Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Restul e tăcere

A curious and exhilarating mixture of American epic proportions and sweet candy stuff with European elegance and ability to nitpick on subtle things, Nae Caranfil’s Restul e tăcere (The Rest Is Silence) handles more than one thread with aplomb and an equal amount of zest. Fictionalizing the true story of the making of the 1912 Romanian film The War for Independence, the film sets the tone at the very beginning itself: presenting hardboiled nutty issues surrounded in a soft yolk of humor and irreverence.

Where the film excels is that it does not take any sides, except telling the story. It never suggests that the hero Ursache is really someone who is an artist, and even the story and detailed visualisation of the movie might be all his dead friend’s. But what his friend might never have been able to do, he does successfully: by the sheer dint of his ambition, and lack of scruples when he knows what he wants. And yet a man who keeps the god living in him: while all his co-stars are enjoying prostitutes of Paris, he is busy with the movie rolls gathering, and silently loving the young ambitious village girl who he knows is already on the path of trailing rich men for meaty roles and money. His strong mental-headedness is even more in the focus during the sombre climax of the film: he not only has realized that cinema is here to stay and even if it’s not as great as theatre yet it is the medium which can go to the masses and can help them relax and can bring ideas to them, but also that cinema is a collective effort, and roundly stymies the efforts of his wealthy benefactor and the film producer Negrescu of including him among the defrauders of money. He also finally takes his revenge upon Negrescu: the two coins that God made a beggar to give Negrescu might have been a symbol, but what’s more important is not to pass on rhetorically those two coins but to be the same man who once slept on the roads and not pick your nose on hearing the ticket was only 1 leu.

Ioana Bulca’s appearance strikes a fresh gong: the inevitability of the death of the golden age of theatre. The photographed moving image are only shadows of living fleshes, but the world can remember them, at least get some percentage of what those actors were. Yes, theatre would’ve been a different experience, but cinema would at least enable people to feel the same emotions and vitality, even if in much muted proportions or even distortedly. With the typical European peppy feel, a rich music score, and the biggest ever budget in Romanian film history, the film easily takes you off your feet: the only remaining grouse is that the film could’ve well been edited a half an hour shorter. The performances of Marius Florea Vizante as Ursache and Ovidiu Niculescu as Negrescu completely dominate the film, and the rest of the actors jigsaw perfectly in. A movie only Europe can give!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Hiroshima, Mon Amour

When the dust, the ashes slowly settle, hiding beneath years of anger and felt injustice and mourning, then the greatest tragedy is redemption: to have the scorched frozen layer scraped. Alain Resnais reaches heights of his prowess with as difficult a subject as Hiroshima bombings, which he slowly weaves into a yarn of loss, and from thereon the loss of love. How Resnais achieves the miraculous feat of standing the film on its own legs--the only films I have seen without references are those of Resnais--is through his usual tricks of utilizing the stream-of-consciousness technique. Other directors struggle with montages, a simple cut, and their films become a mockery of a sequence of paintings carried forth to burst upon the viewer (none better example than Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain of the complete miscarriage of cinema); Resnais reaches the soul of his characters. Once again, voices play a key character role in the film, this time even more than La Guerre Est Finie. The voice is the unconscious, the seemingly unrelated scenes strung up in a sequence are the past, the unseen or the afraid-of present, the future, the actors and their bodies are puppets dancing to the plot's tune. That’s the whole beauty of Resnais: maybe only Kieślowski comes close to realize it.

The film's central theme is memory. Memory of a loved one. Whom you cannot forget, and who can never be redeemed. You bury him after years of effort, one-night stands, and denials; one day you meet real love, who undoes all that and rips open your heart with the pain you felt. The memory is blurred: there is no distinction between the lover fifteen years ago, and the lover now. Life continues, death continues. The two worlds of the small French town of Nevers on the banks of Loire where to love a German was the most shameful of crimes you could have committed in the 1940s, and the bombed city of Hiroshima whose denizens became not only a symbol of the horrors of war and of the need for peace but also that of liberation for Europe, the end of the War; those two worlds meet. And a love is born which knows at birth itself that it will last for ever, yet that it will never be together; that the one or two days they have are the only ones they will ever see each other. Emmanuelle Riva does an excellent job in her debut performance, but it is the Japanese actor Eiji Okada who impresses the most in this one of the most, most beautiful films I will ever see in my life. In a certain way, the film is an exact antithesis to Bleu, since older memories prevail, but in a much more strange way Hiroshima, Mon Amour teaches you to situate yourself within the grief and internalize it and face the world: as long as a marble can fall with the boys’ sunlight into a cellar, the world is yet open and embracing.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Nóz w wodzie

