Wednesday, December 24, 2014

About Elly (2009)

Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi who bowled us over with his Oscar winning "A Separation" (2011), only proves with each film that he is a master storyteller who specializes in making tense, absorbing family dramas, examining complex behavioural issues, with an edge of mystery. His 2009 film "About Elly" (aka "Darbareye Elly") is no exception. Farhadi, who seems to have found his comfort zone in films of the sort, narrates a story such as this, quite effortlessly.

A group of family friends and their kids venture to the seaside for some weekend fun. One of the picnickers is the eponymous Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), who is known only to the organizer of the trip, Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani). It all appears to be smooth sailing for the group, until after a day of fun and frolic, tragedy strikes as one of the kids has a near drowning experience and Elly vanishes! All hell breaks loose, chaos and confusion ensues and mystery shrouds the entire episode, as the group struggle to understand what exactly happened to Elly. The disappearance of Elly consequently ends up revealing cracks in the group's seemingly close-knit relationship, as a panic-driven blame game follows, with lies being exposed and new ones constructed in the process.

Those accustomed to the films of Farhadi would instantly recognize the methodical way in which he designs his screenplay. The trick is to give out just the right amount of information at a time and withhold the rest. That ultimately creates the mystery. But in no way is Farhadi cheating his audiences or taking them for granted, or even misleading them. He is in fact, ensuring that his audiences start thinking aloud. So what do we see of Elly in the final few minutes before her disappearance? Just as much as the rest of the group sees. This way, Farhadi demands active involvement from his audiences; makes his audiences a part of the group facing the crisis.

It is amazing how we find ourselves asking the same questions that the lead players in the film eventually end up asking each other. Cleverly written scenes flesh out the script, compelling the viewer to think. Something is said in the group, there is occasional banter and teasing. Some laugh along, while others seem to take a slight offense, but we don't know that for sure. We can only guess from the way the expressions alter; when a smile turns into a scowl, for instance. The scene is conspicuous enough for the viewer to develop some kind of perception on a character's sense of humour (or lack thereof). Only the speculating process occurs much later, and we find ourselves joining in the discussion of the group, analyzing the vanishing!

And when information is revealed in layers, further questions are raised. There is shock and there is surprise. Secrets rise, and lies are invented to cover them up. Whether these characters are attempting to cover each other or save their own skin is gradually rendered irrelevant. But certain lies are a way of life, apparently in the Iranian society where a lot is forbidden, but a lot can't be done without either. Such lies are perhaps considered harmless bluffs. But how innocuous are they really? Farhadi is perhaps making a statement on how forbiddance leads to an abundance of inveracity.

"About Elly" is less about Elly and more about realistic group dynamics. It is an examination of the unpredictability of human behaviour and how an inherent fragility of any human being is exposed in the face of unforeseen panic. Farhadi explores shifting perceptions, and the tendency to surmise and presume at face value. It is not just his characters who do that, the audiences become partners in crime as well. The screenplay is gripping. Farhadi keeps it taut with a sense of urgency and never lets anything settle or sway towards a side. The urgency is reflected in the camerawork, as it takes a freewheeling handheld form, just as the vanishing incident occurs leading to a bedlam that makes you breathless. The viewer is literally thrown in all directions and interesting twists appear in the right places.

While Farhadi is the real hero of the film, one can't take away from the excellent ensemble of actors who make it all a winning combination. Familiar faces, Shahab Hosseini, Peymaan Moaadi and Merila Zarei from Farhadi's masterpiece "A Separation" (2011) appear and impress in their parts. Saber Abar who appears in a bit part makes a strong impression as well. But it is Golshifteh Farahani who shines yet again in a glorious act to trump all acts. What a fine actress, who puts so much heart into her performance, you can't help but applaud her sheer professionalism!

"About Elly" (2009) is a cinematic triumph and Asghar Farhadi is a ray of hope for the modern Iranian film industry. Let us hope he doesn't vanish from Iran like the rest of them.

Score: 9/10

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Patience Stone (2012)

According to an old Persian legend, there's this magical stone. It is a stone that listens. One could confide their deepest secrets, suffering, fears, everything that they normally wouldn't dare tell anyone. In the process, the teller is relieved of a great load, as the stone absorbs it all, and eventually shatters, thus liberating the teller of a huge emotional burden. This stone then, in a way, lifts a bigger stone off a person's chest. It is called, "The Patience Stone".

French-Afghan filmmaker Atiq Rahimi gives a metaphorical twist to this legend in his "The Patience Stone" (2012), set in a war torn, unnamed land, that looks like Afghanistan. Gunfire and shelling is commonplace, as civilians continue to walk to their destinations even as an explosion occurs nearby! Being hit by a stray bullet is a possibility that cannot be ruled out, but there's no real choice as such. Everyone is living on the edge. Most of the surroundings have been reduced to smouldering rubble. The militia are practically everywhere and there is always a fear of insurgents barging into people's homes. Sometimes when there is news of bombing, the families hide out in an underground cellar.

