Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Secret Of The Grain (2007)

You could play a drinking game with Abdellatif Kechiche's "The Secret of the Grain" (2007). Drink up a shot every time someone mentions Couscous! It isn't for nothing though, because at the very heart of Kechiche's film is this signature Tunisian delicacy, the one weapon with which its protagonist hopes to turn his world around.

A veteran shipping yard worker, Slimane (Habib Boufares) finds himself in a desperate career crisis at the age of 61, as modernization and outsourcing threaten to deprive him of his bread and butter. Hope knocks in the form of his big fat family of French Arab immigrants, some old friends, well-wishers and most importantly, the great taste of his ex-wife's home-made Couscous! While bringing down an old abandoned ship, Slimane experiences a straight-faced eureka moment; that of converting the ship into a restaurant that specializes in Couscous.

But the task is not an easy  one, as Slimane, assisted by his lover/landlady's comely young daughter, Rym, comes to realize. Convincing the powers that be to authorize and finance him in his dream project proves to be a gargantuan challenge. After much effort, blood, sweat and tears, a grand party is arranged to do the convincing, perhaps with a little taste of the ol' Couscous! Will his dream set sail and stay afloat in a sea full of bureaucratic sharks who threaten to sink his ship of hope? Will Slimane be able to pull it off or will the ain (curse) hinder his aspirations?

Kechiche's film unfolds in three acts. The first chronicles the beginning of his woes as he loses his job and learns that there may not be anymore work. This segment also introduces us to his extended family with his ex-wife, and his new family with a younger love interest. Various subplots, some central to the events that follow make way into the story, including Slimane's son Majid's torrid affairs. A particular expose that projects a connection between Majid's philandering nature and the pivotal climactic episode is very subtly inserted in a scene that one might blink and miss. 

The second deals with his business brainwave and his attempts to get things moving with his adopted daughter Rym as his aide. It is an interesting choice by the filmmaker to completely omit the details leading to this juncture in the story, including any explicit act of convincing his family to join in into his ambitious venture. In lieu of the drama that could possibly have accompanied this whole scenario, Kechiche spends a lot more time on an extended Sunday meal sequence, quite naturally shot, with glib conversations and intimate close-ups, sometimes uncomfortable to the extent of even showing food contents in the characters' mouths! The details of how he got his ex-wife to help him in his cause is instead explained as part of a conversation of some gossiping old fogies, claiming to be friends of Slimane.

And the final act, which is also the most important one showcases his last-ditch effort in making things works, by giving everyone a taste of his labour of love.  This entire sequence provides most of the dramatic edge to the story, with a lot of suspenseful and tense moments that showcase Kechiche's directorial prowess. There is some delicious icing on the cake, an exotic, sensuous belly dance presented as a surprise act by the gorgeous Rym. This is a very relevant scene and not superfluous as is often the case.

Kechiche constructs his tale beautifully, with a lot of focus on dialog and intimate character interactions. There are a myriad interesting characters, all of them quite likable despite their flaws. The conversation scenes are especially noteworthy in the manner in which they have been shot. They have an organic, casual vibe, almost like a documentary and the actors seem to forget that there is a camera rolling, capturing it all. 

At the center of it all is our brooding, aging hero, Slimane, whose perpetually long face speaks a million words. It is a remarkable performance by Habib Boufares, whose social awkwardness is more than convincing, well supported by Hafsia Herzi, as Rym who tries to use her youthful charm to be the face of the venture by doing all the talking with the authorities.

Special mention must be reserved for Alice Houri as Julia, Majid's wife who chews the entire scene in which she breathlessly rants about her husband's addiction to affairs. It is a strikingly natural act and for a while we forget that it is an act.

A sharp contrast in the immigrant Arabs and the snooty, authoritative French bureaucrats is quite tangible in Kechiche's characterization. This divide creates direct stereotypes in some of the characters and intentionally so, for they serve to prove a point or two towards the culmination, including the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie and an innate racial trait of wanting to crush the lowly, their merit notwithstanding.

In the end, regardless of the outcome (and we can only hope for the best) of ol' Slimane's endeavours, it is heartening to see all these colourful characters, especially his two families, come together despite their mutual disdain for each other, to lift his spirits up and walk with him to achieve his goal.

Score: 4.5/5

Monday, May 1, 2017

Silence (2016)

Set in the 17th century, "Silence" tells the story of Father Rodrigues and Father Garupe, two Jesuit priests who travel to Japan to propagate the Christian faith, and also to find out what happened to their mentor Father Ferreira who vanished years ago, amid mass persecution of the followers of Christianity in Japan, where the religion is officially outlawed.

