Sunday, August 25, 2013

Zigeunerweisen (1980)

A long hiatus later, the tragically blacklisted bad boy of Japanese Cinema, Seijun Suzuki returned to filmmaking in the late 70s. In collaboration with producer Genjiro Arato, Suzuki made the first film of what would later be known as the Taisho Roman trilogy which mostly told stories that were a fascinatingly odd mix of surrealist psychological dramas and tales of the supernatural!

This particular story revolves around strange occurrences in the life of Toyojiro Aochi (Toshiya Fujita), a professor of German in the Taisho period in the late 30s. There is no definite plot structure or theme to relate in "Zigeunerweisen" (1980), the title of which refers to a musical composition in a Pablo de Sarasate gramophone record which is the key recurring motif in this bizarre odyssey of Aochi. The record plays in the beginning and two voices ponder about some incoherent spoken words in the record that shouldn't be there, for it's an instrumental record.

Later we come to know that one of the voices is of Aochi himself while the other of Nakasago, an odd character with a fetish for bones and skeletons, especially the red ones! Nakasago may also be Aochi's old friend and colleague. Nakasago (Yoshio Harada) who looks like Jesus Christ, and dresses up like a monk, is accused of murder of a local village woman married to another man. Aochi comes to his rescue and the villagers let him go. This is the simple beginning to what's to turn into one of the most extraordinarily absurd stories ever told with a straight face ever since Luis Bunuel's last few films!

Nakasago claims that he did not kill the woman. It was six red crabs who ate into her flesh. They all later came out of her private parts! As bizarre as it sounds, Aochi who mostly bears one expression on his face, seems to accept Nakasago's claims and the two move on to the next part of their journey involving a geisha O-Ine (Naoko Ôtani) and three singing beggars, two of whom are blind. Going any further ahead with the plot or its synopsis won't serve any purpose, for Suzuki's film is not much about story or logic, as it is about an irrational universe created by Suzuki based on a novel by Hyakken Uchida. 

Only Suzuki ensures that however ridiculous and over-the-top the events and happenings in his story may seem, they enthrall and captivate the target audience who will most definitely lap up the proceedings with their mouths wide open and their eyes transfixed to the screen! Suzuki's film brings to mind Luis Bunuel's final films of his French era, especially, "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" (1972), "The Phantom of Liberty" (1974), and "That Obscure Object of Desire" (1977). These are the kind of films which occur only in the Bunuel universe, wherein any odd or ludicrous occurrence is taken at face value, without questions being asked, almost as if they were regular, mundane events. Of course, in Suzuki's film, Aochi keeps reiterating that it is all rather strange, but brushes these episodes aside, nevertheless!

Suzuki's film, however, lacks that overtly comic touch of Bunuel films, and that's a good thing in the context of this film. Although some subtle comedy exists in small bits, the film oscillates between horror and surrealism. There is no real plot that comes to a full closure, but a series of episodes that happen in the life of Aochi, all involving his weird friend Nagasako! What is awe-inspiring is the way these events are narrated. Sometimes characters start telling their stories, and the film cuts to flashback. Sometimes Aochi tells his own tales in voice-overs; stories that extend over almost 10 years! Whether these yarns are real events, dream sequences or hallucinations is not clear. The viewer can only infer from the total outlandishness of the some of the tales whether they took place only in the character's mind or whether some credibility can be lent to what happened.

To further create a disorienting and unsettling, nightmarish feel to the proceedings, Suzuki lends his own special touch. A fluid narrative style interspersed with moments of silence, and slow motion images giving off an oneiric feel are seen at times. The silence is broken with a hint of a chillingly quiet background score that oozes a strange feeling of a foreboding nature. Some of the images are downright scary, enough to give modern horror films a run for their money! Suzuki also employs seamless match-cut editing and some more innovative techniques in his splices between present and flashback. For instance, one woman lying on the bed starts narrating a story, the camera zooms in on a window, and zooms back out, and voila! We now enter flashback mode! In yet another example of oddball imaginative creativity, Suzuki, without caring for any logic, comfortably changes the backdrop of a scene. Two men conversing on the street suddenly appear to be standing in a dark cave to continue their conversation and back again! 