In such a scenario of a living hell, a beautiful woman (Golshifteh Farahani) nurses her husband (Hamid Djavadan) who's in a vegetative state. The much older looking husband who is presumably a jihadist had taken a bullet to his neck following a squabble and has been in a coma ever since. With the man of the house being in an inactive state for a while, fear, insecurity and loneliness get the better of the woman, as she struggles for even the basics.

Anticipating a deteriorating condition, all her husband's brothers and his mother have fled. Her only aunt (Hassina Burgan) who was always around also seems to have fled for unknown reasons which we discover later. The woman is left to fend for herself and her two daughters with no real help in sight. It is no mean feat to remain composed in such an environment. She starts thinking aloud, and in the process, breaks into long monologues in front of her unresponsive husband. Perhaps she does it to maintain her composure and distract herself from the mayhem outside, but ultimately begins to find a great release in her ramblings, especially since her husband cannot really respond to her words. That's probably the only time, admittedly, that she actually gets to, or dares to talk!

Like any intelligently written screenplay, it is from the woman's stories told to her comatose husband, that the audiences are gradually made aware of certain facts from the woman's past, her childhood, her marriage and motherhood. These facts are not released in a burst but are progressively opened up, thwarting a lot of our expectations and judgements about the woman, her husband, the aforementioned relatives, almost everyone. Therein lies the power of the script to keep us on the edge as our interest escalates progressively, despite a rather mundane beginning.

Most of the film is comprised of the woman's absorbing soliloquy, barring a few scenes cut to other locations via flashbacks and the introduction of certain other important characters. This renders a very claustrophobic atmosphere to the proceedings, accentuating the woman's feeling of being trapped amid the war zone. A melancholic and sometimes tense score accompanies, which is a little unusual, considering the visual minimalism that borders on the style of a docufiction. The editing is noteworthy in how a particular frame shifts from, or overlaps in a present scene with a seamless audio track comprised of the woman's narration.

The woman's husband unconsciously becomes her patience stone, her punching bag, as she recounts the tales of her woes, and opens up about her repressed sexuality by revealing her darkest secrets, unfulfilled desires, marital frustrations, sinful fantasies and morbid wishes. The flashbacks to the woman's childhood evoke memories of Andrei Tarkovsky's "Mirror" (1975) in their somber tone and use of sepia filters. The woman's father's obsession with quails, and gambling with them by exploiting them, reflects the plight of women in an extremist Islamic patriarchal environment.

And this becomes one of the major themes of the film; a strong criticism of the regressive ways of Islamic fundamentalism, and the inherent hypocrisy in all that is done and followed in the name of God and religion. Rahimi reveals it all, and rather audaciously too. If a woman can't give birth to a child, she is considered sterile. The man's manhood is never questioned. Other shocking and appalling customs of the times are revealed. Once the word is given, marriage is possible even in the absence of the groom by marrying the girl off to one of his weapons as a symbolic stand-in for him!

It was considered alright for men to sell their women and daughters, in a gambling bid, but for the woman to even have carnal thoughts is a deadly sin! For in that case, she is possessed by the devil and should seek absolution by the Koran. The woman is then, merely an object of pleasure and servitude for the man. What's worse is, to save herself from being raped by the so-called defenders of their faith, it is a safer option for a woman to say she is a prostitute. In that case, they will spit on her, and move on, saying she soils the name of Muslims. But if she is a virgin or a sterile woman, they would go ahead and violate her just to prove their virility. It is tragic to say the least, a huge slap on the face of humanity.

The central character of the woman comes alive, with Golshifteh Farahani's stunning performance, as she embodies the woman in body and spirit, an unmistakable emotional investment palpable on the actress's part. It is a bold and flawless performance that deserves a standing ovation.

In being a heartfelt lamentation of the sorry state of affairs in lands such as these, the film in turn becomes a confession of the filmmaker to his audiences, as they collectively become his patience stone! In depicting the atrocities and revealing the dark side of humanity, the audiences become silent spectators (read listeners) to the gross injustice inflicted upon the hapless, poor souls in Rahimi's story. Sure enough, this powerful work of cinema leaves us shattered in the end.

Score: 9/10

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Dead Man's Letters (Pisma Myortvogo Cheloveka) (1986)

There is nothing remotely uplifting about the hellish world depicted in Konstantin Lopushanskiy's "Dead Man's Letters" (aka "Letters from a Dead Man") (1986). The first thing that grabs our attention is how depressing just about everything in every frame of this film looks.

It is a post-apocalyptic nightmare of the worst kind. Total annihilation, death, destruction and decay is all that you see. There has been a major nuclear disaster, which has presumably, completely destroyed a few cities including the unnamed town in which the film is set, or perhaps even the entire world! Apart from the physical destruction of property, the air is polluted with radioactive elements, thereby making it impossible to walk in the open without a gas mask and a protective suit on. A few survivors take shelter in underground vaults of a large museum. One of them is an old physicist/professor (Rolan Bykov), the protagonist, who is nursing his ailing wife.

