I initiated my third day at the festival with Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s Labour of Love (Asha Jaoar Majhe) – to compense for the disappointment of missing out on Mariano Rondon’s Bad Hair due to an already crowded theater. Reworking Italo Calvino’s short story The Adventure of a Married Couple for a crumbling north Kolkata neighbourhood– a locale stuck in perennial time-warp, the film follows the daily routines of two individuals. It opens with the audio from a news report about unemployment and inflation in Bengal playing against a black screen; repercussions of the global economic recession– followed by a shot of the back of a young woman, neatly draped in a saree, manouvering her way through serpentine alleys, on her way to work at a handbag factory. Meanwhile, a young man wakes up in a modest apartment, completes his domestic chores before leaving for his workplace: night shift at a printing press. We realize soon, via a clever system of intercutting, that the two are married, forced by economic circumstance to work during different hours, only able to meet for a few minutes before she leaves for work again. Sengupta’s background in painting and graphic design is strikingly evident in his hypnotic observational style, focussed on the minutiae of quotidian labour– domestic and industrial; reminiscent of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman.The film creates symmetries through these passages of labour, connecting the couple via everyday domestic objects. Through an offscreen loudspeaker, we come to know about the death of a laid-off, working class man and the ensuing call for a worker’s revolution. We never hear the protagonists speak recognisably; yet their socio-political consciousness is delineated through a series of subtle narrative cues entwined within their daily, mundane existence. The film evokes a yearning for a simpler pre-capitalistic past– through the transcendental qualities of the two leads (Ritwick Chakraborty and Basabdutta Chatterjee, who’d easily fit into a Bengali film from the fifties or sixties), immersing viewers in an ineffable sense of loss. It has its problems too, especially during the final monochrome fantasy of the “union” — conceived probably to conjure up memories of the Bengali cinema of yore (Ray’s Mahanagar and Apur Sansar come to mind) this serves as a last-act replacement of the Geeta Dutt tunes that waft into the couple’s apartment earlier as an evocation of an elusive past, but ultimately fails to hit the precise notes.. Eventually, the flaws seem trivial against the meditative experience that the film offers. The elegance and precision with which Sengupta shoots the micro-details, contradicts the wider economic and political turmoil; the sincerity with which the characters go about their dignified survival in troubled times, becomes a political act of resistance in itself. As a Bengali, knowing the cesspool of mediocrity that goes by the name of contemporary cinema in the state, I must say that this film is a superlative achievement– a product of fastidious labour from an honest craftsman, punctiliously constructing his city symphony through his images and soundscape. Asha Jaoar Majhe won the NETPAC Award for Best Asian Film at the festival, along with garnering numerous accolades from other festivals around the globe. One can only hope that it finds wider distribution, which is highly unlikely in the current climate.
Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida is a near-miraculous achievement, with its austere formalism and the absence of indulgence in its eighty-four minute runtime. Set in the early sixties, Ida succeeds remarkably in mimicking the appearance of titles from the period. It feels like a restored film saved from the clutches of obscurity. Shot using radical frames in monochrome glory– this is ‘a film about identity, family, faith, guilt, socialism and music’. I guess it can be called a road-movie, at least on a superficial level, as the central events take place during a journey into the bleak Polish countryside. It is 1962, and Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska, discovered in a cafe by the director), a seventeen year old novitiate, is about to take her vows in the convent where she was abandoned as a newborn in 1945, at the end of the war. The Mother Superior instructs Ida to contact her only surviving relative, an aunt, before the final, irrevocable step. The aunt, Wanda Gruz (exquisitely played by Agata Kulesza), is an irascible former state prosecutor, now working as a magistrate. We come to know that she has blood on her hands, which is a source of both pride and self-hatred for her. She is a depressive soul; no amount of hard-drinking and casual sex can make the pangs of guilt and disillusionment go away. Ida soon discovers from her aunt that she is Jewish: her birth name is Ida Lebenstein, followed by Wanda’s suggestion to embark upon an excavation of their wartime family history. The investigation continues, as the film now plays as an archetypal conflict between two disparate leads—the impassive and inscrutable Ida absorbing an onslaught of painfully exhumed truths, while the bleary, boozy Wanda stirs up the past by asking difficult questions; riling up everyone who crosses her path. The war is still a recent memory, and the stirrings of the rebellious youth culture of the 60s makes its presence felt through a young saxophonist who hitchhikes with the quasi-mother-daughter couple. This meeting initiates a rite of passage for Ida; who with her newfound liberty outside the convent walls, starts to view herself sexually for probably the first time in her life.