The visual department and atmospherics are the primary winning points, also accentuated and enhanced by the gorgeous cinematography by Kazue Nagatsuka. His use of colour, and black and white, both stand out in their amazingly contrasting glory. However, it is not just the imagery that stands out but also the sound design and brilliant music score by Kaname Kawachi that adds a deliciously creepy and hypnotizing effect. Of course, Sarasate's record and its music play a very important role too, especially in the most ingenious way the defect in the record comes full circle! 

Suzuki's power lies in his storytelling and how well he visualizes the freaky narrative proceedings. He makes "Zigeunerweisen" an unforgettable and captivating audio-visual experience that engages throughout by literally letting us immerse into his strange, desolate world. The only minor problem in the film lies in some bits which come across as a tad repetitive and without any major consequence. "Zigeunerweisen" is nevertheless, a riveting film experience, a spectacular supernatural thriller/ghost story/surrealist psychological drama or whatever you might want to call it.

Seijun Suzuki returned to filmmaking with a bang with this gem and yet it is sad to learn that most exhibitors declined to screen the film. Hence, producer Genjiro Arato himself screened the film in a mobile inflatable tent, to great success that led to an Honourable Mention at the 31st Berlin International Film Festival and winning of four Japanese Academy Awards! The rest, as they say, is history.

Score: 9/10

Friday, August 16, 2013

Repentance (1984)

It all begins one fateful day when the last mayor of a town in Georgia, Varlam Aravidze (Avtandil Makharadze) passes away. Known to be a great man, people sing paeans at his funeral. Trouble begins when the corpse of Varlam comes back from the grave and on to the backyard of the Aravidze household, much to the shock of his son Abel (Avtandil Makharadze, again!), daughter-in-law Guliko (Iya Ninidze) and grandson Tornike (Merab Ninidze). After an initial panic attack full of hysteria and hoopla, and an attraction of attention by the neighbours, the family reburies Varlam's corpse, but it reappears the next morning! 

Sounds weird? Nothing compared to what happens next! In a hilariously absurd move, the police arrest the corpse! It may all seem bizarre even in a far-fetched Bunuel-esque universe, but all these proceedings, in fact, hint at what's to come in the narrative as it takes a sharp turn soon after! The mystery of the reappearing corpse is solved as the film moves into the next segment: the backstory of the mayor, the leader, the public figure, Varlam Aravidze through the eyes of Ketevan Barateli (Zeinab Botsvadze).

A lot is happening in Tengiz Abuladze's brilliant and shockingly less seen "Repentance" (1984). Banned upon its initial release in the Soviet Union, it got its premiere only at the Cannes Festival in 1987. It certainly doesn't come as a surprise, considering the film's biting content! Abuladze plays around with a whole gamut of ideas in his masterwork that begins as a dark, absurdist comedy, turns into a scathing political allegory infused with surrealism, and then culminates into a strong morality play. While the aforementioned plot description seems to be a rather oddball comic ghost story, it soon shifts shape and turns into a fantastical history lesson, a harrowing tale of a reign of terror unleashed on innocent beings by the masked devil, Varlam Aravidze

Aravidze is a cleverly written character, an epitome of a totalitarian fascist personality, with an attire that resembles Benito Musolini's, a moustache that resembles Adolf Hitler's and a hairstyle and a government policy that resembles that of Joseph Stalin! He has pompous mannerisms, breaks into opera-like songs, does comedy routines with a smirk on his cherubic face, that soon disappears into a menacing look of a merciless dictator! This Stalin-esque leader's "secret police" move around in medieval knight costumes and ride on horses!

Abuladze, in his hellish, phantasmagorical fascist universe of which Varlam Aravidze is the ruler, paints a grim picture of what it must've been like for the victims of the Great Purge of the 30s in which mass arrests were made on baseless grounds. In some of film's most wonderfully written sequences, blatant jabs are taken at Stalinism. In Varlam's regime, any forward thinker or rebellious artist, or a morally steadfast or god-fearing individual who hints at opposing his veiled communist agenda is considered an "enemy of the nation" and subjected to arrest and exile! A challenge is taken up to "find a black cat in a dark room, especially if there is no cat", like the Confucius quote goes! False confessions of being spies are forced out of such individuals. One such artist is an important character, Sandro Barateli (Edisher Giorgobiani). He is a Jesus-like personality who, along with his teacher Mikhail (Kakhi Kavsadze) is subjected to torment for making people voice their opinions against certain directives of Varlam, particularly those concerning the desecration of a church for industrial and scientific purposes. Quite bold in its narrative approach and characterization, the right hand man of Varlam turns out to be an illiterate man!

