's A Taste of Cherry and Ramim Bahrani's Goodbye Solo are two movies (one by an Iranian and the other an Iranian-American director) which depict the grim melancholy determination of two meticulously crafted suicides.

In the present film, death becomes a matter almost of indifference-one more routine of existence rather than something transcendental and cataclysmic. To trivialize death is to trivialize life, of which it is the culmination and crown. And Hollywood seems to be on the way to being a more reliable brand label than Cannes.

Review by J Hoberman

Monday, February 7, 2011

La Dolce Vita

Federico Fellini, 1960, 179m, Italy, "The Sweet Life"

The film is about a few days in the life of Rome based reporter Marcello and his varied misadventures. I was put off by it's length and acclaim and have kept it in the freezer for long but it turns out to be an exuberant eye filling roller coaster and a feast of black and white cinematography.

As the film opens a statue of the Christ one hand raised in benediction dangles from a helicopter borne across the sky. Marcello juggles three women in the loosely connected episodes which make up the movie. As he dallies with heiress Maddelina, his fiancĂ©e attempts suicide. There is a long chunk of his two day affair with a mercurial American actress. His father visits him and has a heart attack in the company of a dancer. A friend of his named Steiner inexplicably shoots his two children and himself. Another episode is about two children who have supposedly seen the Madonna. We see the public hysteria with milling crowds, sick people on stretchers hoping for a miraculous cure and media people converging at the site like a swarm of scavengers. The film is a series of parties and orgies sputtering to an abrupt closure with another media event: a giant fish is washed ashore while the ocean churns timelessly in the background .

What is the sweet life? Marcello is borne helplessly on a tide of events. The film maker lenses this chaotic melancholy joy ride with a gruesome tragedy dumped incongruously at it's center, with aplomb and detachment .The camera-work is conttinuously breathtaking. By making no attempt to confine the narration by constraints of plot and continuity the artist has managed to compress an effortlessly inspired cinematic essay about life into a short span of time. Indeed, this is black and white poetry.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Bhuvan Shome

Mrinal Sen, 1969, 92m, Hindi

This is my first film from this acclaimed director, and it is also the one which brought him into prominence. Bhuvan Shome (Utpal Dutt) is an officer in the Railways, notoriously strict in his official dealings, and a terror among his subordinates, specially since acceptance of small bribes is a time honored way of life and an economic compulsion. A widower, he is known to have dismissed his own son. And one fine day, overcome by enuii with the stale routines of life, he sets out on a one man hunting expedition in the countryside. Not lions, just birds, the narrator (Amitabh) tells us. Khaki clad, with a gun and thick belt of bullets, self conscious and embarrassed, this grotesque unwieldly Bengali Rambo rolls country-wards on a bullock cart in lively repartees with the rustic driver, till they are chased by a bull and rescued by it's owner, the beautiful and lively Suhasini Mulay, a country lass who will be his guide and scout on the bird hunting expedition for the bulk of the film. That should do for the story.

One of the best things about the film is the musical score by the wondrous Vijay Raghav Rao, which encapsulates with love and rapture the rhythms of the desert and it's impoverished hamlets and their kindly inhabitants. The desert photography is of the finest, inviting comparison to the Japanese Woman in the Dunes. The film is superficially a comedy, and has a light touch, but in essence is a deeply humane poem about two ways of life, town and country coming face to face in mutual recognition, and it touches what may be termed the ancient subcontinental heart. Shome is unable to consume of the simple food which the rustic hosts impose on him. Flights of water fowl separate and soar as the shots are fired from the inept marksman. And somewhere far off trains churn noisily across the great plain. And a heart melts. Bhuvan Shome dances exultantly, wrenching away his necktie as the official papers fly across his office in the Railways Department. Liberation!

Mrinal Sen is no Ray shadow, he is an authentic force in his own right.