Author Archives: AM

PH at Courtisane: Thom Andersen’s Latest

Gautam Valluri

The Thoughts We Once Had

Thom Andersen presented his latest work The Thoughts That Once We Had at Courtisane to a packed auditorium where people were sitting down on the stairs. There have been many rumors leading up to the screening: that it was still unfinished, that he was originally going to show it at Cannes, that with it, he has surpassed his masterpiece Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), and so on. Whispers occupied the air as the filmmaker himself seemed relaxed in his demeanour. He was seen hanging out at the bar at Sphinx cinema with his good friends Pedro Costa, Billy Woodberry and Barbara McCullough.

His introduction to the film was simple: it’s a film that had its birth in the class he teaches at CalArts. It was originally titled Great Moments in Cinema and that he had been inspired by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s writings on cinema, specifically the ‘action-image’ and the ‘time-image’. Most of the audience had spent the previous two days watching his previous work, including his first noted work, Eadweard Muybridge: Zoopraxographer (1974). But no one had seen Los Angeles Plays Itself yet. It was to be screened the following day.

The film itself eschews Andersen’s signature use of the voice-over. Instead we are presented with a series of white-on-black inter-titles set in sharp sans-serif typefaces. It begins with a note, “All quotes are taken from the writings of Gilles Deleuze, unless otherwise stated” – this is followed by a series of film clips inter-cut with quotes from Deleuze and Andersen himself. One can sense his voice emerging right away – we had heard him speak before the film in his gentle, reluctant tone and that is what one can hear in the inter-titles. Andersen is our teacher here.

Filmmaker Magazine described the film at its Los Angeles premiere as nothing more than a YouTube supercut. Maybe, but why not? Andersen was making film essays much before YouTube was even born and when a filmmaker of his caliber works in this form; it is a piece of art. It is with astounding dexterity that Andersen juxtaposes and inter-cuts between moments in cinema history and draws connections where very few had soon any before. In the course of events we reach Deleuze’s theory of firstness, secondness and thirdness of image; Andersen demonstrates this by the use of extended comedic sequences of Harry Langdon, Laurel and Hardy and The Marx Brothers. The film slows down unnaturally, the insertion of these three sections seems out of place…or so one thinks until Andersen pulls the rug out from under our feet. Andersen throws us into an intense murder sequence from Masahiro Shinoda’s Pale Flower (1964). He proceeds to conclude that it is a moment in which all three states exist as one.

Another segment from the film which catches the audience off-guard is when Andersen starts indulging in his personal memories of cinema. He temporarily abandons Deleuze and we are treated to a seductive snake-charming dance by Debra Paget from Fritz Lang’s two-part Indian epic The Indian Tomb (1959). This is followed by a shock of porno-footage of naked women engaging with one another on a couch. At this point, one can feel Andersen trailing off the path he promised to walk us on. The film breaks free from the structure of a Deleuze class to a more free-form meandering through history. This segment in particular was divisive for audiences in the theatre. For me personally, it was a pleasure to let loose and follow Andersen through the images he presents.

I didn’t stay for the Q&A after the film. There are some things about the film that are not clear and that is how I’d like to keep them. I heard that Andersen was reluctant during the Q&A and even hinted to the mediator to call it a day. Outside, I overhead a woman bring up Debra Paget’s snake dance and call into question the film’s anti-feminist stance and even accused Andersen of it. No one seems to be able to fully like it or fully hate it for that matter. I can safely state that in either case, it is a film that one cannot be indifferent towards.

Coming Up: Excerpts from interviews with Basma Alsharif and Pedro Costa.

PH at Courtisane: The Spirit of Rebellion

‘In Los Angeles, we had a wonderful fine artists in the black community, and one of the things they advocated actively for is this idea called assemblage. They collected things that most people thought were useless, and out of it they made their work, their eloquent work, right?. And that went on for over forty years – and it still continues to the day. They made sculptures out of collages, made out of remnants from the burning buildings. Some of the people bought that sensibility to filmmaking. We realised that there was an affinity for this approach; one that said that things aren’t useless, that they can be used to articulate a point.’

