At the end of last year’s Mumbai Film Festival, the 13th (Year 2011) I spoke to a woman after the screening of Gus Van Sant’s Restless and said with pride, that it was the 9th film I had seen at the festival. The lady, bespectacled with brown eyes, promptly put me in my place by telling me that she had seen 30 films at the festival. I sank into my seat and shut up. This year I saw 20 films in a five day period, a marked improvement though far beyond my acquaintance’s record and surely an equal or greater number by other cinephiles and stargazers at the festivals. I would have assuredly seen more had a sizable number of the must-see films hadn’t been cancelled, rescheduled or simply overlapped with more immediate films to see. Having attended the film festival over the course of three years, I remember the films I missed as often as the films I did see.
In 2010, the year before last, I missed Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica because I was helping my friend move into his new house. At the same festival, I missed a screening of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, I did attend a screening of Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy though. This year’s Mumbai Film Festival (2012) also had a new Oliveira, new Haneke and new Kiarostami. I missed the immortal Portuguese’s Gebo and the Shadow (2012) but attended Haneke’s Amour and Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love. Last year, I missed Wim Wenders’ Pina and Sokurov’s Faust, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon A Time in Anatolia most regretfully of all. This year I missed titles such as Leos Carax’ Holy Motors (clashing with Makhmalbaf’s The Gardener), Alain Resnais’ You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet(cancelled, twice!), Olivier Assayas’ Aprés mai! (or Something in the Air) and among the film’s retrospective titles, Luchino Visconti’s Senso (cancelled or botched or both!) and most agonizingly Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in America (for reasons I shall describe below).
These misses at the time were most painful though in retrospect it evened out considerably. In 2010, I saw Mizoguchi’s Story of Late Chrysanthemums, Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill, Kiju Yoshida’s Akitsu Springs. In 2011, I saw such masterpieces as Belà Tarr’s The Turin Horse and Chantal Akerman’s Almayer’s Folly. And this year, I saw in impeccably restored prints, Visconti’s The Leopard, Powell-Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Murnau’s Sunrise and among the contemporary titles such wondrous films as Rául Ruiz’s Night Across the Street, Like Someone in Love, Amour, The Gardener and Marco Bellochio’s Bella Addormentata, all of them, by established directors admittedly (dinosaurs of earlier New Waves at this point) but filled with the wonder and possibilities of contemporary film-making. Even a lesser title, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Io e Te was filled with curiosity and discovery, in the first section at least, and remarkable given his back problems. Still as they say in cricket, form is temporary and class is permanent and I deeply regret missing a screening of The Conformist; though it was attended by Gautam Valluri, who some older readers might remember as my esteemed predecessor.
Okay, you might ask, what about newer film-makers, contemporary cinema? Who were the “great discoveries” and new talents unearthed at the festival. And there’s the rub. A film festival exists to promote new talent and serves as a fount for young directors to whom it provides a forum and audience. All this is true and fair and the Mumbai Film Festival has certainly not been vaunting in its efforts to promote young voices. In particular I missed the great finds and favorites, Ship of Theseus (Anand Gandhi) and Miss Lovely (Ashim Ahluwalia), though not intentionally in either case.
But as a viewer and critic, I am not too interested in young voices at the festival. Being totally unashamed of my present biases, what attracted to me to the Mumbai Film Festival in the first place was its repertory spirit, the possibility of showing older films and rare treasures on a 35mm film print. Daryl Chin in his article for Projectorhead 7(The Archives Project) talked about the fact that the accessibility of the libraries of classic films on home video and smaller screens took away from some of the power and grandeur of the work itself. Creating a divide between earlier moviegoing generations and today’s online cinephilia where knowledge, to cite my own case, comes from collating information from websites and DVD Commentaries and Extras. Being as biased as I was then, I disagreed with Mr. Chin’s lament though as editor I made a gesture of fair play and published it anyway. Now I see his point and agree wholeheartedly.
