Monday, March 18, 2013

The Turin Horse (2011)

Famous German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche suffered a complete mental breakdown in 1889 in Turin. It is rumored that this happened sometime shortly after he witnessed the brutal whipping of a horse at the hands of its cabman for it refused to move. Nietzsche apparently rushed to the hansom cab, threw his arms around the horse’s neck in order to save it from the beating, and started sobbing profusely! He collapsed to the ground later, and was taken home by his neighbours. But Nietzsche was a completely different person thereon. He gradually spiraled down into dementia and stayed that way until his death which was ten years after. This is what happened to Nietzsche. But what happened to the horse?

Mihály Ráday’s deep baritone narrates the above tale in a verbal prologue and sets the somber tone for Bela Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky’s directorial marvel, "The Turin Horse" (2011), which picks up the story from here, and in a fictitious account, depicts six days in the life of the horse, its cabman by the name of Ohlsdorfer (Janos Derzsi) and his daughter (Erika Bok). Tarr takes us to their humble home with bare minimum stone-age-like furniture and shows us their dreary daily existence, through the lens of cameraman Fred Kelemen who captures it all in stark monochrome, thereby emphasizing the bleakness of their condition. We become mute witnesses to a rather tough life, as Tarr shows us in a repetitive fashion, how the deadpan daughter fetches two buckets of water daily from the nearby well, braving the storm winds. She dresses and undresses her old father who has lost the strength in his right arm. She helps her father prepare the horse carriage. She also boils two potatoes as a daily meal for them which they wolf down with their bare hands, sitting across the table, but hardly talk to each other. 

Later, like mechanical clockwork, they consume some Palinka (a fruit brandy), almost like a daily activity akin to brushing teeth! The cold weather outside echoes the cold sentiments inside the house as the father-daughter duo live an almost robotic existence. The embers used to heat the potatoes seem to be the only things that exude any warmth! Life goes on with a dreadfully humdrum note, except for a couple of variations in the form of a cryptic visitor, some trespassing gypsies and the waning condition of the horse that deteriorates with each passing day, as it refuses to eat or move. The storm outside and the gradually declining condition of the horse spell doom and prove to be harbingers of rough weather in the lives of our lead characters, and we are forced to look on helplessly, as permanent darkness threatens to descend upon them…

Bela Tarr has said that "The Turin Horse", which could be his last film is about the "heaviness of human existence". To make us feel the heaviness, he makes us witness with (his famous) long takes and in almost real time, what almost every average human being goes through; a sort of tedium, a routine that one becomes slaves to! "A daily repetition of the same routine makes it possible to show that something is wrong in their world", Tarr has said! Why is it wrong? Is it making them less human as time passes? Although Tarr only chooses to divulge very little about the deeper meaning of his film, there are themes a lot more complex to be drawn. And then there are those underlying references to Nietzsche himself.

The most blatant reference comes in the form of the visitor who seeks to buy liquor and ends up delivering a long monologue hinting at an apocalyptic event. Perhaps hinting at the God is dead philosophy? But what of the horse? The dying horse could very well be a catalyst bringing about a radical change in the lives of Nietzsche (emotionally) and its cabman and his daughter (literally). With the decline of the horse, comes the storm, a storm that brings about death, decay and darkness. Or maybe Tarr is trying to point out that just like the horse, man is also a beast of burden, and at the mercy of the horse in this case! There are references to Nietzsche also to be found in the text in the book handed to the daughter by a trespassing gypsy. It wouldn’t be entirely wrong to say then, that the Nietzschean philosophy of eternal recurrence reflects in the repetitiveness shown in the microcosm of Ohlsdorfer’s meager existence.

And indeed, what a woeful existence it is! The relentless storm serves as a literal as well as metaphorical device that spells an inherent rough patch for Ohlsdorfer and his daughter. The graceful camerawork captures the perpetually stormy, desolate landscapes with a poetic brilliance, while a heavily melancholic dirge-like score composed by Mihaly Vig fills the atmosphere. When it’s not that, it is mostly the sound of wind howling or an eerie silence despite the signs of life in the modest little cabin, enhanced by the meticulous sound design.