In a powerful scene that would make Andrei Tarkovsky proud, amidst a string score, with no dialog, women and children of the men sent off on exile search for carvings on logs sent back on goods trains, presumably made by their husbands/fathers, to reassure their families of their well-being. It is the most heart-rending sequence in which a woman finds her husband's carving and kisses and caresses the log and speaks to it! Most others go home empty-handed as they look on at the logs being converted to sawdust and their hopes shattered and turned to dust!

The lighting and camerawork is distinctly different in this segment as compared to the film's light-hearted first few minutes. Sepia tone and dark lighting is employed along with a dexterous use of music in a rather ironic fashion. For example, a scene which could be of an execution of an artist, plays against Beethoven's "Ode to Joy"!

The third part of the story goes into darker territory as it focuses on Aravidze's legacy; his progeny, his son, Abel and his family who may have to bear the brunt of their father's sins! It slightly moves into family melodrama territory but never one that is bloated or exaggerated. The color tone shows a distinct change. It is bleaker in this last act with its darker sepia tones. The rifts show. Torn between virtue and sin, conscience and pride, Abel finds himself caught in a crossfire, unable to decide what direction to sway towards! Juggling between his own guilt but bound by the family name and honour, he also struggles to pacify his only son, Tornike who hates his father for supporting his grandfather! In a superb sequence in which Abel confesses to a mysterious man in the dark, eating raw fish, he talks of his existential dilemma, as he puts it: "I am preaching atheism while wearing a cross"!

The magnificent Avtandil Makharadze doubles up as the father-son duo. It is a tour de force for the fine actor, as he creates a wonderfully hateful dictator in Varlam and takes the other extreme as the son, having to bear the cross of his father's sins, and struggling with his own moral split. Avtandil effortlessly slips into each character in a way that he becomes virtually unrecognizable in the other role! 

Tengiz Abuladze raises several other questions in his glorious film. Can the past be buried, especially if it's a dark one? The literal appearance of Aravidze's corpse serves as a metaphor for a family's dark past that cannot be erased. Sure enough, it comes back to haunt Aravidze's family and stays with them. Furthermore, does the absence of guilt nullify what we call sin? After all, the aforementioned mysterious man says, "Man has been split in two ever since he tasted the forbidden fruit and knows what's right and what's wrong. It's not a great sin". Does it absolve someone's sin or does it mean that man is a born sinner and that we all need repentance for our sins? And finally, does the onus of repentance for one man's sins lie upon others, particularly his family members, who feel the guilt? This film could very well be Abuladze's and the Soviet Union's repentance for the atrocities of Stalinism! And therefore it is not surprising that the old lady questions in the end. "Why have a road that doesn't lead to a church?"

Score: 10/10

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Diamonds of the Night (1964)

***NOTE: The following analysis/review may contain MILD SPOILERS regarding some detail in the film, but not to the extent of making the film viewing experience any lesser.***

Yet another overlooked, scintillating film from the Czech New Wave presents itself in its 63 minutes glory in the form of Jan Nemec's debut feature "Diamonds of the Night" (1964). This virtually plotless but brave film chronicles an unspecified period of time, presumably a few days, in the journey of two young Jewish boys on the run from a train transporting them to the concentration camps.

The film kicks off abruptly with an opening sequence that shows the two boys running for their lives through boggy lands, into dense woods. It is one long take that showcases the boys fleeing, running incessantly and then finally trudging along, fatigued, as they reach the thick of the forest. They slow down, for the machine gun firing hot on their pursuit seems to have stopped or distanced itself. The escape is successful, at least for now! We hear their breathing, the snapping of the twigs beneath their feet, but not a single word is uttered from either mouth until we reach the 13 minute mark when one of the boys finally speaks out one brief line!