Billy Woodberry

Billy Woodberry (Bless Their Little Hearts) and Barbara McCullough (FragmentsShopping Bag Spirits and Freeway Fetishes: Reflections on Ritual Space), two prominent figures of the movement discuss the environment that caused the L.A. Rebellion to brew, the film school that nurtured it and its aftermath. Stoffel Debuysere mediated the talk for Courtisane.

(Note: the audio quality is slightly murky in spots, but the overall lesson is: things aren’t useless).

PH at Courtisane: The Rebels of L.A.

Gautam Valluri

The place is Los Angeles and the time is the late 1970s to the early 1980s. This was a period in time where a group of African-American students at UCLA decided to tell the stories of their lives and of their community. Under the mentorship of established filmmakers and with access to resources that enabled them to make films, these group of students would later be categorized as the L.A. Rebellion: films which were independently produced, in rebellion against the exclusion of black stories from mainstream American films. Not only were these films very specific to the stories of the black community, they were also very specific in their technique. Charles Burnett drew inspiration from Jean Renoir for The Killer of Sheep and later became a vital mentor figure for Billy Woodberry when he made Bless Their Little Hearts. Arranged in collaboration with UCLA, the films being shown in this section come from a very specific time and place in the history of American and more specifically, Californian film.

 

Passing Through (1977)

Passing Through (1977)

The section began with Larry Clark and his film Passing Through (1977). Clark’s film can be described as a really well-made B-film. The film centers on Eddie Warmack, a black jazz musician who is somewhat of a prodigy at playing the saxophone. He has been mentored and taught the craft by his grandfather, a mysterious figure known as Poppa Harris. Warmack has been recently released from prison. He decides to end his association with his record label – run by a predominantly white male representation – to start his own. He sees a lot of black jazz musicians being exploited by white record industry executives for large profits. The events of Warmack’s struggles are intercut with flashbacks of his earlier years with Poppa Harris as he teaches him not only how to play the saxophone but also his worldly spirituality. There is also documentary footage of various black political movements from around the world.

The film is a fever dream of sorts with long, extended sections of Warmack and his friends playing heavily improvised jazz pieces. Clark’s editing cuts without a warning in time and through flashbacks and news footage and through color and black and white. Clark does show brief moments of stunning mastery of his craft but the film steers towards an underwhelming and generic ending. It also functions under the constant burden to identify a clearly defined antagonist – which as must be the case, is a vile, one-dimensional white male.

The film was shown on a 16mm print at the KASK.


A Slow Night in a Jazz Bar

Charles Burnett’s film has the rhythm of a warm summer afternoon. Characters hang outside on ledges and rooftops, roll down steep hilly neighborhoods. Friends show up at your door and acquaintances ask to borrow money. The grainy black and white world of Killer of Sheep is a valuable document of a bygone place and time in America, a footnote in the country’s cultural history. The film calls to mind, inobviously, Wayne Wang’s Chan is Missing (1982). Though made much earlier than Chan and set in a different part of California, both films are essential records of communities that were never properly represented in American cinema. Both films have a meandering, a-slow-night-in-a-jazz-bar quality to them.

Killer of Sheep (1977)

The eponymous ‘killer’ of Killer of Sheep is Stan, a slaughter-house worker played with a charmingly calm demeanor by novelist, playwright and actor Henry Gayle Sanders. He lives in an economically declining Watts, a part of Los Angeles now devoid of its former place as the centre of manufacturing. The people of the neighbourhood, a pre-dominantly black community go through their days in long, eventless stretches of time having to find ways to keep themselves from slipping into inevitable despair. Early in the film Stan holds a warm tea-cup to his cheek and remarks to his friend that it reminds him of making love to a woman, to which his friend replies that he wouldn’t know because he never made love a woman with malaria.

Stan is worn down by his job at the slaughter-house, we see him hosing down the floor and ripping flesh off severed heads of sheep. We see sheep flocked together oblivious of the fate that awaits them, much like the characters of the film, who flock together in houses and on playgrounds. Children throw stones at passing freight-trains and jump across roof tops. The film is rendered in a very specific cultural signature.