There is very minimal dialog. "It’s ready" is amongst the handful of things the daughter says to her father when the potatoes are cooked! Much about the nature of the father-daughter pair’s relationship is conveyed, not through dialog, but through the facial emoting in a masterstroke of acting from the lead duo, especially Janos Derzsi. Erika Bok is mainly required to appear stoic and emotionless. In one striking scene, she goes inside the house, sits in the window and just stares outside, her face appearing like a pale ghost, while the camera stays there for a few seconds! 

Maybe it echoes her feelings of being trapped or doomed to a place of no escape. It is the dexterous juxtaposing of the horse’s deteriorating condition with that of Ohlsdorfer and his daughter that make you sit up and take notice. At one point of time, the horse stops eating. Pretty much around the same time, the father-daughter duo seem to leave their potatoes unfinished! Not surprisingly, the two are directly dependent on the horse for their livelihood. The horse refuses to co-operate, and its masters probably lose their appetite!

Amidst all the doom and despair, Tarr, in the crushing final frame of his phenomenal film, still salutes the human spirit. A single flicker of hope and man’s will to survive against all odds will continue to prevail, no matter how dark the fate...

Score: 10/10

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Hidden Face (2011)

Now this one was a big surprise from Colombia! In his "The Hidden Face" (2011), a Spanish-Colombian production, writer-director Andres Baiz takes a rather simple premise, disorganizes the story a little bit, adds a rather interesting gimmick and makes the film work based solely on it, and even manages to keep us glued to our seats!

How does he do that? Well, it all begins when an up-and-coming orchestra conductor, Adrian (Quim Gutiérrez) finds a video message from his girlfriend Belen (Clara Lago) saying that she is leaving him and that this was the only way to end their arguments! She also asks him not to look for him and that she loves him but cannot stay on with him. A distraught Adrian immediately takes to alcohol, visits a nearby bar, meets a beautiful waitress Fabiana (Martina García), who somehow instantly takes a liking for him, and soon ends up in bed with him!

One wonders how a young girl can be so dumb as to take a drunk stranger home! Nonetheless, you tend to excuse these unconvincing developments that happen rather quickly in the life of our protagonist, and move on as Fabiana practically starts to live in with Adrian in his isolated mansion-like house, in a quiet setting, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. A beautiful house, with surroundings that seem to be right out of some nature painting, make Fabiana fall in love with the place.

But there’s something sinister about it. Fabiana who loves to bathe in Adrian’s rather luxurious bathroom starts to hear things, possibly from under the bathtub or from within the bathroom sink. Water filled in the sink automatically creates ripples. 

She begins to think that the place is haunted by a ghost and complains to Adrian, who, of course, promptly laughs it all off. Fabiana gets increasingly freaked out as the happenings in the bathroom get weirder. More shock comes in for Fabiana when two cops, investigating the disappearance of Belen, show up at Adrian’s door and it is established that he is a suspect, for Belen is untraceable. Halfway through, we enter a flashback mode that provides a background of Adrian’s relationship with Belen. This back-story gradually reveals the mystery behind her disappearance and subsequently piques your interest in the remainder of the film.

It is the structuring of Baiz’s screenplay that intrigues you. In fact, the narrative device used in the film isn’t new to those acquainted with some earlier Spanish thrillers/dramas. For example, Baiz’s story-telling style closely resembles that of some of Pedro Almodovar’s later films, in which the essentially non-linear narrative has a series of long flashbacks that contain big plot related reveals.  

They come out one by one in a layered fashion and gradually surprise us instead of the now famous one-big-shocking-twist-in-the-end tactic! Baiz’s film also brings to mind J.A. Bayona’s horror film "The Orphanage" (2007). Although the plot itself is completely different from this film or any of Almodovar’s films, the narrative is organized in a somewhat similar fashion. Baiz uses this form as a clever maneuver that pays off. 