Indeed, Nemec's film is almost silent, with about 4-5 lines of dialog uttered in the entire 63 minutes duration. What remains then, is a narrative rich with realistic images of the boys covering a seemingly endless journey through the woods and farm lands, juxtaposed against surrealistic images that fuse flashbacks, dreams, hallucinations, fantasies, fears and desires, fuelled by the craving in their stomachs and their tired physique and mind! But do the flashbacks provide backstories? Not necessarily. In a very clever move, and some ingenious editing by Miroslav Hajek, we see repetitive images that reflect the boys' memories or simply, their train of thought.

No story chronicling how they got put on the train is presented. That is not the intention. The intention of these flashbacks remains to give us a fragmented depiction of the boys' thoughts, and memories, harking back to when times were perhaps relatively better, in a comfortable setting, despite having the "KL" (Konzentration Lager/Concentration Camp) coats on their backs. These memories are mixed with recollections of recent events, like how one of them exchanged some food for a shoe! The images are mostly random, sometimes even out of context. Very ordinary, everyday flashes of  memory; of women in the neighbourhood, of food, of beds and pillows. Just some sights that make them feel at ease compared to their present situation. The vague, fractured nature of these memories is enhanced by the use of only diegetic sound and muted spoken words.

Juxtaposed against memories are hallucinations and dream sequences, all interspersed with the real time walking ordeal of the boys. Hungry and exhausted, both mentally and physically by their long walk, collapsing and drifting in and out of sleep, one of the boys imagines he is dead or unconscious with ants all over his face. It is impossible to miss a nod to Luis Bunuel's classic surrealist short, "Un Chien Andalou" (1929) in a shot of a hand covered with ants! In a particularly notable sequence of a replayed hallucination/fantasy, which is either hunger or lust induced, one of the boys stumbles upon a farmer's house. He enters inside to find the farmer's wife standing in front of him. Realizing that he is a hungry vagabond, she cuts some slices of bread for him. As the boy stands there, he first imagines the woman sitting on the couch in an inviting position and then plays out repeatedly in his mind, a scene of him attacking and killing her! He slightly alters the scene and imagines various ways of doing it, but eventually takes what she has to offer and moves on! This fantastic piece of writing is a testament to Nemec's screenwriting brilliance and its realization to the screen.

In another startling sequence, the boys are seemingly chased by a group of aged old men, presumably farmers, with shooting rifles! It appears they are out hunting and are chasing some target in the woods, but we also cut to the boys running for their lives yet again, from fear of being hunted down by these visibly harmless old men. We never see the boys and the old men in a single frame, hence a strange kind of ambiguity is maintained due to the spatial incoherency in the scene. Are the old men just shooting some birds, or are they after the boys? One of the longest sequences in the film, it also makes the most of Jaroslav Kucera's shaky handheld camerawork, giving it a sense of urgency.

Credit must also be especially given to the sound effects crew, Bohumir Brunclik and Frantisek Cerny, for their fantastic work in the sound design. Some random chatter and mundane sounds accompany the flashback scenes with their stark black and white images, which are sometimes distant and sometimes in close-up giving it a true feel of a hazy memory interpolated with sound that may be unconnected to the image in question! And then again, later as our starving boys witness the old men munching away on their meat and drinking their beer, amidst the silence we hear crystal clear sounds of the gulping, the chomping and the chewing. The noises the old men make while eating, seem more enhanced, more grating, more salt-in-the-wound for our boys who can't help but look on with their stomachs growling!

Merely via powerful images and sound, with almost no spoken dialog, (that the film, in fact, could've done without, but was included, probably to relieve the audience from a possible monotony that they may assume about the film) Nemec has made a unique, radically different film set against the holocaust backdrop. Rather than concentrate on the war and its atrocities on the victims, it focuses on the mental processes of those affected by the resulting chaos. "Diamonds of the Night" is a hypnotic ride through hell; a deeply personal and sensory film experience that is more of an aural delight, best enjoyed with the headphones on. Perhaps this is what they refer to as "pure cinema"! Waste no more time in discovering this dazzling diamond in the rough.

