Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Stella (2008)

Sylvie Verheyde's film Stella is a remarkable achievement: with hardly a plot, rather a psychological portrait, intimately drawn, of a young girl, the film is at the same time a much deeper glimpse into French society than many films are successful at: though, in general, French films do a better job at drawing everyday life than films of many other countries (Iran excepted, which also does a great job).

Stella is a courageous girl at times, at times not: like any human being. She admires beauty and aspires for it; she hates herself at times, for she finds herself ordinary, coming from ordinary surroundings. But she loves the things she learns in these ordinary surroundings; she loves rough, sexy men frequenting the bar her parents run, learning poker, the carefree atmosphere. But it is this she loves, and the elitist society she belongs to doesn't want this from her: rather than any kind of practical knowledge or recognising that there exist many kinds of knowledge, this society talks to her of literature and history and spellings. Stella's life begins to offer a glimpse into the schizophrenia that afflicts French society: her home is different from the civilised school. Her only Paris friend, Gladys, a kind soul, is also an outsider: not charming enough for boys, with a name that makes others laugh. But even Gladys' home is more traditional, with leftist-leaning discussions dominating smoky tables, and Gladys gets good grades; not that Gladys cares, but Stella does, who only gets teachers' rude reprimands forever. But Stella changes; life at home changes, as her mother and father draw away from each other, her countryside friend is more interested in boys now than spending time with her, a known customer lures her to abuse her (and maybe succeeds?), and Stella is asked for a dance by a most handsome boy ... for whom Stella even starts getting good grades, for she doesn't want to be left behind in the old class now. But life does not change all: Gladys continues to be her dear friend ... life does not change all, but it changes dramatically for Stella. And thus, she will learn life in the schizophrenic world of France, where appearances and reality can mean two different, often diametrically opposite, things.

A beautiful critique of modern French society in many ways, especially of its elitism and the way children are treated in French schools, Stella offers a glimpse into a girl's, or any human's, mind. Stella is a perfectionist in her love for perfection: hence, she will even attack someone when not coming to scratch. But the world she lives in is far from perfect and will often disappoint her. She needs her dreams to cling on to, for those dreams, and Gladys' love, are what let her preserve her sanity; the rest is cleaved between outside and inside, between now and then.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Memorias del subdesarrollo

The Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's film Memorias del subdesarrollo (English title: Memories of Underdevelopment) is the most stunning, astonishing, and deep exposure of colonialism that I have ever seen or read or witnessed in any form in my life, and I doubt if it can be surpassed: the extraordinary work, much filmed stream-of-consciousness-like in the manner of Resnais's admirable La guerre est finie, a film only two years older, can be watched and rewatched dozens of times by me, for every frame is a revelation, every subtle reference is power-packed, meaning-punched.

The film is decorated with several references: of course, Cuba's political situation in those heady days when Castro took over, Kennedy's failed missile deployment, the women's emancipation as understood and advocated by the leftists. But that is merely, though not unsubstantial, flesh: at the dark heart of the film is one theme, or if you may, two—the intellectual's cowardliness, and the coloniser's (here the Spaniard's) civilising mission. For me, both are one, intertwined closely: for you, they may be two themes. And amid all this, the film is highly charged erotically: I could watch this film multiple times even just for its erotic impulse, preferring it to the best porn. The eroticism is not misplaced: for an intellectual is nothing but someone who delights in and is unable to get out of the habit of excessive intellectual masturbation without going ever to the length of actual intellectual sex—unless it be done for peeps.