To wit, I first saw The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp from a DVD at the British Council Library about 7 years ago. The library was located at that time at Mittal Towers. The building was down the street from INOX Multiplex, one of three main hosts of this year’s Mumbai Film Festival. So in 2012, you can imagine my delight and sense of coming-full-circle when I saw the World Cinema Foundation’s restored 4K print at this year’s film festival. It confirmed for me a deeply held instinct. Colonel Blimp was shot in what would now be called a 1.37 ratio or the Academy Ratio or broadly (though not entirely accurate) “the square” as opposed to the rectangular box of the widescreen, Elia Kazan’s Wild River (also playing at the festival) and The Leopard. I found a greater revelation in seeing Academy Ratio films on the big screen in the correct presentation than the widescreen films. Film-makers working with the “square” had a greater sense of the height of the frame, a vertiginous quality that the increase of the width never quite managed. And of course, you don’t know what a close-up is, until you’ve seen Janet Gaynor pleading for her life from Sunrise. Or, Roger Livesey, fat and pudgy, middle-aged and portly, young and dashing, close-ups from three different eras within the film.
Qualities that are powerful on the small screen, undoubtedly, but so much more resonant on the large screen that the nearest I can think of is hearing Bach on the best earphones that money can buy and attending a performance in the Royal Albert Hall or some other great music palace.
As such, rather than seeming to be side-orders or specialty events at a Film Festival for contemporary cinema, these repertory screenings put the current debate of “the cinematic experience” to full relief. Nothing is more immersive than the famous ball sequence at the end of The Leopard which seems joyous but gradually uncurls slowly to reveal a pit of despair, visible only to Prince Fabrizio Corbera (Burt Lancaster) who prays for a death that will not come swiftly. On a more modest scale are restored prints from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ (AMPAS) Satyajit Ray Project, which shows the great miniaturist crafting a similar realization of the gnawing void. Set in smaller rooms than the palazzos allowed by Visconti’s budget, its detailed emotional textures are more than comparable in mapping out the organized oblivion that defined the decline of the old feudal class (in Shatranj ki Khilari). This oblivion moreover persists in the class created by our former colonial overlords as their replacement, as seen in Charulata and in the many other Satyajit Ray films that did not play at the festival. All three films played at the historic Liberty Theatre, perhaps the greatest of the city’s Art Deco theatres and in this theatre no one found any escape from the screen and the size of its characters and it was achieved entirely by the respective artists’ mastery of the medium.
And yet it seemed as if the organizers of the festival did not accord it the same sense of dignity. I use the word “organizers” with deliberate vagueness, I mean promoters and marketers who didn’t allow marquee posters, banners or trailers for the older films when they comprised in fact a quarter of the 200 films showing at the festival. The staggering number of older titles at the festival, unprecedented and perhaps unrepeatable, created a range of problems. A best-of hits showing of great Italian titles for instance, suffered from misplaced subtitles and faulty screenings. In fact, the organization of the festival on such a scale was a great challenge from the get-go. So one can’t entirely blame them for such splendid “false good ideas” (or FGI, copyright David Cairns) as INOX’s ticketing system. This allowed festivalgoers who paid for all-access passes for each screening had to take a ticket in line at a particular time interval to attend a screening. This meant that one wasted the time they could see a movie in another theatre for the simple rustic pleasures of standing in line. The reason: INOX which is primarily a dining complex for the rich office goers of Nariman Point (among the most expensive office space in the world) doesn’t want people to clog up its space. To quote a man in front of me, “Inox is the least consumer friendly theatre in Mumbai!” The absence of the daily screening pass, which he had to stand-in-line to get instead of covering a Panel on Film Restoration, meant that we missed Leone’s Once Upon A Time in America despite making it in time to see the film.
Such organizational hijinks would have colored the festival experience, at least for me, if I had published this festival report (and the issue you are reading) a few months back rather than the happy memory of the films I did see. So large did the experience continue in the month after the festival that I saw very few films in November(less than ten) and three of them at the big-screen.
And so, a defense of seeing older films at the festival and a neglect of the same is really a defense of publishing a feature on a film festival more than a month after it closed.
The five best films at the festival are, in no particular order – Amour, Night Across the Street, Bella Addormentata, Like Someone in Love, The Gardener.
However, the really best film at the competition was F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise with its cinematically achieved emotional textures and still-resonant and powerful vision of city life. John Ford, taciturn to a fault, wrote an article in praise of the film in the year of its release. I can’t find the source right now, but a line in it goes, “I have seen the future of cinema”. As true now as it was in 1927.