Score: 9/10

Friday, August 9, 2013

Sátántangó (1994)

***NOTE: The following analysis/review may contain MILD SPOILERS regarding some detail in the film, but not to the extent of making the film viewing experience any lesser.***

An over 9-minute long, single take of a herd of cattle coming out from some dilapidated structures on to the boggy grounds of a rain-soaked rural Hungarian farm land, kicks off Bela Tarr's magnanimous, magnificent cinematic giant, "Sátántangó" (1994).

The cows and bulls moo away as some distant bell gongs and a faint, unsettling rumble fills the air. The cattle look around, confused, stand scattered, look for food, try to screw each other, and then walk along as a united herd in one direction. They are an aimless slothful lot, just going with the flow. This 9-minute long sequence pretty much sums up the condition of the grubby, miserable characters and their existence that "Sátántangó" delves upon and the course of the story that is to unfold in the rest of the 7-hour duration of this big mammoth of a film.

Divided into 12 chapters, (6 forward moves + 6 backward moves = the Tango structure, get it?), Sátántangó tells the story set in a small rural farmland after the fall of communism. The farm has failed and the peasants are struggling to earn a livelihood. With some money leftover, possibly received from the government owing to their shut-down, the primary characters, including three couples plan to scoot to some other location where they can start life afresh. Alas, some scheming individuals have secret plans of making away with all of the loot and not sharing the treasure with the others. But then, bell gongs are heard, the otherworldly kind. The nearest chapel doesn't have a bell tower anymore. So where is the bell sounding from? Well..."The News is They are coming".

Two dreaded individuals Irimias (Mihály Vig) and Petrina (Putyi Horváth) have been seen alive, rumour goes! They were presumed dead, but now they are back, possibly to stake their claim in the farm land, or take away what belongs to the peasants. Deemed dangerous, there is a sudden chaos in the scheme of things as these ordinary individuals become increasingly fearful at this unexpected turn of events. Frustrations follow, a tense atmosphere, fear of being robbed (again?), not wanting to part with what is theirs, not able to believe the rumours, the peasants decide to execute their plan of fleeing anyway. Meanwhile, a portly, alcoholic, lonesome Doctor (Peter Berling), a part of this doomed universe, sits in his ramshackle room, spies on his neighbours (these very other individuals), sips his fruit brandy, grumbles and grunts like a pig and takes down notes in journals named for each of the characters! Is he the one writing their story? Or just observing?

Quite a few things happen. A single incident is told from different vantage points. Occurrences in the lives of several people in the same time instance are related. Disparate chapters of the film could in fact serve as separate stories.  Time folds back and there are temporal overlaps. Over the sprawling length, there is a very grim story being told. The mortal humans and their natural reactions to the quagmire they have landed themselves in, their desperation owing to their predicament, their vulnerability, their ill-feelings for each other, are all one would come to expect, given their plight. So where does Irimias fit in?

He is the spider who weaves an invisible web that binds them together. It is easy for a spider to target something that does not move. Lazy, meaningless lives such as those of our characters are effortless targets for the likes of Irimias to cast their deadly webs of deceit! Irimias is a certified outlaw, but seems to be a messiah-like cult figure; the mystical character, who stands tall amidst all the mere mortals. A persona that almost looks like Jesus Christ. God? Satan? Who knows! But he has a charisma about him.

In a fantastic , surreal scene in a pub, when he says "Quiet", literally everything comes to standstill for a few seconds. We almost think Tarr has employed the freeze frame here, until one character moves slightly! Irimias has established his presence. He is a smooth-talking manipulator, probably a con-man who is capable of fleecing people and has done so before, and therefore they fear him. But he also has this extraordinary convincing power, that people can't help but listen to him. The peasants fear Irimias, but they can't do without him either. He is their support system. Much like God!

An incident of a little girl, Estike (Erika Bók, who also appears as an adult actress in "The Man from London" (2007) and "The Turin Horse" (2011)) and her cat sets things in motion. Irimias manipulates the situation. The ambiguous nature of Irimias is the main pulse of the film. Behold how Irimias is transfixed and falls to his knees as he approaches some ruins shrouded by fog, where Estike's body had been found. But it isn't certain if Irimias is aware of the location of her death! So what makes him kneel? Petrina laughs it off "What? You never seen fog before?" Could Irimias be an all-powerful being who senses the importance of that place?