Sergio Corrieri is the intellectual, admirably played by Sergio Carmona Mendoyo. He knows his disease: he is after all not a fake intellectual, but a proper one. And he cultivates himself in the usual, "European" (as mentioned by Sergio himself) manner: he goes to musuems and galleries and interminable conferences, sees artefacts of that another intellectual, Hemingway, and lives a smug life in high expectations of himself, dashed occasionally when he realises that he comes up too short. But the hallmark of an intellectual are not these habits: they may get developed in many of all ilk. The hallmark is the inability to take anything else seriously except one's own self, the hallmark is this cowardliness to embrace life in its diversity: it is this that leads to a constant self-abuse, and that leads to see others as "underdeveloped." It is here that the civilising mission of the West ties in: for there was the imperialism of Japan and Russia and of the tsars and sultans, and there was the missionary-spirited colonialism of countries such as Spain, France, Portugal and the UK. Both were quite different.

Sergio makes a remarkably acute observation about Cubans, though he draws the conclusion of underdevelopedness: the spirit of adaptability, the tendency of adjustability in Cubans. He bemoans this lack of consistency, this lack of firm vision. It is here that he also gives a fine glimpse into colonialism's dark secret, often misunderstood. Many people dismiss the coloniser's civilised pretence as just an excuse to dominate someone else, a stance take: but it's not often the case. The civiliser indeed belabours under this fancy. Many people do carry the feeling that they are "more developed", that the other needs to be taught and educated: the one with a steely determination, a far-reaching vision is unable to digest that another can be happy in all circumstances. The steely visionary then dismisses the seemingly pliant one as a beast, an animal, not developed to his human faculties: just as gentleness is often misunderstood as submission in this world, so does the ability to remain happy, even when it comes from the special ability to not to take oneself very seriously, is often mistaken as vacuity. The coloniser, like Sergio, in fact suffers: lacking flexibility, he dominates peoples and women to his liking, trying to make the world cohere to him, instead of just enjoying the variety. The really amazing thing is that such a message is hard to carry in a film, in any kind of entertaining format: but Gutiérrez does it with aplomb, sowing questions and insights with fine fecundity in the viewer's mind.

Like many really good films, it starts slightly ramblingly, a bit slowly, a bit reluctantly. But ten to fifteen minutes into it, and you are sucked into it. An irony would be that such a film would most probably be also watched by many intellectuals, but probably, hopefully, it hits home for some of them and leads them to question their way of life. Life is not PhDs and conferences and acclaim; it's passion, not for oneself, but for life's beauty, which comes in all tastes, bitter and sweet included.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

La tortue rouge

I do not know much about Michael Dudok de Wit's interests and leanings, but every film of his that I have seen bears that strong stamp of timelessness and of cyclicality: and I shouldn't be saying "and" here, since what impression does cyclicality give if not timelessness, as if all times recur, are same, time has frozen? This is again the case with de Wit's first feature-length film, La Tortue Rouge ("The Red Turtle", though I would be more tempted to translate it as "The Red Tortoise" given de Wit's strong leaning towards Hindu-Buddhist themes of spirituality).

If you have seen de Wit's remarkable Father and Daughter and The Monk and the Fish, you know what to expect from the man: stunningly beautiful, fluid strokes of animation; a stillness like David Lean had with live action films; attention to seasons and little things going around us (which is an essential feature of good animation, to make us suspend disbelief); and exceedingly well-chosen, lovely music. Father and Daughter was remarkable in every way, but especially so for the extraordinarily realistic animation and immensely touching story; The Monk and the Fish was so for a hard-to-believe, wizard-like synchronisation between action and beautiful music; while La Tortue Rouge is for its spiritual message carried forth through a longer vehicle than the former two short films. All three films, however, carry a, and the same, spiritual message, though modulated on different harps.

Not all reviews of La Tortue Rouge have been kind: in the Age of Reason (or Cynicism), people want "I see, I get" stories unless they are told in advance that they are watching a gadget-ful, sci-fi movie, when most absurd things and characters will make sense for them since they know they had chosen the realm of absurd. But de Wit gives no such warning and treats what seems absurd to the reasonable with what seems real: this mixture is not just some experimental kitsch, designed to provoke or to thrill, as happens in many of those so-called sci-fi films. It is laced with deep meaning, for those who have the patience to feel life's, and the year's, seasons. All de Wit films remind me of two things: Test cricket and gardening. Things you can only enjoy with patience. De Wit should make Giono's "The Man Who Planted Trees".