Some other individuals, who seem to be the military police have taken up the task of imposing curfews, isolating the dying from the healthy, and shifting them to another place which is the central bunker. Energy to light up bulbs in the world below is generated by manual pedaling. The old professor writes the titular letters to his son Eric, whose whereabouts are unknown; he is probably dead following the holocaust. We don't really see the man actually writing the letters for the most part, so it is possible that he writes them in his mind, as there is no place to send them. But these letters, the contents of which, we learn through his voice-over narration are heartfelt and full of emotion. They are sometimes cries of despair, and expressing deep regret about the past and a general lost cause, while at other times more philosophical and conveying that there could indeed be a silver lining.

He is also reeling under a sense of a huge disillusionment that his beloved science had let him and mankind down. He is unable to fathom the idea that science could be responsible for a catastrophe of such monumental proportions. Somewhere he still insists that he has some hypotheses, but no proof, that it is impossible that all of mankind has ceased to exist on the outside. However, most of the outside is a blind spot, so there is no way of knowing what is really left 'out there', beyond the known realms. And one can't go very far either, what with limited supplies, all the broken railway tracks that go nowhere, and the sorry sight of mountains of rotting corpses all around. The damage isn't just physical, but psychological as well. There is a group of children who are more or less rendered lifeless, in a strange stupour, as if in a shell-shock.

Lopushanskiy's biggest success lies in his astounding vision of mass obliteration. The visual form given to the devastation is such that it messes with your psyche and puts you into a mourning mode! This is arguably the ugliest, scariest depiction of a post-apocalyptic world to ever grace celluloid. Not only does it make you feel immensely miserable; but you also get the feeling of being suffocated and trapped in its gloomy, claustrophobic atmosphere that literally emanates rot.

One of the most effective and hair-raising sequences in the film is that of the professor visiting the central bunker, and eventually breaking into terrified screams of shock and repugnance, as he walks through a children's ward, amid their cries of agony. This sequence, along with a few other scenes and the central idea of isolated individuals in underground bunkers also brings to mind a particular vignette in Juraj Jakubisko's masterpiece, "The Deserters and the Nomads" (1968).

Lopushanskiy had been an assistant to the great Andrei Tarkovsky on his "Stalker" (1979), and the influence on his film is evident from his stylistic choices. It is almost prophetic that "Stalker" depicted a cordoned off 'zone' that, it was later said, resembled the depopulated area which was a direct consequence of the Chernobyl disaster. "Dead Man's Letters" is in turn inspired by the happenings of the Chernobyl incident. The dilapidation, the wetness of the land, the presence of water all around, and the sight of railway tracks, albeit broken ones bring some frames of "Stalker" to mind, instantly.

A striking aspect of the film is the cinematography, with its heavy usage of coloured filters, mostly a darkish tinge of yellow and in some scenes, icy cold blue. Could it be coincidental that in a film with excess of yellow dominating most frames, the protagonist in the letter voiceover, once says "..for the twilight is monotonous."? Nikolai Pokoptsev's brilliant cinematography, Aleksandr Zhurbin's eerie, somber score and Leonid Gavrichenko's terrific sound design accentuate the dreariness of the universe portrayed by Lopushanskiy.

It is a deeply disturbing picture of death and madness, as some folks give up, burst into fits of hysterical and nervous laughter, and turn suicidal. Amid lull periods of despair, there are long ramblings, albeit stemming from a mental deterioration, about what went wrong with humankind, its mistakes, lamentations about the scant remains of humanity, and advocacy of love. A theory as to how the holocaust really happened is briefly touched upon. There is a suggestion that it was accidental, thereby avoiding putting a direct blame on anyone for a planned attack, but there is no way to ascertain what really happened. For even this revelation, if at all it is one, comes in one of musings in the form of the so-called letters of the old man.

The town also isn't really supposed to be a Russian one. It is not clear, for all the artefacts, paraphernalia, weaponry and vehicles seem to suggest that it is a non-Russian territory. In one of the film's best scenes, a shot from the top shows two masked men in conversation, one the physicist and the other, presumably an astrologer, wading through the flooded ruins of a deserted library amid papers scattered all over. The astrologer, in a long monologue, possibly with a tinge of hysteria too, suggests that there really was no war, no attack. It was all written, a prophecy. Doomsday was here, the apocalypse as described in the Book of Revelation, and it was but an inevitability!

But despite the feeling that all chances are lost, our professor is the one epitome of optimism. He lights candles of hope on a presumed Christmas time with the children, highlighting the essence of Christmas, that is spreading happiness. And therein lies the principal message of Lopushanskiy's film. In showing us the ghastly nature of the aftermath of a nuclear war, and by creating a very hapless picture of the same, Lopushanskiy is attempting to open the eyes of mankind. War of any kind is a losing game all the way. Seeking happiness through a peaceful path of love, and most importantly, being human, is the wisest way to be.

The film ends with a profound quote from the Russel-Einstein Manifesto that pretty much sums this sentiment up: "There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest."

Score: 10/10