Allegedly, Burnett was heavily inspired by Jean Renoir’s The Southerner (1945) as well as the documentaries of Basil Wright who was also one of Burnett’s teachers at UCLA. The film is now preserved on 35mm and is probably one of the most interesting pieces being shown in the L.A. Rebellion section at Courtisane.


Rebellion, Cuckolded 

Bless their Little Hearts (1984)

Bless their Little Hearts (1984)

The third title presented in the L.A. Rebellion section was the Charles Burnett scripted film Bless Their Little Hearts at the Paddenhoek cinema, the only cinema in Ghent with parallel 35mm projectors. The film’s director Billy Woodberry was in attendance along with fellow L.A. Rebellion filmmaker Barbara McCullough. Pedro Costa, Thom Andersen and William Hooker were also seen seated in the back rows. Bless Their Little Hearts shares its location (Watts) with Burnett’s Killer of Sheep but is set seven years later. The characters of the film can easily be imagined in Killer of Sheep, individuals cut from the same cloth. They have the same issues looming over them: unemployment, boredom, borderline poverty but the film surprisingly lacks the easy-going humour or fleeting carelessness of the earlier film.

Burnett not only scripted the film but also took on the duties of the cinematographer. In the talk that followed the screening of the film, Woodberry acknowledged Burnett’s role as his mentor and his influence on his work. He also stressed on the importance of being present in that time and place when making these films was possible.

Charlie, the man of the house spends his days looking for a job while his wife and three children try their best to get by on what little they make. The children are seen doing chores around the house while their mother has periodic outbursts of frustration and nerves. Charlie’s marriage is stagnant and his bedroom is dead, he tries to initiate sex every night with his wife and is turned down constantly. He is comparable to Stan from Killer of Sheep, the only difference being Stan has a job at the slaughterhouse which is taking a toll on him while Charlie is desperate for just any kind of work that can bring in some income. Charlie would probably gladly take Stan’s place in the slaughterhouse if he were given a chance. Both these films present us a place in economic decline, a community deprived of a proper way of making a living and men who have their masculinity challenged in the face of circumstances beyond their control. Where Stan keeps letting himself be consumed by the vicious nature of his work, Charlie keeps trying. Even when he is able to secure a temporary job cutting weeds, he is determined to make it work.

However, Charlie lacks Stan’s dedication to his family. One can say that Charlie is equally dedicated to providing for his wife and children, he is also easily carried away into having an affair with an old acquaintance when the chance presents itself. Perhaps it is understandable. Charlie sees himself as a beggar and beggars are seldom choosers. He is at a point in his life when he will take any little opportunity that comes his way- even if it is a chance to relieve his sexual frustration outside of wedlock. Stan, on the other hand declines such an opportunity when he is offered one by the owner of a liquor store in The Killer of Sheep.

Charlie’s choice eventually results in what can be called the central point of Bless Their Little Hearts. A torrential confrontation by his wife in the kitchen leads him to move from denial to furious anger to eventually resignation and repentance. This key sequence is filmed in an unflinching long take while wife and husband weave around each other between the kitchen furniture. Woodberry’s direction and Burnett’s camerawork works up the scene to a feverish crescendo. This is really good filmmaking.

Woodberry’s talk after the film throws light onto the difficult circumstances he fell into soon after the film was made. He describes the film as something “that was never meant to exist but it does so he couldn’t expect it to result in financing for his subsequent projects”. He assured his audience that he hasn’t given up on making films yet and that he has been spending his recent years developing another film that he hopes to make soon.

Coming Up: A talk between Billy Woodberry and Barbara McCullough – members of the L.A. Rebellion as part of the DISSENT! series at the festival.