Now to the film itself, not its reception. In some ways, maybe, the film is less ambiguous than The Monk and the Fish, because even if the hidden spiritual message is unable to be comprehended by all, there is the romance: a beautiful, heart-touching story of a man and a woman who are ready to sacrifice their all - their home, their skin - for each other. But the film also acts very much on a spiritual and even theological plane, as a life spirit continues through repeated deluge and destruction. That life spirit, across cycles of universe, is not just the red turtle bearing the universe on its back: it is also the essence of birds chattering, crabs running around, moon looking. This is where de Wit, incredibly, marvels: how on earth does he manage this timelessness in a film, that too an animated film? Needless to say, never has such a talented filmmaker been born, perhaps. I haven't see any, at least, so far. Animation is already very hard work, but to touch the core of an essence that most can dimly feel at some moments of their lives is not just hard work, not just talent, but insight and genius.

Being a feature-length film co-produced and made across continents, the film has a few blemishes though: the opening scenes has the man floating a bit, that is, his walk, his jump do not have the required weight. That is a bit surprising, as de Wit's films are spot on in terms of animation: but given that this is a big production, and his first of such a kind, that is understandable and anyway not that important in the bigger scheme of things. For soon de Wit will create a poetry, without using any words: just his magic, his renderings, his chosen music, his message.

In a world where Disney and Pixar and productions like LOTR or Harry Potter or Star Wars exist, thankfully, in such a world, there is also Michael Dudok de Wit and his vision. And the possibility to realize his vision.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Le sens du toucher

Jean-Charles Mbotti Malolo's animation short Le sens du toucher (English: The Sense of Touch) is, for me, one of the most remarkable romantic films in cinematic history: it is also an excellent lesson in the need of communicating, in not withdrawing into your shell. Animated with fluid strokes, the film plays with an easily accessible symbolism throughout, that does not lack in effectiveness just for being less abstract. Distances become small and large, and faces change Dorian Gray like, though this time not because of orgies, but because of anger and inability to accept another way of life. The film somehow also succeeds in drawing out the pain of the OCD-ish, introverted, clumsy guy: and it is painful to watch his struggle between love and desire, on the one hand, and the sway his habits hold on him, on the other. The film at the same time succeeds in drawing out the slightly vulnerable but ultimately stronger girl: believing in communicating and in her heart till the very last, but also knowing where to draw the line. When you give out hand, you can keep stretching it out, and that is as much as you can do: it's still up to the other to take it. But, one must not forget that to take someone's hand, even if stretched out in love, is not that easy always, not for all: this is what is difficult to come across on screen, and yet Mbotti Malolo manages to do it in the short space of a dozen minutes!

For the moment, the complete film can be watched here.

Monday, April 18, 2016


Natalia Chernysheva's short animation film Snezhinka (English: Snowflake) is not just extraordinarily beautiful: it is also marvellously heartwarming and multilayered at the same time. Set in stark whites, stunningly punctuated by slivers of colours and given life by the black boy, the film at first is celebration of curiosity and of imagination. That curiosity which has produced not just good but also bad in the world, for good and bad are inextricable: that curiosity which led maybe the earliest men to cross seas and straits and settle thus in other lands, and thus spread humanity, but which also led some of the adventurers to marry their lust of a fine name with bravado, their penchant for cruelty with burning ambition: to imperialism and its disastrous consequences, from which we still suffer. And Chernysheva's film celebrates both aspects of human curiosity: while the animals look on and shiver cutely, the boy brings the charming foreign element and then also has to banish it, has to live with and without it.