Pawlikowski uses markedly truncated compositions, heads and faces occupying the bottom third of his vast images. An overbearing blankness hovers over these people, the weight of clouds and chapel columns, not least the weight of a harrowing national history. There are a number of clear homages paid in the film – from the crucifix imagery and symbolism of Bergman to the low-angled shots from Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc. Early in the film, the paintings of Johannes Vermeer are brought to mind through shot composititons. Yet, the film soars above the pitfalls of antiquarian pastiche, finding a distinct identity of its own.
It is a bitter, cold film; one can almost feel the chill in the bleak outdoors and cavernous churches, with the only sources of warmth being the jazz score and the budding relationship between the aunt and niece, enacted to perfection by the two enigmatic Agatas. Working for the first time in his native country at the age of fifty-seven, this might just be Pawlikowski’s masterpiece, and also, the best picture of the year.
“Hell is other people”, wrote Jean Paul Sartre in his 1944 play Huis Clos. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s meandering epic Winter Sleep comes perilously close to vindicating Sartre’s quote, more than any other film in recent memory. Perhaps, it does not reach the soaring heights of Ceylan’s devastating 2011 winner Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, this year’s Palme d’Or winner still reaffirms Ceylan’s status as one of cinema’s leading helmers – functioning currently at the peak of his prowess. The Chekovian drama, featuring a Shakesperean protagonist, unfolds in the middle of picturesque Anatolian steppes, the vast rocky plains often resembling an alien planet. Aydin(Haluk Bilginer),a retired stage actor(but prefers the term ‘thespian’), is a landlord and hotelier with a smug, conceited yet charming demeanour; carrying himself like a benevolent monarch. All his business interests in the surrounding province are delegated to his manager, allowing him the time and liberty to write pompous columns in the local newspaper, and to patronise his divorced sister Necla(Demet Akbag) and his much younger wife Nihal (Melissa Sozen). He thinks of himself as an artist and benefactor, demanding to be taken more seriously, even as he procrastinates on attempting a scholarly work on the history on Turkish theatre. With winter setting in, the guests start to depart before the off-season. Left with precious little to do, the dormant mutual resentment between the characters begin to their ugly heads. They start to tear each other apart at any available opportunity, even while acting with good intentions.
The screenplay immerses us in conversations- expansive, gloriously articulate, laced with spiteful passive-aggression, readjusting conventional dramatic pace, superbly acted — dealing with questions of guilt, responsibility, concscience, self-deception’ among others. They take place in darkened, claustrophobic chambers, with the light from the fireplace flickering on the contours of expressive faces. The masks that these people wear start to come off in a series of marathon confrontations, most notably for Aydin. This is man who takes pride in never featuring in soap operas, yet his life is quite akin to one, playing out with glacial slowness. Necla argues about fighting evil by not resisting it, much to her brother’s amusement, and in one long scene coolly demolishes her brother verbally with mischievous enjoyment. During the best sequence of the film– a thirty minute long marital showdown– Nihal declares Aydin to be “an unbearable man”, “selfish, spiteful and cynical”, forcing him to face up to his deluded self-satisfaction.