 

PH at Courtisane: ‘Oscar Micheaux’s time is now’

Gautam Valluri

'...he knows where every jump cut is, where every glitch is and when a character turns his head'

‘…he knows where every jump cut is, where every glitch is and when a character turns his head’

As a gentle drizzle made its way down on to the streets of Ghent, the audience was ushered into the performance hall. ‘As a one-time exception, you are allowed to take your drinks into the hall’ assured the festival staff. Cushions were laid down on the floor for the viewers to sit and face a fall of burgundy velveteen curtains with a sharp square cut in the centre of them, sporting a 4:3 aspect ratio. A drum set was placed in front of the screen and soon the lights went out.

William Hooker’s voice echoed through the speakers as he started reciting a free-form poem in complete darkness. “Don’t touch!” was the command, growled into the microphone. One could already sense the energy of William Hooker. The film starts playing and Hooker takes his seat on the drum set with a single spot-light shining down on him. His drumming is electric and free form but also remarkably synchronized with every cut and every edit in the film. One gets the idea that Hooker’s watched this film at least a hundred times, he knows where every jump cut is, where every glitch is and when a character turns his head. Hooker runs through an arsenal of techniques from gentle brushing of the floor tom to dropping mallots on the cymbals. There was a section of the film where he does not use his hands at all, just his feet. One foot on the bass-drum pedal and another on the open hi-hats. He did not stop even once throughout the running time of the film.

William Hooker (by Peter Gannushkin)

William Hooker (by Peter Gannushkin)

The film itself is a rediscovered gem of the silent era. Body and Soul is set in an American Southern town. It is a film about the African-Americans living in an era where their only representation in film was largely through caricatures. The film is also very specific to a certain people. The people of rural Georgia, both black and white. It is also a critique of religious faith, specifically the regimented view of Christianity preached in that part of the world. The villain of the film happens to be a preacher, the Rt.Reverend Jenkins, a charming black man with a suspicious past played by Paul Robeson in his screen debut. Robeson also plays Sylvester, the well-meaning inventor who falls in love with the tragic heroine Isabella. Isabella’s mother Martha Jane is a strict follower of the Reverend’s church and has been saving all her money to buy a house when Isabella marries him. In the meantime, Isabella is in love with Sylvester, an inventor without a cent to his name. Martha Jane refuses Sylvester’s proposal to marry Isabella and instead arranges Reverend Jenkins to meet and court her. The stage is now set for a dark melodrama, the events of the film spiral down into increasingly difficult circles of guilt and faith.

It is a classical moral tale but surprisingly enough here the antagonist is a man of the cloth. It is also a cautionary tale about blind faith but at the same time very over the top. Oscar Micheaux’s direction is ruthless as it is eloquent. There is an instance in the film where Reverend Jenkins rapes Isabella. The film shows Isabella drying her wet clothes over a fire while the door opens and a close-up of the Reverend’s shoes announce his arrival. One can see the door close behind them, the frame fades to black as the inter-title ‘Half an hour later’ flashes on screen. We cut back to the exact same composition of the feet, this time walking towards the door which opens and closes as the Reverend exits. This is the exact same technique employed by Shekhar Kapur in his 1997 film Bandit Queen where we see Seema Biswas’s Phoolan Devi being dragged into a barn as the close-ups of the feet of various men are shown entering and exiting the barn imply her gang rape.

Coming back to Hooker’s drumming, it rises and falls and varies in tempo as the course of events of the film happen. During a scene set in a raging storm, Hooker really lets loose on his drums, pounding away at deafening rumbles and never once with contempt. You can feel his joy in his work. His shadow projected over one side of the hall across the balcony seats was itself an image to watch in awe. At the close of the film, Hooker flew out of his seat with mic in hand and said “Oscar Micheaux’s time is now.” The audience honored him with a standing ovation. He asked to be excused for a few minutes as he went in to change his shirt which was at this point soaked. He told the audience that he would like to have a conversation with them at the bar right after.

He was spotted a few minutes later in the theatre lobby, in a casual t-shirt, a pint of beer in hand and talking to the festival staff and making them laugh.

Coming up: A conversation from the second day between Billy Woodbery and Barbara McCullough from the festival’s DISSENT! section.

