Monday, December 26, 2011

Much Ado About Nothing

1993, Kenneth Branaugh, 110m

The title is appropriate for this example of the Shakespearean sub-genre. It is a loosely bound series of quickly resolving love tangles involving two couples, full of misunderstandings, impersonation and mild villany. Its distinguishing feature is the verbal sparring between the lead pair which sustains like a tight rope walk till the end. Beatrice, the heroine, is known for her robust, independent, intelligent character which must have been anachronistic when the play was written. On the whole, in this presentation the comic element is artificial and overdone, with much unnatural grimacing and overdose of merry England. We have a surfeit of Branaugh's mannerisms which make this role of his little different from his better known Hamlet. Finally, the exuberant harmonizing life force, which is the poet's signature, in mirth as in tragedy, overpowers and compensates all. This is a film drenched in sunshine, laughter, prosperity, set in a carefree demi paradise--as much hallmarks of the scriptwriter as his great tragedies.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Mill and the Cross

Lech Majewski, 2011, 90m

This is a movie about a painting, The Way to Calvary, by Pietr Bruegal the Elder (1525-69). The cross dragging figure of Christ is of miniscule size, surrounded by scores of peasantry, citizens, soldiers, dogs, some lamenting figures, carts, urchins. The biblical scene has been transported to the artist's contemporary Flanders, which was under Spanish domination and a period of barbarous religious prosecution. Poles mounted with wheels meant for strapping condemned men facing skyward to be pecked to death by carnivorous birds dot the sprawling plain. Towards the left rustics dance, while towards the right crucifixes are under erection and a thick circular crowd  like a cluster of flies has gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Most striking is the eponymous wind mill perched atop a bizarre sheer vertical cliff composed of writhing twisted shapes of rock. This is certainly an unusual depiction of the events of Calvary, an inconspicuous non event in a carnival like atmosphere. The painter has depicted his times with a profusion of detail and mingled it with the events of the New Testament, which are lent immediacy by the startling transposition to a contemporaneous setting. He simultaneously passes judgement on his times, expresses his own depth of religious feeling (reminiscent of Tolstoi) and at the same time surrounding it with the beauty of nature, the country folk with their simple, rough, mild or merciless ways.

As the film opens the painting is being set up, with real actors taking the place of the painted figures on an actual plain identical with the painting and of course the mill on the cliff except that the mill sets into motion and the figures jump to life.The painting is enacted and put to music with but few scraps of dialog and we share a dozen stories from the hundreds of folk who populate the picture.

Breugal's vast and dense canvas is a little more than a commentary on his age. It is in fact an impassioned expression of his vision of existence, as complex as la Giocanda, seen in the light of Christian ideology, using the powerful metaphor of the crucifixion, here inconspicuously embedded in the eventful microcosm of the middle ages. The film uses the arsenal of latest technology, to transmute it into something widely accessible. It is universal enough to be about our own time, because much is the same.

This is a ravishing movie. More than anything else it captures the mood and feel of the original work, its tints and shapes and the rustic music. Painting, after all is like cinema a visual art primarily. The director's achievement is to have imbibed, interpreted and preserved the exaltation of feeling (which may be termed sublime), giving it the extra dimensions of motion and sound. He has in fact brought the canvas to life for the common man.

The Way to Calvary, by Pietr Breugal

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Separation

2011, Asghar Farhadi, Persian, 117m 

A taut drama portraying current (pre-cellphone) Iranian society. A couple is on the verge of separation because the wife wants to immigrate but the husband wants to stay on to look after his Alzheimer afflicted father. It's a plot driven film with no musical score (except for the end credits) and expertly put together like a jig saw with no redundant edges. It depicts a modernizing society overcast with Islamic ethos and illuminates our picture of Iran with a profusion of detail. I do not think it is of the rank of Kiarostami in terms of delicacy and humanistic insight. On one level it is a courtroom drama and we observe the legal system, which seems simpler and quicker, lacking the strictness of procedural detail we find in India or US, but perhaps stern and rigid in terms of punishment. Certainly an engrossing movie which had me hooked from early on to the end.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Mamma Roma

1962, Pasolini, 90m, Anna Magnani

In 1962 it was a sin to be anything but a communist, at least hereabout. The defeated European nations seem to have faced at least for a while, something like third world conditions. The economic divides of society naturally appear like karmic chasms which determine the course of life of the lowest classes helplessly projecting them into an unenviable trajectory of life. Mamma Roma is a streetwalker who switches over to vegetable vending in her forties in order to retrieve the future of her sixteen year son but the force of destiny is too strong to resist. This is a compact and impassioned statement from the young and prodigious director of what Marx calls the harsh reality of social class and orientalism calls chains of karma. Anna Magnani is an uninhibited Thespian in the classic mold, a prima donna of the screen who eclipses everything else, though the slow witted son with his awkward slouch also communicates the world of the street child. A universal and compassionate film which deserves to be better known. Scarred ruins which could be ancient remnants or a result of the war are an eloquent background.

Janet Maslin

Friday, December 9, 2011

Carmen (1875)

Georges Bizet (1838-75), Carlos Kleiber (conductor), Vienna State Opera , Yelena Olbrazstova (Carmen), Franco Zeffirelli (Director)

This is an emotionally torrid romance mixing love, bullfighting and death. It is set in Spain and the music has a Latin beat. Carmen is a gypsy girl who works in a cigarette factory and is also a member of a smuggling gang. The plot is a fatal love triangle with a soldier and a bullfighter. The Opera experience has been brilliantly captured for TV and one shares the immersion of the audience, as the camera periodically reminds us of the orchestra and the uninhibited applause. The many choruses celebrate the communal experience of life and the story is more or less engrossing till the finale. One can but imagine the feel of the hall overflowing with a splendor of sound.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Don Giovanni (1787)

Mozart (1756-91), Furtwangler, 1954, Cesare Siepi as Don Juan

Gustave Flaubert is said to have placed this opera, along with Hamlet and the sea, as the three finest things created by God. Be that as it may, it is a heady amalgam of rich music, drama, comedy, poetry, song, morality merging with overtones of the mystery of life and death. Don Giovanni is a primitive human bereft of conscience only driven by his own boundless desire. As he piles his list of amorous conquests destiny begins to catch up and the drama concludes with a stunning climax. Siepi in the title role gives a majestic performance of the unrepentant retrograde. Mozart's music undulates like waves merging with the script and giving voice to the  human emotion.