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BIFFES, Log I: Enlightenment, Despair, Solidarity

Aroonav Das

Zanussi's The Illumination

Zanussi’s The Illumination

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With its seventh edition, the Bengaluru International Film Festival (BIFFES) may finally have come of age – the selection of films is delectable, coupled with facilitation of discussions on diverse practices associated with the cinema. Though I’ve been living in the city for more than two years, this was the first time that I attended an edition of the festival in its entirety. All my previous film festival experiences were confined to Kolkata, and Bengaluru was, I must confess, a reprieve from the tedious bureaucracy of the former festival. Incidentally, BIFFES is itself supported by the State – fortunately, however, the films and its audiences remain placed firmly at the center of the festival experience.

Apart from an impressive assortment of contemporary titles, the Grand Classics section boasted of films like Pickpocket(1959), Children of Paradise(1945), Jour de Fete(1949) and Eyes Without a Face(1960); these, however, received stepmotherly treatment in terms of exhibition – played at a solitary screen(Priyadarshini) – far away from the epicenter of the festival (Inox Lido in Ulsoor and Fun Cinemas on Cunningham Road), and almost inevitably, simultaneously with screenings of much touted contemporary titles.

I decided to watch Zanussi’s The Illumination to open my festival; this, out of deference to the master Polish helmer, whose Retrospective was a major draw in the festival. The film, which swept Locarno in 1973, is a mosaic of images and ideas, incorporating the habits of cinema verite within its sparse narrative. Approaching the modern man’s struggle to find a place between reason and spirituality and the never-ending search for enlightenment, Zanussi engages a novel structure by combining newsreel & documentary footage, interviews, vox-populi, graphs and printed statistics, while omitting from the film all that doesn’t concern itself directly with his theme. The film opens with footage from a lecture delivered by philosopher Wladislaw Tatarkiewicz, wherein he introduces Saint Augustine’s concept of illumination—when ’the mind sees the truth directly’ and achieves it, ‘through purity of heart’. The protagonist of the piece, Franciszek, is a self-absorbed young man who chooses to study Physics — hoping to employ it in deciphering the meanings of truth, or of reality – through a ‘set of rules’. Along the way, Franciszek experiences unrequited love, the loss of a loved one, marital circumstance, destitution, fatherhood and eventually, his own mortality. But ‘illumination’ still eludes him. The film ends with Franciszek lying on the beach with his family, seemingly content, having discovered value and beauty in the mundane, everyday life—thereby altering the nature of his inquiries regarding the very idea of illumination, and human being’s quest for it.. The scientific approach adopted by Zanussi posits several paths towards self-actualization, calculating the wager involved in each, through a cinematic method that evokes ‘cold fingers rifling through a stack of research papers’. This is Zanussi at his prime, and it reminds one of the disheartenment that follows a look at his recent, banal work – Foreign Body, for one – when compared to his heydays.

 

I followed the Zanussi with Tsai Ming-Liang’s Stray Dogs, another highly acclaimed title, from a maker with a devoted audience of cineastes worldwide. The film is a tableaux of poverty and despair – and at times, resembles an art installation closely (here, drama wouldn’t be a careful word to use). This is Tsai’s first foray into digital filmmaking, and might end up being the last film that he makes for a wider audience, going by his pressers at festivals around the world. Featuring his alter-ego Lee Kang-Sheng as a man who holds up billboards on busy intersections in Taipei, the film resounds with Tsai’s principal preoccupations: bodies, movement and alienating urban chaos. He strips down his eccentric style to its very molecule: an unedited performance of mannequin-postures. Water, the recurring motif from Tsai’s filmography,  seeps into the film through a number of pours: ceaseless rainfall, fissured plumbing, dripping ceilings, cold tears and urine. The eleven minute centerpiece, wherein Lee Kang Sheng proceeds to mutilate, devour and regurgitate a cabbage (named “Miss Big Boobs”) — with the tone gradually shifting from hilarity to unsettling pathos throughout the duration of the consumption – demonstrates Tsai’s usual mastery in including micro-narratives into his broader structure without the need to cohere his micro-narrative(s) to his larger narrative. In the end, Stray Dogs can be thought of as a protest film — its subjects may vary of course; from the hegemony of narrative cinema and montage, to modern urban life, to the degradation of the image, to a socio-economic system that makes dogs out of people.

Stations of the Cross

Bruggemann’s Stations of the Cross

Dietrich Bruggemann’s Stations of the Cross (winner of the Silver Bear and Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at Berlin) deals with the interplay between Catholic dogma and familial dysfunction. The formally inventive film is structured in correspondence to the traditionally depicted fourteen stages involved in Christ’s condemnation to death, crucifixion and burial; with all but three consisting of single static shots. We are introduced to the fourteen year old protagonist, Maria(Lea van Acken), struggling to reconcile her newfound, adolescent independence with an environment that sanctifies martyrdom and celebrates self-abnegation. The film begins to stagnate after a few expositional chapters, its trajectory becoming increasingly predictable, only to be resuscitated on occasion by doses of mischievous humour bordering on the farcical. Lea van Ackens’ tender portrayal of Maria brings Agata Trzebuchowska’s novitiate from Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (another brilliant film, discussed later)) to mind, with their seraphic demeanour and inscrutable gazes.