PH at Courtisane: Wang Bing’s ‘Father and Sons’

Gautam Valluri

'...the slightest rumble of a plastic bag calls out to your attention'

‘…the slightest rumble of a plastic bag calls out to your attention’

With a title similar to Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev’s 19th century novel, Wang Bing’s latest shares the novel’s central subject: the rigidity and kinetic sparseness of a life lived in conditions of misery. His frame is so tight and its gaze so unmoving that even the slightest rumble of a plastic bag calls out to your attention. One can feel their eyes scale the breadth of images being presented as one would a painting in a museum but then again how often does one look at a painting for over an hour?

The film does not reveal much about the people being recorded until the very end of it where a series of inter-titles provide a context. For the viewers at Courtisane, the introduction of the film by Pieter-Paul Mortier provided that context. The man and his two sons being recorded are Cai and his sons. Cai works as a stone-caster for a factory in Fuming, China. The three of them live in a hut provided to them by the factory along with a dog and her two puppies. Wang Bing was filming them for four days before Cai’s boss threatened them and they had to stop. The specific nature of the threat, whether it was a legal notice or a death-threat, is never revealed.

The TV is running and one can hear the sound from the broadcast but Cai’s two sons never seem to be watching it. They are instead engrossed in their mobile phones – intermittently shifting their gaze to the TV. The lumbering shots show them moving from one screen to the other and only barely engaging with ‘the real world’ around them. Perhaps it is not very pleasant. They live in a run-down hut with a challenging environment; the screens come to their rescue. At the very middle of the film, we see the day descend into night over the course of a single take and it is only when the room is almost completely dark that Cai’s son realizes it’s night and switches on the lightbulb.

Father and Sons is more of an exercise than a fully-finished piece. One can’t help but wonder what Wang Bing would’ve done with the project if he were to have not been threatened by Cai’s boss. The explanation at the end that the filming had to be stopped due to circumstances beyond their control seems very convenient and a quick excuse for it to exist in its current form. The question arises: if Wang Bing didn’t consider his vision fully realized then why was the film finished and presented? Perhaps because this project was a commission from the French government in China, it needed to exist for bureaucratic reasons or it was the reputation of the artist himself at stake.

Who wouldn’t want to have a look at Picasso’s doodles?

Coming up: A report from the screening of Oscar Micheaux’s silent classic Body and Classic, and a live drum accompaniment by William Hooker.

PH at Courtisane: Ghent, 51.0500° N, 3.7333° E

Gautam Valluri

Band, 1

Projectorhead will run a series of reports from the ongoing Courtisane Film Festival in Ghent, Belgium. In its 14th edition this year, the artists in focus are Thom Andersen, Pedro Costa and Basma Al-Sharif, alongwith an incredible selection of contemporary and canonical experimental films. The festival also features L.A. Rebellion, a series of films set in inner-city Los Angeles. PH writers Gautam Valluri and Graeme Arnfield will report.

Pieter-Paul Mortier, the festival director of Courtisane opened the fourteenth edition with a charming speech. He mentioned how the festival had started fourteen years ago and went on to thank all the people that made it happen. He stressed on the fact that the festival is still a growing organism and that the people involved, most of whom are established programmers are still on their learning curve.

Pieter-Paul Mortier (on the left)

Pieter-Paul Mortier (on the left)

Mortier’s introduction shed light on the cinephile scene of Ghent. This small city, sporting cobble-stone streets and Gothic structures of the Flanders tradition has its own little culture of watching films. Mortier mentions The Sphinx, one of the four venues of this years edition of Courtisane and he calls it ‘The Greatest Cinema in Ghent’ and then goes on to add that for those who grew up here, it is ‘The Greatest Cinema in the World’. The festival opened in the halls of the magnificent Minard Theatre. There is a retention of what cinemas used to be in this little city. People still dress up for an evening at the movies and between screenings they walk out the front to smoke cigarettes and discuss what they just watched.