Nóz w wodzie (Knife in the Water) disturbed me profoundly: so much that I use the adverb ‘profoundly’, one I hate very much. Besides the actual knife where the boy (Malanowicz) does prove his superiority over the husband Andrzej (Niemczyk), there is also the question of the figurative rapier: in what sense? One that simply shears the water surface, without being able to really cleave a way through, is one obscure, far-fetched meaning. Or it could simply stand for one metallic glint among the many little wavelets glimmering similarly in response to the sun: the hard glint of human greed and wish for power. For it’s the wish for power that dominates the film’s bleak Bergmanian landscape; the wish for power of the wife Krystyna (superbly played by Jolanta Umecka): by cuckolding her husband for the untested virile strength of the young boy, she at once gains mastery over her inner complex, her husband, and all the boys that that young boy represented. Where the film does fail is its atmosphere of drifting ennui, which does not surely bring up the tension to a point as to make the husband feel unwontedly jealous. The character of Andrzej is built very strongly, to show a man witty, strong, practical, of good hands, intelligent to some degree, an able man, yet lacking that free poetic will which would have enabled him to have the love of his wife instead of owning her. I do not think he could have been jealous of a boy whose only claim to a poetic temperament, notwithstanding the rather one-sided flirtations from the wife’s side when around the radio, was a reckless nature: does the filmmaker Polanski confuse recklessness with pure, untouched spirit that soars always high? I think so.

Being this main point unresolved, I often wondered about the purpose of making films like Knife in the Water. When you don’t know yourself what you set out to show, you only show your techniques: nobody wants to narrate a story just because he learnt fifty new words today. Fifty new words arranged neatly by an intelligent man seem beautiful: but what was the substance? The story ostensibly is that of sexual tension between the three: but the screenplay only shows drifters ending up in whatever circumstances are pitching them into, with not much energy or wills or even desires to have any kind of tension between them. One of the major weaknesses apart from the screenplay itself was the actor who plays the young boy: there is cold hardness in his eyes, like that of his knife-blade! It’s the camera which tries to construct the tension: showing Umecka in various degrees of undress to titillate the viewer. The boy hardly seems interested, there is no slow internal boil going over somewhere: what’s the point? To seduce the viewer like a soft-core porn film? I call such cinema, where the director seems just interested in testing his capabilities of filming something rather than narrating something, a ‘masturbation’--not engaging the viewer in sex, a film which just tries to excite the viewer and provoke him, not tugging the viewer’s sympathies for anyone, a cold, dispassionate view of roads and seas stretching far out. What makes the film a real fish in the bowl is the jazz soundtrack accompanying it: it reinforces the feeling I got when I saw the film, that it’s a film which silently tries to destroy everything meaningful and beautiful you see, it tries to convey everything is a game, not an exciting game, but a weary, worn-out game, played now and then, today and tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Entre les murs

As much as I would like to place a film with modern references, with modern slang on top of Blackboard Jungle, I still cannot do so with Entre les Murs (“Within the Walls”, shockingly called The Class for international audiences), just because the film is more a documentary, a calm documentary that does not provoke, does not take sides, does not take any partisan view, and does not provide any insight. It’s a quite successful observation of today’s modern education system and the generations that barely complete their bac; though what the film doesn’t even dare to do is to leave questions, if not answers, with you. And coupled with a surprising student lingo low in sexual innuendoes, the film makes you think: what would have the novel been like without any story, any thought to offer?

Where the film excels is the tight cinematography from unconventional angles, making the camera a direct participant observer of the action, and an ensemble cast, including the novel author himself reprising his role as the school teacher, M. Marin. The indecisive, shaky principal whose primary interest seems to keep the school’s business intact, the many confused identities among students (esp. Khoumba and Souleymane) and the staff themselves, and the school teacher Marin who could never inject humor in his class and who could himself get into arguments with his students time and again: who simply didn’t have the know of what question is right to which person at what time--all make the film a delight to watch. Even if the filmmaker doesn’t want to offer any solution, he does offer the quandary: an underperforming or undisciplined student might sink further if not punished and may lead to similar behavior in others; on the other hand, will punishing him/her help? What would be the impact in his personal life of such a punishment? Punishment--is it a system of correcting someone, or is it just a system of getting hopeless over someone and then isolating him in a bid to keep the society running smoothly and keep the glaring spots out of sight?

What I found to be the issue with the film is that the film failed to explore in depth the ways, the methods on both sides, and when it might be necessary to forego one for the other. M. Marin was hardly an inspiring teacher, so his just being softer doesn’t do much for the students; I personally would have hardly liked such a teacher. He is not firm, not articulate enough, and he does go by the rulebook on strange occasions: on one hand punishments are bad, yet he has to write in the report book of a student who clearly was off color, who clearly was having some personal crisis. Afraid at each step, what can any teacher achieve? Bound within the framework, what can he hope to achieve? Still an excellent film, in that it at least brings to the fore the issues at education in most Western countries; and many of the students would themselves be the audience, not to mention the teachers. What a teacher should always remember is that he’s not a passive actor in a student’s transformation or growth or at any stage: “what can I do more?” is not the question. There has to be always something more.