The film is not the story of a letter that brought tundra-like cold to an African landscape: but the film is also about an organic whole and how a foreign element, howsoever charming and innocent in itself, can often destroy that organic quality of an ecosystem, of a society, destroy existing balance and lead to mayhem. The film offers a lesson for all those who ape blindly any other society's mores: be curious and learn, yes, but also take heed that nothing can be introduced with innocent effect. The boy is wise: not only he recognises the unwitting evil he has brought for the denizens of this world and sacrifices his pleasure, but he also knows that, instead of hate or regret or anger or sulking, the best response to an appropriation is reappropriation, both not done in the spirit of appropriating, though: as he sends one of the elements of his world, it is the other world that either may be in peril or may know how to deal with the foreign element. At some point, of course, someone will break, that is, accept the foreign element: and thus, new cultures will be born, new knowledge, at the cost of much devastation. For the cycle of curiosity, of knowledge, makes the loss of innocence inevitable.

Saturday, April 09, 2016


Mosaferan (Travellers in English) is not just another beautiful Iranian film: it is also the most stunning film of faith that I have ever seen, surpassing Dreyer's Ordet. The fight of retaining faith, in a crumbling non-believing world, is any believer's true test, regardless of the age he or she lives in: faith, which means also trust, demands everything, life and spirit, without conceding an inch, except in the rich satisfaction itself of possessing it and the ensuing torture when it totters. Faith is also the mirror, the only mirror, reflecting a person: those who lack it, those who are bound by blindfolds of rationality, are unable to see themselves—their relation and their relativity. And that is why the mother waits for the mirror: faith has momentarily deserted the house of marriage and the house of death. Only the mother keeps it, and she has not simply faith for herself, but she has faith that it shall be brought to others, that others who want a miracle to happen shall witness one, shall see themselves in the dazzling, often-blinding mirror. For in the mirror of faith, one can see one's atman. See, yes, but not with a pair of eyes.

Bahram Beyzai's film is also a masterful execution of editing and camera work: even though it is only the latter half where the film is contained within one house, the whole film seems like a tight huis clos. Elements recur, constantly: automobiles, trees, old men, a suspense of driving on roads when one has already witnessed one such promenade ending rashly. Or, rather, not witnessed: for Beyzai does not show any accident. Can the viewer be also sure if the deaths did occur? The fourth wall is broken at the film's beginning, predicting deaths, but so what? Why to believe someone's word more than someone's actual presence? Why to put the first one in the realm of rationality and the second one in the realm of apparition? Everything in the film is rhythmic, not in the sense of beats that progress to a climax, but in the sense of concentric circles, in a sort of cyclicality. The circle contracts, then expands, then contracts; one is happy, then sad, and then happy; now it is marriage, then funeral, and now marriage; she says yes, she says no, and now she says yes. The circle expands in stages: the relatives, the dead, the policeman, those of the other dead, the drivers. Each time the circle contracts, before expanding, to the mother's faith, to the tottering of the bride's faith, to the family's desertion of faith. Life flows in the ebbs and tides of faith and its loss: like a pressure head created that would make water or electricity flow, or any natural phenomenon to occur, the mother's faith creates a pressure head, where was expected none. And hence a phenomenon does occur: something's got to give. Bayzai makes us feel the full, unbearable tension, as the circle keeps on stretching more and more while punctuated with contractions all the time: bringing us closer and closer to a deeper understanding, and not merely an imposed one, of life and faith. For when you look into the mirror, you know yourself.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Mandala (1981)

Mandala is, one could say, a variation on Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund: a rare film, poetically made, to be able to do justice to such a theme. It is about Buddha, the nature of Buddha: it is about dogma and freedom outside it, about respect and freedom outside of it. The film flows like a river, like the river in Hesse's Siddhartha, a river turning in and out with slow purpose, and Jisan and Pobun meet and lose each other and then again meet each other, just like Siddhartha and Govinda. However, Pobun is more Narcissus than Govinda, with no one person's distinct way superior to the other's. Pobun is tormented, but sure and steadfast and trusting and loving, and seeking to know himself through himself; Jisan is the rogue and can also be steadfast in his own way, but he is also tormented, lusting after life and knowing himself through others, like Goldmund's quest. Both men seem to stand on opposite extremes of religious mores and yet stand hand in hand in the spiritual domain.