The other venues hosting Courtisane this year are Paddenhoek and the Cinema at the KASK academy. All within walking distance of each other are a convenient to walk briskly between screenings and allow just enough time to discuss the films. The Number 4 Tram which promised easy commute between the venues is however has a section of its route shut down due to a sudden collapse of a building and rumored asbestos poisoning in the area. The talk of the town is that the Belgian army was called in a few days ago to help with the issue.

The buzz is here and can definitely be felt on the streets. The festival crew, though small are very much on their feet and are always available to help with a smile. Artists and Filmmakers have been seen hanging out at the cafes at the Minard and the Sphinx.

Report 1 will follow: A review of Wang Bing’s Fathers and Sons.

Manoel de Oliveira: One-Man History of Cinema

Sudarshan Ramani

Manoel de Oliviera: '

“Living a long life is God’s greatest gift, but it comes at a price. Many of my friends are gone.”
  Voyage to the Beginning of the World (1997)

Manoel de Oliveira occupies such a unique position in the history of film, and the history of the 20th Century, that it’s hard to find anyone to compare with him. One has to go as far back to the likes of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to compare the measured mix of irony, wild invention, Olympian intelligence and fevered delirium. He lived many lives – athlete, racecar driver, wine seller, industrialist, aristocrat, actor, film-maker, Catholic, skeptic, political prisoner – that he constitutes in his life and work, a history of cinema in and of himself. His films are similarly protean – there are documentaries, essay films, opera films, music videos, literary adaptations, filmed theatre, neorealist films, experimental films, literary adaptations, art house films, historical epics.

Of course this protean quality has much to do with the exigencies of Oliveira’s long life. The fact that his career had at least four or five starts, that it was only since he turned 80, that he managed to average a film per year. Undoubtedly, it also stems from a keenly honed survival strategy, coming from a man who at the time of Portugal’s 1974 Carnation Revolution, had spent a major part of his life under a dictatorship, spent most of his career managing his family’s holdings, briefly spent time in prison following the release of his film O Acto de Primavera (1963) and who, according to some of the available biographical information, saw his fortune dwindle in the wake of the Revolution. There is much that remains to be known of this highly enigmatic figure.

Born in 1908, Oliveira appeared in Portugal’s second talking film A Canção de Lisboa (1933). His first film was a documentary short, Douro, Faina Fluvial (1931), made under the influence of Walter Ruttman’s city symphonies. His first fiction film was Aniki-Bobo made in 1942, a proto-neorealist work made with non-professional actors. After that, there were sporadic experiments with colour before he made O Acto de Primavera.

It was only in the 1970s, that Oliveira found a regular career in films. This was also the decade where he made what many consider his first major works – Benilde, Doomed Love, Francisca. Doomed Love (1979) is regarded as his masterpiece but is incredibly difficult to see today. It was these films, made at a time when Oliveira believed his career was at an end that paradoxically brought that career into existence.

Is Oliveira’s career then, simply that of a curiosity, fascinating for its essential fact the definitive late bloomer? Can his films stand on its feet, separate from an understanding of his life?

Neither question does justice to our understanding of his films. The truth is they are amazing films that could only have been made by an artist who lives to be a hundred years old. The vision of history, culture and society in titles as diverse as I’m Going Home, A Talking Picture, The Principle of Uncertainty, Inquietude is filtered with rich irony, layered observations and deep ambiguity that is rare for any human individual to acquire, leave alone acquire and internalize, and rarer still to express through sounds and moving images. They, especially the films made in the 21st Century, are manifestations of what Edward Said called “late style” in classical music –the art that comes from a life fully lived, unrestrained by commercial compromises, driven only by the pursuit of formal and thematic concerns heedless of any final summation and resolution.

When describing his film, No; or the Vainglory of Command, Oliveira stated that the history of Portugal derives from major defeats rather than victories. Defeat, Oliveira states, can offer us more to learn than victories. This film, made in 1990, cross-cuts events in Portugal’s doomed Angola War with vignettes narrated by Cabritta (Luis Miguel Cintra – an Oliveira regular), a history teacher conscripted in the army. We see sketches and anecdotes from major events, from the Roman Empire’s conflict with the Lusiad tribes, to the disastrous War of the Alcazar-Quebir, the Age of Discovery and Circumnavigation with the radio at the end announcing the Carnation Revolution. The theme of defeat, failure and folly which Oliveira identifies in the search for national glory and greatness harmonizes into a poetic vision of ambiguity, survival and wisdom. Progress attained not in a straight line, but in circles. An epic of anecdotes and asides rather than events and great figures.