The mission proves to be an ultimate test of faith for Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) as he struggles to find hope in a scenario where believers continue to live in fear, and the unfortunate ones face torture and death, for their refusal to renounce Christianity. Along his journey, Rodrigues occasionally questions God's unbearable silence in the face of rampant atrocity.

Having seen and loved the 1971 Masahiro Shinoda adaptation of the Shûsaku Endô novel, I couldn't help but go into comparison mode whilst viewing and reviewing Martin Scorsese's version. The Shinoda version is definitely superior in every way, but Scorsese is not too far behind, and certainly packs a searing punch with some of his own expert touches that are unique to his version of the film.

For one, the film is a visual feast; the cinematography is gorgeous, the visuals are awe-inspiring with a pitch-perfect atmosphere and a chilling opening sequence that is straight out of a nightmare! Scorsese's version is longer and perhaps more dramatic as compared to Shinoda's more objective, yet highly effective and better story-telling style.

Scorsese adds some powerful and surreal imagery including the aforementioned opening sequence depicting torture at the hot springs accompanied by Father Ferreira's (Liam Neeson) hair-raising description of  the method of torture in a voice-over. Another striking scene is that of Father Rodrigues' hallucinatory vision of the distorted reflection of Christ in the stream as he goes ballistic.

One of the things handled better and accentuated here is a sense of constant danger and a feeling of mistrust. The priests find themselves venturing in an unknown land under the guidance of an unreliable alcoholic and they are always anxious as to what would await them next. This boosts an element of suspense, for the viewer is equally in doubt whenever a new person comes in contact with the priests and offers to take them somewhere; whether he/she will betray or whether they would take them to their destination. A boat journey in the night highlights this aspect, as Rodrigues suddenly feels disconcerted about his boatman. 

However, Scorsese somewhat waters down some of the other cardinal sequences that were the highlights of the Shinoda film. The capture of Father Rodrigues and the conversation between him and the main antagonist, Inoue (Of concubines and Christianity!) fail to produce the same impact as did Shinoda's version.

Even Inoue's caricature-like portrayal as an effeminate old man (Issey Ogata) with over the top mannerisms is disappointing as compared to Eiji Okada's restrained, gentlemanly depiction of the opponent with a smiling face in the original. Ditto for the characterization of Kichijiro; the weak Christian who displays more human traits than Christian, upholding life over religion but ultimately torn in a never-ending conflict of faith. The weakness was more palpable in the Shinoda version; here he comes off more as a conniving, unremorseful betrayer except in but one scene in the final hour.

Scorsese also completely omits one great sequence from the Shinoda film, the horse hooves torture, that is somewhat difficult to watch. This scene is replaced by a rather quick and tame beheading scene, seen from a distance. 

Rodrigues' voice-over reports, presumably conveyed in letters, are also quite unsubtle, hammering in God's deafening silence, as experienced by him, once too many times. The ending is extended in the Scorsese version showing us more of the fate of Father Rodrigues. Shinoda's way of ending it is bleaker and much better. 

It is good to see Liam Neeson in a serious, meaningful role after a long time. The leads Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver appear a little too young compared to the leads in Shinoda's film. Not sure how they were written in the novel though, that would perhaps make it clearer if they were miscast. Driver doesn't get much scope in his short screen time. Garfield does well, and maybe it is just me, but he lacks the mature persona that a role like this demands.

While Shinoda tells the same story in a more concise, to the point fashion, Scorsese goes for a more sprawling, epic scope, and comes up with a superb product in its own right, but falls short of matching up to the brilliance of the 1971 masterpiece.

Score: 9/10 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A Night to Remember (1958)

Forget James Cameron's "Titanic" (1997), that mawkish melodrama, most remembered for the Jack-Rose steamy romance, rather than the colossal tragedy that was supposed to be the ultimate takeaway. Roy Ward Baker's "A Night to Remember" (1958), based on Walter Lord's book of the same name, did a much better job. No needless romanticism, no emotional manipulation, no fictional characters; just fully focused, straight-out chronicling of the final hours of the unsinkable ship, with a number of tiny episodes revolving around tiny characters that linger in your memory long after the final frame.

Just half an hour into the film, after warming us up to the environment and the characters, the ship makes its fatal collision with the dreaded iceberg, and its final one and half hour, as estimated by the ship's designer Andrews (Michael Goodliffe), begins to unfold.