It is all the more commendable because just when you start writing off the film as a pedestrian spook story with cheap jump scares, Baiz brings in his trump card that ironically twists the story in a fashion that pulls you right back in and restores your attention! He also adds a bonus in the form of POV shots and repeats some scenes by making us look at them from an entirely different perspective later in the film, that further makes us commend the director’s creativity. Baiz builds a considerably claustrophobic thriller with a minimal setting with three primary characters and therein lies his talent. He keeps you hooked despite some predictabilities interspersed within its twists. It is interesting how, at one point, the story gives out a feel of an atmospheric gothic horror fiction.

However, a thriller like this doesn’t come without its holes, a couple of glaring ones too. But it is Baiz’s handling that makes us see through the imperfections, and focus on the greater concern of the culmination of the story. It is the final half hour of the film that is the most riveting and guaranteed to keep you guessing 'til the very end. It is another story that the eventual conclusion of the story could’ve been a bit more satisfying than the one chosen by our writers in an attempt to perhaps tone down the disturbing quotient. 

The acting leaves a little bit to be desired too, with Martina García being mostly expressionless and wooden. Her talent then, lies in getting naked, which she does on several occasions in the film. Lago is decent, but again, slightly disappoints when she has to emote and doesn’t really come across as authentic. The only performance that rises above the rest is by the lead actor Gutierrez, who gets it right for the most part, although it is alarming how the length of his stubble doesn’t seem to change across time gaps!

Nevertheless, the superb story-telling, rife with nail-bitingly suspenseful moments especially in the final act, the claustrophobic atmosphere, the haunting background score and beautiful cinematography, capturing some breathtaking locales in the plush countryside in Colombia are enough to make "The Hidden Face" a substantially satisfying film experience.

Score: 8/10

**Warning: DO NOT watch the trailer on youtube. In what could be a huge marketing blunder, the trailer reveals an important plot twist in the film!**

Friday, March 8, 2013

A Report on the Party and the Guests (1966)

A small group of dapper looking picnickers, men and women, frolic away in some tranquil location in a forest. They gorge on their food and wine and after some random gabbing, start to move on to somewhere else, presumably to their homes or another location. Only they are intercepted by an oddly behaving stranger (Jan Klusak), who is quite possibly a complete screwball, and his group of well-dressed men who forcibly take them to an unknown location.

He subjects them to some very harmless bullying, akin to what a bratty child would do to pacify himself by making some elders play some stupid games with him! The group doesn't seem to mind, barring the exception of one who takes offense. The others just go along, because the crank doesn't seem to be threatening them with anything too detrimental! They continue to humour him, are perhaps being polite or simply want to avoid trouble and get the thing out of the way. 

Soon after, another stranger shows up with his own group. This one's an older gentleman (Ivan Vyskocil), who apologizes for the behavior of the bully who seems to be his adopted son Rudolf! The gentleman proceeds to welcome them to his outdoor birthday party by the lakeside. A newly married bride in a wedding gown joins the troop soon after and the occasion doubles up as a wedding party as well as a birthday party. The event turns out to be an outrageously bizarre affair, especially after the host takes offense when one of the guests takes off leaving a chair empty!

From the above premise, Jan Nemec’s 1966 film "A Report on the Party and the Guests" (AKA "The Party and the Guests") initially may seem like an absurd, idiotic film, perhaps a wannabe surrealist comedy. But dig deep and back to the roots of this film, and you will find why it rubbed some folks, including the ruling party, the wrong way and almost got its director arrested! Although the events that unfold in the film, especially in the final half hour are beyond ridiculous, they are supposed to be a scathing attack on the then Communist state of affairs, highlighting persuasion and forced blind conformity. Those who resist or fly the coop are collectively pursued, tracked down, and brought back with the help of search dogs no less, for walking out is an insult to the host! In each of the little happenings on screen, there is a subtle jab to be found at the communist philosophies. The happenings which, if not seen from this political perspective, may seem totally silly!  The party, in fact, directly refers to the Communist Party!