With Two Days, One Night, the Dardenne brothers return to the Belgian industrial suburbs of Seraing and their staple territory of social-realism. The film can be described as a miniature socialist epic with a near mythic structure, playing as a palm-sweating thriller. Girish Shambu recounts a joke in his blogpost on the film, which goes like this – “A CEO, a Tea Party member and a union worker are sitting at a table. A plate of twelve cookies appears. The CEO grabs eleven of them, looks at the Tea Partier and exclaims, pointing to the worker, “Watch out—he wants your cookie!”. The premise of the film resonates this situation, wherein the protagonist, Sandra receives the news that she’s about to lose her job at a local solar-panel factory, aspart of a downsizing initiative. The decision was made through a vote by her co-workers (influenced by a management crony), when they were forced to choose between saving Sandra’s job or their own €1,000 annual bonuses. Her only chance now is to organize a ‘fair’ second vote via-secret ballot with the management’s consent and hope for  a different outcome. It is already Friday afternoon, and Sandra has until Monday morning to rally the seven additional votes that she needs. Marion Cotillard plays the working stiff spiralling into a nervous breakdown — the first A-list star to feature in a Dardenne film– and shines, managing to locate value in her life and a new sense of self by the end with remarkable subtlety. She exudes restrained dignity and determination, squaring up to an oppressive, faceless adversary. Sandra picks her way through the pebble-dashed suburbs, pleading her case to people she has worked alongside and yet barely seems to know. Her argument is simple: ‘Don’t pity me. Just put yourself in my shoes.’ She is confronted with the best and worst of humanity. ‘I didn’t vote against you,’ a co-worker explains- ‘I voted for my bonus.’ The stakes are high, and as Monday morning approaches, a sense of queasy anxiety begins to pervade the film –  enhanced, needless to say, by the long handheld-tracking shots by Dardennes regular Alain Marcoen. The brothers won their first Palme d’Or with 1999’s Rosetta, which climaxed  with the eponymous faithful capitalist foot-soldier hauling a gas canister across a trailer park; while Two Days, One Night ends on a more optimistic note. Eventually, the film is about working class solidarity in times of neoliberal capitalism and non-unionised laour, a call to arms – resistance always has worth of its own, no matter the result. The Dardennes have ensured crossover success by ticking all the boxes, mostly through the inspired casting of Marion Cotillard.

John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary has been described as Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest “with a few gags thrown in”, by the maker. It also brings Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon to mind, especially during its climactic sequence, with the solitary hero gracefully striding towards the stipulated showdown. The film, as the title suggests, is a moral and theological allegory; the central crisis of which is the inability of man to transcend. Father James, played with almost supra-human solidity and sincerity by Brendan Gleeson, receives a death threat at the confessional by a victim of sexual abuse at the hand of a dead Catholic priest. The killer announces that he would rather kill the ‘good priest’ than the rotten ones, and the Father is given a week to ‘put his flock in order’. The rest of the film follows Father James’ attempt to deal with the ‘flock’ and himself, where the running joke seems to be that the community not only does not want to transcend/change, they do not even see the necessity to do so. No film in recent times has made it a point to tell us bluntly how alone we are. The film invokes the work of John Ford, for the community here is the epicenter and is bereft of any intrinsic value, as well as in the use of risqué gallows humour and the sweeping visuals of the Irish landscape. With a stellar second feature after debuting with the black comedy The Guard, McDonagh will be a name to look forward to in coming years.

Rsumovic's No One's Child

Rsumovic’s No One’s Child

Vuk Rsumovic’s No One’s Child, winner at the Venice Critic’s Week, is a nifty little debut feature which employs a cruel narrative arc: a feral child is gradually inducted into “civilized” society, only to be left in the wilderness again by agents of the Balkan war. Denis Muric plays the titular ‘wild child’ with disquieting physical abandon, while the film assuredly eschews any trappings of heart-bleeding rhetoric or sentimentality. Grappling with the dilemmas of nature and civilization, personal and national identity, No One’s Child offers moments of rare beauty and compassion. Overall, a notable debut.

The first two days also had its fair share of disappointments, as is the case with Hany Abu-Assad’s Oscar nominated Omar. Stripped of the subtlety with which he previously dealt with the precarious situation of Palestinian people under occupation in Paradise Now(2005), Omar fails to soar due to its preachy, manipulative, heavy handed political rhetoric and blunt, one-dimensional characters. The film, with its sly screenplay, ends up implicitly justifying senseless killing in an attempt to portray it as a bold act of justice, falling ultimately into the trappings of agitprop. Michel Hazanavicius’ affected film, The Search, suffers from wallowing in cheap, corny sentimentality while treating the subject of the Chechenyan war. It is the kind of network-narrative, one-size-fits-all, generic representation of war that we see coming out every year, reducing its characters to either tragic victims or moral mouthpieces, talking in transparently obvious platitudes. No wonder it was indignantly booed at Cannes this year.