Notable is how the film does not concentrate on the one supposed protagonist, Second officer Lightoller (Kenneth More), but rather on a multitude of other secondary characters as all of them share a disastrous fate, and not to intend any pun, are sailing on the same boat! Although we know the outcome, the Eric Ambler/Roy Baker team of writer/director ensures tautness all the way through. 

As the ship sinks, so do our hearts, when any hope of help arriving on time is thwarted, thanks to the infuriatingly clumsy behavior of the crew of the Californian just ten miles away! The writers seem to have taken real life accounts from survivors. Did it really happen this way? The neglect of such monumental proportions is baffling; help wasn't extended when it was only a stone's throw away. Imagine the number of lives that would've been saved in this completely avoidable catastrophe!

The inevitable eventually happens, as it happened, in the most unimaginably brutal fashion. Pandemonium gradually builds up, and the race for survival begins and ends in a devastating culmination. While we, the viewers watch the horror unfold with bated breaths, from the comfort of our living rooms, one shudders to imagine what the passengers must have actually gone through on that fateful night, as they gave in to the call of death.

The camera work and effects are most astonishing for the 50s, barring the visibly fake iceberg. For instance, the ingenious technique of shifting an entire set by a hydraulic mechanism, to produce a tilting effect, complete with the creaking sounds intact, is a masterstroke. So is the gentle rocking effect of a floating ship that gives you a feeling of actually being a part of the action. Among the many haunting images that are a direct result of these effects, are the ones of the soup/food cart gliding across the dining hall, as does the rocking horse.

No words for the band of musicians and their attempts to "soothe the nerves". That is some hearty courage on display. It is all the more believable though, for music has an unparalleled strength, and it keeps them going.

Some of the faces that stay in memory despite having minuscule roles are:

1. One of the youths from the steerage (perhaps an inspiration for Cameron to extend and write the character of Jack?).

2. The man with three children, who seeks the direct truth from Andrews; and mouths the chilling lines - "I take it you and I may both be in the same boat later".

3. The baker who guzzles scotch: "All roads lead to Rome", and in a quirky turn of events, survives the chilled waters owing to the alcohol content in his body!

4. The old man who takes in a lost child looking for his mom and comforts him 'til the end (most heartbreaking).

5. The recurring image of a man desperately clinging on to two wooden chairs (?) in order to help stay afloat later, but ultimately loses them as the ship makes its final plunge.

6. The snobbish first class passengers who gamble and drink away at a table being blissfully ignorant of the chaos outside; only when the whisky in the glass tilts to a considerable extent, is anything even noticed! "You can't sink this boat, that's certain", exclaims one of them. The unsinkable nature of Titanic is often talked about in the film; and more so coming from this elite class of individuals, perhaps in a way mocking their arrogance and overconfidence about the infallibility of man-made technological advancements against nature's great power.

One wonders though, if in an attempt to keep the melodrama at bay and maintain a mostly objective view of the tragedy, did the filmmaker go overboard with the stoic characterizations of Lightoller and Andrews? It is doubtful if it is an acting fault, and the body language including facial expressions of both these men seem to exhibit that they are strangely unperturbed by the events happening around them. If you are gonna face certain death soon, how could you remain cool and smile on occasion? Granted, one may not necessarily start taking giant panic breaths or go hysterical, but there is such a thing as being too calm!

Andrews does display a silent acceptance of defeat and hopelessness in but one shot. But Lightoller seems to be made of stone all along. Even after the ship finally sinks and he commands the overturned boat, the lines he utters and the way he utters them with a slight frown and nothing more, seems as though he came out of some very mundane episode and not a disaster as mammoth as it really was.

Nonetheless, Baker and team have given us a controlled, thoroughly restrained and what is perhaps the best celluloid depiction of one of the deadliest disasters humankind has ever seen. Wish Cameron had taken a lesson or two about directing from this film, instead of shamelessly replicating some scenes and lines in his bloated blockbuster.

Score: 9/10

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Silence (Chinmoku) (1971)

"In this world, neither God, nor Buddha exists; there's nothing at all anymore".

God's silence is questioned yet again in Japanese filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda's harrowing masterpiece, "Silence" aka "Chinmoku" (1971). We have seen similar themes of the crisis of faith examined in classics such as Ingmar Bergman's "Winter Light" (1963) and Luis Bunuel's "Nazarin" (1959). But despite familiar subject matter, Shinoda's film, based on Shûsaku Endô's novel stands out in its own right, given its setting and focus on some very convincing and relevant religious debate.