If Oliveira was still optimistic when he made this film, his later works are more critical and in the case of A Talking Picture, by considerable distance the great post-9/11 film, which burns with controlled fury. The satire of cruise voyage and sight-seeing of monuments across the Mediterranean, mocks the notion of nostalgia and satirizes the folly of cultural exchange, simply because every stop taken by the cruise represents a missed opportunity followed by another. Oliveira’s final films – I’m Going Home, The Principle of Uncertainty, Eccentricities of a Blonde Girl, The Strange Case of Angelica – depicts surfaces that break down and quietly implode, with grief, despair and emptiness. They are also, as in the case of Belle toujours (a “sequel” to Belle de Jour), quite funny.

There’s no real final message or grand summation in Oliveira’s films. There isn’t even a “final film”. One of Oliveira’s titles, Memories and Confessions, a documentary shot in 1982, was personally shelved by him, to be released after his death. There is in the films themselves, despite its refined classicism, a permanent sense of the tentative and conditional. There are few “endings”, most of the time, the films simply stop, the characters are never fully consistent. Is Oliveira the last of his kind, the classical stylist who began making films in the silent era? Or is he the first of the modernists? Do his films look back or do they look ahead? It was the fate of his life and his work to ask these questions, to challenge the idea of linear progress, to speak, from the margins of Portugal’s suppressed national cinema, on the central ideas of European history, culture and civilization in the 21st Century.

The Graduation Ceremony: Anurag Kashyap’s ‘Ugly’

Sudarshan Ramani

Ugly

Producers and distributors in the commercial cinema make movies based on certain assumptions of audience tastes. Over time this has evolved into a self-perpetuating narrative. It goes something like this. There are two kinds of audiences – there is the urban audience, the ones for whom NRI-movies, “high-concept” movies, student movies are marketed and there is the rural audiences, who get the action movies, the village romances, the preachy political message movies. Certain ideas and concepts are judged by industry experts, prognosticators and pundits as being niche, offbeat and too sophisticated. These words are, strangely enough, used as excuses to sideline films for both audiences.

The assumption is that a certain kind of narrative fiction film (and sometimes documentary) is unlikely to appeal to rural audiences (for whom stories redolent of the simplest socialist realism suffices) while urban audiences yearn for the consumerist fantasies that by earning money and spending money they can always find convenient redemption and affirmation/enabling of their compromised lives. In other words the stories so far have addressed the poor on the assumption that they would remain poor and that the rich would remain rich. The commercial film narrative as such mirrors the narrative it creates about its consumers and its habits. As with any drug addict, this self-perpetuating and self-validating narrative sails forward in the hope that things will change so long it keeps doing the same things by the same means.

It is Anurag Kashyap’s fate that it fell to him to challenge and break down the hegemonic and feudal narrative of commercial cinema. His films have done this not in any systematic or intellectual manner, rather, like Quentin Tarantino, Kashyap achieves it by a instinctual fascination for the grimy underbelly of cities, for gangster-chic and quotations plucked across fifty years in the festival circuit. Kashyap’s films, like Tarantino, are constantly in dialogue with other movies, and like Tarantino, Kashyap’s movies have characters that are essentially variations or imitations of popular movie archetypes Where there was Devdas, there’s now Dev D., the Gangs of Wasseypur outfit themselves in the hairstyles of Amitabh Bachchan and Sanjay Dutt, his short film for Bombay Talkies revolves around a religious pilgrimage made to Amitabh Bachchan’s real-house. Where things differ is that Tarantino’s pastiches are essentially fantastic and playful, largely free of critical inquiry. Kashyap’s films, purely by accident of geography and circumstance, cannot afford the same luxury. The reason for that is clear in Ugly.