The film is shot completely outdoors and the cinematography is excellent. Most of the times the camera goes a little too close for comfort, owing to the filmmaker’s fetish for close-ups! It suits the context of surrealism in the film nonetheless, making it an unsettling and oddball film experience. The film also brings forth memories of Luis Bunuel’s 1962 classic "The Exterminating Angel". Just like the frustrating event in which some guests in a party in Bunuel’s film aren’t able to leave the house, our group of guests in Nemec's film are unable to cross a line drawn by Rudolf in the sand around them! Characters behave in the oddest of manners and sometimes seem like individuals with a mental problem, even echoing one person's sentiments in succession in the vein of a "same here" when expressing their opinion about something. But this could very well be an exaggerated representation of the herd mentality, possibly due to fear of being left out, generally exhibited by normal human beings.

Nemec's film also brings to mind The Milgram Experiment conducted in 1961 by a Yale University Psychologist, which tested the willingness of the participants to submit to a person of authority by obeying him/her and perform certain acts even if they went against their moral conscience. Only Nemec's film deals with this concept in a bitingly comic tone banking on the ludicrous and irrational, while it was referenced on a rather disturbing level in last year's "Compliance" (2012).

With a premise like this, a feature length film of this sort could've been in grave danger of venturing into monotony owing to lack of much variation or substance in the narrative. In the end, it is but an allegorical depiction of an ideology through a single occasion, that of a birthday banquet! But Nemec limits the length to a crisp 70 minutes, thereby keeping it concise and not letting it slip into tedium. The screenplay penned by Ester Krumbachova and Jan Nemec showcases some strange episodes and some hilariously disconnected and repetitive dialog for the effect of absurdist humour. 

The film is extremely well acted. Watch out for some laugh out loud acting moments from the excellent Jan Klusak with his wildly funny performance as the maniacal Rudolf. But it is Ivan Vyskocil who takes over in the entire second half, with a splendid performance as a kind, glib host who later turns into an eccentric authoritarian! A strange bit of coincidence (or maybe not!) that Vyskocil in this film resembles Vlamidir Lenin, which further fuelled some controversy and brought the film under the scanner! It is also notable how his character keeps stressing on the word "guests" tinged with a slight sarcasm, as if he doesn’t really mean it! But it is these hidden attacks full of sharp wit in a greater scenario of a comic banquet sequence that make this a very enjoyable, darkly comic psychological drama cum political satire!

"A Report on the Party and the Guests" is a bold, important film from the Czech New Wave. Definitely go for it!

Score: 9/10

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Tabu (2012)

Last year, Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes blessed us cinephiles with his masterwork called "Tabu" (2012). That it got lost somewhere in the Oscar rat race is inconsequential, for such films eventually find their audience anyway. This humble reviewer was fortunate enough to lay his lands on this gem, a sumptuous audio-visual feast, a gentle, absorbing film experience that lovingly caresses the senses.

After a strange prologue about an intrepid explorer in the jungles of Africa, whose death gives rise to an old African folklore, about a sad crocodile and a beautiful woman sharing a mysterious pact (!) , we move on to the first part of the film which paints a rather disconcerting picture of three characters that are mostly emotionally or physically detached, slowly drowning in their respective empty pools of loneliness. There's Pilar (Teresa Madruga), a middle-aged, lonesome lady, who has a sadness about her, but is always there for her neighbour and friend, an old lady, Ms. Aurora (Laura Soveral, in a spectacular performance). Ms. Pilar is the only character you can perhaps feel for or respect in this entire episode. But you also fail to understand her when she subtly rejects the advances of her painter friend, a gentleman who shows some genuine interest in her.

Aurora is a cantankerous old woman, but it is difficult to entirely dislike her considering her age and senility. She sometimes doesn’t know what she is talking about and goes gambling based on weird dreams of monkeys and men! Probably her difficult persona and compulsive gambling addiction has made her daughter disown her and put her in the care of a paid full-time maid, Santa (Isabel Cardoso). Santa, an arrogant woman from Africa, is the most robotic and unlikeable of the lot! She only follows the orders of Aurora’s daughter, her employer, least caring that the old woman she is serving needs help. She even asks kindly well-wishers like Pilar to mind their own business, but doesn’t hesitate to ask for their help when in need!

This first part is what Gomes describes as "A Lost Paradise". This part leaves you in a suspended state for a while, not knowing where it is headed. You can see that the lives we are dealing with are quite empty, but what awaits them? And how is this connected to the story of the crocodile?