It is 17th century Japan. The practice of Christianity in banned, and all practitioners, preachers or believers of the faith are being pulled up by the powers that be, and persecuted by means of brutal torture to set an example of what might happen to those who continue to believe. As clergymen from Europe continue on their mission to preach their religion, Japan stands in strong opposition denying Christianity, claiming that they do not need it as they have their own religion! In such a scenario, Father Rodrigues (David Lampson) and Father Garrpe (Don Kenny) arrive in Japan to try and preach the Christian faith and also locate the whereabouts of Father Ferreira who vanished without a trace after preaching for over a decade in Japan. 

The rest of the story follows the tense journey of these two priests and their quest, as they attempt to connect with the Christians who live a secretive, Godless existence, with all the former priests either vanishing or abandoning them. As the Japanese officials begin their crackdown on the spread of Christianity, and hunt for the priests who have entered their territory, more and more believers are taken hostages and sacrificed. Amidst all this, danger lurks constantly, for the priests' guide Kichijiro (Mako Iwamatsu) is grappling with his own faith, torn between being a weak human and a strong Christian! 

Shinoda's film is a dark, brooding tale that presents a convincing and frightening picture of religion becoming an existential necessity. It depicts a time of shockingly excessive dependence on religion and how its teachings enslave its followers. Be it a preacher or a believer, they all want to embrace the church and follow the word of God. Believers who want to believe in Christ aren't allowed to, but they see no other way, for abandoning their God would mean eternal damnation. Defending their faith is the only way to God, the gateway to paradise, and eventually the only aspect that gives their life some meaning, a reason to live. 

But deep within, each one is struggling with their faith, and constantly attempting to resolve an inner conflict. How far can one go to defend their religion? Where does religion end and humanity begin? Can both coexist? These are some pertinent questions raised in "Silence" and the answers are provided eventually as this distressing tale unfolds, leaving the viewer emotionally drained. 

As the Tokugawa Shogunate attempts to banish Christianity, countless believers and priests face persecution and eventual execution. Some of these scenes are most effectively directed, making them somewhat difficult to watch. During the priests' journey, they are made aware of some chilling accounts of the atrocities of the so-called devil incarnate Inoue Chikugonokami (Eiji Okada). An old woman narrates the tale in graphic detail in a short scene that is hair-raisingly effective despite not explicitly showing the said deeds on screen. 

One of the greatest strengths of "Silence" is in the way Shinoda builds up this atmosphere of persistent dread and unseen horror right up to a turning point in the journey of Father Rodrigues. And then when we are finally introduced to the oppressors we can't help but express some surprise at how expectations are somewhat belied. Shinoda ensures that the opponents of Christianity never come across as pure evil or the devils they are painted out to be. The interpreter (Rokkô Toura), who works for the Magistrate Inoue, provides some justification to deny or ban Christianity, which seems strangely convincing. "Christianity is like an unwelcome gift, that is forced upon the receiver. We have our own religion; we don't need yours!", he explains to a dumbstruck Rodrigues. 

The demon Magistrate Inoue, is in fact, depicted as a thorough gentleman with a smiling face, apart from his weird habit of rubbing his wrist. In a scene that is a definite highlight of the film, Inoue makes a very interesting argument in a debate with Father Rodrigues, in which he compares foreign religion to a concubine. Neither party wants to yield or understand the other side, neither wants to step down. Both believe they are right, and only the viewer knows what is most rational, right or wrong be damned! This is one exchange that is at once, amusing as well as thought-provoking. 

An important character is that of Kichijiro, the guide, mentioned earlier. He keeps reiterating that he is a devout Christian but he has moments of weakness. He eventually becomes a yokel who is laughed at. But can we really blame him for being human? He fears for his life and puts it above religion, unlike all the others around him. He is constantly frustrated, not able to understand why he cannot be a good Christian. Is that his flaw or virtue? Should we really blame Kichijiro for becoming Judas and betraying his Jesus, Father Rodrigues when his life is at stake? Shinoda leaves that to us to decide. 

"Silence" makes a steady progress towards its spectacular third act during which it is revealed what really happened to the missing Father Ferreira. Even more pertinent points are made here, making us applaud the writing. Tôru Takemitsu's eerie score and Kazuo Miyagawa's fine cinematography accentuates the overwhelming experience of the happenings on screen. When a film makes its viewers struggle to take sides, and makes them think, therein lies the power of cinema. 

Score: 10/10