Irimias has a masterplan. He promises to take the peasants elsewhere, where they can all start afresh. One begins to wonder if it is anti-Christian symbolism, what with a Christ-like figure leading a group like a pack of sheep with assurances of a "promised land". But in reality, this very Christ-like figure is an criminal, possibly planning a terrorist attack! Is it really a moral act of salvation? Or a trap that the peasants can't see? 

There is a lot to admire and embrace here. Tarr's film is all about how authority is exercised. It is all about control and power. The Doctor could very well be a puppet-master, controlling events from within his miserable abode. Irimias is exercising his manipulative control over the peasants. Mrs. Schmidt (Éva Almássy Albert) is controlling and manipulating the menfolk with her immoral sexuality. Estike exercises control over her hapless cat! Animal rights activists may bay for Tarr's blood, for an entire half hour sequence is dedicated to how Estike tortures and poisons her cat! One might question the cinematic liberty taken by Tarr. This reviewer had the same doubt, but Tarr claims that a Vet was present all the time during shooting of that scene! So he isn't really denying that the cat was not harmed..!

Nonetheless, art-house aficionados have plenty to lap up from this monumental labour of love that Tarr has built over a troublesome process of four years! A realistically acted, well photographed film that one must dedicate his entire day to. Not so much the plot, but the story-telling, narrative structure, the themes, the characterization and the dark humour are the highlights. A lot has been said about Tarr's visual style which is not new to anyone who has seen Tarr's other work.

The bleak black and white cinematography, melancholic score, long, slow-burning, uninterrupted takes, mesmerizing visuals, meticulous sound design (amidst silence, you can hear people pouring and gulping their drinks down!), use of apocalyptic, rain-soaked grim locales that give off an eerie, deserted feel, almost makes you feel like it is the end of the world as the camera pans through those landscapes! No one can capture dilapidation, bleakness and desolation quite like Bela Tarr. A visual style of filming people from behind as they walk on and the camera walks with them is signature Tarr by now, as there are entire shots dedicated to people walking along endlessly, like nomads, on streets and marsh-lands, getting wet, with no umbrellas, only trench-coats, and nary a vehicle to be seen around!

Tarr's filmmaking technique is flawless, and his hypnotic storytelling style with each chapter closing with a deep baritone-voiced poetic narration (by Mihály Ráday) summing up the story by putting out a conclusion, leaves a lasting effect. The length of the film and the amount of time we spend with them in our "Sátántango" experience makes us one with these characters. We become observers, much like the Doctor! We practically live their lives and it is difficult to shake off that effect long after the film has ended.

Only one wishes Tarr had gone easy on the desire to make the film a 7-hour long epic! With all due respect to Tarr, the same story could've been told in a length little under 5 hours. Long takes are very much welcome, so is meditative pacing, more so when they are done signature Tarr style and showcase haunting audiovisuals, like in the case of "The Turin Horse" (2011) or "Werckmeister Harmonies" (2000). But there is such a thing as being too glacial when it comes to the pacing!

Certain sequences in "Sátántango" did seem to overstay their welcome, with a drunken bar dance sequence stretching to over 11 minutes and the torture and killing of the cat which takes place in some ruined claustrophobic interiors (no good atmospherics) stretches to more than 30 minutes! Like in one scene, a drunk conductor Kelemen (István Juhász) keeps rambling and says, "I went plodding and plodding and plodding....", and it goes on, to no end! Let alone the pace, the cat torture is a somewhat painful sequence to watch too, given its realism! There are other instances as well, where a little cutting down could have made "Sátántango" far more accessible in terms of viewership like his other two masterworks mentioned above.

Nevertheless, "Sátántango" remains a unique piece of cinema, one that is an unforgettable experience and a towering achievement for Bela Tarr, the under-acknowledged visionary, the brave auteur and risk-taker. You are warned about the length...and the pace. Venture if you dare. And if you do, take minimal breaks to fully tap its absorbing power.

Score: 9/10