This is a theatrical film, with unshamedly argumentative and literary dialogue; almost novelistic in scope. The subplots that play along with the main narrative can be considered equally accomplished short stories in themselves, despite the ostensible lack of “action”. The visual grandeur of the Anatolian landscapes is often eschewed for widescreen shots of staged interior shots; this acts in contrast with the majestic outdoor shots, resonating with the state of mind of the characters. Some of the best sequences are reserved for marginal characters; a school teacher quotes Shakespeare; infuriated by Aydin’s obstinacy, Nihal meets a resentful tenant; a young kid – son of the tenant – throws a stone at Aydin’s car, breaking more than just a window; Aydin’s private life shatters. Serhat Kilic, who plays the kid’s uncle Hamdi, delivers a bravura performance, with his perpetually ambivalent grins and grimaces, trying to please everybody while keeping a hold on his dignity. Each little personal details of the characters– Nihal’s frowns, Necla’s searing gazes, Aydin’s cynical smirks– come together to form a sprawling, coherent character studyThe possibility of redemption lurks during the final section; for it is winter now, and spring cannot be far behind.
Immediately after coming out of the prolix trance, I rushed towards another screen where the restored print of Chaplin’s Limelight (1952) was being shown— unmissable, as they say. Chaplin’s previous film Monsieur Verdoux (1947) was pilloried in critical circles, often termed as anti-American owing to moral transgression and modernity. This was at the height of cold-war paranoia, and Chaplin was effectively being witch-hunted in Hollywood by right wing McCarthyites, on accusations of being a communist sympathizer. He used an exceptional method while developing the screenplay of Limelight — writing it as a full-fledged novel(never intended for publication) titled “Footlights”, with extensive backstories for its principal characters, Calvero and Terry. This was an intensely personal project for him—his son Sydney played the second male lead, four other of his children appeared in it, his young wife Oona doubled for Terry in a few scenes and his half-brother featured as the benevolent doctor. Soaked in elegy, Limelight feels like Chaplin’s farewell— he returns to the nostalgia-tinted Edwardian music halls of early twentieth century London, where he learned his craft. He visited Europe in 1952 for the premiere of the film and did not return to USA, —“that unhappy country” – as a consequence of the continuing political persecution. Limelight was eventually released in the USA after twenty years of blacklisting, in 1972. In a sense, Limelight can be seen as an exorcism of its author’s fate, among its numerous “flaws”—the indulgent melodrama, occasionally hammy acting, and a number of unfunny gags. Even the oft-eulogized scene featuring Chaplin and Keaton does not reach the heights that one would expect from these stalwarts. Though the film gracefully manages to end up being much, much more than the sum of its parts, no objective evaluation is possible from a Chaplin devotee like me. For those of us who consider Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin to be a vanguard of the cinema, Limelight would continue to be his swan-song; a warmly realized autobiographical fantasy. As André Bazin wrote – “I have seen Limelight three times and I admit I was bored three times, not always in the same places. Also, I never wished for any shortening of this period of boredom”.
Among other notable features of the two days, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu is a visually arresting, humanist drama set in the west African state of Mali, about the city’s tolerant and humane religious traditions being trampled by Islamic extremists. Playing in competition at Cannes this year, one might rashly suspect its inclusion as a token Western gesture. But these suspicions are firmly put to rest as Timbuktu succeeds on its own merits.
3x3D, an anthology film by Peter Greenway, Edgar Pera and the prophet(Jean-Luc Godard), was one of the very few non-narrative, avant-garde films being screened at the festival. Since Greenway’s section looks like a software user manual, followed by Pera’s didactic Film Studies 101 lecture, I will limit myself to only Godard’s centerpiece Les trois désastres, which would be a better title for the compilation. The master employs his signature essayistic style– resulting in a barrage of images and sounds, textual extracts and unsourced 2D film clips, photographs and distorted video art, and a stereoscopic digital camera filming itself. Although it is hard to articulate how each of his “ideas” cohere to form a compelling poetic diatribe (“Digital will become a dictatorship!”), especially after a single viewing, it provides ample proof that Godard- an octogenarian now– is still the cinema’s preeminent pioneer.