But then something happens towards the end of this story and Gomes takes us straight to a backstory that shifts the focus of the film entirely to the sultry landscapes of Africa somewhere near Mount Tabu in the early 60s! Here is where we see an entirely different picture of the old lady we are introduced to. Aptly titled "Paradise", in this final part of the film we become audiences to the days of yore of a young and beautiful Aurora (Ana Moreira), and a watershed event in her life in the backdrop of the impending Portuguese Colonial war!

Gomes films entirely in black and white but there’s a huge distinction between the texture of "A Lost Paradise" and "Paradise". The former is shot with a clarity and sharpness not found in the latter half, which in turn has a slightly grainy, coarse look to indicate that the scenes are several years older! This device is a clever move by the director, one that helps in enhancing the rustic quality of this chapter of the story.
While the first part is far more compelling narrative-wise, the second part is more cinematically alluring and aesthetically superior. This section alone garners much of the points. Picture yourself sitting below a tree in the languid, rural countryside in Africa and it is the middle of the afternoon. It is quiet and you are enjoying the solitude, the sounds of the birds, the bees, the water flowing in a nearby stream, while you throw pebbles into it to hear a gentle plop! Yet it’s all quiet anyway and far away at a distance you hear someone playing on a bongo and singing some good old African folk music. Somewhere, not far away, are two individuals conversing with each other. You don’t hear what they speak, you can only see their lips move, but you continue to hear the ambient sounds, and you are completely submitting yourself to them. Yet you continue to gaze at the individuals and enjoy the moment of quietude.

This is the kind of feeling evoked in the entire final hour. It is an almost silent episode, with no dialog! The only sound that is present is the diegetic sound and the tale is told through a poetic voice-over narration of an important character in the film, Gian-Luca Ventura (played by Henrique Espírito Santo and Carloto Cotta in the present and the flashback respectively), who plays an integral part in this episode. The entire second half is shot with a kind of finesse and vision that is rare. 

The scenes in the remote, isolated countryside evoke a sense of longing and nostalgia, and at the same time give you a feeling of filling your lungs with the fresh air as the wind rustles through the tall grass; a commendable feat considering that you experience this only through the breathtaking images, thanks to the fantastic cinematography, and a sound that is music to the ears. There is an ethereal beauty to behold in this episode; a kind of scenario nothing short of paradise! And as the story takes an inevitable turn from a state of tranquility to chaos, it also evokes a sense of melancholy and sadness, of despair and lost love, of guilt and deep regret! The strong performances of Carloto Cotta and Ana Moreira make it all the more real. You are watching it all happen in Aurora’s life, as spectators in that world Gomes calls paradise!

..And somewhere in the middle of all this, appearing like a common link, is the wide-eyed ugly reptile that crawls its way through all the stories, sometimes symbolically and sometimes literally! It appears and disappears and sometimes crosses some forbidden lines. And even though it is shown to be a carnivorous beast that it is, in the beginning, it still carries the sadness of a lost love. Despite the glistening sharp teeth and the wide open jaws ready to devour its victim, the crocodile, in this film, in fact serves as an allegory of undying, unrequited love and longing, that’s in the end, the main theme of this lyrical film!

Where "Tabu" succeeds most, then, is not in its story but in its story-telling! It is the filmmaking technique that surpasses the content of the film itself. The narrative and its structure combined with the camerawork, sound design and the outstanding performances is what makes the film all the more compelling. Gomes is no ordinary director and he proves it with a fantastic experiment that has achieved success and how! This is the kind of film that makes us appreciate the craft of filmmaking. Gomes pays homage to F.W. Murnau’s 1931 film, "Tabu, a Story of the South Seas" in borrowing its name as well as the titles of the two parts in the narrative, however, there are no other similarities as far as the treatment and material in the two films are concerned. "Tabu" is a one of a kind, deeply personal, sensory experience; the kind of cinema that is difficult to come by these days. 

Go ahead and indulge! Soak yourself in this pleasurable pool full of beauty and come out mesmerized..

Score: 10/10