Elegantly shot, the film's slow rhythm is beautifully punctuated by Buddhist chants, and some of the shots are a delight to watch for their patience, which lets the viewer be immersed in the film's environment. Pobun in particular is very well played by Ahn Sung-kee, and the remaining cast is doing well, though I feel that the most important character of Jisan could have been played better. Overall, Mandala is yet another deep, sensitive film from South Korea.

Saturday, February 06, 2016


Pema Tseden's Tharlo is one of the most beautiful movies that I have seen in recent years: it reminded me of the little-known, equally intense and poetic Hindi movie Frozen, but it betters the Hindi movie by its beautiful camerawork, intelligent camera placement in particular, and brilliantly interwoven humour and tragedy alongwith a constantly running political commentary on the modern state of China and its meaning for different people, particularly those who live on the margins or even outside of them, as does Tharlo, the film's protagonist shepherd. Both the film's main actors, the famous Tibetan comedian Shide Nyima as Tharlo and the hairdresser, put in strong performances; like in Fúsi, it is very important for such a film in particular for the main actor to be very honest to his role, and Nyima does it to great effect. But it is also the camera which is the star here: placed mid-distance, often noting details of small life along with the story, not moving much, silently partaking of life's river.

Shot in crisp black and white in the unforgiving landscapes of Qinghai, the film is an artwork in its truest sense: it makes you plunge in the routine of Tharlo the shepherd, of the city nearby, of the slow evenings where nothing much happens, of the police station. It makes you plunge like Gao Xingjian's novel Soul Mountain does: it makes you feel the place and the people. Along the way, the film makes wry, twinkling humour: without any bitterness, only with the full pleasure of observing irony.

Tharlo is a film whose scenes will continue to haunt you, for long, long after.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Le temps des aveux

Many Western directors have continued to Orientalize the Orient: some have still been worthy efforts, like David Lean's films, but some take the downright patronising path, as Régis Wargnier's Le temps des aveux (translation: The Time of Confessions). It is always a surprise to me how such films resonate with a large section of the Orientalized, too: have they absorbed so utterly the dominating colonial gaze?

This film inevitably led me to a comparison with Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai, a film which is around the same theme but a different setting and context and yet is very different in one thing: Kwai portrays Saito as the equal of Nicholson: just with different rulebooks. Lean's camera does not just focus on Guinness' patient, obstinate suffering; it also focuses on Saito's patient, obstinate wilfulness. This is the strength of Lean's masterpiece: it is an exercise in dialectics in a way, though one person's methods may seem to be more cruel than the other's. However, with Le temps des aveux, it is the usual picture: the heroic, stoic white man, the only one who has the knowledge and courage to follow truth, among a sea of puny, weak-willed, ignorant heathens. The film moves very fast at its beginning: stealing glances at a Cambodian girl to marrying her and having a daughter with her happens in a blink. For the character development of the girl never entered the director's mind: the film had to deal after all with Bizot's lone, true fights. Then there is Douch, that enlighten-able man, perfect material for missionaries in other settings and here for Bizot, which the Westerners have loved to put up on a pedestal since colonisation's time: the intellectual dummy who buys into the gaze, who is content to be looked at with the colonial gaze. The patronising rarely becomes so insufferable than in such films, where it is mixed subtly, like a dose of slow poison.

Is such a film, also noteworthy for the very white, sympathetic appearance of France as a "just" country, a film widely appreciated by French audiences, a revealing detail of the fabric of French social life? As long as films such as these continue to be seen widely, hope for Europe is dim: some can cling on to their dreams of power as they deem it, and yet the world will move on, knowing that knowledge is true power and not asking someone else to subscribe to your ideas, your world.