Let’s discuss the plot in two ways:

1) It revolves around the disappearance of a girl, daughter of a wealthy middle-class household headed by a strict, honest police inspector and his housewife. The inspector struggles in his investigation to recover his daughter because his professional detachment struggles to cover a case where he’s personally implicated as a father and husband. The wife struggles to reconcile her passive role as home-maker with her personal desire to rescue her daughter.

2) Now here’s the plot with Kashyap’s slight, deft complications. It is the inspector’s step-daughter, from his wife’s first marriage. The wife has not recovered from her abusive first marriage, her ex-husband shows up every weekend for visitation rights, the honest and self-righteous husband is paranoid about his wife to the point he taps her phones and emails and that of her friends.

The daughter is largely neglected by self-absorbed adults. The kidnapping quickly diverts from the purpose of recovering the girl, to a series of petty episodes where everyone accuses each other while playing the victim. Now is the second plot more “realistic” than the first story. Not necessarily. It is melodrama by other means, one that acknowledges recent changes in the family structure (blended families, divorces, alimony), economic realities and technological changes (the wide accessibility of phones, SIM cards, online talktime). It acknowledges the effects of contemporary news media, where “human interest” and bad editing flattens coverage of tragedies into safe images of “victims” making familiar emotions and sentiments.

The film’s weakness largely stems from the fact that much of its virtues and storytelling ideas aren’t reflected in the performances and images. Kashyap has more assurance as a director in Ugly than in his earlier films but, as with Tarantino, this often leads to needless exercises in style and sanitized shock. The opening sequence takes four cuts that its heroine is a strung out bored housewife on prescription pills, bluntly making its point and theme, when the rest of the montage, a brilliant exposition that introduces an array of characters, covers the contours and theme more powerfully. The performances derive its strengths more from the big moments and key scenes rather than anything the actor brings across in different scenes. This applies to the key players. The supporting characters are more interesting, Girish Kulkarni and especially Vineet Singh’s Chaitanya, who stands out as the most uncompromised character – this slimy, duplicitous, exploitative and oddly endearing character has the fewest illusions about himself than any other character.

If the plot of Ugly is the kidnapping of an innocent girl, the real story, told in brief flashbacks is essentially the Bollywood Love Triangle gone to seed. The romantic hero grows up to become a hack actor scrounging off his wealthy star girlfriend, spending money on Whey protein, auditions and fitness in search for the part-to-become-the-next-Salman-Khan that will never come. The heroine is largely concerned about her fading powers in attracting men, despairing about her fading beauty and bored marriage. The police officer, objectively the most moral and responsible character is perhaps the most psychopathic in his obsessive need for control and false appeal to duty to cover his vindictive fury. The climax is refreshingly old-fashioned, a Cesare Zavattini neorealist morality play that finds a nice stopping point rather than a real resolution.

The great piece of dialogue in Gangs of Wasseypur, Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Ramadhir Singh stating, “Yeh cinema sabko chutiya banata hai” (“this cinema makes fools out of everyone”) is essentially Kashyap’s doctrine, the proliferation of Bollywood myths and imagery that increasingly seeps into daily life. In Ugly, we see these myths in action in a story and setting without a safety net. We see the clash between a middle-class kidnapping drama (largely about the patriarch defending his family) and a lower-class kidnapping drama a la Hera Pheri, where small-time hoods with sympathetic motivations profit from a single crazy scheme. By taking two strains of the commercial narrative and putting it on collision course, Ugly doesn’t create a middle path so much as point ways where older forms of Bollywood storytelling can be put to interesting use.

BIFFES Log II: Living Quietly by a Monochrome Fire

Aroonav Das

Labour of Love (2014)

Labour of Love (2014)

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.

Ida, London Film Festival 2013

Ida (2013): ‘A road movie.’

 

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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.

Winter Sleep (2014)

Winter Sleep (2014): ‘Hell is Other People’

 

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“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.

Limelight (1952)

Limelight (1952)

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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.

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.